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Zwingli: Zealous Reformer, Faithful Pastor.

On October 11, 1531, Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) died on the battlefield after his Zurich battery was routed by Catholic forces at Kappel. He went into battle believing that God would sustain them—a devastating miscalculation. The accounts of his death vary dramatically. According to one report, the Catholics who found his lifeless body staged a posthumous mock trial, hurling insults at him and condemning him for various offenses. He was then beheaded, quartered, and burned, an unsanctimonious ending to one of the magisterial reformers.

Other reports give different accounts of the events—some fantastical. One suggests he lived long enough to make a dramatic defense of his views under interrogation, while another tale describes how his heart was salvaged from the ashes of his burning body, symbolizing the passion and purity of his message. Discerning truth from somewhat murky history exemplifies the challenge of recounting the complex and fascinating story not only of Zwingli’s death but also of his life.

In his book Zwingli the Pastor: A Life in Conflict, Stephen Brett Eccher includes the many “paradoxes and ironies” that make Zwingli a complex and controversial figure (2). Eccher is honest about the Swiss reformer’s successes and failures and finds lessons in them all. Zwingli’s life is often misunderstood and overshadowed by the other enormous figures of the Reformation, but alongside them, Eccher reminds us that Zwingli labored to see the same kinds of reforms that began from the milieu of Renaissance humanism.

Return to Scripture

Modern-day humanism is different from Renaissance humanism. The former is an “ideology,” while the latter was a “pedagogy.” The Renaissance humanism Zwingli soaked up aimed at personal transformation, primarily through the Scriptures and the wisdom of the tradition. His education led to deep learning of ancient literature and Scripture encouraged Zwingli to trust the Bible and to challenge contemporary assumptions about its interpretation.

His deep learning of ancient literature and Scripture encouraged Zwingli to trust the Bible and to challenge contemporary assumptions about its interpretation.

According to Eccher, associate professor of Reformation Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Zwingli was convinced Scripture is “literally God’s word” (21). Zwingli believed his people needed to hear God’s Word more than anything else; only Scripture would bring life and renewal. To that end, he made the radical decision, following the example church fathers such as Chrysostom, to preach through books of the Bible (lectio continua), rather than sticking to the standard lectionary readings.

“This decision was a stunning revelation to those present,” Eccher writes, “and was the first formal liturgical change ushered in by Protestantism” (59). At times, especially early in his preaching career, he preached on themes or topics that addressed cultural issues, but eventually, he gravitated toward “an evangelical gospel message,” the kind of message that stirred the hearts and lives of the people under his pastoral care (12).

Zwingli’s humanist education enhanced his preaching with good rhetorical and oratory practices so that a “winsome use of words characterized his preaching” (24). He combined rhetoric with his practical experiences, such as his time on the battlefield, which helped him connect with his audience.

Eccher identifies two key themes that colored Zwingli’s biblical interpretation and subsequently shaped his preaching: clarity and certainty. The former stressed the “Spirit’s determinate power to illuminate,” while the latter implied the “power of Scripture” (37). He combined these points with a Christocentric focus and with what Zwingli called “the Rule of Faith and Love” (45). “Initially surfacing in Zwingli around 1524,” Eccher writes, “this rule established charitas (‘love’) as an axiomatic grid of interpretation that helped to embody the practice of neighbor love in a diverse era” (45).

Rediscovering the Gospel

Zwingli’s efforts to reform the approach to Scripture in Zurich were part of a larger reworking of Christian worship, including the removal of icons and images from the sanctuary, a more active role for the laity in the corporate worship gathering, and a new interpretation of the Eucharist. Zwingli saw the sacred Scriptures, rather than the Eucharist, as the “primary ecclesial location where one communed with God” (55).

But the main driver for doxological reform was Zwingli’s interpretation of the gospel. According to Zwingli, the gospel had been veiled, but now that it was free, he could reform ecclesial practices according to his interpretation of Scripture. He critiqued indulgences and embraced sola scriptura, which reestablished Scripture as the norming authority for doctrine.

