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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 11 — Protestantism in Switzerland From Its Establishment in Zurich (1525) to the Death of Zwingli (1531)

Chapter 1 — Zwingli – His doctrine of the Lord's Supper

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Turn Southward – Switzerland – Reformation from Above – Ulric Zwingli – His Preparation – Resume of his Career – The Foreign Service – The Gospel the Cure of his Nation's Evils – Zwingli at Zurich – His varied Qualities – Transformation of Switzerland – A Catastrophe near – The Lord's Supper – Transubstantiation – Luther's Views – Calvin's Views, Import of the Lord's Supper on the Human Side, Its Import on the Divine Side – Zwingli's Avoidance of the two Extremes as regards the Lord's Supper.

FOLLOWING in the track of the light, we have reached our farthest limit toward the north. We now turn southward to those lands where the Reformation had its first rise, and where it fought its greatest battles. There every step it took was amidst stakes and scaffolds, but if there its course was the more tragic, its influence was the more powerful, and the changes it effected the more lasting. In France thousands of confessors and martyrs are about to step upon the stage, and act their part in the great drama; but first we must turn aside to Switzerland, and resuming our narrative at the point where we dropped it, we shall carry it forward to the death of Zwingli.

We have traced in former pages the dawn of Protestantism among the hills of Helvetia. Not from Germany, for the name of Luther had not yet been heard in Switzerland; not from France, nor any neighboring country, but from the skies, it may be truly said, the light first shone upon the Swiss. From a herdsman's cottage in the valley of the Tockenburg came their Reformer, Ulric Zwingli. When a child he was wont to sit by the evening's hearth and listen with rapt attention to the histories of the Bible recited by his pious grandmother. As years passed on and his powers expanded he found access to the book itself, and made it his daily study. The light broke upon his soul. Continuing to read, it shone clearer every day. At last, but not fill years after, his eyes were fully opened, he saw the glory of the Gospel, and bade a final adieu to Rome.

Personal contact with evil can alone give that sense of its malignity, and that burning detestation of it, which will prompt one to a life-long struggle for its overthrow. We can trace this principle in the orderings of Zwingli's lot. He was destined to spend his days in constant battle with two terrible evils that were tarnishing his country's fame, and extinguishing his country's virtue. But reared in the Tockenburg, artless and simple as its shepherds, he was not yet fit for his destined work, and had to be sent to school. We refer to other schools than those of Basle and Vienna, where he was initiated into the language and philosophy of the ancients. First stationed at Glarus, he there was brought into contact with the horrors of the foreign service. He had daily before his eyes the widows and orphans of the men who had been drawn by French and Italian gold across the Alps and slaughtered; and there, too, he saw a not less affecting sight, the maimed and emaciated forms of those who, escaping the sword, had brought back to their country worse evils than wounds, even the vices of corrupt and luxurious nations. At Einsiedeln, to which by-and-by he removed, he received his second lesson. There he had occasion to mark the ravages which pilgrimages and image-worship inflict upon the conscience and the morals. He had time to meditate on these two great evils. He resolved to spare no effort to uproot them. But his trust for success in this work was solely in the Gospel. This alone could dispel the darkness in which pilgrimages with all their attendant abominations had their rise, and this alone could extinguish that love of gold which was draining at once the blood and the virtue of his countrymen. Other and subsidiary aids would come in their time to assist in this great battle; but the Gospel must come first. He would teach the individual Swiss to bow before a holy altar, and to sit at a pure hearth; and this in due time would pour a current of fresh blood into the veins of the State. Then the virtue of old days would revive, and their glorious valleys would again be trodden by men capable of renewing the heroic deeds of their sires. But the seed of Divine truth must be scattered over the worn-out soil before fruits like these could flourish in it. These were the views that led to the striking union of the pastor and the patriot which Zwingli presents to us. The aim of his Reform, wider in its direct scope than that of Germany, embraced both Church and State, the latter through the former. It was not because he trusted the Gospel less, but because he trusted it more, and saw it to be the one fruitful source of all terrestrial virtues and blessings, and because he more freely interpreted his mission as a Reformer, and as a member of a republic felt himself more thoroughly identified with his country, and more responsible for its failings, than it is possible for a subject of an empire to do, that he chalked out for himself this course and pursued it so steadfastly. He sought to restore to the individual piety, to the nation virtue, and both he would derive from the same fountain – the Gospel.

