Zwingli and Luther—The Giant vs. Hercules
by JOHN B. PAYNE
The Colloquy at Marburg was called in hopes of reconciling the two centers of the German
Reformation—Zurich and Wittenburg, but conflict over the Lord’s Supper split their common
November 10, 1983 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. During the 500th
anniversary year Luther made quite a splash in the media with full length articles in
New York Times Magazine
. An abundance of church
celebrations and scholarly conferences took place. There were pilgrimages by Lutherans and
other Protestants to East Germany to visit the sites of his living and working.
Not nearly as well-known is the fact that January 1, 1984 was the 500th birthday of another
Protestant Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, of Zurich. Except for Zurich and its environs, Zwingli did
not receive nearly the same amount of attention during his 500th anniversary year as Luther.
It was Zwingli’s fate to have been cut down in mid-career at the battle of Kappel in 1531 and
to have been cast in the shadow of Luther’s gigantic stature. But he is an important figure in his
own right. He was the father of the Reformed tradition which spread out in many directions—
across Switzerland and southern Germany, to France among the Huguenots, Holland, England
and Scotland among the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, across to the New World among
the Congregationalists of New England and the Presbyterian, Dutch and German Reformed
Churches of the Middle Colonies.
Although Zwingli is the originator of this tradition, his role in the shaping of it has been
eclipsed by that of John Calvin, the second generation Reformer who, at Geneva on the other
side of what is now modern Switzerland, took over the chief leadership of this Reformed
tradition a few years after Zwingli’s death. German Swiss scholars, in particular, would want to
qualify this judgment by insisting that Zwingli’s successor at Zurich, Henry Bullinger, also
played an important role in molding this tradition.
Older scholarship on Zwingli, especially German, tended to view him through the eyes of Luther
and saw him as largely dependent on the great Saxon Reformer though as diverging from him on
a few important points. Recent scholarship, especially Swiss, has sought to study Zwingli for his
own sake and has come to the conclusion that he was quite independent from Luther in his
theological and Reformational development.
Two Paths to Reformation
Luther and Zwingli, born within seven weeks of one another, were co-originators of the
Protestant Reformation. Though neither one intended it from the beginning, the reforming
movements which they started would lead inexorably to a division in Western Christendom. In
addition, though neither one desired it, their differences on the Eucharist would tragically lead to
the first major split in Reformation Protestantism between the Lutherans and the Reformed.
Though they had much in common—and more often the differences are emphasized rather than