Zwingli’s Discussion on Images and the Mass

Christ’s Death — Zwingli’ s Fundamental Position — Iconoclasts — Hottinger — Zwingli on Image-worship — Conference of all Switzerland summoned — 900 Members Assemble — Preliminary Question — The Church — Discussion on Images — Books that Teach Nothing — The Mass Discussed — It is Overthrown — Joy of Zwingli — Relics Interred.

The images were still retained in the churches, and mass still formed part of the public worship. Zwingli now began to prepare the public mind for a reform in both particulars — to lead men from the idol to the one true God; from the mass which the Church had invented to the Supper which Christ had instituted. The Reformer began by laying down this doctrine in his teaching, and afterwards more formally in eighteen propositions or conclusions which he published — “that Christ, Who offered Himself once for all upon the cross, is a sufficient and everlasting Sacrifice for the sins of all who believe upon Him: and that, therefore, the mass is not a sacrifice, but the memorial of Christ’s once offering upon the cross, and the visible seal of our redemption through Him.”[1] This great truth received in the public mind, he knew that the mass must fall.

But all men had not the patience of Zwingli. A young priest, Louis Hetzer, of fiery zeal and impetuous temper, published a small treatise on images, which led to an outburst of popular feeling. Outside the city gates, at Stadelhofen, stood a crucifix, richly ornamented, and with a frequent crowd of devotees before it. It gave annoyance to not a few of the citizens, and among others to a shoemaker, named Nicholas Hottinger, “a worthy man” says Bullinger, “and well versed in his Bible.” One day as Hottinger stood surveying the image, its owner happened to come up and Hottinger demanded of him “when he meant to take that thing away?” “Nobody bids you worship it, Nicholas” was the reply. “But don’t you know,” said Hottinger, “that the Word of God forbids images?” “If,” replied the owner, you feel yourself empowered to remove it, do so.” Hottinger took this for consent, and one morning afterward the shoemaker, coming to the spot with a party of his fellow-citizens, dug a trench round the crucifix, when it fell with a crash.[2] A violent outcry was raised by the adherents of the old faith against these iconoclasts. “Down with these men!” they shouted: “they are church-robbers, and deserving of death.”

The commotion was increased by an occurrence that soon thereafter happened. Lawrence Meyer, Vicar of St. Peter’s, remarked one day to a fellow vicar, that when he thought of the people at the church-door, pale with hunger, and shivering from want of clothes, he had a great mind to knock down the idols on the altars, and take their silken robes and costly jewels, and therewith buy food and raiment for the poor. On Lady-day, before three o’clock in the morning, the plates, rolls, images, and other symbols had all disappeared from St. Peter’s Church. Suspicion, of course, fell upon the vicar. The very thing which he had confessed having a strong desire to do, had been done: and yet it may have been another and not the vicar who did it, and as the deed could not be traced to him, nothing more came of it so far as Meyer was concerned.[3]

Still the incident was followed by important consequences. Zwingli had shrunk from the discussion of the question of worshipping by images, but now he felt the necessity of declaring his sentiments. He displayed in this, as in every reform which he instituted, great breadth of view, and singular moderation in action. As regarded images in churches, he jocularly remarked that they did not hurt himself, for his short-sightedness prevented him seeing them. He was no enemy to pictures and statues, if used for purposes purely aesthetic. The power of bodying forth beautiful forms, or lofty ideas, in marble or on canvas, was one of the good gifts of God. He did not, therefore, condemn the glass paintings in the church windows, and similar ornaments in sacred buildings, which were as little likely to mislead the people as the cock on the church steeple, or the statue of Charles the Great at the minster! And even with regard to images which were superstitiously used, he did not approve their unauthorized and irregular destruction. Let the abuse be exposed and sifted, and it would fall of itself. “The child is not let down from the cradle,” said he, “till a rest has been presented to it to aid it in walking.” “When the knowledge of the one true God has entered the heart, the man will no longer be able to worship by an image.”

“On the other hand,” said he, “all images must be removed which serve the purposes of a superstitious veneration, because such veneration is idolatry. First of all, where are the images placed? Why, on the altar, before the eyes of the worshippers. Will the Romanist permit a man to stand on the altar when mass is being celebrated? Not they. Images, then, are higher than men, and yet they have been cut out of a willow-tree by the hands of men. But further, the worshippers bow to them, and bare the head before them. Is not that the very act which God has forbidden? ‘Thou shalt not bow down unto them’ Consider if this be not open idolatry.”

“Further,” argued Zwingli, “we burn costly incense before them, as did the heathen to their idols. Here we commit a two-fold sin. If we say that thus we honor the saints, it was thus that the heathen honored their idols. If we say that it is God we honor, it is a form of worship which no apostle or evangelist ever offered to Him.”

“Like the heathen, do we not call those images by the names of those they represent? We name one piece of carved wood the Mother of God, another St. Nicholas, a third Holy Hildegarde, and so on. Have we not heard of men breaking into prisons and slaying those who had taken away their images, and when asked why they did so, they replied, ‘Oh, they have burned or stolen our blessed Lord God and the saints’? Whom do they call our Lord God? The idol.”

