Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet 
by Bruce Gordon.
Yale, 349 pp., £25, October 2021, 978 0 300 23597 5
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The talents​ of historians rarely extend to poetry. I remember reading the TLS of 4 March 1977 and cringing at the discovery that my doctoral supervisor, Geoffrey Elton, had indulged in a penchant for verse, prefacing his review of G.R. Potter’s Life of Huldrych Zwingli with a couplet: ‘Some talk of Martin Luther and some of Calvin (John)/But Zwingli’s hardly mentioned this side of Zollikon.’ Nevertheless, one can’t deny the truth of it. Potter’s admirable book piled up the evidence that would allow English-speakers to reassess Switzerland’s pioneer Reformer, but, nearly half a century on, Bruce Gordon still has every reason to try to get the news out beyond the manicured shores of Lake Zurich. Few are better placed to do so: Gordon is steeped in the Reformed Protestant tradition that owes its birth to Zwingli, and yet he keeps an admirably balanced and encompassing perspective on the man who, when we consider the great figures of the Reformation, seems fated to remain in the second tier.

Even in Zurich itself, Zwingli’s reputation is not straightforward. The Innenstadt today is surprisingly reminiscent of the city he knew in the early 16th century: fairly low-rise around the River Limmat, and therefore still dominated by the towers and spires of the same four churches that led Zurich’s Reformation from the 1520s. Chief among them is the Grossmünster, the ancient ‘Great Minster’ or college of canons, to which Zwingli came as assistant priest in late 1518. Yet Zurich is now relentlessly secular and multicultural, despite the continued existence of the state Church that Zwingli helped to create. The Grossmünster still attracts a large congregation to its Reformed worship, but much of what goes on in it would astonish and probably anger Zwingli. There is a choir singing sacred music, accompanied by a spectacular pipe organ; the windows are full of high-quality modern stained glass. All these things had been eliminated by 1525, as Zwingli’s Zurich outdid Savonarola’s Florence in the burning of vanities and the denunciation of frivolity.

Wherever they are in Europe, Zwingli’s heirs have generally become more reasonable. They don’t now judicially drown Christians they disagree with in rivers, as Zwingli’s friends on the city council decided to do in 1527. There is no question of forcing every citizen to attend a contemporary version of Zwingli’s drastically renewed worship in stripped-down church buildings. In 2019, Zurich put conscientious effort into the quincentenary celebrations of Zwingli’s first sermons, but what exactly were they celebrating? The organisers commissioned multicoloured and variously themed replicas of the dismayingly Wagnerian 19th-century statue of Zwingli on the riverside, and staged cheerful debates about what these several Zwinglis might mean. There was a similar problem with the film, The Reformer, that formed part of the commemorations. At its heart was Zwingli’s wife, Anna Reinhart, about whom the historical record says little; by contrast, there was no special place for Zwingli’s bitter clash with Martin Luther about the nature of eucharistic bread and wine – perhaps Zwingli’s most lasting legacy to world Protestantism. Gordon observes without comment that the film (scripted mostly in a scrupulously updated Swiss-dialect German) carried off the Swiss Film Award for costume design.

That’s the trouble: a modern audience, including many of Gordon’s potential readers, finds it difficult to understand why Europe was so riven by murderous violence among its Christian population in the 16th century, because the rifts were over theological points that are meaningless to most people today, even Christians. The most dramatic moment in Zwingli’s career was its dénouement in 1531, when he was run through with a sword on a battlefield near Kappel, in the hills above Zurich. The Catholic soldiers against whom the city militia had gone into battle stripped him of his armour, hacked him to pieces and then burned him to ashes. It might be possible to spin this brutal death as a martyrdom, a heroic sacrifice for true religion, but it was the chief event in a silly little war that many Swiss regarded as an unnecessary indulgence of civic ambition on Zurich’s part. And was it seemly for the chief pastor of a major city to have plunged in armed like a Swiss mercenary, particularly when he had spent much of his public career furiously criticising military service and stressing the awfulness of war? It didn’t need a Catholic to point out the relevant quotation, from Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Those who take the sword shall die by the sword.’ Luther was being smug when he deployed it against the man he had come to detest for getting the Reformation wrong.

