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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 8 — History of Protestantism in Switzerland From A.D. 1516 to Its Establishment at Zurich, 1525

Chapter 6 — Zwingli in presence of the Bible

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Zwingli's profound Submission to Scripture – The Bible his First Authority – This a Wider Principle than Luther's – His Second Canon – The Spirit the Great Interpreter – His use of the Fathers – Light – The Swiss Reform presents a New Type of Protestantism – German Protestantism Dogmatic – Swiss Protestantism Normal – Duality in the False Religion of Christendom – Met by the Duality of Protestantism – Place of Reason and of Scripture.

THE point in which Zwingli is greatest, and in which he is second to none among the Reformers, is this, even his profound deference to the Word of God. There had appeared no one since our own Wicliffe who had so profoundly submitted himself to its teaching. When he came to the Bible, he came to it as a Revelation from God, in the full consciousness of all that such an admission implies, and prepared to follow it out to all its practical consequences. He accepted the Bible as a first authority, an infallible rule, in contradistinction to the Church or tradition, on the one hand, and to subjectivism or spiritualism on the other. This was the great and distinguishing principle of Zwingli, and of the Reformation which he founded–THE SOLE AND INFALLIBLE AUTHORITY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE. It is a prior and deeper principle than that of Luther. It is before it in logical sequence, and it is more comprehensive in its range; for even Luther's article of a standing or a falling Church, "justification by faith alone," must itself be tried by Zwingli's principle, and must stand or fall according as it agrees therewith. Is the free justification of sinners part of God's Revelation? That question we must first decide, before admitting the doctrine itself. The sole infallible authority of the Bible is therefore the first of all theological principles, being the basis on which all the others stand.

This was Zwingli's first canon: what was his second? Having adopted a Divine rule, he adopted also a Divine Interpreter. He felt that it would be of but little use that God should speak if man were authoritatively to interpret. He believed in the Bible's self-evidencing power, that its true meaning was to be known by its own light. He used every help to ascertain its sense fully and correctly: he studied the languages in which it was originally given; he read the commentaries of learned and pious men; but he did not admit that any man, or body of men, had a peculiar and exclusive power of perceiving the sense of Scripture, and of authoritatively declaring it. The Spirit who inspired it would, he asserted, reveal it to every earnest and prayerful reader of it.

This was the starting-point of Ulric Zwingli. "The Scriptures," said he, "come from God, not from man, and even that God who enlightens will give thee to understand that the speech comes from God. The Word of God. .. cannot fail; it is bright, it teaches itself, it discloses itself, it illumines the soul with all salvation and grace, comforts it in God, humbles it, so that it loses and even forfeits itself, and embraces God in itself." [1]

These effects of the Bible, Zwingli had himself experienced in his own soul. He had been an enthusiastic student of the wisdom of the ancients: he had pored over the pages of the scholastic divines; but not till he came to the Holy Scriptures, did he find a knowledge that could solve his doubts and stay his heart. "When seven or eight years ago," we find him writing in 1522, "I began to give myself wholly up to the Holy Scriptures, philosophy and theology (scholastic) would always keep suggesting quarrels to me. At last I came to this, that I thought, 'Thou must let all that lie, and learn the meaning of God purely out of his own simple Word.' Then I began to ask God for his light, and the Scriptures began to be much easier to me, although I am but lazy." [2]

Thus was Zwingli taught of the Bible. The ancient doctors and Fathers of the Church he did not despise, although he had not yet begun to study them. Of Luther he had not even heard the name. Calvin was then a boy about to enter school. From neither Wittemberg nor Geneva could it be said that the light shone upon the pastor of Glarus, for these cities themselves were still covered with the night. The day broke upon him direct from heaven. It shone in no sudden burst; it opened in a gradual dawn; it continued from one studious year to another to grow. At last it attained its noon; and then no one of the great minds of the sixteenth century excelled the Reformer of Switzerland in the simplicity, harmony, and clearness of his knowledge. [3]

In Ulric Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation we are presented with a new type of Protestantism–a type different from that which we have already seen at Wittemberg. The Reformation was one in all the countries to which it extended; it was one in what it accepted, as well as in what it rejected; but it had, as its dominating and molding principle, one doctrine in Germany, another in Switzerland, and hence it came to pass that its outward type or aspect was two-fold. We may say it was dogmatic in the one country, normal in the other.

This duality was rendered inevitable by the state of the world. In the Christendom of that day there were two great currents of thought–there was the superstitious or self-righteous current, and there was the scholastic or rationalistic current. Thus the error which the Reformation sought to withstand wore a two-fold type, though at bottom one, for the superstitious element is as really human as the rationalistic. Both had been elaborated into a scheme by which man might save himself. On the side of self-righteousness man was

presented with a system of meritorious services, penances, payments, and indulgences by which he might atone for sin, and earn Paradise. On the scholastic side he was presented with a system of rules and laws, by which he might discover all truth, become spiritually illuminated, and make himself worthy of the Divine favor. These were the two great streams into which the mighty flood of human corruption had parted itself.

Luther began his Reformation in the way of declaring war against the self-righteous principle: Zwingli, on the other hand, began his by throwing down the gage of battle to the scholastic divinity.

Luther's hygemonic or dominating principle was justification by faith alone, by which he overthrew the monkish fabric of human merit. Zwingli's dominating principle was the sole authority of the Word of God, by which he dethroned reason from the supremacy which the schoolmen had assigned her, and brought back the understanding and the conscience to Divine revelation. This appears to us the grand distinction between the German and the Swiss Reformation. It is a distinction not in substance or in nature, but in form, and grew out of the state of opinion in Christendom at the time, and the circumstance that the prevailing superstition took the monkish form mainly, though not exclusively, in the one half of Europe, and the scholastic form in the other. The type impressed on each–on the German and on the Swiss Reformation–at this initial stage, each has continued to wear more or less all along.

Nor did Zwingli think that he was dishonoring reason by assigning it its true place and office as respects revelation. If we accept a revelation at all, reason says we must accept it wholly. To say that we shall accept the Bible's help only where we do not need its guidance; that we shall listen to its teachings in those things that we already know, or might have known, had we been at pains to search them out; but that it must be silent on all those mysteries which our reason has not and could not have revealed to us, and which, now that they are revealed, reason cannot fully explain – to act thus is to make reason despicable under pretense of honoring it. For surely it is not reasonable to suppose that God would have made a special communication to us, if he had had nothing to disclose save what we already knew, or might have known by the exercise of the faculties he has given us. Reason bids us expect, in a Divine revelation, announcements not indeed contradictory to reason, but above reason; and if we reject the Bible because it contains such announcements, or reject those portions of it in which these announcements are put forth, we act irrationally. We put dishonor upon our reason. We make that a proof of the Bible's falsehood which is one of the strongest proofs of its truth. The Bible the first authority, was the fundamental principle of Zwingli's Reformation.

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