Book Review -Zwingli

Book Review by Rev. Kyle A. Sorensen

Ulrich Zwingli, by William Boekestein (EP Books: Holywell, UK, 2015. 163 pages).

(I was given a copy of this book to review, but I was under no obligation to publish a favorable review. The review you are about to read was first published in Reformed Herald, July-August 2015.)



While a student in catechism class years ago, I was frequently told that one of the heroes of the faith is Ulrich Zwingli. However, aside from his unique name (everyone else seemed to be named John: John Wycliffe, John Hus, John Calvin, John Knox) it was hard to find much detailed information about Zwingli. Even the normally excellent video series on Church History from Vision Video gives the impression that there is not much to learn, so they lump Zwingli and Calvin together into one short film.

There is no reason for this lack of information and excitement about Zwingli to continue into another generation. Boekestein’s command of Zwingli’s culture, context, biography, and theology shine through in this book. I heartily recommend it to the confirmation age student and older. It is clear enough to be understood, and detailed enough to excite the adult learner to relive the days of Zwingli through these pages. The stereotypical biography of Zwingli is that he lived a short life and was more radical than the great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. He was against images in worship, against the Anabaptists, against Luther on the Lord’s Supper, and against the Roman Catholic Church—which led him to go off to war as a soldier and die on the battlefield fighting for his Swiss homeland against the advancing Roman Catholic armies. His stress on the Bible as the final authority paved the way for the Biblicism of the Anabaptists in Switzerland, we are often told. Because of the religious and political turmoil of his day, Zwingli was not able to slow down to write, study, and pass on his views. He was not as accomplished theologically as Luther and Calvin, therefore.

This book, however, clarifies and corrects many of the (mis)understandings of Zwingli and his legacy. Members of the Reformed Church in the U.S. should be especially interested in Zwingli, as some of the first historians of our denomination commented on how Zwingli stands right up there with Calvin as one of the great forefathers of our Reformed beliefs and practices.

The basic biography of Ulrich Zwingli includes these details. He was born in Wildhaus, Switzerland, in 1484. After university training as a scholar, he served as priest in Glarus (1506-1516) and Einsiedeln (1516-1518). He was then called to serve as lead priest (later pastor) in Zurich, where he remained from 1519-1531. At the age of 47, Ulrich Zwingli died in 1531 on the battlefield in Kappel, defending his Reformed city of Zurich and its allies from the Roman Catholic forces of other Swiss cities. On that day, over 500 citizens of Zurich died. Of these, 25 were pastors who were selectively killed as heretics by the advancing Roman Catholic army.

Zwingli was musically accomplished, being able to play the lute, harp, violin, flute, and dulcimer. He also was a poet, and wrote poems on occasion to celebrate God’s grace or plead His mercy in light of current events in church and state. A few examples are quoted in the book. During the plague of 1519 which nearly claimed his life, Zwingli wrote 3 poems expressing his spirituality and recommitting himself to the Sovereign God of grace. In one of these, he wrote,

My God! My Lord! Healed by thy hand, Upon the earth once more I stand.

Let sin no more rule over me; My mouth shall sing alone of thee.

Though now delayed, my hour will come, Involved perchance in deeper gloom.

But, let it come; with joy I’ll rise, And bear my yoke straight to the skies. (51)

Zwingli is described as being a very learned scholar, who brought his extensive personal library with him from his first charge in Einsiedeln to his post in Zurich. Yet his learning did not disconnect him from the common man. Zwingli’s preaching was very clear and understandable, using illustrations and applications to current events and the common life of the common man.

The Zurich leadership exhorted Zwingli to focus his energies on securing tithes from the faithful. Preaching, by contrast was a less important duty in their eyes. Zwingli was expected to assign other pastors to do the preaching. Zwingli had other ideas. In his first sermon, he announced to the congregation his commitment to preach Christ as their only hope. “The life of Christ has been too long hidden from the people. I shall preach … according to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, without human commentaries, drawing solely from the fountains of Scripture, sounding its depths, comparing one passage with another, and seeking for understanding by real and earnest prayer.” The next day, he would abandon his, and the Church’s, tradition of following lectionary readings chosen by the Church; instead he would preach verse-by-verse through the Gospel of Matthew. (45)

In the infamous “Affair of the Sausages,” (where members of Zwingli’s congregation broke the Lenten fast) several historical details are brought out which I never knew. I will save the full details for those who choose to buy the book. Suffice it to say, Zwingli was much more moderate than you might have thought from the chatter of church historians down through the ages. After describing proof of this, Boekestein summarizes, “Still, until the Church should formally change its position—and Zwingli was confident it would— the citizens should not publicly flaunt their freedom lest the strong unduly scandalize the weak. Zwingli’s moderation was unpopular. It failed to satisfy the radicals and infuriated the conservatives.” (59)

