Thursday, September 15, 2005

Lesson 28: The Anabaptists

The Anabaptist movement began in 1525 at Zürich, as the radical wing of the Swiss Reformation which had begun there under Zwingli. Zwingli did not go far enough, they believed, and so George Blaurock, Conrad Grebel, and Felix Manz began to agitate for additional reform, including believer's baptism and a "gathered" or "pure" church, i.e. a church where members were there because they truly believed and been baptized, not because of state intervention or mandatory church attendance.

This more radical movement soon got beyond control, and some of its leaders were put to death, and others with their followers were banished.

In January 1525, a public debate was held in Zurich, with Zwingli and his colleague Bullinger facing Grebel and his friends, Manz, Reublin, and Blaurock. The radicals defended their views, denying that infant baptism had any sanction in the Scriptures. The city council ruled in favor of Zwingli and infant baptism.

Meetings of the Anabaptists were forbidden, and parents were ordered to have their infants baptized within eight days if they had not already done so, on pain of expulsion from the city. The response came on January 21 when Grebel, a layman, baptized Blaurock, an ordained priest. Hitherto the Anabaptists had openly opposed infant baptism; now by this fateful step, introduced the practice of believer's baptism.

The Anabaptists also pushed for communism. Its following, recruited especially from the working classes, became considerable, not only in Switzerland, but also in southern Germany and Austria. The Anabaptists' teaching added substantially to the causes of the Peasants' War which broke out (1524) in the very territory where the Anabaptists were influential. At first a revolt against feudal oppression, the Peasants' War became, under the leadership of Muentzer (an Anabaptist leader), a war against all constituted authorities, and an attempt to establish by revolution a utopia, with absolute equality and the community of goods. The defeat of the peasants meant, to a great extent, the dispersion of the Anabaptists. Additionally, some town councils, such as that of Zürich (1526) decreed the severest penalties against their adherents. Still in spite of defeat and constant repression, the Anabaptists thrived and spread across the continent.

The movement seemed somehow to answer a strong religious and social demand, and in spite of persecutions, and of an edict of the Diet of Speyer in 1529 that every Anabaptist should be put to death, it continued to spread. Anabaptists embraced a wide variety of teachings, differing according to their leader or the locality; but the one thing which was common to them all, and which seemed most sharply to distinguish them from other Protestants, was their objection to infant baptism, and their insistence that adult Christians who had been baptized in infancy should be baptized again.

Their interest in the question of baptism was not their primary motivation. Their first concern was in the establishment of a "pure Church", consisting only of true Christians, reformed from the ground up by its strict adherence in every particular to the teachings of Scripture, which they accepted literally and tried faithfully to follow. Thus they believed that followers of Christ should not resist evil, nor bear arms, nor own private property, nor hold civil office, nor resort to law courts, nor take oaths; and their movement was largely a lay movement. In these respects they resembled the Quakers. In fact, the Quakers of England were influenced by their teaching and example. They also believed in separation of Church and State, and stood firmly for freedom of conscience and against religious persecution. In their view of religious knowledge they were mystics, holding that God makes his truth and will known to the souls of men directly, and they relied much upon the guidance of the Spirit.

The Five Points of the Anabaptists

  1. Sola Scriptura—Anabaptists were sometimes more consistent than the other Reformers in their insistence on biblical authority for certain practices in matters of church polity and worship.

  2. Separation of Church and State—Anabaptists saw the church as the assembly of the redeemed, antithetical to the world. For this reason they advocated separation of church and state.

  3. Freedom of Conscience—because of the Anabaptists' convictions about the role of the secular state, they believed that the ultimate remedy for heresy was excommunication, not execution. They steadfastly opposed the persecution that was so characteristic of their age. They denied that the state had a right to punish or execute anyone for religious beliefs or teachings. This was a revolutionary notion in the Reformation era.

  4. Believers' Baptism—The Anabaptists saw no biblical support for infant baptism. (Not all anabaptists made an issue of the mode of baptism, and some practiced sprinkling.)

