Ulrich Zwingli Affirmed the Protestant Doctrine of Original Sin – PART 1

Ulrich Zwingli

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During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s and 1600s, one of the prominent disagreements between the Roman Catholics and Protestants was over the doctrine of original sin. The debate was not over what original sin is in all mankind from conception, for both Protestants and Roman Catholics agreed that original sin condemns all mankind. Rather, the debate was over what original sin is in the baptized or Christians, for Roman Catholics argued, as evidenced at the Council of Trent, that original sin changes in the baptized due to baptism washing the guilt away. Rome argued that all those who are not baptized go to hell due to the guilt of original sin. Yet, the Protestants argued that original sin remains the same in the baptized or Christians, but is now imputed to Christ and is therefore no longer condemning.[1]

Ulrich Zwingli was one of the first Protestants to formally argue that original sin remains in the baptized or Christians and is still sin, in the first confessional document of the Reformation, Zwingli’s “Instruction” to Zurich in 1523. However, later in his ministry, Zwingli was often unhelpful in his discussion of original sin. For this reason, Timothy George writes, “For Zwingli original sin was a defect that, despite its devastating effects on the human race, ‘is not of itself sinful for him who has it. The defect cannot condemn one—no matter what the theologians say—until he acts out of the defect against the law of God, and one can do that only if he knows the law.’”[2] Despite this statement from George, a gifted scholar and historian, this paper argues that Zwingli affirmed the Protestant doctrine of original sin. Indeed, he wrote of its support,[3] was defended by Martin Bucer on this account,[4] did not affirm its denial,[5] and influenced no one to reject it, not even his successor Henry Bullinger. This thesis will be proven by engaging primary sources from Zwingli, Bucer, and Bullinger.

Zwingli Wrote of Supporting the Protestant Doctrine of Original Sin

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)

First, Zwingli wrote of supporting the Protestant doctrine of original sin. The Protestant Reformation was fueled in part by a return to the Holy Scriptures as possessing greater authority than the Roman Catholic Church. One such early Reformer who exalted the Scriptures was Ulrich Zwingli.[6] Before Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, Zwingli, a young Catholic priest, in 1516 was preaching through the Holy Scriptures in Glarus, Switzerland. He became the “people’s priest” in Zurich, Switzerland in 1519 and acted as a reformer from the beginning.[7]

Zwingli was received favorably in Zurich. He authored the first official confessional document of the Reformation in 1523. His goal was to write an “Instruction” to the city council of Zurich that would teach them why using images and statues in worship and presenting the Mass as a sacrifice are contrary to Scripture. But the council liked the document so much, they made it official and required all ministers and preachers to teach in line with it.[8] Concerning sin, Zwingli wrote, “From birth we are all sinners, for we are all born of Adam. Now Adam fell into sin, weakness, and death before he ever gave birth. Thus it also follows that all who come from him inherit such weakness from him. For, just as it is not possible for a person to beget an angel, so also the fallen, sinful Adam could not beget a sinless person.”[9] In the first confession of the Reformation, Zwingli taught that from birth, all people are sinners. This is due to being born of Adam, since Adam could only produce what he was, which is a sinful person.

            Zwingli continued,

That is, after the destruction of his nature Adam and all his descendants are incapable of doing anything good; for they are sinful. What is here called “sin” is nothing but the weakness of the fall and the impotence of our flesh as in Romans 7:17: “I can therefore work nothing, but the sin which lives in me.” This is the sin that is innate within me, the sinful fall through which death came into us. According to Romans 5:12, “Sin came into all humankind through one person and death through sin.[10]

Not only did Zwingli argue that all people are born sinners, he also argued that they could do no good, because they are sinners. And this sin is the weakness and impotence of the flesh. Sin is innate within all humanity, due to Adam.