The insoluble problem of the Reformation was the lack of consensus about what it was actually for. The initial revolt was difficult enough. Starting with Luther, an increasing number of serious-minded Catholics all over Europe listened in their own ways to varied voices from Holy Scripture and from later Christian history. This compelled them to the anguished conclusion that the Western Latin Church into which they were born had perverted true Christianity, to the extent that it was cheating them out of eternal life. The fury was greatest among devout clergy of the old Church, who blamed themselves for having been deceivers as well as deceived. Luther was a painfully conscientious friar and lecturer in theology; Zwingli was an exceptionally well-educated priest who had thrown himself into pastoral care, serving with considerable success first in a mountain village and then at a major pilgrimage site. It took an effort of imagination, as well as courage, for these principled men to break with their honourable past lives. Their rebellions were often untidy and drawn-out, producing paradoxes and inconsistencies along the way.

Zwingli’s odyssey out of medieval Catholicism was especially complicated. Since he hated the way that foreign monarchs exploited young Swiss men as mercenaries, he saw the pope as an ally against mercenary service; eventually, he accepted an annual pension from a grateful Vatican. Then came the moment in 1520 when this income became an embarrassment, because his struggle to find a new way was compelling him to take a stand alongside Luther. A quiet word went out to Rome to cancel the next instalment. And yet, despite the fact that Zurich’s Reformation soon outstripped anything that Luther was doing in Saxony, the pope (for political reasons) maintained his alliance with the city for another five years, by which time its churches were being purged of sacred imagery and the old Latin mass had been replaced with a service of Zwingli’s own devising. This was a form of worship that infuriated Luther as much as it did Rome.

The opening salvo of Zurich’s religious revolution began in 1522 with some friends gathering in a room to eat a large sausage, while Zwingli looked on benevolently. In doing so they defied the medieval Church’s ban on eating meat in the penitential season of Lent – and have subsequently given generations of schoolchildren some light relief during their slog through Reformation history. This is not to minimise the importance of their culinary choice. Once one rule had been defied on principle then everything was up for re-examination, particularly the 450-year-old prohibition on clergy getting married, unique to the Western Latin Church. From 1517, a handful of Northern European priests began taking the momentous step into marriage, inspired by Luther’s protests in Wittenberg. Zwingli was the first big name to cross the line. His marriage in 1522 came as relief to his conscience, since he freely admitted that he had never succeeded at keeping celibate. His wife remained in the background of Zwingli’s public ministry, unlike Katherine von Bora, the spirited ex-nun who married Luther three years later, but Anna still deserves respect for her pioneering role in overturning the clergy’s special status and privilege, upheld by the medieval Western rule on clerical celibacy.

By the mid-1520s, the movement now known as Protestantism was already irretrievably divided, even before the word ‘Protestantism’ had been invented (in 1529, to describe a political protest by princes in the Holy Roman Empire sympathetic to Luther). Luther was appalled by the wholesale destruction of church art undertaken in Switzerland at Zwingli’s behest: he regarded such art as not only beautiful but instructive. He was also insistent that the bread and wine were transformed into the very body and blood of Christ during the act of worship he still called the Mass.

Zwingli decided that this supposed change in the elements of bread and wine was a catastrophic misunderstanding. The Crucifixion, Christ’s saving work on the Cross, was the lens through which his sharing of bread and wine at the Last Supper should be understood. The Cross turned these elements of food and drink into signs of what Christ did for humanity: sacrificing his body and shedding his blood. Zwingli’s intellectual hero was Erasmus, the doyen of Christian humanist scholars. Eventually the turbulence of Reformation politics soured what had been a friendly relationship, but Zwingli’s faith was permanently shaped by Erasmus’s insistence that Christian faith was based on spirit, not flesh. Bread and wine were fleshly things; they could never be more than symbols of what lay beyond them in the realm of spirit. This was also true of another very physical feature of Christian worship: the water of baptism by which all the faithful became part of the Church.

