Did Luther and Zwingli Stop Short of Sola Scriptura?

July 30, 2013

by Ron F. Hale

Martin Luther was seven weeks old when Ulrich Zwingli was born in the Toggenburg Valley of the Swiss Alps on January 1, 1484. These two future theologians would shake Christendom, and the reverberations can still be felt today. They were born 25 years before John Calvin, making them the first generation of reformers of the Roman Catholic Church.

This short essay asks a simple question: Did Luther and Zwingli (and those who soon followed them) stop short of looking to Scripture as the supreme authority in all spiritual matters? While Luther and Zwingli’s group (Beza, Bucer, Calvin, etc.), would be called the Magisterial Reformers,[1] there was another group called the Radical Reformers[2]. This latter group (also called the Anabaptists) desired a true reformation and revival of NT beliefs and practices, thereby, forsaking the state run paradigm of sacramentalism and many of the traditions of the Church.

In the pivotal year of 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Abbey door in Wittenberg, and Zwingli grappled with recommitting his life to Christ after serious study of the Greek NT and studying some works of Erasmus. The next year, 1518, Zwingli was called as the people’s priest of the Grossmünster in Zürich.

Zwingli and Luther[3] were witnessing a cauldron of change in Europe as feudalism was collapsing and a new monetary system was developing. A prosperous class of bankers, merchants, and artisans emerged, while feudal lords fought to hold on to the past and life for peasants and serfs was became unbearable. The printing press was propelling the speed of the Reformation through the publication of Bibles, books, tracts, and religious pamphlets. The Renaissance had given people a quest for knowledge along with the fortitude to question authority figures and centuries-old traditions.

By 1521, Zwingli had gained a following of young intellectuals due to his scholarship, force of personality, and position. Among this group was Conrad Grebel. Zwingli introduced them to the Greek New Testament and the works of Erasmus. After several years of intense study, some of the young scholars were driven by scriptural convictions that worried Zwingli. They saw in scripture the practice of believer’s baptism. They came to believe that baptism must be preceded by repentance, and the candidate for baptism should be capable of repentance.[4] This preclusion of infant baptism was a radical idea, and many would die in the coming years for not baptizing their babies and/or being re-baptized as adults. Differing views on the Catholic Mass added tention as the Anabaptists saw a very simple and symbolic Lord’s Supper taught in the NT.

On the historic night of January 21, 1525, a dozen young men arrived at the home of Felix Manx, near the Grossmünster.  After a time of prayer, George Blaurock (a priest from Chur), stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. After Blaurock was baptized, he in turn baptized all the others, and the Anabaptism movement was born. This group pledged themselves as true disciples of Christ by teaching the gospel, holding the faith, and separating themselves from the world. This group of men would be called the Swiss Brethren, and they emphasized the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ as essential to salvation and a prerequisite to baptism.[5]

After failing to convince Zwingli of introducing believer’s baptism into the Reformation, some of the Swiss Brethren acted out their convictions by withholding their children from the traditional infant baptism still administered by Zwingli. The relationship between Zwingli and Grebel deteriorated quickly.[6]

Grebel and others felt that Zwingli had reneged on an earlier commitment to change the Mass to a simple observance of the Lord’s Supper on Christmas Day, 1523. Therefore, the issue of baptism and the Lord’s Supper became part of a greater issue of the overall nature of the Church. The Swiss Brethren did not see Zwingli parting ways with a state run church.

After a public disputation in January of 1525, the Zürich Council proclaimed Zwingli the victor and denounced the Swiss Brethren. They were given three choices. They could conform, leave Zürich, or face imprisonment. They would choose imprisonment, and some of this original group would be martyred.[7]

On March 7, 1526, a mandate was passed making the act of performing believer’s baptism a crime punishable by death.[8]  Thousands of deaths would occur over the next 200 years as Anabaptists were hunted, imprisoned, tortured, drowned, and burned at the stake by Roman Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers.

By their do-or-die commitment to scriptural baptism, the Swiss Brethren of Zürich certainly believed that Zwingli (and other Magisterial Reformers) stopped short of looking to Scripture as the supreme authority (Sola Scriptura) in all spiritual matters of salvation, church ordinances, and church governance.

[1] The term “Magisterial Reformers” relates to the group that chose an interdependent relationship of church and state as Lutherans and Calvinist reformers related to secular authorities, such as city councils, magistrates, etc.

[2] The Radical Reformers (Anabaptists or rebaptizers) were opposed to infant baptism and other practices of the state run church. They desired to move the church back to pre-Constantine rule or the biblicism of the Apostles. Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers persecuted the Anabaptists. Careful study is required because many small non-conformist groups get lumped into the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists in Zurich called themselves the Swiss Brethren.

[3] Prior to Zwingli and Luther, the work of John Wycliffe and John Hus paved the way for the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church burned Hus at the stake on July 6, 1415. The following paragraph captures his yearning to reform the RCC of its errant ways. His states: “One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.” John Wycliffe has been called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” Wycliffe suffered a stroke while he was saying Mass on December 28, 1384, and died before the year ended. Almost 30 years later, the Council of Constance decreed Wycliffe a heretic and had his body exhumed. On July 6, 1415, his bones and writings were burned at the stake. Notice that the RCC had Wycliffe’s body burned on the same day Hus was burned alive. The work of Wycliffe and Hus set the stage for the Reformation and the ministry of both Luther and Zwingli.

[4] Erasmus provided a new and accurate translation of the NT based on the best Greek sources. Prior to the work of Erasmus, the Latin Vulgate translated the Greek word for “repent” as “penance” or “do penance.” The error is evident as it changed the meaning of “repent” to a human action instead of an attitude of godly sorrow wrought by the Holy Spirit.

[5] William R. Estep, the Anabaptist Story, 3rd Edition, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 14.

[6] Ibid, 15.

[7] Ibid, 12-13.

[8] Ibid. 43.