Zwingli’s Theocracy

Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) was the first of the Reformed theologians. He was born on New Year’s Day 1484, a little more than seven weeks after the birth of Martin Luther. He is remembered primarily for his reforming work as the leading pastor in the Swiss city of Zurich.

He addressed major theological topics in An Exposition of the Articles (1523), a work that developed the sixty-seven articles that Zwingli had set forth at the first disputation. He presented teaching on church and state, minister and magistrate in ten of the articles (Art. 34 –43).

Doctrine of the Church

Zwingli labored in a setting in which church and society were identical. The church was not a distinct entity in the larger society. The church and Zurich were one and the same thing. Zwingli nevertheless distinguished between minister and magistrate. The office of the minister is to teach the Word of God (art. 36). Rulers, on the other hand, “look after the office of the sword” (art. 41). In this connection, Zwingli addressed the pope, who wanted to take up arms against the Ottoman Turks who were threatening Europe. Zwingli exhorted, “Listen to Christ, oh pope, ‘Put it away’”—referring here to the sword. “The secular princes,” he said, “are undoubtedly quite capable of protecting their own land.” He then added, “Take no other sword into your hand than the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God” (art. 36).

Bishops, in addition, were not to rule temporal domains. “Priests should not govern at all, not even in the office which God has given them.” “They are to govern,” he contended, “even less extensively in worldly matters” (art. 34). Here it should be pointed out that there is a disconnect between what Zwingli taught and what he did as a minister. He actually did become involved in the political affairs of Zurich. After his early death, the Zurich Council determined that his successors would not participate in civic affairs in the way that Zwingli had done.

Doctrine of the State

Zwingli preferred an aristocracy—the kind of government reflected in the Zurich Council—to democracy or monarchy. Monarchies were particularly dangerous because they tended to degenerate into tyranny. Where monarchies existed there needed to be a constitutional provision for deposition. The tyrant “may be deposed in the name of God.” “It is not to be done,” however, “with killing, war and rioting.” He reasoned that the individuals who installed the king had the right to remove him. If the common people elected him, “then the people are also to depose him.” If the princes elevated him, they had the authority to “order him to be deposed” (art. 42).
The magistrates were to rule in accordance with the divine law. They were to see to it that “all laws ought to be brought into harmony with the law of God” (art. 39). In this general sense, Zurich became somewhat theocratic under Zwingli’s reform program. It was not, however, a theocracy in the strict definition of a state that is ruled by ministers or the church. This is underscored, for example, in the elimination of church courts. Zwingli wrote, “All judicial authority and the administration of justice which the so-called priestly estate appropriates to itself, really belongs to the temporal authority” (art. 36).

Discipline in the Church

This position corresponds with Zwingli’s view that the sins of Christians should be punished by the state, not the church (this position would later be designated Erastianism, named after Thomas Erastus, who embraced the Zwinglian position on discipline in the church). Zwingli gave to the magistrate the authority to excommunicate, to remove members from the church for the good of the church. The problem in the church, Zwingli noted, was that “there are still some rams among the flock of Christ who are so bold as to give no heed either to teaching or ban.” In such a case, the “government has to see to it that the strong, well-fed rams do not destroy the poor, weak sheep.” This means that “they ought to see to it that they protect and punish” (art. 39). Zwingli noted that there are people in the visible church who are “insolent and hostile,” who “have no faith.” It is because of this reality that “there arises the need of government for the punishment of flagrant sinners, whether it be the government of princes or that of nobility” (The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 24, 266).

Capital Punishment and War

In addition to his care of the church, the magistrate in Zwingli’s thought held the office of the sword. He alone in the domestic sphere had the authority to “impose the death penalty” (art. 40). He also was to use the sword against foreign aggressors. With respect to this issue, Zwingli alluded to the classical just war concerns of medieval theology, the justice of war (jus ad bellum) and justice in war (jus in bello) categories.

His most intense concern related to the tradition of Swiss mercenary service.1 The soldiers of the Swiss cantons had developed a reputation as skilled combatants and were in high demand as paid soldiers in foreign governments. They were renowned for attacks in huge columns with the long pike. From the very beginning of his ministry as a parish priest at Glarus, Zwingli attacked the mercenary trade as immoral and preached against it. He asserted later that “professional warfare is inhuman, shameless and sinful” (art. 40).
A major problem with the mercenary system was that Swiss soldiers ended up participating in campaigns that were initiated without a just cause. “If in war one only injured the disobedient,” Zwingli reasoned, “we could put up with it.” He then asked, “But how do you explain the fact that you take money from a foreign lord to aid him wantonly destroy, damage, and ravage countries innocent of all guilt?” Works, vol. 1, 142.

Tragedy at Kappel

Five Roman Catholic cantons declared war on Zurich in 1531. A small Zurich army of two thousand men confronted a larger Catholic force of eight thousand near Kappel on October 11. Zwingli joined the Zurich forces as a chaplain. He had taught that ministers ought not to wield the sword, but he decided in the emergency of the moment to take up the sword and to fight alongside his soldiers. He died in the ensuing engagement that lasted less than an hour. The Catholic soldiers desecrated his body, quartering and burning it and then mixing it with cow dung.

Interpretations are varied on the tragedy at Kappel. Luther regarded Zwingli’s death on the field of battle as the judgment of God upon him. From another perspective, Zwingli can be seen as a brave patriot who gave his life in defense of the gospel and the church in Zurich.
            
1. His teaching on war was also informed by his experience. He witnessed the devastation of war at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, which pitted the French army led by Francis I against the Old Swiss Confederacy. The battle was a decisive French victory—the Swiss were heavily outnumbered and outgunned. Six thousand Swiss soldiers lost their lives. The carnage was a turning point in Swiss history. It was the last battle fought by a Swiss army on foreign soil. The Swiss Confederacy never again mounted a military offensive against an external enemy. The bloodshed no doubt had a sobering effect on Zwingli as well.

Dr. Mark J. Larson is a minister of the Word and sacraments in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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