Anabaptism, or “the Radical Reformation”

amish-vs-mennoniteWe know the heirs of the communities that were formed as part of the “Radical Reformation”, or “Anabaptists”, as “Mennonite” and “Amish”. While these communities, while visible, have had relatively little influence in either doctrine or culture, some of their ideas are with us today.

The term “Anabaptist” owes its origins to Zwingli (the word literally means “re-baptizers”), and refers to what was perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Anabaptist practice – the insistence that only those who had made a personal public profession of faith should be baptized. Anabaptism seems to have first arisen around Zurich, in the aftermath of Zwingli’s reforms within the city in the early 1520s. It centered on a group of individuals (among whom we may note Conrad Grebel, c.1498–1526) who argued that Zwingli was not being faithful to his own reforming principles … [that] he preached one thing and practiced another.

Although Zwingli professed faithfulness to the sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) principle, Grebel argued that he retained a number of practices – including infant baptism, the close link between church and magistracy, and the participation of Christians in warfare – which were not sanctioned or ordained by Scripture. In the hands of such radical thinkers, the sola scriptura principle became radicalized: reformed Christians came to believe and practice only those things explicitly taught in Scripture. Zwingli was alarmed by this, seeing it as a destabilizing development which threatened to cut off the Reformed church at Zurich from its historical roots and its continuity with the Christian tradition of the past.

The Anabaptists had good reason to accuse Zwingli of compromise. In 1522, Zwingli wrote a work known as Apologeticus Archeteles, in which he recognized the idea of a “community of goods” as an authentic Christian ideal. “No-one calls any possessions his own,” he wrote, “all things are held in common.” But by 1525, Zwingli had changed his mind and come round to the idea that private property was not such a bad thing, after all.

Although Anabaptism arose in Germany and Switzerland, it subsequently became influential in other regions, such as the Lowlands. The movement produced relatively few theologians – the three most significant are generally agreed to be Balthasar Hubmaier (c.1480–1528), Pilgram Marbeck (died 1556), and Menno Simons (1496–1561 [whose name the “Mennonites” bear today]). This failure partly reflects the forcible suppression of Anabaptism by the secular authorities.

Yet it may also reflect the fact that the movement did not have any substantial common theological basis. A number of common elements can be discerned within the various strands of the movement: a general distrust of external authority, the rejection of infant baptism in favor of the baptism of adult believers, the common ownership of property, and an emphasis upon pacifism and non-resistance.

To take up one of these points: in 1527, the governments of the cities of Zurich, Berne, and St Gallen accused the Anabaptists of believing “that no true Christian can either give or receive interest or income on a sum of capital; that all temporal goods are free and common, and that all can have full property rights to them.” It is for this reason that “Anabaptism” is often referred to as the “left wing of the Reformation” (Roland H. Bainton) or the “radical Reformation” (George Hunston Williams).

For Williams, the “radical Reformation” was to be contrasted with the “magisterial Reformation,” which he broadly identified with the Lutheran and Reformed movements. These terms are increasingly being accepted within Reformation scholarship, and the reader is likely to encounter them in his or her reading of more recent studies of the movement [emphasis added].

Probably the most significant document to emerge from the movement is the Schleitheim Confession, drawn up by Michael Sattler (1490–1527) on 24 February 1527. The Confession takes its name from the small town of that name in the canton of Schaffhausen. Its function was to distinguish Anabaptists from those around them – supremely from what the document refers to as “papists and antipapists” (that is, unreformed Catholics and magisterial evangelicals).

In effect, the Schleitheim Confession amounts to “articles of separation” – that is to say, a set of beliefs and attitudes which distinguish Anabaptists from their opponents inside and outside the Reformation, and function as a core of unity, whatever their other differences might be.

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 9-10). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

As a movement, the Anabaptists did not have the intellectual heft to have much of a lasting influence. Their doctrine of “believer’s baptism” is very much alive today. But unlike the “Magisterial Reformers”, whose “doctrinal intention … was confessional orthodoxy, [and] its academic motivation was certainly intellectual adequacy”, the Anabaptists stressed behaviors and lifestyle, in ways that had neither solid intellectual underpinnings nor a broad popular appeal.

Posted in Church History, John Bugay, Radical Reformation | 2 Comments

Zwingli and the Beginning of the Reformed Reformation

cities-of-switzerlandThe Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli developed his religious ideas in the town of Zurich, Switzerland, at a time that was parallel to but separate from the religious development of Luther:

What was wonderful to him and his generation was that they had before their eyes the original Greek, and Hebrew texts. The very words directly inspired by the Holy Spirit were there for them to read, and the printing press made possible an exactness unknown previously. It was in 1516 that this great treasure had been delivered into Zwingli’s hands, and early 1519 allows exactly the right length of time for assimilation and cogitation….

