The Anabaptist Spirit

I posted a few things about the modern-day gravitation of Presbyterians toward the Baptist/Fundamentalist camp indicating it a surrender of the Reformation. This is not the first writing on the subject. More scholarly authors have written on the same subject. For instance, see The Anabaptist Captivity of the Church. However, this post will mostly deal with Dr. Matthew McMahon’s commentary: The Rise of the Radical Anabaptists from which a few notions cued w/ respect to Reformed Catholic order and worship.

Nonetheless, the the goals of the early reformation, or what might be properly called the Magisterial Reformation, started to give way to a radical-wing in the late 1580’s. I compare this faction within Puritanism to the “Anabaptist Spirit”. I’d like to better define the Anabaptist Spirit which has eventually displaced early Protestantism through various waves of iconoclam and anti-clericalism sometime after the 16th century.

It would be best to define some goals and characteristics of the Magisterial Reformation. First, the goal of early Reformation was not an exclusive return to the sub-apostolic church. Instead, Anglican and Lutheran protestants tended to desire continuity with medieval practices albeit conformed to specific primitive and scriptural rules. Nor were all medieval and Roman customs cast away merely due to periodicity or source. Early protestants viewed themselves as ‘humanist’ Roman Catholics, often explaining their difference with Papacy by late innovations introduced in Italian catholicism.

The saliency of certain medieval practices is of special note. When northern catholic princes dissolved monasteries, it was not the rule of holy life which offended but the specialized and cloistered nature of monks. Instead, reformers were optimistic about sacralizing daily life and society, and thus intended to turn the monastic ideal ‘inside-out’, bringing the breviary into family and occupational livings. This is amplification of the medieval was typical amongst first generation reformers like Luther and Cranmer, having more in common with the precepts of the middle ages than with today’s rationalism.

Monastic-pietism has a long history, dating back to Cluniac reform in the middle ages. It did not wait until Luther to start life. The reforming instincts of Luther and Cranmer were born from the pietism of the medieval church whether the Franciscan friars or Wycliffe’s followers.However, this is only one analogy that builds context for the impulses behind Magisterial Reformation. Nor should the 15th-century concilarism of Constance and Basel be forgotten, advocated by John Major and Jacques Almain just before Luther’s 1519 Appeal to the Nobility. In many ways the Reformation intended to settle questions opened three centuries before the 95 theses was nailed to Wittenberg’s cathedral doors. Below is a brief summary of certain prominent Reformation convictions:

1. The Reformation wanted to restore a more rigorous and accountable discipline for the sake of personal holiness.
Ecclesiastical law and devotional works were intensified to impress piety upon clergy and lay people. The reformation excited a new sense of collective holiness and morals.
2. Early Protestants wanted power shifted away from Rome toward national bishops and princes who were more prominent during the investiture conflicts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This was connected to a renewed hope in concilar governance within the Western Church where lay people represented through their Christian monarchs might have greater say. The organization of the church according to a national principle therefore brought means for integrating ecclesiastical to laity.
3. Nor were original Protestants separatist in their outlook but expected to reconcile differences with the Pope by the advocacy of the Emperor and his convocation of a free general council. English and German divines certainly did not see themselves establishing new churches but expected to continue the old ones by a persuasive appeal to authentic catholic and patristic faith, beginning with Augustine, Jerome, and Ambrose.

Unfortunately, the pressures for Reform sometimes was not well-contained, and zeal occasionally gained the upper-hand. Nonetheless, Protestants and Roman Catholics both persecuted radicals. In fact, the Diets of Speyer and Augsburg (if not Peace of Passau) formally committed Lutherans to the suppression of Anabaptism. It is good to keep in mind how the concilar and aristocratic basis of classical Protestantism basically alienated Radicalism’s penchant for democracy.

Unlike Anabaptists, the engine of church authority for ‘Magisterialists’ was not the people’s congregation but was given to the civil power who mediated the ecclesiastical synod. Calvin himself disparaged democracy in the church. Although strong anti-clerical currents existed within Puritanism, these were usually directed at bishops not rectors. Calvinists typically wanted to strengthen the rectory (aka. presbyters), giving curates great scrutiny over lay people while dominating the worship by moving the sermon to the center of liturgy.

Before views hardened between Anglicans and puritans, early Protestants shared common views on episcopacy, justifying it according to the efficiency in governing national churches vs. single free cities. Moreover, most puritans proved allies with high churchmen on questions of establishment or licencing (traveling) preachers.

