By René Frey


The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Church of Wittenberg spread into neighbouring Switzerland. A Catholic priest from Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli, converted and carried the Reformation banner further. According to several observers of the Reformation, including Mark Moore[1], Zwingli is in third place in the Trilogy of the Protestant Reformers, behind Luther and Calvin. As an early child, Zwingli had a good education in Bern, Vienna and Basel. He was influenced by the humanism of Erasmus and when he saw the abuses of Catholic pilgrimages to the Church of Einsiedeln, where he had been appointed pastor in 1516, he was provoked to want to introduce reforms. In 1518, he was elected ‘preacher of the people’ in Zurich, where he remained all his life. He was loved by his community and had a great influence.

The news of Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 influenced him more than Erasmus’ humanist teaching and he began to preach through the New Testament in 1518, which resulted in attacks on purgatory, invocation of the saints, and monasticism. Increasingly convinced of the cardinal importance of faith, he was the first to embrace the belief that the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist had nothing to do with salvation. Zwingli refuted the doctrine of the celibacy of priests and married in 1522. His positions were no longer secret and in 1523 he published his famous treatise 67 Theses and defended them against Johann Faber with a dazzling victory in Zurich. The same year, he had the mass abolished and images and statues removed from the churches in Zurich.

There was now an obvious break with the Catholic Church. Zwingli developed his positions concerning the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. In the aftermath of his altercations with Luther on these issues, Zwingli had more and more interactions with other Swiss brethren who had been touched by the winds of the Reformation. His doctrine of baptism was forged on two fronts: the sacramentalism of Roman Catholicism (transubstantiation) and Lutheran practice (consubstantiation) on the one hand, and Anabaptist confessional innovation on the other.

Zwingli did an about-face in his position on baptism between 1523 and 1524. Initially, he argued that unbaptized children were not damned. He stated that baptism was an assurance for individual faith: “… the believer is baptized because he is purified internally by faith in the same way that he is externally by water”[2]. Clearly, if baptism serves to reassure the believer’s faith, it is no longer a question of infant baptism. Zwingli had briefly understood baptism in the same way as the Anabaptists in this first stage[3].

According to Tom Wells[4], Zwingli tentatively toyed with the idea that baptism was the insignia of Christian profession for those who were old enough to assert a personal faith. However, this position played too much into the hands of those who wanted to separate Church and State, a dangerous precedent in a period of intolerance. Appealing to Jack Cottrell’s research, Tom Wells states that the theology of the covenant was unknown before Zwingli, who developed it from scratch in his arguments with the Anabaptists. He “adopted a completely new hermeneutic approach to the Scriptures globally, that is, the idea of ​​the unity of the covenant of grace[5].”

One of the leaders of these Anabaptists was Conrad Grebel, son of a prominent Swiss trader from Zurich. Grebel was born around 1498. In 1513 he moved to Zürich having been educated in Basel, Vienna and Paris. In 1521 he joined Ulrich Zwingli’s group, which he first fervently supported. In this group, he and Felix Manz became friends. In 1523, Grebel and 15 others finally understood that they could no longer reconcile the union of the Church and the state, as supported by the prevailing mindset and the Zurich Council and Zwingli. They separated because of a dispute over the abolition of the Mass and its “abuses” and concerning baptism of children.

Zwingli now opposed Manz and Grebel on the issue of baptism out of respect for the Zurich city council. The council voted in favor of Zwingli and the baptism of children, demanded that Grebel’s group cease its activities and ordered that any child who had not been baptized be presented for baptism within 8 days under penalty of exile from the canton. Grebel had a toddler, Isabella, who was not baptized. He refused to bring her to them and he gathered his group, despite the ban, at the home of Felix Manz.

It was January 21, 1525. This date is generally considered to be the beginning of Anabaptism[6] because during the service, Georges Blaurock asked for believer’s baptism and after Grebel baptized him, Blaurock baptized the other men in the meeting. “The newly baptized, as true followers of Christ, are committed to live separately from the world, to teach the gospel and to keep the faith[7].”

