“This Do in Remembrance of Me”: Huldrych Zwingli and the Lord’s Supper

Early Modern Switzerland

Switzerland: Cantons and Towns
Switzerland: Cantons and Towns1

Around the same time that Luther was carrying out intellectual reforms in the German universities, a similar reform gripped the Swiss confederation. Unlike the centralized government of the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland was composed of thirteen autonomous cantons loosely organized together. Heinze notes that “although they were able to cooperate in the face of a common enemy, such as their ancient adversary the Hapsburgs, the regions that made up the confederation had very little in common, not even a common language.”2

A democratic form of government enabled many of these cantons to enact civil reforms that reflected the ideals of the Reformation preachers. Because the area was politically independent, interventions by external authorities like the Roman Church were more difficult, costly, and ineffective than elsewhere. Geographical and political isolation, as much the result of a rugged high-altitude location as of other factors, was such a reality for the Swiss that many made fortunes supplying mercenary troops to the European states. Several important cities were governed by oligarchies. The cities were prosperous, and many of the clergy were corrupt.

Developing evangelical consciousness

Portrait of Ulrich Zwingli after his death (Asper 1531)
Portrait of Ulrich Zwingli after his death (Asper 1531) (from Wikimedia Commons)

Huldrych (or Ulrich) Zwingli (1484–1531) was born in Glarus (pronunciation ˈɡlaːrʊs) seven weeks after the birth of Luther. His family was prosperous, and he received a good humanistic education. He was destined for a lucrative position within the priesthood, and was ordained at the age of twenty-two. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1504 and his master’s in 1506, both from the University of Basel.3

He then served as a priest in Glarus for ten years. Here he immersed himself in the study of the classics, the church fathers, and Greek. When Erasmus published his critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516, Zwingli enthusiastically acquired a copy. Some say that he memorized Paul’s epistles in Greek. Over time, he became critical of abuse within the church and local policies. He became famous for criticizing the practice of sending young men as mercenary troops after serving as a chaplain in military campaigns in 1513 and 1516. Heinze notes that this “made him unpopular in Glarus because this was especially lucrative for the leading citizens of the town,” and that he then left for Einsiedeln (pronunciation ˈainziːdl̩n) in 1516 as a result.4

In Einsiedeln, he was appointed rector of the church and became a popular preacher. Here he began to preach like an evangelical, preaching the biblical gospel instead of emphasizing the prescribed order of the Mass. This did not please some in the community.

The Grossmünster in the centre of Zürich (Murerplan, 1576)
The Grossmünster in the centre of Zürich (Murerplan, 1576) (from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1518, Zwingli was appointed to the church of the Grossmünster in Zürich. As noted above, Zwingli’s preaching had already begun to show signs of evangelical conviction. Although he preached against indulgences, he was adamant that he did not get his convictions from Luther, claiming that he learned “the gospel of Christ” from Scripture alone:

Before anyone in this area had even heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516. … I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name. … Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy scripture alone.5

Here in Zürich, Zwingli’s preaching further broke with tradition as he preached directly and expositionally from the Greek. This was revolutionary, for even Luther “preferred to retain the traditional method of preaching from the set Gospel and Epistle lessons of the church calendar.”6 But Zwingli was committed to sola Scriptura, so he began to preach through the New Testament, starting in Matthew. Zwingli’s concept of sola Scriptura was a natural outgrowth of the humanistic method that appealed to original sources. He articulated this view in his 1522 sermon titled “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God”:

You must be theodidacti, that is, taught of God, not of men: that is what truth itself said [John 6:45], and it cannot lie. If you do not believe, and believe firmly, leaving the vanities of men and submitting yourselves solely to God’s teaching, you have no true faith.…

I know for certain that God teaches me, for I know this by experience. In order that you may not misrepresent my meaning, let me tell you how I know that God teaches me. In my youth I devoted myself as much to human learning as did others of my age. Then, some seven or eight years ago, I undertook to devoting myself entirely to the Scriptures, and the conflicting philosophy and theology of the schoolmen constantly presented difficulties. But eventually I came to a conclusion—led thereto by the Scriptures and the Word of God—and decided, “You must drop all that and learn God’s will directly from his own word.”7

Steps toward Reform

Grossmunster as it appears today
Grossmunster as it appears today (from Wikimedia Commons)

Like Luther and Calvin, Zwingli was a magisterial reformer who sought reform in the church by working within the existing political structures of the day. Some (like the Anabaptists) wanted to reform more quickly by operating outside of political structures, but by and large, the Protestant Reformation was largely carried out in close cooperation with civil magistrates. In 1522, Zwingli began to challenge Catholic traditions. He would eventually preach against transubstantiation, relics, saint worship, and papal power. Heavily dependent upon Swiss mercenary troops for foreign wars, the pope could do little to oppose Zwingli’s call for reform.

