Re-Forming the Reformation 0.2

Benji BruneelCommunity News

White Walls and The True Worship of God
Lately, the Community News has featured a number of articles dedicated to the work and thought of the Reformers. As a church that stands squarely in the Reformed tradition, the theological contributions of men such as John Calvin and Martin Luther weigh greatly upon our church’s thinking. Yet, although Luther and Calvin get all the press, as SBCC gathers to worship each week, in significant ways we closely resemble a Zwinglian congregation.

Ulrich Zwingli was a contemporary of Luther and a fellow Reformer. Living and ministering in Zurich, Switzerland, Zwingli focused his reform efforts less on the content of what his parishioners believed—although he considered that of great importance—but on the ways in which his parishioners acted out what they believed when they came to worship as a congregation.

While Martin Luther hammered out great treatises on justification by faith, and John Calvin produced incomparable systematic explanations of the Reformed faith, Zwingli concentrated his efforts primarily on what happened within the walls of the church. Zwingli’s changes concerned three spheres of church practice: music, art, and the Lord’s Supper. Based upon his interpretation of Scripture and his unwavering commitment to act, no matter how dramatically, upon the conclusions reached therein, Zwingli made sweeping changes to worship practice in Zurich.

Although icons and images of saints were staples of medieval worship, intended to generate in the viewer a love for and devotion to Christ that emulated that of the one pictured, Zwingli could not tolerate them on account of Scripture. In his view, God prohibited such images and icons when He commanded the Israelites,You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below (Exodus 20:4). Furthermore, Zwingli argued, it was impossible for fallen, idolatrous people to encounter an icon without giving it worship –worship due only unto Christ. In his work, A Commentary on True and False Religion, Zwingli outlined his conclusions; “Since sure danger of a decrease of faith threatens wherever images stand in the churches, and imminent risk of their adoration and worship, they ought to be abolished in the churches and wherever risk of their worship threatens.” As a result, under Zwingli’s watchful eye, the churches of Zurich removed the art and icons which were prolific in the worship of the immediate past. His war with the idols now complete, Zwingli could exclaim in triumph, “In Zurich we have churches which are positively luminous; the walls are beautifully white!”

As radical as those reforms may have seemed in the context of the time, Zwingli’s conclusions on music were no less earthshaking and would seem so even today. Considering texts such as Amos 5:23 (Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps!), Ephesians 5:19b (Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord) and Colossians 3:16b (As you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God) alongside Jesus’ teachings on prayer in Matthew 6:5-7 and on worship in John 4:24, Zwingli again reached startling conclusions. This reformer abolished music and singing in his churches!  “One is a matter exclusively of external forms involving ‘clamor before men’; the other is a matter exclusively of internal content involving ‘spirit and truth.’” One scholar comments, “In 1523 the singing stopped, not to be heard again until 1598. Its absence must not have been greatly missed, because in 1527 the [Zurich City] Council gave orders for the destruction of the pipe organs as well. These took longer to reappear, a new organ not being installed in [Zwingli’s church] until 1874.” 

How, then, does SBCC reflect the Zwinglian tradition in worship? Although Zwingli would have objected to even the cross mounted above the newly renovated stage and our church family clearly has not adopted his viewpoint on music, every time we come to Communion, we side with the great Reformer.

Indeed, Zwingli’s greatest contribution to the theological developments taking place during the Reformation involved the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In a time of great debate and theological formulation, the proper understanding of the Eucharist was a hot issue and Zwingli, not surprisingly, found himself in the middle of the fray. Zwingli supported an interpretation of Scripture that insisted that the Lord’s Supper serves as a reminder of the atoning death of Christ upon the cross, but no more than a reminder. Others such as Luther, Calvin, and the Roman Catholic Church held opposing viewpoints. Zwingli, as always, turned to the Scriptures to support his contention.

Zwingli argued that Christ’s words, “this is my body” meant “this represents my body.” When coupled with the command to “do this in remembrance of me,” Zwingli concluded that to eat the Communion meal in remembrance of Christ is to eat real bread and drink real wine that represent a greater reality. “How does bread represent a body? Certainly in that when thus eaten it recalls to remembrance that Christ presented his body to his murderers for us.” And although the elements upon the table undergo no change of their own, Zwingli recognized nonetheless their potential to cause great change in the one who comes to the table in faith. 

Faith, for Zwingli, was dangerously at stake when it came to false religion. Indeed, the conviction that faith itself was on the line, led Zwingli to captain his great program of reform in Zurich. With a pastor’s heart, he sought to change, abandon, or abolish any practice that did not lead his flock to greater faith in Christ, the Great Shepherd. Although a skilled musician and a great admirer of art in its proper setting, Zwingli stood firm against their place in worship based on his certainty of their damaging effect upon faith. Again, as he expressed his memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper, his aim was to build up the faith of the people. He desired, above all, that people would forsake the external and visible as the assurance of their salvation, but, in faith, would cling instead to Christ.

Each Sunday, we come to the table at SBCC to remember what Christ has done for us. As a church, our understanding of this central act of worship is decidedly Zwinglian. And our goal in coming to the Lord’s Table is just as Zwinglian. As we come, in the words of this Reformer, “we commemorate [Christ’s] body given for us and the shedding of his blood for our atonement.”   The result is that our faith in Christ is increased. So, as we approach the Lord’s Table each week, let us be people who come in humility, in remembrance, and in faith.