Category Archives: Reformation Reflections

Terry Smith: The Reformation: Over or to Continue?

by Terry M. Smith
In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Would Martin Luther have signed the statement?

An Anglican professor of mine thought so. Yet it’s said that “more than 45 percent of Lutheran church-bodies in the world did not support the declaration” (LCMS News, Dec. 8, 1999). I suspect Martin Luther would not sign it.

Is the need for the Protestant (Radical) Reformation over? The Roman Catholic Church is a diverse body and changes have happened since Vatican II and, now, with Francis I. What now?

Much can, for instance, be learned from Raymond E. Brown in New Testament study and on social justice from Walter J. Burghardt—both Jesuits. Such examples could be multiplied. Some works of Catholic scholars are within my library and I benefit from them. I am not alone in this among EMC ministers.

Around the world, priests, monks, nuns, and many other Catholics are involved in helpful ministries in ways almost beyond counting. Catholics have suffered and died in many settings because they have followed Jesus. It would be unfair to view their many efforts, motivations, personal theology, and discipleship in simple terms: since some of Roman Catholic teaching is wrong, they can’t really be following Jesus.

Is, then, the need for the Protestant Reformation over? My answer is no. Here’s why in part:

  • An EMC worker in northern Canada says a Bible Club team was “amazed and amused to see the people being pressured into buying their Indulgences now with quick and simple payments from their Visas and MasterCards.”
  • Our EMC cross-cultural workers in various countries encounter folk forms of Catholicism with mixtures of beliefs. A focus on Christ, his grace, and discipleship are key markers for our workers.
  • Indulgences are still being issued.
  • U.S. evangelical theologian Roger Olson recently wrote of participating in Protestant-Roman Catholic dialogues. At one, after suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church needed to become less exclusive and learn from Protestants, he found himself uninvited (see his blog, Is the Roman Catholic Church Catholic Enough? Oct. 27, 2017).

The settings and climate might have changed somewhat, but the theological concerns of 16th century Protestants in Europe remain relevant today.

Others, often Protestants, say, “The Reformation must continue.” How so? If it means that the Protestant Reformation’s concerns must be used today to examine our faith in life, yes, it should continue.

However, “The Reformation must continue” is a slogan that can be used to set aside key doctrines of our Christian faith. Used in this way, the slogan does not adequately respect or continue the earlier Protestant (Radical) Reformation’s focus on Christ, his grace, and discipleship.

Are Christians in Canada today as aware of doctrine as believers were in the 16th century in Europe? A blanket statement seems unhelpful. There are, though, some reasons for concern.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

We do well to consider carefully what we think and practice. For instance, some funerals seem to be services of celebration with a confidence that nearly everyone, if not everyone, goes to heaven. A common thought among Canadians seems to be: If there is a God and if there is a heaven, then good people go there and likely all people get there. In what way does this match or contradict biblical and classic Christian teaching?

 

Terry Smith: Thomas Müntzer, Too Easily Dismissed

by Terry M. Smith

Was Thomas Müntzer (ca. 1488-1525) an Anabaptist? He seems to have opposed infant baptism, yet it’s uncertain if he was rebaptized. In any case, he’s a figure from whom many modern Anabaptists disassociate themselves. But what do they do, then, with the prophet Amos and the apostle James, whose social concerns and words were equally strong (violence excepted)?

There’s more to Müntzer than his support of violence. Look beneath it to his broader social concerns. His story reflects the social environment out of which Anabaptism emerged.

Thomas Müntzer was from Saxony, a “bright, but undisciplined,” yet serious student at three universities who became a priest. By 1519 he was influenced by Martin Luther. He became a reformer and yet soon was sharply critical of Luther.

Yes, he promoted the use of force, but not for its own sake. He wanted the Christian faith to be expressed partly through social justice. People were oppressed; social change was needed, he said.

Müntzer “proclaimed that God would soon bring the present age of the world to an end, punishing those who oppressed the people.” In 1524 he preached a blunt sermon to Duke John of Saxony, his son, and court officials, “urging them to become God’s instruments in the revolution.” “Not surprisingly, they declined,” says William Placher.

