Ulrich Zwingli was closer to the Anabaptist position that baptism, like the Lord’s supper, was not a means of receiving salvation, but he still retained elements of the Catholic and Protestant connection of infant baptism and forgiveness.
The contribution made by Zwingli and the Anabaptists was on the whole the negative one of attacking the prevailing notion that the external element could itself accomplish an internal cleansing.[i] The Anabaptists in particular had no very positive doctrine to substitute for the rejected teaching. Although they maintained with truth that it is the blood of Christ which cleanses from sin,[ii] they did not think of baptism as in any way a means of grace, but only as a sign of grace, and more especially as a sign of individual conversion. Zwingli did not altogether share this view. As he saw it, baptism in the full sense embraces the inward baptism of the Spirit as well as the outward baptism of water. Where the two are conjoined in true believers, the effect of baptism is a genuine inward purgation. If Zwingli erred, it was in his too harsh divorcing of the two aspects or ‘natures’ of the sacrament. The union which he envisaged was only an incidental union suspended entirely upon an operation of the Spirit which was sovereign and unpredictable. At this point the sacramental theology of Zwingli betrays both the strength and the weakness of his doctrines of providence and the incarnation.[iii]
Schaff states, “Zwingli stood midway between Luther and the Anabaptists. He regarded the sacraments as signs and seals of a grace already received rather than as means of a grace to be received. They set forth and confirm, but do not create, the thing signified. He rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration and of the corporal presence.”[iv] Bromiley maintains that “Zwingli compared the external sign of baptism to the badge worn by patriotic supporters of the Confederation. Indeed, he refused to ascribe to it, as an external sign, anything more than the psychological value of a reminder and profession.[v] His successors, however, were more concerned to work out the difficult question of the supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit in baptism, and they could almost take for granted its effect as a call to Christian discipleship.”[vi] Bromiley also contrasts the baptismal theory of Zwingli with that of Luther and of Calvin:
The revolt against the [absolute necessity of baptism for infant salvation] was not against the principle that the sacrament itself is a means of grace. It was against the tacit assumption that baptism is the only means of the divine operation, the claim that grace is bound to this sacrament by an indissoluble bond. . . . Luther himself did not make any clear or definite stand against the traditional doctrine of necessity. . . .So striking was this emphasis . . . upon the ordinary necessity [of baptism for salvation] . . . that opponents could mark off his teaching on the subject from that of Bucer and Calvin.
With Zwingli the matter was otherwise. He did of course defend infant baptism, and to that extent he could urge the importance of its administration. But his very defense carried with it a denial of the absolute necessity. Christian children had a right to the sign of the covenant because by divine election they were already members of the covenant. The sign itself did not effect covenant-membership: it merely signified a covenant-membership already existing. If the sign lacked, the covenant-membership, and therefore salvation, still remained. . . . [This view of Zwingli] reduced [baptism] to a mere sign of grace, and . . . not in any sense a means of grace. Zwingli himself unashamedly admitted this fact, as far as the external action is concerned, for he argued that the outward sign is not able either to cleanse from sin or even to confirm faith. On the other hand he did not preclude an inward operation of the Spirit in fulfillment of the sign or even in conjunction with it. What he denied was that they external rite is indispensable to that inward operation . . . Zwingli commit[ed] himself to what is virtually a denial of original guilt. . . . Zwingli retorted not merely that water-baptism cannot cleanse from sin, but that there is no original sin to be cleansed. . . . [unlike] Hübmaier [the Anabaptist, who] retained some doctrine of original sin . . . Zwingli could hold out hope for the children of the heathen, as well as for those who had the privilege of a Christian descent. . . . [In contrast, for] Calvin . . . baptism . . . [had] certain specific promises . . . annexed to it. It was, moreover, a definite means of grace. Therefore ‘if anyone of his own accord abstains from the use of the sacrament . . . he contemns Christ, spurns His grace, and quenches His Spirit.’[vii]
Zwingli’s defense of the baptism of the infants of believers precluded the necessity of the rite for heaven, based on his doctrine that they are already partakers of salvation. However, an acceptance of this Zwinglian position also precludes, as does the doctrine of Calvin, the necessity and even the reasonableness of personal conversion. The child of Christian parents, as one who is already a partaker of God’s covenant, never needs to come to a point where he recognizes himself as a lost, hell-bound sinner, who then must repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and so be born again. His view is consistent with the declaration of the modern Protestant Reformed Church, that it is a “sin against God’s covenant . . . that covenant, baptized, Reformed young people are made the objects of an ‘evangelism’ that treats them as unsaved sinners who must be saved by accepting Christ. If this is what is meant by the conversion of the child, Reformed parents and the Reformed church reject it in the name of the covenant of God sealed to their children in infancy.”