Zwingli must have brought with him to Zurich one of the best libraries possessed at the time by a simple secular priest, and his books he esteemed all his life. Many threads were now being drawn together in 1519-1520 – memories of rather barren university scholasticism with no desire on his part to return to Aristotle, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, Scotus and the rest, yet he knew them well and was therefore suitably equipped to meet his opponents in verbal-logical Latin discussions, each knowing that the other side was well trained in the formalities of logical thought….

Bold and even corrosive as some of [his] preaching was, it was already, as it always remained, basically and fundamentally Christ-centred. The Cross, and all that it meant, was never absent: the tidings were of eternal salvation. (G.R. Potter, “Zwingli”, Cambridge University Press, ©1976, pgs 64-65).

Zwingli is often a forgotten character in the Reformation, where Luther and Calvin are the best known among the Reformers. But Zwingli set the stage for later Reformers in Switzerland, including Heinrich Bullinger and John Calvin. McGrath places him in context:

The origins of the Reformed church lie with developments within the Swiss Confederation. Whereas the Lutheran Reformation had its origins primarily in an academic context, the Reformed church owed its origins more to a series of attempts to reform the morals and worship of the church (but not necessarily its doctrine) according to a more biblical pattern.

Although most of the early Reformed theologians – such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) – had an academic background, their reforming programs were not academic in nature. They were mainly concerned with reforming the practices (such as the worship) of the churches in the Swiss cities, such as Zurich, Berne, and Basle.

Whereas Luther was convinced that the doctrine of justification by faith was of central significance to his program of social and religious reform, the early Reformed thinkers had relatively little interest in doctrine, let alone this one specific doctrine. Their reforming program was institutional, social, and ethical, in many ways similar to the demands for reform emanating from the humanist movement. … for the moment it is important simply to note that all the major early Reformed theologians had links with the humanist movement which were not shared by Luther, who regarded it with some suspicion.

The consolidation of the Reformed church is generally thought to have begun with the stabilization of the Zurich reformation after Zwingli’s death (in battle, 1531) under his successor, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75), and to have ended with the emergence of Geneva as its power base and John Calvin (1509–64) as its leading spokesman, in the 1550s.

McGrath, Alister E., “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (pp. 7-8). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Posted in John Bugay, Medieval Thought, The Reformation

Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation

luther-nailing-theses-560x538Alister McGrath spends some time summarizing the individual “Reformations”. Probably the most well-known is (as you may have seen some articles on the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation) is the Lutheran Reformation, which began when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses (primarily dealing with the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of “Indulgences”) to the castle church at Wittenberg.

The Lutheran Reformation is particularly associated with the German territories and with the pervasive personal influence of one charismatic individual – Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther was particularly concerned with the doctrine of justification, which formed the central point of his religious thought.

The Lutheran Reformation was initially an academic movement, concerned primarily with reforming the teaching of theology at the University of Wittenberg. Wittenberg was an unimportant university, and the reforms introduced by Luther and his colleagues within the theology faculty attracted little attention.

It was Luther’s personal activities – such as his posting of the famous Ninety-Five Theses (31 October 1517) and the Leipzig Disputation (June–July 1519) – which brought the reforming ideas in circulation at Wittenberg to the attention of a wider (though not always appreciative) audience.

Strictly speaking, the Lutheran Reformation really began in 1522, when Luther returned to Wittenberg from his enforced isolation in the Wartburg. Luther had been condemned by the Diet of Worms in 1521. Fearing for his life, certain well-placed supporters removed him in secrecy to the castle known as the “Wartburg,” until the threat to his safety ceased. (Luther used his enforced isolation to begin translating the New Testament into German.)

In his absence, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (1486–1541), one of Luther’s academic colleagues at Wittenberg, began a program of reform at Wittenberg which seemed to degenerate into chaos. Convinced that his own presence was needed if the Reformation was to survive Karlstadt’s ineptitude, Luther emerged from his place of safety and returned to Wittenberg. At this point, Luther’s program for academic reform changed into a program for reform of church and society. No longer was Luther’s forum of activity the university world of ideas – he now found himself regarded as the leader of a religious, social, and political reforming movement which seemed to some contemporary observers to open the way to a new social and religious order in Europe.

In fact, it should be noted that Luther’s program of reform was actually more conservative than that associated with his Reformed colleagues, such as Huldrych Zwingli. It also met with rather less success than some anticipated. The movement remained obstinately landlocked within the German territories, and – the kingdoms of Scandinavia apart – never gained the foreign power bases which had seemed to be like so many ripe apples, ready to fall into its lap.