“Do we not give to these idols what we ought to give to the poor? We form them of massive gold or silver, or we overlay them with some precious metal. We hang rich clothing upon them, we adorn them with chains and precious jewels. We give to the bedizened image what we ought to give to the poor, who are the living images of God.”

“But, say the Papists” continued Zwingli, “images are the books of the simple. Tell me, where has God commanded us to learn out of such a book? How comes it that we have all had the cross so many years before us, and yet have not learned salvation in Christ, or true faith in God? Place a child before an image of the Savior and give it no instruction. Will it learn from the image that Christ suffered for us? It is said, ‘Nay, but it must be taught also by the Word.’ Then the admission is made that it must be instructed not by the image, but by the Word.”

“It is next insisted the images incite to devotion. But where has God taught us that we should do Him such honor through idols, and by the performance of certain gestures before them? God everywhere rejects such worship. Therefore, while the Gospel is preached, and men are instructed in the pure doctrine, the idols ought to be removed that men may not fall back into the same errors, for as storks return to their old nests, so do men to their old errors, if the way to them be not barred.”[4]

To calm the public excitement, which was daily growing stronger, the magistrates of Zurich resolved to institute another disputation in October of that same year, 1523.[5]

The two points which were to be discussed were Images and the Mass. It was meant that this convocation should be even more numerous than the former. The Bishops of Constance, Coire, and Basle were invited. The governments of the twelve cantons were asked to send each a deputy.[6] When the day arrived, the 26th of October, not fewer than 900 persons met in the Council Hall. None of the bishops were present. Of the cantons only two, Schaffhausen and St. Gall, sent deputies. Nevertheless, this assembly of 900 included 350 priests.[7] At a table in the middle sat Zwingli and Leo Juda, with the Bible in the original tongues open before them. They were appointed to defend the theses, which all were at liberty to impugn.

There was a preliminary question, Zwingli felt, which met them on the threshold: namely, what authority or right had a conference like this to determine points of faith and worship? This had been the exclusive prerogative of Popes and Councils for ages. If the Popes and Councils were right, then the assembly now met was an anarchical one: if the assembly was right, then Popes and Councils had been guilty of usurpation by monopolizing a power which belonged to more than themselves. This led Zwingli to develop his theory of the Church: whence came she? What were her powers, and of whom was she composed?

The doctrine now propounded for the first time by Zwingli, and which has come since to be the doctrine held on this head by a great part of Reformed Christendom, was, in brief, that the Church is created by the Word of God: that her one and only Head is Christ: that the fountain of her laws, and the charter of her rights, is the Bible; and that she is composed of all those throughout the world who profess the Gospel.

This theory carried in it a great ecclesiastical revolution. It struck a blow at the root of the Papal supremacy. It laid in the dust the towering fabric of the Roman hierarchy. The community at Zurich, professing their faith in the Lord Jesus and their obedience to His Word, Zwingli held to be the Church — the Church of Zurich — and he maintained that it had a right to order all things conformable to the Bible. Thus did he withdraw the flock over which he presided from the jurisdiction of Rome, and recover for them the rights and liberties in which the Scriptures had vested the primitive believers, but of which the Papal See had despoiled them.[8]

The discussion on images was now opened. The thesis which the Reformer undertook to maintain, and for which he had prepared the public mind of Zurich by the teachings stated above, was “that the use of images in worship is forbidden in the Holy Scriptures, and therefore ought to be done away with.” This battle was an easy one, and Zwingli left it almost entirely in the hands of Leo Juda. The latter established the proposition in a clear and succinct manner by proofs from the Bible. At this stage the combat was like to have come to an end for want of combatants. The opposite party were most unwilling to descend into the arena. One and then another was called on by name, but all hung back. The images were in an evil case: they could not speak for themselves, and their advocates seemed as dumb as they.[9] At length one ventured to hint that “one should not take the staff out of the hand of the weak Christian, on which he leans, or one should give him another, else he falls to the ground.” “Had useless parsons and bishops” replied Zwingli, “zealously preached the Word of God, as has been inculcated upon them, it were not come to this, that the poor ignorant people, unacquainted with the Word, must learn Christ only through paintings on the wall or wooden figures.” The debate, if such it could be called, and the daylight were ending together. The president, Hoffmeister of Schaffhausen, rose. “The Almighty and Everlasting God be praised” said he, “that He hath vouchsafed us the victory.” Then turning to the councilors of Zurich, he exhorted them to remove the images from the churches, and declared the sitting at an end. “Child’s play,’ said Zwingli, “this has been; now comes a weightier and more important matter.”[10]

That matter was the mass. Truly was it styled “weightier.” For more than three centuries it had held its place in the veneration of the people, and had been the very soul of their worship. Like a skillful and wary general, Zwingli had advanced his attacking lines nearer and nearer that gigantic fortress against which he was waging successful battle. He had assailed first the outworks: now he was to strike a blow at the inner citadel. Should it fall, he would regard the conquest as complete, and the whole of the contested territory as virtually in his hands.