Zwingli’s first major challenge to Catholic tradition that year will at first seem relatively innocuous. One Friday night, during Lent, Zwingli joined his friend Christopher Froschauer for dinner. Froschauer, a printer and respected citizen, had invited friends and employees to this meal, and they enjoyed wonderful fellowship together over a dish of traditional Swiss sausages. By eating meat on a Friday, Froschauer and his associates intentionally violated the Lenten fast. Tradition avers that Zwingli himself abstained from eating, but his presence at this public gathering sent a strong message. To make his thoughts abundantly clear, Zwingli ascended the Grossmünster pulpit on Sunday, March 23, 1522 and preached a sermon entitled, “On the Choice and Freedom of Foods” where he condoned Froschauer’s act and called the people of Zürich to pursue a life of constant holiness rather than mere observance of traditions.8 In the sermon, he said:

To sum up briefly: if you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice. If you are a person of leisure, you should fast often and abstain from food that excites you; the worker moderates his desires by hoeing and plowing in the field. You say, “but the idlers will eat meat without needing to.” The answer is that these very same people fill themselves with even richer foods, which enflame them even more than the highly seasoned highly spiced meats.

If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbor the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded. … You should neither scorn nor approve anyone for any reason connected with food or with feast days whether observed or not (an exception is always to be made about Sunday until after hearing the Word of God and partaking of the Lord’s Supper). Take no notice of feasting on the Sabbath or at new moon, for these are now only symbols of Christian celebrations, freeing men from their sins and keeping them so.

Further, we should not let ourselves be concerned about such “works” but be saved by the grace of God only. With the coming of Christ shadows and forebodings have assuredly passed away.

Here is another sign of the times. I think that there is danger of this age being evil and corrupt rather than reaching out toward everlasting righteousness. Further, simple people think everything is all right if they go to confession in Lent only, observe the fast, take Communion and thus account for the whole year. God should, however, be acknowledged at all times, and our life should be one of piety, whereas we act to the contrary when we think that it is quite enough if we pay attention only to the times of fasting whereas Christ says, “Be vigilant: for you know not the day or the hour” (Matt. 25:13).9

At this point, Zwingli had now clearly crossed a line. Stepping out in support of his friend Froschauer, Zwingli argued that the true significance of the Lenten fast had nothing to do with meat, and everything to do with the life of holiness and repentance. In language that echoed the apostle Paul, Zwingli clearly transferred the Lenten meat fasts into the category of adiaphora, or “things of indifference” over which faithful Christians may conscientiously disagree. By doing so, he challenged centuries of received tradition. In challenging tradition, Zwingli again emphasized his growing conviction of the centrality of the authority of the Bible over the teachings of bishops and councils.

Although this challenge demanded a response, the Church had only limited recourse in Swiss Zürich. The city fell under the ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of Constance, who sent a delegation to the Zürich council on April 7 in protest. When the council called Froschauer in for examination, Froschauer appealed directly to Zwingli’s preaching. He defended his actions in terms of biblical teaching, and insisted that the city council was responsible to protect citizens when the church stepped beyond the clear teaching of Scripture. Heinze reports that Froschauer argued that since to eat meat was “not contrary” to the Bible, it was thus the council’s responsibility to “protect our godly rights.” Then Froschauer took a step further, arguing that not only was Zwingli right on the issue of adiaphora, but that he was too valuable to the city to lose in a conflict with the church. He said, “God has given Zürich a better preacher than can be found in all of Germany.”10

Zwingli reading Scripture with his wife Anna
Zwingli reading Scripture with his wife Anna11

