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The Reformation in Switzerland

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther was not the only one seeking reformation in Europe. Born in 1481, Ulrich Zwingli was a contemporary of Luther, and his reforming efforts can be seen as a “parallel movement” to Luther’s work in Germany. Zwingli is known for leading the reformation in Switzerland, with his work centered in the Swiss city of Zurich.

After his studies in Vienna, Basel, and Bern, Zwingli became a priest in 1506. He was highly educated and proficient in Greek. Zwingli was also a humanist. Remember, humanists advocated a return to the sources—in this case, Zwingli advocated for the study of the New Testament. He hoped that returning to Scripture would bring renewal and change.

As a priest, Zwingli began to question some of the practices of the church. One such practice was pilgrimage, or taking a sacred journey to a holy place as another means of grace or securing merit for oneself. Looking to Scripture, Zwingli denounced pilgrimage and the idea that it could help someone obtain salvation.

Calling People Back to Scripture

One of Zwingli’s better-known protests against church practices occurred in 1522. This was also the first public protest in his movement. Protesting the idea of a fast during Lent, some members of his movement ate sausage during Lent (although Zwingli himself was unwilling to eat sausage). But the action of eating sausage “defied both tradition and ecclesiastical authority in the name of Scripture.” Zwingli also preached against the practice of fasting in a sermon titled, “Of Freedom of Choice in the Selection of Food.” In this sermon he said, “To sum up briefly: if you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice . . . further, we should not let ourselves be concerned about such ‘works’ but be saved by the grace of God only.” It’s not that Zwingli was against fasting itself, but rather the idea of imposing it on others apart from a clear mandate of Scripture or believing that such fasting was a way of earning salvation.

Zwingli was well known for his sermons. He preached from the Bible and called people back to the Scriptures. In a sermon titled, “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” he said, “It is my conviction that the Word of God must be held by us in the highest esteem (the Word of God being that alone which comes from God’s Spirit) and no such credence is to be given to any other word. It let us wander in the darkness. It reaches itself, explains itself, and it brings the light of full salvation and grace to the human soul.”

A key question for Zwingli was, Is this biblical? Calling people back to the Scriptures, Zwingli prohibited anything that was not explicitly named in the Bible. Zwingli removed organs from his church, as well as candles. In contrast, Luther did not reject something simply because it wasn’t explicitly named in Scripture. Luther allowed instruments such as the organ in worship because he saw nothing in Scripture prohibiting them.

Reform Efforts

Zwingli enjoyed great support in Zurich. But within the various states that made up the Swiss confederation, some became Protestant and some remained Catholic. Eventually civil war broke out between the states with an attack on the city of Zurich. Zwingli fought in the battle and was killed. Soon after, however, terms were reached through the Peace of Kappel. It was agreed that each state in the Swiss confederation could choose its own religion.

How did the reform work of Zwingli and Luther connect? Famously, Zwingli and Luther met in Marburg in 1529 along with other reformation leaders. The hope was to unify reform e orts. But due to differences in their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, they were not able to unite their movements. Still today, we find that achieving unity in the body of Christ is not always easy.

As we read today, Zwingli called people back to Scripture. Reflect on times in your life, when mentors, teachers, or other key people in your life have called you back to God’s Word.


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