Monday, July 27, 2009

The uninspiring legacy of an anabaptist

A few week back our adult Sunday School class began exploring the "History of the Baptist Churches". This was actually part three of a a longer church history course (1=Early Church, 2=The Reformation).

There is some debate about how Baptists began. There is of course that absurd belief that an organized Baptist group has always been present throughout Church history. Another option is often presented that we are descendants of the Anabaptist movement of Europe. While there are certainly similar ideas that link the two groups, in fact the movements are rather distinct. While the Anabaptist's held to some beliefs later picked up by the emerging English baptists of the early 17th century*, they also held some radical--and even heretical--ideas that threatened the orthodoxy of their movement.

On such idea that began to be popular in the Anabaptist movement was the "continuing inspiration of the Spirit". In an extreme form, this led entire congregation to throw aside their Bible under the belief that the Spirit was 'the living Word' inside of them. Like modern day fringe-charismatics, they believed they were given special revelations of the Spirit that were to be unquestioned by anyone. Whereas the Catholic church appealed to tradition as an authority over God's Word, many Anabaptist sects appealed to "new revelation" as an authority over existing revelation.

The "magisterial reformers" (Calvin, Zwingli, Luther) responded quite negatively (Zwingli even persecuted these groups). Sadly, many times the Anabaptist were persecuted for the wrong reasons (such as their belief in believer's baptism). Like David, the reformers we so love and cherish are forever tainted by their sinful actions against this group. But some reformers also saw the core problem clearly.

In his famous reply to Sadolet, John Calvin made an important link between the claims of the papists and those of the 'spiritualistic' sects of the Anabaptists. Writing of both groups he states,
"when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods."**

Even within a movement that, like modern day Baptists, wanted to be "people of the Book" there arose a hideous idea that actually undermined the authority of God's word. All the while claiming to hold fast to God's Word they in reality let it slip right through their fingers.

This is one Anabaptist legacy that the modern church would do well to abhor.

* The Baptist movement appears to have originated as an off shoot of the Puritan movement in England and as a breakaway from Anglicanism.
** "Calvin's Reply to Cardinal Sadolet's Letter", contained in John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Vol 1 (Edinburgh:
Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), p 36.

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1 comment:

  1. I certainly don't claim to be an expert on the anabaptists, but I do find that we too often lump them all together as if Menno Simons and company are one and the same with the Muenster Rebellion people (i.e. the White Horse Inn guys who use anabaptist as an insult). Like any of our forerunners, we can learn much from the anabaptists, sifting out what is in error and keeping what is proper, no differently than we do with the magisterial reformers.