{13}     Zwingli, Calvin & the Anabaptists

ERA 5 << Modern Church (1): Reformation & Struggles (AD 1500–1700) >> SESSION 2

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 2, chapters 5-7

13.1  Zwingli in Switzerland

        13.1.1  Zwingli’s entry into Reformation

·         Beginning: In Switzerland, Ulrich (or Huldreich) Zwingli (1484–1531) reached the same conclusion on the gospel independently from Luther. He tried to restore Biblical faith and practice. He was outraged by superstition that passed for Christianity, and by exploitation of the people. He became a priest in Zurich [1518]. He focused his attacks on the abuses of the papacy, in particular, using Swiss soldiers as mercenaries in foreign countries, including the papacy. He preached against laws of fasting and abstinence and declared that priestly celibacy was not Biblical.

·         Reforms: He prepared the Sixty-Seven Articles [1523] summarizing his positions, including salvation by faith, authority of the Bible, headship of Christ in the church, right of clerical marriage, condemnation of unscriptural practices in the RCC. He won a debate against the bishop’s representative and received the support from the Zurich City Council. The mass was abolished, and was replaced by a simple communion service. Bread and cup were offered to the laity. Many priests, monks, and nuns married.

·         Difference vs Luther: While the Germans under Luther was willing to retain all traditional uses that did not expressly prohibited by the Scripture. Luther said, “what is not contrary to Scripture is for Scripture, and Scripture for it.” This view led him to retain candles, crucifixes, and pictures in worship. In contrast, the Swiss under Zwingli insisted that all that had no explicit scriptural support must be rejected. As a result, he and his followers rejected such things as the papacy, mass, saintly intercession, monasticism, purgatory, clerical celibacy, relics, images, and organs (music).

·         Reformed Church founded: A synod of the Swiss evangelical churches were formed [1527]. The 5 Catholic cantons joined in a surprise attack on Zurich. Zwingli was killed [1531]. The Peace of Kappel was signed and each canton obtained freedom to decide in matters of religion. Eventually, the Zwinglian forces merged with the Calvinistic forces in the Reformed churches of Switzerland through the Consensus of Zurich [1549].

o        Reformation groups in Switzerland: [1] the German-speaking cantons in the north, led by Zwingli in Zurich, [2] the French-speaking cantons in the south, led by Calvin in Geneva, [3] the Anabaptists who came out from Zurich spreading to Switzerland, Germany, and Holland.

        13.1.2  Zwingli’s theology

·         On the Bible: Zwingli’s first writings were on the Bible. He insisted on the Bible as the final authority. He believed that when God speaks to His children, His word brings its own clarity to it. We can understand the Bible without any human instruction—not because of our own understanding but because the Holy Spirit illuminates us and enables us to see God’s word in its own light.

·         On reason: Zwingli had a positive view for the power of reason. He felt that no doctrine should be contrary to reason. He was influenced by the Neoplatonic interpretation of Christianity—a tendency to undervalue matter, and to contrast it with spiritual reality. So he insisted on a simple form of worship.

·         On predestination: Zwingli was theologically similar to Luther in most points. They both agreed on predestination and justification by grace alone. However, Zwingli’s support of predestination was based on the omniscience and omnipotence of God so He knows and determines all things beforehand.

·         On religion: To Luther the primary concern was the relationship of the soul to God and the freedom the soul could enjoy by forgiveness of sin. To Zwingli the will of God as set forth in the Bible, and conformity to it, was the central feature of religion. Thus, Luther’s approach was of a more emotional nature while Zwingli’s was more intellectual.

·         On baptism: He defended infant baptism, on the basis that it is the sign of the covenant and the covenant embraces the whole family. However, he broke with the Catholic belief that baptism bestows new birth and the forgiveness of sins. He came to see baptism as primarily an outward sign of our faith.

