by Terry M. Smith
The Protestant Reformers and the Radical Reformation sought to reform the sixteenth-century Christian Church in Europe and then, when it could not be changed to their satisfaction, to re-establish the Church by a return to first century truths.
Dr. Harold S. Bender defined The Anabaptist Vision as discipleship, community, and the way of peace, but he knew more than this was believed. He said that Mennonites “stood on a platform of conservative evangelicalism in theology, being thoroughly orthodox in the great fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith….”
Before we discuss Anabaptist distinctives, let’s consider our common Protestant Reformation heritage. Here are some key figures and their teachings.
Peter Waldo (ca. 1140-1205) in France spoke against transubstantiation and purgatory. He promoted simplicity, poverty, universal priesthood, lay preaching, and preaching in the common tongue. He oversaw the translation of the New Testament into Arpitan.
John Wycliffe (ca. 1328-1384) in England spoke against wealth of the church and papal interference in political life. The Scriptures are the only law of the Church. The Church is centred in people, not in the Pope and cardinals. Scripture is to be in people’s common language. He translated the New Testament into English.
John Huss (ca. 1373-1415) of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) said the true head of Church is Christ, not the Pope. Our law is the New Testament. Life is to be Christ-like poverty. The Pope has no right to use physical force. Money payments gain no true forgiveness. The cup is to be administered to the laity.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) of Germany said salvation is a free gift based on the God’s grace received by faith and from this obedience flows. Our final appeal is the Scriptures. All believers are priests. Marriage of clergy is permitted. The Lord’s Supper is no sacrifice to God. Pilgrimages are worthless as human efforts of merit. He translated the Bible into German.
Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Switzerland said that the Scriptures are the sole authority of faith and practice. The death of Christ is the only price of forgiveness. Only the Bible is binding on Christians. Salvation is by faith. The mass is not a sacrifice. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial, not a sacrament. Christ is the sole head of Church.
John Calvin (1509-1564) of France and Switzerland said the mass empties the death of Christ of its virtue. The traffic in masses must stop. There should be no worship of images. Indulgences are disloyal to the cross of Christ. All obedience is to be tested against the Word. The Protestant Church is a renewal of the ancient Church.
The Five Onlys
Summarized, we have the Five Onlys (Solas):
Scripture Only! (Sola Scriptura!)
Faith Only! (Sola Fide!)
Grace Only! (Sola Gratia!)
Christ Only! (Sola Christus!)
God’s Glory Only! (Sola Deo Gloria!)
The Radical Reformation
On Jan. 17, 1525, the Protestant reform in Zurich was slowed by Zwingli’s bowing to the pace of the city-state’s council. The council ordered that children were to be brought forward to be baptized or their parents would be banished from the city-state. In rejection of this decree, on Jan. 21, 1525, the first believer baptisms took place at the home of Felix Manz.
In addition to many of the above views, the early Anabaptists held key beliefs. While they might not appear unique today, some were at the time.
Believer Baptism – Baptism is upon a person’s confession of faith. It’s an act of visible commitment, of community, of open identification with Christ and his Church.
Believers Church Membership – The Church is composed of converts. The Church is a voluntary, visible community. Some Reformers, being uncertain of who were true believers, spoke of the invisible Church. Anabaptists emphasized the visible Church, the need to live our faith together with other believers.
Discipleship – Genuine faith in Christ follows. Discipleship is a sign of being a Christian, of salvation. Faith in Christ is to be an active faith. Discipleship is faith in action.
Covenant Community — The Church is to display koinonia,”that which is held in common.” It is a shared life. Discipleship is to be lived together. This is Christ’s intention in recreating humanity together.
Christ, the Centre of Scripture – The Bible is to be interpreted and applied through the coming and teaching of Christ, its centre. For instance, the wars in the Old Testament are to be interpreted through Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
Priesthood of all Believers – There is one mediator between God and man, Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Gone are the intercessions of Mary and of saints, the mediating powers of the priest and Pope. Access to Christ is direct, without human intercession (Heb. 4:14-16). There’s a rediscovery of the laity, the people of God, who have a common task and dignity.
Separation of Church and State – The Church is not to use the state to enforce beliefs and to limit reform. The state is not to dictate to the Church what it can believe and practice.
Religious Toleration – People with wrong beliefs are not to be killed, but allowed to live. Anabaptists were not the only early voice for religious freedom (toleration), but they were a major one.
Non-violence – The Church is to challenge an uncritical view of the state and its use of force. Most early Anabaptists objected to a Christian being a soldier, a police officer, to personal defense, to war, to being a judge or an executioner. They held that Christians are to flee, persuade, or die, but not to fight.
Non-swearing of Oaths – Loyalty is to be given ultimately to Christ. They rejected swearing an oath of obedience to the state, which upset the authorities. In a narrower sense, Christ forbids the swearing of oaths (Matt. 5:33-37; James 5:12), while calling Christians to truth telling in court and elsewhere. This is called integrity of speech.
Separation from the World – In the 16th century, non-conformity was based on an understanding of Christ and what it meant to follow him. It wasn’t decided by ethnic culture, language, dress (other than modesty), or food. It was reflected in beliefs, values, and actions.
Church Discipline – Discipline is a part of discipleship and of the shared life. Opposed to deadly forms of discipline, Anabaptists were devoted to discipline within regular congregational life. They influenced magisterial Protestant Reformers (the ones supported by the state) in this.
Great Commission – Evangelism and missions remain a task for the current generation. They emphasized this more than most Protestant Reformers. When Anabaptist leaders gathered in Augsburg in 1527, they divided Europe into fields for evangelism. Hutterian missioners went out in pairs; many were killed for their efforts.
Anything in Common?
Dr. Alfred Neufeld, a leader within the Mennonite World Conference, asks, “After 500 years it is time for us to ask the challenging question: Do we still have anything in common with the founding mothers and fathers of the Anabaptist church? Should we? Can we?”
For what is the Anabaptist-Mennonite Church known in Canada? Being a Christian is to be
shown in action, not a claim apart from how we live. If a Scripture-centred focus in life is learned from 16th-century Anabaptists-Mennonites, our response is revealed by what we do.
Terry M. Smith is executive secretary to the Board of Church Ministries. The Messenger will explore, as a BCM project, the Protestant (Radical) Reformation through 2017. The project coincides with the start of Review 2027, Mennonite World Conference’s decade-long study of the Radical Reformation, which is indebted to the wider Reformation.
Bainton, R. H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Mentor, 1950.
Dyck, C. J., ed. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Herald Press, third ed., 1993.
Fosdick, H. E. Great Voices of the Reformation: an Anthology. Random House, 1952.
Hillerbrand, H. J., ed. The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Baker, reprinted 1987.
Loewen, H. and S. M. Nolt. Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History. Herald Press, rev. 2010.
Mennonite World Conference. Shared Convictions (MWC, 2006). Note: This statement was later adopted by MCC.
[Sattler, Michael.] The Schleitheim Confession. Herald Press, 1977.
Verduin, L. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. Eerdmans, 1964.