Within a few years after the reformers expressed themselves unfavorably on the question of infant baptism, as quoted above, they changed their mind on this point and became staunch defenders of the baptism of infants. It is a noteworthy fact that at the same time they abandoned a principle which in the first period of their reformatory labors they had considered of the most fundamental importance, namely the maxim that the Scriptures are the only authority in matters of faith and practice. They now accepted the view that anything that is not expressly forbidden in Scripture may be practiced although it be without Scripture authority: they asserted that various unscriptural practices of the Roman Catholic Church are not forbidden in Scripture. They decided that the battle of the church should be largely fought by the state and an exclusive state-church be established; hence they forsook their former position on the points of religious liberty and infant baptism.
In his earlier books Luther defended the principle that tradition or the authority of the church is no adequate foundation for Christan teaching and practice; the word of God alone, he pointed out, is the rightful authority and everything that is not founded on the Scriptures must be abandoned. In 1521, at the time of his sojourn on the Wartburg, he wrote a book on the mass in which he says:
Whatever is ordered without God’s Word is not ordered of the [true] church, but of the synagogue of Satan under the title and name of the church. Therefore the mad sophists and Papists must do one of two things: Let them prove their priesthood by Scripture, or they must confess that these things are nothing but dissimulations of Satan and condemned idols. For whatever is not founded on the Scriptures is certainly from the devil himself. I shall here again state my fundamental principle which shall be accepted of all Christians: That everything which is done without Scripture, especially in religious matters, is of the devil.
These sentences, to which could be added many others of similar import from his writings, show that Luther in his earlier period emphatically defended the principle that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are acceptable only in so far as they are founded on the Scriptures. He wrote these sentences in November, 1521. Shortly afterwards he advanced a quite different view on the question of the authority of the Scriptures. On January 13, 1522, he wrote a letter to Melanchthon in which he defended the opinion that Scripture authority is not required for the teaching and practice of the church and that infant baptism is an orthodox practice. He falls back in this letter to the position held by the Roman Catholic Church and asserts that “what is not contrary to Scripture is for Scripture and Scripture is for it.” This is but another way of saying that Scripture authority is not necessary for the position which the church may take on a point of teaching or practice, and that it is sufficient if the matter in question be not contrary to Scripture.
Within a week from the date of this letter, namely on January 19, 1522, Luther finished his tract A Faithful Admonition through which it became generally known that in his opinion the practical reformation of the church was principally the business of the civic rulers; in this book he denied to the people the right to abandon Roman Catholic worship without the consent of the civil government. He had decided in favor of a union of church and state and of going hand in hand with the state in the great work of the reformation of the church. His encounter with men who questioned the practice of infant baptism convinced him that the realization of the Voluntary Principle (involving the separation of church and state) would make possible the existence of differing creeds. Only if the church was united with the state and all dissent forbidden would all Roman Catholics accept the new creed. In this way alone the (nominal) unity of the church could be maintained, while the rejection of infant baptism would make an exclusive state-church impossible. Also his controversy with his former friend Carlstadt (whose position was inconsistent with state-churchism as well as with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the magic virtue of the sacraments) seems to have had the effect on Luther to cause him to again concede much to the views which he had been taught from his childhood.
In a later period (namely after writing the letter to Melanchthon in which he defended tradition, or the church, as a rightful authority) Luther, it is true asserted occasionally that he recognized the authority of the Scriptures alone. In January, 1523, he published a little book Of Worldly Government, To what Extent We Owe Obedience To It, in which he says: “If anything is without God’s word, it is uncertain that God desires it; for in a matter which he has not commanded we can not be sure that it is acceptable to him; yea we are sure that it is not pleasing to God. For he would have our faith based solely and exclusively on his word.”
Other quotations of similar meaning can be given from Luther’s writings. Nevertheless it is clear that he retained various practices on no other authority than that of tradition (or of the church) asserting that these practices were not contrary to Scripture although he knew them to be without a Scripture basis. “If anything which has been in use from times of yore [in the Roman Catholic Church;] is to be changed or abandoned,” he says in his little book On Anabaptism, “it should be and must be proven to be contrary to God’s word.” The question what is to be considered contrary to Scripture he answered to the effect that only those things should be so considered that are expressly forbidden.
The maxim “What is not against Scripture is for Scripture and Scripture is for it” was somewhat later further modified by Luther. He asserted that only that which is forbidden in the New Testament must be abolished. In his defense against Carlstadt he asserts that everything that is not expressly prohibited in the New Testament Scriptures, although it be forbidden in the Old Testament, may be retained. He says:
We have taught from St. Paul the Christian liberty, that all things should be free which God does not forbid with clear words in the New Testament … Now tell me, where is he forbidden to elevate the host, or commanded it? Show me one little word concerning it and I shall yield.” “If they can prove from the New Testament that the pictures should be removed [from the churches], we shall willingly follow them.