·         On communion: The most irreconcilable difference between Luther and Zwingli was the question of the bodily presence of Christ in communion. While Luther held that an inner divine action took place when the outer human action was performed, Zwingli refused to grant such efficacy to the sacrament which was taken as a symbolic commemoration. The bread and wine are only signs or symbols of spiritual reality, symbolizing Christ’s body and blood. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is present at the communion service—but His body and blood, His humanity, is confined to heaven, at the right hand of the Father. The communion is a thanksgiving memorial in which we look back to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is also a fellowship meal in which the body of Christ is present—in the form of the congregation.

o        Marburg Colloquy: Luther and Zwingli met at Marburg [1529] to settle the difference. There was agreement on 14 out of 15 propositions but the question of how Christ is present at communion was an insurmountable obstacle. They parted without an agreement. Luther was even unwilling to accept Zwingli as a brother in the faith.

        13.1.3  Martin Bucer (1491–1551)—Father of Calvinism

·         Life: Bucer was a Dominican friar. He attended the meeting of the Augustine friars at Heidelberg [1518] and heard Luther and became an instant convert. He settled in Strasbourg [1523] where the Reformation had already been introduced by Matthew Zell. It became the major centre of the Reformation. Bucer became the leader in Strasbourg. When the city was conquered by the emperor [1546], Bucer became a professor of divinity at Cambridge until his death.

·         Influence: At Cambridge, he influenced the course of the English Reformation through Thomas Cranmer. His book The Kingdom of Christ influenced the Puritan movement. His position on the communion influenced Calvin. He introduced small groups within the congregation for spiritual edification.

·         Attempts to reconcile: He valued church unity and was searching for reconciliation between Protestants and the RCC. His effort almost succeeded. He also sought reconciliation with the Anabaptists who received religious freedom in Strasbourg despite being persecuted everywhere. He was at Marburg trying to heal the rift within Protestantism by seeking a middle position between Luther and Zwingli in question of real presence in communion but he failed. However, his position was adopted by Calvin who worked under Bucer after he left Geneva [1538–1541]. That is why Bucer has been called “Father of Calvinism”.


        13.2.1  Calvin’s Life (1509–1564)

·         Early life: Calvin’s father served as secretary to the bishop in Noyon, France. Calvin studied theology in Paris and was familiar with the doctrines of Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther. His father arranged for him to pursue a career in law and he studied in Orleans and Bourges. He was the leader of the second generation of reformers. In his studies of the Bible [1532], he came to the conclusion that Protestantism was truth. King Francis I started to persecute Protestants and Calvin was imprisoned briefly [1534] and then exiled to Basel, Switzerland.

·         Institutes: He started to write a short summary of Christian faith from a Protestant viewpoint, called it the Institutes of the Christian Religion [1536], a 516-page book in Latin. There were 6 chapters: the Law, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments, false sacraments of Rome, Christian freedom.

·         Geneva: Calvin had no intention of becoming an active leader of Reformation, but only as a scholar and author. He decided to settle in Strasbourg where Protestantism was victorious under Martin Bucer [1536]. But the direct route to Strasbourg was closed by military operations, so he detoured through Geneva. Geneva was controlled by Protestants under William Farel (1489–1565). When Farel found out Calvin, he detained Calvin to help him. He was ordained as a teaching minister of Geneva. After his conflicts with some citizens on the question of excommunication, Calvin moved to Strasbourg for 3 years [1538–1541].

·         Reforms: Afterwards, Calvin returned to Geneva and was influential in the government of the city, including the adoption of a new ecclesiastical constitution, catechism, and liturgy. Most of all, the church appointed a consistory which supervised the theology and morals of the community and had the power to punish the wayward members of the church by excommunication. In addition, the state could inflict more severe penalties. Protestant refugees flocked to Geneva from many parts of Europe. The Scottish reformer John Knox declared that Geneva was “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”

·         Genevan Academy: His greatest project was the founding of the Genevan Academy (University of Geneva today) [1559]. It trained theological students from various parts of Europe. This helped the spreading of Calvinism. His work was followed by Theodore Beza (1519–1605).

        13.2.2  Calvin’s theology

·         On Scripture: Calvin stressed the authority of the Bible as the author is God. It is the source of all that we believe in. Calvin wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible. He was without doubt the only writer ever to belong to the first rank among both theologians and Bible commentators.