Zwingli came to assert that the spiritual reality that lay beyond bread, wine and water was actually to be found in the sequence of collective liturgical actions that constituted Eucharist or baptism. In both these endlessly staged dramas, the event of pastor and people joining in worship constituted a sure pathway to the presence of God, who gave himself to all those who gathered to seek him in the newly whitewashed churches of Reformed communities like Zurich. But beyond each individual occasion of liturgy, some spiritual authority had to replace the pope. Why not simply look out of the window over the city roofs? Another building block in Zwingli’s reconstruction of Western Christianity was a very Swiss notion of community: combining in apparent contradiction the Swiss Confederation’s fierce defence of local autonomy and its stubborn commitment to a shared purpose binding the different territories and jurisdictions. As a scholar with a humanist enthusiasm for the literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, Zwingli recognised that Switzerland’s complex political arrangements were very like those of Ancient Greece, another mountainous region. Indeed, he raised many Protestant eyebrows by insisting that the pre-Christian heroes of Greece and the Roman Republic deserved a place in Heaven along with the saints whose shrines and images Zurich had recently destroyed.

‘What is the state,’ Erasmus asked, ‘but a great monastery?’ In Zwingli’s conception, Zurich would be just such an Erasmian monastery, with the city council and the synod of pastors as its collective abbot: together, they were the governors of a sacred commonwealth as King David had been in Israel. Had Zwingli’s relationship with most members of the city council been other than excellent he might have been less enthusiastic, but fortunately convenience marched with spiritual logic. When the citizens of Zurich gathered at the table in their churches to share bread and wine, they did so as the local collective of God’s people under city authority. Equally, when a baby was baptised in a Zurich church, it was being welcomed by the whole community into God’s family, identified with everyone who lived and paid their taxes in that generous fold of the Swiss mountains.

Luther’s​ theology is a series of urgent insights, not always consistent with one another. Zwingli’s theological system is impressively interconnected (leaving aside the everyday untidiness of Zurich’s politics and the extreme untidiness of his death). Perhaps this is why Zwinglian theology lacks the drama of Luther’s paradoxes and spiritual struggles. It also led Zwingli to conclusions that now seem deeply objectionable, especially as they related to Christians more radical than himself. A number of his friends in the city, using their critical faculties to read the Bible anew just as he had, decided that it provided no warrant for baptising all infants, as was still mandated in Zwingli’s civic Church. They encouraged others to follow them in seeing baptism as an act of conscious commitment to God which was only possible for adults. They too gathered in a room in the city, this time not to eat sausage, but to baptise one another. By doing so, these radicals (nicknamed ‘Anabaptists’, or ‘Rebaptisers’, by their affronted former friends) broke with Zwingli’s vision of a sacred community coterminous with the city. Hence his willingness to see Anabaptists drowned in the Limmat, or with less brutality, expelled from the city’s territory.

What emerged in Zurich in the 1520s was a whole new way of viewing Christian life and worship that proved impossible to reconcile not merely with Rome but with Luther’s alternative. This identity was later labelled ‘Reformed’, which really meant a Reformation Christianity less than respectful to Luther (if you were respectful, you would eventually be called Lutheran). However, Reformed Protestants, being prone to take a stand on principle, inevitably didn’t agree among themselves either. One second-generation Reformed leader, the French exile John Calvin, was critical of what he saw as the cosy relationship between civic government and Church in Zurich, though that didn’t stop him throwing his weight about when he came to construct his own Reformation in Geneva. Gordon makes clear that Calvin never acknowledged the extent of the debt he owed to Zwingli, and how inadequate it is to use the word ‘Calvinism’ as a label for the Reformed Protestant variant of Western Christian identity.

Inevitably, Reformed Protestantism produced development and variety, not least because its pioneer’s career was so abruptly truncated. Due credit should be given to Zwingli’s statesmanlike successor as chief pastor in Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, who was only 27 in 1531 when the stricken city hurriedly drafted him in to take charge of what looked like catastrophe. In a busy career stretching right up to 1575, Bullinger made sure that Zurich was as influential as Calvin’s Geneva in spreading Reformed Protestantism, particularly through Eastern Europe. He also added some richness to Zwingli’s stark ideas about the nature of the Eucharist. Bullinger even achieved what many thought impossible: in 1549 he came to an amicable agreement with Calvin about their different interpretations without making too much of a fuss about the points where they continued to diverge. Would that there had been more of this sort of give and take in the Reformation. In the end, Reformed Protestantism proved much more dynamic and shapeshifting, in global terms, than Lutheranism. Unlike Lutheranism, it had a decisive impact on that self-regarding complex of offshore European islands where the majority population spoke a distinctive language called English, especially when many of these people crossed the ocean to North America.

