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What distinguishes the Reformation of John Calvin (1509 – 1564) from that of Huldreich Zwingli (1484 – 1549)?

You may be forgiven to think that 2009 is the year of Charles Darwin … forget Chuck! 2009 is the year of John Calvin. As the online writes, “July 10 will mark the 500th birthday of 16th century theologian and reformer John Calvin… Both loathed and revered through the ages, Calvin casts a long shadow on the history of the church.”

“Christian Faith” will not be left out of this historical event so we publish an article about John Calvin in relation to that other great reformer Huldreich Zwingli.

If you don’t know anything about these 2 great men of God then you should. A lot of myth and blatant lies surround both men … servants of God who gave their guts for God (is that theological?).

In this article we will ask the question: What distinguishes the Reformation of John Calvin (1509 – 1564) from that of Huldreich Zwingli (1484 – 1549)?

To answer this question we will analyse the individual major contributions each man made to the Reformation. Significant details of each reformer will be highlighted.

We will then attempt to ‘distinguish’ both men by emphasizing their impact in comparison to each other. The distinguishing features will, therefore, be more prominent in this section.

Finally a time-line! By examining the ‘time-line’, we can see the distinguishing features in a slightly different light.

Huldreich Zwingli

Huldreich Zwingli was born in Switzerland in 1484. In 1500, he entered the University of Vienna and studied philosophy. In 1506, he was ordained bishop of Constance. In the thirteen years until 1519, Zwingli formed his evangelical beliefs. He was greatly influenced by Erasmus, Wycliffe and Huss, and his subsequent actions should be seen in the light of this.

Zwingli’s involvement in the Reformation was in the northern part of Switzerland. His ministry preceded that of Calvin’s. These two factors (i.e. the geographical area and chronology) are vital in analysing the task before us as we “distinguish the Reformation of Calvin from that of Zwingli.”

Zwingli was a priest and he became very critical of the moral abuses of the church and the laity. His three visits to Italy contributed very much to his criticisms.

He was appointed the peoples’ priest at Einsiedeln and it was during this time he formed his evangelical beliefs. His greatest achievements were in Zurich.

An event occurred in 1518 that epitomised Zwingli’s belief in church reform. A friend of Tetzel (indulgence seller who annoyed Martin Luther), Bernardin Samson, was refused entrance to Zurich at the instigation of Zwingli. Samson was an indulgence-seller.

Like Calvin, Zwingli was a great Bible teacher and in 1519 began discourses on the New Testament (i.e. sections of it). It was in that year that he became ill because of his committed pastoral care. He ministered to the dying and sick of the plague, which swept through the city. His recovery, Zwingli rightly believed, was due to God’s grace and mercy. This affected the personal and spiritual realms of his life, and deepened his dependence on God.

From 1519, the Reformation of Huldreich Zwingli gained momentum. He preached against the practice of non-Scriptural fasting, worship of saints and the celibacy of priests. Zwingli stood in defence of some people who ate meat during Lent. He was successful. In 1522, he wrote his first Reformation tract against these practices that he abhorred so much.

Zwingli was politically motivated. An incident that bears this out is in the sale of Swiss mercenaries. Zwingli strongly opposed this. Note well his words, “…it is no sin to eat flesh on a fast day, though it is a great sin to sell human flesh for slaughter.” (i)

He spoke out against the celibacy of priests which subsequently brought a strong reaction from Pope Adrian VI. The Pope urged the people of Zurich to oppose Zwingli. Instead of this occurring, they rallied around the reformer after he had produced his sixty-seven theses. As a result, the Swiss canton separated from Constance.

Berne also favoured Zwingli after a public debate with the Catholic representatives in 1523. His political interest grew during this time, for he favoured a greater democratic structure of the cantons.

Zwingli married in 1524 and in the same year published an article setting forward his views on the Eucharist. He also denounced images of worship and the Roman Catholic mass. This resulted in images being removed from churches resulting in the abolition of certain ceremonies and festivals.

