A Brief Account And Evaluation Of The Early Reformation In Switzerland
(Part 2)

This article by our brother Linus Chua was originally written as part of his church history studies with Whitefield Theological Seminary.


III.       A BRIEF EVALUATION of the swiss reformation


In evaluating the Swiss Reformation, it would be instructive to compare and contrast it with the German Reformation since there are a number of significant similarities as well as differences.



      The German and the Swiss reformation developed independently of each other. As D’Aubigne wrote, “It was not Germany that communicated the light of truth to Switzerland, Switzerland to France, and France to England: all these countries received it from God…One sole and same doctrine was suddenly established in the sixteenth century at the hearths and altars of the most distant and dissimilar nations; it was everywhere the same spirit, everywhere producing the same faith.”[1]

We know that this was so from the fact that there was no contact between the most prominent leaders of the two reformations, Luther and Zwingli, until much later when the respective reformations had already begun. Zwingli himself said, “I began to preach the Gospel in the year of grace 1516, that is to say, at a time when Luther’s name had never been heard in this country. It is not from Luther that I learnt the doctrine of Christ, but from the Word of God. If Luther preaches Christ, he does what I am doing and that is all.”[2] 



The Swiss Reformation was more radical and more complete than the German Reformation. In Zurich, Zwingli called strongly for the abolishing of the mass and all relics, images and ornaments. Even the organs were taken down because of their connection with many superstitious practices. In contrast, when Carlstadt and some of new prophets were calling for extreme measures to be taken in Wittenberg, Luther opposed them and called the people to charity, patience and moderation.

D’Aubigne sums up the difference between Zwingli’s and Luther’s approach to reformation very well when he says, “Luther desired to maintain in the Church all that was not expressly contrary to the Scriptures, and Zwingli to abolish all that could not be proved by them. The German reformer wished to remain united to the Church of the preceding ages, and was content to purify it of all that was opposed to the Word of God. The Zurich reformer passed over these ages, returned to the apostolic times, and, carrying out an entire transformation of the Church, endeavoured to restore it to its primitive condition.”[3] Luther’s principle was never to depart from the doctrine of the church except when the language of Scripture absolutely requires it. Zwingli on the other hand was less inclined to maintain his connection with past traditions and looked to Scripture alone.

D’Aubigne goes on to show that there were two elements that had entered the Romish Church which needed to be purged out. The first, from Judaism, was the Pharisaical idea of self-righteousness and of salvation by human works. The second, from Paganism, was the idea that God was not all-sufficient and sovereign, and this led to the introduction of saints, images and ceremonies. Luther’s reform was directed essentially against the Pharisaical element while Zwingli’s reform was particularly directed against the pagan element. Rome had exalted man and lowered God. Luther lowered man while Zwingli exalted God. Luther laid the foundation while Zwingli raised its crowning stone and in this sense, the two complemented each other.

D’Aubigne’s comment on the difference between the two reformations is very insightful indeed. He writes, “we may here again recognize that sovereign hand which directs all things, and permits nothing without the wisest design. Luther…was in an eminent degree conservative. Zwingli, on the contrary, was inclined to a radical reform. These two opposite tendencies were necessary. If Luther and his friends had stood alone at the time of the Reformation, the work would have been stopped too soon, and the reforming principle would not have accomplished its prescribed task. If, on the contrary, there had been only Zwingli, the thread would have been snapped too abruptly, and the Reformation would have been isolated from the ages that had gone before. These two tendencies…were ordained to complete each other; and after a lapse of three centuries we can say that they have fulfilled their mission.”[4] 



      Zwingli and Luther agreed with each other on the three fundamental principles of Protestantism, namely, (1) the absolute supremacy of the Divine Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, (2) justification by free grace through faith, and (3) the general priesthood of the laity.

Besides these three principles, the two agreed with each other on many other important doctrines. Schaff writes, “The only serious doctrinal difference which divided Luther and Zwingli at Marburg was the mode of the real presence in the eucharist…”[5] During that conference, which Philip of Hesse had arranged in October 1529, Luther drew up 15 articles and presented it to the two parties. Both sides agreed on 14 of them and even in the 15th article, they agreed in the principal part, differing only in the corporeal presence and oral manducation. These articles are of importance because they show that while the reformation evolved independently in Switzerland and Saxony, there was a great unity between them in their doctrine for they both received it from the same Divine source. Nevertheless, there was a diversity on secondary points. After Marburg, the controversy between the two became more moderate. Another advantage of this meeting was that the reformers marked with one accord their separation from Rome.

