Zwingli defended his position on baptism against the Anabaptists principally in three books, namely his Book on Baptism, his Reply to Hubmaier’s first defence of believers’ baptism and a treatise published in Latin, the Refutation of Anabaptist Tricks.
Zwingli’s Book on Baptism which was expected by the Council of Zurich to be ready for publication soon after the debate of January 17, 1525, was not finished until the end of May of the same year. Apparently Zwingli found the defence of infant baptism a perplexing task. “The Scriptures [relating to baptism] must be interpreted otherwise than they have been until now,” he wrote on March 31, 1525 to Vadian, announcing at the same time that he was writing a book on the subject. The publication of this book (or tract) was anxiously awaited by the representatives of the state-church Reformation in Switzerland. The question of infant baptism was the burning issue of the day. The eyes of the friends of Zwingli, especially of the church leaders in various Swiss cantons, were directed to him, expecting him to bring forth sound proof for his position. They were clearly depending on him for arguments.
Martin Bucer of Strasburg wrote to Zwingli on October 31, 1524, and again, together with Wolfgang Capito, a few weeks later, asking Scripture ground for infant baptism. John Oecolampad of Basel petitioned him in a similar way on November 21 of the same year. Berthold Haller, the leading reformer of Bern, wrote repeatedly to Zwingli asking him to give the best arguments for the state-church practice of baptism; even after the publication of Zwingli’s Book on Baptism he asked for further reasons to the point. “Help us, dear Ulrich,” he says in one of these letters, “to frustrate the Anabaptists’ cause.” At St. Gall the state-church leaders found themselves unable to effectually defend infant baptism; here eight hundred persons were baptized within a few months. According to the testimony of the Zwinglian chronicler John Kessler, “in the opinion of the congregation of St. Lawrence Church [the principal church of the city] the truth was on the side of the Anabaptists.” When Zwingli’s book appeared, it was publicly read to the congregation of this church. In other cantons of the Swiss confederacy also the cause of the Anabaptists progressed. The urgent need of defending infant baptism was generally recognized by the advocates of state-churchism.
In his Book on Baptism which was published early in June, 1525, Zwingli gives this definition of baptism: “Baptism is a sign (rite) laying obligations on those who accept it and indicating that they desire to mend their lives and follow Christ.” Again he says: “He who through baptism surrenders himself to God, desires to hear his word, to learn his will and to walk in accordance with it.” “Baptism is a rite indicating a beginning through which we accept the obligation imposed upon us by God to live a new life; in witness thereof we receive baptism.” Needless to say that Zwingli found it a difficult task to defend infant baptism on the basis of such definitions of baptism.
“Baptism was instituted by God through John the Baptist,” says Zwingli further, and there is no distinction between the baptism of John and Christian baptism. It follows that the pertinent passages in the last chapter of Matthew and Mark which closely connect faith with baptism, are not so important as has been supposed, “since in this place baptism was not instituted.” It follows further that those who were baptized by John, were in no instance again baptized when they united with the Christian church; hence “rebaptism has no example or ground in God’s word.” That Paul rebaptized the twelve disciples of John at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-5) Zwingli denied on the supposition that they had never before been baptized. They confessed to have been baptized with John’s baptism, but this, he says meant merely that they had accepted John’s doctrine.
This strange opinion was also accepted by Heinrich Bullinger, the successor of Zwingli in Zurich, and by John Calvin. Through the latter’s influence it has found its way into some of the modern Bible Commentaries. Bullinger testified that he formerly expounded the passage in question differently, but now believed Zwingli’s opinion to be correct. “Therefore the Anabaptists have no testimony of holy Scripture for the support of their rebaptism,” he says.
Further Zwingli made circumcision the basis for an argument. He says in December 1524:
We do not find in the New Testament that infant baptism is commanded or forbidden. For the argument which they advance that the apostles did not baptize infants, therefore they should not be baptized, is worthless; or else I should also argue: The apostles baptized no one in Calcutta, therefore no one living in Calcutta should be baptized. Therefore it is needful to see whether anything on the point in question may be found in the Old Testament. We find nothing of baptism [in the Old Testament], but we do find that which was used in the place of baptism, namely circumcision.
Zwingli based his defence of infant baptism principally on the Old Testament and on circumcision. The question why those who were baptized by John, as well as some of the earliest Christian converts from Judaism, continued the usage of circumcision, as they did, if baptism, as practiced by John and in the early Christian church, was to take the place of this rite, is not touched upon by him. Evidently this supposition was foreign to the thought of the early Christians.
