Zwingli on the Unity of the Church
Zwingli on the Unity of the Church
One of the leaders of the Reformation was Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531). As pastor of the Great Minster church in Zurich, the gifted Swiss preacher advanced the cause of the church in several ways. Especially in the controversies over the doctrines of baptism and Lord's Supper Zwingli served to strengthen the Reformed position. The two sacraments receive careful attention in Zwingli's treatises and letters. This is not surprising, for it was Zwingli who in 1525 replaced the papal mass in his congregation with the Reformed celebration of the Lord's Supper. And concerning the doctrine of baptism Zwingli clashed with the Anabaptists, who in 1523 introduced to the people of Zurich their conviction that only adults should be baptized. The sacraments are at the centre of Zwingli's theology precisely because proper use of them was hotly debated in Switzerland in the first half of the sixteenth century.
Despite the division which the doctrines of baptism and the Lord's supper caused among many who professed to be Christians (Lutherans, Anabaptists, Reformed, etc.), Zwingli reminded his contemporaries that one function of the sacraments is to express the unity of Christ's catholic church. "The unity of the church", notes Peter Stephens in the now standard work on Zwingli's thought "is something fundamental in Zwingli's theology.”1 In this article I shall suggest that Zwingli's concept of the church is linked closely to his concept of baptism and Lord's Supper. To Zwingli baptism is more than a sign of the remission of sins in Jesus Christ and a sign of the covenant which God establishes with His people; it expresses the bond which the believer has with all those who have been engrafted into the covenant since Abraham. More importantly, in baptism the believer is called to live in unity with all who are members of the covenant.
Similarly, Zwingli maintains that the Lord's Supper is more than a sign of Christ's sure promise that He gave His body as atonement for the sins of all who believe. Participation in the Lord's supper is a celebration of the one faith which distinguishes the true church. In other words, the table of the Lord displays the unity of the body of Christ. Moreover, argues Zwingli, it expresses an undertaking by the believer to become one with all others who share the faith. At a time when Reformed churches in North America reconsider what the unity of the church means for them, it is fruitful to recall what one of the leaders of the Reformation wrote about the oneness of Christ's catholic church.
We recall from our Form for Baptism that we are conceived and born in sin, and that the impurity of our souls is washed away only through Jesus Christ. And baptism is a sign of the bond which God has made with His people. All who are baptized into the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit belong to the covenant which God had established first with Abraham, "the father of all believers.” Following Augustine's emphasis on the continuity of the covenant, Zwingli views baptism as a sign of the covenant between God and His people throughout the ages. For Zwingli the covenants of the old and new dispensation are essentially identical. The believers of the second dispensation are united with those of the first dispensation in one covenant.
Baptism, we further recall from our Form, replaces circumcision, which was the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament. Yet while the sign is changed, Zwingli shows, the thing signified is not. About this continuity of the first covenant he states, "we are in the covenant that God made with Abraham" (Z IV.596.1-2); about our relationship to God's people in the old dispensation he writes, "we are one people and one church with them, even though they came before us a long time into the vineyard" (Z VI.i.1 66.3-5). Baptism is a sign of the eternal covenant of grace.
Zwingli's statement that a link exsist between believers of the first and second dispensation forms part of his rebuttal of Anabaptism. The Anabaptists tended to depreciate the value of the Old Testament. To them Zwingli points out that just as in the first dispensation infants received the sign of the covenant (circumcision), so too in the second dispensation should infants receive the sign of the covenant (baptism). There is one covenant and one people. Jesus Christ altered the sign of the covenant, for He presented the one sacrifice of His blood on the altar of the cross. In the new dispensation the covenant remains unchanged, although the sign thereof is different.
Jesus Christ is at the centre of the covenant, for all people who are baptized confess that He died for their sins. Zwingli observes that in Matthew 3:
Christ, the very Son of God, took to Himself baptism in order that He might give us an example of unity, that we may all enter under the one sign.2
The members of the covenant are brought together in Jesus Christ. There is a "corporate" aspect in the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is not only a personal sign which God gives to believers and their children to assure them that their sins are washed away, but also it is a sign which brings together all who have faith in Jesus Christ. Zwingli writes to his Anabaptist opponent Hubmaier:
Infant baptism is a source of unity and a clear, comforting sign of assurance that by virtue of the testament our children are certainly God's.(Z IV.641.24-26)
We are all united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:5). Zwingli quotes Ephesians 4:4-6 too as proof that baptism expresses the unity of the church. There Paul writes that "there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”
Zwingli employs this text (and others; e.g., Luke 3, Matthew 3) to show that baptism is also a pledge to strive for unity. Baptism, he argues, is an undertaking (he reminds us that sacramentum means "oath") whereby we "bind ourselves to God, testifying the same to our neighbour by means of the external signs, and not withdrawing ourselves in any way; for if we do the result will be a sect and not a faith" (On Baptism 45). Zwingli directs these words at the Anabaptists, who, in denying baptism to infants, did not join in expressing the oneness of Christ's church.