Luther’s understanding of the role of the “godly prince” (which effectively ensured that the monarch had control of the church) does not seem to have held the attraction which might have been expected, particularly in the light of the generally republican sentiments of Reformed thinkers such as Calvin. The case of England is particularly illuminating: here, as in the Lowlands, the Protestant theology which eventually gained the ascendancy was Reformed rather than Lutheran.

McGrath, Alister E.. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 6-7). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Martin Luther is probably one of the most vilified men in history – thanks to the Roman Catholic Church, the Jesuits, and the “Counter-Reformation”. Much error was spread about him during that time, and much of that error persists even today. My friend James Swan and his Beggars All Reformation blog site has done much to research those individual vilifications and to set the record straight. I highly recommend his work to you.

Posted in Alister McGrath, Beggars All, James White, John Bugay, The Reformation, Uncategorized

The “Protestant” Reformation

Today, October 31, 2016, is the 499th anniversary of the start of what is known as “the Protestant Reformation”. As Alister McGrath explains, however, the use of the word “Protestant” regarding the events of October 31, 1517 is anachronistic:

The term “Protestant” … requires comment. It derives from the aftermath of the Second Diet of Speyer (February 1529), which voted to end the toleration of Lutheranism in Germany. In April of the same year, six German princes and 14 cities protested against this oppressive measure, defending freedom of conscience and the rights of religious minorities. The term “Protestant” derives from this protest.

It is therefore not strictly correct to apply the term “Protestant” to individuals prior to April 1529 or to speak of events prior to that date as constituting “the Protestant Reformation.” The term “evangelical” is often used in the literature to refer to the reforming factions at Wittenberg and elsewhere (e.g., in France and Switzerland) prior to this date. Although the word “Protestant” is often used to refer to this earlier period, this use is, strictly speaking, an anachronism.

McGrath, Alister E.. Reformation Thought: An Introduction (p. 6). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Posted in John Bugay, The Reformation

A Number of Different “Reformations”

b45e3-unity-away-from-romeThe term “Reformation” is used in a number of senses, and it is helpful to distinguish them. As used in the historical literature, the term “Reformation” generally refers to reform movements in different areas, each of which had different roots:

  • Lutheranism: This is probably the earliest and best known among the Reformation movements; sparked publicly by Martin Luther when he posted his “95 Theses” for discussion at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this “reformation” spread quickly and even provided cover for the other “reformations”.
  • The Reformed movement: (often referred to as “Calvinism”) Had its origin in Ulrich Zwingli, the near contemporary of Martin Luther, in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1518. Zwingli was a priest who became enamored with the Scriptures, and from 1519 onward, he began preaching regularly from the Scriptures and pointing out discrepancies with Roman Catholic doctrine.
  • The English Reformation: This particular reform movement did have its roots in the political dispute between Henry VIII and “Pope Clement VII” over an annulment; nevertheless, some of the finest (primarily Reformed in their persuasion) theologians came out of the English Reformation.
  • The “Radical Reformation”: Still referred to as “Anabaptism”. Anabaptism literally means “re-baptism.” Oddly, the heirs of this movement are not today’s Baptists, but rather are seen in the Amish and Mennonite movements.
  • The Counter Reformation: There were Reform movements even within Roman Catholicism that worked to correct abuses and defend “traditional” Roman doctrines.

Adapted from Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (p. 5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Throughout this work, McGrath makes the point, then, that what we know now as “The Reformation” was actually a loosely connected set of distinct reforming movements, rather than a single coherent movement with local adaptations.

As the illustration above shows, all of them had one thing in common, and that was, Rome is corrupt, and we need to do something about it. For the four branches of the Protestant Reformation, that meant leaving.

We’ll go into more detail regarding each of these movements.

Posted in A.G. Dickens, Alister McGrath, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, The Reformation, The Roots of the Reformation | 1 Comment

Alliances of Church and State

As popes in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s became more evil and self-absorbed, their ability to even try to reform the church diminished. Given the corruption in Rome, the Reformers turned to their own civil governments for help:

It is therefore important to notice the manner in which Protestant reformers allied themselves with regional or civic powers in order to effect their program of reform. Luther appealed to the German nobility and Zwingli to the Zurich city council for reform, pointing out the benefits which would accrue to both as a consequence. For reasons we shall explore …, the English Reformation (in which political factors tended to overshadow theological issues, which were generally treated as being of secondary importance) is not typical of the European movement as a whole.

The continental Reformation proceeded by a symbiotic alliance of reformer and state or civic authority, each believing that the resulting Reformation was to their mutual benefit. The reformers were not unduly concerned that they gave added authority to their secular rulers by their theories of the role of the state or the “godly prince”: the important thing was that the secular rulers supported the cause of the Reformation, even if their reasons for doing so might not be entirely straightforward or praiseworthy.

