Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Dr. Terry Hiebert: Conversion Stories of Martin Luther and Menno Simons

The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017

by Dr. Terry Hiebert

October 31, 1517, was Reformation Day, an event that produced the second great division in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of the West. By some counts, the Protestant movement has since produced 45,000 more divisions we call denominations.

Centuries earlier, the apostle Paul urged the early Christians in Ephesus to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6).

We might conclude from Paul’s statement that divisions should cease, denominations should dissolve, and the Christian Church should reunite as one big family. Notice, the word happy was omitted intentionally. For example, Lutherans and Mennonites have dialogued since 2002 about our differences and have expressed forgiveness and pledged cooperation with one another.

Each admit that the other belongs to the extended Christian family even if we do not attend all the same family gatherings. The differences have to do with beliefs, practices, ethics, organization, and traditions now 500 years in the making. Differences between even two Christian groups are complex.

Simplify the Issues

Now let’s simplify the issues. Lutherans and Mennonites can trace some of our main differences to the conversion stories of our founders, Martin Luther and Menno Simons. Like the influence of parents on their children, the experiences of Luther and Menno have imprinted their descendants for generations. The Reformers wrote of their conversions years after the fact. Luther described his conversion in 1545, recounting his experience of God’s grace in July 1519. Menno in 1554 wrote an account of experienced of God’s conviction and his conversion in 1536.

The conversion stories of Luther and Menno reveal the distinctives between the two Reformers as well as the two traditions that developed over the past 500 years. Consider the features of their stories of coming to faith in Christ. While there are similarities, the differences are also striking. I will highlight some of the more important distinctions.

 

Martin Luther Menno Simons
University lecturer above reproach Parish priest playing cards and drinking
Miserable sinner repented regularly People pleasing sinner but unrepentant
Doctrinal problem with God’s righteousness Moral problem is with his sinful heart
Raging conscience hating the God of wrath Troubled soul disturbed by his own hypocrisy
Crisis that miserable sinners are born in sin, condemned by the Law, and hear a Gospel of wrath Crisis of belief in the traditional views of the Lord’s Supper, infant baptism, and the violence of Christians
Scripture study in Romans 1 about the righteousness of God Scripture study about the Lord’s Supper and believers baptism
Discovers that God justifies by faith and feels like he is born again. Prays for grace and a clean heart and receives Christ’s forgiveness
Focuses on God’s objective work for us Focuses on God’s Spirit at work in us
Finds support for justification by faith in the tradition of Augustine Finds support for his new beliefs about the sacraments in Scripture but not in tradition
Experiences transformed love for God. Experiences a call to service and suffering in obedience to Christ

 

What can we learn from the two conversion stories? Let’s reflect on the stories of transformation, before, during and after conversion. Again we discover as many differences as similarities. Perhaps we should not be so surprised at their differences considering the conversion stories we hear in church every year at baptism.

Different Places, Mindsets

Before their conversions, Luther and Menno came from very different places, backgrounds, and mindsets. Luther was a university lecturer who encountered a biblical, theological, and philosophical problem that tormented his spiritual life as well. It seems that for Luther, the biggest problem was with a God of wrath and not so much with Luther the sinner.

Menno was a parish priest serving without ever having read the Scriptures. Menno started reading the Scriptures, but admitted that he wasted this knowledge through youthful lusts, sensual living, and looking for the favour of people. Luther started out to please a wrathful God while Menno started out to please worldly people.

At their conversions, Luther and Menno experienced a deep crisis of faith. Luther admitted he was a sinner, but was angry at a God who was not satisfied with his attempts at repentance. Luther was converted by an insight from studying the Bible that God justifies the sinner by the gift of faith. Luther had a theological conversion and repented in his beliefs about God.

Menno grew in awareness that his preaching of Scripture clashed with his sinful lifestyle. Menno was converted by the conviction that God would judge him for misleading his parishioners through hypocrisy. Menno had a moral conversion or a repentance of heart toward God and people.

Different Emotions and Callings

After their conversions, Luther and Menno followed experienced different emotions and callings. Luther felt “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” He returned to his study and was comforted to discover that his mentor Augustine had written similar ideas about justification by faith years earlier.

Nine months after Menno’s conversion, he felt God’s Fatherly Spirit empower him to renounce his worldly reputation. Menno yielded to “the heavy cross of Christ” and accepted the call to lead a small group of the Anabaptist faithful.

The two conversion stories are quite different. Luther’s conversion transformed his life from tormented anguish of soul in anger towards God to a place of love for God and the proclamation of God’s grace. Menno’s conversion transformed his life from sensuality, ease, and popularity with people to a place fearing for his life and the proclamation of obedience to God.

