By Randy Sawyer

Standing under the shadows of Martin Luther and John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli has been called “the third man of the Reformation.” Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, at Wildus, some 40 miles from Zurich. The home of his parents, Uly and Margaret, was crowded with 11 children, so Ulrich was sent to live with his uncle.

Life of Constant Learning

Zwingli enjoyed the advantages of a good education, eventually matriculating at the University of Basel in 1502. By the end of his university training, he emerged as a young man inspired by modem trends in scholarship but acquainted also with scholastic learning.

In 1506, Zwingli became vicar of Glarus. Although a busy and popular parish priest, he found time to continue his studies. Having missed an opportunity to learn Greek while at the university, he began to study it on his own using Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.

Zwingli’s career as a reformer began with his call as the people’s priest at Zurich in late 1518. On January 1, 1519, he initiated a systematic exposition of the Bible, commencing with Matthew.

Through his study of the Pauline Epistles in Greek and his systematic exposition of the scriptures, Zwingli reached an evangelical understanding. He always maintained that he had discovered evangelical principles before he heard of Luther, but admitted that reading Luther’s books was a valuable assurance to him that he was not alone.

Life of Considerable Courage

With his expository preaching, Zwingli laid the foundations for reform in Switzerland. By 1521, the city had accepted the scriptures as the standard, and the time was ripe for charge.  The transformation accelerated with astonishing speed between 1522 and 1526: the breaking of Lent, clergy marriage, translation of the Bible, a new baptismal order, removal of images, criticism of the mass and severance from the Papacy.

But Zwingli was facing physical danger from the opponents of reform. It was imperative that he win the support of the Council of Zurich. The council agreed to consider the question of reform in a public debate on January 29, 1523. Zwingli drew up 67 theses in preparation.

The Bishop of Constance declined to attend the council on grounds that matters of theology should not be submitted to the judgment of laymen. Consequently, Zwingli alone was left to expound on his theses. The debate was a great success and Zwingli was allowed to continue to proclaim the pure “Holy Scriptures” in Zurich.

Life of Committed Exposition

Very few of Zwingli’s sermons have been preserved for us to examine, partly because he did not preach from a manuscript. This is not to say that he did not prepare but rather that he wanted to be free to maintain close contact with the congregation.

Zwingli’s sermons fall essentially into two categories. First, it was his practice to preach straight through a biblical book before going on to the next. He began his ministry in Zurich by announcing his intention to preach through the Gospel of Matthew.

This approach was a departure from the tradition of the scholastics who preached merely from the assigned torts for each week. This branded Zwingli as revolutionary, and the churchmen were justifiably worried. However, before three years had passed, the result of such expository preaching was evident to all observers.

Commenting on Zwingli’s expository preaching, John Broadus writes: “Some friends objected that his expository preaching would be an innovation and injurious; but he justly said, ‘lt is the old custom. Call to mind the homilies of Chrysostom on Matthew, and of Augustine on John.’ ”

Broadus adds that the preaching of the reformers (Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin) gave the most effective exegesis of scripture since the days of Chrysostom. In the Archetcles of 1522, Zwingli had occasion to defend the preaching he had done at Zurich.

“I have never planted any other plant than that which Christ planted at the direction of His Father, which cannot be rooted up. For three years ago now (to give you an account of the preaching I have done at Zurich), I preached the entire Gospel according to Matthew.”

He went on to document the other books he had used as the basis of his preaching. After finishing Matthew he preached from the Acts of the Apostles. Following this, he preached from I TimothyGalatians, II Timothy, I and II Peter and Hebrews.

Occasionally, Zwingli interrupted his series to preach on a particular theme. For example, in the summer of 1522 he preached two sermons on the themes of the Word of God and the Virgin Mary. However, even his topical messages were based entirely upon Scripture, with numerous Biblical passages cited as proof texts.

The Reforming Power of Expository Preaching

One biographer summarized the significance of Zwingli’s preaching by remarking that as a result of his expository preaching, “the scripture now dominates tradition.” Another writer added, “Zwingli turned from what he thought to be mere human invention and creation to the primary source of true religion.”

Gordon Rupp noted, “Shortsighted and with a weak voice, he lacked the gifts of the popular orator, but his preaching is the secret of his dominance of the great city.”

Article adapted from Contact magazine, September 2001.