Gordon Contra McGrath on Zwingli

In his book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, an account of the Protestant Reformation, Alister McGrath contrasts the approaches of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli when it came to reform, and specifically preaching. He describes the substance and emphasis of Zwingli’s ministry after he was installed as the “people’s priest” in Zurich on New Year’s Day 1519 and began preaching systematically through Matthew’s Gospel:

“For Zwingli, scripture was a living and liberating text by means of which God spoke to his people and enabled them to break free from bondage to false ideas and practices. In particular, he held that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount set out a vision for the moral life that was binding on all Christians.

The contrast with Luther here is striking. Like the fourteenth-century English reformer John Wycliffe, Zwingli saw the Bible as setting out divine commandments for human behavior. These were to be contrasted with the human commands of the papacy or state, which did not have the same divine warrant. The proper task of Christian education was to ensure that people were made aware of these divine demands and responded appropriately. For Luther, however, the Bible was primarily about the promises of God–things that God offered to do for humanity, rather than things that God expected humanity to do. (Interestingly, it seems that many misunderstood [Luther] on this point and reverted to ideas similar to those of Wycliffe.) Zwingli’s reforming program makes no reference to Luther’s core doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” Indeed, many scholars see an explicit tension between Zwingli’s moralist understanding of reformation and Luther’s emphasis on the grace of God.”[1]

(emphasis mine)

McGrath wrote this in 2007. I’m strongly tempted to read an implicit criticism here, since I know McGrath is an evangelical scholar who would be critical of moralism. Yet, we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and take this as a dispassionate summary and assessment of Zwingli’s ministry.

However, we can raise the question of whether McGrath’s summary and assessment are actually accurate. We find a markedly different description of Zwingli’s approach to ministry in Bruce Gordon’s more recent 2021 book, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet. This is Gordon likewise describing the flavour of Zwingli’s ministry at its outset in 1519:

“That Zwingli was called to preach in Zurich was not in itself remarkable: it was what he said that was electrifying. Medieval preaching was full of exempla and familiar accounts of sin and virtue, but Zwingli presented to his listeners the full drama of the gospel story, from the opening genealogies of Matthew to Christ’s Great Commission.

On Sunday, 1 January 1519, the newly arrived priest entered the pulpit in the Grossmunster to preach on his beloved Gospel of Matthew, having resigned his living in Glarus and having delivered his last sermon in the Benedictine abbey at Einsiedeln. Zwingli had informed the canons of his plan to abandon the set readings of the lectionary and to preach from the beginning of the gospel to its conclusion, as he had done in Einsiedeln. Through the cold weeks of January and February, each Sunday Zwingli took up where he had left off in the previous sermon, to continue the journey through the lives of the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, the Apostles and the first Christians. The priest who stood before the people was a dedicated follower of Erasmus, passionately committed to putting Christ before the people by bringing them the gospel. The conviction of power and accessibility of the Word, set out by his mentor in the preface to the Greek New Testament, had become Zwingli’s agenda. Zwingli’s later adoption of Matthew 11:28-30 as his motto – ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ – was an expression of his spiritual indebtedness to Erasmus.”[2]

(emphasis mine)

The contrast between Gordon and McGrath is as marked as McGrath’s supposed contrast between Luther and Zwingli. In McGrath’s telling, we have Zwingli as the avowed moralist, listing commandments, essentially preaching Law; in Gordon’s telling, we have Zwingli offering rest to weary sinners, retelling the deeds of the Lord, and essentially preaching Gospel. So which is it?

It’s undeniable, as McGrath suggests, that Zwingli found a radical program for Christian social reform in the Scriptures, which he sought to enact in his brief but tumultuous ministry in Zurich, and which proved to be his downfall. We discussed a while back on the Ad Fontes podcast (when discussing Gordon’s book) that the rapidity and intensity of the Swiss Reformation left Zwingli with little time to formulate a coherent ecclesiology, the result being a highly muddled relationship between the Church and the civil authorities which, despite Zwingli’s hostility toward Rome, remained essentially a medieval one. Zwingli’s insistence on adherence to his program of reform for both church and society grew more intense throughout the 1520s, coming to its first head in 1529. At that time, five of the Swiss states were Catholic, and were putting heavy pressure on Zurich and the other Protestant states. Zwingli became increasingly convinced that military action would be necessary to safeguard his reform efforts.

Zwingli got his wish in the First Kappel War, a brief conflict between the Reformed states (principally Zurich) and the Catholic Five States in June 1529. Zwingli wanted two things out of this fight: the freedom for Protestants to preach in Catholic territories, and the abolition of pensions for mercenary soldiers (a practice he found morally abhorrent, regarding it as blood-money and an offense to Switzerland’s own proud military identity). He got neither when the Reformed and Catholic states soon signed a peace treaty.[3]

It’s at this stage that we can say, colloquially, that Zwingli went off the rails (and the Colloquy of Marburg a few months later didn’t help). He condemned the treaty as an unconscionable compromise, drafted a lone-wolf statement of faith viciously lambasting Catholics, Lutherans, and Anabaptists alike, and called for further military action. All this led to his own fairly pathetic end at Catholic hands in the rather grandly named Second War of Kappel in 1531–essentially a couple of skirmishes, in which Zwingli died an ignominious death with a few dozen others (although, to his credit, he had some pretty badass last words).

