In the previous article we looked briefly at the life of Huldrich Zwingli and his influence on the reformation in Switzerland. Here I want to say a few things about his theology.
Zwingli was undoubtedly dependent on Luther for much of his early thinking. In 1540 Calvin wrote to Farel concerning Luther and Zwingli: "If they are compared with each other, you yourself know how greatly Luther excels."
Zwingli tried to stress his independence from Luther: "Why don't you call me a Paulinian since I am preaching like Saint Paul. . . . I do not want to be labeled a Lutheran by the Papists, as it is not Luther who taught me the doctrine of Christ, but the Word of God. If Luther preaches Christ, he does the same thing as I do. Therefore, I will not bear any name save that of my chief, Jesus Christ, whose soldier I am."
Again, he declared, "I am not ready to bear the name of Luther, for I have received little from him. What I have read of his writings is generally founded in God's Word."
Zwingli shared the views of Luther and Calvin on both the sole sufficiency and authority of Scripture and the sovereignty of God in salvation (divine election). In his book On Providence, Zwingli argued for God’s exhaustive providential control over all of life, both good and evil. He advocated the abolishment of all images and furnishings of medieval Catholicism, fearing that they served as obstacles to the simplicity of faith in Christ.
The point of greatest and most consequential divergence came with the doctrine of the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist. Whereas both Zwingli and Luther repudiated transubstantiation as well as the belief that in the Eucharist was a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ for both the living and dead, they could not agree on the nature of Christ's presence in the elements.
Fearing the political consequences if the German and Swiss reformations did not unite, Philip of Hesse, leader of the German princes, issued an invitation to both Zwingli and Luther to meet at his castle in Marburg in 1529 to reconcile their differences on the Lord's Supper. Luther and Melancthon represented the German wing of the reformation, while Zwingli and Oecolampadius represented the Swiss.
Luther referred to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, according to which the physical elements of the Eucharist are miraculously transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ, as absurd, little more than “a monk’s dream.” Still, Luther’s understanding of the presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist, often referred to as consubstantiation, insisted that the body and blood of Christ appeared "under, with, and in" the elements. The natural elements of bread and wine become united with the body and blood of Christ by a supernatural work of God. They are not identical, but they are inseparable and indistinguishable. Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper put it thus: “In the Lord’s Supper we therefore receive with our mouth no more and no less than Christ’s body and blood, the body with the bread, and the blood with the wine” (Christian Dogmatics, III:356; emphasis mine).
Zwingli, on the other hand, understood the words of Jesus (“This is my body . . . This is my blood”) to be a metaphor There are literally hundreds of metaphors in the Bible: "All flesh is grass" (Isa. 40:6); "The Lord is my shepherd" (Ps. 23:1); "You are the salt of the earth" (Mt. 5:13); "You are the light of the world" (Mt. 5:14); "I am the bread of life" (Jn. 6:35); “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20); “the seven heads are seven mountains” (Rev. 17:9; see also Mt. 13:38; John 8:12; 10:9; 1 Cor. 10:4).
Therefore, Zwingli insisted on a strictly symbolic view, in which the sacrament is nothing more than a visible symbol or tangible representation of the body and blood of Christ; partaking is but an act of remembrance or symbolic declaration.
The dialogue at Marburg initially looked hopeful. Both parties jointly affirmed 14 articles of faith (such as the Trinity and justification by faith alone). But they couldn’t agree on the nature of Christ's presence in the elements.
The debate proved fruitless. Luther stubbornly insisted on the literal force of the words: "This is my body," while Zwingli, no less stubbornly, pointed to the words of Jesus: "It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing; the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit and life." The dialogue was often bitter:
Zwingli: "I remain firm at this text, 'the flesh profiteth nothing.' I shall oblige you to return to it. You will have to sing a different tune with me."
Luther: "You speak in hatred."
Zwingli: "Then declare at least whether or not you will allow John 6 to stand?"
Luther: "You are trying to overwork it."
Zwingli: "No, no, it is just that text that will break your neck."
Luther: "Don't be too sure of yourself. Our necks don't break as easily as that."
One final meeting was arranged. With tears in his eyes, Zwingli approached Luther and held out the hand of brotherhood, but Luther declined it, saying: "Yours is a different spirit from ours." Zwingli said:
"Let us confess our union in all things in which we agree; and, as for the rest, let us remember that we are brethren. There will never be peace in the churches if we cannot bear differences on secondary points."
"I am astonished that you wish to consider me as your brother. It shows clearly that you do not attach much importance to your doctrine."
The split was final.
Although Zwingli’s reputation is nothing in comparison with that of Luther or Calvin, we cannot afford to ignore his monumental contribution to the Reformation. Although he had his flaws (don’t we all), he was committed to the fundamental principles on which the Reformation proceeded, and succeeded. So, on this Reformation Day, let us thank God for the way in which he used yet another “earthen vessel” to accomplish the recovery of the gospel of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo). To God alone be the glory (Soli Deo Gloria)!