Review of Baptism: Zwingli or the Bible? by Jack Cottrell

June 27, 2022

Cottrell, Jack. Baptism: Zwingli or the Bible? Mason, OH: The Christian Restoration Association, 2022, 163pp, $14.99, paperback.


Jack Cottrell, arguably the most prolific writer and influential theologian of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, tackles the topic of baptism in yet another accessible book, Baptism: Zwingli or the Bible? This text incorporates Cottrell’s primary insights on how the Protestant Reformer Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) changed the course of church history by creating a new view of the meaning of baptism from salvific to merely symbolic. Although this concise book contains previously published material by Cottrell, it is good to have an overview and summary of Cottrell’s critique of Zwingli’s view of baptism in one small volume. It is certainly handy for the student as well as the scholar and teacher.

Cottrell divides this work into three parts: (1) a review of his Princeton dissertation on Zwingli, (2) his personal views on “Zwinglianism,” and (3) a reproduction of “Connection of Baptism with Remission of Sins.” (Part Three is the work of the nineteenth century Christian Church theologian J. W. McGarvey which was originally included in his New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles [1892] but omitted from later editions.)

Part One is divided into two chapters. The first is a rehearsal of Cottrell’s first chapter found in Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective (College Press, 1990), edited by David Fletcher. Cottrell briefly surveys some primary New Testament texts on baptism and statements by the church fathers, and then argues that all of church history taught that baptism is the time the sinner receives salvation. This is what Cottrell terms the “biblical consensus” on baptism.

Chapter two is when Cottrell brings his main point into focus that reflects the title of the book: Zwingli discarded the biblical consensus on baptism, creating a brand-new view. With one big stroke, argues Cottrell, Zwingli proclaimed that all church fathers were wrong when they connected baptism with salvation.

Cottrell provides thorough documentation showing how and why Zwingli reaches this new view on baptism: Zwingli (1) denies the Roman doctrine of ex opere operato, claiming that all the doctors taught this before him, (2) argues that a sacrament can never save, only the blood of Jesus saves, and (3) assumes a platonic view of matter and spirit, thus concluding that water cannot save because it is inherently inferior to spirit. Additionally, Cottrell discusses Zwingli’s theological reasons for rejecting the “biblical consensus” on baptism, such as his views of divine sovereignty, different kinds of baptisms, and divine election.

Finally, Cottrell elaborates on the development of Zwingli’s new baptismal theology. Since Roman theology taught the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and original sin, this led to the Roman doctrine of infant baptism. But Zwingli had now rejected the consensus view on the meaning of baptism, so why baptize infants if not for original sin? Cottrell contends Zwingli invented a new reason for pedobaptism, namely, for a sign of the covenant. From this, Zwingli developed an entirely new theology known as covenant theology (or unity)—that there is only one covenant, one people of God, and one covenant sign for all time. In relation to the covenant sign, it was circumcision in the Old Testament, and it was replaced by baptism in the New. Hence, infants ought to be baptized in the New Testament as they were circumcised in the Old.

Although Cottrell focuses on Zwingli’s concept of covenant unity up to this point, his primary concern, which is always in view, comes more into focus in Part Two: that Zwingli is the one who rung in the totally new view of baptism as merely symbolic and not salvific. He critiques covenant unity and finds it biblically untenable, but he spends two of the three chapters in this part arguing how baptism is not a work of man but a work of God (echoing Martin Luther).

Chapters four and five are practically equivalent. In these chapters, Cottrell maintains that baptism is never defined as a “sign” or “work of law.” It is always in context of salvation by faith. Interestingly, Cottrell highlights that a more precise definition of “work” is needed when discussing salvation by faith vs. works. If “work” always means “anything we do,” then Jesus and Paul contradict each other since Jesus says in John 6:29 that “the work” one must do to be saved is to “believe in Him whom He has sent” (NASB). Paul, then, cannot mean that “to be justified by faith apart from works” is equivalent to “to be justified by faith apart from anything we do.” Paul must be using the term “work” in a more nuanced way, namely, “works of law,” i.e., following a law code to be saved.

Cottrell concludes that defining baptism as the time the sinner receives salvation is not salvation by works. Is it something “we do” in the general meaning of the word? Yes, but it is not a work of law (cf. Paul), as if someone can save himself by following a moral code. Baptism, as faith and repentance, is something “we do” to be saved, Cottrell contends. This distinction in the way “works” is used by Jesus and Paul, Cottrell emphatically states, is the most important theological discovery of his career.

This small tome is helpful in numerous ways. The discussions on covenant unity, baptism as merely symbolic, and Paul’s use of “works” raise some good questions. It is uncanny that Zwingli’s radically new approach to the meaning of baptism has often been overlooked in evangelical scholarship until more recently (see, e.g., Believer’s Baptism, B&H, 2007; M. Haykin, Amidst Our Beloved Stands, B&H, 2022). Cottrell’s work on this topic has been around for decades with little or no interaction, even in the works just mentioned parenthetically. Cottrell has made significant contributions to this discussion. It is time to interact with it.

Red flags, however, may be raised for some. Cottrell consistently refers to Zwingli’s view of baptism as merely symbolic as “heresy” and says that Zwingli’s covenant theology brought about “demonic results,” i.e., a new view of baptism (p. 77). For many, such language may be considered overly exaggerated. “Heresy” is typically reserved for teachings like Arianism and the like. Another overstatement may include “most Evangelicals have adopted Zwingli’s new rationale for baptism” (p. 79). This seems strained. Many evangelicals view baptism as an outward sign of the salvation internally realized, which Zwingli outright rejected (as Cottrell even notes).

Others may find one of Cottrell’s main points objectionable: that Zwingli rejected the “biblical consensus” on baptism and created an entirely new one (p. 49). Cottrell argues that Christians had always taught baptism was for salvation and never as a symbol of salvation. Here, one might point out, for example, that Basil of Caesarea (AD 330-379) referred to baptism as a symbol (e.g., see On the Holy Spirit, 15). Of course, others have, too, throughout history before Zwingli. Some may conclude that Cottrell overstates his case or needs to nuance his views a little more.

Finally, a word might be said on Cottrell’s brief survey of the church fathers’ view of baptism. To support his “biblical consensus,” Cottrell refers to Thomas Aquinas and Tertullian. Some may question the use of these fathers, considering that they have traditionally been understood to support the Roman Catholic view of ex opere operato, or baptismal regeneration. Certainly, this is not Cottrell’s view. His view of baptism as salvific is much more nuanced, and he rejects baptismal regeneration. But, then, one may wonder why he employs Aquinas and Tertullian to support his view?

Cottrell’s book is not a deep, academic study, but it is surely a good addition to the discussion of baptism. If the student or theologian wishes to understand Cottrell’s baptismal view succinctly and interact more with Zwingli’s influence upon this doctrine, this book will accomplish these goals. It is written primarily for those in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, so those outside this tradition may find the biblical, theological, and historical discussion unconvincing or perhaps too shallow. For a deeper study, Cottrell’s PhD dissertation and two chapters in the book edited by Fletcher (cited earlier) are highly recommended.

Peter J. Rasor II

Grand Canyon University



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