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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed


Written by: Ted Vial

In January 1523, in what is known as the "First Disputation," the Zurich City Council endorsed Zwingli's teachings and his principle of scripture alone (sola scriptura). (Zurich was a free imperial city, which meant that it was ruled by an oligarchy that played the role that Luther's Prince Frederick played in Saxony.)  In October at the "Second Disputation" the City Council decided that the Mass and the use of images in worship were unscriptural.

War eventually broke out between the Catholic and Protestant cantons (states) in Switzerland.  Zwingli led the Zurich troops into battle and was killed on October 11, 1531 at the Battle of Kappel.  Significantly, Luther remarked that ministers who went to war got what they deserved-he and Zwingli met just once and did not much care for each other.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was born in Noyon, France.  He was in the second generation of Reformers (when Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Calvin was 8).  By 1525 he received his M.A. in Paris and was prepared to study theology.  His father, perhaps nervous about the dangers of swirling theological debates, withdrew him and enrolled him in law school in Orléans.  Calvin obediently complied, but when his father died he returned to Paris to study theology in 1531. 

Calvin does not leave a record of a dramatic conversion experience like Luther's "Tower Experience ," but by the mid-1530s had decided for the reformers, and so was forced to go into hiding, eventually leaving France.  He spent one year in Basel, where in 1536 he published the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Faith.  It was a small book used to teach people the elements of Christian faith.  It was immediately very popular.  Calvin continually revised the book throughout his life, and by the fourth edition in 1660 it had grown to four large volumes.

Calvin passed through Geneva on his way to Basel, where he intended to spend a quiet life of study and writing.  The leader of the Geneva reformers, William Farel, heard that the author of the Institutes was in town and went to his inn to persuade him to stay and help the reform efforts in Geneva.  Calvin declined, arguing that he wanted a life of quiet scholarship, not public leadership.  Farel argued that if Calvin pursued his own ends rather than God's he would surely go to hell.  Calvin stayed.

Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva in 1538 (apparently many citizens who favored reform in theory did not find the practical seriousness with which Calvin meant to reform Geneva to their liking).  Calvin lived in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541 (he claimed these were the happiest years of his life).  The city leaders in Geneva asked Calvin to return in 1541.  He did, reluctantly, and remained in Geneva until his death in 1564.  Calvin had his remains scattered so that his grave could not become a site of devotion, which he would have considered idolatrous.

Study Questions:
     1.    Provide a short biography of Zwingli. What significant event in 1516 influenced his role in the Reformation?
     2.    How did Zwingli change the tradition of liturgical text?
     3.    Were the Protestant beginnings in Switzerland peaceful? Explain.
     4.    Who was John Calvin? What book did he write, and how did it come to be influential?


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