  5. Holiness of Life—Anabaptists emphasized the spiritual experience, practical righteousness, and obedience to divine standards. They had no tolerance for those who claimed to be justified by faith while living unfaithful lives. Anabaptists pointed out that Scripture says, "Faith without works is dead" (Jas. 2:20). In this regard they were in agreement with the other Protestants. We recall that, in equation form, their collective differences from Rome can be expressed:

    Rome: Faith + Works -> Salvation

    Protestants: Faith -> Salvation + Works

The Anabaptists in relation to other Reformers

In the issue of how conservative the various reformation churches are generally breaks down this way: The Lutherans were the most conservative (meaning they deviated from Rome the least), the Anabaptists were the most radical, and the Calvinists in the middle.

Both the Lutherans and the Calvinists preserved the church-state liaison. This liaison was taboo with the Anabaptists, and caused a severe strain, especially with Zwingli who, as we noted earlier, not only depended on the state for financial support of his church but also viewed the militia as something of an arm of the church. Since the Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Calvinists all depended on the church-state liaison, the Anabaptist's insistence on the separation of church and state resulted in tensions with all other groups.

The conservative vs. radical label certainly applies to baptism. The Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists all preserved infant baptism, which they believe was the practice of the early church and also the biblical teaching. The Anabaptists, of course, disagreed. From their perspective we have the following:

Now the Anabaptists rejected out-of-hand (as did the Calvinists) that infants were regenerated. The Catholics and Lutherans held to baptismal regeneration (although somewhat different versions.) As such, it made sense that Catholics and Lutherans treated children as Christians.

Calvinists, on the other hand, were a bit of an enigma to the Anabaptists. At this time, it is useful to go into some detail about the positions of the Calvinists and the Baptists.

The Westminster Confession (1646), which can be considered the creed of the Calvinists, says this about baptism:

I. Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ's own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.

II. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the Gospel, lawfully called thereunto.

III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

V. Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

VI. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in His appointed time.

VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.
While the London Baptist Confession (1689), which adopted most of the text of the Westminster Confession, modified the chapter on Baptism, to read:
  1. Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.

  2. Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance.

  3. The outward element to be used in this ordinance is water, wherein the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

  4. Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.

The Anabaptists applauded the Calvinist rejection of baptismal regeneration, but still believed that the Calvinists were in grave error in baptizing infants. They worried that the Calvinists would inevitably slip into the more serious error of regarding the baptized children as Christians, even as they denied baptismal regeneration. The danger, according to the Anabaptists, was that evangelizing of the children would suffer—their conversion would not be "worked for" by their parents. Even worse, you would soon reach a state Christianity in say, Switzerland, when everyone had been baptized as an infant—that is you would reach a point where you had a nation of alleged Christians.

Calvinists have indeed had a tendency to make this mistake, of assuming the children Christians (as opposed to treating them as if they were Christian, which is something altogether different) and should thank the Anabaptists for their warning and heed their advice to diligently evangelize their own children. Children need to be made aware of there inherent lost position, rather than a presumed position of being converted.

Persecution of the Anabaptists

The Protestants under Zwingli were the first to persecute the Reformation Anabaptists. Felix Manz became the first martyr in 1527. On May 20, 1527, Catholic authorities executed Michael Sattler. King Ferdinand declared drowning (called the third baptism) "the best antidote to Anabaptism". This sickening joke—that drowning was appropriate for those who promoted immersion, is one of the sorriest chapters of Christian history.

The Anabaptism call for moderate living and wealth distribution also resulted in persecution. It has been said that a "16th century man who did not drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family could be suspected of being an Anabaptist and thus persecuted." Some estimates are that thousands died in Europe in the sixteenth century.

The long line of the "true" church

God has always had a proper path for his children, so it is indisputable that there is a line from which, in a perfect world, the church would not stray.

In Old Testament times, Israel repeatedly strayed from the line, and God would lovingly bring them back, working through His prophets and supernatural intervention. This ended climactically in AD 70, when the Jewish age came to an end and temple worship ceased.

Mankind was "restored" back to the line by The New Testament church, as established through Christ by Peter, Paul, James and the other apostles. It wasn't long, however, until the New Testament church also wandered. We see this in the Roman Catholic Church both in her denial of the biblical doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, as well as in her insistence on extra-biblical doctrines such as the perpetual virginity of Mary.

So the Reformation, as an outpouring of God's grace and providence, pulled Christendom back to the "true" line. Yet differences developed, and so even among the Protestants and least some, if not all, were teaching some false doctrines.