Both Luther and Menno in their conversion stories indicate that they were ministers of God before their conversion. Luther posted his 95 Theses two years before his conversion. Menno served as parish priest 12 years before his conversion. Both confessed troubled souls. Both identified a moment of enlightenment when a new understanding of God’s Word transformed their minds. Both yielded themselves to the grace of God after their conversions. Both continued to serve God resulting in a renewal of worship, beliefs, and morals for generations of followers.

Beyond Lament, a Blessing

While I hear many Christians lament the disunity in the Church today, the Reformation has become more of a blessing even considering the great difficulties experienced in the early years after 1517. Why? Because the message of unity is not the only word in the Scriptures. Paul continued his appeal to the early churches by celebrating the importance of diversity in the body of Christ as well.

In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “but to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (4:7). We hear echoes in praise of diversity as Paul calls the Corinthian church to unity in the Spirit’s manifestations of grace. To a divided church the apostle still maintained, “now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The phrase common good is better translated as “to be an advantage to someone.”

One legacy of the Reformation is found in the conversion stories of the Reformers and their followers. Like faith stories today, no two Reformers were identical. The conversion stories of Luther and Menno are quite different. The Reformation advantage is that over 75 million Christians identify more fully with the body of Christ because Luther and Menno taught us to see God’s grace in different ways.

Still, 500 years later we are Christian first, and only then Lutherans or Mennonites, because there is one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. In the case of Luther and Menno, how about three out of four?

terry-hiebert-2016
Dr. Terry Hiebert

Dr. Terry Hiebert serves at Steinbach Bible College as Academic Dean and enjoys when students get excited about theology. He is married to Luann, a college English instructor. They have three adult children and four energetic grandchildren. Terry and Luann enjoy their dog, a tiny house project, and long distance travel. They attend Gospel Fellowship Church (EMMC) in Steinbach, Man.

Resources:

Martin Luther’s Conversion Account see link

Menno Simons Conversion Account see link

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).

 

Dr. John J. Friesen: Martin Luther and the Anabaptists

by Dr. John. J Friesen

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting 95 theses on the doors of the churches in the city of Wittenberg, including the All Saints Church. What Luther intended as a debate over how to reform abuses in the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the break-up of the Catholic Church and the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Why should Anabaptists-Mennonites care about Martin Luther, a young university professor, and his reforms? Why should this anniversary be noted in Mennonite-Anabaptist denominational papers?

No Luther, No Anabaptists

The principal reason why Mennonites-Anabaptists should care about Luther’s reform is that Luther is the reason why there was an Anabaptist-Mennonite reform movement at all. Luther’s reforms, and the conflicts they spawned between Catholics and Protestants, created space for the Anabaptist movement to take root.

They sprang up in German states, northern Switzerland, Moravia, and the Netherlands. Without Luther, and the other reformers who followed his lead, there would have been no Anabaptist movements.

Inspired by Key Ideas

Mennonites should also care about Luther’s reform because the early Anabaptist leaders were inspired by Luther’s key ideas. Luther’s reform began as a critique of the Catholic Church selling indulgences. In response Luther formulated his central view that salvation is by grace, that is, a gift from God, and not by works.

When challenged about how he could make such a claim since it deviated from the beliefs of most of the great teachers of the medieval church, Luther said his authority was the Bible, not tradition. Specifically, he based his view of grace on the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. It was the Bible alone, Luther said, on which he based his view that salvation is by faith through grace.   

Following this claim, Luther decided to make the Bible available to the masses by translating it into the German language. Widespread distribution was made possible by the newly invented moveable type printing presses. Access to the Bible allowed people to read scripture for themselves, and to implement reforms that they believed were consistent with scripture.

Luther also rejected the control that the Catholic priesthood had over access to forgiveness. Luther believed that all believers had direct access to God—no priestly mediation was necessary. Luther called this the priesthood of all believers. All these emphases Anabaptists applauded.

A Parting 

Even though at first Luther seemed to empower common people, he also spoke highly of the role German princes should play in any reform. When the peasants revolted in the years 1524-25, Luther condemned them harshly.

He cast his lot with the princes and adopted the state-church model for his reform. Luther looked to the German princes both for protection and direction. This decision set Luther and the Anabaptists against each other.

A ‘Should Have’

Anabaptists believed that Luther’s reform ideas should have resulted in a believers’ church. Such a church would have consisted of those who truly had faith in God and had committed themselves to a life of Christian discipleship. This option would have resulted in a church that was a minority in the population.

Accepting a believers’ church would have resulted in a pluralist society in which minority church groups were tolerated. When Luther opted for the state-church model, placed the Lutheran church under the authority of the state, and persecuted minority churches, Anabaptists believed that Luther had betrayed the teachings of the Bible.

