Zwingli’s controversy with the Anabaptists

Like Luther in Germany, Zwingli was compelled to deal with Anabaptist “brethren” in Zurich and the Swiss cantons.

What is significant about the Anabaptists is that they were supporters of the Protestant movement and the Reformers, men who had been former allies and, in some instances, even personal friends—Carlstadt with Luther, and men such as Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz with Zwingli. For the Reformers, this made having to distance themselves from these former allies, and finally having to denounce them, all the more painful and diffi­cult. “They have sprung from us,” Zwingli was report­ed to have lamented.1

Those who took the lead in the Anabaptist (“rebaptize”) movement were men who at the beginning of the Protestant movement considered themselves students of the Reformers. Having heard them preach and read their writings, these men were convinced of the right­ness of the Reformers’ cause, of the evils of the Romish church against which the Reformers testified, and who sought to stamp them out.

The Anabaptist leaders were full of zeal. They echoed the Reformers in condemning the corruptions and abus­es of Rome, in holding to the Holy Scriptures as the one final authority in doctrine and life, in rejecting the idol­atrous mass, and in emphasizing salvation all of grace and justification not by works but by faith—faith alone based on the work of Christ alone.

At the beginning, good men to have on your side. Or so it seemed.

However, in time, it became plain that these men were misguided in their zeal, zealots who had a taste for power and being at the forefront themselves, men who were convinced that in the end the Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli did not go far enough or fast enough to remove and destroy everything that savored of Rome.

This latter unhappiness with the Reformers became plain in what is known as the iconoclast riots. As mul­titudes in Germany renounced their Roman Catholicism with its abuses, converting to Protestantism under Lu­ther’s preaching and pamphlets that called for worship with preaching at its core, the zealots stirred up the peo­ple to cleanse their places of worship, purging them of all forms of Romish idolatry, beginning with the plethora of images to be found in the cathedrals and chapels.

Mobs boiled through towns and villages, invading churches and shrines, smashing every image in sight, including stained-glass windows depicting saints and the Virgin Mary. From there, the fervor spread to the renouncing of civil magistrates who tried to inter­fere. In southern Germany the peasants were encour­aged to rise up and seize various properties, taking over whole towns, so that the ‘righteous’ might share them, having all things in common (as they read the New Testament book of Acts) and establish their own city-states, ruled not by wicked (Romish) magistrates but, supposedly, by biblical laws and “charity” (com­munity of goods).

Europe’s civil magistrates watched in horror. Espe­cially was this true of those of the well-ordered Swiss cantons.

Due in large measure to Zwingli’s influence in the Swiss cantons where magistrates were sympathet­ic to the Reformation, these excesses did not run riot through Switzerland. In Zurich Zwingli was able to persuade those with ‘fanatical’ tendencies to bring their grievances to the council to persuade them of their convictions. In this way they would show honor to the God-ordained magistrates, an emphasis that loomed large in all of Zwingli’s teachings. It had its desired result. In the words of Jean Rilliet, “within two weeks the churches were cleared; altars, saints, and madonnas vanished under the expert supervision of people whose job it was…. The bareness of protestant worship ban­ished the ceremonies and display of Catholicism.”2 Other Swiss towns followed suit.

But this did not end the inevitable rupture with those of the Anabaptistic spirit.

Having gained one concession and having little re­gard for civil authorities when their regulations for due process of law opposed the zealots’ demands for immediate action, lead agitators stirred up groups of people simply to dismiss common practices and replace them on the spot with “Spirit-approved” innovations, council approved or not. In Zurich a vocal group formed and, under the prompting of some fiery preachers, began to demand that Zurich strive for a community of perfec­tion worthy of the early apostolic church. Issues were too important and urgent to wait for less enlightened council members to see the rightness of their demands for change. It was time to distinguish between the truly “holy” and the merely “lukewarm.”

Zwingli and the council feared where this unbridled spirit was heading. Could it somehow be tempered or derailed?