These powerful people could have punished Müntzer had they so chose. Yet he didn’t mince words. Such courage!

Here’s a bit of his sermon: “… Perform a righteous judgment at God’s command! You have help enough for the purpose, for Christ is your Master. Therefore let not the evildoers live longer who make us turn away from God. . . God is your protection and he will teach you to fight against his foes. He will make your hands skilled in fighting and will also sustain you” (see Placher).

After that, Müntzer joined German peasants in their short-lived Peasant War (1524-1525). Captured at the Battle at Frankenhausen on May 15, 1525, he was tortured and imprisoned. He recanted and was executed (H. Hillerbrand).

I’ve read that just as modern Anabaptists reject the violent legacy of Thomas Müntzer, some Lutherans today grapple with what Martin Luther wrote to German princes about the warring peasants: that the princes could kill them just as a person would kill an attacking mad dog.

Luther had earlier, and still later, supported some of the peasants’ concerns, but this was overshadowed by his support of force against them. By alienating some of the peasants, he hurt the Reformation in some circles.

We might ask what would have happened if Luther had been as forceful as Müntzer in challenging the princes to show their Christian convictions through social justice? At the same time, it’s important to realize that, as Dr. Robert Kolb shows, Luther did challenge rulers.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

Consider these quotes: “Disciples of Christ commit themselves to righteousness, justice, peace and love in their homeland and in the global community.” “Stewardship is demonstrated in our lifestyles, in our relations with the poor and the disadvantaged, in our view of possessions, in our concern for all of God’s creation and in our response to global economic injustice.” Christians “should assume social responsibility; oppose corruption, discrimination, and injustice.”

No, these statements aren’t from the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants. They are found within our EMC Constitution.

Sources: C. S. Meyer, “Luther, Martin,” in Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1981); R. H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Mentor, 1950); W. C. Placher, Readings in the History of Christian Theology, vol. 2 (WJK, 1988); H. J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation (Baker, repr. 1987); “Müntzer, Thomas,” Wikipedia; “Battle of Frankenhausen,” Military Wiki; R. Friedmann and W. O. Packull, “Müntzer, Thomas” (GAMEO, 1956, 1987); “Thomas Müntzer,” New World Encyclopedia (2014); Robert Kolb, “Luther on Princes and Peasants,” Lutheran Quarterly (online in more than one form).

Kevin Wiebe: The Reformation and Unity

by Kevin Wiebe

While we can celebrate half a millennium of existence as Anabaptists, it is sobering to think that we are also commemorating what we would now call a church split. We Anabaptists typically look fondly on the courage of the Reformers, but how should our understanding of Christian unity influence our perspective of the Reformation?

I was talking recently with another EMC pastor about the nature of unity. At first we talked about the damage that is done in churches when people sew seeds of discord and disunity. One comment made was that, “Disunity is always evil!” After those words were spoken, we began to question: Is disunity always evil?

As we continued to discuss this, the first example that came to mind was Babel, where God, in fact, caused a fracture in the unity of the people, spoiling their plans. It seemed to us that God’s ways involve uniting good and fracturing the power of evil. On the other hand, the path of darkness unifies evil and fractures the good.

We often talk about unity as an end unto itself, yet it seems that unity is only good insofar as the object of that unity is good. To be united in rebellion against God surely is not good, as happened at Babel. To be united in corruption, greed, and a hunger for power surely isn’t good, as was happening in the Church leading up to the Reformation.

So what is it that should unite us as Christians? All those around the world who are disciples of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, live in this strange reality: while we may do our best to distance ourselves from certain types of other believers, we are still somehow united with them as part of the Body of Christ. Thus the most profound thing that unites us is not a “thing” at all, but rather a “who.” It is Jesus that unites us, the head over his body.

So what do we make of the Reformation? There are several observations I think are important. First, there were problems in the Church leading up to the Reformation that Christians did and should stand against. Corruption, greed, and false teaching are not things for Christians to be united in. Second, the Reformers did sincerely try to reform the existing Church, as they were also aware of the importance of unity.

Third, while the Reformation did do a great deal of good, it also led to countless other church splits, many of them not worth the disunity and scandal that they caused. And fourth, while there is most definitely a kind of unity that was broken by the Reformation, that brokenness does not negate the mysterious way that we are still bound together with other believers through Jesus.

