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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 29. The Theology of Zwingli.


I. Zwingli: Commentarius de Vera et Falsa Religione, 1525 (German translation by Leo Judae); Fidei Ratio ad Carolum V., 1530; Christianae Fidei brevis et clara Expositio, 1531; De Providentia, 1530 (expansion of a sermon preached at Marburg and dedicated to Philip of Hesse).

II. The theology of Zwingli is discussed by Zeller, Sigwart, Spörri, Schweizer, and most fully and exhaustively by A. Baur. See Lit. § 5, p. 18. Comp. Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I. 369 sqq, and Church History, VI. 721 sqq.


The dogmatic works of Zwingli contain the germs of the evangelical Reformed theology, in distinction from the Roman and the Lutheran, and at the same time several original features which separate it from the Calvinistic System. He accepted with all the Reformers the ecumenical creeds and the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity, and the divine-human personality of Christ. He rejected with Luther the scholastic additions of the middle ages, but removed further from the traditional theology in the doctrine of the sacraments and the real presence. He was less logical and severe than Calvin, who surpassed him in constructive genius, classical diction and rhetorical finish. He drew his theology from the New Testament and the humanistic culture of the Erasmian type. His love for the classics accounts for his liberal views on the extent of salvation by which he differs from the other Reformers. It might have brought him nearer to Melanchthon; but Melanchthon was under the overawing influence of Luther, and was strongly prejudiced against Zwingli. He was free from traditional bondage, and in several respects in advance of his age.

Zwingli’s theology is a system of rational supernaturalism, more clear than profound, devoid of mysticism, but simple, sober, and practical. It is prevailingly soteriological, that is, a doctrine of the way of salvation, and rested on these fundamental principles: The Bible is the only sure directory of salvation (which excludes or subordinates human traditions); Christ is the only Saviour and Mediator between God and men (which excludes human mediators and the worship of saints); Christ is the only head of the Church visible and invisible (against the claims of the pope); the operation of the Holy Spirit and saving grace are not confined to the visible Church (which breaks with the principle of exclusiveness).

1. Zwingli emphasizes the Word of God contained in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, as the only rule of Christian faith and practice. This is the objective principle of Protestantism which controls his whole theology. Zwingli first clearly and strongly proclaimed it in his Conclusions (1523), and assigned to it the first place in his system; while Luther put his doctrine of justification by faith or the subjective principle in the foreground, and made it the article of the standing or falling church. But with both Reformers the two principles so-called resolve themselves into the one principle of Christ, as the only and sufficient source of saving truth and saving grace, against the traditions of men and the works of men. Christ is before the Bible, and is the beginning and end of the Bible. Evangelical Christians believe in the Bible because they believe in Christ, and not vice versa. Roman Catholics believe in the Bible because they believe in the Church, as the custodian and infallible interpreter of the Bible.

As to the extent of the Bible, or the number of inspired books, Zwingli accepted the Catholic Canon, with the exception of the Apocalypse, which he did not regard as an apostolic work, and hence never used for doctrinal purposes.148148    He missed in it both the style and the genius of St. John."Non sapit os et ingenium Joannis." Zwingli and Luther were both wrong in their unfavorable judgment of the Revelation of "the Son of Thunder." Calvin doubted the genuineness of the Second Epistle of Peter and the Pauline origin of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Both accepted the canon on the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, rather than the external authority of the Church. Luther, on the one hand, insisted in the eucharistic controversy on the most literal interpretation of the words of institution against all arguments of grammar and reason; and yet, on the other hand, he exercised the boldest subjective criticism on several books of the Old and New Testaments, especially the Epistle of James and the Epistle to the Hebrews, because he could not harmonize them with his understanding of Paul’s doctrine of justification. He thus became the forerunner of the higher or literary criticism which claims the Protestant right of the fullest investigation of all that pertains to the origin, history, and value of the Scriptures. The Reformed Churches, especially those of the English tongue, while claiming the same right, are more cautious and conservative in the exercise of it; they lay greater stress on the objective revelation of God than the subjective experience of man, and on historic evidence than on critical conjectures.

2. The doctrine of eternal election and providence. Zwingli gives prominence to God’s sovereign election as the primary source of salvation. He developed his view in a Latin sermon, or theological discourse, on Divine Providence, at the Conference of Marburg, in October, 1529, and enlarged and published it afterwards at Zurich (Aug. 20, 1530), at the special request of Philip of Hesse.149149    Ad illustrissimum Cattorum Principem Philippum Sermonis de Providentia Dei anamnema. In Opera, vol. IV. 79-144. Leo Judae published a German translation in 1531. Luther heard the discourse, and had no objection to it, except that he disliked the Greek and Hebrew quotations, as being out of place in the pulpit. Calvin, in a familiar letter to Bullinger, justly called the essay paradoxical and immoderate. It is certainly more paradoxical than orthodox, and contains some unguarded expressions and questionable illustrations; yet it does not go beyond Luther’s book on the "Slavery of the Human Will," and the first edition of Melanchthon’s Loci, or Calvin’s more mature and careful statements. All the Reformers were originally strong Augustinian predestinarians and denied the liberty of the human will. Augustin and Luther proceeded from anthropological premises, namely, the total depravity of man, and came to the doctrine of predestination as a logical consequence, but laid greater stress on sacramental grace. Zwingli, anticipating Calvin, started from the theological principle of the absolute sovereignty of God and the identity of foreknowledge and foreordination. His Scripture argument is chiefly drawn from the ninth chapter of Romans, which, indeed, strongly teaches the freedom of election,150150    P. 114: "Nos cum Paulo in hac sententia sumus, ut praedestinatio libera sit, citra omnem respectum bene aut male factorum." He refers especially to what Paul says about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and hating Esau and loving Jacob before they were born. But this has reference to their position in history, and not to their eternal salvation or perdition. but should never be divorced from the tenth chapter, which teaches with equal clearness human responsibility, and from the eleventh chapter, which prophesies the future conversion of the Gentile nations and the people of Israel.

Zwingli does not shrink from the abyss of supralapsarian-ism. God, he teaches, is the supreme and only good, and the omnipotent cause of all things. He rules and administers the world by his perpetual and immutable providence, which leaves no room for accidents. Even the fall of Adam, with its consequences, is included in his eternal will as well as his eternal knowledge. So far sin is necessary, but only as a means to redemption. God’s agency in respect to sin is free from sin, since he is not bound by law, and has no bad motive or affection.151151    De Providentia Dei (p. 113): "Impulit Deus [latronem] ut occideret; sed aeque impellit judicem, ut percussorem justitiae mactet. Et qui impellit, agit sine omni criminis suspicione; non enim est sub lege. Qui vero impellitur, tam abest ut sit alienus a crimine, ut nullam fere rem gerat sine aliqua labis aspergine, quia sub lege est." Zwingli defends this view by the illustration of the magistracy taking a man’s life. So a soldier may kill an enemy in battle, without committing murder. Melanchthon traced (1521) the adultery and murder of David and the treason of Judas to the Divine impulse; but he abandoned afterwards (1535) this "Stoic figment of fatalism." Election is free and independent; it is not conditioned by faith, but includes faith.152152    P. 121: "Fides iis datur, qui ad vitam eternam electi et ordinati sunt; sic tamen ut electio antecedat, et fides velut symbolum electionem sequatur. Sic enim habet Paulus, Rom. 8:29." Salvation is possible without baptism, but not without Christ. We are elected in order that we may believe in Christ and bring forth the fruits of holiness. Only those who hear and reject the gospel in unbelief are foreordained to eternal punishment. All children of Christian parents who die in infancy are included among the elect, whether baptized or not, and their early death before they have committed any actual sin is a sure proof of their election.153153    He reasons thus: Nothing separates us from God but sin; children have not committed actual sin; Christ has expiated for original sin; consequently children of Christian parents, about whom we have an express promise, are certainly among the elect if they are taken away in infancy. "Defungi in illis electionis signum est perinde ac fides in adultis. Et qui reprobi sunt et a Deo repudiati, in hoc statu innocentiae non moriuntur, sed divina providentia servantur ut repudiatio illorum criminosa vita notetur." (P. 127.) Of those outside the Church we cannot judge, but may entertain a charitable hope, as God’s grace is not bound. In this direction Zwingli was more liberal than any Reformer and opened a new path. St. Augustin moderated the rigor of the doctrine of predestination by the doctrine of baptismal regeneration and the hypothesis of future purification. Zwingli moderated it by extending the divine revelation and the working of the Holy Spirit beyond the boundaries of the visible Church and the ordinary means of grace.