Then came war. At the instigation of the reformer, the Evangelical Swiss attacked the Five Cantons. Zwingli was killed as a chaplain.

Before this, however, an important event occurred in the life of Zwingli. He met Martin Luther, the German Reformer, at Marburg in 1529. There was no reconciliation of their different views on the Eucharist, and the protestant movement was split in two – the Lutherans and the Reformist brethren.

So what was it that characterised the theological and social Reformation of Huldreich Zwingli?

He believed in the supreme authority of Scripture and he favoured breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. It was his theological (and humanist) beliefs that were the catalysts for his Reformation of government, discipline and theology. He believed that the state government and the church government should be united. Reform was instituted by Zwingli and the council of Zurich. However, conflict arose from the Anabaptists because of the absence of a free, independent church.

Zwingli believed that only those chosen by God would be saved (as well as infants and pious heathen). His most ‘famous’ doctrine was that which involved the Eucharist. He stated that the Lord’s Supper was a ‘remembrance’, not a ‘sacrifice’.

In 1536, the First Helvetic Convention was published. It was compiled by some of his disciples based on his sixty-seven theses. It has remained a great influence. However, “…his theological opinions were set aside in Switzerland for the somewhat profounder views of Calvin.” (ii)

John Calvin

So it is that we are introduced to John Calvin. We shall not devote time regarding Calvin’s early life as we would like to concentrate on the significant details of his life which distinguished ‘his reformation’ from that of ‘Zwingli’s reformation’.

1534 is a significant year in the life of the reformer. By this time, he had become very influential – many met with him for advice and counsel. However, many hated him too, so the Frenchman entered Basle and was received by many scholars and theologians (notably Heinrich Bullenger).

Calvin was a genius. He was highly educated and was well aware of philosophy as well as theology. He certainly knew New Testament Greek, so he studied the New Testament in the original language. He was influenced greatly by Martin Luther and Martin Bucer.

A crucial contribution of Calvin to the Reformation was his “Institutes of Christian Religion”. At first it was intended to be a Christian ‘manual’, but it was expanded to manifest Calvin’s theological system. It was written (first edition) when he was only 26! “It exercised a prodigious influence upon the opinions and the practices both of contemporaries and of posterity.” (iii) Calvin laboured on the 'Institutes' in the years to come.

When Calvin was 28, he settled in Geneva (after some hesitation), through the influence of Gillaume Farel. Calvin (and others) formed a Christian doctrine of twenty-one articles to which the ‘citizens’ were to believe. His ministry in Geneva is really the focal point of the Reformation for Calvin. His efforts were directed to the formation of a theocratic system. He, and his colleagues, established schools, enforced attendance and wrote a Christian catechism of Christian doctrine for the schools to follow.

Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva in 1538 for not administering the Eucharist with unleavened bread. Calvin became at pastor at a French refugee colony and set out to form a church with New Testament standards. He wrote many commentaries and spoke at conferences. He married a widow, Idelette de Bure.

The reformer lived at Strassburg for three years. During this time, the Romanist church attempted to gain power over Geneva. His friends persuaded him to return to the city. He did so, but not fully convinced of his effectiveness. Calvin set about with great zeal to impose God’s standards on the people of Geneva. From 1549, he was preaching twice on Sunday and every day on alternate weeks.

The German and the French-speaking churches grew closer together because of Calvin’s influences.

An event in 1553, however, was a definite scar in the life of the reformer. Michael Servetus, a heretic, was burnt at the stake because of his beliefs. Though Calvin desired him not to be burnt, he did desire his death.

The following years saw Calvin grow in influence in Geneva. He founded the Geneva Academy which taught students from all over Europe.

He was a fervent worker till he died on the 27th May, 1564, at the age of 54. His influence was, and still is, great in Protestant Christianity. He built upon those enlightened saints who preceded him, and truly taught and expounded the ‘whole counsel of God.’

The Two Men

There are a number of notable differences that distinguished the Reformation of Calvin’s to that of Zwingli’s. Most notable, in theology, were their views on the Eucharist. Zwingli believed that Christ was spiritually present at the Lord’s Supper – a symbol. Calvin believed in His real presence – a Lutheran view also.