The mainstream reformers were pragmatists, people who were prepared to allow secular rulers their pound of flesh provided the cause of the Reformation was advanced. In much the same way, of course, the opponents of the Refor­mation had little hesitation in calling upon the support of secular authorities which felt that their interests were best served by a maintenance of the religious status quo. No study of the Reformation can overlook its political and social dimensions, as secular authorities in northern Europe saw their chance to seize power from the church, even at the cost of thereby committing themselves to a new religious order.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that certain distinctive religious ideas achieved widespread circulation and influence within western European society in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was about theology, not just social and political change. These theological ideas cannot be ignored or marginalized by anyone concerned with the study of the Reformation.

Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (pp. 4-5). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Was this a good move or a bad move? The answer is unclear.

Posted in Alister McGrath, John Bugay, The Reformation, Uncategorized

Reclaiming the “Golden Age” of the Church?

By the year 1500, things were really bad in the church. But there were opportunities to hope:

Many looked back with nostalgia to the simplicity and excitement of the apostolic Christianity of the first century. Could not this Golden Age of the Christian faith be regained, perhaps by pondering anew the New Testament documents? This program of reform was the wistful pipe dream of intellectuals throughout half of Europe.

Yet the Renaissance popes seemed more interested in secular than in spiritual matters, and managed between them to achieve a hitherto unprecedented level of avarice, venality, immorality, and spectacularly unsuccessful power politics.

The words of Gianfresco Pico della Mirandola (not to be confused with his uncle, Giovanni), spoken in March 1517, sum up succinctly the thoughts which preyed on many educated minds at the time:

“If we are to win back the enemy and the apostate to our faith, it is more important to restore fallen morality to its ancient rule of virtue than that we should sweep the Black Sea with our fleet.”

There were others, however, who added another demand to this list of long-overdue reforms – a reformation of Christian doctrine, of theology, of religious ideas. To critical observers such as Martin Luther at Wittenberg and John Calvin at Geneva, the church had lost sight of its intellectual and spiritual heritage. It was time to reclaim the ideas of the Golden Age of the Christian church.

The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease – a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be.

Imagine that “the infallible Church” had forgotten what Christianity actually was. But that is an accurate description of the state of affairs at the time of the Reformation.

For these men, the obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since the early Middle Ages – the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics. The distinctive ideas which thinkers such as Luther and Calvin held to underlie Christian faith and practice had been obscured, if not totally perverted, through a series of developments in the Middle Ages. According to these and other reformers of that age, it was time to reverse these changes, to undo the work of the Middle Ages, in order to return to a purer, fresher version of Christianity which beckoned to them across the centuries.

The reformers echoed the cry of the humanists: “back to the sources” (ad fonts) – back to the Golden Age of the church, in order to reclaim its freshness, purity and vitality in the midst of a period of stagnation and corruption. Contemporary writings unquestionably paint a picture of growing ecclesiastical corruption and inefficiency, indicating how much the late medieval church was in need of reform.

It is necessary, however, to enter a note of caution on the manner in which these sources are to be interpreted. It is quite possible that they document growing levels of expectation within the late medieval church as much as declining levels of performance. The growth of an educated laity – one of the more significant elements in the intellectual history of late medieval Europe – led to increasing criticism of the church on account of the obvious disparity between what the church was and what it might be. The growing level of criticism may well reflect the fact that more people were, through increasing educational opportunities, in a position to criticize the church – rather than any further decline in the ecclesiastical standards of the day. But who could reform the church?

By the first decade of the sixteenth century, a fundamental shift in power within Europe was essentially complete. The power of the pope had diminished as the power of secular European governments had increased. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established, with power over clergy and religious orders (and eventually also over bishops). Yet this was an instrument of the Spanish state, not the Spanish church. Control of this system of courts rested not with the pope, but with the Spanish king. The Concordat of Bologna (1516) gave the king of France the right to appoint all the senior clergy of the French church, effectively giving him direct control of that church and its finances.

Across Europe, the ability of the pope to impose a reformation upon his church was steadily diminishing. Even if the will to reform had been there in the later Renaissance popes (and there are few indications that it was), their ability to reform the church was gradually slipping away. This diminishment in papal authority did not, however, lead to a decrease in the power of local or national churches, which continued to exercise major influence over nations. It was the ability of the pope to control such local or national power that declined during our period. The German, Swiss, and English reformations illustrate this point well.

Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Kindle Locations 441-479). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Posted in Alister McGrath, John Bugay, Middle Ages, Uncategorized