The Scriptures, as a matter of fact, are silent concerning the elevation of the host in the mass. Carlstadt condemned it as idolatrous; only after his death was this practice abandoned in Wittenberg. He also rejected the use of the pictures in the churches for the good reason that they were idolatrously adored. Luther asserted further that altars, priestly garments, the use of the word Mass etc. are justifiable because they are not forbidden.
Even exorcism, or the conjuration of Satan to depart from the infant just before baptism or “christening” was administered, was retained as a custom that is not forbidden in Scripture — to the great offence of the Anabaptists. The form of exorcism used somewhat later among the Lutherans was: “I conjure thee, thou unclean spirit, to come out and depart from this servant of Jesus Christ.” The Anabaptists often denounced “the wretched exorcism” and other unscriptural ceremonies connected with baptism, such as breathing upon the infant, giving him salt, anointing him with oil and his eyes with saliva, etc.
Ulrich Zwingli in the early years of his reformatory endeavor, emphatically advocated the principle that the Scriptures are the only authority in matters of faith and practice, and all that can not be proved from Scripture, must be abandoned. This principle was zealously defended by him at the first Zurich disputation, held on January 29, 1523, against Johann Fabri, the Vicar General of the bishop of Constance. Zwingli said in the course of this debate:
Therefore, vicar, I desire that you show us where it is written in divine Scripture concerning the invocation of the saints or the intercession of the mother of God. This we desire to hear. Answer to the point.” “Show us only this, where, in the biblical books mentioned by you, it is written about the intercession and invocation of the saints. This I desire to be told of you and I ask you for the sake of Christian love, to do this with clear, pure, plain divine Scripture. — Show us the chapter and give answer in simple, clear words. Say: there and there it is written, and we shall find the place to see whether it is correct.” “I say, you should prove from Scripture that the mass is a sacrifice.” “Answer and defend your opinion with clear Scripture. Say: here it is written.
In a book published somewhat later Zwingli writes :
Yes, indeed, the word of God alone must settle this matter. You say, for example, the mass is a sacrifice. This you must prove by the word of God. See now, you stand like a goat before the butcher. Now you begin to cry out: The [church] fathers hold mass to be such. I am not talking of fathers nor of mothers; it must be decided from the word of God.
In his controversy with those who insisted on the Voluntary Principle and the separation of church and state Zwingli, as well as Luther, decided to change his views on the point in question. He asserted now that whatever is not forbidden in the Scriptures is not sin and hence may be accepted although there be no Scripture basis for it. The Anabaptists complained bitterly that Zwingli demanded of them proof that infant baptism is contrary to Scripture (and would not accept their proof if they presented it), while, if he would defend infant baptism, it was in his place to show that there is Scripture ground for it. “They demand Scripture” says Conrad Grebel, “when they themselves ought to quote Scripture to prove what they assert to be the truth.” Zwingli himself testifies to the offence which his rejection of his former position on this point gave to the Anabaptists. He says:
Here they cry murder over me and say: Against the popish theologians you have always asserted, whatever has no basis in God’s word is unacceptable; and now you say, there is much [concerning Christian ceremonies, etc.] that is not written in God’s word and is nevertheless in accordance with God’s will. Where is now the strong reply which you gave to the suffragan bishop Fabri and all men: ‘In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.’ Matt. 15:9?
It need not be said that the first period of Luther’s and Zwingli’s reformatory labors in which they advocated a reformation based wholly on Scripture was their greatest and most consistent period. In Luther’s instance this time has been rightfully termed the period of the great reformatory testimony. His most famous writings, namely the Address to the Nobles, The Babylonish Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian Man, date from this period.
Luther’s attitude in the question of religious authority may be compared with his position on the principle of liberty of conscience. Being loath to discard the principle of liberty though he had decided for state-churchism, he attempted to uphold this principle in theory, but it can not be denied that he called upon governments to suppress all teaching which was at variance with the Lutheran creed and that the dissenters were with his consent cruelly persecuted in Lutheran lands. In his booklet On Anabaptism he attempted to point out that the Roman Catholic Church, although it needed a reformation, is nevertheless the true church of Christ and therefore “it has the true Spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, ministry, prayers, holy Scripture and all that Christendom should have.” The Roman Church, he reasons, is the true church and hence it has the true ordinances; therefore the Anabaptists err in disowning the Roman Catholic baptism. He based infant baptism on the authority of the church and on tradition.