He also possibly alludes to his differences with Zwingli in the ‘Institutes’.

Writing about the Eucharist, we read, “…we should not, by extolling them (i.e. the signs of the Eucharist) immoderately, seem to obscure somewhat the mysteries themselves.” (iv)

Again he writes (alluding to Zwingli), “But here is the difference my words and theirs: for them to eat is only to believe; I say that we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith. Or if you want it said more clearly, for them eating is faith; for me it seems to rather follow from faith. This is a small difference indeed in words, but no slight one in the matter itself.” (v)

J.T. Mc Neill’s footnote comment is worth quoting too, “Criticizing the view of Zwingli… Calvin, writing privately to Andre Zebedee, May 19, 1539, has described Zwingli’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as “wrong and pernicious.” In a letter to Bullinger, April 20, 1555, he complains that Zebedee has “perfidiously” divulged this, and avows that he never called Zwingli’s doctrine “false in a general sense.” (vi)

Calvin’s exact reaction to Zwingli’s views might never be known.

Even though Zwingli published many writings, it must be said that the ‘Institutes’ had a greater impact on the Reformation than the writings of Zwingli. It was Calvin who really systemized the ‘resurrected’ Christian beliefs of the reformers. Not all doctrines contained within the ‘Institutes’ can be said the represent all the major reformers’ beliefs, but they were evangelical in their motive. Zwingli never achieved such a comprehensive summary of doctrine.

As mentioned before, the geographical areas affected their individual impact too. Even though they majored their efforts in cities (Calvin more so than Zwingli), Geneva had already cast off the yoke of Rome. However, Zurich was still greatly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation for Zwingli, therefore, was so much ‘harder’ than that of Calvin. Not that it was easy for Calvin – it wasn’t. But there weren’t the difficulties, in relation to the Roman Catholic Church, for Calvin, as there was for Zwingli. Calvin’s difficulties were with other Protestants. (vii)

Their cultures were different too. Zwingli’s ministry was involved in a predominantly Swiss-German culture; in fact, a native of the area. Calvin was a Frenchman. His activities in Geneva were influenced by a Swiss-French culture. Their ministries should be seen in light of this.

Their theological emphases were different too. Zwingli devoted more time to removing un-Scriptural customs and festivals, and expounding broader theological truths. As mentioned before, Calvin devoted more time to expounding the greater, and finite, truths of the Holy Word. He was a masterly exegete; a genius.

Zwingli’s energies in forming a new church (the Reformed Church) were much more radical than Calvin’s work in an already defined Reformed church. Also, Zwingli received more opposition (especially from other cantons) than Calvin – although Calvin’s opposition was great too. However, we personally believe that Zwingli’s was greater.

Although Calvin believed in the death of heretics, he never advocated violence in achieving reform. Zwingli did on certain occasions which eventually cost him his own life.

Their different educational backgrounds are important too, and this factor is vital in understanding their Reformation viewpoints. Calvin was greatly influenced by Luther, while Zwingli had more humanist leanings – particularly through the influence of Erasmus whom he had personally met.

Their concepts of government differed as well and this affected their spheres of influence in the Reformation. Zwingli believed that the secular ruler had a right to act in church matters, while Calvin believed the church was supreme. He believed it shouldn’t be restricted by the state. Calvin’s belief in theocratic government influenced the Reformation greatly in Switzerland. Zwingli also instituted change at Zurich but its effects weren’t as great as those of Calvin’s. (viii)

Calvin actually built upon Zwingli’s efforts. At the end of the Swiss reformer’s life, the effect of the Reformation in the northern part had filtered into the southern cantons. Calvin’s entrance into history allowed him to build upon the great reformers before him – including Zwingli.

Calvin had a greater vision of external organisation than that of Zwingli. His systemizing abilities were a great asset in his theological teachings and the reforms he instituted.