A few months later in July, Zwingli and others wrote to the Bishop of Constance requesting official approval for clerical marriages. Although priestly celibacy had been a teaching of the church for centuries, it was widely disregarded at the time in Zürich and elsewhere in Europe. It was well known that many priests would live in common with a woman and raise a family, and the church could do very little to stop it. In official response, most bishops levied fines upon priests who had illegitimate children—which allowed the church to remain officially opposed to clerical marriage although it could not eliminate the practice altogether. Zwingli himself would secretly marry Anna Reinhard sometime during this year, but it would be two years until they publicly celebrated their marriage in an official wedding ceremony in April of 1524.12

The significance of this issue for the Zürich reform has much less to do with the practical ramifications for priests and their marriages, and much more to do with what Zwingli saw to be another place where church tradition ignored the clear meaning of Scripture. In Zwingli’s letter to the Bishop of Constance, he employs a primarily biblical argument which he then supplements with an appeal to the pragmatic realities of the situation. He points us to Matthew 19:10–12. In this context, the disciples suggest that “if the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” (NASB) Jesus responds in vv. 11–12 with these words:

“Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Matthew 19:11–12 [NASB])

In Zwingli’s letter, he begins by pointing to the inconsistent practice of the church’s priests with regards to marriage. Noting that “it was easy enough to give orders, but it was not possible to ensure that the orders could be carried out,”13 he then carries on to argue that the church’s inability to enforce this restraint reflects God’s design:

For God would not entrust this measure of authority to any human being since a gift which is from God and the angels should not come from the hand of man but from God himself. This is plainly shown by Christ’s own words [Matt. 19:10-12]. … Chastity is a gift from God bestowed upon a few who clearly recognize it. … Christ left everyone free to remain single or not with the words “let those accept it who can.” …

If in no circumstances can you agree to the principle of [clerical] marriage, we beg of you at least not to oppose it. Another beside ourselves has called for it [i.e., Christ]. For we believe you to be strong enough not to be afraid of doing a good deed without regard to those who can slay the body. Indeed there is really no need for you to interfere. For there is a report that most of the clergy have already chosen wives, not only here in Switzerland but among all peoples everywhere. So to settle this affair peacefully is not only beyond your power but even beyond that of those with greater authority than you have.14

Needless to say, the bishop did not agree, and Zwingli continued to find himself at odds with church tradition. By appealing to scripture rather than tradition, Zwingli underscored his commitment to the authority of the Bible. This led him to continue to preach against traditional practices such as “intercession to saints, indulgences, pilgrimages, and veneration of the Virgin Mary.”15

Zwingli resigned his position as priest in 1522, and was subsequently reauthorized to preach by city council. Additionally, the council ordered that all preaching in the city be based upon the Bible. Heinze explains that this indicated a significant shift, since his original authorization derived from the Bishop of Constance.16 In 1523, controversy reached a high point. In Zürich, the council called for a disputation. Zwingli was to debate with Johann Faber, who was responsible to represent the position of the Catholic church. Zwingli drew up his Sixty-seven Theses for the purpose of this disputation. During the debate, it is said that Faber was very quiet, and when Zwingli was finished the council voted to become Protestant. The council abandoned clerical celibacy, monasticism, purgatory, and all the things Zwingli opposed. This initiated a movement within Switzerland as the nearby cities of Bern and later Basel rejected Roman Catholicism.

One interesting, and unfortunate, episode occurs in 1525. This is when the Anabaptist movement began in the city of Zürich. Everything had been going smoothly for Zwingli until the Anabaptists appeared and called for an entire separation of church and state and a simple model of church worship. Zwingli disagreed with the Anabaptist insistence that the church needed to return to a first-century norm. The Anabaptists complained of the numbers of unregenerate people in the church as a result of infant baptism. During this time, Zwingli almost accepted believer’s baptism, and did change to a memorial view of the sacraments. However, Zwingli realized that the logical implications of believer’s baptism removed moral authority from the church over the people. If Zwingli had given up infant baptism, he would lose spiritual control over the people. Ultimately, Zwingli and the Zürich council rejected the Anabaptists, many of whom were violently executed by the civil authorities, sometimes by forced drowning, for their beliefs.