The Anabaptists, writes Zwingli, will not recognize any Christians except themselves or any church except their own. And that is always the way with sectarians who separate themselves on their own authority. (On Baptism, 75-76)
Baptism of infants is a sign by which we show that we are members of the Catholic Church and strive to become one with all who have faith in Christ Jesus. Let us not forget that in Article 27 of the Belgic Confession we profess one Catholic Church, which is a gathering of believers who "are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”
Concerning the doctrine of the Lord's Supper Zwingli contented with the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans. Like baptism the Lord's Supper was a divisive issue during the sixteenth century, and Zwingli discusses it frequently and at length. Briefly put, Zwingli observes a two-fold function of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper: it is a sign whereby God assures us that Jesus Christ truly died for our sins, and it forms a pledge whereby we show other believers that we promise to strive for unity with them. The believer's faith in the expiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ is a faith he shares with all who sit at the table of the Lord.
Zwingli observes that the unity of the church is manifest in the communal meal celebrated by believers everywhere. 1 Corinthians 10:16-22, which speaks about the participation in the body and blood of Christ, is one passage Zwingli quotes to show that the supper of the Lord, like baptism, is a "corporate" sacrament. The reformer rightly interprets the words, "because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:17), to mean that the Catholic Church, comprising many members throughout the world, expresses its unity when believers worldwide partake of the body and blood of the Lord. The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Christ which were given as remission of sins. As we confess in Lord's Day 29 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Christ gave this sacrament as a sign and pledge that "we share in His true body and blood.”
Zwingli interprets the "body of Christ" as the church. The many grains which form the bread, and the many grapes from which the wine is pressed, are analogous to the many members of the one Catholic Church. Therefore, Zwingli writes, "when you offer thanks with the cup and the bread, eating and drinking together, you signify thereby that you are one body and one bread, namely, the body which is the church of Christ …"3 In eating the bread and drinking the wine, the believer testifies that he shares with others the belief that Jesus Christ gave His body and blood as a "perfect sacrifice, once offered on the cross.”4 The sacrament is a sign of the one faith which unites Christians.
Zwingli also states that those who participate in the table of the Lord thereby become united (coalescere) with others who profess Christ to be their Saviour. In the Form for the Lord's Supper we read that by the Spirit "we are also united in true brotherly love as members of one body.” Zwingli points out that this fellowship of believers is evidenced by the communal eating of the bread and drinking of the wine. 5 The Form reminds us, "we all, incorporated in Christ by faith, are together one body.” The celebration of the table of the Lord binds all who believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Therefore the Lord's Supper is also called "communion.”
More importantly, argues Zwingli, when we participate in "the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, we undertake to become one body and one fellowship" with other believers.6 We pledge "as by a holy undertaking to join into one army and special people of God" (Z 111.282.31-32). In his Letter to Matthew Alber Zwingli writes that the Lord's Supper is called a "sacrament" because it is an oath whereby we swear to become one with our fellow believers in "one body, one bread, and one profession.”7 The sacrament is not only a pledge by Christ that by His death He has atoned fully for our sins, but it is also a promise by us that we will unite with all who confess that they are baptized by one Spirit into one body (1 Corinthians 12:1 3). Zwingli would exhort us to fulfil the promise expressed in the sacraments to strive for the unity of Christ's church. In connection with the sacrament of the Lord's Supper Zwingli adduces what is perhaps the most important text for the unity of the church: John 17:21. There the Lord Jesus Christ prays to His Father that those who believe in Him may all be one. About this text Zwingli writes:
Christ wills that His own shall be one, just as He is one with the Father, and for this union He has given us the sacrament (Z 111.124.27-125.15).
The Lord gave the supper to believers as a sign of the oneness of His body, the church. Together with the Head of the Church let us pray to God the Father for all His covenant children: "… that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know …" (John 17:23).8
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