Chapter 12. A Singular Argument For Infant Baptism
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7 min read
The principal argument of the Zwinglian reformers against the Anabaptists’ insistence on believers’ baptism is that it is contrary to Christian love. John Oecolampad, after he had read Hubmaier’s book on The Christian Baptism of Believers (which, as the Zwinglian J. M. Usteri testifies establishes the fact that a direct Scripture proof for infant-baptism can not be brought forth), sent this book to Zwingli on October 2, 1525, and at the same time wrote him a letter in which he says: “It seems to me the Anabaptists have no regard for Christian love, which shows us what is to be observed of external things.” In August, 1527, he further wrote to Zwingli that he had never dared and did not now venture to base infant baptism on a direct divine command, but for the sake of Christian love it was necessary to maintain it. In his discussions with the Anabaptists he repeatedly accuses them that they sin, above all, against Christian love by the refusal to identify themselves with the state-church. “We have taught,” he says, “that it [the abolition of infant baptism] is out of place, because it is contrary to Christian love.” “Your doctrine is in direct opposition to true love. One of his books against the Anabaptists has a chapter bearing the title: That the Abandoning of Infant Baptism is Contrary to Christian Love. Martin Bucer used the same argument against the Anabaptists.
At the time when Oecolampad wrote these sentences the state-church in Basel in which he held a prominent place was still the Roman Catholic Church. Oecolampad was at that time a Zwinglian by confession. For years the Council of the city permitted him and others to preach Zwinglian doctrine but not to introduce Zwinglian worship. Although in his Exposition of the First Epistle of John published in 1524, and in other places, he had said that the mass is blasphemy and an abomination, he nevertheless held the office of a priest. He and all the other priests of the city who adhered to Zwinglian doctrine were obliged to say mass personally if they did not find it possible to have a substitute act in their place. They did not desire to lay down their office in the state-church and hence saw themselves compelled to engage in that which they denounced as blasphemous.
After Oecolampad had labored a few years in Basel as a reformer he accepted on February 24, 1525 the office of the parish priest at the church of St. Martin. He declared his willingness to say mass and to make no changes and introduce no innovations without the consent of the authorities. A few weeks before Easter of the following year the Council exempted him from the obligation to say mass. Not only the Anabaptists but some of his own friends considered it a grave offence that he consented to that which, according to his own teaching, was blasphemy. In 1530, after the Zwinglian Church had been made the state-church, he asserted, if it was permissible to go to mass, it was also unobjectionable to sacrifice at the altars of the heathen deities Jupiter and Venus.
It is interesting to observe that at least one of the ministers of Basel found it apparently impossible to persuade himself that he was under duty, from motives of love to the church, to observe the unscriptural mass. Jacob Imler, the pastor of St. Ulrich Church, repeatedly disregarded Oecolampad’s advice on the point in question. A letter of Oecolampad to William Farel, dated February 6, 1525, gives information concerning Imler’s difficulty, as follows.
“Imler is having a hard time. On the last Sabbath again he nearly lost his position. The Council had ordered him to say mass or lay down his office. I, being unwilling that the man should resign his office, advised him to make a public deception from motives of consideration for the church. And lest he should be tormented in his conscience [doing that which he considers a sinful act], I promised to be present as a companion [when Imler was to officiate again in the mass]. The affair succeeded, as I have written. Again, a second time he will be called before the Council.”
Oecolampad consented to the maintenance of Roman Catholic worship until the Council of the city would give permission to abandon it. On the one hand he held, as pointed out above, that the practice of believers’ baptism was contrary to the best interest of the church, and on the other hand he took the position that Roman Catholic worship must be continued until the state would consent to make the Zwinglian Church the state-church.
Zwingli himself, at Zurich, took the same attitude on the question of abolishing Romish worship and advised others to continue the observance of the mass until the state would abolish it. When the reformers of Bern, Berthold Haller and Francis Kolb, asked his advice concerning the introduction of evangelical worship, he replied to them in a letter dated October 11, 1527, to the effect that the evangelical Supper should not be held in Bern before the abolishment of the mass by the state; otherwise it was to be feared that the Council of Bern would permit the celebration of the mass after the Zwinglian Church had been made the state church; this, says Zwingli, they should prevent. He did not desire that the Council of Bern should tolerate within their territory any other creed after the Zwinglian Church was made the state-church and it was inconsistent with the principles of state-churchism to tolerate dissenting religious forms while the Roman Catholic Church was the state-church.
