Courtesy of BaptistHistoryHomepage.com

Baptist History Notebook
By Berlin Hisel

Chapter 24
ANABAPTISTS AND THE REFORMATION

[p. 201]
      Let us first remark that the Baptists rejected the name "Anabaptist." It was their contention that they never practiced anabaptism. They argued that they simply baptized and never made any attempts to rebaptize. They practiced baptism while rejecting infant baptism. They preferred the name "Catabaptist" (a submersion, an immersion). Gieseler writes in a footnote: "They naturally disowned the name of Anabaptists, � as they declared infant-baptism invalid, they rather called theirs Catabaptism."1 Therefore in writing of the Anabaptists and the Reformation the reader will understand the former term.

      The "Anabaptists" did not originate with the Reformation. They had had a continued existence from Christ and His apostles and were never a part of Roman Catholicism. When the Reformers came on the scene, they undertook a work God never called them to do. How does one reform Antichrist? It cannot be done! The Reformers overlooked the prophetic declarations of the Scripture concerning the fate of mystic Babylon. "And he cried mightily with a strong voice saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird" (Revelation 18:2). "Rejoice over her thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her. And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall the great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all" (Revelation 18: 20-21). The doom of Roman Catholicism is as sure as the prophecies of God.

     The Church of Rome, as an organization has never been, is not now, and never shall be a church of Christ. She did not originate with the church of Jesus Christ. She is of an entirely different parentage.

     This is not to say that there are not some saved people in Catholicism. No doubt there are some. But God's call to them is not to reform her but to come out of her. �And


[p. 202]
I heard another voice from heaven, saying, come out of her, My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues� (Revelation 18:4).

God's Overruling Providence

     In spite of the wrong undertakings of the Reformers, God overruled to use it for his own glory. In some ways it was a blessing to the Anabaptists (Baptists). In some ways it was not.

     Try to imagine yourself living in those days. Like your ancestors, you must hide to worship God. The Roman Catholic Church with her inquisitors would be searching for you every day. Discovery would expose you to mock trial by those appointed by the Devil's first-born son, the Pope. Condemned for heresy, you would be turned over to the secular power to be drowned in rivers, burnt at the stake and that usually after much torture. All this, you know, had been going on for centuries.

     Then you begin to hear about Martin Luther. His is speaking out against the Romish Whore. He is being protected by the German princes. He is translating the Bible into the language of the people. He believes in immersion. He is befriending the Anabaptists. (All this was true at first though he later changes his mind). He talks about freedom of conscience. Would not your heart be stirred to excitement? Yes! The Anabaptists were, at first, thrilled by the Reformation. In enabled them to come out of hiding and worship in the open (see our chapter on the Anabaptists). So much good came from the Reformers.

The Good Doesn't Last

     As the Reformation proceeded there came a great falling-out between the Baptists and the Reformers. Here I quote from Leonard Verduin: "Before the Reformation was ten years along it had become evident that not all who were rebelling against the medieval order were of one mind and heart. It had become apparent that within the camp of the dissenters there were deep-seated differences, tensions of such


[p. 203]
dimensions that a parting of the ways was in the making. It had become plain that the Reformers would as a result be obliged to deploy some of their forces to a second front; they would have to divide their energies between two opponents, Rome and the Radicals."2

     By Radicals, he means the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists supported the Reformation as long as it followed the Scriptures. When it became apparent that none of the Reformers were going far enough and were unwilling to stand completely with the Scriptures, the Anabaptists withdrew pointing out the inconsistencies of the Reformers. This meant the Reformers must take on the Anabaptists. This they did, persecuting them wherever and whenever they had the power.

An Illustration

     At this point let us look at one point in which the Reformers fell short and the Anabaptists spoke out on. Later we will look at several more points of doctrine. Here I will be quoting from The Reformers and Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin. It is the most helpful book I've read or ever heard of on this time period.

     "Let us take, for example, that very central doctrine of the Reformation, the doctrine of justification by faith and its bearing on the place of good works in the scheme of salvation. In his haste to establish the doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works, Luther down-graded good works; the only place he had left for good works was at the very end, as a sort of postscript or appendage, something that needed attention after salvation was an accomplished fact. We meet in Luther, to put it theologically, a very heavy emphasis on the forensic aspect of salvation and a correspondingly light emphasis on the moral aspect. Luther was primarily interested in pardon, rather than in renewal. His theology was a theology that addresses itself to the problem of guilt, rather than to the problem of pollution. There is an imbalance that caused Luther to collide with the Epistle of James.

