The Radical Alternative The Rise Of Anabaptism

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The message of returning to the simplicities of the New Testament excited both intellectuals and ordinary Christians. To academics, it offered a new way of doing theology, displacing the tedium of scholasticism. It was as if a window had been opened in a smoke-filled room and a refreshing breeze had rushed in to displace and dispel the accumulated stale air. To the laity, the message offered a vision of reform, deflecting the church from its political ambitions and returning it to the simpler, more attractive institution of the New Testament. For most, this did not require any doctrinal alterations whatsoever; some, however, argued that only a reform of the church's ideas could sustain a reform of its morals.

Yet laity and academia alike wondered how far this reform should be pressed. Did a return to the world of the New Testament involve a gentle correction of errors and excesses—or was a more radical and thoroughgoing revolution required? Did existing ideas and institutions need to be totally demolished before reconstruction was possible? Although Luther's reforming program is often referred to as "radical" and "revolutionary," these are relative, not absolute, terms. We have already noted how Luther's proposals were considered rather tame and conservative by writers such as Bucer and Zwingli. To others, they were positively reactionary. Luther had betrayed the movement that he initiated. It was time for others to take control.

The central issue was the interpretation of the Bible. The debate can best be understood by considering two, quite different understandings of the all-important word biblical—the watchword of the reforming movements of the age.

a. Biblical means whatever is explicitly and unequivocally stated in the Bible.

b. Biblical means whatever is explicitly stated in the Bible or is consistent with this.

Which of these definitions was correct? There was no self-evidently correct answer.

Despite their severe differences on many matters, Luther and Zwingli adopted the second of these two understandings. The thought and life of the church was to be grounded in scripture, but interpreted in the dialogue with leading, reliable biblical interpreters of the past. It is important to note that Luther argued for the supremacy of Augustine as an ancient interpreter of the Bible, and Zwingli for that of Origen; these two writers had quite different, and at times diametrically opposed, theologies. Yet both Luther and Zwingli argued for continuity with the past—for retaining what was good in the medieval church and reforming what was not. (They disagreed, of course, on what these actually were.)

At both Wittenberg and Zurich, more radical reformers emerged, arguing that this represented a compromise.29 The Bible was being shackled by the tradition of the church. What was needed was a revolution, not a reformation. Conrad Grebel at Zurich, Simon Stumpf at Hongg, and Wilhelm Reublin at Wittikon set out a program of reform embodying the first definition of biblical. Zwingli, they argued, had compromised reform. All that he had done was to replace the authority of the pope with that of the city council of Zurich. Zwingli was a puppet, little more than the mouthpiece of the civil authorities, in whose hands real authority now lay. The Reformation had been traduced.

So what radical program did these revolutionaries propose? Perhaps the best way of appreciating the challenge that the movement brought is to consider the question of whether infants should be baptized. This practice was common in the early church, and both Luther and Zwingli regarded it as perfectly acceptable. At no point did they make any attempt to reform what they thought of as an authentic Christian practice.

The radicals saw things very differently. At no point in the New Testament was the practice mentioned, let alone justified. (Luther and others argued that infant baptism was consistent with what was said in the New Testament, but they had to concede the absence of explicit mention of the practice, still less of any command to baptize infants.) The practice therefore had to be reformed in the light of the Bible. Only adult baptism was to be recognized. The precondition for baptism was explicit belief, something that could not be found in infants. Those who had been baptized as infants must therefore be baptized again. It was this conclusion that gave the movement the name "Anabaptism" (from the Greek term meaning "re-baptism").30

The radical demands went far beyond rebaptism, however, and often seemed to amount to a near-total disengagement with the present order. Many radicals saw the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine as a watershed in the history of the church that had compromised its integrity through an accommodation with imperial power. It was imperative that this false turn—which Luther and Zwingli both regarded as legitimate—should be corrected.31 Christians should not have to swear oaths to the secular authority or compromise themselves in any way through contamination with the fallen world of power and force. (The term "magisterial Reformation" is often used to refer to the reforming programs of Luther, Bucer, and Zwingli on account of the positive role they assigned to the magistracy and other instruments of state.) The use of violence and the bearing of weapons were forbidden. Christians should not take part in wars. The death penalty was contrary to Christian practice and should be abolished. Private property was unchristian: did not the New Testament speak of the first Christians holding all things in common?

This radical reading of the Bible placed further strain on the already tenuous unity of the reforming movements. Most radical writers rejected Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone, seeing it as incompatible with the New Testament's emphasis on moral regeneration.32 More significantly, radicals began to call into question traditional doctrines that Luther and Zwingli had regarded as entirely orthodox and not in need of revision. Many radicals argued that the doctrine of the Trinity was not explicitly stated in the Bible. Far from being an authentic Christian doctrine, it reflected the later speculations and elaborations of misguided theologians. Anti-trinitarianism, already evident in the late 1520s, became a hallmark of the movement in the 1550s, causing widespread concern in both Protestant and Catholic circles.33

Again, the magisterial Reformation regarded traditional understandings of the identity of Jesus Christ (an area of theology known as "Christology") as not requiring further review. The "Chalcedonian Definition" that Christ was truly human and truly divine was perfectly acceptable, representing a legitimate and proper interpretation of the Bible. The radicals disagreed. This area of theology, like every other, had to be reassessed and reviewed. A variety of alternative Christolo-gies emerged within the Radical Reformation, with writers such as Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips adopting a range of positions, none of which were entirely consistent with the traditional Christian beliefs endorsed by Luther.34 The new radical way of interpreting the Bible, in the view of mainline reformers such as Luther, led directly to heresy. But who, we must ask, was in a position to set limits to how the Bible was interpreted? Who had the right to say that this more radical approach was wrong?

