This article is about the Reformation in Zwitserland. The place of the Word of God in the life of the believer and the church is discussed, as well as the principle of Sola Scriptura, the work of Zwingli and the Disputation of 1523.

Source: Clarion, 1993. 4 pages.

Sola Scriptura and the Reformation in Zurich


Near the Wasserkirche in Zürich, Switzerland, stands a statue of Huldrych Zwingli. In his left hand the man holds a long sword, reminiscent of the sword by which he died fighting for the reformed faith in 1531. And in his right, slightly raised above the sword, Zwingli clutches a Bible; it was by this book that Zwingli lived and reformed the church in Switzerland. Especially after he became preacher in Zurich in 1519, was the Word of God the basis upon which Zwingli called for ecclesiastical change. Not only was the Word central to Zwingli's preaching, but it was also the focus in his debates with the Anabaptists and the Roman Catholics. In these disputes the Bible was the sole authority to which Zwingli appealed. Zwingli's expressed belief that even the edicts of the pope himself were inferior to the Word of God was destined to become a confession he would share with all Reformed believers in the sixteenth century. As the twentieth century draws to a close, however, the confession that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God is under great strain and perhaps even in danger of being abandoned. Therefore, as we recall the Reformation on 31 October, we may recall especially the confession sola scriptura.

During the sixteenth century the belief that the Bible is the direct Word of God was expressed by all believers. Even before the time of the church-father Augustine was it confessed that the Bible was the holy, inspired, and infallible Word. But Zwingli's confession differed from that of many contemporaries, for he stated that the Word of God had been obscured and nullified by papal edicts by the traditional exegeses of the schoolmen, and by the power of the church. Zwingli observed that the edicts of the pope had replaced the Bible. Zwingli therefore taught that the Bible is the sole Word of God, and that one should not be swayed by the words of sinful human beings but should test those words in light of Scripture.

Zwingli stated the facts boldly: whereas man is a liar and speaks lying words, God is truthful and His Word is truth. In championing the truth of God's Word Zwingli frequently gave as proof-texts Romans 3:4 (“Let God be true, though every man be false”) and Psalm 85:8 (“Let me hear what God the LORD will speak”). And he follows the apostle Paul when he writes,

No matter who a man may be, if he teaches you in accordance with his own thought and mind his teaching is false. But if he teaches you in accordance with the Word of God, it is not he that teaches you, but God who teaches him. (Z I. 379.14)

Since the Bible is the Word of God written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit, it cannot err. The infallibility of Scripture is opposed to the sinfulness of human beings. Furthermore, Zwingli argued, the church, consisting as it does of sinful human beings, may err and does err, whereas the Bible, having its origin not in man but in God, is inerrant. There were many occasions on which Zwingli had the opportunity to point out this simple truth. Let us consider two on which Zwingli especially professed “by the Scripture alone!”

The Lenten Fast of 1522🔗

According to tradition, the Roman church had proclaimed a fast for the Lenten days of 1522. One evening shortly after Ash Wednesday, a number of Zurich citizens, among them Zwingli's friend Leo Jud, had gathered in the house of the printer Christopher Froschauer, and purposefully broke the fast by eating sausages. The reason for this action, the citizens avowed, was an unusually heavy workload. The participants in the breakfast knew that the city Council might support the position of the Roman church and reprimand them. Zwingli himself had not joined in eating meat, but had approved of the deed by being present. Shortly afterward he preached a sermon “On Choice and Liberty Regarding Food,” in which he shows that the fast was an institution of the church not grounded in Scripture. 1 In the sermon Zwingli states that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were superseded by the Gospel and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Pointing to 1 Corinthians 6:12-14 and Acts 10:10-16, Zwingli shows that the eating of meat is a matter of Christian freedom and that the new dispensation differed from the old. Fasting is a human, not divine, command. Jesus Christ and the Bible rather than the pope and the church's edicts, should be obeyed. Thus the eating of sausages during the fast led to Zwingli's challenge of the church's authority and the profession that the Bible is the final arbiter.

Reacting to Zwingli's support of the breakfast, a certain Johann Fabri, acting as vicar general of the Bishop of Constance, accused Zwingli of holding heretical views and of destroying the church's peace and unity. In August 1522, Zwingli responded to this charge by publishing a “Once and for All Defence” (Apologeticus Archeteles). In this work, which Zwingli had hoped would ease the tension between the Roman bishop and the reform-minded people of Zurich, Zwingli asserts that the church cannot confirm what Scripture says, but rather that it is by Scripture that all ecclesiastical decisions should be judged. In other words, Zwingli states that he was holding views which the Roman church might deem as heretical, but which were in accordance with the Bible. It was the Roman church that advocated heresy! What is more, Zwingli writes, it was the Roman church of the sixteenth century which had broken from the one true church, and that Zwingli and the reformers maintained unity with the church of all ages in professing sola scriptura. It was in part due to this defence that the city Council decided not to take action against those who had eaten meat during Lent, and it expressed the desire that the matter should be clarified. The Reformation was taking hold in Zurich.