Zwingli and Luther on the Sacraments

Marburg Castle
Marburg Castle (from Wikimedia Commons)

The reform in Zürich grew in strength and notoriety over the course of Zwingli’s life. As Zwingli’s fame spread, it was only a matter of time before his work came to the attention of his contemporary, Martin Luther. For reasons which will be explained shortly, it became necessary for the two theologians to meet together to discuss theology so that they could present a united theological position.

This meeting took place on October 1–4, 1529. Zwingli and Luther met in the town of Marburg, and so this meeting has been called the “Colloquy of Marburg.” Their purpose was to discuss their differences and attempt a resolution. Before we discuss the proceedings of the Colloquy, however, we need to step back and trace the development of an important doctrine in Luther and Zwingli’s thought. The issue at hand was the presence or absence of Christ in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which was a very real issue for the Reformers against the backdrop of Roman Catholic theology.

Background to Marburg

Centuries of medieval Catholic theology had evolved into an entire system known as sacramental theology. The term sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means “something which is consecrated.”17 As we have discussed, there were seven sacraments in the medieval church, including baptism, the Eucharist (or Communion), penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction (or last rites).18 These seven sacraments were understood as divinely instituted means by which God’s grace was communicated, or extended, to the worshiper. One important medieval theologian, Duns Scotus, defined “sacrament” as “a physical sign, instituted by God, which efficaciously signifies the grace of God, or the gracious action of God.”19 In that definition, the key word is that these physical signs efficaciously (or effectively) signify God’s gracious acts. In other words, the sign itself was understood to in some way administer grace to the sinner.

Medieval Doctrine of Justification Medieval Doctrine of Justification (from Reform and Conflict20)

The Reformers rejected this idea that the sacraments actually administered additional grace to the penitent sinner. One of the ways that they practically taught this distinction was by eliminating many of the sacraments from the church’s practice. In the opening of his 1520 Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther provisionally settled on only three of the seven: baptism, Lord’s supper, and penance. However, towards the end of the work, Luther’s position changed. By the end of the work, Luther had come to view the sacrament as primarily a visible sign, which he captured with the phrase “promises with signs attached.”21 This idea would later be picked up by John Calvin, who would explain the sacraments as “divine accommodation to human weakness.”22 This concept of promise and sign naturally eliminated penance, which Luther signaled in this quote towards the end of the work:

Yet it has seemed right to restrict the name of sacrament to those promises of God which have signs attached to them. The remainder, not being connected to signs, are merely promises. Hence, strictly speaking, there are only two sacraments in the church of God—baptism and the bread. For only in these two do we find the divinely instituted sign and the promise of the forgiveness of sins.23

Eventually, the Reformers would agree to retain only two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Naturally, this understanding of the sacrament put Luther in conflict with Catholic teaching and practice. Luther considered objectionable three aspects of contemporary church practice with regard to the Eucharist:

  1. The practice of “communion in one kind,” or the removal of the cup from the laity. Luther argued that this ruined the symbolism intended in Scripture.
  2. The doctrine of transubstantiation, which we will discuss in a moment, “seemed to Luther to be an absurdity, an attempt to rationalize a mystery.”24
  3. “The idea that the priest made an offering or performed a good work or sacrifice on behalf of the people was equally unscriptural.”25

These complaints reflected Luther’s concern that the church had inadvertently made the efficacy of the sacraments dependent on the faithfulness of the priest who administered the sacrament. Although official church doctrine had taught that the holiness of the priest was irrelevant to the efficacy of the sacrament, these restrictive practices implied that one really could not access the divine promise of forgiveness without the proper administration of the sacrament through the Roman church.

