Advanced Historical Theology – Ulrich Zwingli and the beginning of the Reformed Tradition
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Though the Reformation seemed to have been sprung by Luther, it could not be controlled by him all over Europe. During the expansion of the Reformation, four groups can be singled out as having a positive or negative affect overall: the Lutherans under Luther during his life, the Reformed, the Anabaptist, and the Anglican. The earliest proponent of the Reformed tradition was Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was brought into the Reformation through exegetical consideration and later by patriotic curiosities.
Zwingli’s intellectual consideration was along the lines of Erasmus’ humanism. His studies took him to the universities of Vienna and Basel, and he studied under men like Thomas Wyttenbach who had written against indulgences long before Luther ever came along. Zwingli was also fortunate to meet Erasmus himself in 1515 and Erasmus made a profound impression upon him by directing him to the written word (ad fontes!).
Zwingli approached the Scriptures as a Christian humanist. His return to the bible was a general movement in the humanist tradition to go back to the sources. He wanted to discover the true message of Christianity. Knowledge that God exists can come through general revelation, but knowledge of who God is and what God is can only come through special revelation.
Zwingli wrote extensively on providence and predestination (though Luther wrote far more). Nothing is hidden from God, and God controls all things either directly or by secondary causes. To deny that God predestined men to salvation or damnation was to reject even what the pagan philosophers knew as truth about the sovereignty of God. God ordained the fall, and is the Author of the salvation of all those He chooses to save. This completely overthrows the doctrine of salvation by works. Those who claim to be elect must then show they are elect by their outward actions and a changed life.
Zwingli’s’ idea around the law and the Gospel were different from Luther’s and surrounded the doctrines of predestination. The will of God is always the same, and His will has been revealed in the law. The function of the Gospel is to liberate fallen wicked men from sin, and the consequences of having broken the law, and enable men to obey it through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Zwingli’s doctrine of the church is also closely related to predestination. In the strictest sense, the church is the company of the elect. The church is also, though, visible to human eyes and constitutes the church on the earth. The visible church is thus the sign of the invisible reality that will be consummated one day.
With the sacraments, Zwingli believed in infant baptism, and thought, though, against Luther, that the sacraments were not something that when they were outwardly performed, something inward takes place. Baptism enacts nothing unless faith is present. Luther would have said that, but he would have added that there is a reality that grace is communicated to men for their benefit in a mysterious way that is non-saving. And in this case he resorts also against Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation to create a memorial service out of the Lord’s Supper. This gave rise to a very long controversy over the Supper between he and Luther. Even upon meeting in Marburg, the two reformers could not come to agreement on this one issue that forever divided the Lutherans from the Reformed church.