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Kevin Wiebe

As we reflect on the Reformation, whether we commemorate it as the death of an era for the Church or celebrate it as the birth of new streams of faith, it is helpful for all believers to remember that we are ultimately united not through a statement or philosophy, but through the very person of Jesus. We are part of the same body. May we learn to better act like it!

Kevin Wiebe is the pastor of the New Life Christian Fellowship (Stevenson, Ont.), a member of the BCM, and assistant editor of Theodidaktos.

Terry Smith: Melchoir Hoffman and the Prison Tower

by Terry M. Smith

To sit in a group where Melchoir Hoffman (1495-1543) teaches from the Book of Revelation would be fascinating.

If anyone believed in the soon return of Jesus, it was Hoffman! To act as he did required great confidence in Christ and in his skill to interpret both Scripture and the times.

Hoffman was “one of the most dramatic early Anabaptists, responsible for the spread of the movement from South Germany to the North” (H. Hillerbrand). His work and his preaching took him even farther, though, to Sweden and Denmark where he enjoyed brief favour.

A dealer in furs with an elementary school education, he was an avid reader and became a keen writer. By 1523 he was a follower of Martin Luther.

Early on he held to salvation by grace through faith, holy living, the use of allegory, and milliennialism. During this time he preached and, when authorities questioned his doctrine, some leaders (including Martin Luther) vouched for him.

By 1525, however, Hoffman considered himself a prophet, one of the two witnesses spoken of in Rev. 11. He was critical of Lutheran pastors; to him, they minimized the need for holy living.

His trade took him to Sweden where he married and had a son. There he preached in the Lutheran church. When the king asked him to resign, he returned to Germany and later went to Denmark. In Denmark he clashed with Luther (who wrote, wanting him to stop preaching till better informed) and Lutheran clergy. The Danish king expelled Hoffman.

It was in Sweden that Hoffman wrote three of his many writings, one book of which interprets Daniel 12, explains the gospel, defends preaching by lay people, explores communion and confession, and deals with church authority.

Hoffman was baptized on confession of faith in 1530; his next 13 years continued a pattern of service, conflict, and a focus on the Lord’s return.

On May 4, 1534, Hoffman asked officials in Strasbourg to imprison him in the tower—so soon did he expect the Lord’s return and his freedom. They agreed, treating him gently at first. On April 15, 1535, Hoffman said the Lord would return in his third year of imprisonment.

By May 8, 1539, Hoffman’s face and legs were “greatly swollen.” He asked authorities to “let him out for a month until he feels better, then he would gladly go back.” The authorities “let him out of the hole” while carefully guarded. Former Anabaptists and Reformed leaders visited him, seeking to change his beliefs. Did he recant? This is unclear. At any rate, he was not released.

His prison conditions became harsher and his health weakened. Conditions were eased somewhat, but in 1543 he died before the Lord’s return, a victim of the authorities and his folly.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

What’s a fair assessment of Hoffman? C. Neff and W. O. Packull say this: “Aside from his unbridled fantasy, his arbitrary interpretation of Scripture, and his fanatical view of the end-times, his writings also contain a wealth of sound Christian ideas and sober thoughts.” But what happened to Hoffman’s wife and son?

Sources: H. J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation (Baker, repr. 1987); C. Neff and W. O. Packull, “Hoffman, Melchoir” (GAMEO, 1956, 1990); J. C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Herald Press, 1956, 1984).

 

Terry Smith: A Reformation Fantasy

by Terry M. Smith

What if I’d lived in 16th century Zurich? I would not have been baptized at the home of Feliz Manz, nor would I have challenged Zurich’s city council. I would not have been burned at the stake.

Rather, I would have consented to attend Reformed services and, if married with a family, to have my children baptized. It is pure fantasy to think that I would have exhibited Anabaptist heroism of the type that inspires 500 years later. Yet this fantasy is only a minor one.

The real fantasy is much greater than this. It is to think that I would have been alive long enough to make any of these choices at all.

