Huldrych Zwingli on Reformed Instruction - Dr. R. Faber

Taken With permission from Clarion Vol. 48, No. 1 (1999)

Dr. Riemer Faber is professor of Classics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada


Huldrych ZwingliIt is easy to overlook Huldrych Zwingli's contribution to Reformed education. He established no school system in Switzerland, was not involved in the founding of new universities, and wrote no textbooks. His unfortunate death in 1531 cut short any intention Zwingli may have had to compose a handbook on education. Considered one of the driving forces behind the reformation of the church in Switzerland, Zwingli is not widely credited for that country's educational reform.

However, while Zwingli may not have affected the development of Reformed education in Switzerland directly, he did provide some significant contributions to this important enterprise. For example, in the city of Zurich he undertook to restructure the two schools associated with the Great Minster church. He also pioneered the activities of the so-called "Prophecy", a daily gathering of Bible experts who expounded the Scriptures and contributed to a Swiss-German translation. And, not least, Zwingli composed a little treatise called "On the Education of the Youth".

"On the Education of the Youth" first appeared in Latin in 1523, then in revised form in German, and later in other languages. Whereas critics deem it a loose collection of personal observations about raising teenagers, the treatise in fact contains a clear summary of the biblical principles supporting Christian education. More precisely, it is one of the first treatises to discuss nurture of the young from an explicitly Reformed point of view. And "On the Education of the Youth" makes an eloquent case for the role of education in developing the moral as well as intellectual qualities of the young. In what follows we shall relate some of the key observations Zwingli makes about the basis of Reformed instruction, the formation of an upright moral character, and the service to others that should result from proper nurture.

"On the Education of the Youth" (1523)

The full title of the treatise is "On the Upbringing and Education of Youth in Good Manners and Christian Discipline". (1)

As the words "good manners" and "Christian discipline" suggest, it concerns proper behaviour and morals, and so goes beyond formal upbringing in school. Zwingli was convinced that learning should not be viewed as unrelated to action: education concerns a person's subsequent deeds. The author addresses the work to his teenaged stepson, Gerold Meyer, and the personal tone suggests that Zwingli is concerned about the upbringing of this young person in particular. It should also be noted that Zwingli was restructuring the grammar school and the theological college of the Great Minster church when he composed the treatise; he uses the opportunity to make comments upon training in such schools. Moreover, he composes the treatise in such a way that it interests a broad readership.

"On the Education of the Youth" is divided into three sections: 1) "how the tender mind of youth is to be instructed in the things of God", that is, Reformed principles supporting nurture and education; 2) "how [the youth] is to be instructed in the things which concern itself", i.e., the manner in which a young person develops as a Christian; and 3) "how [the youth] is to be instructed in conduct towards others", or Christian behaviour in social contexts. Zwingli does not prescribe a formal course of study, but sketches "certain precepts which would be wholesome and helpful for both body and soul and which would serve to the advancement of virtue and piety (102-3)." While some of the precepts concern scholastic education and training for the ministry in particular, most affect the formation of a Christian character and intellect.

The first section of the treatise contains a number of concise statements about the premises of Reformed instruction. It begins with a candid evaluation of the subject: while education is very important, it cannot lead to saving faith. "It is beyond our human capacity to bring the hearts of men to faith in the one God (104)" by means of learning, "even though we had an eloquence surpassing that of Pericles," the famous Athenian orator. The human mind cannot reveal the path to salvation, for "...blinded by human folly the mind cannot of itself attain to the deep counsel of divine grace (107)." Only God can turn the hearts of sinners to Christ, and He does so by the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, even those who have been saved by the righteousness of Christ are incapable of complete knowledge and "as long as we are absent from the Lord in this mortal body we cannot be free from temptations (107)." While the humanist holds that education may contribute to increased piety and even salvation, the reformer holds that all learning is subject to the grace of God. Therefore all those who would be truly learned should "pray that he who alone can give faith will illuminate by His Spirit those whom we instruct in his Word (104)."

"It is beyond our human capacity to bring the hearts of men to faith in the one God (104)" by means of learning, "even though we had an eloquence surpassing that of Pericles."

The value of education is revealed also by Christian faith. For while in learning as "in most things the human mind depends upon the external senses (107)", faith is "the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a firm confidence worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit through the gospel. By faith we accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word, and by faith we understand that God created the world out of nothing by His word (Hebrews 11:3). In sum, our "faith and confidence in Christ can derive only from God (107)"; no amount of human wisdom can instil it. And since the Holy Spirit employs the Bible to work faith, "we should learn the Gospel with all exactness and diligence (108)," to learn from it "what services will be most pleasing to God" and how "to be profitable to all" (108)."

