Book Review: Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)


William Boekestein has written a much needed little biography of the important Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, part EP’s Bitesize Biography series. Zwingli is not nearly as well-known as Luther or Calvin. No churches directly trace their heritage to his legacy. Yet in many ways he was just as important as these larger than life figures of the Protestant Reformation. Boekestein’s biography is short (162 pages) but very satisfying. You come to know something of Zwingli that other accounts don’t capture. Zwingli’s reformation of the Swiss canton Zurich roughly coincided with Luther’s reforms in Wittenberg. In fact, Boekestein points out that Zwingli enacted many of the same reforms before knowing anything about Luther. This would indicate that needed reform was in the air and one cannot escape the providential nature of what took place in those heady years beginning around 1517.

Zwingli’s personal turning point began in 1516, one year before Luther’s. There is no evidence that Zwingli or Luther knew of one another before 1521. By 1519, Zwingli had already begun seriously questioning papal authority, the practice of indulgences and other Catholic abuses. Zwingli’s personal reformation began through his discovery of Augustine’s treatise on the gospel of John and his fellow humanist friend Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. When Zwingli was appointed as the pastor of the Great Minister church in Zurich he quickly abandoned the mass and replaced it with expository preaching. He managed to preach through the whole New Testament within 4 years. Like the other Reformers, Zwingli became convinced of the sole authority of Scripture and refused to embrace traditions he believed were linked to the Roman Church.

Just as Zwingli was the first to experience reform in his own ministry, he was also the first Reformer to write a systematic theology entitled, A Commentary on the True and False Religion. Boekestein believes the only reason this work has not had the lasting value that Calvin’s Institutes have had is because he never bothered to revise it as Calvin did his own work—numerous times in fact. Most of Zwingli’s writings were put together hastily and lack the rigor of other Reformed writings. However, I think Boekestein has underestimated the fact that Calvin was a far more innovative, astute and careful theologian than Zwingli ever could have hoped to be and that explains Calvin’s lasting impact. The same could be said for Luther.

Like many of the Reformers, Zwingli’s life was full of contradictions. He believed in the authority of Scripture and spent a great deal of time emphasizing the preaching of the gospel and yet he spent an equal amount of time engaged in politics and meddling in civic affairs. This is understandable since the relationship of church and state during the Reformation was intricately tied to one another. Zwingli decried the mercenary culture of the Swiss military and yet found himself preaching for war when other Swiss cantons resisted and threatened the reforms in the Protestant cantons. He ended up dying at the hands of a Swiss mercenary in Second Kappel War in 1531.

Zwingli also decried the celibacy and rampant sexual immorality of the priesthood and yet himself was engaged in gross fornication early in his ministerial career. His wife Anna was 6 months pregnant before they were secretly married.

But perhaps the most egregious flaw in Zwingli’s life was his treatment of the Anabaptists. Many of these more radical reformers had been students of Zwingli such as Conrad Grebel. The Anabaptist Reformers were a broad lot; and even though they differed significantly on many points of view, most historians tend to lump genuine Anabaptist Reformers with those who are better regarded as true heretics. Boekesteien seems to fall into this familiar trap. For a time, Zwingli appears to have considered the viability of credo-baptism (believer’s baptism) that many of his students adopted and yet in the end defended paedo-baptism (infant baptism). The reason for this defense does not seem to be rooted upon Biblical grounds but political ones. Zwingli, as did other Magisterial Reformers, believed that the dispensing with infant baptism would cause a rift between the covenant community of the church and the civic community. It was believed that the strength of national unity was tied to the initiatory rite of children into the church community through baptism. This supposedly insulated society from becoming vulnerable to outside threats to the state. But the Anabaptists saw no Biblical warrant for such thinking. They believed the marriage of church and state diluted the purity of the church, but for this reason they were regarded as enemies to both church and state. The civil authorities in Zurich banned Anabaptist teaching including credo-baptism and even drowned these believers as punishment.

Boekestein expresses disappointment with Zwingli’s support of executing Anabaptists, but does not seem to express concern for the underlying flaws in the church-state mentality that proliferated the thinking of the Magisterial Reformers. It is interesting that later Baptist theology (growing out of Anabaptist thinking) developed strong arguments for religious liberty that has allowed the flourishing of Christianity in places like the United States. Ironically this thinking has allowed for a stronger Church, whereas nations that have maintained strong church-state ties (many European nations) have diminished the power of the Church over time.

Ulrich Zwingli was certainly an important Reformer and should be praised for his part in advancing the recovery of the gospel in this critical era of church history. Nonetheless, he was a flawed man imbibing many of the prevailing ideas that brought the church to the mess that required the Reformation in the first place. A couple of things should be said about this. First, as a Protestant, one should never expect that the Reformation should have cured every possible ill the church faced at that time. The times and epics in which one lives always has a blinding influence even upon those who have seen the light of better things. The Reformers had many such blind spots and we should be careful about castigating them too much, lest we discover how many blind spots we have ourselves. Secondly, God always uses cracked pots to carry forth the truth. All the great leaders of Biblical history were weak, sin tainted saints whom God used in spite of their shortcomings. Christ builds his church not by perfect men, but by grace-infused men.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.


One thought on “Book Review: Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

  1. Pingback: Bitesize Biographies Ulrich Zwingli Blog Tour | Cross Focused Reviews

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