The last time someone asked me to explain to them what anabaptism was, I told them the story of Dirk Willems. I've told it here before and I'll tell it hear again. And you actually see the story each time you visit this site. But, this time I'll try and give the sort of answer that I think people really want. So, this is part-medly (i.e. cut and paste!) and part-summary of some of the stuff that appears on the home page.
We all know that story of Luther nailing 95 rants onto the door in Wittenburg. Many people see that as the beginning of one of the greatest moves of God (the Reformation) that the world has ever known. Luther is credited with restoring the doctrine of justification by faith (and thus the true gospel) to the heart of Christian belief and rescuing the Church from the evil grasp of Papal Catholicism. And Calvin did some stuff (like, write, a lot) too.
But that's not how everyone sees it.
Alongside the major reform movements, both Catholic and Protestant, existed a variety of more radical groups. These groups had differing outlooks and agendas, whether mystical, apocalyptic, theological, political or just plain criminal. Many of them were dubbed 'anabaptist' (meaning 're-baptisers) by their opponents, whatever their specific beliefs or programme. Because of this, mainstream church historians in the past - and to this very day - often dismissed Anabaptism as the lunatic fringe of the Reformation. But early Anabaptism was a complex and disparate phenomenon, and it is simplistic to tar all groups with the same extremist brush.
Anabaptism arose as a protest at the slow pace and caution of the Zwinglian Reformation in Zurich in the early 1520s. The Anabaptists felt that the Reformers had not gone far enough or fast enough. Principal amongst their complaints were the way that the Reformed churches were still so tied to the state that it was difficult to see where one ended and the other began.
Anabaptists have been described as "step-children of the Reformers", but they actually continued a line of protest that had existed at the margins of the Church since Constantine converted to Christianity - and the Church converted to Constantiniamism - in 312 AD. There was thus resonance with earlier movements, such as the Unitas Fratrum, Waldensians and Lollards. Anabaptists believed the official church was "fallen" beyond mere reform. They urged separation of church and society and rejected the Christendom system, in which church and state were entwined, that had dominated European culture since the fourth century.
Historians identify four main Anabaptist branches – the Swiss Brethren, the South German/Austrian Anabaptists, Dutch Mennonites and the communitarian Hutterites – but these branches comprised numerous groups which gathered around particular leaders and developed distinctive practices and emphases. Anabaptism was thus a diverse and fluid movement that developed towards general uniformity of belief and practice by mid-century.
This tradition, for all its early and long term diversity, has nurtured a distinctive vision of Christian life that differs in certain crucial respects from that sustained by the major ecclesiastical traditions.
Jesus at the Centre!
A thorough-going Christo-centrism is the indisputible tenant of anabaptism. To be a Christian means, not to cling to Paul's "gospel" (or Luther's reading of Paul) - which invaribly seems to set him in opposition to both James and Jesus - but to live in conformity to the way of life taught and demonstrated by Jesus in the gospels.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons for anabaptism's increasing popularity nowadays. In a post-denominational (even anti-denominational) environment it can be appealing to see a movement that is not characterised by a particular system of doctrine or statement of faith, but by allegiance to Christ. Of course, this simplifies things fairly drastically!
In Anabaptism christocentrism also plays a crucial role in deciding how the scriptures are to be applied today. This approach to interpretation has a twofold application. On the one hand, whatever in scripture agrees with Jesus' teaching and example may be accepted as God's word for today. Whatever contradicts the teaching of Jesus - such as war and killing - is no longer God's word for the new covenant community.
On the other hand, in order to understand what is written about Christ in scripture and what is consistent with his teaching and spirit, one must first walk with Christ on the path of costly obedience. Hans Denk, an early Anabaptist leader, famously stated, "No one can claim truly to know Christ unless one follows him in life". Only those who obey Jesus' call to discipleship can know the truth of scripture.