To demonstrate further that knowledge depends upon the providence of God, Zwingli states that the object of learning is the universe and all that it contains. As the created order, the universe is subservient to the Creator. When we study the elements that make up the universe, "we learn that all these things are changing and destructible, but that he who conjoined them ... is necessarily unchanging and immutable (104)." Thus the very things studied by humans reveal that there is someone superior to them and their learning, namely God. As human creatures fashioned by the eternal, omnipotent God, mortals should be humbled rather than exalted in their learning. In studying things brought into existence by the word of God, we are "taught that all things are ordained by the providence of God (104)." Wisdom is not to be sought in human philosophies, for they are as mortal and fallible as the people who conceive them. Rather, since all the objects of human enquiry are in the hands of God, "if we desire wisdom or learning, we are taught to ask it of Him alone (105)" and to seek it in His infallible Word.

Having presented the argument that Scripture should be the starting point for a discussion of education, Zwingli next considers what the Bible reveals about man's ability to learn. In reading Scripture the student first learns about the human will in its original and natural state: "... how he transgressed the commandment of God and became a prey to death, how by his transgression he infected and corrupted his offspring - the whole human race (105)." This leads to the acknowledgement that original and actual sins affect one's ability to learn and know. Stating the doctrine of the depravity of fallen man bluntly, Zwingli notes that "whether we will or no we can do nothing but evil (106)." What is more, Zwingli reminds us, "God requires of us a perfect righteousness, but we are corrupted and full of sin (106)." It is obvious that man cannot attain to the righteousness of God. No amount of learning can achieve what God requires of us."Therefore," Zwingli concludes, "we have no choice but to give up ourselves into the hand of God, to abandon ourselves entirely to his grace (106)."

Moving then to the doctrine of redemption, Zwingli notes that "the righteousness of Christ, put forth for us who are sinful and lost, releases us from sin and the guilt and suffering of sin and makes us worthy before God (106)." The redeeming sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ gives education new meaning and purpose. For He has been made "our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). Being born anew in Christ the redeemed sinner seeks to live for God, and to know Him by studying His inspired Word and the world He created. Confident in the saving work of Christ, the believer is enabled by the Holy Spirit to employ education for the proper goals of serving God and fellow humans. For "where God works, you need have no fear that things will not be done rightly (107)."

Part two of the treatise deals with how the youth "is to be instructed in the things which concern itself". Here Zwingli argues that the teenager who has grasped the importance of the biblical basis for all training will undertake to regulate his whole being according to Scripture, so that he might be "righteous in life and as nearly like God as possible (108)." Before one can behave rightly before others, one must live rightly before God. To do so, the youth reads the Bible constantly and like an athlete "exercises himself day and night in the Word of God (108)." And as the treatise is directed also at those who aspire to the office of ministry, it advocates the study of Scripture in the original languages. In whatever language the Bible is read, however, such study should not be undertaken lightly; "a humble and thirsting spirit (109)" is needed to receive the instruction of Scripture. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Having emphasised the biblical basis for all moral and intellectual development, Zwingli next states that in the Bible the youth "will everywhere find patterns of right conduct, that is he will find Christ himself (109)." Since the central message of the Bible is the gospel of salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ is the focus of the Book. The Bible presents Him first and foremost as the Saviour of the world, but also as the only perfect human character whom no-one can emulate fully but all should aspire to follow. Perhaps influenced here by Erasmus' frequent portrayal of Jesus Christ as the paragon of Christian piety, Zwingli tells the teenager that Christ is "the perfect exemplar of all virtues (109)", adding that "so far as human frailty allows, [the youth] must venture to manifest some part of the virtues of Christ.... He will learn of Christ both in speech and in silence, each at the proper time (109)."

" Those who "seek fame by way of expensive apparel" and "who make a daily display of new clothes", says Zwingli, "are not Christians. For while they arrange themselves after this fashion, they allow the destitute to perish with cold and hunger (112)."

Much of the second part of the treatise consists of specific advice to teenagers such as Gerold Meyer. But Zwingli's injunctions apply also to adults, and though he deals with simple and obvious matters, he is careful to note the significance of them. And keen to have a scriptural basis for his advice, Zwingli alludes especially to the pastoral exhortations of the apostle Paul. Accordingly, he advocates self-discipline in the consumption of alcohol, the eating of food, and the wearing of clothes. Regarding the first, Zwingli writes: "superfluity of wine is something which the young man must avoid like poison (111)." And one should not "give free rein to a voracious appetite (beyond what is necessary for life) (111)." Those who "seek fame by way of expensive apparel" and "who make a daily display of new clothes", says Zwingli, "are not Christians. For while they arrange themselves after this fashion, they allow the destitute to perish with cold and hunger (112)." In writing about the mundane matters of drink, food and clothing, Zwingli is concerned more about the soul than the body: "the spirit itself must be sound and ordered (110)." And "in all these things [the youth] must study moderation, that what he does may serve the truth and not merely please men (110)."