There is little to criticise in Gordon’s assured account. I wish that he had assisted his readers by commenting on some of the surnames that litter his pages, because among them are a number of scholarly clerics who adopted a fancy cod Latin or cod Greek name for themselves. This was a common practice in the 16th century and it was not just pretension (though there was a bit of that too). These surnames were symbols of the international nature of European scholarship, at a time when anyone with an education could travel and make themselves understood in Latin anywhere from Cork to Copenhagen or Córdoba. The Reformation would have been impossible without this common Latin culture. Take the Protestant scholar Theodor Bibliander, who ended his days in Bullinger’s Zurich in 1564 (slightly under a cloud, after an unfortunate row about predestination). He was a German-speaking Swiss, like Zwingli and Bullinger, and it doesn’t require too much knowledge of Greek to turn Bibliander into ‘book-man’, revealing that Theodor’s original surname was Buchmann. We really ought to have been given the reason for the especially intimidating surname of a man who figures a great deal in Gordon’s book: Johannes Oecolampadius, a great friend and theological colleague of Zwingli’s – indeed, such a close friend that the terrible news from the battlefield at Kappel seems to have brought on his own death. Oecolampadius started life in western Germany as Johann Hussgen. Casting around for a more academically resonant name, he decided that Hussgen could just as well be spelled ‘Hausschein’ – domestic lamp. While ‘John Houselamp’ doesn’t have much of a ring to it in either English or German, turn it into sort-of Greek with a dusting of academic Latin and behold: Johannes Oecolampadius.

Interestingly (as Gordon does point out), Zwingli took his own Christian name in an opposite direction, into a deeper vernacular. Named Ulrich after his father, he exploited the local Swiss dialect to refashion himself as ‘Huldrych’, meaning ‘rich in grace’, once he embarked on his clerical career. It was a fitting linguistic turn for the man who, among other things, can take the credit for masterminding the first complete Reformation Bible in German, using Swiss German rather than the Hochdeutsch of Luther’s Saxon translation. Zwingli did draw on Luther’s work for his own project, which is why he and his scholarly team in Zurich were able to complete their version first. Another reason for Luther to be cross with him.

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Vol. 44 No. 14 · 21 July 2022

Diarmaid MacCulloch may create a misimpression in alluding to ‘the 450-year-old prohibition on clergy getting married, unique to the Western Latin Church’, for the phrasing suggests that this was yet another novelty imposed by the Church of Rome (LRB, 9 June). In fact, such a ban was very much older and was part of the Orthodox tradition as well as the Latin. Early Christianity had regarded voluntary celibacy or consecrated virginity as one of the three ‘evangelical counsels’ in the imitation of Christ (the other two being poverty and obedience). But as Christianity was incrementally adopted as the sole official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth and early fifth centuries, the focus shifted towards mandatory celibacy for monks and some clergy as matters of church law. In the East, bishops and monks were to be celibate, but parish priests could marry and have families. The Western Church took a harder line (as it also did on divorce) and forbade marriage to monks, bishops, priests and those in major orders (deacon and subdeacon). This proved very hard to enforce over the centuries, so the ‘Gregorian’ reformers of the 11th and 12th centuries sharpened the law and its enforcement for monks and all those in major orders; but those in minor orders could still marry (even though the celibate clergy probably discriminated against them more than ever). The poet William Langland, for instance, appears to have been in minor orders and married.

Lawrence Duggan
University of Delaware, Newark

Vol. 44 No. 15 · 4 August 2022

Lawrence Duggan misses the point in his critique of my remarks on clerical celibacy in the medieval Western Church (Letters, 21 July). He objects to the phrase ‘the 450-year-old prohibition on clergy getting married, unique to the Western Latin Church’. I now see that this particular wording is an editorial intervention that I overlooked: I had written more precisely about ‘the 450-year-old prohibition unique to the Western Latin Church, its comprehensive ban on clergy getting married’. Either way, the fact of uniqueness stands. No one is contesting that throughout the Christian world since at least the third century, celibacy had been an option and increasingly a recommendation for very many clergy, fusing with the celibacy that was the norm for monks and nuns. What is unique about the Western Church is that from the mid-11th century, the Roman Church authorities waged a single-minded campaign to make compulsory what had been an option; they abolished clerical marriage – universally, in all three major orders of clerical ministry. No other church in Christian history has ever done that, and the subsequent rejection of compulsory celibacy gave the 16th-century Protestant Reformation its special character.

Diarmaid MacCulloch

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