Monday, May 25, 2015

Book Review -- Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

Ulrich Zwingli's contributions to the Reformation are generally overshadowed by those of Luther and Calvin. Surveys of Reformation history typically mention Zwingli, but often serving as a comparison/contrast with Luther or as a forerunner of Calvin. As William Boekestein observes in his biography of Zwingli, the Zurich reformer's career was intense but relatively short-lived (around twelve years), and as a result, his written works have not had the same lasting impact as his fellow reformers. Nevertheless, Zwingli played an important role in the founding of the Reformed Churches, and the story of his life is intrinsically connected to the story of the Reformation in Switzerland.

Boekestein's volume is part of the Bitesize Biographies Collection published by EP Books. Intended for a general audience, this brief work (~160 pages) provides an overview of Zwingli's life and ministry; additionally, Boekestein, a Reformed pastor, offers a theological perspective on Zwingli that transcends a mere recounting of historical fact. Boekestein begins his account with a description of the Swiss context into which Zwingli was born, describing the political structure and religious backdrop which would shape the reformer. From there, the biography proceeds chronologically through the major events of Zwingli's life, from his early days as a promising student and young priest, through his emergence as a renowned scholar and career as reformer in Zurich, and ending with his death in battle at Kappel. Boekestein concludes with a chapter assessing Zwingli's legacy, observing that later centuries of Christians have honored him "more for his reform efforts than his theology," specifically commending Zwingli's love for the church, for the Gospel, for the Bible, and for his Lord.

Several features of Boekestein's biography deserve mention. Notably, Zwingli's commitment to the Scriptures is a major theme throughout the book. As a young priest influenced by humanists such as Erasmus, Zwingli developed a passion for the detailed study of the New Testament in its original Greek. Upon becoming pastor of the most influential church in Zurich, Zwingli re-introduced the long-forgotten practice of expository preaching through the Scriptures (instead of using lectionary readings prescribed by the Church). Erasmus' writings also led him to question whether certain practices and teachings of the Church could be supported by the biblical texts, and Zwingli soon began questioning and even denouncing those practices from the pulpit. Interestingly, Zwingli's pursuit of reform resulted in criticism from both conservatives and radicals. The latter, most notably the Anabaptists, had taken Zwingli's own insistence on Biblical fidelity to its extreme conclusion, and Zwingli was forced to respond to his own arguments (or perversions thereof) by staking out a moderating position that promoted reform while still upholding the Scriptural admonitions to submit to governing authorities. Nevertheless, Zwingli's insistence on Scriptural authority led to an all-encompassing program of reform in Zurich, extending beyond the church walls into civil affairs.           

Another commendable aspect of the book is that Boekestein praises without resorting to hagiography. Although Zwingli's scholarship and preaching were undoubtedly persuasive, the concerns of the Zurich magistrates were far more than theological. Indeed, even before the break with Rome, Zwingli's push for reform provided the city leadership with an opportunity to exert independence from the Church and to increase control over their own affairs. Also, the biography does not shrink from addressing Zwingli's personal failings, such as his secret marriage to Anna Reinhart, his likely approval (at least tacitly) of the severe persecution of the Anabaptists, and his ill-fated attempts at diplomacy which resulted in the Protestant-Catholic conflict in which he died. The inclusion of these aspects help provide a fuller picture of Zwingli, whose failings are often as instructive as his successes.

Although Zwingli's theological works have not had nearly the lasting influence as some of his contemporaries, his work in Zurich undoubtedly help shape the emergence of the Reformed Churches. Overall, William Boekestein's biography is a good introduction to the life and works of the Swiss reformer. I recommend it for anyone who desires to learn more about the Protestant Reformation.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for providing a review, with no obligations as to its content.)