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Huldrych Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli, the forgotten man of the Reformation

   The Reformation was an explosive period of rebellion, defiance and new thinking. It was up against an equally combustible opposition of suppression and demands for conformity. The Swiss confederation was divided in their loyalties and were being torn apart. Huldrych Zwingli (or Ulrich Zwingli), became a leader in the Swiss reformation movement. He studied at the universities in Vienna and Basel. Later, as a pastor in Einsiedeln, he was introduced to the writings of Erasmus, and in 1519 he was appointed to a pastorate in Zurich where he first began to preach reform.

   He first showed up on the map of Roman Catholic dissenters in 1522 when he began preaching against the custom of fasting during Lent. In his writings he attacked corruption in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, clerical celibacy, and the use of images in places of worship. In 1525 he dared to introduce a new communion liturgy to replace the mass. 

   The Zurich city council had hesitated at abolishing the mass, but even so, growing numbers of pastors felt unofficially released from the requirement to celebrate mass. A degree of confusion ensued until retraining of clergy could be organized. Zwingli had long accused certain religious orders of hypocrisy, those that lived under vows of poverty, while accepting generous donations of support. He demanded that these orders be abolished in order to support the truly needy. He recommended that the monasteries be converted into hospitals and welfare 

centers. Consequently, the council secularized the church properties and established new welfare programs for the poor.

   There were more radical reformers about, clamoring for change, who believed Zwingli was being too soft on the Zurich council. Conrad Grebel was the leader of one of the more radical factions of reformers who spoke derisively of Zwingli. He and Zwingli, while they were both reformers, would part ways quite dramatically over the issue of infant baptism. In 1524 the Zurich council passed a decree requiring the baptism of all newborn infants. Zwingli held negotiations behind the scenes with the Anabaptist group that led to the council deciding to hold public debate on the issue in January 1525. Following the debate the council decided in favor of Zwingli and ordered that anyone refusing to have their children baptized was required to leave Zurich. Banishment. The radicals simply ignored these threats and several of the leaders including Grebel performed their first recorded Anabaptist adult baptisms in January 1525.

   Anabaptist is from the Latin anabaptista, and translates literally as 'rebaptizer'. At the core of this issue was the idea that a baptism involves a commitment on the part of the person submitting to the ceremony. Impossible for an infant, thereby making infant baptisms invalid. Those who saw it this way, could submit to being re-baptized as adults, committing themselves to Yeshua the Messiah, Jesus the Christ as Lord and Savior. But to church officials, rebaptism was an intolerable indignity inflicted upon the teachings of church, as it suggested that the church had long promoted a doctrine whereby gazillions of Christians were left technically unbaptized. This was a teaching that they determined must be squelched at all cost. Drown that kitten in the river, so to speak.

   The following month, arrests were made, which led ultimately to more debates on the subject. However, both sides by this time, had firmly staked-out their positions and were immovable. The debate was quickly reduced to a shouting match. The council decided that no compromise was possible and in 1526 released the disturbing mandate that no one shall re-baptize another under penalty of death. In other words, one that had been baptized as an infant could not choose to be baptized again as an adult.  

   Felix Manz defied the mandate and was arrested, tried and executed in 1527. The method of execution was by drowning in a mock baptism, a cruelty that would develop as the most popular method of executing Baptists. Three more baptizers would be similarly victimized, so that in short order, all other Anabaptists were either expelled or simply fled for their lives from Zurich.


   The Reformation began to spread to other Cantons of the Swiss federation, but several Cantons chose to remain Catholic. Zwingli was able to bring the reformed Cantons together in an alliance in opposition to the five Catholic Cantons, dividing the Swiss federation politically, along religious lines. This was a misguided effort to force the conversion of the Five Catholic states. In 1529 the two sides narrowly avoided going to war with the last minute intervention of Hans Aebli, a more diplomatic relative of Zwingli, who sought a peaceful resolution. The clash had been sparked when a reformer had been arrested and executed by the Catholics, but when the other Reformed Cantons balked at war, preferring a peaceful solution, they left Zurich to act alone. Zurich stepped back from the brink, but Zwingli's anger was not assuaged.

