This is a talk I gave to a Baptist denominational distinctives class yesterday.
We could look at Anabaptism in two ways.
Firstly, as a historical movement in the sixteenth century – the radical reformers. That history is a helpful counterpoint for Baptists as Anabaptists are as important to the Baptist heritage as Luther or Calvin, and yet you could grow up in a Baptist church like I did without ever hearing them mentioned.
But I didn’t become an Anabaptist for historical reasons. I became an Anabaptist when I encountered a theological framework which made me excited about following Jesus and excited about what the church is meant to be. That’s the second option for looking at Anabaptism – as a theological framework drawing on the key insights of the sixteenth century radical reformers but not captive to their particular historical and cultural concerns.
In this talk, I will give you an historical sketch of Anabaptism to orientate you. I will then discuss two key aspects of an Anabaptist framework – the Constantinian shift and the view of the church.
The Anabaptists originate as the third group in the Reformation. The Protestant Reformers broke with the Catholic Church over the place of the Bible, the doctrine of grace and the abuse of the priestly office. The Reformers sought to make their reforms through the magistrates and councils which ruled the city-states. The Anabaptists went further than the Reformers. They understood the church in a fundamentally different way, rejecting the alliance between church and state. For Anabaptists, being a Christian meant following in the footsteps of Christ. They refused to compromise, and like Jesus this brought them into confrontation with the authorities and led many of them to the cross – martyrdom.
In 1517, Martin Luther set off the reformation. Two years later, a priest named Ulrich Zwingli heads to the Swiss city-state of Zurich. He is convinced that the church needs to return to the Bible. He begins preaching from Matthew 1 and starts working his way through the Bible. He believes the church needs reforming. But he’s also a pragmatic man, and he wants to be effective. He has a disputation with scholars and church people to make recommendations for reform. He then implements the program of reform in consultation with the council.
Zwingli also has a small study group with some enthusiastic young disciples. Among them are Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock. He studies the Greek New Testament with them and they talk about the reform of the church. At first, Zwingli says his final authority will be the Bible. But increasingly, he becomes more pragmatic. Tensions rise with his radical disciples who don’t want him to compromise with the powers.
The radicals break with Zwingli at the end of 1523. A disputation calls for the abolition of the mass. Zwingli brings the idea to the Council, but says he will submit to whatever the Council decides. The radicals are furious that he is compromising on something they feel the Bible is clearly saying. Their disagreement with him over how the reformation of the church should proceed shows the Anabaptist idea of the Constantinian shift, a theme I’ll return to.
The radicals continue meeting without Zwingli. After further study, they come to the conclusion that infants shouldn’t be baptised. They refuse to give their infants up for baptism. The Council issues an order that all infants are to be baptised immediately. On January 21, 1525, the radicals meet to discuss what to do. They decide that if baptism without faith is invalid, none of them have been baptised yet. So George Blaurock asks for Conrad Grebel to baptise him. Next Blaurock baptises Grebel, and then they baptise the rest of the gathering.
The term ‘anabaptists’ soon came to be applied to the group, meaning ‘rebaptisers’. The Anabaptists, of course, did not believe the first baptism was valid, and the term was one of derision, having connotations of treachery and heresy.
The group spread rapidly through Europe and were persecuted wherever they went. Two main streams of Anabaptism survived – the Mennonites and the Hutterites. The Mennonites named themselves after Menno Simons, a second generation Dutch Anabaptist who re-orientated the movement after a disastrous event at Munster, where Anabaptists tried to take over a whole city. In the end, most of them were killed. This uprising gave Anabaptism a bad name and made it an easy target for critics who saw the movement simply as political rebels. Such an interpretation was common until the middle of the twentieth century.
The stream of Anabaptism that contemporary Anabaptists trace themselves back to had three central principles, laid out in Harold Bender’s important idea of the Anabaptist Vision:
1) Christianity as discipleship
2) Church as brotherhood
3) Christian ethic as love and non-resistance.
All of these themes will emerge in the theological framework later.
Many Mennonites fled persecution by migrating east until they ended up in Russia. From there they were persecuted again by Stalin in the twentieth century and many of these rejoined the large Mennonite population in the USA and Canada. Today, a lot of Mennonites resemble evangelicals in most of their beliefs and even practices. However, there is also a strong movement within Mennonites reclaiming their radical roots. Pacifism is something Mennonites have rarely compromised on and Mennonite agencies are involved in peacemaking throughout the world.
The Hutterites have continued their practice of communal living and have communal farms in different parts of the world. (more…)