Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Origins of the Baptists, Pt.1: The Anabaptists

"The great reformers - Luther, Zwingli, Calvin - had tremendous regard for the living tradition of the historic church. They moved cautiously for they had no urge to unchurch themselves. They hesitated to abandon the principle of the territorial church - parish or national. As they saw it, the existing church was indeed the true church, but it had fallen on evil days and into unworthy hands. Therefore, they sought to bring about a spiritual renewal from within. The Anabaptists, however, set out to discard the territorial church pattern with the gospel. Their objective was not to introduce something new but to restore something old. “Restitution” was their slogan, a restitution of the early church. From the Anabaptist point of view, the difference between the Reformers and themselves was the difference between reform and restitution.” – Earl D. Radmacher, The Nature of the Church (Western Baptist Press, 1972), p.55.

“The important point to emphasize is that the real issue here was not the act of baptism, but rather a bitter and irreducible struggle between two mutually exclusive concepts of the church. Zwingli was finally committed to the state church; and the continuance of the parish system and cantonal denominational division was implied. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, were out to restore apostolic Christianity. Baptism became important because it was the most obvious dividing line between the two systems, and because it afforded the authorities an excuse for suppressing the radicals by force.” – Franklin H. Littell, The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (Macmillan, 1964), p.14.

Several Comments:

1 – The first author is a Baptist, and sympathetic with the so-called Free Church Movement, of which the Anabaptists were Reformation-era representatives. The second author was a Methodist.

2 – In most of Europe, during this era, society was “Christian.” The Church and the state had a far different relationship than what we can imagine today. Therefore, the state wielded the sword for the Church, and the Church legitimized the state. Everyone was considered a “Christian.”

2 – The magisterial Reformation, of which the “great reformers” were part and parcel of, was concerned with the reformation of the existing church. This has several implications:

a) They saw some continuity between the Church they were a part of and that which the Apostles had laid the foundation of.

b) Several aspects of the existing Church were either approved of or temporarily approved of – paedo-baptism being an example of the former, and church organization, esp. relative to secular government, being an example of the latter.

3 – The Anabaptists, not being concerned with fixing (as they saw it) the Church, were:

a) partaking of the recurrent mythology of the New Testament Church,[1]

b) radical (in that they wanted to scratch the existing Church, and start all over again),

c) basing their ecclesiology on who was “saved” (ie: only professing adult members made up the true church and must be baptized as their proof/profession of faith).

4 – Today, and indeed throughout history, the struggle to define the elect (professing, adult, baptized: Donatists, Anabaptists, etc., in this case) and return to a primitive Christianity has shaped the structure and make-up of the Church, and contributed to the proliferation of churches and denominations.

At this early stage of the Reformation (1523-25 with Grebel,, the Anabaptist was still a sect defining itself among many other sects which were also appearing. The uproar in Europe, precipitated by Luther and dependant on the new media of printing, was only exacerbated by the arrival of what is termed the Radical Reformation. It has proven useful to study the radicals as made up of three streams:

“This threefold scheme of Anabaptist, Spiritualist, and Rationalist, is now widely adopted by historians …” – Nick R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Grace Publications, 2004), p.254.

God willing, we will try to examine these three arms of the Radical Reformation in the near future.

[1] More on this myth later, DV.

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