In December 1524 Zwingli published a pamphlet en­titled Who Are the Trouble Makers? As Rilliet phrases it, the pamphlet “depicts [the Anabaptist leaders] with merciless irony.”3 Zwingli describes them as men

…[more] puffed up by their knowledge of the Gospel than aflame with the spirit of charity.. They ceaselessly criticized other men, discerning what [others] lack to be good Christians, but do not look at themselves. Besides this, they are full of contradictions. Sometimes they will not have magistrates, at other times they want them while insisting that no Christian should exercise public office. It so happens that they accept the idea of a church, but assert that authority should not protect the preaching of the Gospel by the use of force.. Infant baptism, to hear them talk, is the worst of sins. In addition, their talk is replete with slander, jealousy, anger, and hatred. They cease to greet those who displease them, and, if an estimable man continues to greet the opponents of the Gospel, him too they exclude from their acquaintance. They fail to understand that this contentious spirit is not spiritual but carnal. They forget that strife over words can serve no useful purpose, as St. Paul reminds us (2 Tim. 2) and everywhere they argue, in the streets and in the shops….4

It was over the issue of infant baptism, that “worst of sins,” that matters came to a head. The zealots began in­sisting that all infant baptism cease, the church replacing it with adult believer baptism only in the interests of a church composed only of truly spiritually mature, holy members. In February 1525 a gathering of the zealous took it upon themselves to rebaptize those requesting it, knowing full well neither Zwingli nor the city’s council approved.

The leader who convinced the gathering to proceed with rebaptism, Grebel and Manz, were arrested and tried. For this first offense, they were only threatened and fined. But once released, they persisted in their agitation. A summer of disturbances ensued in and around Zurich, “ranging from the refusal of certain individuals to submit their infants for baptism to the disruption of sermons, the smashing of baptismal fonts, and the gathering of (re-) baptized believers into separatist conventicles.”5

The magistrates, confronted by this spirit of defiance, feared it would spill over to revolution as it had so re­cently in Germany. They moved decisively to cut it off. The unity of the Christian faith within the city was once more at stake, this time threatened from within. The lead agitators were arrested. Manz, as the ring-leader, was sentenced to death by water, tied and drowned—considered no more than poetic justice. Grebel was whipped and banished.

To both Zwingli’s and Zurich’s credit, they did not fight the Anabaptists and their condemnation of infant baptism simply by threat and the sword. Following the first arrests in early 1525, the council embarked on a public defense of infant baptism with Zwingli defending the practice in open forum. Opportunity was given to the people to respond with questions so that Zwingli might answer every objection. This he did at a number of public forums, to which he added a number of pam­phlets setting forth the biblical basis for infant baptism.

It becomes plain from even a cursory study of Zwingli’s development of infant baptism, that it deserves more attention than it has been given in Reformed circles.

Defending infant baptism over against the Anabap­tists who denounced it as a fountain of every kind of doctrinal error and spiritual evil (just as the mass had been) compelled Zwingli to develop a covenantal expla­nation.

Zwingli was committed to running a course between the Romish corruption of the rite of baptism with its “automatic grace” and the Anabaptist’s radical rejec­tion of infant baptism itself. Zwingli had no intention of ‘throwing the baby away with the dirty bath-water.’ To a great degree, he could sympathize with the Anabaptists and their rejection of Rome’s rite of bap­tism as to doctrine and corrupted ceremony. Up to this point Protestant Zurich had modeled its baptismal rite after Luther’s practice, a practice that retained much of the ‘received baptismal tradition’ of the church. The old Latin ceremony, along with sprinkled water, in­cluded “a double signing with the cross, blowing under the eyes, placement of salt in the mouth and spittle on the ears and nose, and anointment with [consecrated] oil.”6

Zwingli repudiated such practices as a “form of mag­ic,” and as worthless “human additions.”7 He drew up a drastically revised order of baptism in which, as the title read, “all additions, which have no foundation in the word of God have been removed.”8

Zwingli’s revised baptismal ceremony was as biblical simplicity—water sprinkled on the infant’s head by an ordained minister in the name of God Triune.

As well, he rejected root and branch Rome’s doc­trine of ex opera operato—grace automatically worked by the sacramental water—whereby every baptized in­fant (and adult, for that matter) is at that moment born again, one’s original guilt washed away.

As Zwingli wrote to a certain Thomas Wittenbach: “You can wash an unbeliever a thousand times in the water of baptism, but unless he believes, it is in vain.” And again, “How could water, fire, oil, milk, salt, and such crude things make their way to the mind?”9

For Zwingli, to give such power to the sacrament as Rome did, was to deny salvation by Christ alone and the grounding of one’s salvation in the grace found in Him by faith alone. Is the splashing on of a little water to replace the sole sufficiency of Christ’s atoning blood and sacrifice? Never!