   Zwingli attempted to draft a peace treaty between the Reformed and the Catholic sides, but it was completely one-sided, and neither side was willing to sign off. Meanwhile a painful rift was developing between the two prominent reformers,  The believer must not swear oaths or refer disputes between believers to law-courts for resolution.
The believer must not bear arms or offer forcible resistance to wrongdoers, nor wield the sword. No Christian has the jus gladii (the right of the sword). Civil government (i.e. "Caesar") belongs to the world. The believer belongs to God's kingdom, so must not fill any office nor hold any rank under government, which is to be passively obeyed. Sinners or unfaithful ones are to be excommunicated, and excluded from the sacraments and from intercourse with believers unless they repent, but no force is to be used towards them.

   A meeting was arranged between Zwingli and Luther called the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. It was arranged by Phillip of Hesse, who was angling to form an alliance between the Protestant states, and therefore wanted the differences hammered out. Zwingli, accompanied by Oecolampadius, arrived in late September, Luther and Philipp Melanchthon arrived shortly after. Other theologians also got involved in the meeting as mediators, including Martin Bucer, Andreas Osiander, and Johannes Brenz. The result of the conference was that the two sides established their separate views, and both declared victory. In fact the controversy was not resolved at all and the final result was the formation of two different Protestant confessions, divided over the eucharist. 


   In 1530, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, invited Protestants to the Augsburg Diet to present their positions of disagreement with Catholicism and with each other, so that he might formulate a verdict on the broader issue of faith. The Catholic Emperor had other issues to deal with in Augsburg, especially the defense of the Empire which was under attack by the Ottomans. His goal was to find a way that the European Christians could form a united front to oppose the Muslim invasion.

   What he got was a parade of one-ups-man-ship without a hint of compromise. In turn, the Lutherans (Luther himself was absent) presented the Augsburg Confession. Under the leadership of Bucer, a confederation of cities, including Strasbourg, presented the Tetrapolitan Confession, which attempted to straddle the middle ground between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians. Huldrych Zwingli produced his own individual confession, consisting of twelve articles that conformed roughly to the Apostle's Creed. The tone of Zwingli's confession, however, was strongly anti-Catholic as well as anti-Lutheran. Johann Eck, on behalf of the Roman Catholic church presented a counter argument in defense of Catholic tradition.

   This conference led eventually to the Augsburg Interim which wasn't produced until 1548 after Charles' army had won a decisive victory over the Schmalkaldic League (organized by Phillip of Hesse). The Augsburg Interim was Charles' attempt to restore Catholicism's priority throughout the Empire. Very few concessions were made to the Protestants. Then again, very few Protestants accepted the Interim.

   Meanwhile the Swiss confederation was still seeking resolution to the as yet unresolved differences that were causing such tension between the Five Catholic Cantons and the others. Basel and Schaffhausen preferred quiet diplomacy, while Zurich clamored for armed conflict. Zwingli and others made it clear they wanted an attack on the Five States. Bern staked out the middle ground which ultimately prevailed.

   The middle ground consisted of a food blockade, which Zurich agreed to, though it failed to have any effect. Then, in a surprise move, the Five States declared war on Zurich, which caught Zurich ridiculously off guard. The Protestant pastors, including Zwingli, were among the hastily deployed army that met the army of the Five States, outnumbered two to one. The Battle of Kappel only lasted about an hour, and Zwingli was among the 500 casualties suffered by Zurich. He died at the age of 47. His friend and colleague in theology, Oecolampadius passed away about a month later. Both Luther and Erasmus made statements to the effect that the hand of God, thankfully, had removed these men and their errors.

   Huldrych was gone, to the great relief of those with whom he disagreed, but his beliefs and theology remain for the benefit of posterity. He used to argue two analogies quite effectively between baptism and circumcision and between the eucharist and Passover. In his early writings on baptism, he noted that baptism was an example of a pledge or oath rather than a sacrament, or mystery. He challenged Catholics by accusing them of superstition when they taught that the baptismal water possessed a mysterious power to wash away sin. Later, in his conflict with the Anabaptists, he defended the practice of infant baptism, noting that there is no law forbidding the practice. He argued in favor of infant baptism as representing a covenant with God, thereby replacing the circumcision from the Old Testament.

   He denied that an actual sacrifice occurred during the celebration of the eucharist during mass, arguing that Christ made the sacrifice only once and for all eternity. Hence, the eucharist was "a memorial of the sacrifice," not a literal recurrence.

Martin Luther got a pebble in his shoe - it came from Zurich, it's name was Zwingli