Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Anabaptists, Baptists and the Reformation

This being a meager little blog, I run the risk of oversimplification when I bite off such big topics. No, scratch that. What I am doing on this Composite Society theme is gross oversimplification. Why don’t I recommend a book? Here’s one. If fact, if what I’m told is true, this book is unique. If anyone else has a source that explains this Unitary Sacral Society / Composite Society issue other than Verduin’s book, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, I’d love to hear about it. You won’t find Verduin’s book new in bookshops – online or otherwise. That’s why I linked you to www.abebooks.com. Anatomy is a fascinating read, even if you don’t agree with all of its conclusions (I don’t).

From the time of Constantine, there have been dissenters that decried the corruption that magisterial power inevitably brought to the church. These dissenters were all over the map theologically. However, when the non-conformists were complaining about the USS relationship between the church and the state, they were barking up the right tree.

History has not been kind to these dissenters. If, when you don’t conform, the government burns you and all your records, it’s hard to make a big splash, legacy-wise. God had his purposes in these dark times, and God’s Word and Christ’s Church have survived.

Fast-forward to the 16th Century. Here we meet the Anabaptists – reviled by the Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities alike. These peaceful dissenters were the predecessors of the Mennonites, the Amish and the Hutterites today. To give you an idea of what these people were up against, consider this: Of eight leaders who met to discuss the movement in 1523, not one was alive by the end of 1528.

Even today, if you hear a Lutheran or Reformed theologian talking about Anabaptists, you’ll likely hear scorn and contempt (there are, thankfully, exceptions). Extreme representatives of the movement, like Thomas M√ľntzer, gave their opponents the opportunity to tar all Anabaptists with the same brush and dismiss them (or worse). If you want to know more about Anabaptist beliefs, check out the Schleitheim Confession of 1527.

I was born into a Mennonite home. I’m a Reformed Baptist now, and I don’t agree with Anabaptist positions on pacifism and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Like many reactionary movements, they reacted too far in the direction of individualism and away from a catholic (small ‘c,’ as in universal) view of the church. I would argue, with the Anabaptists, however, that the 16th Century Reformation didn’t reform far enough in terms of redefining the church/state relationship in biblical terms. I will concede, gladly, that Providential Timing is everything, however!

What was it about the Anabaptists that incited such hatred from the religious/civil authorities? If you take a quick look at the history, you might say ‘believers’ baptism.” Yes, Anabaptists incurred the wrath of the authorities because they would not baptize their infants (that’s where they picked up their name – a term of derision that means “non-baptizers”). Infant baptism was a mark of civil identification as it was church identification. However, the issue was deeper than the mark of baptism. Anabaptists were hated because they believed that a church could be made up of truly regenerate members. They thought that a church was defined by something much narrower than the ‘parish’ concept allowed. Again, there is a spectrum on this point – even Calvin taught that one of the marks of a true church was discipline. Anabaptists usually applied this discipline quite rigidly, however.

The Anabaptists, then, had the audacity to say that church members must be demonstrably different than the world around them. Remember, the world around them at the time was virtually all ‘church.’ They were pronouncing their judgment upon the mainline church by their separate life and morality. This attempted separation between the ‘worldly’ and the ‘spiritual’ was highly offensive to the leaders of the day and to most of the general population.

What about the Baptists? I have about two more paragraphs before this post becomes too long. There are many varieties of Baptists, but one of the distinguishing marks of Baptists – historically – is this very idea of a regenerate, disciplined church membership. In highly culturally diluted areas – where almost everyone is a ‘good Baptist’ – this distinctive must be recovered. The right understanding of ‘church’ can only be recovered by a return to a biblical understanding of the church-creating Gospel. I don’t think I would be going too far to say that this need for reformation is why both Founders Ministries and Nine Marks Ministries were developed.

I’m itching to draw some conclusions regarding this topic of the relationship between Christianity and civil societies, but I have two more background topics to put on the table first: The effect of the Enlightenment and the influence of Islam. Please stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.'
Clarence Darrow

John K said...

Interesting how even agnostics can be certain about the ignorance of those with whom they disagree.