I am just finishing up Bruce Gordon’s excellent book Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet. In it, Gordon, almost in passing, notes that in Zwingli’s final theological confession, his Exposition of the Faith, in his dedication to France’s king, Francis I, he writes the following. You will notice the universalistic intonations of Zwingli’s correspondence; Luther, and the Germans most certainly did. Indeed, in the following quotation, Gordon also supplies Luther’s acerbic response to what I would take, similarly, to be a highly unChristian way to think about the salvation of pagan peoples.
In his dedication, Zwingli urged the king to rule well, that he might join the heavenly company of exalted monarchs:
Then you may hope to see the whole company and assemblage of all the saints, the wise, the faithful, brave, and good who have lived since the world began. Here you will see the two Adams, the redeemed and the redeemer, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Phineas, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, and the Virgin Mother of God of whom he prophesied, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, the Baptist, Peter, Paul; here too, Hercules, Theseus, Socrates, Aristides, Antigonus, Numa, Camillus, the Catos and Scipios, here Louis the Pious, and your predecessors, the Louis, Philips, Pepins, and all your ancestors, who have gone hence in faith. In short there has not been a good man and will not be a holy heart or faithful soul from the beginning of the world to the end thereof that you will not see in heaven with God. And what can be imagined more glad, what more delightful, what, finally, more honourable than such a sight?
As Luther and others quickly noted, Zwingli’s words were arresting. Alongside the kings of Israel and France, the blessed included Socrates and the Catos. The virtuous pagans would find their place among the elect. From Wittenberg came the caustic reply:
Tell me, any one of you who wants to be a Christian, what need is there of baptism, the sacrament, Christ, the Gospel, or the prophets and Holy Scripture, if such godless heathen, Socrates, Aristides, yes, the cruel Numa, who was the first to instigate every kind of idolatry at Rome by the devil’s revelation, as St Augustine writes in the City of God, and Scipio the Epicurean, are saved and sanctified along with the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles in heaven, even though they knew nothing about God, Scripture, the Gospel, Christ, baptism, the sacrament, or the Christian faith? What can such an author, preacher, and teacher believe about the Christian faith except that it is no better than any other faith and that everyone can be saved by his own faith, even an idolater and an Epicurean like Numa and Scipio?
The list was not the first time Zwingli had expressed himself on the salvation of non-Christians. Against his beloved Augustine, he was adamant that unbaptized infants would be saved. On the noble heathen, he had made his point most emphatically in his sermon on providence in 1530, when he claimed that Seneca was ‘the unparalleled cultivator of the soul among pagans’. He was a ‘theologian’ and his works ‘divine oracles’.
Salvation was not limited to Israel or the visible Church. Zwingli’s conviction was consistent: God is entirely free in election to choose whom he wills with reasons completely beyond human comprehension. Profound attachment to divine freedom led Zwingli to find God working through the deeds and thoughts of non-Christians. God was the source of all goodness, and faith and goodness were to be found among virtuous pagans as they were somehow part of God’s election. Unlike John Milton later, Zwingli felt no need to explain the ways of God to humanity.1
Interestingly, Zwingli himself, according to Gordon’s commentary, has no problem imposing his soteriology on God’s freedom; this is precisely what Karl Barth would not do. Barth, like Zwingli, had a high view of Divine freedom, but just because of that, definitionally, Barth rightly saw that a person, like Zwingli, could not foreclose on said freedom; and “make” God’s freedom the cipher by which an array of theological adiaphora might be smuggled into the Divine way. This is what kept Barth et al. from following Zwingli’s apparent universalistic-turn. At most, for Barth, God’s freedom could allow for a hopeful universalism, but not of the sort that we find, ostensibly, in Zwingli’s absolute, and even pluralistic form of universalism (I say anachronistically after Paul Tillich). Indeed, I find this rather striking; Zwingli seems to have an incipient form of what would later come to be Karl Rahner’s anonymous Christian notion. Again, to read modern theologians, and their respective categories, back into someone like Zwingli would be, at best, anachronistic. But at a conceptual level it is interesting that there is at least some inchoate corollary between him and some moderns who would follow latterly.
I found this nugget interesting, and something I didn’t know in regard to Zwingli’s soteriological imagination. Maybe you’ll find this interesting as well, which is why I’ve shared this. Solo Christo
1 Bruce Gordon, Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021), 238-39.