     The people of the Second Front showed from the very first a critical attitude toward Luther's disparagement of good works. They did not go along with his one-sided


[p. 204]
forensic theology. They complained that "Luther throws works without faith so far to one side that all he had left is a faith without works." They suggested that Luther's sola fide was heresy � if taken, as it was taken by some, to mean faith unaccompanied. In this matter, which takes us to the very heart of the Lutheran vision, the men of the Second Front stood to the right of Luther, so much so that their enemies accused them of being "heaven-stormers" and "work-saints," people who think to earn salvation by their good works."3

The Anabaptist Doctrine Very Old

     The names by which the Reformers called the Anabaptists reveal that their origin was very old. Another quote from Verduin (he calls the Anabaptists Stepchildren):

     "The Stepchildren wanted to be known as 'evangelicals,' as 'brethren,' or simply as 'Christians' or 'believers.' On their part they called the Reformers 'Scribes' or 'the learned ones'; those who followed these were called 'name-Christians' or 'heathen.'

     "Not one of the ugly names used by contemporaries to designate the Stepchildren was new; not one of them was coined in the sixteenth century. All were old terms of opprobrium, most of them very old. Nor were the ideas that are characteristic of the Stepchildren's vision new; these too were old, very old. Not one of them was invented in Reformation times. When we examine the thinking of the Stepchildren in its several items, whether it be rejection of the "christening" or the refusal to swear an oath, or certain convictions in the matter of economics, or an apparent toning down of the sacrament, etc., we find that it was not in any sense new when the Second Front rallied to it. This explains why no new names were invented. Men have need of new names only if and when they encounter new commodities; there were no new commodities; hence there was no need for the coming of any new names.

     "It must also be pointed out in this connection that the record does not credit the vision that prevailed at the Second Front to any person alive in those times. Who it was that


[p. 205]
broached the idea, so central in the vision of the Stepchildren, that the Church of Christ must consist of believing people and of them exclusively, the sources say not a word. Nor do the sources say who it may have been that first challenged the propriety of "christening." The same situation confronts us when we examine the rest of the vision of the Stepchildren. This is passing strange, if it is assumed, as has become the vogue, that the Stepchildren were simply the fruitage of the Reformation. Imagine the story of the rise of Communism without the mention of its Karl Marx!

     "How is all this to be explained? The answer can be quite simple. We do not read of any new commodities or new names, or of any father of it all, for the simple reason that what erupted at the Second Front was a resurgence, a reiteration, a restatement, precipitated in a way by what began with the posting of the now famous Theses, but essentially older than 1517. What erupted at the Second Front was a resurgence of those tendencies and opinions that had for centuries already existed over against the medieval order; it was connected with ancient circles in which, in spite of the persecutions, a body of ancient opinions and convictions was still alive. It was not a thing arising without deeper root out of the events that began in 1517. To ignore this fact is to fall into error, an error the more serious since even the experts have strayed into it."4

     It is amazing to me how Verduin, a scholar in the Reformed Church, sees truth so clearly and remains where he is. His grasp of the Anabaptists of the Reformation is head and shoulders above the rest of the historians. Just as the doctrines of these Anabaptists had no originator for them during the Reformation, so their churches had no modern originator. Both their church and their doctrines go back to Christ and His apostles.

Church Truth

     We have seen that our ancestors believed in a pure church. They practiced church discipline. This truth caused division early as seen in the Montanists, Novatians and Donatists. To them, the church was composed of saved,


[p. 206]
baptized and holy people. When Constantine wed the government to the false churches, he re-organized the government. The church (false church) was to have included in it all the citizens of the Empire. Infant baptism helped to accomplish this. They thought the church and the society was the same thing. Our Baptist ancestors said the church was but an organization within the society for the betterment of society.

