FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” says that the 16th-century Anabaptists shaped his Purpose Driven model for the church.
More than 500 students, faculty members and guests from around the world attended the “Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists” conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Warren joined prominent Anabaptist historian Abraham Friesen as a featured speaker.
Known also as the “Radical Reformers,” 16th-century Anabaptists, such as Menno Simons (the namesake of the modern Mennonite church), Pilgram Marpeck and Balthasar Hubmaier, defended the authority of Scripture, the practice of believer’s baptism and religious liberty. Modern Baptists hold these convictions in common with the Radical Reformers, who for their beliefs often faced persecution and death at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants alike.
“What was so radical about the Radical Reformers?” asked Warren, a graduate from Southwestern, during his presentation. “Today, the word ‘radical’ means ‘extreme,’ ‘over-the-top,’ ‘edgy,’ ‘out-of-bounds,’ ‘extravagant’ and maybe even ‘hip.'”
However, Warren pointed out, the word radical means “of the root,” as portrayed in most areas of life: In Botany, for example, “radical leaves” on a tree are closest to the root; in mathematics, “the radical is the root of the equation;” and in grammar, “the radical is the root with all prefixes and suffixes removed,” he said. In most areas of life, Warren said, “radical” does not mean “extreme.”
“It means ‘rooted,'” he said. “And what we need today are radical reformers who are rooted in Christ, rooted in the Word, rooted in the church and rooted in church history, because what we have today is a generation growing up that is rootless. They are fatherless, and they are rootless, so they get blown around like tumbleweed.”
Like the Radical Reformers of the 16th-century, Warren called Christians to return to the root, “to the New Testament” and to the “apostolic church.”
“For 32 years, we’ve been building Saddleback Church on the lessons I’ve learned from the Anabaptists,” Warren said, describing his own discovery of the Anabaptists and the way he has applied the Anabaptist vision to his church. The Anabaptists have impacted him especially with their emphasis upon the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
“The Anabaptists didn’t just believe in the purpose of the Great Commission,” Warren said, but also in “the exact order of the Great Commission.”
Urging churches to fulfill the Great Commission, Warren added, “The Radical Reformers will increase your zeal for evangelism and world missions. … The roots of global mission are in the Radical Reformers,” who themselves sought to follow this New Testament pattern.
Warren described how the Anabaptist vision of discipleship has shaped Saddleback Church and his own view of discipleship. According to Warren, the Anabaptists taught that discipleship is “incarnational,” making men and women like Christ Jesus; “intentional,” requiring commitment; “incremental,” moving from “‘come and see’ to ‘come and die'”; personal; habitual; relational; and seasonal.
Other speakers included Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson and associate professor of systematic theology Malcolm Yarnell, as well as Anabaptist historian Emir Caner, president of Truett McConnell College and former dean of the College at Southwestern. Current and previous doctoral students from the seminary also contributed to the conference.
Friesen, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written numerous books and articles on Anabaptist history, including his well-known book, “Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the Great Commission.” As in his book, Friesen argued at Southwestern’s Anabaptist conference that Erasmus’ writings, especially his biblical scholarship, greatly impacted the Anabaptists.
In Erasmus’ 1522 paraphrase on the Gospel of Matthew, where he discusses the Great Commission, Erasmus appears to suggest that people should hear the Gospel and receive its message in repentance and faith before being baptized — a suggestion that contradicted the common practice of infant baptism within the 16th-century church, Friesen said. Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier “transmitted the theology of Erasmus’ paraphrases” to other Anabaptists, who then used it to support their practice of baptizing only committed, adult followers of Christ Jesus, Friesen added.
In the process, the Anabaptists faced opposition from the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, among others. Although Zwingli once admitted that the early church baptized adults and that such “would be better,” he “had been faced with the fact of infant baptism,” which was customary at the time, Friesen said. Moreover, he found a solution for this predicament also in the writings of Erasmus, who had suggested that, since baptized infants cannot learn the Gospel and repent of their sins before baptism, the church should teach them once they are old enough to understand the Christian message.
Zwingli was “serving the times” — that is, accommodating his theology to the practices of the age, Friesen said. He found support for doing this in Erasmus’ 1519 translation of Romans 12:11, according to which the apostle Paul urged Christians to be fervent, “serving the times.”
“This is really a story of Erasmus against himself,” Friesen said. “Erasmus tried to have it both ways, as scholars very often do who are not involved in actual Reformation. Zwingli, Bucer and the other South German reformers followed Erasmus’ path (ultimately, in accommodating their theology to support infant baptism), but Erasmus had also done this magnificent work on the Scriptures.”
In the work on the Bible, Friesen added, Erasmus upheld the authority of Scripture, and the Anabaptists submitted themselves to the authority of the New Testament by practicing adult, believer’s baptism.
In a final presentation, Patterson revealed the purpose of a conference “focusing on Anabaptism in a Baptist Context” — namely, to “rejuvenate interest in Baptist life concerning the Radical Reformation.”
Patterson expressed his “confidence that, while Baptists owe much to the magisterial Reformation, their own ecclesiastical and theological life mirrors that of some Anabaptists far more than that of the magisterial reformers.” His concern, he said, was not to establish “neo-landmarkism or successionism” among Baptists.
“I am less concerned with the historical roots of Baptists,” he said, “than I am that contemporary Baptists discover their theological roots in the Radical Reformation and set sail for that noble destination on which many of the Radical Reformers landed.”
According to Patterson, the Anabaptists upheld five distinctive convictions, which Baptists should defend: First, they devoted themselves to the authority and reliability of Scripture. Second, they practiced regenerate church membership and church discipline. Meaningful, regenerate church membership, Patterson added, is the foundation for successful church discipline, and the latter cannot be detached from the former.
Third, the Anabaptists displayed “undaunted courage,” even amid persecution, and Southern Baptists should stir up their own courage through their example. Fourth, the Anabaptists defended the Lordship of Christ, and Baptist churches should function under His Lordship. Fifth, Anabaptists rejected the sword and the state’s tampering with the church’s theology and practice, and they defended religious liberty.
“The Anabaptists of the Reformation have much to teach contemporary Baptists,” Patterson said. “Whether a certain connection between Baptists and Anabaptists is ever established, in the end it is an interesting historical investigation, but not one of great consequence. What remains of profound consequence for contemporary Baptists is the question, ‘With whom shall we identify, and who shall we imitate?'”
Noting that “Baptists do not baptize infants or anyone else without faith,” and “treasure the concept of the Free Church and religious freedom in general,” Patterson sees a bright future “only if Baptists identify with and imitate the Anabaptists.” Patterson called “the current trend in Baptist and Southern Baptist life to identify with the Reformed faith” a “major step backward” that “must be resisted.”
“Why should Baptists identify with those who formerly persecuted and misrepresented them?” he asked. “May God bless the rebirth of Anabaptism among Southern Baptists today.”
To listen to audio from the conference, visit Southwestern Seminary’s website at swbts.edu/anabaptistaudio
Benjamin Hawkins writes for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.