“I am distressed beyond all misery. I am poverty-stricken and robbed of my ability to work, all of which I cannot overcome in my lifetime. I have been starved so that I cannot now eat or drink, and my body is broken. How would you like to live for five weeks with only boiled water and unflavoured bread soup? I have been lying in the darkness on straw.
“All of this would not be possible if God had not given me an equal measure of his love. I marvel that I have not become confused or even mad. I would have frozen if the Lord had not strengthened me, for you can well imagine how a little bit of hot water will warm one. In addition to this I have suffered great torture twice from the executioner, who has ruined my hands, unless the Lord heals them. I have had enough of it to the end of my days.
“…Therefore, dear Lords, you will find in me nothing but patience in word and deed. I will obey you till I die and I will obey God till I die. But I will not build on this commandment of men, which is against God, as long as there is breath in me. I will not be a hypocrite, either to curry favour or to avoid suffering, but will seek the truth with all my heart.”
It is difficult to focus on the wretched suffering of early Anabaptists and other Christian martyrs. Imprisoned in horrible conditions, Keller endured much in body and soul.
“Keller was an ordinary man,” says Walter Klaassen, “and the fact that he eventually gave up does nothing to discredit the strength and pathos of his testimony.” Yet with all due respect to Klaassen, there is little evidence that Keller gave up.
True, Andreas said he would obey the authorities, but he persisted in saying he would obey God and he would not build on the commandment of man. He said he did not seek to curry favour or avoid suffering. He preferred not to suffer; so did our Lord (see Luke 22:42).
As others have done and said, I write these words while seated in a comfortable chair near a window providing light, living in a country that offers much in peace and safety, having returned from a lunch where I ate too much. Who am I to condemn Keller as he faced a time and circumstances not experienced by me? If his faith was weak, I wish mine were as strong as his.
Centuries later my sadness comes partly from knowing that both the tortured and the torturer knew the Apostles’ Creed; to that extent, they shared a common faith in Christ. Yet despite that connection, one suffered and another caused it.
With Reformation Sunday (Oct. 28) and the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (Nov. 4) soon behind us, I am saddened by the broken body of Christ, the broken body of Keller, and the body of the Church too often still broken today. The Church is still persecuted and, sometimes, still persecutes.
Source: Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Herald Press, 1981), 86, 93-94.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
WINDHOEK, Namibia—Lutherans from around the world and ecumenical guests gathered on May 14 at the Sam Nujoma stadium, in Windhoek, Namibia, for the global commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Delegates and participants from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Twelfth Assembly attended the commemoration with thousands of Lutherans from Namibia and neighbouring countries.
“What we need now is not the justification of the wrongs of the past, but that God in his grace blot out all our iniquity and create in our world pure hearts of love, justice, and peace,” said Namibian bishop emeritus Zephania Kameeta in his sermon. He offered a message of hope and liberation, giving substance to the Assembly theme Liberated by God’s Grace.
The commemoration event is a highpoint of the Twelfth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, which took place in the Namibian capital Windhoek from May 10-16. The Church is called to be “reformed and reformers, renewed and renewing, liberated and liberating.”
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.
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).
As we celebrate the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation there is much to celebrate. One of the things to celebrate is the rediscovery of believer’s baptism.
Apostolic Church Baptism
Water baptism was practiced in the Church from its beginning. Peter’s Pentecost message ended by saying, “Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Some 3,000 responded in faith and were baptized and added to the Church that day.
This is what is called believer’s baptism. That is, when you decide to become a Christian you, in obedience to the teaching of the Bible, follow it up with water baptism and thereby become a member of the Church, Christ’s body.
Matthew 28:18-20 tells the Church to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and then teach them all that God has commanded. Those who believe are to be baptized. Scholars are in essential agreement that apostolic baptism was believer’s baptism (Luther, Babylonian Captivity of the Church).
An occasional infant baptism appears to have happened in the second century. But after the third century it became the practice of the Church. Prior to the Reformation, to refuse infant baptism was subject to state oppression, even execution.
Martin Luther, in the early 16th century, was struggling with his faith and through study of the Bible discovered the words, “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Out of that came what we call the Reformation. Luther’s emphasis on faith and the Bible began to influence the church scene and ultimately the Lutheran Church emerged.
Luther retained infant baptism partially because he felt if he went to believer’s baptism his work would be annihilated. He, however, modified the sacrament somewhat. For the Catholic Church water baptism is used by God to remove original sin. For Luther the grace of God works alongside the water to do that.
The Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Lutheran Church subscribe to this kind of sacramental baptism. A sacrament is a ceremony that if done right conveys God’s grace to the individual.
The Reformed Church, the outgrowth of John Calvin’s work, practises infant baptism, but does it in a Covenantal Theological system. They say that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant and replaces circumcision.
As circumcision was done to infant boys and was the sign of the Old Covenant, so now baptism is the sign of the New Covenant in Christ. One change is that now both male and female infants, of Christian parents, are baptized, indicating they are members of the New Covenant people.
In infant-baptizing churches, baptism is followed up with confirmation when the person has reached the age of accountability. At confirmation the individual makes the faith, vicariously believed for him by a godparent or sponsor at baptism, his or her own.
Churches who practise this covenantal concept of baptism include the Reformed Church, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and the Covenant Church.
There are some church groups that don’t practice water baptism. This includes the Quakers and the Salvation Army. It is also of interest to note that Karl Barth, a key theologian, switched to believer’s baptism due to his study of the Bible. Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian (d. 1834), said to read children into the family baptisms in Acts is putting something there that is not there.
At the time of the Reformation another movement emerged that did not accept infant baptism as a valid baptism. Through serious Bible study, this group, known as the Anabaptists, understood the Scriptures to teach believer’s baptism. With this understanding of baptism they refused sacramental or covenantal infant baptism because they didn’t find it in the Bible.
They understood the Scripture to teach believer’s baptism; that is, only those who personally understood the gospel and accepted it should be baptized. Many who had been baptized as infants asked for baptism based on their faith and thereby joined the Church. This is where the name Anabaptist comes from. They were accused of being re-baptized, but they responded and said their infant baptism was not a baptism because it did not involve the faith of the one being baptized.
Their refusal to accept infant baptism, as well as refusing to have their infants baptized, resulted in severe opposition and persecution. They persisted and the Anabaptists emerged as a significant branch of the Church, still active and alive today. The Anabaptists claimed they were going back to what the Bible teaches. They insisted that believer’s baptism ruled out covenantal or sacramental infant baptism. It also ruled out child baptism.
In support of rejecting infant and child baptism they quoted Matt. 19:14 where Jesus says, “Do not hinder children from coming to me for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.” They said children are innocent and saved until they reach the age of accountability. They said the Bible teaches that children are to be nurtured and taught the love of God; and then as they grow and understand they will respond, and when they reach accountability they will know how to respond and ask for baptism when they reach the age of accountability (Eph. 6:4).
We need to celebrate the Reformation by a continued commitment to do what the Bible teaches. As we celebrate 500 years of back to the Bible freedom, we, as a people who believe the Bible teaches believer’s baptism, rejoice that children are innocent and saved until they reach the age of accountability. Being nurtured in the teaching of the Word and accepting it as they grow up, they will then be able to ask for baptism.
The issue we face is, does the Bible teach believer’s baptism? To answer this question we need to go back to the Bible. We do not find sacramental baptism in Scripture, and we also do not find the idea that baptism has replaced circumcision.
I suggest we respond by rejoicing for what the Anabaptists found and practiced back in the 16th century, examine it biblically, and take what the Bible teaches. We affirm believer’s baptism even if it is uncomfortable. If that is what the Bible teaches, that is what we want to do.
This does not mean we reject fellowship with churches that practice infant baptism, but we do not accept their practice of infant baptism because we believe it is not supported in Scripture nor is it a baptism based on personal faith. We stand for and commit ourselves to what the Bible teaches.
We also need to do a diligent study on the role of children and the church. Our Anabaptist forebears found no basis for sacramental or covenantal infant baptism. As already noted, they believed the Scriptures teach that children are safe in the kingdom until the age of accountability when they decide to continue in the faith or leave it (Pilgram Marpeck; Schleitheim Confession).
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we rejoice in the testimony of our forebears and commit ourselves to be true to the study and teaching of the Bible and its teaching on baptism as our Anabaptist forebears did.
Dr. Harvey Plett (BA, MA, MDiv, PhD) has served as president of Steinbach Bible College and as EMC moderator; he is a long-serving minister at Prairie Rose EMC. He continues to do some teaching, preaching, counselling, and writing. He and his wife Pearl live in Mitchell, Man., and celebrated 58 years of blessed marriage on Aug. 22, 2016.
A publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference