Interview with Carl Trueman on Ulrich Zwingli

July 20, 2017

by Carl Trueman

Enjoy this recent interview by Fred Zaspel of Books at a Glance with Westminster’s Dr. Carl Trueman on the great reformer of Switzerland: Ulrich Zwingli.

Carl, who was Ulrich Zwingli? And how did the work of Reformation come about with him?

Ulrich Zwingli was the first great reformer of the city of Zürich in Switzerland. He was born on New Year’s Day in 1484, just a few weeks after Martin Luther. So they were the same age, but in some ways, they came from different worlds. Luther was a medieval man; he trained in a medieval university, medieval curriculum, as a monk, medieval calling. Zwingli was a humanist. He grew up under the tutelage of those who are profoundly influenced by humanism, and specifically by Erasmus. He became a Catholic priest and from 1518 onwards he was a minister in Zürich, where he came to the conviction that the city as a whole, public city, city life, as well as church life, needed to be reformed in accordance with the word of God. His move to Reformation was, I think, more existential than Luther’s. We don’t hear in Zwingli about this great wrestling with his personal sin; but he came to a conviction that life as a whole was to be regulated by the Word of God.

There’s a big debate as to whether Luther triggered him on his path to Reformation or not. It’s hard to get at that because German scholars have a vested interest in making him nothing but a mediocre knockoff of Martin Luther. Swiss scholars have a vested interest in arguing for is fundamental originality. So, it’s difficult to know exactly how and why Zwingli comes to Reformation convictions.

We do know that he kept his papal pension until the early 1520s. He had written critically of the Swiss practice of mercenaries. A large part of the Swiss economy was built upon hiring its men out for mercenary service to other powers. Zwingli was very critical of that, except he said Swiss could legitimately serve the papacy. (You still have the Swiss guard at the Vatican, today, which is a kind of folk echo of that practice.) And the papacy so liked that that they gave him a pension. Zwingli gives up his papal pension in the early 1520s. Embarrassingly late, if you want to claim that you came to the Reformation independent of Luther. Zwingli claims that he did it because he thought it was fun to be a reformer paid by the papacy; but that may well be him rationalizing it after the fact.

Isn’t there a story about sausage that is of interest here?

Yeah, the Reformation begins in 1522 during the Lenten fast when the Zürich printer, Christoph Froschauer, breaks the Lenten fast with his workmen, and they fry and eat some sausages together. Zwingli is present at the sausage-eating, but he ‘doesn’t inhale,’ shall we say. (Both men laughing). He doesn’t eat the sausage, he merely approves of it by his presence. But the breaking of the Lenten fast is very significant for a number of reasons. Most of all, of course, it represents a shattering of the liturgical calendar and practices of the church. And Zwingli’s Reformation was much more iconoclastic than Luther’s. He was much more a root and branch reformation of church practice. No stained-glass windows, no Lenten fast, these were the things that were focal points for Zwingli’s Reformation. No music in church; Zwingli didn’t like that; no music in church; keep everything strictly according to the Word of God.

How did the Swiss Reformation play out? Can you give us a broad overview?

It generally worked its way out through the key cities. I mean, Zürich and Bern would be the key cities. Bern, under the leadership of Wolfgang Musculus; Zürich under the leadership of Zwingli, and then of Heinrich Bullinger. And these were reformations that were prosecuted through/by the civil magistrate. One of the big differences between the Lutheran Reformation and the Swiss Reformation is the Swiss reformers worked hand in glove with the civil magistrate. You’re not dealing with feudal princes here; you’re not dealing with a monarchy kind of situation. You’re dealing with cities that have a certain limited form of democracy. They are independent of the Empire and are therefore able to set their own policies. So, the Swiss Reformation plays out, really, in the urban context, driven by this close relationship between pastor and magistrate.

Geneva is slightly different. Geneva is a very small and weak city. It was governed by the house of Savoy. When the house of Savoy is kicked out in the early 1530s, Geneva is very dependent upon Bernese protection from the house of Savoy because it’s military and economics are fairly weak. And Geneva also loses most of its elite when it kicks the Roman Catholics out. Where does it replace its skilled labor force from? France. It’s just on the border with France, so, Geneva, although it’s a Swiss city, is in some ways more part of the French Reformation, because it’s the French culture that sets the agenda there.

For those interested, the career of Calvin is really shaped by the tension between the French immigrants, of whom Calvin is the preeminent representative and the need for the Genevan authorities to have the protection of the Swiss city of Bern. That’s an important part of the Genevan reformation story. . .

. . . continue reading at Books At a Glance.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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