·         Systematic theology: Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion bound the various Protestant doctrines into a cohesive whole. It has influenced all subsequent studies of systematic theology. His system became the orthodoxy in Calvinism.

o        Outline: The book was subsequently revised many times, with the final edition in 1559, in Latin and French. It became a book with 80 chapters in 4 books: [1] God and revelation (including creation and the nature of human), [2] God as Redeemer in Jesus Christ, [3] grace of Jesus Christ through the Spirit, [4] the church and the sacraments (how to share the grace).

o        Objective: According to Calvin, this book was intended as a companion to his commentaries on the Bible and as a preparation for the study of the Bible itself.

o        Quote: “It is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just and upright and wise and holy until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly and impurity.”

·         On predestination & election: Calvin followed Augustine in emphasizing the sovereignty of God. He believed that God has predestined some to salvation and others to destruction (double predestination), and that one’s election is confirmed by God’s calling. However, he never put this doctrine central and foundational in his theology.

·         On sanctification: While Luther’s theology was overwhelmed by the doctrine of justification, Calvin’s theology finds a balance between the doctrines of justification and sanctification.

·         On communion:

o        Meaning: Calvin took the intermediate position between Luther and Zwingli, following his friend Martin Bucer. He affirmed that the presence of Christ in communion is real, although spiritual. This means that such presence is not merely symbolic, nor is communion a mere devotional exercise; rather, there is in it a true divine action for the church that partakes of the sacrament. On the other hand, this does not mean that the body of Christ descends from heaven, nor that it can be present in several altars at the same time, as Luther claimed. Rather, in the act of communion, by the power of the Holy Spirit, believers are taken to heaven and share with Christ a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

o        Reformed Church: Bucer, Luther, and others had reached the Wittenberg Concord [1526] which made room for both Luther’s and Bucer’s views. Bucer, Calvin, Swiss and German theologians signed the Zurich Consensus, a similar document [1549]. Joachim Westphal, a Lutheran, attacked Calvinist views [1552]. Those who followed the Zurich Consensus were then called “Reformed” in contrast to “Lutheran”.

        13.2.3  Calvin’s influence

·         Heidelberg Catechism: Calvinism in Germany was mainly in Palatinate because the elector Frederick III was sympathetic toward Calvinistic theology and Presbyterian church government. He asked Calvinist theologians to draft a catechism for the church. The Heidelberg Catechism [1563] became the official creed of the German Reformed churches. The University of Heidelberg became a centre of Calvinism.

o        Outline: The questions & answers were divided into 3 parts: [1] Man’s Misery, [2] Man’s redemption, and [3] Thankfulness. The document was described as combining the intimacy of Luther, the charity of Melanchthon, and the fire of Calvin.

o        Quote: “Q.1: What is your only comfort in life and in death? Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own but belong to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ. He, with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins and redeemed me from all the power of the devil…. By His Holy Spirit, He assures me of eternal life and makes me willing from the heart and ready henceforth to live for Him.”

·         Extension of Calvinism: Many churches were established on the basis of Calvinism in the Netherlands, Scotland, Hungary, France. These include the Reformed Church and the Presbyterian Church, although they were also influenced by Zwingli.


        13.3.1  Distinctives of Anabaptist beliefs

·         Magisterial Reformers: Luther and Zwingli were magisterial Reformers—they introduced reform in cooperation with the magistrates or rulers. They did not wish to break the link between the church and the state. Their aim was not to found a new church but to reform the old one. The problem was that the insistence on a single church with a uniform creed would lead to the coercion of dissenters.

·         Radical Reformers: They desired a more thorough reform and rejected the idea of a state church. They wanted to stop the influence of the church on the state.

·         Different types: The Anabaptists had 3 main variations: [1] Biblical Anabaptists, who depended totally on the authority of the Bible and emphasized the influence of the government on the church and vice versa, represented by Menno Simons and the Mennonites in Holland, and by Jacob Amman and the Amish Brethren in Pennsylvania; some later becoming the General Baptists under Thomas Helwys in England; [2] Communal Anabaptists, who favoured the separation of Christians from the world and lived in distinct communities, represented by Jacob Hutter and the Hutterites; [3] Eschatological of Revolutionary Anabaptists, who believed that the godly should establish the kingdom of God by force, represented by the Munster rebels.

