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Humanism and its effect on the Reform ideals of Ulrich Zwingli - Part 2

Updated on March 7, 2014
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Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Huldrych Zwingli in a portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1516)
Huldrych Zwingli in a portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1516) | Source

Continuing from Part 1 - Another important factor in discussing how humanism played heavily into Zwingli’s theological and social position is that of education. It is clear that there is a meshing of Erasmus’s influence, Christian humanism, and education. In his letter to the young Swiss nobleman Gerold Meyer von Knonau, Zwingli addresses a very humanistic approach to Christian education,

But a man cannot rightly order his own soul unless he exercises himself day and night in the Word of God. He can do that most readily if he is well versed in such languages as Hebrew and Greek, for a right understanding of the Old Testament is difficult without the one, and a right understanding of the New is equally difficult without the other.[1]

University of Waterloo professor, Dr. Riemer Faber, also points to another example of this meshing of ideals, and quoting Zwingli’s “Of the Upbringing and Education of Youth in Good Manners and Christian Discipline” he states,

When we study the elements that make up the universe, we learn that all these things are changing and destructible, but that he who conjoined them ... is necessarily unchanging and immutable.[2] Thus the very things studied by humans reveal that there is someone superior to them and their learning, namely God.[3]

Dr. Faber also points out that later in Zwingli’s letter it is clear that Zwingli “…wishes to convince his readers that service to others is the most important consequence of proper instruction”[4] and that “Learning is subject to faith, without which it is of no avail.”[5]

Marble staue of Plato in Athens Greece
Marble staue of Plato in Athens Greece

Swiss theologian and historian, Phillip Schaff, addresses the humanistic idea of how the classic philosophers, Neo-Platonists, and polytheists, were believed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit by stating,

Justin Martyr, Origen, and other Greek fathers saw in the scattered truths of the heathen poets and philosophers the traces of the pre-Christian revelation of the Logos, and in the philosophy of the Greeks a schoolmaster to lead them to Christ. The humanists of the school of Erasmus recognized a secondary inspiration in the classical writings...[6]

This “secondary inspiration in the classical writings” is foundational in understanding how Zwingli’s pattern of thinking towards education and social gospel is derived more from Erasmus’s Christian humanism combined with the official theology of Zurich than those that were more Lutheran in nature.[7]

Friar Johann Tetzel Selling Indulgences
Friar Johann Tetzel Selling Indulgences | Source

Zwingli’s humanistic education was the foundation for his positions on abuses and theological differences within the Catholic Church as well as doctrinal discrepancies with other forms of Protestantism. The sale of indulgences was not only taking place in Saxony by Pope Leo X’s emissary, Johann Tetzel, but was also reaching the borders of Zurich by a Franciscan monk named Bernardini Sampson. Zwingli had already been preaching against this practice in Einsiedeln beginning in 1516, but by 1518, at the urging of not only the secular powers in Zurich, but also at the request of the Bishop of Constance, Zwingli was asked to begin preaching against the practices of indulgences. Zwingli answered the call by stating that,

How could I act otherwise? Had I not to obey a bishop of Constance, whose vicar wrote to me, – even if I had not intended to do the same thing before – to make war on the ensnaring system of indulgences?[8]

Zwingli also held theological differences with the Catholic Church in its traditions and reading of Scripture. On his first Sunday in Zurich, Zwingli embraced his humanistic ideals and chose to not use the standard church texts and instead informed the congregation that he would be preaching his way through the New Testament instead. The effect cannot be understated. Zurich humanists rally around Zwingli and become even more enamored when he promises to return to the original Greek New Testament. Two prominent citizens declared after hearing the first sermon that, “This is a genuine preacher of the truth, a Moses who will deliver the people from bondage.”[9]

But the Catholic Church was not his only target in his reformation ideals. The deepening division between Luther and Zwingli came to an apex over their different views of transubstantiation and the Eucharist. Zwingli believed that the bread and wine were symbolic, not literal. Christ is present spiritually but not physically. Luther on the other hand did not agree with transubstantiation, disagreeing with the introduction of philosophy into theology, but took the Bible in a more literal sense. Luther stated that, “How He is in the bread, we do not know, and are not to know. We should believe the Word of God and not dictate ways and means to Him.”[10]

Neither Luther nor Zwingli would bend and the efforts of the Protestant princes and political leaders to force them to come to an agreement dissolved. This divide would go on even after Zwingli’s death. Luther is reported to have said after hearing of Zwingli’s death that, “I wish from my heart that Zwingli could have been saved, but I fear for the contrary, for Christ has said that those who deny Him shall be damned.”[11]

Ulrich Zwingli has left a legacy behind not only in his native Switzerland, but across the globe. His humanistic education empowered him to question and correct both the Catholic Church and other Protestant Reform movements. It also brought him closer to the everyday citizen in that he wrote and spoke their language yet could convey higher levels of educational understanding to them through his knowledge of the ancient texts.

The humanistic study of Scripture in not only the vernacular but in Greek and Latin did have a downside. It would not be the source of inspiration, but would lead to a division within the different Protestant, as well as Catholic, religious groups. Ultimately though, Zwingli left behind a legacy equal to and as influential as that of Martin Luther and John Calvin.


[1] Zwingli, Ulrich, Of the Upbringing and Education of Youth in Good Manners and Christian Discipline (1523), In The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, by Richard M. Gamble, (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2007), 387

[2]Ibid., 384

[3] Faber, Riemer Dr. Huldrych Zwingli on Reformed Instruction, (Clarion: The Canadian Reformed Magazine, January 22, 1999), 35

[4] Ibid., 37

[5] Ibid., 38

[6] Schaff, Phillip, History of the Christian Church - From The 1st To The 20th Century, (Delmarva Publications, 2013), Kindle Edition, vol. 8, chap. 5

[7] Mullett, Bucer, Melanchthon and Zwingli: Erasmus's Protestants, 11

[8] Hottinger, The Life and Times of Ulric Zwingli, chap. 1

[9] Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 chap. 3

[10] Placher, William C., A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 189-190

[11] Durant, The Reformation, 413


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