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Saturday, January 9, 2010

Reading Huldrych Zwingli

Some time ago,, I got my hands on Huldrych Zwingli's __Commentary on True and False Religion__. As a student of religion, I found it an interesting read.

Most modern American Evangelicals have scant acquaintance with Huldreich Zwingli, the fountainhead of the Swiss Reformation. While they probably know of Martin Luther as a heroic figure whose _Ninety-five Theses Against the Sale of Indulgences_ sparked the movement and of Jean Calvin as the theological genius who systematized the doctrines of the Reformation in his _Institutes of the Christian Religion_, Zwingli, if known at all, is only a vague figure.
Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné and other historians have noted that Zwingli rediscovered the evangelical principle in theology independently of Luther; meaning that the 16th century rediscovery of the Scriptural sources of Christianity led to similar conclusions in different parts of Europe on the part of men of differing temperaments and positions. While the difference between Luther and Zwingli over Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper may be the best known aspect of Zwingli’s thought and career, it must not overshadow other aspects of his thought and his contributions to Protestant Christendom.
Yet in many ways, Zwingli’s influence on the subsequent development of Evangelical Christianity is greater than Luther’s. Historians do not contest his position as the fountainhead of the Swiss Reformation, from which both the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions sprang. If Evangelicalism seeks to work out a Christian praxis directly informed by the Gospel rather than church tradition and to follow it through wherever the rational interpretation of Scripture leads, it is taking a Zwinglian rather than Lutheran approach. Certainly the accomplishments of the Saxon Reformation cannot be belittled; but those of the Swiss require more attention than they have been given.
A clergyman of German-speaking Switzerland, Zwingli shared both the renewed interest in Scripture that marked his time and a widespread awareness of the abuses of late medieval Roman Catholicism. Scripture, the fountainhead of the Christian faith, had opened his eyes to a picture far bleaker and harsher than that usually presented to moderns as the mood of the Renaissance. For Zwingli and the Christian humanists of his day, the indulgence sellers and pardoners familiar to us through Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were not mere features of contemporary life or figures of fun, but parasites draining the economic life of the Christian poor to enrich the power and prestige of a few. The wealthy, sensuous, worldly popes of the renaissance were not the great patrons of the arts and colorful actors in a magnificent political drama who so intrigue people living five hundred years later, but cynical tyrants and living insults to Christian holiness.
Here, Zwingli was no different from England’s John Colet or the Netherlander Desiderius Erasmus. However, Zwingli’s education in Scripture and its original languages led him to the startling discovery that the mediator of grace is not the church and its sacramental system, but Jesus Christ himself. This is the note that would inform the rest of his career, and is the key to understanding his legacy. And it is this principle of Solo Christo that clarifies the positions Zwingli took on such characteristic doctrines as Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper and God’s workings beyond the borders of the covenanted community.
The principle that salvation is mediated only through Christ as he is known in the Scriptures is a key concept for understanding anything about the Reformation. Both Christian and secular society often present the Reformation as stressing individualism, private judgment, and egalitarianism; but this reading of the Reformation arises from liberal ideology’s unwillingness to consider theological doctrine. Having arisen on Protestant soil and accepted by many unwilling to sever their institutional connections to the Reformed type of Christianity, liberalism sought to re-read its own agenda back into the beginnings of Protestant history. Yet the Reformation primarily debated theological principles; and it was from points of theological doctrine that the Reformation’s other gifts arose—and those that have been conducive to modern liberties, rule of law, and limited government reflect the Christ-centered Gospel of the Swiss Reformation.
Zwingli's doctrine of salvation coming only through Christ is the key to both his agreements and disagreements with Luther. His doctrine of Christ's penal satisfaction for man's sin and its appropriation through faith is perhaps the greatest similarity between the Swiss and Saxon reformer. Yet it is also Zwingli's stress on "By Christ Alone" that led him not only to see in the Roman sacramental system a grave misunderstanding of the New Testament, but also to see in Luther's doctrine of consubstantiation and retention of baptismal regeneration a lack of sensitivity to both Scriptural language and Scriptural doctrine. The bread is no more the literal body of Christ than Christ, who declares himself as "the door of the sheep" in John 10 is a slab of wood with a knob and keyhole. The broken bread and poured wine, however, memorialize the efficacious sacrifice of Christ that pays for our sins.
Much is made as well of the iconoclasm of the Swiss Reformation, and its premonitions of Puritanism. This, too, reflects how Christ is known through his word rather than through man-made images. Zwingli took to heart Moses' reminder to the Israelites that on Sinai, they heard the voice of words rather than seeing an image or sismilitude (Dt. 4:15-18); and that the witness of the apostles included not a visible representation of Jesus Christ, but a written New Testament to instruct the church.
The Swiss Reformation stressed the practicality of Scripture for the same reason. If Christ is the sole mediator of grace, the power and authority of the church and its ministers is limited to guiding by what God has given in his word rather than a masterly authority that is free to add to what God has already given. A straight line connects Zwingli to his later Puritan heirs, who held that the church may not bind the consciences of men by anything save what is written in Scripture or what may be derived by good and necessary consequence from it.
Here, those raised to view the Reformed destruction of images and their elimination of holidays with horror (and that includes myself) should pause. The motivation was not a killjoy attitude to take away the "fun" elements of religion, but a zeal to protect the liberty which Christ had won for his people on the cross. Too often, moderns forget that the medieval sacramental system and its elaborate calendar were often a burden, and badly abused for the self-aggrandizement of ambitious clerics. Zwingli, however, like many of the humanists before him and reformers after him, sought to remove a fruitful source of abuse.
Thus, where Christian practicality means not the facile compromise with the world but an intelligent desire to apply biblical principle to the present, there is the spirit of Huldrych Zwingli. May he be well remembered in this new year.

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