I meant to get to this a while back- the shocking information brought forth by a Roman Catholic apologist that the Protestant Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli appears to have denied the doctrine of “original sin”. Doing any sort of research into the writings of Zwingli is difficult, simply because only a small portion of his writings are available- probably because Zwingli simply wasn’t as popular, nor as good of a writer (or theologian) as Luther and the other Reformers.
Like the other Reformers, Zwingli staunchly proclaimed God’s grace. Zwingli proclaimed that salvation is the consequence of God’s election, and that election is “in Christ”. In other words, Christ’s life and death secured the salvation of His people.
Zwingli was similar to Luther in that he strongly opposed free will. His writing against free will actually appeared before Luther’s magnum opus, Bondage Of The Will. Opposing the Latin Vulgate translation of Genesis 8:21, Zwingli stated that the thoughts of the heart are evil- not that they tend toward evil. By “tending”some extracted the notion of “free will” from the text. Zwingli definitely saw man as enslaved to sin, being able to do nothing to achieve salvation.
Zwingli held the descendants of Adam are born spiritually dead because of Adam’s disobedience. Because of spiritual death, all the sons of Adam are powerless to do good any works. In order to do any good works, God’s gift of faith must first be given to a person. Zwingli says, “The source of works must be faith. If faith is present, the work is acceptable to God. If not, then whatever we do is full of perfidity and not only not acceptable to God but an abomination to Him” [Zwingli, An Exposition of The Faith, found in: Zwingli and Bullinger: The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXIV (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953), 270]. Zwingli is not saying that works done in a state of grace merit salvation. Rather, those who are saved by Christ’s righteousness imputed to them are those who demonstrate their faith by good works.
He also held to the traditional distinction between original sin and actual sin. Zwingli held that the disease in us as a result of Adam’s sin can be described as spiritual death, powerlessness to secure salvation, and self love. The actual sin that flows from this are the actual transgressions men do.
Zwingli was an ardent supporter of infant baptism, but not the Roman Catholic doctrine of infant baptism. He argued infant baptism must be understood as a “covenant sign,” not the cleansing away of original sin. Then came the Anabaptists who denied infant baptism, so when he debated them, he argued for the covenant sign and not that baptism washes away original sin.
In his argumentation, he explained original sin “...is a defect which of itself is not sinful in the one who has it” and “it cannot damn him, whatever the theologians say, until out of this defect he does something against the law of God. But he does not do anything against the law, until he knows the law” [Zwingli cited by W.P. Stephens, Zwingli: An Introduction To His Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 74]. In other words, infant baptism has no effect on original sin. While it is present in infants, baptism does nothing to erase it, simply because it doesn’t damn the child until that child actually does something sinful.
Melanchthon and Luther saw Zwingli’s view as a Pelagian for espousing this- and for actually allowing the possibility of that which he so vigorously opposed, free will. Zwingli thus got himself into a theological jam. Stephens notes that Zwingli struggled to provide a coherent answer:
“[Zwingli] gave a varied response to the question whether original sin damns us. We are sinners as we are descendants of a sinner. However, if we are sinners, we are enemies of God and therefore damned. But Zwingli qualifies this apparently clear statement by reference to Jacob who was beloved of God before he was born, so that original sin could not have damned him. He supports this with reference to the covenant with Abraham’s seed in Gen. 17:7, which includes the children of Christian parents. ‘If therefore, he promises that he will be a god to Abraham’s seed, that seed cannot have been damned because of original guilt.’ Besides these arguments which relate to election Zwingli also developed an argument relating to Christ’s work as making good the evil done by Adam, a point made in relation to Rom. 5:19-21. Zwingli applied this to the children of Christian parents, but held back from applying it to the whole human race” [Ibid, 74].
Stephens goes on to point out that Zwingli’s “mature position” was that original sin can do nothing but lead to actual sin. Only those who trust in Christ will not be damned. In other words, original sin will do nothing but eventually damn.
So what can be concluded of Zwingli’s “denial of original sin”? Technically, Zwingli did not deny original sin, but actually at points in his writing denied that the guilt of original sin could damn without an action. In other words, Zwingli held a contradiction, that is mankind is born with original sin, but that sin doesn’t damn until it surfaces and commits an infraction. Also it can be said that Zwingli vacillated on this point as his biographer above points out: “[Zwingli] gave a varied response to the question whether original sin damns us. We are sinners as we are descendants of a sinner. However, if we are sinners, we are enemies of God and therefore damned.” But even while at times affirming that original sin damns, his assertions lead to even more troubling theological points- that the elect are free from the damnation of original sin (even though he does admit that until the gift of faith is given, men remain in sin).
His biographer Rev. G.W. Bromiley points out, “…Zwingli failed to work out any fully developed or coherent theology of baptism. But with his definition of baptism as a covenant sign he did indicate the lines along which much profitable work was to be done by the later Reformed theologians” [Zwingli and Bullinger: The Library of Christian Classics, Volume XXIV, 270]. My own opinion would be that Luther and Melanchthon were correct in finding some Pelagianism in Zwingli’s working out original sin and actual sin. On the other hand, Zwingli’s denial of the Roman Catholic use of baptism to wash away original sin was a worthy endeavor, as was his work on linking baptism and covenant.