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Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet

"(F. Bruce) Gordon masterfully demonstrates that Zwingli is who we often do not want historical subjects to be: an all-too-human person who confuses, inspires and disappoints us."

F. Bruce Gordon
Yale University Press, 376 pages | Published November 30, 2021

When I read Bruce Gordon’s biography of John Calvin in seminary, it made Calvin seem human — no longer a dour abstraction. In Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet, Gordon does the same for Huldrych Zwingli, the founder of the Reformed tradition who ordinarily resides in Calvin’s shadow.

Like many, I am more familiar with Calvin than his predecessor, and Gordon remedies this imbalance. The discursive structure around Zwingli, however, makes it rather difficult to see who the man truly was. Was he the forerunner of liberal theology and the modern world? Or was he the last gasp of a religiously zealous age? Gordon demonstrates how difficult it is to illuminate Zwingli as various factors obscure his life. His motivation for reform appears to have been driven more by his humanistic learning than by personal anxiety (such as in Martin Luther’s case).

Zwingli died in battle; the kind of death that was viewed as God’s judgment on his life. Paradoxically, his militant approach to the Reformation came after his advocacy for the end of Swiss mercenary service in the wars of Europe. These kinds of contradictions have sometimes made Zwingli a source of embarrassment for Reformed Christians. While our questions, our problems, our concerns will always latch onto any historical subject, Gordon masterfully demonstrates that Zwingli is who we often do not want historical subjects to be: an all-too-human person who confuses, inspires and disappoints us. I felt pulled into Zwingli’s orbit, compelled by his thinking, only to pull away when confronted with the altogether different world that was pre-modern Europe.

When we look back at an ancestor in the faith, we are often motivated by an unspoken question: are they a worthwhile theological companion? The response to Zwingli may be ambiguous. Certainly, Zwingli is worthy of their time — his oft-maligned doctrine of the Lord’s Supper has more merit than the summarized versions presented in Christian ed classes and seminary survey courses. For those wanting a more hopeful and expansive view of predestination, Zwingli’s articulation of the doctrine offers a hopeful view of God’s salvific reach. Those who find Reformed Christianity’s outlook on human sinfulness too bleak might find an antidote in its founder. In these pages, we encounter a lover of music and the created world — as well as a man who poked and prodded the magistrates of Zurich to enact his vision of reform. However, we also read of a man who nodded his head in approval at the drowning of more radical reformers — and who ultimately was so convinced the Reformation needed to be spread by the sword that he lost his life and led his own stepson to destruction in pursuit of these ends.

In Gordon’s hands, Zwingli becomes real; he is not a figure to be recovered to answer the church’s problems nor is he the point where the train went off the rails. Instead, Gordon offers a portrait of a complicated Christian trying to articulate the faith in an uncertain time. This is the ultimate strength of Gordon’s biography — it made me want to read Zwingli’s writing for myself.

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