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§ 9. Zwingli and Luther.

Comp. Vol. VI. 620–651, and the portrait of Luther, p. 107.

The training of Zwingli for his life-work differs considerably from that of Luther. This difference affected their future work, and accounts in part for their collision when they met as antagonists in writing, and on one occasion (at Marburg) face to face, in a debate on the real presence. Comparisons are odious when partisan or sectarian feeling is involved, but necessary and useful if impartial.

Both Reformers were of humble origin, but with this difference: Luther descended from the peasantry, and had a hard and rough schooling, which left its impress upon his style of polemics, and enhanced his power over the common people; while Zwingli was the son of a magistrate, the nephew of a dean and an abbot, and educated under the influence of the humanists, who favored urbanity of manners. Both were brought up by pious parents and teachers in the Catholic faith; but Luther was far more deeply rooted in it than Zwingli, and adhered to some of its doctrines, especially on the sacraments, with great tenacity to the end. He also retained a goodly portion of Romish exclusivism and intolerance. He refused to acknowledge Zwingli as a brother, and abhorred his view of the salvation of unbaptized children and pious heathen.

Zwingli was trained in the school of Erasmus, and passed from the heathen classics directly to the New Testament. He represents more than any other Reformer, except Melanchthon, the spirit of the Renaissance in harmony with the Reformation.4141    Martin, in his Histoire de France, VIII. 156, makes a similar remark, "On peut considérer l’oeuvre de Zwingli comme le plus puissant effort qui ait étéfuit pour sanctifier la Renaissance et l’unir àla Réforme en Jesus-Christ." He calls Zwingli (p. 168) the man of the largest thought and greatest heart of the Reformation ("qui porte en lui la plus large pensée et le plus grand coeur de la Réformation").  He was a forerunner of modern liberal theology. Luther struggled through the mystic school of Tauler and Staupitz, and the severe moral discipline of monasticism, till he found peace and comfort in the doctrine of justification by faith. Both loved poetry and music next to theology, but Luther made better use of them for public worship, and composed hymns and tunes which are sung to this day.

Both were men of providence, and became, innocently, reformers of the Church by the irresistible logic of events. Both drew their strength and authority from the Word of God. Both labored independently for the same cause of evangelical truth, the one on a smaller, the other on a much larger field. Luther owed nothing to Zwingli, and Zwingli owed little or nothing to Luther. Both were good scholars, great divines, popular preachers, heroic characters.

Zwingli broke easily and rapidly with the papal system, but Luther only step by step, and after a severe struggle of conscience. Zwingli was more radical than Luther, but always within the limits of law and order, and without a taint of fanaticism; Luther was more conservative, and yet the chief champion of freedom in Christ. Zwingli leaned to rationalism, Luther to mysticism; yet both bowed to the supreme authority of the Scriptures. Zwingli had better manners and more self-control in controversy; Luther surpassed him in richness and congeniality of nature. Zwingli was a republican, and aimed at a political and social, as well as an ecclesiastical reformation; Luther was a monarchist, kept aloof from politics and war, and concentrated his force upon the reformation of faith and doctrine. Zwingli was equal to Luther in clearness and acuteness of intellect and courage of conviction, superior in courtesy, moderation, and tolerance, but inferior in originality, depth, and force. Zwingli’s work and fame were provincial; Luther’s, worldwide. Luther is the creator of the modern high-German book language, and gave to his people a vernacular Bible of enduring vitality. Zwingli had to use the Latin, or to struggle with an uncouth dialect; and the Swiss Version of the Bible by his faithful friend Leo Judae remained confined to German Switzerland, but is more accurate, and kept pace in subsequent revisions with the progress of exegesis. Zwingli can never inspire, even among his own countrymen, the same enthusiasm as Luther among the Germans. Luther is the chief hero of the Reformation, standing in the front of the battle-field before the Church and the world, defying the papal bull and imperial ban, and leading the people of God out of the Babylonian captivity under the gospel banner of freedom.