In October 1525, after several months of evangelism in cities like St. Gallen and Grüningen, many Anabaptists were arrested and sometimes murdered, and Grebel was finally arrested and imprisoned himself. It was during this stay in prison that he prepared the defense of the Anabaptist position on the issue of baptism. With the help of his relatives, he escaped in March 1526. He managed to publish his pamphlet written in prison before dying of the plague in July or August 1526.


Links between Anabaptists, modern Baptists and NCT

Historian Michael Haykin notes that Anabaptists “are clearly spiritually related to modern Baptists[8]“. Generally, we can discern five markers of the spiritual genetic code of the Swiss Anabaptist Brothers still present among the Baptists today. For Richard Land, these five distinctives are sufficient to declare spiritual paternity.

Here are the evidences, according to Land[9]. First, Anabaptists claimed to be people of the Book. Their submission to the authority of the Scriptures is seen in the question of Baptism[10]. Second, they believed in the regeneration of each member and discipline in the Church. Thirdly, they were entirely devoted to their convictions, the boldness of their faith going as far as martyrdom. Fourth, the Anabaptists proclaimed and practiced the lordship of Jesus Christ as redeemer and as example to follow. Fifth, they advocated religious freedom for all and denied the State’s role of spiritual referee of the truth.

More specifically, regarding the theology of the new covenant, it is the scriptural hermeneutics of the Anabaptists that demonstrates a vector pointing to NCT. The Anabaptists firmly maintained the difference between human tradition and the scriptures. They judged not only Catholic theology, but also reformed, by the Word of God.

Malcolm Yarnell recounts another incident in the beginning of the Swiss Brotherhood movement in 1525, a few months after the first baptisms of 21 January. A debate was raging in the city of St. Gallen, 86 km from Zurich, on the issue of baptism. In Zurich, Zwingli finished composing his argument for infant baptism and quickly forwarded his booklet to the Reformed theologians of St. Gallen. They waved Zwingli’s booklet, but Wolfgang Uolimann, an Anabaptist martyr and the first to request baptism by immersion, replied: “You may have Zwingli’s word, we want to have the Word of God!” Yarnell remarks that even modern Reform historians acknowledge the veracity of Uolimann’s answer, and he cites GW Bromiley who notes that Zwingli fails to “demonstrate any necessity for the baptism of children on theological grounds[11]“. Please note the emphasized words in this note below, a witness to the profound Berean-like attachment to the Scriptures by these Swiss Brethren.  The link with New Covenant Theology becomes evident in their priority of the NT over the Old Covenant.

The similarity between Anabaptism and the modern Baptist proponents of New Covenant Theology, facing the theology of the covenant, concerns the interpretation of the Scriptures. The Anabaptists, as well as proponents of New Covenant Theology, believe that there is an order that Scripture has established for its own interpretation. In the fundamental document of the early Anabaptists, the Schleitheim Confession, Michael Sattler, and other Swiss Brothers affirm that: “The Word is preached to us according to the proper order [ordnung] of the Lord[12]. This order gives precedence to the apostolic words and those of the Lord to understand the rest of the Bible. In the cover letter to the Confession of Faith of Schleitheim (1527), two years after Grebel’s first Anabaptist baptism of Blaurock, Michael Sattler argues against infant baptism. In the section titled How Scripture Must Be Discernibly Exposed, it begins with the general requirement that the Scriptures, clearly understood, should close the debate because they provide the plumbline and the order to follow. Then he says, “If the baptism of children and such ceremonies are founded in the New Testament, which we rightly expose here, therefore, may they be diligently practiced according to the commandment of the Lord. But if they come from popes and men, we should delete them[13]».  Toward the end of this section, Sattler draws up two lists of contrasting words, side by side, to show the precedence of the New Testament over the Old. At the top of this list is Moses, the law – Christ, grace[14].