            Then, Zwingli argued,

And, as surely as all people who are conceived in sin must die, so certainly are they also children of Adam with regard to transgression, sin, powerlessness, and nakedness. For we are nothing but flesh, as God says in Genesis 6:3: “My spirit will not remain with humankind, for it is flesh.” Since, however, we all know that the flesh is worthless, is incapable of anything and gives birth to nothing good, it follows that we, just as Adam, since we are nothing but flesh, are by nature incapable of anything that is either just or good. Rather, all our inclinations are directed only to evil, as God himself says in the previous passage: “All thoughts of the heart are always directed to evil” [Genesis 6:5]. And likewise in Genesis 8:21 he says: “The understanding and counsel of the human heart is evil from youth.” If it is evil from childhood on then it must come from the heritage from Adam. This is the right understanding of original sin: the fall, transgression, powerlessness, loss of God, weakness, sin, or whatever you want to call it. It is clear how we are by nature all together the children of wrath. See Romans 3:12, 23. Also how we are completely useless and do nothing good. See Psalm 14:1. For we are by nature all together the children of Adam and stand on the side of the transgressing party, and no one can by nature perform either good or reconciling deeds—neither for oneself nor for anyone else, for we are all sinners [cf. Romans 3:23].[11]

Continuing his emphasis that sinners can do nothing good, he argued that everyone must die because they are conceived in sin. The flesh is evil from birth, from Adam. Then he defined original sin as “the fall, transgression, powerlessness, loss of God, weakness, sin, or whatever you want to call it.” All mankind is on the side of the transgressing party and cannot remedy themselves or anyone else. Mankind, by nature, can only do evil.

            Zwingli continued,

For so long as we live in the body, hereditary sin will bear evil fruit and forever. Now the sin and fall came out of inordinate desire, namely, that Adam wanted to know and become great—indeed, to become like God [cf. Genesis 3:4-6]. Thus still today every person is selfish. He pushes himself toward honor, name, power, riches, and reputation for himself. He values himself more than he is worth; he believes that other people’s work should serve him and he strives to that end. Denial is of no use here. If every person were to examine his own desires he would find them so great that no one could satisfy them. However, where a person does not destroy anything, it is through God’s power—not his own…We are speaking here of humankind and its reason, striving and power. By nature they always look out for themselves first and always regard themselves first. In short, they do nothing just, but are completely selfish.[12]

Zwingli believed that all mankind inherited Adam’s sinful desire to be great, like God. Man, like Adam after the fall, values himself more than others and believes that others should serve him. And if man does not destroy through selfishness, it is only through God’s power, not his own. According to Zwingli, man is unjust and completely selfish.

            Then, after discussing God’s law coming from the divine will, Zwingli argued,

Furthermore, if we now have the law we are not therefore righteous, for they are not recognized as godly who hear the law. Rather they are reckoned godly who do the law. What then is the law good for? The answer according to Romans 3:20 is that one recognizes sin through the law. Therefore understand that with the following example: “You should covet no one’s spouse or possessions” [Ex. 20:17] shows you without doubt that if you covet these things you sin. And you fancy that the desire would not be sin, for you think that if you were on your guard before the act that you would not have sinned. But see our cunning! We are godly only because of the outward deed, and yet inwardly the heart has already become adulterous, a thief, a usurer or a robber. For if he were permitted to do it, then he would do it. Now our God is not blind; he sees the heart of people. If God finds the coveting or plotting therein, then the person has already incurred the penalty before God. On the other hand it is not possible for us to be without temptations and lusts so long as we wear the skin of Adam. For the flesh bears its fruit forever. For the law stands firm and does not let itself fall nor bend: you shall covet the goods of no one. And if we cannot be on our own power with the desire, so also are we also transgressors and fallen into the wrath and penalty of God.[13]

The first official “confession” of the Reformation contended that concupiscence, fleshly desire, that which remains of original sin in Christians, is morally culpable sin. Zwingli argued that sinners want their desires that are contrary to the law to not be sin; however, they are sin. The person who has a sinful desire is already guilty before God. Zwingli, after interacting with Romans 7:8-9 and 14-25,[14] continued,