The last section of "On the Education of the Youth" concerns "conduct towards others". In this part Zwingli wishes to convince his readers that service to others is the most important consequence of proper instruction. From the perspective of our selfish modern age, Zwingli's emphasis upon the altruistic goals of education is worthy of further consideration. He begins with the biblical basis for this conviction: we must "first consider the fact that Christ gave himself up to death on our behalf and became ours: therefore we ought to give up ourselves for the good of all men, not thinking that we are our own, but that we belong to others (113)." The youth who has studied the Bible "will do good to others, but he will never hold it against them, for that was the way of Christ (117)." Formal education and nurture in the home should prepare the youth "serve the Christian community, the common good, the state and individuals (113)".

Here Zwingli makes it clear that for him Reformed instruction should aim especially at forming a Christian character. He is not so much concerned with formal education or ideal disciplines of study; instead, he provides examples of right action that result from the study of Scripture. In so doing, Zwingli addresses three aspects of one's public conduct: behaviour, speech and thought.

The believer who has studied Scripture knows his duties to all others and especially to the members of the household of faith. He views the fellowship of believers "as one household or family, indeed as one body, in which all members rejoice and suffer together and help one another, so that what happens to one happens to all (114)." He rejoices with those who rejoice, and weeps with those who weep. Again giving advice to adults as well as adolescents, Zwingli reminds his readers that "when a neighbour is in trouble, we ought not to allow anything to hinder us from going ... We should be the first there and the last away, and we must exert ourselves to weigh the hurt, treating it and removing it and proffering counsel (115)." Having the mind of Christ, the believer strives to serve others by being faithful, just, honourable, and constant.

Just as one's actions should be carefully considered, so too one's speech should be weighed. The heart declares itself in speech; one's speech ought to be guarded, lest it contain any deceit or falsehood. After all, "the Christian is commanded to speak the truth to his neighbour (116)", and "a man who is inconsistent in his speech cannot be trusted (116)." Moreover, speech should not be idle; conversations "should all be of a kind to profit those with whom we live. If we have to reprove or punish, we ought to do it wisely and wittily, and so good humouredly and considerately that we not only drive away the offence but win over the offender, binding him more closely to us (116)." Like actions, speech is to be employed for the benefit of others.

Thought controls actions and speech; the youth should be careful, therefore, to weigh his thoughts. For if one's "speech be empty and untruthful and inconsistent, it is a sure sign that things are far worse inwardly (116)." And our actions must not "pretend to be other than the heart (117)", for then we would be hypocrites. In short, the youth should direct his thoughts according to the norms of Scripture. "Where that is done, he will be a rule to himself. And acting rightly he will never be lifted up or cast down. He will increase daily, but he will see to it that he himself decreases (117)." Not corrupted by selfish thoughts, the youth will serve others in all he says and does.


In conclusion, let us summarize Zwingli's views on Reformed instruction as expressed in "On the Education of the Youth". The Swiss reformer begins with the compelling argument that the principles of instruction should be carefully worked out and explicitly stated first. Without the proper basis, both general nurture and formal education are meaningless. And the only proper basis, Zwingli repeatedly states, is Scripture. One must understand and believe fully all the teaching of the Bible before one can consider the function of instruction. Thus from the depravity of the fallen man and original sin to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, the effect of biblical teaching upon education must be articulated. Learning is subject to faith, without which it is of no avail.

According to Zwingli, the ultimate object of all learning is "Christ and Him crucified". And as the message of the Gospel is to be found only in the Bible, the Bible should provide the focus of all instruction. The student who seeks true wisdom must seek the Lord Jesus Christ and His teaching. For Zwingli, then, "education" is much broader than formal schooling or academic study. Besides intellectual advancement, Reformed instruction concerns the inculcation of the biblical virtues of righteousness, holiness and self-control. Not only one's life before God, but also one's conduct in the presence of others should be marked by such virtues. Dedicating his entire life to the glory of God and the service of others, the Reformed student seeks to apply the Word of God in his life. Of course, Zwingli concludes, this can only be done by the grace of God. For this reason he ends the treatise with this prayer: "may God so lead you through the things of this world that you may never be separated from him (118)."

R. Faber

[1]. An English translation of this Latin treatise appears in G.W. Bromiley, ed., Library of Christian Classics Vol. 24: Zwingli and Bullinger (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), 102-118. Quotations derive from this edition.