On the Lord’s Supper, Zwingli totally rejected the idea of the bodily presence of Christ in the Supper. He held that the word “is” in the Lord’s statement “This is my body” carries the meaning of ‘signifies’ and should be taken figuratively rather than literally. Zwingli was also afraid of a magical view of the Supper which would be detrimental to sanctification. At the outset, Luther appeared to have a similar view of the Supper as Zwingli, but when he saw the fanatics and enthusiasts rejecting baptism and denying the presence of Christ in the Supper, he was alarmed and threw himself in the opposite direction and attached a higher importance to the sacraments. 



      Both reformations brought the Church into close contact with the State but under Zwingli, “an even closer union of Church and state was achieved than in Luther’s Saxony.”[6] Zwingli worked very closely with the civil government in the reformation of the Church at Zurich. We see this in at least two ways. On the one hand, he appealed to and influenced the civil magistrates to make certain changes, e.g. abolishing the mass, removing all relics and images from the churches. On the other hand, he defended and preserved the state-church against the radicals who sought to dissolve the relation between the two.

      One of the main differences between the Swiss and German reformation in terms of church-state relations is that in Germany, the monarchial principle predominated while in Switzerland, the democratic principle ruled. Schaff wrote, “the Swiss Reformers controlled the State in the spirit of republican independence, which ultimately led to a separation of the secular and spiritual powers, or to a free Church in a free State…while Luther and Melanchthon, with their native reverence for monarchial institutions and the German Empire, taught passive obedience in politics, and brought the Church under bondage to the civil authority.”[7]



      One of the most significant differences between the two reformations is found in the use of physical arms for the defense of its cause. The German Reformation declined the aid of the temporal power and the force of arms, and looked for victory in the Gospel. We see this for example in 1529, when it appeared that the Emperor was going to wage war against the Protestants, the Elector consulted the Wittenberg theologians and Luther replied, “We would rather die ten times than see our Gospel cause one drop of blood to be shed. Our part is to be like lambs of the slaughter…Let your highness be without fear…Only let not your hands be stained with the blood of your brethren…You cannot defend our faith: each one should believe at his own risk and peril.”[8] Again in 1530, Luther, who dreaded the intervention of the secular arm in church affairs, told the elector, “If the emperor desires to march against us, let no prince undertake our defence. God is faithful: he will not abandon us.”[9]

      In contrast, Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation turned to the sword and to the mighty ones of the earth to defend their cause against the Catholic Cantons. Time and again, Zwingli sought to stir the Protestants in Switzerland to take up arms in a religious war. He justified himself by saying, “No doubt it is not by human strength. It is by the strength of God alone that the Word of the Lord should be upheld. But God often makes use of men as instruments to succour men. Let us therefore unite…and let us form one people and one alliance.”[1] Thus, while Luther was in favour of a passive obedience, Zwingli advocated resistance against tyrants.

      As a result of the religious war in Switzerland, the whole of the Reformation was compromised. Nevertheless, though humbled for a season, the cause of the gospel was not destroyed, but was destined finally to gain the victory. God used this catastrophic event to bring the Reformation back on the right path and to remind His people that their weapons are not carnal but spiritual, and that they will only conquer by the power of His Word.

      Writing of Zwingli’s end, Schaff says, “The death of Zwingli is a heroic tragedy. He died for God and his country. He was a martyr of religious liberty and of the independence of Switzerland. He was right in his aim to secure the freedom of preaching in all the Cantons and bailiwicks…But he had no right to coerce the Catholics, and to appeal to the sword. He was mistaken in the means…”[2]         


IV.  Conclusion

      We have briefly described the early years of the Swiss Reformation and evaluated it in comparison with the German Reformation. Based on our five points of evaluation, we are reminded of five things.

      Firstly, from its independence, we are reminded that God, not man, is the source of the truths and principles of the reformation. Secondly, from its approach, we see how God sovereignly used both branches of Protestantism, despite their different emphases, to complement each other and to further His cause in this world. Thirdly, from its doctrine, we are reminded that there is unity (in the essential doctrines of salvation) in diversity (in secondary matters) in the Church of Christ. Fourthly, from its relationship to the State, we are reminded that the Church and the State, while distinct, should work together closely for the glory of God in both spheres. Fifthly, from its use of arms, we are reminded that “though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing which exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)                                        ~~ The End ~~

[1] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol II, 280-281.

[2] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol II, 281. 

[3] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol III, 243.

[4] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol III, 305.

[5] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Volume 8 (Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 8.

[6] Latourette, A History of Christianity Volume II, 749.

[7] Schaff, History of the Christian Church Volume 8, 10-11.

[8] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol IV, 111.

[9] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol IV, 117-118.

[1] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol IV, 389.

[2] Schaff, History of the Christian Church Volume 8, 189.