[viii] Zwingli “insisted that baptism, like circumcision by which it was foreshadowed, was a sign, a simple form of action which was of itself certainly not necessary for salvation. There was also a spiritual or internal baptism, given by God in man’s heart, presuming and requiring faith. Not only did baptism not wash away sins, but its recipient was not then or later sinless; Christ alone did this. It was an indication that an obligation to live a Christian life had been accepted by, or on behalf of, the recipient.[ix] Baptism was thus a public assurance that children would receive a Christian education, and an initiation ceremony to show their future allegiance. “Baptism . . . was simply a token of membership of the Christian community, a public advertisement, an initiation and an acceptance (by deputy in the case of infants) of the obligations of the followers of Christ.”[x] If infants were already members of the Christian community and followers of Christ before baptism, they never need to come to a point of personal admission of an unconverted state or an experience of evangelical repentance.[xi] This fit in with Zwingli’s personal life; he gradually moved to his position of reformation doctrine, without having a personal point of conversion. Furthermore, the association of infant baptism and salvation was not absent even in Zurich, since “in the Baptismal Order at Zürich prayer could be offered for incorporation into Christ.[xii] . . . The initiation [of baptism taught there] was into the church as the family of God, or the body of Christ. The sacramental entry taught clearly the divine adoption and sonship. Baptism was not merely the historical sign or badge of external church-membership. It was an entry into the people of God.”[xiii]
A connection between baptism and salvation was maintained by Zwingli’s successor at Zürich, Heinrich Bullinger, who “described baptism as ‘the seal of the righteousness of faith’”[xiv] and said “Baptism is a visible sign and seal of our ingrafting into the body of Christ.”[xv] Bullinger also continued Zwingli’s denial of the necessity of personal conversion for those baptized in infancy, since “In Bullinger’s Decades . . . the text ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven’ was used to prove infant discipleship: ‘He manifestly calleth the littler ones, not yet able to confess, believers.’”[xvi] If infants are already disciples and believers, they never need to recognize themselves as lost unbelievers and repent. Zwingli’s fellow-reformer, Martin Bucer, also “could not agree either that the sacraments are ‘naked and bare signs,’[xvii] or that they are ‘such instruments or channels of grace as that they bring grace with whatever mind or faith you partake of them.’[xviii] They have a real, instrumental efficacy, but that efficacy is dependent upon two interrelated facts: first, the divine election, and second, the faith of the individual recipient. Sign and grace together constitute the one true baptism where the Holy Spirit uses the means of grace and the response of faith is either evoked or confirmed.”[xix] Bucer taught that for non-elect infants, for those who lived and died in opposition to the Christian faith in later life, the baptismal sacrament did not convey salvation, but for elect infants baptism was a real, effective vehicle, as the “sacrament of regeneration,”[xx] of conveying God’s saving grace.
The analysis above deals with the later Zwinglian position on infant baptism; in earlier years, the Reformer had affirmed, “Nothing grieves me more than that at present I have to baptize children, for I know it ought not to be done.”[xxi] Article 18 of Zwingli’s 67 articles stated that baptism was originally designed for people of mature, responsible years.[xxii] Zwingli knew that “if we were to baptize as Christ instituted it then we would not baptize any person until he has reached the years of discretion; for I find it nowhere written that infant baptism is to be practiced.”[xxiii] However, Zwingli’s recognition that, “if however I were to terminate the practice [of infant baptism] then I fear I would lose my prebend,” and his recognition of the necessity of the administration of the ordinance to infants to support a State-Church union, led him in 1525 to change his mind, and in 1530 to deny that he had ever spoken against infant baptism, despite affirmations such as “The error [of believer’s baptism] also misled me some years ago, so that I thought it would be much more suitable to baptize children after they had arrived at a good age.”[xxiv] He did not oppose the decree of the magistrates of Zurich in 1525 that all who would not have their children baptized were to be exiled, nor their drowning of the Baptist Felix Manz in the Limmat River in A. D. 1527. His angry outburst, “Let those who talk of going under go under indeed!” gave rise to the method of death by drowning for Anabaptists.[xxv]
While the earlier Zwinglian position on baptism repudiated infant baptism entirely, even the later Zwinglian doctrine was the furthest from the explicit, unabashed doctrine of infant baptismal salvation of Catholicism and the closest to the Anabaptist denial of a salvific character of the ordinance, although Zwingli was by then far enough from the Baptists that he would have them put to death. Reformed theology after his death continued to feel his influence, but generally was closer to the sacramental baptismal theology of Calvin, although Reformed respect for the Bible and its affirmations of justification by faith apart from any religious rites continually called the Calvinist movement, and especially the elect with Reformed roots, to the Scriptural and Baptist position away from the sacramentalist salvation propounded by its founders and standard Reformed confessions.
