Chapter 9. Balthasar Hubmaier vs Ulrich Zwingli
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Dr. Balthasar Hubmaier was a friend of and coworker with Zwingli in the period in which the latter believed, as he later testified, that it were better to abandon infant baptism. Unwillingly Hubmaier became Zwingli’s opponent. It was his honest con- viction, as his writings show, that infant baptism is unscriptural, and at the time of his imprisonment in Zurich he testified that he had obtained this conviction through the influence of Zwingli and others. He was anxious to keep Zwingli’s friendship, but found it impossible to persuade himself that he could, against his own better knowledge, abandon the position which Zwingli also formerly defended.
Hubmaier’s conference with Zwingli in 1523 on the subject of infant baptism is mentioned elsewhere. Toward the end of October, 1524, on his way from Schaffhausen to Waldshut, he seems to have again visited Zwingli at Zurich who apparently promised him to fully set forth his reasons for infant baptism in a letter. Somewhat later, probably about the middle of November, when evidently the promised letter failed to come, Hubmaier wrote in a short letter to Zwingli: “Write me for God’s sake concerning baptism.”
At the occasion of the first great discussion between Zwingli and the Anabaptists of Zurich (January 17, 1525) there was a rumor that Hubmaier would be invited, but it proved unfounded. Conrad Grebel wrote on January 14, to Vadian in St. Gall, informing him that a discussion had been appointed at Zurich “for all who are for or against infant baptism.” He adds: “Some say that the doctor of Waldshut [Hubmaier] will be invited, but I do not believe it, for he is against Zwingli on the question of baptism and will write against him if he [Zwingli] persists.” Hubmaier was not invited to take part in this debate.
On February 2, 1525, Hubmaier published a leaflet entitled An Open Appeal to All Christian Believers in which he asked any one who believed himself able to do so, to prove “with plain, clear Scripture” that infants should be baptized, while at the same time he offered to show infant baptism to be “an act without any ground in the divine word.” He was clearly displeased with the results of the recent debate as published by the (Zwinglian) Council of Zurich. If the insistence on faith-baptism was an error, as Zwingli and the Council asserted, was it not in their place to set forth the Scripture ground on which this assertion was based? Hubmaier was one of the most prominent men of the Zwinglian party. He knew that his possible identification with the Anabaptists was a matter of grave concern to Zwingli. He knew also, if Zwingli had proved infant baptism to be scriptural, he would be quite willing to give him his arguments. He evidently hoped, if Zwingli would not decide to come down to Waldshut for an effort to convince him of the scripturalness of his new position, he would suggest to the Council of Zurich to grant him a safe conduct that he could go to Zurich for a discussion. In this expectation Hubmaier was disappointed.
In April, 1525, Hubmaier was baptized by William Roublin. He laid down his office of minister in the state-church. He organized a congregation of baptized believers who elected him their pastor. When Zwtngli’s Book on Baptism appeared, early in June in the same year, he felt it his duty to write a reply to it, although it was doubtful that he would find a printer. Conrad Grebel had found it impossible to publish his defence of the Anabaptist position.
