Ulrich Zwingli, the Swedish Reform Movement, and the Doctrine of Justification

Ulrich Zwingli, like Martin Luther, found the connection between the gospel and the law irrefutable. At this theological point of convergence, Zwingli not only perceived “the law of the gospel [as] law [and, by extension did] accept Luther’s doctrine of the forgiveness of sins, as did all Reformers”[1] but developed a new concept of law that he referred to as a “new evangelical law [that] should be the basis of the law of the state.”[2] Here, at this particular point of contention with Luther, Zwingli is operating more from a philosophical point of view, having been influenced by nominalists and humanists.[3] As a result, rather than finding solace in the biblical message of justification by faith as Luther was moved to do, “Zwingli’s [approach to understanding justification by grace through faith] was that of the humanist, who studied Scripture because it was the source of Christian faith, and humanism encouraged such return to the sources.”[4] Evidently, Zwingli “had a more positive view of the power of reason”[5] as it is evidenced in history and nature, which is directly at odds with Luther who “wanted everything as non-rational, non-legal, as possible”[6] so that the process of salvation, history and nature could be interpreted by a kind of new law that “exists by nature, by created nature, and is [something] which we are essentially.”[7] What becomes distinctly evident about Zwingli’s “new law” is that it incorporates, through the importance placed on human reason, a specter of natural theology,[8] since it is formulated on the premise that God, in the form of law, is exhibited in nature. Unlike the Lutheran view of the gospel being about grace and nothing more than a grace that can never be a “new law,”[9] Zwingli’s humanist view was influenced by a Neoplatonic interpretation of Christianity.[10] Zwingli’s Swedish movement, then, interpreted this new law as “valid not only for the moral situation but also for the state, the political sphere [to the extent that] politically, the law of the gospel determines the laws of the city.”[11] Essentially, for Zwingli and the movement he led, the relationship between the law and the justification through faith by grace is one that theologically builds upon the Lutheran theology but further advocates a merging of societal laws with gospel laws so that “the law of the gospel [becomes] the basis of the law of the state.”[12]

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[1] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 259.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 62-63.

[5] Ibid, 63.

[6] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 259.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Natural Theology is that branch of philosophy which investigates what human reason unaided by revelation can tell us concerning God. George H. Joyce, Principles of Natural Theology (New York, NY: Longmans Green and Company, 1923), 1.

[9] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 259-260.

[10] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 64.

[11] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 259-260.

[12] Ibid, 260.

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