Bruce Gordon. Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet. New Haven: Yale, 2021. xxii + 349 pp, $32.50.

The contemporary of Martin Luther and predecessor of Jean Calvin within the Reformed family of churches, Ulrich Zwingli is sometimes described as “the third reformer.” Reflecting the Swiss reformer’s supposedly lesser status, there are few English-language studies of Zwingli’s life and theology, and most of those that exist are either outdated or aimed narrowly at a scholarly audience. The new biography of Zwingli by the Yale church historian Bruce Gordon rectifies this imbalance, drawing on existing scholarship to introduce the Zurich reformer to a broader public. Gordon follows in the footsteps of his predecessor at Yale, Roland Bainton, whose 1950 biography of Luther, Here I Stand, set the standard for learned popular biographies two generations ago. Gordon’s biography of Zwingli can also be seen as the pendant to his biography of Calvin, published in 2009 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of that reformer’s birth.

Gordon’s biography of Zwingli opens with an epigram from Machiavelli that inspired the book’s subtitle, “God’s armed prophet.” According to Machiavelli, “all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed.” The unarmed prophet to whom Machiavelli referred was the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, whose efforts to reform Florence’s religious and political life ended with his execution in 1498. Zwingli, too, saw himself as a prophet called to spread the gospel and promote the creation of a God-pleasing society, but unlike Savonarola he did not shy away from advocating the use of force to achieve those goals. The irony, however, was that, at the personal level, he was no more successful than Savonarola, for in 1531 he was killed in a war between Zurich and the Catholic states of the Swiss Confederation. Zwingli’s self-understanding as a prophet who was ultimately willing to use violence to carry out God’s will is a central theme of Gordon’s biography.

According to Gordon, an essential part of Zwingli’s sense of calling as a prophet was his Swiss identity. The two most important influences on his early development, Swiss patriotism and humanism, were closely connected in his idealized view of the free Swiss people whose virtue was corrupted by the recruitment of mercenaries for financial gain. In this respect, he shared the pacifism promoted by the Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. By 1515 Zwingli had also wholeheartedly embraced Erasmus’s vision of a reformed Christian society built on the twin foundation of pagan and Christian antiquity. Zwingli assiduously studied Erasmus’s edition of the Greek New Testament as well as both patristic and scholastic works while serving as a parish priest, first in Glarus and then in Einsiedeln.

The event that enabled Zwingli’s subsequent prominence was his election as pastor of the Grossmünster, the most important church in Zurich, at the end of 1518. In the crucial period between the publication of Luther’s 95 theses at the end of 1517 and the bull threatening the Wittenberg friar with excommunication in the summer of 1520, Zwingli became an ardent advocate of the reforms to religious praxis advocated by both Luther and Erasmus. A close brush with death from the plague in the fall of 1519 seems to have strengthened Zwingli’s Christocentric piety and his willingness to challenge those in authority. By the spring of 1522, he was defending those who broke the Lenten fast and petitioning the bishop to allow clergy to marry. Rumors of Zwingli’s sexual incontinence had almost derailed his appointment to the Zurich position, and at the beginning of 1522 he secretly married the widow Anna Reinhart. His actions reflect an approach to religious reform that moved from mere criticism to more positive actions. This was more than Erasmus could accept, and the Dutch humanist broke his ties with Zwingli in the spring of 1523.

The following two years were the most crucial of Zwingli’s career. At a public disputation with representatives of the bishop of Constance in January 1523, Zwingli defended his teachings as based on the Word of God, with the support of Zurich’s ruling council. A number of practical reforms were introduced over the course of 1524, from the removal of images from the churches to the closure of monasteries and convents. In the spring of 1525, the Mass was abolished and replaced with a new liturgy for celebrating the Lord’s Supper that emphasized the remembrance of Christ’s death and the gathered congregation as Christ’s body. At the same time, some of Zwingli’s earliest supporters broke with him over the issue of infant baptism. Zwingli defended that practice, and he approved the execution of those who rejected the baptism of infants as required by the city’s government. To promote the correct interpretation of Scripture, he and his colleagues introduced the Prophezei, the daily public study of Scripture in its original languages followed by a sermon in the vernacular that applied its teachings to the hearers. These sessions would be the foundation for the translation of the Bible into Swiss dialect, published in 1531.