Infant mortality rates were much higher then and medical services much poorer. Being born three months prematurely and then having pneumonia, I would have died as an infant and, possibly unnamed, been placed in a small grave and then replaced.

If I had lived for a few years, my physical limitations would have forced me, if fortunate, to be perhaps a cobbler’s apprentice; at worse, to beg on the street. Education, regular employment, marriage, and children would likely have been but bitter dreams.

Four related surgeries during my childhood and as a teen would not have happened; my limitations would have been clearer. A third of a century of marriage, 20 years of education (eight higher), a call to the pastorate, 20 years in the national office, and an enjoyment of the outdoors would not have happened.

This is the only time in history in which I want to live because it is the only time that I would have lived.

Looking around at the world’s situation, much is troubling. Yet I also know that I have received much of Christ’s grace, Canadian privilege, white privilege, and male privilege—as complicated a package as this is. Much of my life is good even as it includes a few obstacles that seem challenging to some observers.

What does this mean? The key question is not what I would have done five centuries ago, but what I am doing today. My privilege involves an obligation to stand up now for people less fortunate. The question includes the risks taken for others today.

One last thought. Many people five centuries ago, under pressure of potential banishment, agreed to attend Reformed services and to present their children for baptism. It’s wrong to think that all of them somehow deserted Christ—to view them as akin to Demas or Judas.

They were not forced to choose between following Christ and not following Christ. They were forced to choose between following Christ as a Reformed member or as an Anabaptist. These choices are not on the same level.

Apparently one of my relatives was born in 1530 in the canton of Berne, five years after and 125 kms away from the start of the Swiss Anabaptist movement in Zurich. By the time of his birth, the movement was active in Berne where many Anabaptists suffered.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

If the information about a possible relative is accurate, I don’t know what choices his parents made then. But I know this: their choices during the Reformation were actual, not fantasy. This makes me respect people then who served Christ, both those who stood in a bonfire and those who did not.

Terry Smith: Elsbeth and Balthasar Hubmaier

What was it like for a Christian who defends the state’s use of force to have the force used against him? Or for a wife, after her husband’s imprisonment and torture, to watch as he is burned at the stake? Or, three days later, for her to be tied to a large stone and dropped from a bridge into the Danube River?

The couple was Elsbeth (Elizabeth) and Balthasar Hubmaier.

Christian Neff and Christian Hege sum up Elsbeth’s life, some of it indicated above: “Elsbeth (Elisabeth) Hügeline, the wife of Balthasar Hubmaier, was the daughter of a citizen of Reichenau on Lake Constance, whom he married on 13 January 1525. She was an energetic and courageous woman, who shared the very sad fate of her husband with devoted love and faithfulness. When he was seized and after cruel torture condemned to death, she spoke words of comfort to him. Three days later she also suffered a martyr’s death in Vienna. With a stone tied to her neck she was thrown from the large bridge over the Danube on 13 March 1528, in Vienna.” Her birthdate is not provided.

Balthasar Hubmaier (ca. 1480-1528) was connected with the Peasants’ War in Germany, a popular, short-lived protest against abuses within government and church. People wanted freedom from some taxes; the ability to use the land, water, and forest (and its creatures) for their benefits, not just the social elite’s; and the right to choose their own pastors. It’s suggested that he even assisted in writing a list of the commoners’ demands.

A former priest who held a doctorate in theology, Balthasar was an able theologian who opposed Catholic and Protestant abuses, defended believer’s baptism, and was imprisoned for his views. He did not endure imprisonment and torture well, but who should be surprised at this?

After physical torture he agreed to recant his Anabaptist beliefs, but, when he was to make a public statement before Ulrich Zwingli, he could not do it. He spoke up for believer’s baptism. Zwingli had him taken back to prison where he was stretched on the rack.

Balthasar Hubmaier held that the state was divinely ordained to use force to protect the innocent, that a king could rule better if a Christian, and a Christian could defend others with force. He did not do so in ignorance of other Anabaptists’ positions.

In the same year that the Schleitheim Confession was prepared largely by Michael Sattler and endorsed by others (1527), Balthasar had earlier written a booklet On the Sword in which he challenged non-resistant views among Anabaptists. Because of his views on the use of force, Hubmaier has been set aside in some nonresistant Anabaptist circles and highlighted in some wider circles, including Baptist.

