Zwingli and Bucer on the Church Fathers

Irena Backus wrote the essay on Zwingli and Bucer in what is the current standard on the topic, The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West (also edited by Backus). Painstaking detail and thorough familiarity make for an illuminating treatise.

Backus surveys the contents of Zwingli’s library, examining not only which Fathers he owned, but in what edition, whether they were annotated, and what the annotations were about. A complete set of Augustine, as well as a wide array of both Latin and Greek Fathers, found their home in Zwingli’s library. Scriptural commentaries, doctrinal treatises, letters, and sermons alike were read with care. Augustine, Jerome, and Origen were enriched with heavy annotation. His attention to the Fathers rather than the Scholastics from an early age and his desire to have them in the latest critical editions mark Zwingli as a humanist theologian.

Zwingli read the Bible through the grid of patristic exegesis. He was not interested in a consensus of the Fathers, but he did feel the need to harmonize his exegesis with at least some orthodox figures. Often, he makes theological points simply by stringing together passages of Scripture, but the arrangement and interpretation of those passages follow the pattern of a Father. “A tacit hierarchy of sacred texts is established with the Bible at the top broadening out into a pyramid of patristic evidence, indispensable in its turn for construction of a Biblical theology.”

Martin Bucer, on the other hand, seemed (his holdings must be reconstructed from various partial lists) in 1518 to own a large number of medieval theological texts, but also many classical works and grammar books. Church Fathers made up a small portion. Over time that would change.

Bucer produced a number of biblical commentaries, and Backus notes that he chose the books that the early Church had considered the most important, including the Psalms and all four Gospels. He consulted patristic texts often in producing his commentaries, but often did not name them. When he did so, it was usually to critique their exegetical method or to support an idea for which explicit Scriptural support seemed lacking. The exception is his commentary on Romans, in which every section contains a paragraph in which the Fathers are explicitly cited and compared. Much like Zwingli, he establishes a hierarchy of sacred texts with the Bible on top, flowing downward into the Church Fathers. He does not argue that the consensus of the Fathers supports his view, but only that Roman Catholic practice is contradicted by orthodox Fathers. In all his exegesis, his aims were to silence Catholic accusations of innovation on the one hand, and to distance himself from the radical biblicism of the Anabaptists on the other.

Bucer also produced a Florilegium Patristicum, a collection of quotations from the Fathers (but also councils and canon law) arranged topically. His Florilegium concentrates primarily on the nature and operation of the church, including common pastoral problems. Thus, one can not only read Scripture and believe alongside the Fathers, but also practice alongside them.

Church Fathers in the Reformation


Published in: on March 21, 2012 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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