Michael Sattler paid dearly for this radical position and was burned at the stake in May 1527. He was arrested by Count Joachim von Zollern, regent of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, along with his wife and several other Anabaptists. Following a conviction by 24 judges and Catholic theologians, he was sentenced to be executed as a heretic. A commemorative plaque on the site of his execution, near Rottenburg am Neckar says this: “The Baptist Michael Sattler was executed by fire after heavy torture on May 20, 1527 here on this hill of scaffold. He died as a real witness of Jesus Christ. His wife Margaretha and other members of the congregation were drowned and burned.  They stood for the baptism of those who want to follow Christ, for the independence of the congregation of the faithful and for the message of peace in the Sermon on the Mount[15].”

The supreme authority for all doctrine or practice comes from the Word of God. Luther and Calvin fought valiantly against centuries of Catholic tradition under the banner of Sola Scriptura in the first breakthrough of the Reformation. But the Radical Reformers carried Sola Scriptura farther and deeper. Yarnell reports that Sattler had to defend himself against the Reformers Wolfgang Capito and Martin Bucer of Strasbourg. In 1526 and 1527, Sattler presented them what members of his community “understood in the scriptures, that is, in the New Testament.” Then he pointed out the differences with the Reformers concerning “all the commandments of God”. This is very revealing. Indeed, Covenant theology leveled the difference between the Testaments, proclaiming that the moral law is still in effect for believers in the New Covenant. But Sattler first challenged that, blazing a trail for modern Baptist New Covenant Theology, by attaching crucial importance to the New Testament statement that Christ is the end of the law.

Before concluding that modern Baptist NCT can attribute total paternity to the Swiss Brethren Anabaptist movement, a serious caveat must be noted.  Anabaptists in general were and are of Arminian tendency. Baptist New Covenant Theology must not follow the example of this man-centered and misguided proposition. However, with regard to the doctrines of the sovereign grace of God as proposed by Augustine, Luther and Calvin, can Anabaptism be dismissed entirely?  Can an exception be made for the writings of Balthasar Hubmaier?

In 1527, Hubmaier wrote Das andere Buchlein von der Freiwilligkeit Menschen, which translated literally means “The other booklet on the freedom of the will of man[16]“. It is clear from the title of this article, and this is echoed by Michael W. McDill in Balthasar Hubmaier and Free Will[17], that Hubmaier did not deny the elective sovereignty of God who takes the initiative in the salvation of lost man. On the contrary, «it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure» (Ph 2.13). But the apostle Paul exhorts the believer to work out his salvation in the same passage of Philippians. Hubmaier sees a danger in the major emphasis on predestination in Luther’s theology. Man’s own will seems to be annihilated by his doctrine of the enslaved will[18]. Hubmaier saw many examples of laziness in sanctification among Lutherans who thus excused their moral laxity. Therefore, he completes the “book of predestination and election” (“half-truths”) with the “other book” of human responsibility and the absolute necessity of combining repentance with faith. Salvation is by grace, but true salvation produces fruits worthy of repentance. The concern of Hubmaier and the moderate Anabaptists in general is to practice a Christianity worthy of the vocation of Christ. Claude Baecher[19] speaks of «a covenant of vocation” to designate this distinctive aspect of Anabaptism. The Anabaptist branch of Christianity insisted on the transformed life and demonstrated the seriousness of sanctification by practicing the ban during the Lord’s Table when the conduct of a congregant was untoward or unrepentant. Hubmaier declares that the freedom of the will of man, which completes the elective work of God, is posterior to regeneration.

First, God created us good and free, soul, body and spirit. In spite of this goodness and this freedom, we are, by the disobedience of Adam, become captives in our spirit, wounded in our soul and completely corrupted in our flesh; thus, we are all conceived and born in sin and are by nature children of wrath. If we must now regain the freedom of spirit and the health of the soul, and if this fall is to be made harmless in the flesh, then it must be done by a rebirth as Christ said, otherwise we will not enter the kingdom of God.[20]

Thus, Hubmaier seems to bring a needed correction of orthopraxy to the theoretical orthodoxy of the Lutherans and later of John Calvin, who published the Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. However, even though Hubmaier is a possible exception to Anabaptist Arminianism, he is still affected by his environment and does not go far enough in embracing Sola Gratia and Sola Fide unequivocally.