The hope was, of course, that on the essentials the Protestants could maintain unanimity. On reality, this proved to be a false hope.

In one area in particular, the Calvinists, who were the closest to the Anabaptists, nevertheless believed that the Anabaptists were the cause of the separation. It wasn't on the issue of baptism, but the Anabaptist doctrine of the pure church.

A "pure church" is one in which all members are true, believing Christians. This is, of course, a noble and worthy aim. But it should be regarded as a lofty yet unattainable goal. Why? Because as Augustine pointed out, it is not biblical to assume that this goal can ever be achieved. He taught of the visible and invisible church, and that in the visible church there would always be imposters:
24Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. 27"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?' 28" 'An enemy did this,' he replied. "The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?' 29" 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.' " (Matt. 13:24-30)
The parable of the weeds (and Christ's subsequent explanation) confirms that scripture tells us that at the end of history the visible church will contain both sons of God and sons of the devil. This is analogous to an individual's process of sanctification: while it is noble and proper and commanded that we imitate Christ, it is also just as certain and very unbiblical to assume than any human will reach that level of perfection. The apostle Paul, whom any Christian would hold up as the very model of how we should live, still spoke of constantly striving to perfect his own faith. Likewise, while the church should strive for purity, it is not only naïve to teach that it is possible for success, but also unbiblical.

In one way, the Anabaptists held to a rather Roman sounding belief in apostolic succession. In this sense, they were not reformers at all.

Apostolic succession

This is the theory that the Anabaptists were part of an apostolic succession of churches (or church perpetuity) from the time of Christ. That is, there had been a continuity of small groups completely outside the Catholic Church from New Testament times up to 1525, which continues on to today. Proponents of this view point out many common expressions of belief in these Catholic dissenters. The opponents of this theory emphasize that these non-Catholic groups differed from each other, that they held some heretical views, and/or that they had no connection with one another. This view is held by some Baptists, some Mennonites, and a number of "true church" movements.

Justification by Faith Alone

Sadly, some of the Anabaptists in many cases rejected the Reformed understanding of justification by faith alone. They denied the forensic nature of justification as explained by Luther and insisted that the only ground on which sinners can be acceptable to God is a "real" righteousness wrought within the justified person.
"Menno [Simons], and Anabaptists generally, did not accept Luther's forensic doctrine of justification by faith alone because they saw it as an impediment to the true doctrine of a 'lively' faith which issues in holy living." [Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 269].
Perhaps it is fair to note that the Anabaptists thought they detected a tendency toward antinomianism in the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. That was what they argued against. But in doing so they undermined the very foundation of the biblical doctrine of justification. They left people to try to devise a righteousness of their own derived from the law, rather than trusting the perfect righteousness of Christ which God imputes to those who believe (cf. Phil. 3:9; Rom. 4:5-6).

Anabaptist Heritage

Not just modern Baptists are the descendants of the Anabaptists. Several existing denominational bodies may be legitimately regarded as the successors of the Continental Anabaptists — Amish, Baptists, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Bruderhof Communities and Quakers. Some writers prefer to distinguish institutionally lineal descendants (Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites) and spiritual descendants (Baptists, Brethren, Bruderhof, and Quakers). Nevertheless, some historical connections have been demonstrated for all three of these spiritual descendants, though perhaps not as clearly as the notable institutionally lineal descendants. However, although many see the more well known Anabaptist groups (Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites) as ethnic groups, the Anabaptist bodies of today are largely not ethnically descended from the Continental Anabaptists. According to the Mennonite World Conference (MWC), "Today, close to 1,300,000 believers belong to this faith family; at least 60 percent are African, Asian, or Latin American."

Other legacies of the Anabaptists include:
  • Freedom of religion
  • Priesthood of the believer
  • Bible as the sole rule of faith and practice
  • Ordinances, not sacraments
All those who hold the idea of a free church and freedom of religion (separation of church and state) are greatly indebted to the Anabaptists. When it was introduced by the Anabaptists in the 15th and 16th centuries, religious freedom independent of the state was a radical idea, and unthinkable to both clerical and governmental leaders. Religious liberty was equated with anarchy.

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