Intrinsic to Catholic sacramentalism was the belief that the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist) literally became the body and blood of Christ when the priest uttered the appropriate words during Mass. This was possible in medieval theology because of a distinction which theologians drew from the philosophical writings of Aristotle. In explaining reality, Aristotle distinguished between what he called an item’s substance and its corresponding accidents. The substance of a thing referred to its actual qualities of existence or reality, while the accidents of a thing referred to its features which can be observed through our natural senses. McGrath summarizes this contrast by saying that “according to Aristotle, the substance of something is its essential nature, whereas its accidents are its outward appearances (for example, its color, shape, smell, and so forth).”26 Medieval theologians employed this distinction in the Lord’s Supper by saying that while the accidents of the bread and wine remained unchanged, the substance of those elements was transformed in the Eucharist into Christ’s body and blood. As a result, one could say that the bread and wine became the Lord’s actual body and blood when the priest uttered the words of Matthew 26:26, “hoc est corpus meum (this is my body),” during the Mass. (Some even say that the phrase “hocus pocus” is perhaps a Protestant mockery of the phrase hoc est corpus, and there is at least some evidence of this usage in published writings.) The actual way in which this transformation was said to take place had been a matter of considerable theological debate during the medieval period.27 However one explained the technicalities, the end result—the transformation of substance—had been the settled conviction of the church since the Fourth Lateran Council held in 1215 under Pope Innocent III. This council had decided that “[Christ’s] body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine.” By way of explanation, the council stated that “the bread is transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by the power of God, so we may receive from him what he has received from us.”28 Thus this resulting transformation of substance became known as the transubstantiation of the Eucharistic elements. Later, the writings of Thomas Acquinas (1225–1274) solidified the use of the Aristotelian language of substance and accidents that we find in use by the time of Luther and Zwingli.29

Luther sought to refocus on the significance of Communion by rejecting these distracting Aristotelian distinctions which he called a “pseudo-philosophy.”30 Despite his desire to avoid confusing philosophical terms, his view on Christ’s presence in the elements is somewhat difficult to distinguish from the transubstantiation view itself. This is because Luther did not object to the idea that Christ was really present in the communion elements—he simply objected to the way in which that idea was expressed.31 McGrath explains that “for Luther, God is not merely behind the sacraments: he is in them as well.”32 Luther continued to literally interpret the phrase “hoc est corpus meum (this is my body)” in Matthew 26:26. He insisted that the main point was that Christ was truly present, and he was concerned that the Catholic church was distracted from that reality by its concern to defend the doctrine of transubstantiation as a way of explaining that text. In place of the “pseudo-philosophy” of Acquinas and Aristotle’s language of substance and accidents, Luther preferred simple analogies that he felt captured the truth of the real presence. For example, he argued that a glowing iron poker which has been removed from a fire contains both iron and heat in a real way. And for Luther, imagery like that sufficiently explained the real presence without getting bogged down in philosophical speculation.33 For Luther, it was enough to say that “the body of Christ is present ‘in, with (con), and under’ the substance of the bread.”34 This view eventually came to be called the consubstantiation view because of its emphasis on the word “with (con).” We find a later development of this view in the Lutheran Formula of Concord, as follows:

“We maintain and believe, according to the simple words of the testament of Christ, the true, yet supernatural eating of the body of Christ, as also the drinking of His blood, which human senses and reason do not comprehend.”35

Zwingli, on the other hand, sought to entirely revise the understanding of the Lord’s Supper, arguing instead that the elements of the Supper were merely symbolic of Christ’s real body and blood. Known as the “memorial view,” Zwingli’s position is easier to understand for us today because it is much closer to our own view as Baptists. Zwingli’s approach was based upon three counter-arguments to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation:

  1. He observed (as had Augustine before him) that “Christ’s body is located at the right hand of God the Father” and therefore “the eucharistic elements cannot be transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.”36
  2. He argued that if a sacrament is a sign, it is necessarily distinct from the thing signified. As a result, he wrote that “the sacrament of the body of Christ cannot be the body itself.”37
  3. He argued that the correct interpretation of the words of institution (“hoc est corpus meum (this is my body)”) could be found in the words of Christ himself, who said in John 6:63 that “the flesh profits nothing.” Thus it was impossible to interpret Matthew 26:26 to mean that the bread and wine literally “is” the body and blood of Christ, and instead that we should take this as a figurative reference where the term “is” means “signifies”–“this signifies my body.” (Yes, this does mean that Luther and Zwingli here disagreed over the meaning of the word “is.”) This made sense, Zwingli argued, because in the parallel passage in Luke, Christ immediately adds “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).38

As a further jab to Luther, Zwingli argued that taking Matthew 26:26 literally would simply prove transubstantiation correct anyway.39 He wrote:

It has already become clear enough that in this context the word “is” cannot be taken literally. Hence it follows that it must be taken metaphorically or figuratively. In the words: “This is my body,” the word “this” means the bread, and the word “body” means the body that is put to death for us. Therefore, the word “is” cannot be taken literally, for the bread is not the body and cannot be.… Necessarily, then, it must be taken figuratively or metaphorically; “This is my body,” means, “The bread signifies my body,” or “is a figure of my body.”40

Marburg Colloquy

Luther and Zwingli debate one another
Luther and Zwingli debate one another (from Wikimedia Commons)

When Luther and Zwingli finally met in 1529 at Marburg to debate, the two had already been engaged in a fierce pamphlet war with plenty of name-calling on both sides. Heinze concisely summarizes the lead-up to the debate as follows:

In 1525 Zwingli stated his theological position in a work entitled On True and False Religion. On the question of whether Christ’s body and blood are truly received in the Eucharist, he cited John 6:63 and attacked the position held by Luther as being “opposed by all sense and reason and understanding and by faith itself.” Luther responded with a publication whose title, That These Words of Christ “This Is My Body” Still Stand Firm against the Fanatic, suggested that it was not intended to be a friendly dialogue. Zwingli answered in a treatise that was meant to be moderate and irenic. It was even entitled, Friendly Exposition of the Eucharist Affair to—Not against—Martin Luther. Although the tone was moderate, the overall message was that Luther was wrong and should admit his mistake and humbly submit to Zwingli’s view. Luther clearly did not consider it a “friendly exposition,” stating that the work was “full of pride, accusations, stubbornness, hate and almost every wickedness, even though couched in the best words.” In Luther’s response, entitled That These Words of Christ “This is my Body” etc. Still Stand Firm against the Fanatic, he accused his opponent of being in league with the devil for persisting in a teaching that was blasphemous and threatening to salvation. Zwingli responded in June 1527 by accusing Luther of being a papist, claiming his “formulations came from a brothel.” Luther reached a high point of invective in his reply, which warned that Zwingli’s books were “the prince of hell’s poison. For the man is completely perverted and has entirely lost Christ.” Zwingli struck the final blow in the battle of publications by accusing Luther of dealing with theology like “a sow in a flower garden.”41

As one might expect, the debate itself was at times heated as well. Luther and his colleagues insisted on a literal interpretation of the phrase “this is my body” while Zwingli and his supporters argued with equal force for their understanding of John 6:63. At one point after Zwingli suggested that Luther could not base his argument upon Scripture, Luther reportedly yanked a tablecloth off a table to reveal the words hoc est corpus meum, which he had previously written on the table using chalk and began to shout, “‘This is my body!’ Here is our Scripture passage. You have not yet taken it from us, as you set out to do, we need no other. My dearest lords, since the words of my Lord Jesus Christ stand there Hoc est corpus meum, I cannot truthfully pass over them, but must confess and believe that the body of Christ is there.”42

In the end, Luther and Zwingli issued a joint statement that outlined fourteen theological points on which they could agree. However, they could not agree on the final point regarding the presence or absence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Regarding that point, they wrote:

Although we are not at this time agreed, as to whether the true Body and Blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless the one party should show to the other Christian love, so far as conscience can permit, and both should fervently pray God Almighty, that, by His Spirit, He would confirm us in the true understanding.43

Unfortunately, the two never did come to agreement on the issue, and they both also soon forgot their joint commitment to charitable disagreement. After Marburg, the Zwinglian and Lutheran Reformations developed as separate theological streams. As a result of this theological disunity, the two movements remained politically divided as well in the face of the growing Catholic political threats.

Zwingli’s death

Zwingli’s remarkable influence in Zürich led to an increasingly successful reform movement in the Swiss cantons. But the largely autonomous nature of the Swiss cantons meant that reform spread inconsistently, with the result that the various cantons either affiliated with the Roman Catholic church or with the evangelical preachers that rose to prominence in places like Bern, Basel, and Zürich. Eventually, this led to armed conflicts called the “wars of Kappel” (Kappelerkriege) fought between the Protestant and Catholic cantons. The first of these in 1529, but it was largely a standoff, with little change of religion or fighting.

The Second War of Kappel occurred in 1531. Zwingli served as chaplain, marching with nearly 7,000 troops into battle on October 11, 1531. He believed this to be a just war because the Protestant cantons had a right to defend themselves against Catholic encroachment, and so he willingly took up the sword and joined the Zürich forces on the field of battle.