Oecolampad held that the Anabaptists sinned against Christian love since they refused to go hand in hand with him and to accept that which from his own point of view was glaring compromise. The Zwinglian reformers who urged the necessity to suppress Anabaptism by the strong arm of the civil power do not seem to have realized that the terrible persecution of the Anabaptists was a flagrant travesty of Christian love.
Also the assertion of the Roman Catholic party that Oecolampad’s own course was contrary to Christian love was not for a moment countenanced by him. As early as the year 1522, namely before he came to Basel, he found a refuge on the Ebemburg under the protection of the knight Francis von Sikkingen with whose consent he held the mass in the German language. Upon the protest of the Roman Catholics against the abandonment of the customary forms he said: “Altogether unfounded is the opinion that love will suffer loss by this innovation; on the contrary, love shall be the better established through it.” And at a later date, namely on May 12, 1528, when an assertion was made that the abolition of Romanism at Constance was contrary to Christian love, Oecolampad wrote to Johann Zwick, the reformer of that place, that this objection was not worthy of consideration. Christian love demanded, in his opinion, that scriptural forms of worship should not be introduced so long as the magistrates of any given place did not consent to it, (and hence the Anabaptists’ attitude was wrong) but when Zwinglianism was made the creed of the state, then love required that all dissenting worship must cease. Romanism as well as Anabaptism was severely persecuted in Basel after the Zwinglian Church had been made the state-church.
The assertion that Anabaptism is contrary to Christian love is but another version of the opinion stated repeatedly by Zwingli that infant baptism is necessary for the prosperity of the church and should be practiced from motives of love to the church. In later years Zwingli recognized the weakness and futility of this argument. He reproved those who asserted that according to his own teaching infant baptism would be acceptable if love did not forbid it. He says further:
“They teach inconsistently who say that for the sake of love we could have patience with the baptism of infants, unless they mean that among Christians all things should be done by love and not by command or by force of law. But if by love they mean compliance and obsequiousness, I think they err seriously who say that for the sake of love infants should be baptized. For clearly they mean that a usage which at this time must be accepted for the sake of public peace, may be omitted at another time and under other circumstances.”
It will be remembered that Luther, in his controversy with Carlstadt, advanced the same argument as did the Zwinglians against the Anabaptists; he asserted that the (in his opinion untimely) introduction of practical reforms by Carlstadt in Wittenberg, in 1521, was contrary to Christian love, for it was an offence to the weak. This was his principal argument for again abandoning the evangelical forms of worship which Carlstadt had introduced in his absence. Conrad Grebel pointed out that Luther, in taking this step, showed that he himself was one of “the weak.” After the Lutheran Church was made the state church, the principle of “the sparing of the weak” was lost out of sight. Carlstadt’s masterly refutation of Luther’s opinion on the point in question has not yet received the attention which it deserves.
In the great debate of Zofingen, in 1532, the Zwinglian theologians suggested that love should be recognized as “the final judge in all controverted points.” The Anabaptist spokesmen, on the other hand, pointed out that love to God will manifest itself by loyalty to his Word and keeping his commandments.
Hubmaier gave his book on Believers’ Baptism the motto: “Love rejoiceth in the truth.” His reply to Oecolampad’s assertion that “your doctrine is in direct opposition to true love,” will be quoted elsewhere.
On the relation of Christian love to the observance of the commands of the Scriptures, we have an important statement by Michael Sattler, the most prominent leader of the Southern Anabaptists after the death of Grebel and Mantz. When Sattler, in 1527, came to Strasburg, Martin Bucer endeavoured to convince him that the Anabaptists erred not so much in faith as in love. Sattler wrote to Bucer and his coworkers a letter in which he says:
“Dear brethren, when recently I in brotherly manner and friendliness conferred with you concerning certain articles which I and my dear brethren and sisters have accepted from Scripture, you have answered in the same manner and friendliness concerning those articles, that love is the end of the law (1 Tim. 1:5). — But my understanding and conscience do not permit me to accept as right your usage as concerns baptism, the Supper, etc. — These things hinder me and I am not able to understand your assertion that the neglect of these things is justified by the said verse of Paul.”
Obviously the argument that the abolishment of infant baptism is contrary to Christian love was based principally on the fact that it led to separation from the state-church. Frequently the reformers condemned the dissent and separation of the Anabaptists. But if the separation in itself was wrong, what right had the state-church reformers to enter upon a course which led to separation from the Roman Catholic Church?