Unlike Luther, Zwingli believed that the children of Christian parents are saved, and therefore he argued, they should be baptized. This argument is made prominent in our day and is often made the sole ground for infant baptism. Viewing this argument at close range shows that it is an excuse rather than a basis for the baptism of infants. The defenders of infant baptism who take this ground do in reality, not accept the premises on which their conclusion rests. They say: Those who are saved should be baptized; children of Christian parents are saved; hence they should be baptized. But a little questioning shows that they do not in reality accept the first of their premises. They do not believe that the fact that an infant is saved is sufficient reason why he should be baptized. For they admit, that the children of heathen parents also are saved but nevertheless would not baptize them. It is worthy of notice that Jesuit missionaries have in many instances secretly baptized the infant children of heathens, and from the Roman Catholic view-point this usage is perfectly consistent.
If we ask the reason why those who advance the said argument would not baptize the saved infants of heathen parents, we are told, it is because in this instance baptism would be meaningless, since in all probability these children will grow up under heathenish instruction and influence. The real reason, then, why they baptize the infant children of Christian parents is, because it is believed that they will at some future time receive Christian instruction. Plainly this is not a scriptural basis for baptism. The fact is ignored that even the intended instruction as such would not qualify for membership in the church; the necessary requirement is acceptance of the truth — faith. It is worthy of notice that the thought of administering baptism on the supposition that the one who is baptized should be made a church-member at some distant future time, was foreign to the apostolic age as well as to the period of the Reformation.
Zwingli inclined to the view that “the mothers who brought their children to Jesus, also baptized them.” Christ, he says further, has commanded to baptize all men and the commission to baptize is to be read as follows: “Go ye and make disciples of air nations (now follows how they should be made disciples), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, (now follows the teaching) teaching them to observe all things, etc.”
This interpretation of the baptismal commission. Matt. 28:19, has sometimes been read into the English translation of this passage. But a reference to the Greek original shows that the thought is not to make disciples, or learners, through the act of baptism, but to make disciples and baptize them; baptism following the teaching or discipling. In the original the pronoun them does not agree grammatically with nations. The command is not to baptize the nations, but to teach the nations and baptize those who accept the truth. It goes without saying that it is impossible to make infants disciples; neither can adults be made disciples through the act of baptism.
The baptism of “households” recorded in Scripture was also used as an argument for infant baptism by Zwingli. On this point one of the Anabaptist writers says:
We have in the Scriptures record of four households that have been baptized, namely that of Cornelius, of the jailor, of Lydia and of Stephanas (Acts 10:48; 16:15,33; 1 Cor. 1:16) and the Word clearly shows that in three of these households all were believers, namely of Cornelius (Acts 10:2, 44-47), of the jailor (Acts 16:34), and that of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15). But touching the house-hold of Lydia, the reader should know that though the Scriptures say nothing definite about it, it is not usual in Scripture, nor the custom of the world, to call a family by the wife’s name as long as the husband is living. Since Luke here names the house by a woman and not a man, reason teaches us that Lydia was either a widow or a virgin. And how much is to be made of the supposition that there were infants in her household, we will let the God Fearing reader judge.
In his last book against the Anabaptists, the Refutation of Anabaptist Tricks, written in 1527, Zwingli makes the doctrine of predestination the foremost argument for infant baptism. Salvation, he argues, is in its last analysis not of faith but of the foreordination of God. All infants in the Old Covenant, he says, were of the elect, as well as are all children of Christian parents, and hence the former were circumcised and the latter should be baptized. Zwingli says: “In this way, O Anabaptists, all your foundation has fallen away. For not only believers (as you would understand ‘believers’ in actuality) are the sons of God, but those also who are elect are sons even before they believe.”
But, strange to say, Zwingli asserted that not only are the elect the sons of God before they believe, but those adults whose life shows them to be reprobate, were elect while they were in their infancy, if they were born of Christian parents; and hence they should be baptized. To the Anabaptists’ objection that Esau was bom of godly parents, and yet “was not of God’s people,” Zwingli answered: “If Esau had died an infant, he would doubtless have been of the elect,” for he was “born within the laws of the Covenant” and was circumcised. He continues: “In vain do we say: Would that he had died in his infancy! He could not die whom divine Providence had created that he should live and live wickedly.” In other words, in order to maintain infant baptism on the basis of predestination, Zwingli asserted that the Esaus whose life and unbelief indicates that they are of the reprobate, were elect while they were in their infancy and should therefore be baptized. Although they were predestinated to be lost, they must nevertheless he considered foreordained for eternal life in their early childhood. Zwingli’s attempt to make predestination a basis for infant baptism was a signal failure.