Anabaptists argued that they were consistent, where Luther and Zwingli were not. The latter, they argued, had arbitrarily excluded certain areas of Christian life and thought from the scope of their review and reassessment; Anabaptists were merely being consistent in carrying this program through comprehensively and coherently.35 Lutheran terms of denigration for Anabaptists—such as the "fanatics"—seemed to reflect an assumption that there was an obvious end-point for the process of Reformation, beyond which transgression was not permit-ted.36 Anabaptists held that there were no such limits—an idea that Luther and other magisterial reformers held to be dangerous and subversive. If followed through, such a position might lead to a radical overturning of the existing social and ecclesiastical order—resulting in a revolution, not a reformation.

An element of apocalyptic enthusiasm, even frenzy, began to permeate sections of the movement. Many Anabaptists read the Book of Revelation with great anticipation, seeing in it prophecies of the overthrow of the established order and the establishment of a just society.37 Many Marxist historians of the 1970s and 1980s saw in Anabaptism the forerunners of socialism. What Marx believed would happen by a human-instigated revolution, some Anabaptists believed would take place by a divine overthrow of the corrupt world order.

It was little cause for surprise that princes and city councils regarded Anabaptism with a mixture of open contempt and hidden fear. Surely nobody would take this kind of thing seriously? But what would happen if they did and it became a mass movement capable of overturning the establishment? In Haarlem, a baker named Jan Matthys announced that he was none other than Enoch, the second witness of the Book of Revelation. The end times were coming! Such dangerous ideas were perfectly capable of initiating and sustaining a revolution.

These were particularly serious concerns in the city of Strasbourg, which was home to a particularly large community of Anabaptists. In particular, they were a cause of considerable anxiety to Martin Bucer, who realized that his own moderate vision of Protestantism could easily be radicalized by such activists. Might these radicals hijack his own more cautious reforms? In 1530 a furrier named Melchior Hoffman began to preach a millennial doctrine that predicted the imminent return of Christ and the overthrow of the city authorities. God had chosen Strasbourg as the New Jerusalem. Alarm bells began to ring throughout the city.

The event that galvanized nervous monarchs and city authorities throughout Europe took place in 1534. Jan Matthys declared that it was no longer Strasbourg that would be the site of the New Jerusalem. It was Münster.38 Excited crowds of his supporters flocked to this unsuspecting German city and took it over. Jan van Leyden took to the streets to declare that the end was nigh, creating an atmosphere of near-hysteria. Lutherans and Catholics alike panicked and rushed to leave the city, to be replaced almost as quickly by hordes of Anabaptists eager to enter the New Jerusalem. Matthys decreed that everyone remaining in the city would have to be rebaptized or face execution. All property was to be distributed equally among the population.39

The seizure sent shock waves throughout the region and proved a serious setback to the cause of reform. Protestantism, it was argued, simply led to destabilization. If anyone doubted that Protestantism was a menace to social stability, the events at Münster would persuade them of its intrinsic dangers. The bishop of Münster, anxiously watched by prelates and princes throughout western Europe, laid siege to the city. It was not until the spring of 1535 that the Anabaptist seizure of Münster was ended by force, having degenerated from idealism to farce. Jan van Leyden announced that a new world order had been revealed to him and promptly began to implement it. Money was abolished; polygamy was legalized; marriage was made compulsory for women. Those who dissented faced execution. Many breathed a sigh of relief when the occupation was ended and something approaching normality was restored. It had been a dangerous moment.

Like its mainstream counterparts, the radical movement was heterogeneous and diverse, its ideas and fortunes shaped by local figures, concerns, and resources. Quite distinct forms of Anabaptism developed in Switzerland, southern Germany, and the Low Countries.40 Yet there is no doubt that it must be considered an integral part of the reforming movements then sweeping across the cities and territories of western Europe. Anabaptists may have occupied a range of positions that some Protestants considered "extreme"; they were, however, unquestionably Protestant. The historian can only conclude that Protestantism designated a spectrum of possibilities so diverse that we must perhaps speak of "Protestantisms," each claiming to be grounded in the Bible, and the Bible alone, yet recognizing quite different authority figures, interpretative methods, and contextual constraints in their interpretation and application of that text.

By 1535 the political and theological implications of the absence of any centralized authority within Protestantism were being acutely felt. The events at Münster convinced many that the demands for reform had opened a Pandora's box of uncontrollable, unpredictable, and downright dangerous forces that threatened the stability of the region. The appeal to the Bible had once seemed so simple, so straightforward, so liberating. Now many were longing for stability and wondering whether someone might bring about the order they so earnestly desired in the midst of this theological chaos.

One possible answer began to emerge from the newly independent city of Geneva, which had declared itself a republic in 1535, not long after the end of the Münster affair. One of its reformers seemed to have answers to the questions many were pondering at this time. We now turn to the story of John Calvin and the new sense of direction and purpose he brought to many reforming movements at this time.

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