On the 27th of October the discussion on the mass was opened. We have previously given Zwingli’s fundamental proposition, which was to this effect, that Christ’s death on the cross is an all-sufficient and everlasting sacrifice, and that therefore the Eucharist is not a sacrifice, but a memorial. “He considered the Supper to be a remembrance instituted by Christ, at which He will be present, and whereby He, by means of His word of promise and outward signs, will make the blessing of His death, whose inward power is eternal, to be actually effective in the Christian for the strengthening and assurance of faith.”[11] This cut the ground from beneath “transubstantiation” and the “adoration of the Host.” Zwingli led the debate. He expressed his joy at the decision of the conference the day before on the subject of images, and went on to expound and defend his views on the yet graver matter which it was now called to consider. “If the mass is no sacrifice” said Stienli of Schaffhausen, “then have all our fathers walked in error and been damned!” “If our fathers have erred,” replied Zwingli, “what then? Is not their salvation in the hands of God, like that of all men who have erred and sinned? Who authorizes us to anticipate the judgment of God? The authors of these abuses will, without doubt, be punished by God; but who is damned, and who is not, is the prerogative of God alone to decide. Let us not interfere with the judgments of God. It is sufficiently clear to us that they have erred.”[12] When he had finished, Dr. Vadian, who was president for the day, demanded if there was any one present prepared to impugn from Scripture the doctrine which had been maintained in their hearing. He was answered only with silence. He put the question a second time. The greater number expressed their agreement with Zwingli. The Abbots of Kappel and Stein “replied nothing.” The Provost of the Chapter of Zurich quoted in defense of the mass a passage from the apocryphal Epistle of St. Clement and St. James. Brennwald, Provost of Embrach, avowed himself of Zwingli’s sentiments. The Canons of Zurich were divided in opinion. The chaplains of the city, on being asked whether they could prove from Scripture that the mass was a sacrifice, replied that they could not. The heads of the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustines of Zurich said that they had nothing to oppose to the theses of Zwingli.[13] A few of the country priests offered objections, but of so frivolous a kind that it was felt they did not merit the brief refutation they received. Thus was the mass overthrown.

This unanimity deeply touched the hearts of all. Zwingli attempted to express his joy, but sobs choked his utterance. Many in that assembly wept with him. The grey headed warrior Hoffmeister, turning to the council, said, “Ye, my lords of Zurich, ought to take up the Word of God boldly: God the Almighty will prosper you therein.” These simple words of the veteran soldier, whose voice had so often been heard rising high above the storm of battle, made a deep impression upon the assembly.[14]

No sooner had Zwingli won this victory than he found that he must defend it from the violence of those who would have thrown it away. He might have obtained from the council an order for the instant removal of the images, and the instant suppression of the mass, but with his characteristic caution he feared precipitation. He suggested that both should be suffered to continue a short while longer, that time might be given him more fully to prepare the public mind for the change. Meanwhile, the council ordered that the images should be “covered and veiled,” and that the Supper should be dispensed in bread and wine to those who wished it in that form. It was also enacted that public processions of religious bodies should be discontinued, that the Host should not be carried through the streets and highways, and that the relics and bones of saints should be decently buried.[15]

[1]Zwing. Op., torn. i., fol. 35. Gierdesius, torn, i., p. 280.

[2]Christoffel, p. 126. Hottinger was afterwards martyred at Lucerne. But this, and other events outside the canton of Zurich, will come more fully under our notice when we advance to the second stage of the Swiss Reformation — that, namely, from the establishment of the Protestant faith at Zurich, 1525, to the battle of Kappel 1531.

[3]Christoffel p. 126.

[4]Ruchat, torn, i., p. 183. Christoffel, pp. 126 — 130. So did Zwingli, at the beginning of the sixteenth century^ reason on the question of the worshipping of God by images. He was followed in the same line of argument by the French and English divines who rose later in the same century. And at this day the Protestant controversialist can make use of but the same weapons that Zwingli employed.

[5]Sleidan, bk. iv., p. 66.

[6]Gerdesius, torn, i., p. 290.

[7]Ruchat, torn, i., pp. 182,183.

[8]Christoffel, p. 132.

[9]Gerdesius, torn, i., p. 291. Christoffel, p, 133.

[10]Christoffel, pp. 132 — 135.

[11]Dorner, Hist. Prot. Theol., vol. i., p. 309.

[12]Christoffel, p. 137.

[13]Ruchat, torn, i., p. 184.

[14]Gerdesius, torn, i., pp. 291, 292. Christoffel, pp. 137 — 139.

[15]Ibid., torn, i., pp. 292, 293. Christoffel, pp. 142, 143. They boasted having in the cathedral the bodies of St. Felix and St. Eegulus, martyrs of the Theban legion. When their coffins were opened they were found to contain some bones mixed with pieces of charcoal and brick. The bones were committed to the earth. “Nevertheless” says Ruchat, “the Papists in latter times have given out that the bodies of the martyrs were carried to Ursern, in the canton of Uri, since the Reformation, and they were exhibited there on the 11th April, 1688.” (Ruchat, torn. i. a p. 19a)

Excerpt from: The History of Protestantism , by J A Wilie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.