Ulrich Zwingli was born in 1484 at Wildhaus, Switzerland. He studied for two years each at Basel and Berne, and four years in Vienna, Austria. In 1502 he returned to Basel where he first encountered the New Testament. His father was a wealthy farmer and one day a neighbor said to Him:
”Friend Zwingli, thou shalt make thy son a priest.”
”Yes,” said his father, ”I have already decided him for the schools.”
After young Zwingli was graduated from the University at Berne he was ordained a priest. He served two churches for fourteen years, then was appointed to the Cathedral in Zurich in 1518. His early preaching there was devoted to expounding the words and miracles of Jesus and he came to see a contrast between the Gospel and the rules of the Roman Church.
He announced that he would no longer preach on the prescribed passages from the Bible selected for each Sunday, but instead would preach on the entire Gospel of Matthew with the Greek text in the pulpit before him. Thomas Platter was in the congregation and was so delighted to hear the Word of God complete and unadulterated that he felt he was being pulled by the hair of his head. Practical deductions were speedily made from biblical preaching, so that customs which had no warrant in Scripture were abandoned. Zwingli insisted that the teaching of the Reformers was not a departure from ancient custom but a return to the most primitive custom of all. He said: ”We try everything by the touchstone of the Gospels and the fire of Paul.”
Like Luther he had no intention of beginning a reform movement which would result in his withdrawal from the Roman Church. He did not question the Pope’s authority but he did exalt the Word of God above the traditions of the Church. He led an independent movement.
He was great as theologian and preacher. In Zwingli more than in Luther, the Renaissance brought its gifts to the Reformation. Not by the path of religious experience as was Luther, but by his studies of the Scriptures and the Fathers, Zwingli was led to revolt against the tyranny of Rome over the human reason and conscience. After 1518 he exercised his gifts as a preacher in the interests of reform. He expounded Matthew in order to present the life and work of Jesus, and the Acts as the picture of the spread of the Gospel and of what the church should be; 1 Timothy as showing the Christian way of life; Galatians as the type of the apostolic saving faith; and Hebrews as the source of our knowledge of the mission and benefits of Christ. These sermons have not been preserved but there is abundant evidence that they exercised a great influence.
In 1523, a meeting of clerics and citizens was called in Zurich to consider the sixty-seven theses of Zwingli which proclaimed the Gospel as the only source of truth and denied validity to any practice not specified in the New Testament. The meeting drafted a resolution in his favor and within two years the Latin Mass was replaced by a German Eucharist and the minister faced the congregation across an ordinary table. As a result of his study of the Bible and his devotion to Christ, Zwingli possessed the experience of full salvation. As he grew in his knowledge of the Bible he grew in his love of the truth. He often uttered such words as: ”Christ is our Sacrifice; we need no other,” and ”By one offering He hath perfected them that are sanctified.”
In the Cathedral at Zurich, Zwingli introduced changes which aroused criticism and opposition but he steadily contended for the faith. He rested his faith in the Word of God. His was a simple creed: he believed that man was holy but that he had fallen. Recovery was not his work, but God’s. Zwingli said:
Christ, very man and very God, has purchased for us a never ending redemption. His suffering satisfies the divine justice forever in behalf of those who by an unshakable faith rely upon it. If we could have been saved by our works it would not have been necessary for Christ to die.
He believed in the doctrine of personal election but did not understand it as being in conflict with man’s free will.
Handsome in appearance, tall and strong of body, Zwingli spoke with a note of authority. His voice carried to every part of the church when he spoke. ”He was a man of power in the pulpit, a power born not of eloquence but of logic, common sense, keen thinking, and a burning heart.” He was diligent in pastoral visitation and he preached from house to house.
Zwingli carefully observed his hours of study, guarding them from all unnecessary intrusions. He never went into the pulpit poorly prepared. This is what he said about expository preaching:
The life of Christ has been too long hidden from the people. I shall preach upon the whole of Matthew’s gospel, chapter by chapter, according to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, without human commentaries, drawing solely from the fountain of Scripture, according to its depths, comparing one passage with another and seeking for understanding by constant and earnest prayer. If is to God’s glory, to the praise of His holy Son, to the real salvation of souls, and to their edification in the truth faith that I shall consecrate my ministry.
James McGraw says:
The principal criticism of Zwingli’s sermons is that they are somewhat formless in their compositions. The scriptural examples are unnecessarily numerous, and in them there are many exegeses of passages which are not directly related to the main theme. In spite of these homiletical weaknesses, there is a fine power and freedom in his development of the subject.
Zwingli was a man of learning, a faithful friend, and a man of courage. He met his death in 1531 at age forty-seven, in battle at Kappel. He had been faithful to his convictions, faithful to the interests of his country, faithful in his opposition to Rome’s use of Swiss mercenaries, and faithful to the preaching of the Bible which he knew and loved so well.
His religious zeal was translated into political action and into fierce spiritual struggle. He died fighting for his beliefs. When the Zurich canton was attacked, Zwingli rode with the troops as their chaplain, but he did not confine his energies to their spiritual welfare. He fought side by side with men to whom he administered words of comfort. It was while he was speaking words of consolation to a dying man on the battlefield that Zwingli received his fatal wound.
The last words Ulrich Zwingli uttered are typical of a man who carried into every phase of life the courage of his convictions. He said: ”What matters it? They may kill the body but they cannot kill the soul.” With his death a great light went out in the Church of God. Other reformers were mightier than he in their words, but few were mightier in their actions.