Review: Zwingli, God’s Armed Prophet By Bruce Gordon

Zwingli, God’s Armed Prophet is Bruce Gordon’s most recent contribution to Reformation history. Gordon is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale University and formerly headed up the Saint Andrews Reformation Study Institute in Scotland. Professor Gordon is also affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), and has written extensively on the Reformed tradition, including biographies of Calvin, and on The Institutes of the Christian Religion, as well as an acclaimed book on the Swiss Reformation. This biography is a welcome addition to the furtherance of the understanding of the thoughts and lives of the Protestant Reformers in sixteenth-century Europe. I do, however, have some reservations about it.

Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) is one of the most significant first-generation Reformers. Among Zwingli’s remarkable achievements in the Reformation in Zurich are the first Reformed liturgy of the Lord’s Supper (in 1525) and the first entire Bible printed in (Swiss) German (in 1531). Zwingli was a humanist priest, heavily indebted to Erasmus. He served both de jure and de facto (after his resignation from the priesthood) as the people’s priest in Zurich for about twelve years (1519–1531), where he dominated the city councils, influencing them to adopt evangelical reforms. In the modern world, Zwingli is perhaps most well-known as the Protestant Reformer who believed that virtuous pagans go to heaven and who died in a religious war. Gordon’s biography reassesses the early Reformation and Zwingli’s part in it.

Gordon brings out some unique features of the Zurich Reformer, such as his early fornication and his dream of the Lord’s Supper as the Passover meal of the new covenant (42, 171). Otherwise, Gordon’s biography highlights the political and religious reforms Zwingli made, from the time of his arrival there at the end of 1518 until his death in 1531. In 1522, Zwingli resigned as priest but still preached, effectively becoming the preacher of Zurich (85). It was at this time that he became the first Reformer to marry (Anna Reinhart; 68) and stopped celebrating the mass (99). The final two chapters do quite a good job of describing the afterlife of Zwingli, from his successor Bullinger to a 2019 movie adaptation, Zwingli. The careful student will also appreciate the extended timeline and maps at the beginning of the book, as well as the annotated bibliography at the end.

One point of apprehension I have about this book is that the author provides his own translations of original source material (in Latin and German) and yet does not give the original language version in the end notes. Of course, this may have been the decision of the publisher; nevertheless, it leaves scholars who know the original languages in the dark and unable to detect nuances that often get lost in translation. Whenever the author does not provide his own translations, he uses extant translations, but even here he admits that “extensive alterations were made” (xv). Without the original translation, readers are left wondering what changes the author has made.

Another apprehension I have is that the book sometimes quotes secondary sources to make key points about sixteenth-century authors. This makes me nervous because I believe we need to hear from the primary sources in order to establish what they believe. I fear that the book may project Calvin’s view of Christ’s spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper back onto Zwingli, who saw the rite as a mere memorial. Moreover, the book relies on secondary literature when it discusses the comparison between the two Reformers on the Eucharist. For example, on page 173 Gordon claims that Zwingli believed in Christ’s spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper, and in the footnote (n 35) he references a wide range of secondary sources on the debate of the Lord’s Supper in the Reformation era. I would have greater confidence in the supposition that Zwingli held to the spiritual presence if Gordon had quoted Zwingli himself to that effect. Another example occurs on pages 268 and 269 (n 49 and 50), where Gordon discusses Calvin’s reception of Zwingli (which was scant, as Calvin did not want to have anything to do with Zwingli). Gordon quotes secondary sources in order to quote Calvin. Again, I would have greater confidence in the accuracy of the quotations if they had been taken from Calvin himself. What is more, he provides no end note to support his claim that Calvin “was adamant that Zwingli was wrong in his expression of Christ’s presence in the sacrament” (268). I thought it was universally accepted that Zwingli denied the presence of Christ in the elements while Calvin believed in the spiritual presence of Christ in them.

Finally, I am afraid that Gordon is wrong in his premise that Zwingli is on a level playing field with Luther (1483–1546) and Calvin (1509–1564), when he writes, “Zwingli has long been cast as a lesser man than Martin Luther and as the warm-up act for John Calvin. Neither view stands up to scrutiny” (6). I have wondered whether this was Gordon’s thesis—namely, that Zwingli is an underrated Reformer who deserves to be on equal footing with Luther and Calvin—but the book never states a clear thesis. In any case, I maintain that Luther and Calvin were superior Reformers to Zwingli. Zwingli himself readily conceded that Luther was the superior theologian (6), and Calvin stood on both their shoulders as well as the myriad of other contemporary Reformers who supported the evangelical cause. Zwingli cannot be denied his place among the Reformers, but from what I have read thus far, Luther and Calvin heralded law and gospel more forcefully, whereas Zwingli was more of a political-legal Reformer who died in a holy war.

Gordon’s portrayal of Zwingli as an “embattled prophet” seems to whitewash Zwingli’s lust to conquer and kill (302). We must condemn Zwingli’s violent actions, fighting Catholics in the First Kappel War (in 1529) and the Second Kappel War (in 1531) and drowning Anabaptists. But I also think that this is how Zwingli would have viewed himself—as an embattled prophet. Professor Gordon thus strips away all dogmatic prejudices and accommodations by theologians and gives us an unaccommodated Zwingli.

All in all, Gordon’s book provides a fresh perspective on Zwingli as the founder of the Reformed movement. Zwingli’s pivotal role in the Swiss Reformation is undeniable. With all of its faults, Zwingli, God’s Armed Prophet is a fine introduction to the life of the reformer of Zurich.

©Casey Carmichael. All Rights Reserved.

Gordon, Bruce. Zwingli, God’s Armed Prophet by Bruce Gordon. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021.


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Posted by Casey Carmichael | Thursday, November 16, 2023 | Categorized in Books, Church History, Reviews. Casey Carmichael. Bookmark the permalink.

About Casey Carmichael

Casey Carmichael holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Geneva. He is the author of A Continental View: Johannes Cocceius's Federal Theology of the Sabbath (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019). He is also the coeditor of the Classic Reformed Theology series, published by Reformation Heritage Books. He has translated various works from the Reformed tradition, including J. H. Heidegger's Concise Marrow of Christian Theology and John Calvin's Necessity of Reforming the Church.