     The Reformers made the same mistake as the Catholics. They, too, thought of the church and society as the same thing. Luther wanted both � a church based on personal faith and a regional church composed of everyone in a given locality. These two views can never be combined. Those who restrict the church to believers will conflict with those who view the church as embracing everyone in a certain locality. Luther started out trying to combine the two but later had to give up the former and accept the latter. This brought him and the other Reformers into conflict with the Anabaptists. They left him. He persecuted them.

     Luther and the other Reformers spent much of their time trying to prove or justify such an exclusive church. Thus, they were in the same boat with the Catholics. They were just using different oars. Since they couldn�t prove the inclusive church position but would not abandon it, they mounted hatred for the Anabaptists who left them. Persecution, just as bitter as that of Rome, was practiced by them on the Anabaptists.

Conclusion

     The Reformers were not reformed enough. They were unwilling to be radical enough. They swung away from Rome but not far enough. They were courageous but lacked courage. We will continue to deal with this subject in the next chapter. Let me close this one with Leonard Verdiun's observation:

     "We have spoken of an exodus. That word is warranted. The people of the Second Front had indeed been at one time a part of the flock that had rallied to the cause of the Reform; in this sense the Stepchildren were the children of 1517. But they abandoned the Reformers because of an earlier


[p. 207]
conditioning; in this respect they were not the children of 1517. The Second Front resulted from an exodus of people who had come to the Reformation already conditioned, and this conditioning made it predictable that they would not feel at home there permanently and would, for that reason, depart again.

     "That this is what happened, we have from the mouth of Luther himself. He wrote: 'In our times the doctrine of the Gospel, reestablished and cleansed, has drawn to it and gained many who in earlier times had been suppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, the Pope; however there have forthwith gone out from us Wiedertaufer, Sacramentschearmer und andere Rottengeister� for they were not of us even though for a while they walked with us.'

     "In this word from the hand of Luther we read the following three things: (1) that people who in earlier times had been suppressed by papal tyranny had joined his movement (they were therefore already estranged from the medieval order); (2) that these did not stay with him, seeing that they were really not homogeneous with him and his ideas; (3) that they thereupon came to be known as Wiedertaufer, etc. The present volume is in a large way an exegesis of this terse statement made by Luther. The uncomplimentary names he used are nothing but synonyms for 'Stepchildren of the Reformation.'

     "Now that we have stated the nature of the Reformers� dilemma, we may well ask how they happen to be torn between these two alternatives, these two irreducible views concerning the delineation of the Church? Why was it so painfully difficult to choose between these two possibilities? Whence came this problem that drained away a sizable part of the Reformers' following?

     "The dilemma resulted from the fact that the Reformers were torn between two loyalties. On the one hand was a loyalty to the New Testament Scriptures, which know no Church other than the believer's Church, a Church based on personal faith. On the other hand was a loyalty to what the Dutch call "het historisch gewordene" (that which has come about with the passing of time), in which the Church was construed so as to include all in a given locality. Only by


[p. 208]
repudiating history, twelve whole centuries of it, could one escape from the dilemma � unless he were prepared to repudiate the New Testament. This latter escape neither the Reformers nor the Stepchildren were willing to use. So there was the other escape, the repudiation of het historisch gewordene. To reject it was a radical step, too radical except for radicals, who took this way out and so came to stand alone, as Stepchildren.

     "As we have already said, in the dealings with the Stepchildren a great many terms of reproach were bandied about. Although these names were used in spite, they do, each in its turn, put in focus a phase of the master struggle, the struggle regarding the delineation of the Church. Each of these smear-words points up an aspect of the battle that raged at the Second Front. We shall in this study pick up some of the most commonly used terms of reproach, examine them somewhat carefully, one in each chapter. Together these studies will sketch, so it is hoped, the essential outlines of the battle of the Second Front.

     "Before we delve into our subjects we wish to point out that this neither was nor is a mere academic matter. The Stepchildren were not speculative theologians, eager to win an argument; they were deeply religious men, and the matter had a definitely existential dimension for them. We shall discover that for us also the matter is far from a mere monk's quarrel."5

Notes on Chapter 24

1 A Compendium of Ecclesiastical History, Volume 5, pages 355-356.
2 The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, page 11.
3 The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, page 12.
4 The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, pages 13-14.
5 The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, page 18-20.



Chapter 25
Baptist History Notebook
Baptist Because Home