“Scholarship at Prayer”: Zwingli’s Prophezei and the Pastoral Task

I am still reading Bruce Gordon’s excellent new biography of Huldrych Zwingli, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet. I blogged a little while ago about Zwingli’s preaching; at that stage, we were in 1519 – the Reformation was in its earliest days, and Zwingli’s systematic preaching was beginning to transform Zurich.

Fast-forward to 1525, and Zwingli’s commitment to the centrality of Scripture had only intensified. He had resigned as a priest, having denounced the theology of the Roman mass, but remained as a “city preacher”, and his influence grew and grew. He became the city’s leading religious figure, given ongoing remit to reform the city’s religious life.

Despite his charismatic personality, and his status as a singular figure, Zwingli clearly understood the need for a collective Reformation effort. This led to the establishment of the Prophezei – the first organisation of Reformation higher education. It’s quite a captivating vision for the role of the pastor:

In the summer of 1525, Zwingli’s nascent vision came to full fruition with the establishment of a regular meeting of a group of scholars who would undertake public interpretation of the Old Testament, working from the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. In On the Preaching Office of 1525, Zwigli declared the two roles of the prophet to be to resist evil and plant good, and to engage in the public exposition of scripture. The Prophezei, as it was later named, was the visible, communal expression of Zwingli’s ideal of Church and pastor – scholarship at prayer. The sessions began on 19 June 1525 in the Grossmunster [Zurich’s chief church], with a clear order that they were to undertake a combination of study and worship. The symbolism was powerful. Gathering in the choir of Zurich’s principal church, the scholars appropriated the authority of the medieval Church, replacing hierarchy with learning and prayer. The event was thoroughly ecclesiastical, in that the interpretation of the Bible belonged in the sacred space of the church, but was performed by the new priesthood.

The Prophezei began work at eight o’clock that first morning, turning to the opening of Genesis in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German. The sessions then took place every day of the week except Fridays and Sundays, with the canons, city clergy, and students of the Latin School required to attend. The plan was simple: to work through all the books of the Old Testament – and when finished, to start again. This focus reversed the lack of regard for the Old Testament demonstrated by many radicals. Its line-by-line approach echoed the lectio continua style of Zwingli’s preaching through the Bible.


Zwingli derived the name Prophezei from 1 Corinthians 14, in which the Apostle Paul eagerly desires people to “prophesy” (14:5), and instructs that “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (14:32). Prophecy, for Zwingli, was not words of knowledge but the incisive and insightful teaching of the Scriptures, and it must be subject to the prophets of the church, who are its teaching pastors.

I am very taken with Gordon’s description of Zwingli’s vision for the prophet-pastor: “scholarship at prayer.” But such a description might cause many to balk these days. We expect our pastors to be at prayer, sure. But do we expect them to be “scholars”?

Well, let’s ask: what led Zwingli to think of the pastoral task in such a way?

Reflecting on the Prophezei, four key features of the pastoral task as Zwingli saw it seem to leap out. The first two, I think, demonstrate why he saw the pastor’s role as scholarship. The second two demonstrate why he saw it as scholarship at prayer.

Pastoring is a Scriptural Task

At the centre of the Prophezei is the study of the Scriptures themselves. They, not the Pope, were the highest authority. Interpreting and teaching them is the central work of pastoral ministry.

Prioritising the scriptural task of pastoral ministry necessitated, for Zwingli, special emphasis on Scripture in the original languages – an attitude he shared with basically all Reformers. Debates go round in circles now about how much knowledge of these pastors need today, and whether it’s sufficient for just the scholars to maintain the languages. I won’t get into that – but either way, a maintenance of expertise in the original languages is essential somewhere in the church.

But no one has ever thought that the laity, by and large, need the original languages. Rather, the pastor must bridge the gap from the original text to the vernacular translation used by his congregation, which is why the Prophezei also included the German text.

We might wonder why they bothered including the Greek Septuagint Latin text, given the Reformation drive for vernacular translations, and some of the Latin Vulgate’s notable errors. However, the Vulgate had been the translation of the church for a millenia, and the Septuagint the predominant translation of the Old Testament before then, and so attention to these provided both a chance to discern their errors and their effects, but also a chance to understand how prior generations had interpreted the Scriptures. This pivots us nicely to our next point.