In conclusion, we would like to make one further comment on Calvin’s theology, because we believe it is the greatest contribution Calvin made to the Reformation.

As mentioned before, his theology was more important than that of Zwingli. In fact, Zwingli’s theology was set aside for that of Calvin’s. Calvin’s teachings on: predestination; the Eucharist; an infinite and transcendent Sovereign God; atonement; man’s state in sin etc., greatly influenced the Reformation. His commentaries and other theological works, especially the ‘Institutes’, were very significant. His influence in the church today reveals the profundity of his teachings.

Calvin was more ‘in control’ of the Reformation than Zwingli because of the social, cultural, historical (particularly the chronology of their lives. i.e. Zwingli preceding Calvin) factors we have already mentioned.

The church today owes much to the Holy Spirit’s ministry through these two (imperfect) men. Although they differed in many things, their influence together will not go unrewarded by their Heavenly Father.


Huldreich Zwingli

    1484        Born
    1500        University of Vienna – studies philosophy
    1506        Ordained Bishop of Constance
    1513        Chaplain at Novara
    1515        Chaplain at Marignano, Meets Erasmus
    1518         Samson forbidden to enter Zurich
                      Peoples priest at the Great Minister of Zurich
    1519        Begins discourses on sections of the New Testament
                      Becomes ill during the plague
    1521        Appeals to Zurich to stop mercenaries
    1522         First reformation tract, writes Archteles
    1523        First public disputation, his 67 theses published at Zurich
    1524        Marries Anna Reinhard, Writes pamphlet on the Eucharist
    1525        Writes Commentary on True and False Religion
    1528        Disputation at Berne
    1529        Meets Luther at Marburg
    1531        Evangelical Swiss attack Five Cantons – Zwingli killed
    1536        First Helvetic Confession published
    1549         Zurich Consensus published

John Calvin

    1509        Born in Noyon, Picardy, France
    1521        Appointed chaplain at Noyon
    1523        Goes to Paris as a student
    1527        Given curacy of St. Martin de Marteville
    1528        Leave Paris for Orleans to study law
    1529        Goes to Bourges
    1531        Father dies, goes to Paris
    1532        Publishes commentary in Latin of Seneca’s tract De Clementia
    1533        Visits Noyons, Settles in Paris, Conversion
                     Flees to Basle, Noyon and Paris
    1534        Leaves Paris and settles in Angouleme, Resigns chaplaincy
    1536        First edition of the ‘Institutes’, settles in Geneva
    1537        Council of Two Hundred drives Anabaptists from Geneva
    1538        Refuses to administer the Eucharist in the Burnese Form
                     Banished from the city, goes to Strasbourg
    1539        Publishes commentary on Romans
    1540        Marries Idelette de Bure
    1541        Returns to Geneva
    1542        His son, Jacques, dies only a few days after he is born
    1549        Consensus Tigurinus published. His wife dies
    1553        Michael Servetus arrested and burnt
    1558-9    Perfects the ‘Institutes’
    1564        Dies in Geneva


i. Encyclopedia Britannica, p.38(Vol. 19)
ii. Ibid. p. 999 (Vol. 23)
iii. Ibid, p. 632 (Vol. 4)
iv. J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II, p. 1365
v. Ibid, p. 1365
vi. Ibid, p. 1288
vii. Zwingli, for these reasons, had greater contact with the Roman Catholic Church than Calvin did. Hence, his energies were devoted to break away from the medieval church. Calvin devoted his energy into settling differences in Protestantism while often criticizing the Roman Catholic Church.
viii. Calvin was directly involved with Reformation outside of Switzerland especially during 1538 – 1541. Zwingli was involved chiefly in the northern part of Switzerland.


Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian Religion II, (Philadelphia and London, The Westminster Press, 1960)
Encyclopaedia Britannica, (Chicago, William Benton Publ., 1961) Vols 4, 19, 23
Houghton, S.M. Sketches From Church History, (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1980)
The Lion Handbook of Christianity, (Surrey Hills, Anzea Books, 1978)


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