Two New Popular Biographies Of Zwingli

Since this is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (October 31, 1517) this has been understandably designated the “Luther Year.” There were, however, other figures in the Reformation, who made their own contribution. Huldrych (or Ulrich) Zwingli (1484–1531) is among the more significant first-generation Reformers. Despite the fact that he was Luther’s contemporary and frequent adversary, and despite his significance for the Reformed tradition in the Reformation, he is relatively ignored. In my first year of teaching the seminary course in Medieval and Reformation church history I commented in passing that though there are societies devoted to the study of Luther and Calvin there is no such Zwingli Studies Society. Some of the students took that as a challenge and began meeting as the “Zwingli Society.” However interesting the discussions were (and sometimes they were), the study of Zwingli was not advanced. Remarkably, there is still no actual English-language Zwingli Studies Society. There is, however, a Swiss organization devoted to the study of Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation: Zwingliverein, which was founded in 1897, which publishes the magazine Zwingliana in association with Die Institut für Schweizerische Reformationsgeschichte.

In 2013–14 our library accessioned 7 English-language titles containing the word Luther. Luther titles began to appear with more frequency, of course, as the LutherPalooza approached. This year, who knows how many Luther titles will appear. Of course, Zwingli titles appear much more infrequently but Zwingli deserves some attention. Though most of the Reformed churches ended up dissenting from his theology and practice in certain significant ways (e.g., on the Supper and his distinction between original sin and original guilt), we are all indebted to him in other ways. E.g., Zwingli and others (such as Johannes Oecolamapdius) articulated as early as 1524 the basic outlines of the Reformed understanding of redemptive history and covenant theology over against the Swiss Brethren (Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier et al) and other Anabaptists or Catabaptists (those who opposed the Biblical and Christian doctrine of baptism) as he called them.

So we should be thankful for the work of William Boekestein who has published two popular biographies of Zwingli in recent years. The first is Ulrich Zwingli (2015) in the Bitesize Biographies series published by EP Books. This well-written volume comes with impressive commendations from two well-known Swiss scholars, J. I. Packer, and our own Bob Godfrey, among others. It contains a helpful timeline to orient the reader, the Sixty-Seven Articles (1523), a nice general introduction to Swiss life and culture in the period, and helpful suggestions for further study.

The second biography, Ulrich Zwingli: Shepherd Warrior (2016) is published by Christian Focus and is thematically oriented around Zwingli’s ambivalent relations to the Swiss tradition of hiring one’s self out as a mercenary. This engaging volume is aimed at younger readers and uses historical fiction as device to draw young readers into Zwingi’s life and world. It includes a two-page summary of Zwingli’s life, a timeline, and a short reflection about the role and nature of religious violence in the Reformation.

With these two volumes Boekestein, a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America, has done us a service by providing accessible, popular pathways into Zwingli’s world, life, theology, piety, and practice and for that we are in his debt.

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