·         Beliefs of Anabaptists: The name means “rebaptizers” because they regarded infant baptism invalid. They represented a major group among radical Reformers. Their doctrines were mostly similar to other Reformers. They held that Scripture alone is the supreme and final norm for all doctrine. Their distinct beliefs were:

o        [1] No state church: For them, the compromise between church and state was a betrayal of primitive Christianity. There must be a marked contrast between the church and the society. The structures of power of the society should not be transferred into the church. Christian faith should be free and voluntary, not to be coerced.

o        [2] No infant baptism: They held that Christian belief is a personal decision. All church members should be committed Christians who alone can receive baptism.

o        [3] Pacifism: Christians must be pacifists based on the literal reading of the Sermon on the Mount. Pacifism should persist, even in the face of Turkish invasion, and persecution by Catholic adversaries.

o        [4] Congregational government: They support a congregational form of church government—independence of each congregation.

        13.3.2  Beginning of the movement

·         Beginning: A group in Zurich called themselves the “brethren”. When Zwingli would not agree with their doctrines, they mutually baptized each other [1525] (not by immersion, though later it became the standard mode). They were led by George Blaurock (1491–1529) and Conrad Grebel (1498–1526).

·         Persecution: They believed in the separation of church and state, absolute pacifism, and that uniform religious faith was not essential to public peace and order; they opposed oath-taking, military service, and religious coercion. In addition, because of their egalitarian practice where women had the same rights as men, they were regarded as subversive and a threat to the established social order. They were officially accused of both heresy and sedition and were severely persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants in Switzerland. Many were exiled or killed. Later, the persecutions extended to most of Europe. Emperor Charles V ordered in an edict to kill them [1528] and many of them were martyred.

·         Schleitheim Confession [1527]—Some Anabaptist leaders met to produce an authoritative statement on their beliefs. It was not a comprehensive statement of faith, but covered the main distinctives of Anabaptists.

o        [1] Baptism is not for infants, but for those who have already consciously decided to be Christians.

o        [2] Baptized believers who fall into sin and refuse correction are to be banned from fellowship.

o        [3] The breaking of bread is a fellowship meal in remembrance of Jesus Christ and is only for baptized disciples.

o        [4] Believers are to be separate from the wicked world—which includes the Roman and Protestant state churches as well as military service.

o        [5] Pastors are to be chosen from men of good repute in the world. They are to be supported by their flock.

o        [6] The sword is ordained by God to be used by worldly magistrates to punish the wicked. In the church, the only weapon to be used is excommunication. Jesus Christ forbids the use of violence so the Christian cannot accept the office of magistrate.

o        [7] It is wrong for Christians to swear oaths.

        13.3.3  Revolutionary Anabaptists

·         Radicalization: With persecutions, some Anabaptist turned to radical beliefs. The original pacifism was forgotten and was replaced with hopes of violent revolution. Following Müntzer who led the Peasant Rebellion [1524], Melchior Hoffman (1495–1543) led some Anabaptists into revolution.

·         Münster Rebellion: In Strasbourg where there was tolerance, the Anabaptists became strong. Hoffman preached that the Day of the Lord was near and a large group gathered. Out of fear, the civil government imprisoned Hoffman. Then someone suggested that the New Jerusalem would be established in Münster, another city with religious tolerance. The Anabaptists gathered in Münster [1535] and took over the city under the leadership of John Matthys, and later Jan van Leiden (1509–1536). They expelled the Catholics and moderate Protestants. The Catholic bishop laid siege to the city. Van Leiden proclaimed himself King of the New Jerusalem. Polygamy and community of goods were introduced. The city eventually fell after a long siege.

        13.3.4  Later Anabaptists

·         Mennonites: Menno Simons (1496–1561), a Dutch Catholic priest, became an Anabaptist [1536]. His followers were first called brethren, and later called Mennonites. Gradually, other Anabaptist groups were also called Mennonites. They supported pacifism, adult baptism by immersion, footwashing, obedience to civil authorities, but against any oaths. Some of them live in close-knit communities (colonies) even today.

·         Hutterites: Another group was the communal Anabaptists, led by Jakob Hutter (1500–1536) in Germany. His followers were called Hutterites. Based on the early church in the Acts, they adopted a distinct way of life in living together in a community of goods and absolute pacifism.