It is very easy to caricature the doctrine of predestination, and to dispose of it by the plausible objections that it teaches the necessity of sin, that it leads to fatalism and pantheism, that it supersedes the necessity of personal effort for growth in grace, and encourages carnal security. But every one who knows history at all knows also that the strongest predestinarians were among the most earnest and active Christians. It will be difficult to find purer and holier men than St. Augustin and Calvin, the chief champions of this very system which bears their name. The personal assurance of election fortified the Reformers, the Huguenots, the Puritans, and the Covenanters against doubt and despondency in times of trial and temptation. In this personal application the Reformed doctrine of predestination is in advance of that of Augustin. Moreover, every one who has some perception of the metaphysical difficulties of reconciling the fact of sin with the wisdom and holiness of God, and harmonizing the demands of logic and of conscience, will judge mildly of any earnest attempt at the solution of the apparent conflict of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

And yet we must say that the Reformers, following the lead of the great saint of Hippo, went to a one-sided extreme. Melanchthon felt this, and proposed the system of synergism, which is akin to the semi-Pelagian and Arminian theories. Oecolampadius kept within the limits of Christian experience and expressed it in the sound sentence, "Salus nostra ex Deo, perditio nostra ex nobis." We must always keep in mind both the divine and the human, the speculative and the practical aspects of this problem of ages; in other words, we must combine divine sovereignty and human responsibility as complemental truths. There is a moral as well as an intellectual logic,—a logic of the heart and conscience as well as a logic of the head. The former must keep the latter in check and save it from running into supralapsarianism and at last into fatalism and pantheism, which is just as bad as Pelagianism.

3. Original sin and guilt. Here Zwingli departed from the Augustinian and Catholic system, and prepared the way for Arminian and Socinian opinions. He was far from denying the terrible curse of the fall and the fact of original sin; but he regarded original sin as a calamity, a disease, a natural defect, which involves no personal guilt, and is not punishable until it reveals itself in actual transgression. It is, however, the fruitful germ of actual sin, as the inborn rapacity of the wolf will in due time prompt him to tear the sheep.154154    He describes original sin in Latin as defectus naturalis and conditio misera, in German as a Brest orGebrechen, i.e. disease. He compares it to the misfortune of one born in slavery. He explains his view more fully in his tract, De peccato originali ad Urbanum Rhegium, 1526 (Opera, III. 627-645), and in his Confession to Charles V.

4. The doctrine of the sacraments, and especially of the Lord’s Supper, is the most characteristic feature of the Zwinglian, as distinct from the Lutheran, theology. Calvin’s theory stands between the two, and tries to combine the Lutheran realism with the Zwinglian spiritualism. This subject has been sufficiently handled in previous chapters.155155    § 27, p. 85 sq.; vol. VI. 620 sqq., and Creeds of Christendom, I. 372-377.

