Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet

by Bruce Gordon. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021.

Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) was a sixteenth century Reformer, contemporaneous with better-known Reformers, such as Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Jean Calvin (1509–1564). Bruce Gordon’s well-researched biography helps the reader realize that Zwingli needs to be viewed as an individual who, in spite of some major flaws, made significant contributions to the Reformation.

Zwingli was a Catholic priest serving in the Swiss villages of Glarus and then Einsiedeln until 1519, when he was appointed the priest at the Grossmünster in Zürich. There, he became very involved in city government affairs. He was also part of a group that deliberately flaunted the Roman Catholic prohibition of eating meat during Lent. While he did not eat the forbidden meat, he was part of a “well-staged provocation” (63). Church officials were appalled that Zwingli associated with such a group of lawbreakers, earning him the label of troublemaker by Roman Catholics and Reformer by others.

Zwingli had a complex and strained relationship with Martin Luther. While they agreed on many points, their 1529 meeting at Marburg, Germany, did not end well. Gordon writes that reconciliation was illusory, though Zwingli “broke down in tears when expressing a fervent desire for friendship” (179). Luther had no hope for cooperation and wrote to his wife, “We do not want them as brothers and members [of Christ], although we wish them peace and good things” (179). The two Reformers continued their disagreements with the Catholic Church, but they did not find a way to work together. Neither did they ever come to a common understanding of the Lord’s Supper, with Zwingli emphasizing symbolism and Luther focusing on the real presence.

According to Gordon, “[Desiderius] Erasmus electrified a young generation of scholars with his call for a return to the sources of the Christian faith” (35). In 1516, Zwingli’s desire to meet Erasmus was fulfilled in Basel, in the same year and the same city where Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was published. This monumental publication (and subsequent editions) by Erasmus made it possible for Luther to translate the New Testament into German in 1522. Even though Zwingli considered Erasmus to be “the pre-eminent interpreter of the Holy Scripture” (36), that relationship came to an end by 1524 because Zwingli’s desire “to employ humanist learning to tear down the [Catholic] Church and create a new order horrified the Dutchman” (114).

While Zwingli’s breaks with Luther and Erasmus may be considered unfortunate, his attitude toward those who advocated adult baptism is indeed troubling. Zwingli, a Reformer, did not give any room for advocates of adult baptism to promote their views and practice adult baptism. He supported death for the Anabaptists, writing to a friend, “ ‘Whoever will be baptized hereafter will be submerged permanently’ ” (191).

Zwingli died in 1531 during the Battle of Kappel. Though the details of his participation in the battle and the circumstances surrounding his death have been debated, the life of this Reformer came to an abrupt end.

This researched and well-written book does not hide the flaws of the Reformer. Readers are challenged to ask, “What about me?” The goal of the contemporary reformer is to be a blessing to God’s children without hurting others and ultimately destroying yourself. This biography tells us that is a difficult goal, one that most do not achieve.

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