Neil Blough, historian of Anabaptism observes their rejection of the Magisterial Reformers’ formulations of election and remarks that Anabaptists in general believed that “the work of Christ is valid for all humanity and not just for the elect[21].  Pilgram Marpeck, an Anabaptist leader and lay theologian, wrote: «Christ is not the propitiation for the sins of any one part of the world, but for the whole world … and by his righteousness the justification of life has come upon them all[22]».

Finally, the major contribution of Anabaptism to Baptist New Covenant Theology lies in its hermeneutic giving precedence to the NT. Pilgram Marpeck debated Martin Bucer regarding baptism and the relationship between the Testaments. Bucer, like Zwingli and the other Magisterial Reformers, used the analogy ‘circumcision / baptism’ as justification for paedobaptism, seeing no essential difference between the two covenants. Marpeck showed that there is a fundamental difference: the historicity of the covenants. “The new covenant comes after the old one and, with the new one, a different historical reality comes into being”[23]. According to Marpeck, faith existed in the old covenant, a faith in a future reality, in prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah and a new covenant. «Before the suffering and death of Christ, the ancients lived a faith of hope[24]». They were waiting to have the law written in their hearts. This new understanding, more radical than that of the Reformers, opens the way for a better theology of covenants.  By insisting on the difference and the discontinuity of the Old and New Covenants, Anabaptists set the course for NCT.

In conclusion, the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren present an important historical vector pointing to New Covenant Theology and are a model for Baptists today in several domains.

In hermeneutics, these Radical Reformers gave precedence to the New Covenant and to a Christocentric interpretation. They believed in Sola Scriptura more radically and accurately, in our opinion, than did even Zwingli, Luther and Calvin.

In ecclesiology, the Anabaptists show a better understanding of the Church than do the Reformers who kept some mediaeval vestiges of the union of Church and State as well as paedobaptism and a multitudinist vision of the composition of the Church.

In soteriology, there has already been noted a deficiency of Anabaptism as concerns the doctrine of sovereign grace.  However, modern Baptists can emulate the radical discipleship, transformed lifestyle and courage unto death of these persecuted witnesses of Christ.


[1] Mark Moore, Zwingli on Baptism ( ) accessed November 13, 2018.  Many others have thus designated this trio, including Jean Rilliet Zwingle, le troisième homme de la Réforme, Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 1959.

[2] Mark Moore, op cit. Moore quotes Zwingli in his Letter to Thomas Wittenbach, dated June 15, 1523, Early Writings, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, (Durham: Labyrinth Press, reprint 1987), p. 95.

[3]It is certainly not everyone who accepts this version of the story. Jim West quotes Bullinger and believes that on January 17, 1525, four days before the famous baptismal meeting at Manz, during the first of three disputations between Zwingli and the Zurich Council against the Anabaptists, they could not resist Zwingli’s arguments. West protests that the Anabaptists went too far in their public opposition to Zwingli and were rightly expelled for near-sedition.  accessed November 21, 2018.

On the other hand, Leonard Verduin in The Reformers and their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) states: «In the beginning Zwingli was intimately connected with the people who would later open the Second Front [i.e. the Anabaptists later known as the Swiss brothers]. He had, in fact, shared many of the same ideas … He had said, and for example, that infant baptism ‘nit sin solle’ should not be», p.38.

[4] New Covenant Theology (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2002) p.2, 3.

[5] Cottrell’s doctoral dissertation at Princeton, Covenant and Baptism in the Theology of Huldreich Zwingli (1971) was reproduced under the title Baptism and Reformed Tradition and appeared in Baptism and the Remission of Sins by David W. Fletcher, ed., (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1990), p.50.