5. Eschatology. Here again Zwingli departed further from Augustin and the mediaeval theology than any other Reformer, and anticipated modern opinions. He believed (with the Anabaptists) in the salvation of infants dying in infancy, whether baptized or not. He believed also in the salvation of those heathen who loved truth and righteousness in this life, and were, so to say, unconscious Christians, or pre-Christian Christians. This is closely connected with his humanistic liberalism and enthusiasm for the ancient classics. He admired the wisdom and the virtue of the Greeks and Romans, and expected to meet in heaven, not only the saints of the Old Testament from Adam down to John the Baptist, but also such men as Socrates, Plato, Pindar, Aristides, Numa, Cato, Scipio, Seneca; yea, even such mythical characters as Hercules and Theseus. There is, he says, no good and holy man, no faithful soul, from the beginning to the end of the world, that shall not see God in his glory.156156    He often speaks on this subject in his epistles, commentaries, the tract on Providence, and most confidently at the close of his Exposition of the Christian Faith, addressed to the king of France. See the passages in Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I, 382, and A. Baur, l.c. II. 772. Comp. also Zeller, l.c. p. 163; Alex. Schweizer, Die Prot. Centraldogmen, I. 94 sqq., and Reform. Glaubenslehre, II. 10 sq.; Dorner, Gesch. der protestTheol., p. 284 (who with his usual fairness vindicates Zwingli against misrepresentations).

Zwingli traced salvation exclusively to the sovereign grace of God, who can save whom, where, and how he pleases, and who is not bound to any visible means. But he had no idea of teaching salvation without Christ and his atonement, as he is often misunderstood and misrepresented. "Christ," he says (in the third of his Conclusions) "is the only wisdom, righteousness, redemption, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Hence it is a denial of Christ when we confess another ground of salvation and satisfaction." He does not say (and did not know) where, when, and how Christ is revealed to the unbaptized subjects of his saving grace: this is hidden from mortal eyes; but we have no right to set boundaries to the infinite wisdom and love of God.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches the necessity of baptism for salvation, and assigns all heathen to hell and all unbaptized children to the limbus infantum (a border region of hell, alike removed from burning pain and heavenly bliss). Lutheran divines, who accept the same baptismal theory, must consistently exclude the unbaptized from beatitude, or leave them to the uncovenanted mercy of God. Zwingli and Calvin made salvation depend on eternal election, which may be indefinitely extended beyond the visible Church and sacraments. The Scotch Presbyterian Confession condemns the "horrible dogma" of the papacy concerning the damnation of unbaptized infants. The Westminster Confession teaches that "elect infants dying in infancy," and "all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word, are saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth."157157    Chapter X. 3."Elect" infants, however, implies, in the strict Calvinistic system, "reprobate" infants who are lost. This negative feature has died out. See on this subject Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, I. 378-384, and his Creed Revision in the Presbyterian Churches, New York, 1890, p. 17 sqq.

The old Protestant eschatology is deficient. It rejects the papal dogma of purgatory, and gives nothing better in its place. It confounds Hades with Hell (in the authorized translations of the Bible 158158    This serious error is corrected in the Revised English Version of 1881. It is an anachronism when a scholar of the nineteenth century denies the distinction between Hades or Sheol (i.e. the spirit-world or realm of the dead) and Gehenna (i.e. hell, or the place and state of the lost).), and obliterates the distinction between the middle state before, and the final state after, the resurrection. The Roman purgatory gives relief in regard to the fate of imperfect Christians, but none in regard to the infinitely greater number of unbaptized infants and adults who never hear of Christ in this life. Zwingli boldly ventured on a solution of the mysterious problem which is more charitable and hopeful and more in accordance with the impartial justice and boundless mercy of God.

His charitable hope of the salvation of infants dying in infancy and of an indefinite number of heathen is a renewal and enlargement of the view held by the ancient Greek Fathers (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa). It was adopted by the Baptists, Armenians, Quakers, and Methodists, and is now held by the great majority of Protestant divines of all denominations.




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