This commitment to a believers’ church allowed Anabaptists to reshape basic Christian beliefs and practices. Anabaptists emphasized baptism on the basis of adult confessions of faith, instead of infant baptism. Church leaders were chosen from within the community of believers instead of being appointed by church hierarchies, or by state officials.

Reforms were based on the church community’s reading of scripture, rather than on the basis of what was politically expedient and approved by princes. Church discipline and social shunning replaced trials and executions of those with whom they disagreed.   

For worship, Anabaptists gathered in houses, barns, and caves to read scripture together. They discussed biblical texts and discerned together, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, how to apply them to daily living. They sang songs composed by their own members based on experiences of persecution and martyrdom. No more majestic cathedrals, chants, organs, monastic choirs, and elaborate liturgies where members were largely spectators.

They rejected feudal oaths since their primary loyalty was to God and not to princes and emperors. They advocated a life of peace, rejected violence, refused to carry swords, forgave those who wronged them, and reconciled conflicts between members of the church.

One cannot imagine the Anabaptist movement without Luther’s reforms. And yet, the direction that Luther’s reforms took resulted in Luther becoming one the Anabaptists’ bitterest enemies.

Even the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the basic Lutheran confession, included the following among a number of condemnations: “We condemn Anabaptists who forbid Christians to hold office,” and “We condemn Anabaptists who reject the baptizing of children, and say that children are saved without baptism.” Most Lutheran states crushed Anabaptist groups within their borders.

Pietism

This sharp break between Luther and the Anabaptists, however, is not the end of the story of Luther’s influence on Anabaptist Mennonites. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Lutheran Church spawned a Pietist movement, which has in many ways positively influenced Mennonites.

Pietism emphasized Bible reading by laity, a warm devotional life, an experience of conversion and personal commitment to God, a life of discipleship, and an extensive hymnody. Pietists drew upon the early emphases of Luther and thus, in many respects, were close to the emphases of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement.

John-Friesen
Dr. John J. Friesen

Martin Luther and his followers have had a powerful shaping influence on Anabaptists-Mennonites, then and now. It is appropriate to remember Luther and the significant contributions he made to all denominations of the Christian Church, including the Anabaptists-Mennonites. Luther was a giant in his age and will always be honoured for the major impact he made.   

Dr. John J. Friesen is Professor Emeritus for History and Theology, Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man. This article was produced for Meetinghouse, an association of Anabaptist periodicals and editors in Canada and the U.S.

Terry Smith: Menno Simons and Martin Luther

by Terry M. Smith

What does a priest do when struggling with his beliefs? He might study to gain knowledge and peace. The priest was Menno Simons; the one who helped him toward peace was Martin Luther, a former priest.

Luther (1483-1546) earned BA and MA degrees before entering a monastery because of a vow made in a storm that frightened him. He studied theology and was ordained as a priest in 1507. He later earned a doctorate in theology.

On Oct. 31, 1517, Luther displayed a written protest against the practice of indulgences. Instead, he highlighted the grace of God revealed in Christ. By 1521 Luther was declared an outlaw and for the next 25 years he was a reformer.

Menno Simons (1496-1561) was born in the village of Witmarsum, Friesland, now part of the Netherlands. After lengthy studies, he was ordained as priest in 1524 and served for 12 years. During that period he struggled with the doctrines of transubstantiation and infant baptism. He read the Bible and found it at odds with some of what he practiced.

In his struggle, Menno found some peace through the writings of Martin Luther: “He was always grateful to Luther for . . . the fundamental principle of the authority of Scripture as over against any human authority” (H. S. Bender). While indebted, Menno disagreed with Luther on infant baptism.

In 1535 Menno left the Roman Catholic Church; within a year or so he was approached and then ordained to lead a group of Anabaptists. For the next quarter-century Simons sought to provide stable leadership to a persecuted group that was too often at odds with itself.

Luther and Simons each married, had children, and died of natural causes. Near the end of Menno’s days, the influence of Martin on Simons remained clear. In 1556, five years before he died, Menno was disturbed by the actions of Anabaptist leaders at Emden who ordered a woman to shun her husband or be excommunicated.

“I can neither teach nor live by the faith of others,” he wrote, disagreeing. “I must live by my own faith as the Spirit of the Lord has taught me through his Word.” The Word had final authority, not the questionable practices of people—whether Catholics or Anabaptists.

“I desire, according to my humble talents, to teach a Gospel that builds up, and not one that breaks down” wrote Simons, “one that gives off a pleasant odor, not a stench, and I do not intend to trouble the work of God with something for which I have no certain Scriptural grounds.”

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

Menno, like Luther before him, had earlier sought spiritual peace and found it in Christ. Now, later in life, Menno did not want to unnecessarily add to another’s distress.

Sources: W. Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Conrad Press, 1981); Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Herald Press, 1956, 1984), H. S. Bender, biographer, and L. Verduin, trans.; 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).