·         Migration: Persecutions forced them to scatter in Europe. In 18th-c and 19th-c, many migrated to eastern Europe, North America, and South America. Even today, some of them still live in relative isolation away from the society. There are over 400 Hutterite colonies in North America today.

·         Legacy: Various beliefs of Anabaptists survived in the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers.



[1] treasure our heritage

Strong theology established strong foundation for the church.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

God raised up reformers like Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, Farel who were both strong leaders and strong theologians.

[3] avoid past errors

The lack of cooperation between Luther and Zwingli on the question of real presence in communion was a mistake.

[4] apply our knowledge

There are different views on the communion and on predestination, and they should not be a cause for disunity.

[5] follow past saints

Leaders with strong teaching skills such as Zwingli, Calvin, Bucer, Simons produced great impact on the Reformation.



        The German reformists were willing to retain all traditional uses that did not contradict the Bible while the Swiss reformists insisted that all that had not explicit scriptural support must be rejected. What was the cause of this difference? Which position was the correct one?

o        Luther was a former monk so he was more amenable to Roman Catholic traditional practices. The Swiss reformists wanted a clean break with Rome. Since they were suspicious of all Roman traditions, they decided to ground every practice on the Bible.

o        Traditions that are not contrary to the Bible could be good. An example is the use of the organ in helping the worship, so banning the organ was too radical. If strict adherence to the Bible is intended, then perhaps Christians should worship in houses or in synagogues similar to the 1st-c Christians. On the other hand, some traditional practices could be seen as unbiblical, such as prayer for the dead, and prayer of intercession to past saints.

        At Marburg, Luther and Zwingli met. They agreed with almost all the points of faith except how Christ is present in holy communion and Luther said, “We are not of the same spirit.” Do you agree with Luther?

o        There are 4 understanding of the holy communion: Roman Catholic (transubstantiation), Luther (consubstantiation), Calvin (means of grace), Zwingli (symbolic). With the exception of the Catholic position, the other 3 positions are acceptable viewpoints. This is not an essential doctrine and should not divide Christians.

o        However, at Luther’s time, the position of Luther was already radically different from the RCC and it was difficult for him to move closer to Zwingli’s position. As a former monk, Luther probably put much emphasis in the real presence of Christ.

o        Luther’s position was understandable but incorrect. If there were agreements between Luther and Zwingli, there could be closer cooperation between different Protestant groups and the Reformation could be more successful.

        What was the main theological difference between the Lutheran church and the Reformed church? Who held the Biblical position? Who held the Biblical position?

o        The main difference is again on the real presence of Christ in holy communion.

o        Calvin took the intermediate position between Luther and Zwingli. He affirmed that the presence of Christ in communion is real, although spiritual. This means that such presence is not merely symbolic, not a mere devotional exercise, nor is communion a real (and repetitive) sacrifice of the body of Christ. In addition, real grace from God is dispensed to the partakers of the communion.

o        The Bible is not clear on which position is best. Calvin’s position is perhaps a good compromise.

        Why were the Anabaptists persecuted?

o        Anabaptists objected the linking between the church and the state, especially the compromises that the church agreed to in order to share some political power. Because of their objection in the existing power sharing social structure, they were regarded as subversive and a threat to the established social order.

o        They were pacifists so that they rejected being drafted into the army. This aroused the suspicion that they were not loyal to the state.

o        Their egalitarian practice gave women the same rights as men so that they were accused as being disruptive to social order.

o        They were officially accused of both heresy and sedition.

        Can we see the influence of the Anabaptists today?

o        The theology of Anabaptists is represented in the Mennonite churches today. Some of the doctrines are also found in Baptist churches today, though not completely. For example, total pacifism and total separation of church and state are not supported by all Baptist churches.

o        Infant baptism is no longer practiced in many evangelical churches.

        Is pacifism a Biblical mandate?

o        Christians are commanded to seek peace. However, if peace is achieved by the loss of justice, then the pacifist position needs to be reviewed. True peace means peace with justice and freedom (Ps 85:10). Letting unjust invaders freely conquer and plunder your country is not true peace.

o        Augustine supported “just war” by defining the conditions required for a war to be just.