[6] From 2009 on, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary celebrates the day of the Radical Reformation on January 21st by eating sausages in memory of those early Anabaptist Swiss Brothers who broke Catholic Lenten by eating sausages, two years before this extraordinary baptismal meeting in 1525.

[7] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996) cited by Benjamin Hawkins on the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary website -celebrates-radical-reformation-day /  accessed on November 16, 2018.

[8] Recommendation in the front pages of The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists op cit.

[9] The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists Malcom Yarnell III, ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), p.4.  We shall refer to this book in this shortened form from now on: ACB.

[10] Land could have tightened this first distinctive up a bit by showing that Anabaptists were not just people of the Book, but that they were people of the NT in particular.  They prioritized the New Covenant light which then shone upon the whole of revelation.

[11] ABC, p.31. Hubmaier had taken the trouble of investigating infant baptism by meeting with Erasmus. The latter, the most erudite of the Renaissance scholars, among those who rediscovered and retranslated the NT from Greek manuscripts rather than the Latin Vulgate, influenced Hubmaier and the Anabaptists by claiming that the Bible had nothing to say about paedobaptism but that Jesus had commanded  immersion of new disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. On April 15, 1525, Hubmaier asked Waldshut for baptism, thus crossing the Rubicon of this capital doctrine on the basis of Sola Scriptura (see ABC, 212). See also Hubmaier’s reproach to Zwingli regarding his first positions condemning paedobaptism in 1525 following the review of NT texts in his Dialogue with Zwingli (quoted in ABC p.200).

[12] John Howard Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973) Kindle Edition; Location # 748).

[13] Michael Sattler, How Scripture Should be Discerningly Exposited quoted in LMS, op cit. Chapter XII (Kindle Edition Location # 2864-2870): «… after all we have seen, we need not long debate and dispute, where this or that is commanded or forbidden. Just look here at the plumbline and order, here is the ground of the matter. Why need we argue long about the chrism, salt, mud, exorcism of devils, godparents, and many more of the same, which have crept in from the Romish church, or perhaps were never done away with? If baptism and such ceremonies are grounded in the New Testament, which is here properly exposed, let it be held to assiduously, according to Christ’s command. But if it is going to be from popes or from men, it should be done away with. All Scripture speaks only of one baptism; which all true Christians (praise God!) recognize».

[14] Yoder, Op cit. Location # 3286.

[15] The sentence specifies: “Michael Sattler will be handed over to the executioner, who will take him to the public square and cut off his tongue first, then quickly load him into a cart and will tear off two pieces of his flesh with red hot tongs, then, on the way to the scaffold, he will repeat again five times what is stated above, then he will burn his body entirely like an arch-heretic. ”  accessed November 21, 2018.

[16]   Loserth, Johann and William R. Estep, Jr. Wrote the article on Balthasar Hubmaier in 1990.  It was put online in 2016 on The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.,_Balthasar_(1480%3F-1528)  accessed Novembre 30, 2018.

[17] ABC, chapitre 8.

[18] The doctrine of the enslaved will was dear to the Reformers who opposed it to Erasmus’ free will.  In 1524, Erasmus published De libero arbitrio and in 1525, Luther retorted with De servo arbitrio.

[19] Skype conversations by this author with Claude Baecher, ThD, author of Michaël Sattler, la naissance d’Églises de professants au XVIe siècle (Cléon d’Andran : Éditions Excelsis, 2002) November, 2018.

[20] Hubmaier, Catéchisme, p.361, quoted in ABC, p.161.

[21] Neal Blough Christologie Anabaptiste, Pilgram Marpeck et l’humanité du Christ (Genève : Labor et Fides, 1984) p.50.

[22] Quoted from Clare verantwurtung, circa 1530, by Neal Blough, op cit, p. 50.

[23] Neal Blough, op cit. p.75.

[24] Neal Blough, op cit. p.76.