October 11 – Zwingli: The Warrior of the Reformation


At the same time as Luther was stirring the pot in Germany, another young man was coming to very similar conclusions independently! His name was Ulrich Zwingli, and he was an avid reader of Erasmus. Reading Erasmus convinced him that he was not to look to the Virgin Mary or the saints for salvation, but even so, it took time for the truth of the Gospel to sink in. While he was studying to be a priest, he succumbed to temptation and got his girlfriend pregnant. It almost prevented him from getting the job as priest in the city of Zurich, but his only serious competitor had six children himself!

(c) The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Zwingli was a fine preacher and exegete, but a turning point came in 1519 when he contracted the plague and his brother Andrew died. The experience impressed upon him the idea that he had been spared to preach the gospel. He quickly became a very moving preacher and came to the same conclusions about justification by faith as Luther. He was accused of being a Lutheran and said, “I preach just as Paul writes. Why not call me Pauline?” He renounced the papacy, but Rome spared him for a time as she relied on a steady supply of Swiss mercenaries for her wars. He also privately married a widow called Anna Reinhart; the marriage was not made public for two years.

Zwingli, unlike Luther, wanted all aspects of worship to be grounded in Scripture, and as a result, all the ornaments of the church were instantly removed, services were switched to vernacular, and Zwingli started giving wine and bread to the laity (though only four times a year). Oddly enough, Zwingli was a talented musician who was mocked by Catholics as “the guitar player” or “the evangelist-on-the-flute,” but songs and hymns were excluded from his services: even Psalms were merely read aloud antiphonally (men read one half of the verse, and women the other half).

Zwingli also dealt with some of the first Anabaptists. It came about that several parents refused to bring their children to be baptized, which led to a civic crisis, since baptism was essentially a form of citizenship. Zwingli kept his head and got the city council to allow for a public debate on the issue. Zwingli and his friend Bullinger debated the Anabaptists for two days, at the end of which the council affirmed Zwingli’s position and banished anyone who refused to bring their children.

When a bunch of radicals chose to baptize one another “for real” on the basis of a profession of faith, they were arrested for treason (religion was seen as the bulwark of the state and so it was essentially like creating a private state). Zwingli kindly tried to reason with the radicals, but to no avail. He wrote a treatise called Baptism, Rebaptism, and Infant Baptism. In it, he not only coined the term Anabaptist, but he also was the first (to my knowledge) to draw the connection between baptism and circumcision, arguing that both were not magical rituals, but signs and seals of the covenant. Covenant theology was born.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

As the Catholic Emperor, Charles V, prepared to root out the heretics, a group of Evangelicals drew up a Protestation, with six princes and fourteen cities signing it. It was not a Protest in the modern negative sense of the word but something more like a “witnessing forth.” To unite against Catholic reprisals, Philip of Hesse got Luther and Zwingli to meet at the Marburg Colloquy to work out their differences on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. Luther held that, though the Eucharistic bread and wine remained bread and wine (rejecting transubstantiation), Christ was somehow mysterious “in, under, and with” the bread, and that to deny this was to twist scriptures. Zwingli had concluded that “this is my body” meant “this represents my body” and thus the bread and wine were symbols, meant to awaken faith and adoration, but not mystical channels of grace. Luther complicated the issue needlessly by connecting the argument to Christology debates—and soon both reformers were accusing each other not just of mistakes but of heresy!

Luther didn’t even think Zwingli was a Christian and said that Zwingli was now “seven times more dangerous than when he was a papist” and that he would rather drink blood with papists than wine with Zwinglians! Luther was vehement for a variety of reasons: Zwingli was using the same arguments as Carlstadt, his understanding of “rightly discerning the body and blood of Jesus Christ” (which meant Zwingli’s followers were eating and drinking judgment to themselves), and his own natural tendency to see everything in black-and-white terms.

However, the guilt still has to rest on Luther’s shoulders. According to legend, Zwingli saw two goats meeting on a narrow mountain path, where there was only room for one to pass. When they met, one goat lay down in front of the other, and the other walked over it. The story may not be true but Zwingli certainly was the more peaceful interlocutor; when Luther walked into the Marburg colloquy, he wrote “this is my body” on the table with a piece of chalk, and from that point he would not budge. Zwingli begged, with tears in his eyes, that Luther would at least acknowledge them as Christians so they could united and join forces against the coming Catholics. Luther refused.

Huldrych Zwingli’s death

Despite their failure, the Emperor summoned German protestants to the diet of Augsburg where they could declare their views. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s milder-mannered friend, wrote the Augsburg Confession, a broad, big-tent Protestant document that could be signed by all but staunch Zwinglians. However, Charles V disliked it, and so Germans and Swiss forces joined in the Schmalkaldic League. It was needed: in 1531, Catholic forces attacked and bested Protestants at Kappel; Zwingli fought as a soldier and was wounded. After the battle, Catholic soldiers killed him when he refused to pray to the Virgin Mary. Though Luther shed no tears over his death, the Reformation lost a powerful defender of the faith that day.


Special thanks to Nick Needham; most of this essay is indebted to volume 3 of his 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, particularly chapter 3.

Brian Marr is an editor and researcher at Canon Press, an alumnus of New Saint Andrews College, and a devoted servant of the liberal arts. He is a co-editor in the Hooker Modernization Project.