See! In Paul’s view we perceive and experience our own weakness and impotence. If, however, no one can come to God unless he has no blemishes, according to Psalm 15:1–3, and we cannot be without blemish, it then follows that we must despair in ourselves of being able to come to God. Here the grace of God that is shown to us in Christ will reveal itself.[15]

Zwingli taught that only through Christ can any person be saved from one’s flesh. For, even when Christians come to God through Christ, they still cannot be without blemish, without concupiscence. Only through Christ are sinners reconciled to God; and only through Christ are Christians continually accepted by God.

            Zwingli then went from discussing the law to discussing the gospel:

As long as we live, that rogue, the body, because of temptation, will never let us live a godly life. However, if we have trusted in God through Christ, then the fruits of the flesh cannot throw us down into damnation. Rather, as Christ said to Peter: “See! The devil has lain in waiting for you so that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith become neither unsteady nor weak” [Luke 22:31f.]. Thus we must remain firm in faith so that all our sins will be forgiven through Christ, although both the devil and the flesh will force us through the sieve and entice us with sin to despair. But, as Peter’s external denial did not bring him into damnation, so also may no sin bring us to damnation, save one: unbelief. Here, however, the true non-Christians say: “I firmly believe in Christ.” Yet they do nothing Christian. Herein one sees that they are non-Christians, for one recognizes a tree by its fruit. [Cf. Mt. 7:16, 20.] Therefore, note for better understanding: as has often been pointed out before, whoever has securely trusted in the grace of God through Christ, after recognizing his sin, cannot be without the love of God. Who would not love him who has so graciously taken away his sin and has begun first to love him, as 1 John 4:19 says, and to draw him to himself? Where, now, the love of God is, there is God; for God is love himself and whoever is in the love of God is in God and God is in him, as 1 John 4:16 says. Now if God is in the right believer and he nevertheless sins, then it follows that it is as Paul says in Romans 8:10: “If now Christ is in you, then the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit or soul lives because of justification.” This justification is nothing but a person’s placing himself in and devoting himself to the grace of God. This is true belief. So the opinion of Paul is that our body is always dead and gives birth to works of death and sin. However, the same sins cannot damn us if we are righteous through the Lord Jesus Christ.”[16]

Zwingli communicated eternal trust in God’s grace through Christ. To him, due to a Christian’s inability to fulfill the law in this flesh, one could only trust in Christ. It was primarily his understanding of God’s holiness and proper worship that drove Zwingli to these conclusions.[17] After all, this confession was written to inoculate its hearers against using images, statues, and the theology of the Mass in worship. Since God’s law is good and Christians cannot measure up, they must continually by faith place themselves into the grace of God. According to Zwingli, God condemns those who have fleshly desires, but concupiscence cannot damn Christians if they are righteous through Christ.

Additionally, in his letter to Urbanus Rhegius published in 1526, Zwingli, in response to the question, “Whether the inborn corruption condemns all mortals to the woes of everlasting death?”, wrote,

To this question I answer without difficulty, first of all by the words of the Lord Himself, in which He foretold that as soon as man should eat of the forbidden fruit, he should straight way die. He ate; hence, he is dead. For as he became the slave of sin by transgressing, he could not beget children who were in a better condition. From a sinner we are all descended as sinners. If sinners, therefore, enemies of God; if enemies, therefore, also damned.[18]

Zwingli argued that the condition of all mankind due to Adam’s sin was the condition Adam found himself in when he sinned against God. Adam could not produce offspring that were in a better condition than he was. Thus, since Adam, through sin, became dead, the slave of sin, the enemy of God, damned, all his descendants are also dead, slaves of sin, enemies of God, damned.

