As God was using Martin Luther to dispel darkness in Germany, He was also beaming light into Switzerland through a young priest named Zwingli. Although the two men had never met, through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit they both preached the newly rediscovered truths they found in their study of God’s Word.
Early Moral Development
Just seven weeks after Martin Luther’s birth, Ulrich Zwingli was born on New Year’s Day, 1482. His early years were filled with work, music, stories, and listening to his father debate with the town’s men. Zwingli’s summer months were spent with the sheep on the mountains, but the winter months were spent at home where he developed a strong moral compass as he listened to his grandmother tell him Bible stories. “Lying ought to be punished more severely than theft,” he would say. “Truth is the mother of all virtues.”[i]
By the age to ten, Zwingli’s father saw that his son’s unusually bright and enquiring mind needed a broader education than he could receive in their small village. Although he must have missed his home at times, young Zwingli soaked up his studies like a thirsty tree. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, Zwingli was introduced to the classic literature and poetry of Roman and Greek antiquity. Poetry especially touched his soul and he often found himself putting his thoughts into verse. Another skill he learned was the art of debate. It didn’t take long for him to become the undisputed champion in his school – an accomplishment that his future opponents would learn to respect. To round out his education Zwingli developed a beautiful singing voice and enjoyed playing a variety of musical instruments.
At 18 years of age, Zwingli accepted a teaching job in Basle while he continued his studies at the university. It was there that he enrolled in divinity classes for the first time. He became discouraged as he found that one learned doctor interpreted Scripture one way while another contradicted him and proposed a different meaning. The youthful Zwingli was so upset by the confusion he found and the lack of sound thought and doctrine that he is said to have exclaimed about those years, “It [was] a mere loss of time.”[ii]
But God sent a man into Zwingli’s life that opened to him a new spiritual direction. Thomas Wittemback arrived in Basle to teach. His method of explaining Scripture was so different from the other teachers that Zwingli and his fellow students flocked around him. Rather than parrot the sayings of church leaders and sages, Wittemback opened their minds to the old Bible doctrines that had been covered with the dust of man’s opinions. He taught his students about Jesus Christ and that his “death is the only ransom for our souls.”[iii] These truths brought light and joy and peace to Zwingli’s heart.
Zwingli Becomes a Priest
A few years later the church near Zwingli’s childhood home was looking for a parish priest. A young man with a recommendation from the pope arrived to accept the post, but the good people of the parish had their heart set on inviting young Zwingli back to fill the position. In 1506, 22-year-old Zwingli was ordained and took up the responsibilities of a parish priest among his family and friends. It was here that he grew in his Christian experience and in his ability to communicate it faithfully to others.
The early years of Zwingli’s pastorate were filled with war. Switzerland was pulled time and again into battle by a powerful cardinal who inflamed the people to follow him into war. Zwingli was horrified as he saw his once hard-working, pious parishioners return from the war completely changed. They revelled in violence, immorality, and disorder. They neglected their farms and businesses and refused to obey their chosen leaders. He began immediately to write against the evils he saw sweeping through his parish. He wrote a poem entitled “Labyrinth”, because, in his words, he saw “men now wandering in a labyrinth, but, as they have no clue, they cannot regain the light.”[iv]
The Holy Spirit + Greek Text = Start of Reform in Switzerland
Zwingli resolved to learn Greek so he could read the Scriptures in their original language. Seeing the confusion of thought between the doctors of law, Zwingli determined to look only to the Holy Spirit for help in interpreting Scripture. He refused to read the commentaries on the Bible passages he was studying; he would read Scripture alone and let it interpret itself. For Zwingli, a knowledge of Greek – to be able to study the Gospel in the original language – was the basis of the Reformation. In later years, when accused of becoming a follower of Luther, Zwingli replied, “I am not a Lutheran, for I learned Greek before I had ever heard the name of Luther.”[v]
[i] As quoted in History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century