McGrath, then, is certainly right about what ultimately became a prevailing moralism in Zwingli’s career. And Gordon, it must be said, does not simply paint Zwingli as a gentle and lowly preacher of promises. In his own contrast of Luther and Zwingli, Gordon skirts close to portraying him as Luther’s antithetical “theologian of glory”: “Whereas Luther pointed the faithful to the theology of the cross, Zwingli’s inclination was for the dynamic figure of the living Christ.”[4] Zwingli, appealing to native Swiss militarism, often called Christ “captain” or “leader”, even titling him ‘optimus maximus’, a title usually given to the Roman god Jupiter.[5] Gordon undoubtedly characterises Zwingli as one most immediately concerned with the external reform of Church and society, over and against Luther’s emphasis on the internal reform of the individual. And yet Gordon rejects any easy bifurcation in Zwingli between external and internal, between Law and Gospel. The two are closely related in ways which modern Christians find hard to get their heads around.

Perhaps McGrath’s biggest mistake in how he talks about Zwingli is that his claims are totalising ones. Perhaps he doesn’t mean to be so black-and-white, but what he’s written he’s written. We can take two of his claims and see if they really stand up.

First: “Zwingli saw the Bible as setting out divine commandments for human behavior”–certainly true, but is this all he saw it as, or even principally what he saw it as? The way McGrath states it, one must presume so. But Gordon paints a different, more detailed picture. Both cannot be right. Gordon, it seems fair to say, paints a far more convincing and well-evidenced picture. In fairness to McGrath, Gordon wrote 14 years later, and his work is now surely the benchmark volume on Zwingli in English. Zwingli is an immense unknown in many ways, so perhaps McGrath’s portrayal was more excusable in 2007 than in 2021.

Second: “Zwingli’s reforming program makes no reference to Luther’s core doctrine of “justification by faith alone”–is that true? McGrath points out earlier in the book that Luther and Zwingli’s reform movements arose entirely independently of one another (the main common factor being the influence of Erasmus). And so, one wouldn’t expect to have Zwingli making precisely the same emphases as Luther, or to articulate things in the same way. But even a quick look at the small amount of Zwingli’s work available in English demonstrates that McGrath grossly overstates his case. And these works were available in 2007.

Consider this passage from Zwingli’s 1527 work “Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists”. He’s just been discussing the relationship between election, predestination, calling, justification, and faith. If all of these contribute to salvation, Zwingli asks, why do we say that “salvation is by faith?”

“But why is salvation attributed to faith above the others? Why does Paul use this link out of the chain? I reply, because that is best known to us. For each one questions and examines conscience according to Peter’s word. If it rightly replies, i.e. if with full assurance he thinks correctly of God, he has now the surest seal of eternal salvation. For who has faith is called, who is called is predestined, who is predestined is elected, who is elected is foreordained. But God’s election remains firm. Therefore they who have faith are justified. For this is justification, piety, religion and service of the Most High God. So that no condemnation awaits them, for they are not of those who say: Let us sin that the glory of God may be the brighter, but of those who as often as they sin through weakness return to God and pray: Forgive us our sins. They are not of those who, when they have sinned, are so far from returning to a correct state of mind that they fall into impiety and assert that there is no God, but of those who grieve not so much because they have offended every creature as that they have offended God alone, their own heart and soul and mind, and then say: Against thee only have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight. This, I say, is the justification of faith ; to these all things are for good, but the contrary to the impious.”[6]

(emphasis mine)

Now, this is 1527. Zwingli’s ever-developing thoughts and attitudes went a long way between then and his death in 1531, as we’ve seen. Yet McGrath’s claims about Zwingli are so totalising that, even if he had lapsed into an outright moralism by the end of his life, it’s simply not true to say that it characterised his entire ministry. Zwingli openly referred to justification by faith alone, plain and simple.

I don’t really say any of this to defend Zwingli. He’s a startling figure, yet one barely known by most people interested in church history. Gordon’s book has gone a long way toward really understanding the man. But it’s important for those of us who see opureslves as part of the Protestant story which McGrath has done his part to narrate to ensure that we don’t trade in easy caricatures. As we’ve said, Zwingli’s principal reason for going to war was not actually social reform, but contending for the right of Protestants to preach in Catholic territories–something which, he was confident, would in time lead to the church reforms which were needed. Today, we might not fathom how a Christian could take up the sword for that (although we do fight hard for religious liberty at home and abroad). But we have to take the likes of Zwingli on their own terms. As far as he was concerned, he died for the Gospel, not the Law.


  1. Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 68.

  2. Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021), 50.

  3. Gordon, Zwingli, 224.

  4. Gordon, Zwingli, 157.

  5. Gordon, Zwingli, 157.

  6. Huldrych Zwingli, “Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists (1527)” in Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli, The Reformer of German Switzerland, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1901), 239-240, https://archive.org/details/huldreichzwingli00jackuoft/page/n249/mode/2up?view=theater&q=justified.

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