As part of his description of Zwingli’s reforms, Gordon addresses the vexed question of Luther’s influence on Zwingli. Zwingli’s own assertion — that he came to an understanding of the Gospel independently of Luther — was made at the height of the conflict between the two men over the Lord’s Supper. As Gordon acknowledges, the judgment of past historians on this issue often reflected their own priorities, with German Lutherans arguing for Luther’s influence and Swiss Reformed upholding Zwingli’s theological independence. Gordon avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of earlier scholarship by pointing out that Zwingli first read and understood Luther through an Erasmian lens, and throughout the biography he points to Erasmus’s influence on the Zurich reformer. Regarding the specific issue of the Lord’s Supper, Gordon highlights the differences between Zwingli and Luther in their interpretation of the Bible and their vision of the Christian community. He suggests another difference between the two reformers when he describes Zwingli’s fundamental theological conviction that God the Creator was goodness itself, providentially directing all things. While Luther would certainly not disagree about God’s goodness, Zwingli’s confidence is a far cry from Luther’s concern with finding a gracious God who would not condemn sinful human beings. One senses the influence of Plato and later Neoplatonic writers on Zwingli’s theology, although Gordon does not discuss this explicitly and mentions only in passing Zwingli’s love of Plato.

In fact, Gordon devotes relatively little space to Zwingli’s theology, with the important exception of a chapter on Zwingli’s 1525 treatise True and False Religion, dedicated to the king of France. In contrast to many of Zwingli’s other works, which were more limited in scope and more polemical in intent, True and False Religion was a broad presentation of evangelical teachings that described genuine Christian piety directed towards God as revealed in Christ and exercised through faith given by the Holy Spirit. Other themes important to Zwingli are addressed throughout the book: the freedom of the Christian’s conscience from man-made laws, an understanding of God’s relationship with humans in terms of an eternal covenant, and a vision of the church as a visible sacred community that contained both believers and unbelievers. As a biographer, however, Gordon is more concerned with helping his readers understand Zwingli’s life than with overloading them with dense theological details.

His task becomes most challenging when describing Zwingli’s final years, when the reformer’s desire to spread the gospel to surrounding areas ran into strong opposition from the Catholic members of the Swiss Confederation. Abandoning his earlier pacifism, Zwingli supported Zurich’s alliance with other Protestant cities in Switzerland and southern Germany as well as with Landgraf Philipp of Hesse, who was trying to craft a Protestant alliance against the Catholic emperor. By the summer of 1531, Zwingli was advocating aggressive measures against the Catholic states of central Switzerland. Their response to these measures was the war in which not only Zwingli but also many of Zurich’s political leaders were killed in October of 1531.

Zurich’s defeat led to a political and religious crisis in the city, and it was left to Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, to preserve Zwingli’s legacy of religious and social reform. Gordon does not devote much space, however, to the development of the Zurich reformation after 1531. Instead, his final two chapters consider the response to Zwingli’s death among his contemporaries and the way historians have evaluated the reformer’s life and career in the centuries since then. Zwingli’s friends saw his death as a form of martyrdom, but Luther had no doubt that it was God’s just judgment on a man he regarded as a heretic. Nineteenth-century Swiss Reformed historians turned Zwingli into a representative of democracy and Swiss patriotism, while those in the twentieth century drew attention to his social concerns and the close connection between politics and theology in his thought.

Gordon closes his biography with a discussion of the 2019 Swiss film Zwingli as an effort make the reformer accessible to a modern audience. As he acknowledges, Zurich today is a secular city, and many Swiss consider Zwingli at best irrelevant and at worse an embarrassment. Yet Zwingli played a decisive role in Swiss history, for the treaty ending the war in which he was killed established confessional boundaries within the Swiss Confederation that lasted into the modern era. Just as importantly, Zwingli was one of the founding fathers of the Reformed tradition, the form of Protestantism that would have such an impact on Europe and the world. Gordon’s biography of Zwingli does an admirable job of introducing modern readers to the distant world of sixteenth-century Zurich and its reformer.

Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.

Note: In November 2021, the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin University hosted a webinar in which Bruce Gordon discussed his biography of Zwingli. That webinar is now publicly available:

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Posted by Amy Nelson Burnett

Amy Nelson Burnett is the Paula and D.B. Varner University Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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