For the Anabaptists, the heart of Christian life was not justification by faith or divine election or the inward work of grace - though they did not deny such ideas - but rather the concept of 'following Jesus'. As Karsdorf explains, "No other Christian movement between the apostolic era and the modern mission period has articulated and demonstrated more clearly the meaning of discipling than have the Anabaptists. While mainline Reformers rediscovered the great Pauline term 'Glaube' (faith), the Radical Reformers rediscovered the evangelists' word 'Nachfolge' (discipleship). People cannot, they maintained, call Jesus Lord unless they are his disciples indeed, prepared to follow him in every way. This was the message they preached, the code they lived by, and the faith they died for".
This is, I suspect, another major reason for anabaptism's current trendiness. People are disatisfied, rightly so, with a gospel that amounts to "Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sins. So, if you just say this prayer you'll go to heaven when you die." This is not a gospel that naturally leads to the growth of communites of disciples.
By the 1560s, a principled rejection of violence had become the dominant ethos of the movement. It was considered one of the primary ways believers could imitate Christ. A corollary of this was a refusal by many Anabaptists to swear oaths, since this not only violated Jesus' command against oath-taking and devalued truth but also entailed acceptance of the principle of state coercion.
This resolute Anabaptist commitment to biblical non-violence, in a day when both Catholic and Protestant churches not only endorsed war as an instrument of state policy but even employed it themselves as a method of religious aggrandisement, provoked violent repression of the movement. Anabaptists were frequently killed by the authorities for their refusal to kill others.
The Anabaptist vision conceives of the church as a voluntarilly gathered community of genuine believers, living under the authority of Christ. The local congregation was regarded as the proper context for biblical interpretation. This represented an innovation in the history of hermeneutics. Roman Catholicism stressed the hermeneutical privilege of "the Magisterium" or church hierarchy. Mainstream Protestantism gave emphasis to the role of the orthodox theologian, the scholar-teacher. Modern evangelicalism generally lays this burden upon the individual Christian in his study. Anabaptism invests interpretive authority with the gathered community, under the leading of the Spirit.
Though they are sometimes seen by many as anti-Church (and I guess statements like "the Church is fallen" don't help!) anabaptists actually hold the Church in higher regard than many of us in the West are used to. They have developed communitarian approaches to prayer (with individual "me-and-Jesus" prayer-times being a rare thing), scripture, worship and most of life.
When it came to the Bible, Anabaptists started from Jesus and interpreted everything in the light of him - unlike the Reformers whom Anabaptists suspected of starting from doctrinal passages and trying to fit Jesus into these. Anabaptists refused to treat the Bible as a "flat" book, regarding it as an unfolding of God's purposes, with the New Testament providing normative guidelines for ethics and church life. They challenged the Reformers' use of Old Testament models and disagreed with them about such issues as baptism, war, tithing, church government and swearing oaths. In debates, Anabaptists complained that the Reformers used Old Testament passages illegitimately to set aside clear New Testament teaching.
They often rejected the clericalism of both Catholic and Reformed churches and encouraged all believers to share their understanding of the scriptures. Although greater formalism gradually developed, early gatherings were sometimes charismatic and unstructured, concentrating on multi-voiced Bible study. Some churches encouraged women to participate much more actively than was normal in contemporary church or society. They met wherever they could - in homes, woods, fields, caves, even in boats!
Harold Bender's The Anabaptist Vision gives a helpful, though not perfect or universally accepted - picture of the heart of anabaptism. I also think that it demonstrates the attraction of anabaptism to many people today. In essence, once the focus on Jesus has been fully appreciated, all the rest of it - seperation of Church and State, not taking oaths, non-violence, communitarian hermeneutics, radical economics and so on - simply falls into place.
Not every Anabaptist or Mennonite community, past or present, has understood or embodied the Anabaptist vision in the same way. Like all Christian traditions and denominations, there is diversity, as well as compromise, failure and atrophy within the Anabaptist fold. And there are countless individuals, congregations and communities outside the Anabaptist tradition that are better advertisements for the Anabaptist vision than are many of their Mennonite counterparts. We are, after all, still human!
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