Having seen and pondered over the two lessons put before him, Zwingli was now prepared for his work. A vacancy occurred in the Cathedral-church of Zurich. The revival of letters had reached that city, and the magistrates cast their eyes around them for some one of greater accomplishments than the chapter could supply to fill the post. Their choice fell on the Chaplain of Einsiedeln. Zwingli brought to Zurich a soul enlightened by

Divine truth, a genius which solitude had nursed into ardor and sublimity, and a heart burning with indignation at the authors of his nation's ruin. He firmly resolved to use his eloquence, which was great, in rousing his countrymen to a sense of their degradation. He now stood at the center of the Republic, and his voice sounded in thrilling tones through all Switzerland. He proceeded step by step, taking care that his actual reforms did not outrun the stage of enlightenment his countrymen had reached. He shone equally as a pastor as a writer and as a disputant. He was alike at home in the council-chamber, in the public assembly, and in the hall of business. His activity was untiring. His clear penetrating intellect and capacious mind made toil light, and enabled him to accomplish the work of many men. The light spread around him, other Reformers arose. It was now as when morning opens in that same Swiss land: it is not Mont Blanc that stands up in solitary radiance; a dozen and a dozen peaks around him begin to burn, and soon not a summit far or near but is touched with glory, and not a valley, however profound, into which day does not pour the tide of its effulgence. So did the sky of Switzerland begin to kindle all round with the Protestant dawn. Towns and hamlets came out of the darkness – the long and deep darkness of monkery – and stood forth in the light. The great centers, Bern (1528), Basle (1529), Schaffhausen (1529), St. Call (1528), abandoned Rome and embraced the Gospel. Along the foot of the Jura, around the shores of the lakes, east and west of Northern Switzerland, from the gates of Geneva to the shores of Constance did the light spread. The altars on which mass had been offered were overturned; the idols burned like other wood; cowls, frocks, beads, and pardons were cast away as so much rubbish; the lighted candles were blown out and men turned to the living lamp of the Word. Its light led them to the cross whereon was offered, once for all, the sacrifice of the Eternal Priest.

We halted in our narrative at what might be termed the noon of the Zwinglian Reformation. We saw Protestantism fully established in Zurich, and partially in the cantons named above; but the man who had had the honor to begin the work was not to have the honor of completing it; his brilliant career was soon to close; already there were signs of tempest upon the summit of the Helvetian mountains; by-and-by the storm will burst and obscure for a time – not destroy the great work which the Reformer of Zurich had originated. The catastrophe which is but a little way before us must be our second stage in the Swiss Reformation.

The last time Zwingli came before us was at Marburg in 1529, where we find him maintaining against Luther the spirituality of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. Before resuming our narrative of events it becomes necessary to explain the position of Zwingli, with reference to the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and this requires us to consider the views on this head held by Luther and Calvin. It is possible clearly to perceive the precise doctrine of the Sacrament taught by any one of these great men only when we have compared the views of all three.

The Lord's Supper began early to be corrupted in the primitive Church. The simple memorial was changed into a mystery. That mystery became, century by century, more awful and inexplicable. It was made to stand apart from other ordinances and services of the Church, not only in respect of the greater reverence with which it was regarded, but as an institution in its own nature wholly distinct, and altogether peculiar in its mode of working. A secret virtue or potency was attributed to it, by which, apart from the faith of the recipient, it operated mysteriously upon the soul. It was no longer an ordinance, it was now a spell, a charm. The spirit of ancient paganism had crept back into it, and ejecting the Holy Spirit, which acts through it in the case of all who believe, it had filled it with a magical influence. The Lord's Supper was the institution nearest the cross, and the spirit of reviving error in seizing upon it was actuated doubtless by the consideration that the perversion of this institution was the readiest and most effectual way to shut up or poison the fountain of the world's salvation. The corruption went on till it issued, in 1215, in the dogma of transubstantiation. The bread and wine which were set upon the Communion tables of the first century became, by the fiat of Innocent III., flesh and blood on the altars of the thirteenth.

Despite that the dogma of transubstantiation is opposed to Scripture, contradicts reason, and outrages all our senses, there is about it, we are compelled to conclude, some extraordinary power to hold captive the mind. Luther, who razed to the ground every other part of the Romish system, left this one standing. He had not courage to cast it down; he continued to his life's end to believe in consubstantiation – that is, in the presence of the flesh and blood of Christ with, in, or under the bread and wine. He strove, no doubt, to purify his belief from the gross materialism of the Romish mass. He denied that the Lord's Supper was a sacrifice, or that the body of Christ in the elements was to be worshipped; but he maintained that the body was there, and was received by the communicant. The union of the Divinity with the humanity in Christ's person gave to His glorified body, he held, new and wholly unearthly qualities. It made it independent of space, it endowed it with ubiquity; and when Zwingli, at Marburg, argued in reply that

this was opposed to all the laws of matter, which necessitated a body to be in only one place at one time, Luther scouted the objection as being merely mathematical. The Reformer of Wittemberg did not seem to perceive that fatal consequences would result in other directions, from asserting such a change upon the body of Christ as he maintained to be wrought upon it in virtue of its union with the Divinity, for undoubtedly such a theory imperils the reality of the two great facts which are the foundations of the Christian system, the death and the resurrection of our Lord.