With such simplicity of the rite and rejection of Rome’s doctrine the Anabaptist heartily agreed. But now the great question: Why yet retain baptism of in­fants? How was that biblical rather than another Rom­ish invention and corruption of the ceremony?

It is in answering that question (ten years prior to the younger Calvin arriving at Geneva) that the covenantal mind of Zwingli the Reformer shines, advancing beyond Luther.

One of the strands of Zwingli’s argument against the Anabaptist involved the salvation of infants who died prior to being baptized. The death of infants was commonplace in that age. Zwingli reminded his audience that Rome maintained that unbaptized infants were not saved. Were the Anabaptists ready to maintain that all those infants of Christ’s church dying prior to being old enough to believe and be baptized were not saved? Was this not similar to Rome? The one, Rome, requiring water baptism to be saved; the other, the Anabaptists, insisting that children had to be old enough to believe, or they perished.

Once the concession was made that children dying in infancy could be saved (and what Protestant was ready to deny that?), Zwingli could argue that salvation did not depend on active faith being present, but on the sov­ereign grace (election) of God. And it stood to reason, then, that baptism as a sign of being washed and bought by Christ’s blood could be applied to infants of believers before they could exhibit faith. They too were to be considered redeemed by the blood of Jesus and baptized by the Holy Spirit, whose life-giving baptism does not depend on any means.

A stronger strand in Zwingli’s defense of infant bap­tism was his insistence on the close connection between circumcision and baptism. Zwingli pointed out that Jesus had been both circumcised and then baptized by John the Baptist,

…thereby joining the rites of the two dispensations and signifying they were of equal value. Zwingli argued that the circumcised Christ’s baptism by John means that “Scripture discloses not two covenants in which God acts differently for our salvation, but rather one covenant in two dispensations. The baptisms of the church and [by] John are precisely the same because the gospel he preached is the very one we proclaim: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”10

Zwingli’s point was, seeing the two signify the same thing, then as circumcision was applied to infants as members of God’s covenantal people in the Old Testament, so ought baptism be applied to infants of believers in the New Testament.

As Timothy George points out,

Zwingli is unequivocal about the children of Christian parents: they are saved whether baptized or not. Just as God’s covenant of grace extended not only to Abraham but also to his seed, in like manner [writes Zwingli], “our children are included in the covenant just as much as [his] were, for we [also] are sons of the promise.” The basis of this inclusion is not the personal holiness of the parents, but the promise and election of God.11

Another advancement of Zwingli in the doctrine of infant baptism was his insistence that the church see to it that she baptize only the infants of believers, that is, those who made a credible confession of faith. Stated Zwingli, “We do not allow children to be brought to baptism unless their parents have first been taught [the true doctrine].”12

This in stark contrast to Rome, who required little more than church membership of those who presented their infants for baptism. Neither ignorance nor ungodliness was a barrier.

It is this requirement insisted upon by Christ’s church that answers the charge of the Anabaptist that infant baptism plants seeds of corruption in the church, because, they argue, all and sundry are received as mem­bers, even the unholy and profane with their children.

Not so where apostolic church discipline is main­tained!

It is worth noting that Zwingli, due to his insistence that Christ was the one only way of salvation (der eynig weg), could not bring himself to label either baptism or the Supper as “means of grace.”13 Such a phrase sound­ed far too Romish. Faith was to be placed in Christ and His work alone. Surely, to view baptism as a “means of grace” would imply putting one’s trust in something in addition to Christ’s atoning work alone. Therefore, it was to be viewed only as a sign, a teaching device.

For all that, Zwingli, compelled by his controversy with the Anabaptist, paved the way for Calvin’s fuller, covenantal baptismal theology. Calvin certainly was not ignorant of the writings of his insightful Swiss pre­decessor.


1  J. Rilliet, Zwingli: Third Man of the Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 139.

2  Rilliet, Zwingli, 86.

3  Rilliet, 142.

4  Rilliet, 142.

5  Timothy George, “The Presuppositions of Zwingli’s Baptismal Theology” in Prophet, Pastor, Protestant: The Work of Huldrych Zwingli After Five Hundred Years, Ed. E.J. Furcha and H. Wayne Pipkin (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publ., 1984), 71.

6  George, “Zwingli’s Baptismal Theology,” 72.

7  George, 72.

8  George, 72.

9 George, 73.

10  George, 81.

11  George, “Zwingli’s Baptismal Theology,” 78.

12  George, 82.

13 George, 73, 74.