Some people think it is ironic that Balthasar defended the government’s use of force and yet he was tortured by officials. They are confused. What Balthasar defended was good government; what he suffered from was an abuse of government. Both are realities in our world.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

Elsbeth suffered equally. Think of her if ever you gaze upon the beautiful waters of the Danube River.

Sources: C. J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Mennonite History (Herald Press, rev. 1981); W. Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Conrad Press, 1981); H. Bender and C. Neff, “Hubmaier, Balthasar” (GAMEO, 1957); C. Neff and C. Hege, “Hügeline, Elsbeth (Elisabeth)” (GAMEO, 1956); H. J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation (Baker, repr. 1987); Southwestern News, Fall 2012 (SBTS); H. W. Pipkin and J. H. Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier (Herald Press, 1989).

Terry Smith: Felix Manz and a Sympathetic Pastor

by Terry M. Smith

Who was the first person killed for being an Anabaptist? It wasn’t Felix Manz.

Manz (ca. 1498-1527) was drowned on Jan. 5, 1527, “in the River Limmat, the first Protestant martyr at the hands of Protestants” (J. G. G. Norman). 

Hippolytus (Bolt) Eberle, an Anabaptist, had been killed much earlier on May 29, 1525, in the Catholic canton of Schywz. (An unnamed Catholic priest was killed that same day for associating with Eberle.)

Felix Manz is better known. He knew Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, and had joined Ulrich Zwingli’s Bible classes in 1522. With others, he pressed for reform. When Zwingli deferred to the pace of the city-state’s council, Manz and others began to meet separately.

When some parents refused to have their children baptized, they were fined. On Jan. 17, 1525, Manz made the case for believer baptism before city council; the council rejected this. The next day council threatened to banish people who did not present their children for baptism within eight days; Manz was to submit to the order and cease arguing. On Jan. 21, 1525, he and others were baptized as believers.

During the next two years Manz was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned; he escaped once only to be recaptured. He would emerge to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the faith, and, when allowed, make the case for believer baptism before Zurich’s city council.

He said he had never rejected government, preached in other pastorates only as any disciple would do, denounced both capital punishment and the use of the sword, and taught to share with the needy.

Once, when released from prison, Felix left Zurich for the canton of Grison. He was arrested and returned to Zurich with a letter dated July 13, 1525, that shows the magistrate’s frustration with him and, perhaps, Zurich’s city council: “But because he is an obstinate and recalcitrant person we released him from prison and because he is one of yours we have sent him to you, with the friendly request that you look after him and keep him in your territory, so that we may be rid of him and our people remain quiet, and that in case of his return we are not compelled to take severe measures against him” (H. Bender and C. Neff).

On March 7, 1526, Zurich city council made believer baptism punishable by drowning. On Dec. 3, 1526, Manz was arrested and on Jan. 5, 1527, sentenced to death. That afternoon he was taken in a boat onto the Limmat River.

There, he heard his mother call out for him to be steadfast. Manz spoke out in Latin: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” An executioner forced Felix’s bound hands over his knees, put a stick between his arms and knees, and pushed Manz into the water. Four centuries later a memorial plaque would be placed on the riverbank.

Ironically, as Felix Manz had prepared to die, a “preacher at his side spoke sympathetically to him encouraging him to be converted.” Converted to whom? If to Christ, Felix was that already.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

It is a tragedy for Christians to die at the hands of non-Christians. It is an even greater tragedy, and a more curious form of martyrdom, when a Christian dies at the hands of other Christians—especially when a sympathetic pastor is present.

Sources: C. J. Dyck, ed., An Introduction to Mennonite History (Herald Press, rev. 1981); C. Neff, “Eberle, Bolt” (GAMEO, 1953); W. Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Conrad Press, 1981); J. G. G. Norman, “Manz, Felix,” Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. J. D. Douglas (Zondervan, 1981); H. Bender and C. Neff, “Manz, Felix” (GAMEO, 1957); H. J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation (Baker, repr. 1987); Southwestern News, Fall 2012 (SBTS).