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Reformed Confessions: Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles (1523)

John R. Muether

With this article Ordained Servant begins a yearlong survey of ten confessions in the Reformed tradition. In commemorating this five hundredth anniversary year of the launching of the Protestant Reformation, these brief articles focus on the development of the Reformed faith as a confessional tradition of which the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is an heir. This tradition displays unity and diversity while growing into the mature expression of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. We underscore that this is a small (though representative) sample. There are many confessions that make up this tradition. For a fuller picture of that rich body of work, readers are encouraged to consult three helpful anthologies of primary sources:

  • Mark A. Noll, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991.
  • Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the 16th Century. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966.
  • James T. Dennison, Jr. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation . 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2008–2014.

Shortly after the “birth” of the Reformation with Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) became a prominent pulpit presence in Zurich, Switzerland. By 1522 Zwingli was preaching against many Roman Catholic prac_tices—such as the penitential system and the sale of indulgences, the veneration of saints and the worship of Mary, and the requirements of clerical celibacy and monastic asceticism.

When his preaching met with opposition, the town council called for a “Disputation” or a debate on the points of contention. In preparation, Zwingli composed his Sixty-Seven Articles, which asserted the basics of his evangelical teaching: the Bible is the sole authority for the Christian faith; its message was about Christ, the only savior for humanity and the only head of his church. The catholic church consists of all those who are united by faith to that head. That church is the creation of the Word, not the other way around, and it recognizes no priests except those who proclaim God’s Word. The Christian is robbed of freedom by unbiblical traditions such as clerical celibacy, fasting, feast days, pilgrimages, special clothing, cords, signs, and monastic orders; and scripture designates no purgatory and no separate priesthood.

Each of these articles was brief; most were one-sentence propositions. The Sixty-Seven Articles established the practice of expressing doctrinal commitments in succinct form, advancing the Reformation with clear statements. For the precedent Zwingli set, historian Mark Noll observed, “This document can be considered the first Protestant confession.”[1]

Zwingli’s arguments before an audience of six hundred prevailed when the town council formally endorsed the principle of sola Scriptura. Zwingli’s zeal is captured in his last thesis, which expresses his eagerness to go on to further subjects: “If anyone wishes to discuss with me usury, tithes, unbaptized children, or confirmation, I am ready to provide an answer.” I could go on, he says, in effect; I am only starting. His wish was granted as a second disputation took place ten months later. His views spread through a growing number of preachers who shared his views.

Zwingli’s leadership in Zurich was firmly established, and the Swiss Reformation was off and running.

An Excerpt

13. Where people heed the Word of God, they learn the will of God plainly and clearly, they are drawn to him by his Spirit, and they are converted to him.
14. Therefore, all Christians should exercise the greatest diligence to see only that the gospel of Christ is preached everywhere.
15. For in believing the gospel we are saved, and in believing not we are condemned, for all truth is clearly contained in it.
16. In the gospel we learn that the teachings and traditions of men are of no use for salvation.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

Endnote

[1] Mark A. Noll, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 38.

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, January 2017.

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