We should remember the costs which our forefathers had to endure for preaching the gospel of sovereign grace. Boekestein summarizes it this way, “As tension increased surrounding the reform of Zurich, so did threats on Zwingli’s life. In one plot a would-be kidnapper attempted to wake the pastor to come to the bedside of a “dying friend.” At other times intoxicated men threw stones and curses against Zwingli’s house, breaking his windows and his sleep. When Zwingli dined out with friends he would be escorted by chaperons, sometimes without his knowledge. In great times of unrest the senate placed guards around his house at night. On top of physical threats, he constantly suffered from merciless character assassination (in which he also sometimes participated). The Catholic doctor Johann Eck (November 3, 1486– February, 13 1543) was particularly virulent, calling him, “a most stupid busybody,” a “faith-destroying leader of heretics,” “a blockhead, a dolt, a dunce,” who wrote with “a farmer’s reasoning.” Eck, speaking for his Church, hoped that Zwingli would “go to perdition.” (83) Zwingli once wrote to his family, “Those alone are the true soldiers of Christ who do not fear to bear in their body the wounds of their master.” Ulrich Zwingli was, I every sense of the word, a Christian soldier.

One of the greatest strengths of Boekestein is his balanced approach. He does not ignore reporting some of the sins and shadowy parts of Zwingli’s life and world. He gives a proper context so that we can better understand Zwingli’s rationale, but we are also provided a Biblical and theological framework to understand and critique Zwingli and his day where necessary. He also offers occasional criticism of Zwingli. He questions the pastoral wisdom of Zwingli to start preaching against purgatory and the veneration of saints within the first year he was in Zurich. Yet a bit later, he highlights the pastoral care of Zwingli during the plague, when he rushed back to the city to help minister to his congregants who were sick and dying, and himself became very ill, yet God spared his life.

Another general comment is that the author is a fascinating story teller. Along the way of a specific period of Zwingli’s life, Boekestein brings out details and people who, at the conclusion of the episode, turned out to have influence for that episode and especially the future perspective and actions of Zwingli or his colleagues. He does a superb job at revealing some of the long-term results which God sovereignly brought to pass through the obedience (or disobedience) of Zwingli and his contemporaries.

For example, this reviewer gleaned some lessons for modern preachers through the way Zwingli’s preaching ministry was explained. First, there is enormous value to directly handling the Scripture, including in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. Zwingli even copied, repeated, and memorized the Scripture in the original languages! Secondly, the study of the history of Biblical interpretation is necessary and helpful. But be careful that your sermons and teaching flow from the right place. Zwingli later backed off how much he depended upon Church Fathers and the Ancient philosophers. He admitted too often his teachings sprung from the pools of the Fathers than from the springs of Scripture.

One mild criticism of the book is that its desire to show history in a helpful light to the modern reader sometimes suffers from bringing up more questions than it answers. Zwingli lived at the dawn of the great Confessional Age of the Christian Church, when creeds and catechisms and confessions were being hammered out and written to identify the truth that had been lost and corrupted through the centuries, and to prepare and equip church members for the gospel mission for generations to come. According to Boekestein on pages 64-66, Zwingli did not specify a place for creeds and confessions. Rather, we are told that Zwingli had a novel view between that of the Roman Catholic Church and the view of later Reformers, such as John Calvin. Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, backed off from Zwingli and was more confessional along the lines of the views of Calvin.

However, I wonder if Zwingli would have specifically allowed for a legitimate role for confessions if he lived longer? Was he directly opposed to them? Was he in favor of the sort of Anabaptistic abuses of the doctrine of 'private interpretation' of Scripture? These are questions which are not as directly dealt with as they could have been. They certainly are questions warranting further historical study and reflection by Christians today. Yet I believe the answers can probably be provided from the information in this book itself, along with whatever additional resources and knowledge that Boekestein has gleaned in doing the work of writing this book. The reader is left to “connect-the-dots” for himself as we see mentioned at later points in the book Zwingli’s treatment of the Anabaptists and their radical abuse of Zwingli’s teachings. Or we see answers hinted at when we see Zwingli working for a Christian political alliance based with other Swiss cantons, based on a Reformed evangelical understanding of the Scripture. Or we see answers hinted at in Zwingli’s conduct at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. Or we see answers hinted at in the fact that Boekestein included as an appendix to the book Zwingli’s “Sixty-Seven Articles” of 1523.