[i] Corpus Reformatorum, IV, pg. 215, 627
[ii] Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandia, II, pg. 280, IV, pg. 44.
[iii] Pg. 173, Baptism, Bromiley.
[iv] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (3rd. revised ed), chap. 3, sec. 27, “The Eucharistic Controversy. Zwingli and Luther.”
[v] Corpus Reformatorum, IV, p. 210ff.
[vi] Pg. 169, Baptism, Bromiley.
[vii] Pg. 52-54, Baptism, Bromiley. Quote from Calvin is from Tracts, II, pg. 85.
[viii] Pgs. 21-22, The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers, David J. Engelsma, South Holland, IL: Evangelism Committee, Protestant Reformed Church, n. d.
[ix] Huldreich Zwinglis Sämtlich Werke, hg. V. E. Egli, G. Finsler, W. Köhler, O. Farner, F. Blanke, L. v. Muralt, E. Künzli, R. Pfister, J. Staedtke, F. Büsser. Corpus Reformatorum, (Berlin/Leipzig/Zürich, 1905-), IV, 199-201, 229-231.
[x] pg. 189, 192, Zwingli, G. R. Potter (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
[xi] A modern Reformed presentation of this Zwinglian method of nullifying the gospel is seen in “The Notion of Preparatory Grace in the Puritans,” Martin McGeown (pgs. 83-84, Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, November 2007 (Vol. 41, #1): “[I]t is intolerable cruelty to demand of people a dramatic conversion experience before they can be assured of their salvation. Such obstacles may not be placed before believers who grew up in the church, who were taught to pray on their mother’s knee, who were catechized and who therefore do not know of a time when they did not believe in Jesus Christ. To demand of such that they describe a dramatic conversion experience before they are allowed to confess their faith [take the Lord’s Supper, etc.] is to grieve Christ’s little ones. . . . This is the Reformed doctrine of conversion as set forth in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 33).”
[xii] Pg. 423, Documents of the Continental Reformation, Kidd.
[xiii] Pg. 17, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xiv] Pg. 12, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Bullinger, Parker Society Series, IV, pg. 323.
[xv] Pg. 17, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Bullinger, Parker Society Series, IV, pg. 399.
[xvi] Pg. 105, Baptism, Bromiley, citing Bullinger, Parker Society Series, IV, pg. 385.
[xvii] Land, Art. In Evangelical Quarterly, I, 2, pg. 159f.
[xviii] W. Goode, The Effects of Baptism in the case of Infants, pg. 167.
[xix] Pg. 188, Baptism, Bromiley.
[xx] Pg. 213, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Leonard Verduin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), citing Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte, 4 Band (Widertäuferakten, 1527-1626), von Günther Franz (nach Walter Köhler, Walter Sohm, Theodor Sippell bearbeitet, Marburg, 1951), pgs. 226f.
[xxi] Pg. 198, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin, citing Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, VIII Band, Balthasar Hubmaiers Schriften, von Westin-Bergsten (Gütersloh, 1962), pgs. 184f..
[xxii] Pg. 261, Landmarks of Church History, Robert Sargent. Oak Harbor, WA: Bible Baptist Church Publications, n. d
[xxiii] pg. 199, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Verduin.
[xxiv] pg. 152, Newman, Henry Albert, A Manual of Church History, vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publishing Society, 1908), cited on pg. 261 of Landmarks of Church History, Robert Sargent. Oak Harbor, WA: Bible Baptist Church Publications, n. d
[xxv] Pg. 229, Landmarks of Church History, vol. 1, Robert Sargent. Oak Harbor, WA: Bible Baptist Church Publications, n. d.