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The Baden and Berne Debates in the Swiss Reformation

The Disputations of Baden, 1526 and Berne, 1528: Neutralizing the Early Church. Irena Backus. Studies in Reformed Theology and History, 1.1 (Winter 1993). Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1993. ix + 130.

The years 1526-1528 were critical for the alignment of Swiss Cantons. The Baden and Berne disputations were focal points for both theological discussion and political posturing. Backus studies the two as a single movement in which the Swiss Reformation developed a solid identity in distinction from Catholicism, Lutheranism and Anabaptism. The maturation of the Swiss Reformation was rooted in the full integration of the principle of sola Scriptura in polemical discussions.

The Baden disputation was a victory for Eck because he was able to focus on Scripture and appeal to the consensus of tradition while Oecolampadius was consistently forced to dead-ends on Scripture and retreated into ontology. Eck was not simply a defender of Church tradition, but of Scripture since was willing to accept Scripture as the foundation of argument. Eck's major retort to "prove that X is in Scripture" was "prove that it is not." In other words, Eck questioned the Zwinglian principle of sola Scriptura, that is, where Scripture is silent, it forbids. For example, if images are forbidden because God did not order them to be made, then, if Reformers are to be consistent, they cannot baptize children because God did not order it. Oecolampadius was put in the position of proving a negative while Eck claimed the consensus and practice of the church as his ultimate authority. Eck took over the sola Scriptura argument and made it subordinate to the consensus of the Church and tradition and successfully set the whole of Christian tradition over against the individualism of the Swiss Reformers. Isolated from the Roman Catholic tradition as well as Lutheranism, the Reformers were open to identification with ancient heresies.

At the Berne disputation, the Reformers added three theses, which were placed at the beginning of the disputation, so that the relationship between Church and Scripture was discussed first. The emphatic point was that the church was dependent upon Scripture and not the other way around. Thus, "all human precepts, called Church laws, only bind us in so far as they are founded in God's Word." This recalled the method of the Zurich disputations in 1523. There every reference to tradition was countered with the request to prove the point biblically. The distinguishing feature of this debate was the role of Scripture as the final arbiter of truth. The Berne disputation solidified the ground of the Swiss Reformers through the application of sola Scriptura as a method of argument. As a result, they neutralized the early church while at the same time seeking support from it where it was helpful. They substituted the authority of Scripture for the authority of the church.

The difference between the two debates was that whereas the Reformers majored on ontology and logic in the first debate (thereby appearing the scholastics), in the second disputation they concentrated on philology, hermeneutics and rhetoric (thereby appearing the humanists). At Baden, the Reformers retreated into tradition and scholastic arguments, but at Bern, they pressed the analogy of Scripture and the meaning of texts.

Backus has written an excellent study of both the historical context (primarily the pamphleteering) and the theological content of the two disputations. Her analysis is methodologically sound, theologically informed and compelling. She has provided English readers with an exacting and careful reading of the two discussions which takes account of the subtle methodological and theological shifts which occur during this crucial period. Her monograph would be an excellent secondary text for a course in the Swiss Reformation since it illustrates the theological development, intensity of argumentation and motives of the disputation method itself.

I have only one major concern. The principle of sola Scriptura, as Backus notes, was used in the Zurich disputations of 1523. This method of argument was Zwinglian, and was present at the beginning of his Reformation in Zurich. The primacy of Scripture over the Church was integral to Zwingli's program, and precipitated the Zurich disputations. I think it is probably better to say that the difference between the two disputations says more about Oecolampadius than it does Zwingli. The defects of the first disputation lie at the feet of Oecolampadius, not Zwingli, as well as the lack of theses regarding authority at Baden. Zwingli's pamphleteering indicates that his method of argumentation was essentially that of Bern. While part of the thesis of the text is that Zwingli's method of argumentation underwent change, I do not think this was sufficiently established for Zwingli. However, as Backus summarizes the disputations, it is clear in the difference between Baden and Berne. Here lies her significant contribution to the study of the Swiss Reformation.

First appeared in Sixteenth Century Journal 25.2 (Summer 1994), 487-88.


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