While Zwingli may not have directly and loudly promoted confessions, neither can he be called the father of the “No Creed but Christ” movement, in the way that phrase is popularly understood and interpreted by North American Evangelicals today. When one takes a broad look at his whole life and work, we must conclude that Zwingli was hardly anti-confessional.

Just one example of Zwingli being a Reformer, but not a radical Reformer, is in his view towards confession. He did not throw out the entire practice of going to your pastor or fellow Christian to confess your sins. He sought to restore the Biblical truth which had been corrupted through the centuries. In Article 52 of his “Sixty-Seven Articles,” we read, “Therefore, confession to a priest or a neighbor should not be done for the forgiveness of sins, but for the sake of receiving counsel.”

As one reads through the accounts of the various public disputations which were held at the order of the city councils in Switzerland, we truly understand that Boekestein is correct when he states that Zwingli and his colleagues brought Reformation gently, slowly, and because the congregation members generally agreed and accepted the Scriptures once they were actually taught them.   Unlike some impressions, the Protestant Reformation in general, and the Swiss Reformation in particular, was not inherently revolutionary and desirous of causing trouble and judging all dissenters as hellbound. As sons and daughters of the Reformation in the RCUS or other likeminded churches, we can take a lesson from our forefathers. We can be firm in our faith, strong and courageous under persecution and trials, and yet still maintain the unity of faith in the bond of peace and display the fruit of the Spirit in love and pastoral sensitivity.

On the matter of the Lord’s Supper, Zwingli is known for promoting what is called “the memorial” view: that the sacrament is a remembrance of Christ’s work in the past, but there is not a specific spiritual reality happening during the time that the Christian is remembering in faith. His successor at Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, would not agree entirely with Zwingli, but adjusted this view to be more consistent with that of John Calvin and thus the Reformed and Presbyterian Confessions declare the view that Jesus is spiritually present with the believer when he or she partakes in true faith (See Heidelberg Catechism #76, for example). Thus, the Reformed view of the sacraments is not the “Zwinglian” view. However, in terms of practical celebration of the Lord’s Supper, many in the Reformed world do follow Zwingli’s example on the matter of frequency. He was concerned that the sacrament would eclipse the sermon, so he insisted that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated quarterly.

When the Anabaptists took Zwingli’s view of the sacraments into radical directions along with the rest of their theology, Zwingli took them to task. His primary focus in his writings about them was not on their rejection of infant baptism. He certainly believed in infant baptism and could defend it against the Anabaptists. Yet he identified the deeper problem was their refusal to submit to authority in a Biblical way. Zwingli critiqued their focus on the Holy Spirit “guiding” them apart from the Word. To Zwingli, this Anabaptist heresy was bringing shame upon all Protestants in the eyes of the world.

Chapter 8 narrates “An uneasy peace (1526-1528).” In my opinion, this chapter is worth the price of the whole book. The information here is unknown to but a few scholars, and yet incredibly enlightening. Did you know that in the age of the religious wars a pastor named Zwingli, who would eventually be killed on the battlefield of one of those wars, helped to forge a peace treaty which allowed each territory to decide democratically whether it would be Roman Catholic or Protestant?

Eventually, we know that such a decision was made in the Holy Roman Empire—but for them the decision was made by one man—the prince of the region. Furthermore, the options were only Lutheran or Roman Catholic with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. It wasn’t until 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia that finally it could be legal to be Calvinist/Reformed within those countries.

While the peace treaty which Zwingli helped to forge was not kept ultimately by either side, what a remarkable historical development this was, for both church and state. The people themselves could choose what their religion would be. This was over 25 years before the Lutherans got this freedom, and 120 years before Zwingli’s fellow Reformed brothers in the Holy Roman Empire experienced this freedom. In a letter to a fellow minister, Zwingli cautiously rejoiced, “We have brought peace with us, which for us, I hope, is quite honorable; for we did not go forth to shed blood.” (115)

Zwingli was not a pacifist. Neither was he thirsty for war. When it came to the renewal and reformation of society and of the Church, Boekestein says it very well. “Zwingli teaches the church today a truth that sometimes seems lost: reformation requires patience. Zwingli insisted that ‘Hundreds of times I have said openly: ‘I beseech you by Jesus Christ, by our common faith, not to make any change rashly, but to show to all men by your endurance … that you are Christians.’’” (149)

What is the legacy of Ulrich Zwingli? I will leave the details for you to discover in this book. For now, we note the summary which the author provides. Zwingli loved the Church, loved the gospel, loved the Bible, and loved the Lord. May each Christian today leave the same legacy of four-fold love as this forefather of our faith.