Far from abolishing church authority and order, the Reformation wished to restore it in concrete terms under the supervision of the Prince. Often troublesome with assessing ecclesiology is the Protestant treatment of the visible church. Although early Protestants acknowledged predestination as a true and sound doctrine, they somewhat sidestepped its application to the Church, often defining the Church instead as the congregation of the faithful. This might carry a couple meanings. 1. Those not under ecclesiastical discipline, i.e, presumed to be elect until otherwise shown, and, 2. those truly saved, numbered only by the Lord. Suffice to say, the pastoral sense of the phrase was often wisely favored against the less hesitant flattening of election to ecclesiology by Radicals.

First and foremost, visible church was the baptized christian community, and on the instance a particular province, headed by a Prince. This was typical for Protestant polity, and the Augsburg edict said, “the faith of the prince is the faith of the realm”. Original Protestantism consequently offered a remarkably high ecclesiology. And, though Papacy was rejected as a universal/ursurping power, prelacy often continued in Magisterial Protestant countries where the Prince was strong. In Scotland, between 1560-1592 (due to the Leith Concordant), episcopacy co-existed with Presbyterianism, the latter practiced locally.

Some Lutheran principalities also continued the old diocesan bishoprics, and in Sweden episcopacy continued under the King. Thus, many early Protestant countries did not abandon the older catholic polities. The strength of King and State was a defining feature of the later Prussian church, and when German unity began, superintendents were placed over united synods. But in each instance, Protestant bishops understood their office by virtue convention rather than divine right, and usually the influence of secular lords, backed by parliament and royal decree, determined the presence of spiritual ones in the Church, coalitions Anabaptists vehemently rejected.

The problem with church historians is failing to differentiate between early and late Protestant churchmanship. Furthermore, modern evangelicals tend to treat Radicalism as authentic protestantism, but this is no surprise when pundits mistakenly reinforce the idea that early Reformers rejected the entire medieval church. Rather, the Reformation strove to preserve ‘princely order’ in various ways.  Also, in the period 1520-1590, Lutherans desired reconciliation with Rome. This inherent ‘conservatism’ in Reforming movements was the culmination of humanist medieval thought dating back to the 12th and 15th centuries. Thus, early Reformers probably had more in common with Roman Catholics than today’s Evangelical-Free Churchers.

Anabaptist Beliefs:
Radicals were theologically mixed, but they particularly rejected the civil authority in church affairs. Some were anti-trinitarian, some militant, some pacifist. Not only does the diversity of their opinion evade definition, but Anabaptist congregations rarely had enough stability to draft common confessions. Perhaps the best known statement of their beliefs was authored by Michael Sattler– an ex-Benedictine monk and follower of the earlier anabaptist preacher, Conrad Grebel. Sattler wrote a Confession for Schleitheim in 1526 . Its seven articles were:

  • Believer-only baptism (credo-baptism) following a credible profession of faith
  • Rigorous banning of sinners from church communion. Moral perfectionism.
  • Eucharistic bread and wine as symbols only.
  • Monastic separation from the world for the congregation, and the boycotting of all established churches and secular life
  • Election of pastors by laypeople/congregation with no ecclesiastical officers
  • Radical pacifism
  • Forbidding oaths, especially civil ones

Getting back to some of the essays written about the invasion of anabaptism into mainline protestantism, McMahon’s Rise of Radical Anabaptists admits Anabaptism originated in Zurich with close ties to Zwingli. However, the remainder of McMahon’s article puts distance between Anabaptists and Reformers, stressing differences on sacrament, creed, and other areas of thought. Nonetheless, McMahon zeroes in on two differences pertinent this essay:

“…the Anabaptist ultimately did not want a reformation of the church-state; rather, they wanted a re-institution of the true church they thought they possessed…”

McMahon says the two most prominent Anabaptist ideas were 1) a ‘reinstitution’ of a church such that it contain converted believers only (the elect), and 2) believer-only baptism. Radicals were dogmatic about opposing Erastianism, and with the rejection of civil magistrates so too the church authority advocated by Reformers. This expectation that the church have no unsaved men departed from earlier catholicism and even what might be called ‘the Reformation consensus’. McMahon rightly calls Anabaptist ecclesiology not church “reform” but “reinstitution” or ‘reinvention’. According to McMahon this was not only the result of poor theology, but it was also revisionist and ahistorical.

Where McMahon’s thesis really gets interesting is the strong affinity 16th-century Anabaptists have to modern-day Fundamentalism and denominations like Baptists. The Schleitheim Articles could practically be an accurate and descriptive confession for any non-denominational congregation today– i.e,  believer-only baptism, free church, sacrament as symbol-only, congregationally driven ministry, and no clerical order. We ought to wonder how different is 16th-century Radicalism from today’s fundies and baptist conventions? Or to put the same question differently, how much did early Protestants have in common with Rome rather than fundamentalist churches today?