Each was the right man in the right place; neither could have done the work of the other. Luther was foreordained for Germany, Zwingli for Switzerland. Zwingli was cut down in the prime of life, fifteen years before Luther; but, even if he had outlived him, he could not have reached the eminence which belongs to Luther alone. The Lutheran Church in Germany and the Reformed Church of Switzerland stand to this day the best vindication of their distinct, yet equally evangelical Christian work and character.


I add the comparative estimates of the two Reformers by two eminent and equally unbiassed scholars, the one of German Lutheran, the other of Swiss Reformed, descent.

Dr. Baur (the founder of the Tübingen school of critical historians) says:4242    Kirchengeschichte, IV. ST sq. When the two men met, as at Marburg, Zwingli appears more free, more unprejudiced, more fresh, and also more mild and conciliatory; while Luther shows himself harsh and intolerant, and repels Zwingli with the proud word: ’We have another spirit than you.’4343    Martin, another impartial and dogmatically unbiased writer, likewise gives, with reference to the Marburg conference, "the honors of the debate, for logic and for moderation and brotherly charity," to Zwingli. Hist. de France, VIII. 114, note. So does Dean Stanley A comparison of their controversial writings can only result to the advantage of Zwingli. But there can be no doubt that, judged by the merits and effects of their reformatory labors, Luther stands much higher than Zwingli. It is true, even in this respect, both stand quite independent of each other. Zwingli has by no means received his impulse from Luther; but Luther alone stands on the proper field of battle where the cause of the Reformation had to be fought out. He is the path-breaking Reformer, and without his labors Zwingli could never have reached the historic significance which properly belongs to him alongside of Luther."4444    "Neben Luther." This is the proper expression, which also Schweizer has chosen. Usteri places Zwingli too high when he calls him "ein Martin Luther ebenbürtiger Zeuge des evangelischen Glaubens." He is independent, but not equal.

Dr. Alexander Schweizer (of Zurich), in his commemorative oration of 1884, does equal justice to both: "Luther and Zwingli founded, each according to his individuality, the Reformation in the degenerated Church, both strengthening and supplementing each other, but in many respects also going different ways. How shall we estimate them, elevating the one, lowering the other, as is the case with Goethe and Schiller? Let us rather rejoice, according to Goethe’s advice, in the possession of two such men. May those Lutherans who wish to check the growing union with the Reformed, continue to represent Luther as the only Reformer, and, in ignorance of Zwingli’s deep evangelical piety, depreciate him as a mere humanistic illuminator: this shall not hinder us from doing homage at the outset to Luther’s full greatness, contented with the independent position of our Zwingli alongside of this first hero of the Reformation; yea, we deem it our noblest task in this Zwingli festival at Zurich, which took cheerful part in the preceding Luther festival, to acknowledge Luther as the chief hero of the battle of the Reformation, and to put his world-historical and personal greatness in the front rank; and this all the more since Zwingli himself, and afterwards Calvin, have preceded us in this high estimate of Luther."4545    Zwingli’s Bedeutung neben Luther. Festrede zu Zwingli’s 400 jährigem Geburtstag 1 Jan., 1484, gehalten in der Universitätsaula zu Zürich 7 Jan., 1884 (Zürich, 1884), p. 3.

Phillips Brooks (Bishop of Massachusetts, the greatest preacher of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, d. 1893):, Of all the Reformers, in this respect [tolerance], Zwingli, who so often in the days of darkness is the man of light, is the noblest and clearest. At the conference in Marburg he contrasts most favorably with Luther in his willingness to be reconciled for the good of the common cause, and he was one of the very few who in those days believed that the good and earnest heathen could be saved." (Lectures on Tolerance, New York, 1887, p. 34.)

Of secular historians, J. Michelet (Histoire de France, X. 310 sq.) shows a just appreciation of Zwingli, and his last noble confession addressed to the King of France. He says of him: "Grand docteur, meilleur patriote, nature forte et simple, il a montré le type même, le vrai génie de la Suisse, dans sa fière indépendance de l’Italie, de l’Allemagne. … Son langage à François 1er, digne de la Renaissance, établissait la question de l’Église dans sa grandeur." He then quotes the passage of the final salvation of all true and noble men, which no man with a heart can ever forget.

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