Reluctantly Hubmaier took his pen to contest Zwingli’s opinion. He still hoped that the scriptural truth on the point in question would prove acceptable to the reformer of Zurich. Before he published his book on Believer/ Baptism he made another earnest attempt to come to an understanding with him. On July 10, 1525, he wrote a letter to the Council of Zurich asking that he be permitted to come to Zurich under a safe conduct to discuss the question of baptism with Zwingli. In this letter he says, he had read Zwingli’s recent book which is supposed to prove that infants should be baptized, and he had nearly completed a book showing that they should not be baptized. Such dissention, Hubmaier says further, is greatly to be regretted, “but one can not consent to have the truth so seriously maltreated.” “For God’s and the last judgment’s sake and for the sake of the love which you have had and yet have for the divine word,” he begs the Council to arrange for a discussion, either private or public. He continues:
If then it is found in God’s Word that I err, I shall from my heart gladly recant and shall assist Master Ulrich [Zwingli] to defend and preach his opinion. But if it should be made clear that Master Ulrich has missed the mark in the matter of infant baptism, he should not be ashamed to abstain from it, for the truth will certainly prevail in the end. Indeed Peter, even after he had received the Holy Ghost, erred and did not walk after the truth of the gospel, whence he was rebuked of Paul, Gal. 2:11-15. Hence he [Zwingli] should not complain if he fare no better. We are all fallible men. If one err today, the other may stumble tomorrow. It is for our good, that we may humble ourselves before God. Gracious, dear Lords, I admonish, ask, and beg of you again for God’s sake that you bring me to Master Ulrich. I hope to God we shall, if we have a personal discussion, soon come to an agreement in this matter, for I am ready to give way to the clear and plain word of God and to give God the honor, and I believe my dear brother Ulrich Zwingli will take the same attitude. Farewell in the Lord and grant me, for God’s sake a gracious answer.
Hubmaier’s urgent appeal was in vain. The Council of Zurich, as well as Zwingli, had decided that the practice of infant baptism was indispensable for the prosperity of the church.
To Zwingli’s dismay Hubmaier found it possible to have his book The Christian Baptism of Believers printed, not in Switzerland, however, but at Strasburg. This is one of the best written and most lucid books of the Reformation period. Berthold Haller wrote, on November 29, 1525, to Zwingli, complaining that “Hubmaier’s plain presentation of the Scriptures seduces many.” When in the summer of 1527 the report was heard that Hubmaier was burned at the stake, Oecolampad wrote to Zwingli : “As long as his book continues to live, we must not be silent until this also is burned to ashes by the fire of the Word.” In his Instruction Concerning Anabaptism Oecolampad says, after referring to the report concerning Hubmaier’s death: “But since among his disciples his books are yet alive, it behooves us not to be silent concerning this matter, for his writings may prove more harmful than his life.”
Zwingli’s reply to this book bears the date of November 5, 1525. He censures Hubmaier severely for defending Anabaptism in this way. “If you were willing to be instructed with Scripture,” says Zwingli, “why did you accept Anabaptism before you had received such instruction? — I had expected, if others would write against me and I were sick or dead, he would fight for me.” Zwingli ignored Hubmaier’s earnest appeals for instruction from Scripture on the point in question.
For the great discussion on baptism held in November, 1525, Hubmaier undertook the journey to Zurich, although he knew that Anabaptism was severely persecuted in that domain. He did not reach the city, however, being compelled to return to Waldshut for the reason that the country was infested with Austrian troops from whom he had a narrow escape.
The assertion found in a few modern works that Hubmaier was at the time of his imprisonment at Zurich (toward the end of the same year), compelled against his will to discuss baptism with Zwingli, is unfounded. The Zwinglian theologian George Binder testifies that Hubmaier as a prisoner addressed a humble and urgent petition to the Council to arrange for a discussion with Zwingli, and Johannes Kessler also relates that he made such a request. The petition was now granted, but Hubmaier complains bitterly of the treatment which he received at Zwingli’s hands in this debate; in fact he held that the one-sided discussion which he had with Zwingli did not deserve the name of a debate. This complaint is substantiated by Zwingli himself who wrote to Peter Gynoraus on August 31, 1526:
When I came to 1 Cor. 10, ‘All our fathers were baptized unto Moses’ etc., and would have him acknowledge that infants were included [in other words, that the apostle in the said passage records an instance of infant baptism] even though the infants are not expressly mentioned, and when he was unwilling to say whether or not this was the case, I confess that I went for the man too roughly.