Zurich — Mother of Disorder?
The pressure for Reform broke space for Radical sentiment. Generally speaking Reform was led by low clergy and sometimes nobles against bishops and emperor. The zeal for reform could cause heretical elements to spin out. For instance, tracing the genealogy of radical iconoclasm (RPW) to Marian exiles and the 1560 Scottish Covenant, we find a connection to the Swiss cities, mentioned in reference to the example of the “best of continental churches”, mainly Geneva and Zurich. There were also the collegial relationships of the period. For example Swiss cities typically exchanged ministers, and ideas cross pollinated. For example, Calvin presided in Strasbourg before ministering in Geneva. Knox ministered in Frankfurt, then the Anglo exiles in Geneva, and finally Scotland. Ministers tended to follow ethnic-refugee flows– Huguenots fleeing France to Geneva, and English escaping Mary for Frankfurt. A backdraft of exiles from Switzerland to England occurred upon continental Protestant defeat in 1548. Nonetheless, whether reformers stayed or fled, each city was reputed by the gifts of their theologian(s).

Zurich is of particular interest as it was the crucible for later debates on Sacramental realism and, for English concerns, iconoclasm. Ulrich Zwingli was Zurich’s resident theologian. In 1523 Zwingli was Zurich’s moderate, holding a middle ground against radical demands. At this earlier date Zwingli was surprisingly ‘catholic’. His liturgy had not yet touched the canon of the Mass, nor did he abolish catholic imagery. However, the caution of his reform also left him a target for more popular and immediatist leaders. By the next year Zwingli changed his sided with popular zeal, deposing the Mass but also calling for stripping church ornament/images, “Zwingli and his radical colleagues disposed of the relics, raised their ladders against the walls and whitewashed the paintings and decoraions, carted away the statues and ornaments, the gold and silver equipment, the costly vestments and splendidly bound service-books, and closed the organs.” (Liturgies of the Western Church, p. 142. ) Zwingli’s licence given to radicals would prove insufficient to keeping the popular coalition together, and by the end of the year it disintegrated over what became the next contested issue, infant baptism.

“Listed amongst Zwingli’s early collaborators were Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel. Manz and Grebel only broke from Zwingli after Ulrich refused to baptize adults who were sprinkled as infants. Anabaptists wanted ‘believer only’ baptisms, and thus treated infant baptisms as null and void. The danger here for Zwingli, and why he drew a final line with Manz and the other riff-raff, was this would have limited the authority of the church to only a small ring of fanatics. The question of infant baptism would finally force the two parties apart. Manz’s sect would become the notorious ‘Anabaptists’, but until then Anabaptism and Reformed iconoclasm were indistinguishable in the little city of Zurich.

Zwingli would not reinvent the sacrament. Nonetheless, Zurich proved the earliest, if not the epicenter, to radical iconoclasm.

Some Remarks:
The boundaries of communion should be properly based upon actual like-mindedness and common worship. Who is included in the sacrament s to speaks volumes about what denominations we believe are truly part of the visible church. Inter-communion pacts can also indicate how far reformed origins and goals have wandered. I’ve personally experienced a kind of double standard in Presbyterian churches where clergy work overtime to eliminate theocratic sentiment in favor of complete withdrawal from the civil sphere. This process probably started upon the American Revolution where the Magistrate ceased enforcing the first tablet of the decalogue. The WCF changed accordingly, the american version admitting disestablishment,”it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest” (WCF 23.3)

Today Presbyterian communion appears to be open to anyone who is “bible believing”. This works out to be anyone who is fundamentalist. Thus, baptists can partake. But too frequently the table is closed to churchmen who have high views of Sacrament, meaning Luther could not even eat at a Presbyterian supper. This ought to be astonishing because Lutherans, Anglicans, and, at least, early Presbyterians are tightly wound together by common history and theology! The problem is modern-day Presbyterianism has moved decisively toward Anabaptism, especially in areas of authority and church discipline. Even Presbyterian historiography seems at a lost to identify with Constantine or Scottish Kings like James I.

My worry for Reformed churches is not merely the impact rapid growth models have upon worship, but how ties with Fundamentalists and other ‘free church’ traditions undermine original Protestantism. Iconoclasm/RPW invited such turmoil in England that establishment was flatly rejected as a means for organizing the church in 19th-century America. We may consider RPW a major culprit, or at least midwife, for Anabaptism’s kidnapping of Reformation. The search for a pure church composed only of the elect gave impetus to centrifugal forces in revivalism. The anti-clericalism behind the sacrament controversies encouraged congregationalism and lay societies. And, these, in turn, left the interpretation of scripture to private judgement, something original protestants abhorred. We might ask, “Given the democratic and revivalistic culture that prevails in America, can neo-Presbyterianism return to its Magisterial roots?”

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