Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ulrich Zwingli and the Regulative Principle of the State

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Founder of Swiss Protestantism, "the First Reformed Theologian"

Scripture to Regulate all of Life, including Civil Government

For Zwingli, the word of God was to regulate all of life—not just matters of the church. In a letter "To an honourable Council, and to the whole community of his native county of Toggenburg," written "just at the moment in which they were to decide whether they should receive the newly proclaimed evangelical truth or remain by the old papistical doctrine,"[1] he writes:
For He will that His Word alone be obeyed, and that the life be regulated by it alone.[2]
Regulate your whole lives according to the divine Word, and set your consolation and trust alone in the Almighty.[3]
In short, Zwingli advocates regulating all of life according to God's word—which naturally entails civil government. Interestingly, his letter was to a political entity: "an honourable Council," along with "the whole community." 

And so for Zwingli, God's word is to reform all of life, as it is the only valid source of law:

The distinctive feature of Zwingli's practical Christianity was its radical Biblicism and theocentricity. More than Luther, Zwingli made what he saw as the living Word of God in Scripture the measure of all things and the only valid source of law. ...
From the outset, Zwingli espoused a commitment to the fundamental reform of social and political life fired by optimism about what it might be possible to achieve.[4]

Zwingli Affirms the Judicial Law

As an advocate of the regulative principle of the state, we would expect Zwingli to affirm the abiding validity of the judicial law of Moses. This he does in discussing Christ's teachings (perhaps regarding Matthew 5:17 and up):
Zwingli states his concept of Christ's relationship to the judicial laws of Moses when he writes: "Christ brought nothing new into the law of the fathers, but He made fresh the old commandments, and did away with human traditions."[5]
Thus Zwingli accepts the state's use of the judicial law, but not human traditions. 

In affirming the judicial law, Zwingli "was able to invoke the Mosaic penalties for adultery, witchcraft and offences against property."[6] He also supported the Mosaic law's death penalty for striking a parent.[7] 

Just as in Israel, in Zwingli's Zurich rulers were to punish such criminals as blasphemers, Sabbath-breakers, murderers, thieves, and adulterers.[8] And just as in Israel false worship was to be restrained, so in Zwingli's Zurich, the idolatrous Mass was restrained.[9] 

Zwingli also agreed with Israel's concern for the state to protect the foundations of religion. A year before his death, he said this to John Oecolampadius, who had complained about the dangerous Arian teachings of Servetus, [10] which denied that Christ is the eternal God: "This must not be endured in the church of God, therefore do what you can to prevent the blasphemy from getting abroad, to the injury of Christianity."[11]

Zwingli's Zurich

In Zwingli's Zurich, the state's relationship with the church was to be restricted to God's Word, as Zwingli 
delivered up the ecclesiastical into the hands of the civil power, but always on the understood condition, the latter were to take the Word of God as their sole directory in all their proceedings. That this might be done, Zwingli and his colleagues watched their conduct with a jealous fidelity, and denounced every attempt to exceed the prescribed limits, with the courage and energy which became them as guardians of a holy treasure, and as prophets of the truth. Excommunication in Zurich thus modified itself in accordance with these ideas.[12]
The use of "the Word of God as their sole directory" cannot be about church matters in isolation from political matters in general, since in Zurich church and state had a tight relationship.

In such an arrangement, the church claimed spiritual jurisdiction over all the citizens in the realm,[13] while at the same time, excommunication—which for Zwingli was the job of the state in lands with Christian rulers[14]—was to be carried out in the form of civil punishment against everyone from unrepentant blasphemers and murderers to thieves and adulterers.[15] 

An offense against the church, then, was an offense against the state—and vice versa. Crimes in Zurich then were a church matter, which automatically became—or could potentially become—subject to state proceedings that had to be regulated by "the Word of God as their sole directory." 

Gordon sums up Zwingli's approach to Zurich:
Zwingli understood 'reformation' to mean the reform of the community or congregation. The agents of reform were the magistrates. Since human communities reformed by the Word of God were to reflect the divine law by which they were governed, there could be no distinction between the religious and political life of the community; to belong to the state was to belong to the church. Thus political authority was accorded a divine function as magistrates were charged with administering justice in accordance with Scriptural authority, and further, they were responsible for the spiritual welfare of their people.[16]
McCracken states that Zwingli wanted a Zurich where "religion and politics should both conform to the precepts of the Bible."[17] And according to Christoffel, "In Zurich, Zwingli's Reforming labours were specially directed, in the latter years of his life, to a transformation of social relations to a conformity with the demands of God's Word."[18]

Zwingli's reforms resulted in the following decree by the magistrate in regards to the Sabbath—note the emphasis on the word of God as the kingdom's "only sure guide and directory":
The celebration of the Sabbath was regulated according to these principles laid down by the Reformer [Zwingli - S.H.]. It was ordained by a mandate of the civil magistrate of 1530: "That seeing that, firstly, and above all things, we ought to seek the kingdom of God; and seeing that His Word is the only sure guide and directory to this kingdom and to our salvation, we order and ordain that every man, be he noble-born or a commoner, be he of high or low estate, man or woman, child or servant, shall attend the church-service every Sunday at least, at the set time of public worship, except he be prevented by sickness, or other sufficient cause."[19]


[1] Raget Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland. A Life of the Reformer, with Some Notices of His Time and Contemporaries, trans. John Cochran (Philadelphia, PA: Smith, English, & Co., 1858), 175.
[2] Ibid., 176.
[3] Ibid., 177.
[4] Joachim WhaleyGermany and the Holy Roman Empire: Volume I: Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1493-1648 (NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 194.
[5] V. Norskov Olsen, The New Testament Logia on Divorce, 65. 
[6] P. D. L. Avis, "Moses and the Magistrate: A Study in the Rise of Protestant Legalism,"Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 26, no. 2 (April 1975): 13. Retrieved June 13, 2014 from
[7] Ibid.
[8] For Sabbath breakers, see Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland. A Life of the Reformer, with Some Notices of His Time and Contemporaries,158, 159. For the other prohibitions, see Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland,160.
[9] William Denison McCraken, The Rise of the Swiss Republic: A History (Geneve: Georg & Cie, Libraires-Editeurs, 1901), 263.
[10] Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 170, 171.
[11] Cited in Ibid., 171.
[12] Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland,160.
[13] "The example of Zurich was followed by the other cantons in which the Reformation triumphed. Each has its own ecclesiastical establishment, which claims spiritual jurisdiction over all the citizens of its territory." Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VIII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892), 67. 

"This combination of the ecclesiastical and civil powers in one body had already a historical foundation in Switzerland; for in the most illustrious period of its annals the civil power had effectively maintained its right to decide upon the temporalities of the church, as also in questions of discipline and morals, with the inclusion of the clergy, high and low, within the jurisdiction. Zwingli, as a patriotic Reformer, wished to revive this fine old time with its simplicity of manners, its vigour of character, and honesty of purpose." Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland, 160, 161.

[14] Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland, 161.
[15] Ibid., 160.
[16] Andrew Pettegree, ed., The Early Reformation in Europe (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 76.
[17] McCraken, The Rise of the Swiss Republic, 263.
[18] Christoffel, Zwingli; Or, The Rise of the Reformation in Switzerland, 435.
[19] Ibid., 158, 159.

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