EDITOR’S NOTE: This year, Baptist Press is publishing a series of stories leading up to the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.
NASHVILLE (BP) — While most Reformation commemorations this year have focused on the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, some believers also have commemorated a lesser-known wing of the Reformation that sought to reform the Reformers — the Radical Reformation.
A catchall term, the “Radical Reformation” refers to 16th-century Christians who left the Roman Catholic Church but didn’t believe the Magisterial Reformers — as Luther, Calvin and company have come to be known — went far enough in purifying the church.
Among Radical Reformers, the late church historian George Huntston Williams explained, Spiritualists de-emphasized the church and stressed the experience of the indwelling Holy Spirit while Evangelical Rationalists appealed to reason, leading many to question tenets of orthodox theology. However, a third group, the Anabaptists, regarded Scripture as authoritative and sought to return the church to the New Testament model.
Anabaptists in particular have drawn the attention of Southern Baptists amid celebrations of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. They are the focus of articles published by Southern Baptist Convention entities and Baptist state papers; discussion at conferences; plans for a Radical Reformation Day at Truett McConnell University in Georgia; a 2018 New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary tour to include Radical Reformation sites in Europe; and both a Radical Reformation Day and a European Anabaptist study tour set for 2018 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“The Reformation Anabaptists,” Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary provost Jason Duesing wrote in the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal, “show how one can hold Gospel unity with the rest of the Protestants while pushing for further reformation in local church doctrine and practice.”
The Anabaptist story
Anabaptists emerged in the 1520s, when disciples of Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland concluded, based on the New Testament, that only believers should be baptized.
Though early Anabaptists did not advocate baptism by immersion, opting instead for pouring or sprinkling, they rejected the Protestant and Catholic doctrines of infant baptism. That conviction led Anabaptists to the related idea that a church was a covenant fellowship of believers rather than a body of all those in a town who had been baptized as infants.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Michael Haykin led a breakout session on Anabaptists at The Gospel Coalition National Conference in April and highlighted several additional Anabaptist emphases:
— Church discipline.
— The Lord’s Supper as a “feast of remembrance” for baptized believers only.
— Separation from the world, including pacifism and a prohibition of Christians serving as government officials. Anabaptists rejected the common claim among Magisterial Reformers that there should be a connection between church and state.
— A ban on taking oaths.
For their convictions, especially regarding believer’s baptism, thousands of Anabaptists were martyred at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants, said Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern.
An issue scholars long have debated — and which they continued to discuss this year — is the extent to which Anabaptists influenced the beginning of the Baptist movement in the early 17th century.
Among contemporary historians, some believe Baptists arose entirely from English Puritans and Separatists while others believe Baptists arose from English Puritans and Separatists with some influence from Anabaptists.
In previous generations, scholars like Southwestern’s William Estep claimed Baptists were direct descendants of Anabaptists, but Haykin and Southwestern systematic theology professor Malcolm Yarnell told Baptist Press that contemporary Baptist historians tend not to hold that view.
Haykin said at The Gospel Coalition conference that “an explanation for the emergence of Baptist convictions from the English context of the Puritan-Separatist movement is readily available” and “the onus of proof lies upon those who argue” Anabaptists played “a decisive role in the emergence of Baptists,” according to a manuscript of his presentation.
Duesing, associate professor of historical theology at Midwestern, wrote in the TEXAN that Baptists should not “expend effort to build or rebuild a case for some kind of historical connectedness from 21st-century Nashville to 16th-century Zurich.
“Rather, contemporary Baptists, and truly all free-church evangelicals, share an indebtedness to the Anabaptists for the ecclesiological principles they pioneered and founded on New Testament truth. Herein lies the basis of a connection to them,” Duesing wrote.
‘Made for our time’
Though all Anabaptists were not equally orthodox in their theology, those members of the movement labeled “evangelical Anabaptists” by Williams have been cited as holding particular contemporary relevance.
In September, Truett McConnell professor Michael Whitlock cited Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier to take issue with a popular pastor’s claim preachers should not “leverage” the Bible’s authority in their sermons unless their audience already believes Scripture to be the Word of God.
Hubmaier claimed the Holy Spirit always works through the preached Word of God, granting all hearers the power and free will to believe, Whitlock wrote in a paper presented at the Believers’ Church Conference in Goshen, Ind.
“Consequently, to look for other ‘leverages’ of authority might be to abandon the only power available for people to believe,” Whitlock wrote, adding, “Whether one believes the Bible to be the Word of God or not does not diminish its power as such.”
Likewise drawing from the Radical Reformation, Southern California pastor Rick Warren wrote in “The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists,” edited by Yarnell, “Anabaptists shaped my ministry in a profound way.” Lessons from the Anabaptists, Warren stated, appear throughout his bestselling book “The Purpose Driven Church.”
For Midwestern professor Owen Strachan, Anabaptists’ view of church and state “deserves careful consideration” alongside other political theologies of the Reformation.
“The doctrines of a free church and religious liberty for all were much pilloried when first promoted but now seem, in the eyes of many, inestimable contributions to Christian political thought,” Strachan wrote in an article published by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“… Today, we hear Anabaptists urging us, ‘Do not fall prey to political delusions — even as the public square crumbles, remember the Great Commission,'” wrote Strachan, associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern.
For their theological clarity, political theology and courage amid persecution, Anabaptists, as Duesing put it, were “ahead of their time” and “made for our time.”