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. Continue reading