Luther, Luther, Luther: He didn’t reform Christianity as much as this guy did

Despite all the hype during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the spiritual father of Baptists, Huldrych Zwingli, it turns out, is far more important to modern Christianity than Martin Luther or John Calvin.

(RNS) — A few weeks ago Martin Marty, the religious historian, argued in an RNS column that Calvin deserves mention along with Luther during this “Reformation Jubilee Year” of 2017. And, sure, Calvin is important.

But the fact is, in terms of theological “win,” it’s Zwingli who deserves top billing.

Not as famous as Martin Luther or John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli is often treated like the red-headed stepchild of the Protestant Reformation. But Zwingli was neither late to the game nor insignificant in its playing.

All year, we’ve been subjected to talk of Luther. I’ve read essays, blog posts, news reports and magazine pieces about Luther. The same tired myths were bandied around about Luther nailing theses to doors in 1517 and hurling ink wells at unseen devils and uttering sentences about standing in some place or other.

By mid-September, I kept hearing “Luther, Luther, Luther,” in my head, as in the ’70s sitcom “The Brady Bunch,” when Jan complained, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” about her sister getting all the attention at a party. Soon a part of me was wishing that no one but specialist historians had ever heard of Luther.

Now I simply am driven by historical truth to inform readers that Zwingli won.

Won what? Won the battle of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Won the central conflict of 16th-century theological warfare. How? By winning more people to his view than Luther or Calvin were able to win to theirs.

Baptists, the spiritual heirs of Zwingli in terms of their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, far outnumber both Lutherans and Presbyterians in the United States. Indeed, there are more Baptists than Lutherans and Presbyterians combined.

Zwingli, it turns out, is far more important to modern Christianity than Luther or Calvin. But you hardly ever hear his name anymore because Luther was more bombastic and Calvin more dictatorial.

Zwingli, the spiritual father of Baptists, was born on Jan. 1, 1484, in Wildhaus, Switzerland. In 1515, he served as chaplain to the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano. That battle changed his life and his theological perspective. He began to question everything that the Roman Catholic Church taught, including the Mass, church practices like the music used in worship and the inclusion of women in the liturgy, and the mercenary sale of Swiss youth to foreign powers to conduct their wars.

By the time he arrived in Zurich to become chief priest of the Great Minster in 1519, he was already reforming. Before anyone had heard of Luther or his squabble with the pope, Zwingli was already changing the structure of worship and the underlying theology of the Lord’s Supper.

The most contentious theological issue of the burgeoning Reformation was the question of the meaning of Communion, or Lord’s Supper. Was Christ literally present in the bread and wine, or was he not?

The Catholic Church, Luther and — to a certain extent — Calvin all accepted the notion that Christ was indeed physically present in the elements of the Supper. Zwingli disagreed. For him, Jesus was present in the Supper spiritually — not “merely spiritually,” but rather fully, utterly, really there, in the Spirit.

A flurry of pamphlets was exchanged between Luther and Zwingli and a meeting called to heal the rift concerning the Supper’s meaning between the Reformers in Marburg, but by the end of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, it all had come to nothing.

Luther, always contemptuous of anyone who disagreed with him, left the meeting refusing to shake hands with the Swiss delegation led by Zwingli. Zwingli left with tears in his eyes.

By early 1531, Zwingli was suffering immensely from the years of conflict to which his cheerful soul had been subjected. But his zeal for the Gospel never flagged, and he so desired the unification of the Swiss under the banner of the Gospel that he was willing to go to war against the Catholic Cantons.

The Reformed army met the Catholic army on the field of battle at Kappel am Albis on Oct. 10, 1531. Zwingli was there, serving, once more, as a chaplain to the troops of Zurich. He was struck down the next day by advancing Catholic forces, who at the time had no idea who he was.

Zwingli was dead. But his Reform was just getting started. And it continues today in the theology of the majority of American Protestants.

Baptists, like Zwingli, believe that in the Supper Christ is really present spiritually. Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of me” are the core of their understanding of the Supper: It is a memorial meal at which Christ is present spiritually with his gathered worshippers.

Zwingli won because his theology has proved itself victorious for centuries and will continue to be victorious — even over the bellicose old Luther — as long as there are Baptists in the land.

(Jim West is pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Petros, Tenn., and a lecturer at Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong and Charles Sturt University in Australia. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)