Moreover, in 1530, a little over a year before his death, Zwingli wrote “An Account of the Faith of Huldreich Zwingli” submitted to the German Emperor Charles V, at the Diet of Augsburg. Zwingli contended,

Hence I think of original sin as follows: An act is called sin when it is committed against the law; for where there is no law there is no transgression, and where there is no transgression there is no sin in the proper sense, since sin is plainly an offense, a crime, a misdeed or guilt. I confess, therefore, that our father [Adam] committed what was truly a sin, namely an atrocious deed, a crime, an impiety. But his descendants have not sinned in this manner, for who among us crushed with his teeth the forbidden apple in Paradise? Hence, willing or unwilling, we are forced to admit that original sin, as it is in the children of Adam, is not properly sin, as has been explained; for it is not a misdeed contrary to law. It is, therefore, properly a disease and condition— a disease, because just as he fell through self-love, so do we also; a condition, because just as he became a slave and liable to death, so also are we born slaves and children of wrath [Eph. 2:3] and liable to death. However, I have no objection to this disease and condition being called, after the habit of Paul, a sin; indeed it is a sin inasmuch as those born therein are God’s enemies and opponents, for they are drawn into it by the condition of birth, not by the perpetration of a definite crime, except as far as their first parent has committed one.

Zwingli is confusing, but his point was not to deny original sin here. On the contrary, his point was to distinguish actual sin from being like sinful Adam. Adam fell through self-love and this sinful disease of self-love has been passed on to all of Adam’s descendants. Not only this, but just as Adam became a slave of sin and liable to death due to the fall, all his descendants as well are born slaves, children of wrath, liable to death. Zwingli then argued that he had no problem calling this disease and condition a sin like Paul, for it is indeed a sin “inasmuch as those born therein are God’s enemies and opponents.” Zwingli continued,

The true cause, therefore, of discord with God and of death is the crime and offense committed by Adam, and this is truly sin. But that sin which attaches to us is in reality a disease and condition, involving indeed the necessity of death. Nevertheless, this would never have taken place through birth alone, unless sin had vitiated birth; hence the cause of human misery is sin and not birth; birth only in as far as it follows from this source and cause. This opinion can be supported by authority and example. Paul in Romans 5: 6 [read 5:17] says: “If by one man’s sin* death reigned by one, much more,” etc. Here we see that the word “sin” is properly used. For Adam is the one by whose fruit death hangs upon our shoulders. In chapter 3:23 he says: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” i.e., the goodness and liberality of God. Here sin is understood as a disease, condition and birth, so that we all are said to sin even before we come forth to the light, i.e., we are in the condition of sin and death, even before we sin in act. This opinion is irrefutably strengthened by the words of the same writer, Rom. 5:14, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” See, death is our lot, even though we have not sinned as Adam. Why? Because he sinned. But why does death destroy us when we have not sinned in this way? Because he died on account of sin and, having died, i.e., being condemned to death, he begat us. Therefore we also die, by his guilt indeed, yet by our own condition and disease, or if you prefer, by our sin, improperly so called. The example [we spoke of] is as follows: A prisoner of war by his perfidy and hostile conduct has deserved to be held as a slave. His descendants become serfs or slaves of their master, not by their own fault, guilt or crime, but by their condition which was the result of guilt; for their parent of whom they were born had merited it by his crime. The children have no crime, but the punishment and requital of a crime—namely a condition, servitude and the workhouse.

If it please someone to call these a crime, because they are suffered for a crime, I do not object. I acknowledge that this original sin, through condition and contagion, belongs by birth to all who are born from the love of man and woman; and I know that we are by nature children of wrath, but I doubt not that we are received among the sons of God by grace, which through the second Adam, Christ, has repaired the fall.[19]

Zwingli argued that Adam’s proper sin “attaches to us” as a disease and condition. He also argued that the statement by Paul in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” meant that “sin is understood as a disease, condition and birth, so that we all are said to sin even before we come forth to the light, i.e., we are in the condition of sin and death, even before we sin in act.” Thus, all of Adam’s descendants die due to Adam’s guilt and their own condition and disease, their own sin. Zwingli, though unclear in some of these statements, still argues that sinners are condemned eternally due to original sin if God does not intervene through gracious election to redemption in Christ.

