Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Brutal Death of Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich Zwingli was a brilliant scholar and able reformer who trusted too much in the power of the sword too advance the cause of Christ. He was the chief reformer of the Church in Zurich, Switzerland in 1531 when the so-called "Five Cantons" (a canton is a state within a country) allied as Roman Catholic states, joined their armies (largely manned by mercenaries) and advanced upon Zurich. Zwingli irrationally welcomed the futile battle with the Five Cantons, something his actions helped to cause. J.H. Merle D'Aubigne gives a vivid description of the end of Zwingli's (spelled "Zwingle") life. It's well worth the read-

Alas! he had himself called up this hurricane by quitting the atmosphere of the
Gospel of peace, and throwing himself into the midst of political passions. He was convinced that he would be its first victim. Fifteen days before the attack of the Waldstettes, he had said from the pulpit: "I know the meaning of all this: I am the person specially pointed at. All this comes to pass—in order that I may die." The council, according to an ancient custom, had called upon him to accompany the army as its chaplain. Zwingle did not hesitate. He prepared himself without surprise and without anger,—with the calmness of a Christian who places himself confidently in the hands of his God.

The account of Zwingli's death-

Zwingle was at the post of danger, the helmet on his head, the sword hanging at his side, the battleaxe in his hand. Scarcely had the action begun, when, stooping to console a dying man, says J. J. Hottinger, a stone hurled by the vigorous arm of a Waldstette struck him on the head and closed his lips. Yet Zwingle arose, when two other blows, which hit him successively on the leg, threw him down again. Twice more he stands up; but a fourth time he receives a thrust from a lance, he staggers, and sinking beneath so many wounds, falls on his knees. Does not the darkness that is spreading around him announce astill thicker darkness that is about to cover the Church? Zwingle turns away from such sad thoughts; once more he uplifts that head which had been so bold, and gazing with calm eye upon the trickling blood, exclaims: "What matters this misfortune? They may indeed kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul!" These were his last words. He had scarcely uttered them ere he fell backwards. There, under a tree, in a meadow, he remained lying on his back, with clasped hand, and eyes upturned to heaven.

The shouts of the victors, the groans of the dying, those flickering torches borne from corpse to corpse; Zurich humbled, the cause of Reform lost— all cried aloud to him that God punishes His servants when they have recourse to the arm of man. If the German reformer had been able to approach Zwingle at this solemn moment, and pronounce those oft-repeated, words, " Christians, fight not with sword and arquebuse, but with sufferings and with the cross," Zwingle would have stretched out his dying hand, and said, " Amen." Two of the soldiers who were prowling over the field of battle, having come near the reformer without recognising him, " Do you wish for a priest to confess yourself? " asked they. Zwingle, without speaking, (for he had not strength,) made signs in the negative. "If you cannot speak," replied the soldiers, " at least think in thy heart of the Mother of God, and call upon the saints !" Zwingle again shook his head, and kept his eyes still fixed on heaven. Upon this the irritated soldiers began to curse him. " No doubt," said they, "you are one of the heretics of the city!" One of them, being curious to know who he was, stooped down and turned Zwingle's head in the direction of a fire that had been lighted near the spot. The soldier immediately let him fall to the ground. " I think," said he, surprised and amazed,—"I think it is Zwingle!" At this moment Captain Fockinger of Unterwalden, a veteran and a pensioner, drew near: he had heard the last words of the soldier. " Zwingle!" exclaimed he; "that vile heretic Zwingle! that rascal, that traitor!" Then raising his sword, so long sold to the stranger, he struck the dying Christian on the throat, exclaiming, in a violent passion, "Die, obstinate heretic!" Yielding under this last blow, the reformer gave up the ghost: -he was doomed to perish by the sword of a mercenary.

It was required that the body of the heretic should be dismembered, and a portion sent to each of the Five Cantons. Immediately the drums beat to muster; the dead body was tried, and it was decreed that it should be quartered for treason against the confederation, and then burnt for heresy. The executioner of Lucerne carried out the sentence. Flames consumed Zwingle's disjointed members; the ashes of swine were mingled with his; and a lawless multitude rushing upon his remains flung them to the four winds of heaven.

Zwingle was dead. A great light had been extinguished in the Church of God. Mighty by the Word as were the other reformers, he had been more so than they in action; but this very power had been his weakness, and he had fallen under the weight of his own strength. Zwingle was not forty-eight years old when he died. The bolt had furrowed the cloud, the blow had reached the reformer, and his body was no more than a handful of dust in the palm of a soldier.


Jim said...

Hmm. Lots to consider.

[1] It seems doubtful that the Reformation would have taken place but for protection, and promotion, by zealous magistrates (hence, "magisterial reformation"). It is not always a pretty picture, since politicians, yesterday as today, would use the gospel for their own, worldly purposes.

[2] Your own confession of faith -- the Westminster Confession -- was adopted as an act of the British legislature (i.e., the Parliament). Do you think that Presbyterianism would exist today in anything remotely similar to what it is, if the British Parliament had not adopted the Confession as a political/legislative act? Would you have opposed its adoption at that time?

[3] Augustine argues for the suppression of the Donatists using the sword. Are you truly confident that the practices of "primative" Christianity (as your quotation in the post below has it) are to be preferred to Augustine's arguments?

For example, let's say that you're a Christian magistrate in some other time (i.e., not in the U.S. today). You have have a generally orthodox Christian population, and you yourself are a Christian. Things are running along fairly smoothly.

One day you start to hear reports of a heretical sect evangelizing your population with limited, but nonetheless some success. (Some prequel to Mormonism perhaps, or one of the heresies in Rev 2 & 3.)

A group of church leaders come to you and ask for assistance -- they're developing the Sunday school material to respond to the heresy, but they don't yet know enough about the heresy to respond, and the heretics are very clever at seeming orthodox at first, then seducing folks into errors that imperil their eternal souls. This is, they say, effectively spiritual murder.

Being a good Christian, desiring only to do what God would have you do, you pick up your Bible and read Ro 13.3-4:

"For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;

"for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an venger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil."

You reason this way: The heretics are doing evil by promulgating their heresy. God's word tells me that it is my God-ordained obligation as magistrate to punish people who engage in evil behavior. Therefore I should prohibit the heretics from evangelizing within my civil jurisdiction.

Be sure to note that you are not seeking to convert the heretics. Indeed, you are not punishing the heretics for what they believe. What you are punishing are actions by which they would spread their heresy.

Indeed, you read Deuteronomy 13, and you wonder whether simply exiling the heretics is enough. You see the zeal of the kings in the OT, like Hezekiah.

You know that Israel is different, and that the OT civil law is not somehow "binding" on magistrates in the New Testament, but you wonder whether they are examples that might instruct godly magistrates.

And, indeed, is there any doubt that Reepicheep would act? I could easily imagine that he would take the flat side of his sword and swat the heretics until they fled or agreed to keep quiet and stop unsettling the faithful.

Woody Woodward said...

That was interestingly brutal!

Reepicheep said...

Jim, You've said a whole lot, thanks. I appreciate your comments.

In analyzing Zwingli it seems to me he saw almost NO distinction between his roll as pastor and that of mercenary. It seems he had quite a reliance on the sword for advancement of the gospel in the last year of his life, at least based on the reading I've been doing from him and about him. I think Zwingli was imbalanced in this way and D'Aubigne agrees.

Indeed, taking up the sword may be necessary for reasons closley related to the advancement of the Church (i.e. The American Revolution), but it's way too complex a subject for me to make a sweeping general statement.

Thanks again for your keen insights.