Late in the summer of 1522, Zwingli wrote an introduction to the study of the Bible called On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God2 It had originated as a sermon for the nuns in the Oetenbach convent. Zwingli wanted to convince them, and the conservative Order of Preachers associated with the convent, that the reformation of the church was based upon the Bible. All who would study the Bible, Zwingli said, would learn from it that the Word of God is infallible and invincible. The pope's edicts about fasting, celibacy for the priests, and veneration of the saints, were edicts spoken not by God but by a man. The book, Zwingli hoped, would convince his opponents that only the Bible speaks the truth.

First Zwingli shows that the Word of God is irresistible.

The Word of God is so sure and strong that if God wills all things are done the moment he speaks His Word. (68)

Beginning with Genesis 1, Zwingli offers a host of proof-texts from the Old and New Testaments to support his conviction that the Bible is the Word of God. Only the Bible convicts the reader of his sins and shows the way to salvation. The Bible's words are certain and the promises therein will be fulfilled. As final proof of the invincible power of the Word Zwingli writes,

The whole teaching of the Gospel is a sure demonstration that what God has promised will certainly be performed. For the Gospel is now an accomplished fact: the One who was promised to the patriarchs, and to the whole race, has now been given to us, and in Him we have the assurance of all our hope. (71)

The Word of God is certain.

Second Zwingli shows that the Bible is clear: thanks to God's grace, the Spirit reveals the plain meaning of the Word to those who truly seek to know. The Bible is understood when one lays aside all preconceptions and assumptions. Zwingli suggests one way in which we should read Scripture properly:

You should reverently ask God for His grace, that he may give you His mind and Spirit, so that you will not lay hold of your own opinion but of His … You must be theodidacti that is, taught of God, not men … (Z 1.377.7-21)

The Bible is clear and readily understood – “even by the blind” – because it is the Word of God. Zwingli hoped that the Order of Preachers would be convinced that the church needed to be reformed, and that only on the basis of Scripture such reform should be effected.

The Disputation of January 1523🔗

The developments of 1522 culminated in the so-called First Disputation, which was probably held in January of 1523. The city Council had organized a public meeting at which Zwingli, representing the evangelical reform-minded clergy, would debate with Johann Fabri, representative of the Bishop and the Roman church. A majority of the members of Council now supported Zwingli, and the arbitrator, mayor Max Roïst, was predisposed to favour Zwingli. Indeed the Council had stated several times that its decisions would be based solely on the Bible. It is interesting to note that the debate was to be held in the vernacular Swiss German and not in Latin, the language of the academy. This alteration afforded the many councillors who were not educated the opportunity to follow the debate and to decide for themselves who it was that spoke according to Scripture.

Furthermore, to show that the Bible would be the sole authority to which the debaters should appeal, the Council prominently displayed copies of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, and a Latin translation. This display was intended to be an invitation to Johann Fabri to quote directly from the Bible those passages which he would adduce in his arguments. Zwingli's command of the Bible was well-known, and all members of the Council knew that every argument would be accompanied by many proof-texts. Fabri, on the other hand, had been instructed by the Bishop of Constance to act as observer rather than debater, and Fabri's intention was merely to advance the Orthodox Roman position. Accordingly in the debate he stressed the traditions of the church and wondered what would happen if one denied the authority of the bishop, the cardinal, and the pope.

In preparation for the debate Zwingli had circulated 67 Articles (Schlussreden) which summarized his position and which he was prepared to defend. Considered by many the first confession of Reformed protestantism, these articles were revised and published with explanatory notes in June of 1523. Even a glance at a few articles shows that the authority of Scripture was an important theme in Zwingli's speech.

  • The first article states: “All who say that the gospel is invalid without the confirmation of the church err and slander God.” (1.1) Of course the Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is central to Zwingli's theology and about God's self-revelation.

  • Article 2 reads, “The summary of the Gospel is that our Lord Jesus Christ, true Son of God, has made known to us the will of His heavenly Father and has redeemed us from death and reconciled us with God by His guiltlessnes.” Holy Scripture is supreme because in it God has revealed Himself and the only way to salvation.

  • The fifth article further underscores the doctrine of sola scriptura: “all who regard other teachings equal to or higher than the Gospel, err. They do not know what the Gospel is (5.1).” In fact, “in the Gospel we learn that human teaching and human statutes are of no use to salvation" (16.1).


In the end Council decided that Zwingli's preaching was scriptural. His opposition to the falsely based institutions of fasting, celibacy, and veneration of the saints received the Council's support because Holy Scripture had shown that these customs were not of God. Furthermore, all priests in Zurich were instructed to preach the Gospel alone. Thus the authority of the Roman church was subjected to the authority of Christ, the Head of the true church. And the papal edicts were subjected to the authority of the Bible. The Council's command that the Gospel should be the only basis for preaching was accompanied by this dire warning:

Should, however, anyone continue to resist and fail to corroborate his doctrine from holy Scripture, we shall proceed against him according to our good judgment, more severely than we would in our compassion prefer. (Z 1.467)

May this profession of sola scriptura, so firmly expressed in 1523, by Reformed believers in Zurich, also be made by many today.


  1. ^ The sermon, Von Erkiesen und Freiheit der Speisen, was published in 1522.
  2. ^ The German title is Von Klarheit und Gewissheit des Wortes Gottes; I shall quote from the English translation provided by C.W. Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger (Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 24. Philadelphia, 1953), pp. 49-95. Other quotations derive from Huldreich Zwinglis Sämtliche Werke (= Z. Berlin, 1905-).

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