Nor was it Luther only who did homage to this dogma. A yet more powerful intellect, Calvin namely, was not able wholly to disenthrall himself from its influence, he believed, it is true, neither in transubstantiation nor in consubstantiation, but he hesitated to admit the thorough, pure spirituality of the Lord's Supper. He teaches that the communicant receives Christ, who is spiritually present, only by his faith; but he talks vaguely, withal, as if he conceived of an emanation or influence radiated from the glorified humanity now at the Right hand, entering into the soul of the believer, and implanting there the germ of a glorified humanity like to that of his risen Lord. In this scarcely intelligible idea there may be more than the lingering influence of the mysticism of bygone ages. We can trace in it a desire on the part of Calvin to approximate as nearly as possible the standpoint of the Lutherans, if so he might close the breach which divided and weakened the two great bodies of Protestants, and rally into one host all the forces of the Reformation in the face of a yet powerful Papacy.

Zwingli has more successfully extricated the spiritual from the mystical in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper than either Luther or Calvin. His sentiments were a recoil from the mysticism and absurdity which, from an early age, had been gathering round this Sacrament, and which had reached their height in the Popish doctrine of the mass.

Some have maintained that the recoil went too far, that Zwingli fell into the error of excessive simplicity, and that he reduced the ordinance of the Lord's Supper to a mere memorial or commemoration service. His earliest statements (1525) on the doctrine of the Sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, may be open to this objection; but not so his latter teachings (1530), we are disposed to think. He returned to the golden mean, avoiding both extremes – neither attributing to the Sacrament a mystical or magical efficacy, on the one hand, nor making it a bare and naked sign of a past event on the other.

In order to understand his views, and see their accordance with Scripture, we must attend a moment to the nature and design of the Lord's Supper as seen in its institution. The primary end and significance of the Lord's Supper is a commemoration: "Do this in remembrance of me." But the event commemorated is of such a kind, and our relation to it is of such a nature, that the commemoration of it necessarily implies more than mere remembrance. We are commemorating a "death" which was endured in our room, and is all expiation of our sin; we, therefore, cannot commemorate it to the end in view but in faith. We rest upon it as the ground of our eternal life; we thus receive his "flesh and blood" – that is, the spiritual blessings his death procured. Nay, more, by a public act we place ourselves in the ranks of his followers. We promise or vow allegiance to him. This much, and no more, is done on the human side.

We turn to the Divine side. What is signified and done here must also be modified and determined by the nature of the transaction. The bread and wine in the Eucharist, being the representatives of the body and blood of Christ, are the symbols of an eternal redemption. In placing these symbols before us, and inviting us to partake of them, God puts before us and offers unto us that redemption. We receive it by faith, and he applies it to us and works it in us by his Spirit. Thus the Supper becomes at once a sign and a seal. Like the "blood" on the door-post of the Israelite, it is a "token" between God and us, for from the Passover the Lord's Supper is historically descended, and the intent and efficacy of the former, infinitely heightened, live in the latter. This, in our view, exhausts, both on the Divine and on the human side, all which the principles of the Word of God warrant us to hold in reference to the Eucharist; and if we attempt to put more into it, that more, should we closely examine it, will be found to be not spiritual but magical.

Zwingli's grand maxim as a Reformer eminently was the authority of Holy Scripture. Luther rejected nothing in the worship of God unless it was condemned in the Bible: Zwingli admitted nothing unless it was enjoined. Following his maxim, Zwingli, forgetting all human glosses, Papal edicts, and the mysticism of the schools, came straight to the New Testament, directed his gaze steadfastly and exclusively upon its pages, and gathered from thence what the Lord's Supper really meant. He found that on the human side it was a "commemoration" and a "pledge," and on the Divine side a "sign" and "seal." Further, the instrumentality on the part of man by which he receives the blessing represented is faith; and the agency on the part of God, by which that blessing is conveyed and applied, is the Holy Spirit.

Such was the Lord's Supper as Ulric Zwingli found it in the original institution. He purged it from every vestige of mysticism and materialism; but he left its spiritual efficacy unimpaired and perfect.


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, July 21st, 2017
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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