Scripture wasn’t the only authority, however. As a humanist, Zwingli relied upon traditional sources but always in a subservient way. For example, on March 9, 1522, a group of men broke their Lenten fast by eating sausages. Zwingli was present for the meal but didn’t partake. Yet he defended the act in a sermon after the fact, emphasizing the freedom found in the gospel. But Eccher is quick to remind us that Zwingli didn’t envision the gospel only in a personal sense. The gospel was also corporate, for the whole corpus Christianum; it renewed society and the church.

It was Scripture that shifted Zwingli to the monergistic view of salvation he embraced in his Zurich years. His reading of Scripture, as well as his experiences on the battlefield and with the Black Death, altered Zwingli’s view of divine providence. He even wrote a “Plague Song” detailing the suffering of his near-death experience and glorifying “the providential God who comforted and sustained” him in his torment (121). Through these experiences, he became convinced people don’t direct their own paths. This signaled to him that the Reformation was also a work of God—only God could change hearts and accomplish what had been done.

Imperfect Reformer

The successes and mistakes of Christians, such as Zwingli, are equally instructive. Zwingli’s errors offer cautionary tales to guide the church today.

For example, what prompted Zwingli to take up arms against Catholics or avoid any attempt to defend his friend and student Felix Manz when he was executed? It was Zwingli’s “misunderstanding and misapplication of Christ’s kingdom” (203). He thought he could bring the kingdom through force and conflated the kingdom of God with Christendom. But the kingdom isn’t something we can impose on this world through our own efforts.

Zwingli thought he could bring the kingdom through force and conflated the kingdom of God with Christendom. But the kingdom isn’t something we can impose on this world through our own efforts.

Those holding a high view of religious liberty and the separation of church and state will see the weaknesses of “intolerance and coercion” (204) that characterized Zwingli’s Zurich community and the importance of defending these good things today.

Additionally, Zwingli and other reformers suffered from what Eccher calls “a lack of epistemic humility” (206). They sometimes conflated their personal interpretation with Scriptural authority. Eccher’s book reminds us we all have blind spots. Both the virtues and the vices found in Zwingli’s life challenge us to reflect on our own lives and ministries.

The reformers could agree about the problems with the Catholic Church, but they couldn’t agree on what to construct in its place. Recognizing old habits die hard, Eccher makes the helpful distinction between “working together” and “worshiping together” (206). While convictions about ecclesiology still matter greatly, Eccher writes, “There are countless Christians from other confessional heritages that I can work together with where theological and ministerial overlap is found” (206).

In our turbulent times, when many denominations are splintering, remembering this distinction may help foster new cooperation efforts among Christian groups and denominations.

Ongoing Importance of Faithful Pastors

Zwingli the Pastor shows that pastors are as important today as they were in Zwingli’s time. The pastor has an essential role in times of crisis. As Eccher tells us, Zwingli preached powerful sermons to rally people to theological reform for the sake of gospel renewal. Some were so persuasive that his audience ascribed to him a near-prophetic quality. Pastors are the ones God calls to faithfully shepherd his people with virtuous persuasion.

But Zwingli wasn’t a perfect pastor, and that’s the point. Human ambitions and desires for reform are always shaped by the contingencies of the cultural moment and our own limitations. However imperfect, Zwingli was used in his day, and he guided his people according to his understanding of Scripture. He was a faithful mentor to younger pastors. I hope we can carry this spirit forward for our age so many more can “hear from their Maker and commune with Christ their Savior” (51).

Church history buffs will enjoy this book, especially those interested in the fascinating stories of the Reformation. Christian leaders and ministers are also sure to find helpful insights into the history and theology of pastoral ministry. While Zwingli might be a complex and controversial reformer, Eccher’s book shows us there’s wisdom to be found in his triumphs and tragedies.


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