Ulrich Zwingli – The Forgotten Man of the Reformation image

Ulrich Zwingli – The Forgotten Man of the Reformation

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I doubt that there is even a single reader of this blog who has not heard of Martin Luther or John Calvin. These two stand like giants in the history of the Protestant Church. Love them or loathe them, you can hardly ignore them. Ulrich Zwingli, an exact contemporary of Martin Luther (Luther was born 10 November 1483 and Zwingli 1 January 1484), on the other hand, is nowadays almost unheard of outside geeky Church history circles. Yet his impact in the 1520s was enormous. He did as much as anyone except Luther himself in this period of the Reformation to challenge Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Whilst Calvin was still a pious Catholic student Zwingli was defining Reformed Protestantism in its original form. Calvin was to become the dominant theologian of the Reformed world but he was certainly not its progenitor.

If you visit Zurich today, the German-speaking Swiss city where Zwingli ministered first as a Catholic priest and then as a Protestant clergyman, you can still see a statue of him. He carries a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other hand. This tells us a great deal about Zwingli’s thinking and also about why he is so little known in the twenty first century. For Zwingli there was no such thing as a division between Church and State; they were one under the sovereign rule of God. Such thinking is very sixteenth and very non-twenty first century. His whole philosophy of ministry flowed from this union and it is this concept that is so vital in order for us to understand Zwingli’s contribution to the Protestant Reformation. Zwingli died on the battlefield on 11 October 1531 fighting the armies of the Catholic Swiss Cantons like some Old Testament judge. But before we confine him as an obscure footnote to the dustbin of history I would like to spend a little time at least looking at his contribution to the Protestant cause. It is deeper and more far-reaching than many of us imagine.

Zwingli and Systematic Exposition

I normally spend about 12-15 days in any year in various training contexts. Almost invariably, I am asked to teach on Church history. One of the questions I often ask aspiring preachers relates to the preaching model and style in the Churches where they are in ministry. Newfrontiers, the apostolic movement that I am pleased to be a part of, grew up in the 1980s and was shaped in large measure by the values and the gifting of Terry Virgo. Terry is one of the greatest preachers of his generation anywhere in the world. His approach to preaching was massively influenced by the ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whose systematic preaching, particularly through Romans and Ephesians became legendary. Terry and, generally speaking, the vast majority of the first generation of Newfrontiers preachers followed the Lloyd-Jones systematic model. These days, I tend to find that the room is much more divided. Many more of our Churches and preachers are tending towards topical preaching. Are we losing something here? Does it matter – after all Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, was a topical rather than a systematic preacher? And how does all this relate to Zwingli?

Preaching in the Middle Ages, such as it was, was based on the Church’s liturgical cycle. The various seasons in the Church’s year – Lent, Advent, Septuagesima (what on earth is that?), Easter etc – would determine the focus of the sermon. The sermon, incidentally, was the only part of the Church service that was in the vernacular. However, the fact that it was more comprehensible than the rest of the service did not mean that it was any more Biblical. Stories from the Bible would be mixed with legends from the lives of the saints along with other popular anecdotes. But since many parish priests were illiterate, a clear focus on the Biblical text was almost unheard of. Luther’s understanding of the authority and the supremacy of Scripture meant that the Lutheran Churches began a new way of preaching in the 1520s. The text of Scripture now became the focal point for the sermon. However, Luther and his supporters continued to use the Church’s liturgical cycle to decide what should be preached when. It was Zwingli who was the first systematic Biblical expositor.

In late 1518 Zwingli, who until this point in his career had been a parish priest and an army chaplain, was given preaching responsibilities at the great Zurich minster. Zwingli was already well known as a member of the Swiss circle of Christian humanists. He had first met Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist, in 1516 and this had created a huge impression on him. Towards the end of his life Zwingli claimed that he began to preach the Gospel in 1519. He did not mean that by this date he was a fully formed Protestant, but rather that it was at this point that he turned to the Scriptures. He had been a big fan of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, first printed in 1516 and had committed large sections of it to memory. When Zwingli began his new ministry on 1 January 1519 he did so by announcing that he would preach systematically from the New Testament, beginning from St Matthew’s gospel. A whole new way of preaching had been born.

Calvin’s systematic preaching was a phenomenon. He preached, for example no less than 353 sermons expounding Isaiah from start to finish and 186 working through 1 Corinthians. When he was expelled from Geneva in 1538 he spent the next three years of his life in exile in Strasbourg. When he was invited back in 1541 it would come as no surprise to us that his next sermon followed on from the verse that he had been preaching three years earlier! But Calvin was not original in this approach to preaching. He drew on the model that Zwingli had created back in 1519.

The model Zwingli created, that Calvin developed, was then used by the Puritans in the seventeenth century, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1950s and 60s, by Terry Virgo and others inspired by Lloyd-Jones in the 80s and 90s and is used by thousands of Reformed preachers around the world today, young and old, the Driscoll generation as well as their Piper-esque forefathers. I would not go as far as saying that this is the only model for preaching that we should use. However, I would contend that it is the best model available. Used properly, it ensures that it is God’s word and not simply what’s in the news this week that is paramount in our preaching. It means that I am consciously and repeatedly driven to the text in my preaching and I do not end up resorting to my favourite ‘hobby horses’. It also forces us to address difficult topics that, if we were honest, we would rather avoid. I think Zwingli was on to something in discovering and advocating systematic expository preaching. Any thoughts?

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