Hence Hubmaier declined to confer further with Zwingli; he requested to discuss the question with Jud, Myconius and Hofmeister alone. At a later date he writes to Zwingli: “You know how you and your city of Zurich have treated me; it were no wonder if the stones would cry out concerning it.” A comparison of Zwingli’s arguments for infant baptism with Hubmaier’s masterly defence of believers’ baptism will shed light on the question why the Anabaptist cause progressed on every hand. Usteri (himself a Zwinglian) says: “The endeavor to justify infant baptism as altogether scriptural misled Zwingli to various acts of exegetical violence.” “It is now almost unanimously admitted that in this controversy the opponents of infant baptism were only apparently silenced, not refuted,” says Friedrich Nippold, Professor of Church History in the University of Jena; “Zwingli and Luther saw themselves compelled, in view of the objections of the Anabaptists, to modify their original opinion whose consequences clearly favored the view of the Anabaptists.” Walter Kohler, one of the editors of the new edition of Zwingli’s works says: “In the last analysis he could maintain infant baptism only as a concession to human weakness and historical development.” Again Usteri says appropriately:
Hubmaier’s book Of the Christian Baptism of Believers demonstrated cleariy that a direct Scripture proof for infant baptism can not be given. In contrast with Zwingli’s sophistry it affords a peculiar satisfaction to see how clearly, transcendently and harmoniously Hubmaier arranges the abundant proof-texts (Beweismaterial) around his definition of baptism. The true scriptural order, he points out, is none other than this: 1 preaching; 2 hearing; 3 faith; 4 baptism; 5 works. The scientific exegesis of later times has in the main taken Hubmaier’s part, while Glider opines that Zwingli saw himself compelled to resort to, we should not like to say knowingly sophistical, but certainly violent exegesis.
Other historians also say that Zwingli failed to establish infant baptism as scriptural.
Zwingli, on the other hand, in his reply to the said book of Hubmaier, says:
Your almanac in which you set the saints in this order: preaching, hearing, faith, baptism, works, will not avail you. — And therefore I shall make for you another almanac for the present year in which, if God wills, your, goose-washing shall cease, namely, [this is the order of the saints in my almanac] : 1 The rich, almighty God, 2 Will be Abraham’s God, 3 Who shall walk uprightly before him ; 4 He is also the God of his seed; 5 He has promised the Saviour in the covenant; 6 In the covenant infants and adults were circumcised.
Needless to say that Zwingli’s “almanac for the present year” was not sufficient to convince the Anabaptists of the validity of infant baptism. It is a noteworthy fact that a few of Zwingli’s friends and coworkers, besides those who identified themselves with the Anabaptists, found it impossible to accept his arguments as convincing. Leo Jud, his most notable associate in Zurich, for considerable time made no secret of the grave doubts which he entertained concerning the validity of infant baptism. And the Zwinglian reformer Wolfgang Capito of Strasburg for a time openly favored its abolition. It is therefore not surprising that Zwingli’s arguments made no impression on the Anabaptists, and his assertion that he had overcome them in debate was so much more peculiar, as they were not permitted to present their arguments in print.
Hubmaier was the ablest defender of believers’ baptism. “In point of scholarship and concentrativeness he surpassed his opponents, such as Zwingli, by far,” says the Protestant historian Loserth and Hegler recognizes that “in Scripture proof and partly also in formal consequence Hubmaier was Zwingli’s superior.” “On the basis of his own premises Zwingli was opposed by his former associates,” says Loserth, “and only by carrying the conflict over into the political field was he able to hold his own. With fire and the sword he overcame the dissenters or expelled them from the land.” Hubmaier, after describing the cruel measures of persecution enacted, with Zwingli’s consent, against the Anabaptists in Zurich, says: “These are the weapons by which Zwingli has overcome the Anabaptists, as he falsely calls them, although he persistently boasts that he has done it with Scripture. I have heard many who could bring forth no other argument to protect their ungodly infant baptism, than to say: Well, Zwingli has maintained it with Scripture; and if they are asked, with what Scripture, they can not point to one.”