You can read Part 2 here.

                              [1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 240-41. Also see J. Donovan, trans., Catechism of the Council of Trent: Translated into English (Dublin: James Duffy and Co., 1908), 162-63.

                              [2] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishing, 2013), 142.

                              [3] Huldreich Zwingli, “Declaration of Huldreich Zwingli Regarding Original Sin, Addressed to Urbanus Rheigius,” in The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli, vol. 2, ed. William John Hinke (Philadelphia: The Heidelberg Press, 1922), 14-15.

                              [4] Bucer, Common Places of Martin Bucer, 124.

               [5] Zwingli, “Declaration of Huldreich Zwingli Regarding Original Sin, Addressed to Urbanus Rheigius,” 18-19.

                              [6] Carlos M. N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 219, 224-26.

                              [7] Eire, Reformations, 227.

                              [8] James T. Dennison, Jr., ed., introduction to “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” by Ulrich Zwingli, in 1523-1552, vol. 1 of Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 9. The letter was sent out with a heading that read, “A Short Christian Instruction, Sent by the Honorable Council of the City of Zurich to the Ministers and Preachers Living in the Towns, Villages and Districts, that they Henceforth Unanimously Proclaim and Preach the Evangelical Truth to Their Subjects.” Ulrich Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” in 1523-1552, vol. 1 of Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, ed. and trans. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 10.

                              [9] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 12.

                              [10] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 12.

               [11] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 13.

               [12] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 13-14.

                              [13] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 15-16.

                              [14] Zwingli wrote, “All this will be clear in the words of Paul in Romans 7:8–9: “‘sin was dead without the law,’ that is, one knows nothing of sin where there is no law. ‘I have also lived once without the law,’ that is, so long as we have not yet been instructed with the word of God, as children are, then we live without the law. ‘When, however, the command has come,’ that is, after the commandment is made known to us, ‘sin came alive,’ that is, I then realized what sin is. ‘And yet I have died,’ that is, when I recognized the law, I saw well that I was of death. ‘Therefore the commandment that was given to me for good has become death for me,’ that is, I have seen therein how I am worthy of death since I cannot fulfill it, etc. Soon after that [Romans 7:14–20]: ‘We know that the law is spiritual and yet I am carnal, for I have been given away or sold under the weakness of sin (understand: that which we bring here from Adam). For that which I already do does not please me. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate,’ that is, since the time I heard the law and the word of God I want to avoid sin but the weak flesh does not let me come to that point. ‘If I only do that which I do not want, then I am in harmony with the law, which to be sure is good. However, if I do the opposite, it is the sin doing it,’ that is, the weakness which lies or lives in me, etc. Soon after that [Romans 7:21–25]: ‘Therefore I find that if I want to do the good or the righteous thing according to the instruction of the law, that evil lies close to me. For I delight in the law of God according to the inner person. I see in my members,’ that is, in my body, ‘another law. The same fights against the law of the heart and leads me forth captive under the law of sin,’ that is, of the weakness which lives in my body. ‘What a wretched person I am! Who will redeem me from the body of death?’ I say, ‘Thanks be to God, that I have been redeemed through Jesus Christ our Lord.’” Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 16.

                              [15] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 15-17.

                              [16] Zwingli, “Zwingli’s Short Christian Instruction (1523),” 21.

                              [17] Eire, Reformations, 224.

                              [18] Huldreich Zwingli, “Declaration of Huldreich Zwingli Regarding Original Sin,” ed., William John Hinke, Zwingli: On Providence and Other Essays, reprint(Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1983), 14.

                              [19] Zwingli, “An Account of the Faith of Zwingli,” 40-42.

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