The Protestant forces lost, and Zwingli himself tragically died with sword in hand. Our knowledge of his death comes from two sources, which each reflect the partisan biases of its author. Despite these alternating perspectives, there appears to be some consistency regarding the basic facts of his death.

It appears that he had been seriously wounded, and was found after the battle by Catholic soldiers looting bodies on the field. Not recognizing the fallen leader of the Zürich reformation, the first soldier who found him asked him if he wished to confess his sins. When he shook his head in refusal, another soldier fatally struck Zwingli with a broadsword. It was not until others arrived that his body was identified, and then burned the next day with much fanfare and abuse.44

Conclusion

It is truly unfortunate that such a gifted expositor and theologian would die by the sword. It is further ironic that this same preacher had once before preached against Swiss mercenaries. We can only wonder what else he might have accomplished had he lived beyond 47 years of age.

Nevertheless, what this man did give us remains remarkable. His commitment to the authority of the Bible serves as a stark contrast to the encroachments of tradition so prevalent in his day. In retrospect, his memorial view of the Lord’s Supper seems to be correct. As we today continue in this practice as the Lord commanded, let us never forget that when we do so we are not participating in a magical reincarnation of the Son of God, but a solemn memorial of the finished Cross-work in which we anticipate the full privileges of the New Covenant blessings for the people of God.


  1. R. Tudur Jones, The Great Reformation: A Wide-Ranging Survey of the Beginnings of Protestantism (Bridgend: Gwasg Bryntirion, 1997), 48.

  2. Rudolph W. Heinze, Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion (AD 1350-1648), ed. John D. Woodbridge et al., The Baker History of the Church 4 (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2004), 121.

  3. ibid., , 122.

  4. ibid., , 122.

  5. Zwingli quoted in ibid., , 123.

  6. ibid., , 123.

  7. Zwingli quoted in Denis R. Janz, A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts With Introductions, Second Edition, 2nd Revised edition edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 188–189.

  8. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 124. See also Stephen J. Nichols, “Sausage Supper,” 5 Minutes in Church History, January 2014, accessed October 5, 2016, http://5minutesinchurchhistory.com/sausage-supper/

  9. Zwingli, Of Freedom of Choice in the Selection of Food (16 April 1522) from Janz, A Reformation Reader, 186–187.

  10. Froschauer quoted in Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 124.

  11. James I. Good, “Anna Reinhard The Wife of Zwingli,” Leben – A Journal of Reformation Life 1, no. 1 (2005), accessed September 22, 2016, http://www.leben.us/volume-1-volume-1-issue-1/114

  12. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 124. For more on Anna Reinhard and her marriage to Zwingli, see Good, “Leben.”.

  13. Zwingli’s Petition to the Bishop of Constance (2 July 1522) in Janz, A Reformation Reader, 187.

  14. ibid., , 187–188.

  15. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 124.

  16. ibid., , 124–125.

  17. Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4 edition. (Malden, MA ; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 163.

  18. ibid., , 164.

  19. ibid., , 163.

  20. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 35.

  21. McGrath, Reformation Thought, 166.

  22. ibid., , 165.

  23. Luther quoted in ibid., , 168.

  24. ibid., , 170.

  25. ibid.,

  26. ibid., , 172.

  27. For a helpful summary, see Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2011), 641–646.

  28. Fourth Lateran Council, canon 1, quoted in ibid., , 644.

  29. ibid., , 644–645.

  30. McGrath, Reformation Thought, 172.

  31. ibid., , 172.

  32. ibid.,

  33. ibid., , 170.

  34. Allison, Historical Theology, 649.

  35. Formula of Concord quoted in ibid., , 649–650.

  36. ibid., , 650.

  37. Zwingli quoted in ibid., .

  38. ibid., , 651.

  39. ibid., .

  40. Zwingli quoted in ibid.,

  41. Heinze, Reform and Conflict, 128.

  42. Luther quoted in ibid., , 129.

  43. ibid., .

  44. For the contemporary accounts of Zwingli’s death by Salat (Catholic) and Bullinger (Protestant), see Janz, A Reformation Reader, 198–199.