Pastoring is a Churchly Task

The set-up of the Prophezei might seem to fall prey to one of Rome’s chief criticisms of Protestantism: that it results in an interpretative free-for-all. In a room full of men and their Bibles, debating and speculating outside of submission to the papacy, won’t everyone just be his own pope, deciding doctrine for himself?

However, by holding the Prophezei in the choir of the church, beneath the towering spires and soaring arches of the Grossmunster, Zwingli was communicating that the task of interpretation was still subject to the consensus of the church. Scripture is the supreme authority, and interprets itself, but this interpretation must be received and articulated by the collective church.

Zwingli clearly did not regard this task as the reserve of an elite above the normal clergy. Gordon notes that Zwingli’s earliest reform efforts, circa 1521, involved a focus on “learned men” (p.142), but the Prophezei sessions consisted of both scholars and regular clergy. Zwingli seemed to think the two needed to keep company with one another, interacting in regular (even daily!) discussion for the good of the church.

I think is exactly what Zwingli understood from 1 Corinthians 14:32 – that prophecy must be subject to the prophets; teaching must be weighed and sifted collectively by those ordained to the church’s teaching offices. It is precisely the opposite of a free-for-all. The following verse explains why: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (14:33).

It is not the pastor’s role to present his own disordered reflections on a text when he preaches each Sunday. Rather, it is his role to present the peaceful consensus of the historic church.

Pastoring is a Pastoral Task

Here, we shift from “scholarship” to “at prayer”.

The Prophezei may also seem to be a bit of a nerdy indulgence – learned urban clergy spending weekday mornings nerding out over translational differences and lexicography. However, the entire thing was geared towards the eventual task of pastoring and preaching. And how could it not be, given how Zwingli’s career in Zurich began?

Gordon describes how the Prophezei sessions directly (and promptly) benefited the laity:

Once the Latin, Hebrew, and Greek texts had been fully examined, Zwingli would draw together and summarize the theological fruits. Clearly the principle voice of the Zurich Church, Zwingli turned the finely tuned philological work into a doctrinal explanation. When he had finished, it fell to Leo Jud [Zwingli’s colleague] to prepare a sermon based on Zwingli’s words, to be delivered in German for the faithful who had come to the Grossmunster for the final part of the session.


There was no room for the Prophezei to keep their scholarship entirely to themselves, or to turn it into an idle kind of intellectual entertainment. It must, one way or another, bless the life of their flocks.

Pastoring is A Liturgical Task

On the surface, the Prophezei might seem to massively downplay the role of worship in the church. After all, holding it in the choir of the church seems like a pretty direct statement, and the sessions had replaced what would once have been the daily morning mass. We could imagine Jud’s sermons being something like a lecture.

But the sessions began with a prayer, penned in Latin by Zwingli. This prayer was then repeated in German when the laity joined the final part. And things concluded with a lengthy intercessory prayer, petitioning God to apply the truths which had been studied in the lives of the hearers.

This is perhaps the weakest of my four points here, but it’s worth noting that the Prophezei was not the same as the Sunday worship in Zurich, so it shouldn’t be assessed too much on its liturgical character. But even the relatively bare-bones structure of the sessions’ prayers demonstrate something of a liturgical mindset in Zwingli’s vision for the pastorate. The scholarship of the Scriptures and theology should never be unaccompanied by a prayerful approach to God, intercession, and a kind of benediction and dismissal.

Are We Scholars at Prayer?

Describing pastors as “scholars” can seem rather grand. It may even seem like a total misconstrual of the pastoral task. Isn’t it, after all, a vocational one? I get into discussions about this regularly at the minute, and have been reflecting that debates about scholarship vs. vocation often just result in me and others talking past one another. Perhaps viewing the pastoral task as “scholarship at prayer”, a la Zwingli, can help to thread the needle somewhat.

Zwingli plainly did not regard pastors being scholars as meaning pastors had to be academics – that’s why the Prophezei was a mixture of both the clergy and the scholars proper (as well as their students). For the pastor to be a scholar meant studying the Scriptures in the company of these men, cross-pollinating with one another for the good of the church. But for these scholars to be at prayer meant having one eye always on how this would benefit the laity who were about to walk through the door, in both preaching and worship.


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