Learning something from an Old Dead Guy

For many of us in Reformed Christians circles this is a very important year, as it marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the wall of the Castle church at Wittenberg. This one single event sent into motion a tidal way of change that left the western world scrambling to find out what the true meaning of being a Christian is about. Over the next century men and women would rise up and take a stand for the truth of the Gospel and the proclamation of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The reformation began at Wittenberg, but for most of us it had its fullness shaped in Switzerland.

Now when I talk about the importance of Switzerland many immediate go to John Calvin, and while he is an important part of the reformation he was not the first in Switzerland to begin the journey, that title belongs to a man named Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was one of the first preachers of the reformation to institute strictly exegetical biblical preaching based on the practice of John Chrysostom the great early church father. He not only viewed the Scriptures as supremely authoritative; he found it to be the only source of true faith and worship. Zwingli was a man driven by the truth of Scripture (as he saw it) and finding his purpose and ministry goals summarized in the Scriptures and not in some external reality. For many this may have made him an extremist. He removed art and music from worship spaces feeling that only the word of God should be seen and adored in the church, all else would simply lead to idolatry. He focused the attention of the early reformation to think about the reasons for communion and baptism according to the scriptures and not according to traditions handed down.

This is all well and good but why do I bring up Zwingli today and why does all this matter? Well first Zwingli shows us that even men that have since been forgetton or overshadowed by history still speak through the history of those who were influenced by them. The vast majority of the writings and systematic teachings of John Calvin found in the Institutes will arise from the teachings of Zwingli and his protégé Bollinger. The modern reformed churches emphasis on exegetical preaching can be traced back to his reformed movement in Switzerland. For while Luther was busy being a professor of theology Zwingli was working as a pastor in Zurich.

We owe a great debt to the man for his contributions to how we think about preaching as he pointed us back to the Scriptures and the church fathers as examples of preaching the word, not our own opinions or feel good messages. Maybe you have at times felt like your ministry was just spinning its wheels, you are teaching the gospel, you are following the Scriptures but the results or long term effect is not what you imagined.  Zwingli’s legacy points to the fact that it is okay to be forgotten as long as the message remains and is supreme.

The other thing that is so important to remember about this early reformer in our modern context is that while great in some theological ways, he was not perfect. Among all the reformers Zwingli is probably one of the most problematic for most, and this was due, oddly enough to what also his his best characteristic, his encouragement of his people to read the Scriptures and see the truth for themselves. In opening the Bible to the people he saw that they came to a “radical” view when it came to baptism and other aspects of the faith. Out of this bastion of freedom and authority in scripture Zwingli openly sided with the state to persecute and kill those who did not agree with his view of the Bible, especially in regards to baptism. Many Anabaptists were drowned in the local rivers for their stance on baptism. He like Luther was firmly committed to his interpretation of the Bible and the ordinance that to think or speak other than the way he did was to be accursed by God. This was the main reason why these two men could never reconcile during their lifetimes; this division was too great and their dislike for the concessions of the other too much. Each man was unwavering and hostile to the other almost as much as they were against the Catholic Church.

The break between Luther and Zwingli has been one that makes perfect sense in their time and place and yet 500 years later I still find puzzling. Of course we today live in a very pluralistic society with many different faiths and Christian denominations, while in the 16th century West there was the church and the schismatic sects of the reformation. Today the church is made up of varying points of views on things such as Communion and Baptism, but these things don’t divide our fellowship and love for one another, rather they should encourage us to dive deeper into the Scriptures to know why we believe what we believe and where it is rooted in the text. I am the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church while the other men on this blog range in their affiliations holding a variety of views on these very subjects. But rather than cutting each other off we grow from one another’s perspectives on the text. There are battles to be fought, but some of the battles need to be discussed with love, humility and the understanding that we may have missed the mark on something. One of the great marks of the church is the love for one another.

This is the last lesson I learned from Zwingli. We can have all the right theology but if we have no love for the family of God and the souls of the lost sometimes we end up dead on a battlefield…..that wasn’t needed to be fought.

Also today marks the anniversary of the council of Trent the affirmation that we as protestants are an anathema, so yes there are still battles to be won: through prayer and the proclamation of the gospel. 

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