Thursday, April 26, 2007

Anabaptist Roots of the Restoration Movement Part 3 (Hist Theo Paper)

Mass and Baptism

Zwingli was firmly committed to the principle that the church should make no laws, rules, practices, or ceremonies apart from what was authorized or prescribed in the Bible. This truly set him at odds with the dominant church culture of his day. Moreover, it set him at odds with his fellow reformer, Martin Luther. Allen and Hughes explain:

Unlike Luther, he [Zwingli] made no clear distinction between a spiritual reformation and an institutional one. As a result, Zwingli tended to see in the Bible a normative pattern for all aspects of church life. (Allen and Hughes 1988, 26)

Zwingli abandoned the use of the lectionary and began to preach directly from the text of Scripture (a radical idea at the time). Zwingli and his followers even began to divest themselves and their places of worship of those things they couldn’t find authority for in scripture, such as the ornate icons and musical instruments. This, however, is where Zwingli’s politics and ideas on church and government seems to become problematic from the perspective of his more radical followers (and by proxy from a Restorationist perspective). While Zwingli proposed and supported the abolishment of the Mass, he agreed to postpone it’s abolishment and even some of his reforms until people had a chance to come around to his way of thinking (though he did insist on the scriptures being read in the language that the people actually spoke and understood). This capitulation seems to be the breaking point for Grebel, and a rift begins to form. Zwingli originally backed a plan to abolish the mass and establish a new “evangelical” communion on Christmas Day, 1523. This plan was dropped in favor of an obvious compromise plan that Zwingli signed off on (though he may have simply been outvoted by the counsel that ultimately made the decision). Seemingly in response to this, Grebel vented his frustration to his former teacher Vadian in a letter dated September 3, 1524:

Look at the reason for all my audacity. I have waited, and they have not spoken. They stood still and have not responded. I shall both respond on my part and declare the knowledge of God. For I am full of things to say, and the spirit in my inner being compels me. Behold my belly is as new wine without a vent, which bursts new wineskins. I shall speak and I shall take a little breath. I shall open my lips and I shall respond. I shall not accept the person of man, and I shall not equate God with men…They lay out plans, not by the Spirit of God. They take counsel and not from God, so that sin is added to sin, so that they descend into Egypt without consulting the mouth of the Lord, so hope is put in the help and strength of Pharaoh, and confidence is placed in the shade of Egypt, so that the strength of Pharaoh becomes a confusion and the confidence in the shade of Egypt becomes a disgrace. (Harder 1985, 283-284)

Grebel and his cohort felt that Zwingli was a sellout who was moving too slow for political reasons. Zwingli, on the other hand felt that they were rash, impatient, and imprudent in their rush toward massive, sweeping change.

The issue that really brought things to a head, however was baptism. In his study of scripture, Grebel was led to a “new” understanding of baptism that, to say the least, stood in contrast to the dominant understanding and practice in the Christianity of his day. In a letter to Thomas Mutnzer, dated September 5, 1524, Grebel explains his position:

The Scriptures describe baptism for us, that it signifies the washing away of sins by faith and the blood of Christ (that the nature of the baptized and believing one is changed afterwards), that it signifies on has died and shall (die) to sin and walks in newness of life and Spirit and one will surely be saved if one through the inward baptism lives the faith according to this meaning, so that the water does not strengthen and increase faith and give a very great comfort and last resort on the deathbed as the scholars at Wittenberg say. (Harder, 1985, 290)

Grebel was thus led to the belief that baptism is an act of faith, and thereby something that one should enter into as a conscious choice. Further, he carried this conviction of believer’s baptism to it’s natural conclusion…that infant baptism was not only futile and meaningless, but a practice that should be abolished out of faithfulness to God. In the same letter, he also espoused the view that unbaptized children and infants were saved by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and remained in that state until they developed the faculties to make a decision based on faith. Grebel was even so bold as to point out that he was parting ways with Augustine, Tertullian, Theophylact, and Cyprian, accusing them of “dishonoring the faith and the sufferings of Christ for mature adults and dishonoring the suffering of Christ for unbaptized infants”

Though early on, Zwingli appears to have admitted that one should probably be baptized based on a decision and faith commitment, he later retracted this statement, presumably for political reasons. As the government turned it’s attention toward the persecution of the group they named “the Anabaptists”, Zwingli directed his considerable ire towards them as well.

Zwingli responded to the Anabaptist in a short pamphlet entitled “Those Who Give Cause For Rebellion” in 1524. Early on he makes an odd rhetorical maneuver by arguing that…

If one baptizes infants they cry out that there is no abomination, atrocity, or sin in Christendom than baptizing infants. And they daily bring forth more silly arguments than Africa produces strange beasts. But still they do not tame their tongues from slander, gossip, envy, wrath, strife and hatred, but they say that whoever does as they do has a just spirit. (Harder, 1985, 316-317)

Though most of us would certainly agree that the things he lists (slander, gossip, etc.) are not befitting a Christian (and I would admit, if true would undermine the Anabaptist movement as a whole), they don’t counter the point about infant baptism in the slightest. It appears to be a sort of rhetorical “dodge”. Later, in the same document, Zwingli attempts to counter an anticipated objection to his argument:

Now, we do not find in the New Testament that infant baptism is either commanded or forbidden. For by raising the objection that the apostles did not baptize infants, and therefore they should not be baptized, they prove nothing; else I could also argue: the apostles baptized no one in Calcutta, hence nobody in Calcutta should be baptized. (Harder, 1985, 319)

Here, Zwingli employs weak logic that is not only uncharacteristic of him, but actually seems to contradict his own (stronger) logic on other points in his quest for reformation. In fact, when he does get around to actually attempting to counter their point, the bulk of his argument rests on equating baptism with circumcision in the Old Testament. I dare say that Zwingli would not have tolerated such flimsy arguments from his opponents. Zwingli’s motivation here certainly appears to be political and this can be seen in the statements he uses to preface the argument against the Anabaptists:

First the reject the state, then they want to keep the state; and yet no one in government is a Christian. Now they want to have their own church, later the government shall not use force to protect the preaching of the gospel. (Harder, 1985, 316)

It can be argued that all of this political influence winds up being tragic for everyone involved. The Anabaptists are hunted down, tortured and killed by the State, the Church, and often with the compliance and participation of reformers like Zwingli. Zwingli politics and his views on church and state led him into battle (wielding a double headed sword or axe depending on which account you read). Tradition tells us that the Catholic soldiers who found his body burned it and mixed his ashes with dung.


M. Aaron Smith said...

I was vaguely aware of some of the historical connections (and disconnections) that the CoC shares with the Reformation, but it's great to see them explained in detail. Great stuff, keep it coming!

Alexie said...

Yes, Great Stuff.