What do Reformation Anabaptists have to do with Contemporary Baptists?

October 2nd, 2017 / By: Jason Duesing / comments

What do Reformation Anabaptists have to do with Contemporary Baptists?

One man’s noise is another man’s symphony. Indeed, the Anabaptists are more often thought of as clanging nuisances of history many have sought to mute or dismiss—sounds of history that are more noise than melody, more cacophony than symphony. In the years following Martin Luther’s first strides toward reformation, the sirens of the Anabaptists concussed in strident discord to Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformer’s idea of a Magisterial Reformation. Often these and later Baptists were thus stamped with the label of Münster revolutionaries, a mischievous sect, who many solemnly swore were up to no good. 

Yet, as William Estep argued, “Anabaptism might well be, outside the Reformation itself, the most influential movement the sixteenth century spawned” for religious liberty and the separation of church and state. G. H. Williams identified three groups of Anabaptists: revolutionary, contemplative, and evangelical—with the latter most theologically close to the Magisterial Reformers in terms of their doctrines of the sole authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone. Herein, then, lies the value of the Reformation Anabaptists for contemporary Baptists. The Reformation Anabaptists show how one can hold gospel unity with the rest of the Protestants while pushing for further reformation in local church doctrine and practice.

The early evangelical Anabaptists in Zurich were trained by Zwingli in the humanist tradition of returning to the original sources for doctrinal development. Through this training, many of the evangelical Anabaptists first encountered the sola fide, solus Christus, sola gratia gospel and as a foundation embraced with deep devotion the concept of sola Scriptura.  This careful study of the Bible in its original languages led several of the Anabaptists to press Zwingli for New Testament fidelity when it came to ecclesiology. The basis for much of this disagreement arises over the placement of what the Reformers called “the fall of the church.” For the Anabaptists, they concluded and maintained that the point at which the church fell or entered into a period of sustained corruption was the point at which “church and state were united under Constantine.” Estep explains that the Reformers by and large saw the Constantinian era “as a period of the church’s triumph” and thus did not come to see the church as ever achieving a complete fall. Rather, they focused on Papal corruption and sought to reform the existing structure from within.

An obvious area of disagreement, of course, occurred over the doctrine of baptism. When the Anabaptists moved to embrace believer’s baptism (not yet immersion), it was a move they felt was obligatory not because they saw baptism now as participating in the act of salvation, but rather because they saw it intrinsically linked to the establishment of a free church separate from the state. As Estep explains, “Each of the terms [they] used was intended to convey the meaning of baptism as the deliberate, voluntary act of a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. Therefore, baptism for the believer symbolizes his newness of life and his determination to follow Christ even unto death. … Without it, the visible church could not exist.” Further, the Anabaptists saw the recovery of the church as intrinsically connected to the recovery of the gospel itself. Estep says, “The nature of the gospel and of man’s response to it are also reasons [for rejecting the baptism of infants]. Faith, man’s response to the proclaimed Word, is the foundation of the church. Only the faithful are qualified for baptism and church membership.”

Thus, it was in Zurich on Jan. 21, 1525, the first Anabaptists left the prevalent and state-mandated tradition of infant baptism and followed their biblical convictions that true baptism should be administered solely to believers, and that such believer’s baptism should function as the entrance into membership of the local church. Estep recounts the significance of this event:

“On this fateful night the concept of a Believers’ Church based upon a voluntary confession of faith confirmed by the act of public baptism found concrete realization in history. Thus, from a handful of radicals in Switzerland and South Germany who preferred to call themselves Brethren in Christ, the Free Church movement sprang.” 

Signaling the reemergence of the Free Church, these were songs of harmonic precision providing the motivating accompaniment for the beginnings of an ecclesiastical revolution.

The Anabaptists developed multiple enemies for their actions. Leonard Verduin describes the developments among the Anabaptists as the “second front” of concern for Magisterial Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. On the one hand, the Magisterial Reformers’ first front of concern was clearly the actions and reactions of the Roman Catholics to their call for church reformation. The Magisterial Reformers desired to reform the Catholic Church in all areas of corruption by rightly establishing the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ by faith alone as the center of faith and practice. On the other hand, the Magisterial Reformers were concerned with the Anabaptists’ desire to move beyond church reform to complete restoration of the church to its New Testament origins. 

What value, then, do the Reformation Anabaptists have for contemporary Baptists? First, the Anabaptists of the 16th century are helpful lenses through which to find instruction and encouragement, but cannot serve as the de facto path for church structure and interaction with the civil and popular culture of the 21st century. Nor should those of us in the Baptist tradition expend effort to build or rebuild a case for some kind of historical connectedness from 21st-century Nashville to 16th-century Zurich. Rather, contemporary Baptists, and truly all free-church evangelicals, share an indebtedness to the Anabaptists for the ecclesiological principles they pioneered and founded on New Testament truth. Herein lies the basis of a connection to them.

Second, the Anabaptists can serve as model for how to endure and face suffering and persecution especially when such comes due to misunderstanding of one’s beliefs or through blatant injustice. In 1525, in Switzerland and South Germany, the distance between believer’s baptism, the believers’ church, the gospel, and death was short. The price to be paid for defending biblical church distinctives in this climate was more often than not the ultimate price. Yet, these believers were standing under the conviction of what they perceived to be the biblical means for protecting gospel essentials: the preservation and right articulation of the gospel can only be accomplished through the preservation and right articulation of the church. 

When thinking about the role of the Anabaptists in the Reformation and contemporary Baptists, I am helped by Carlos M. N. Eire’s assessment in his new history of the Reformation, where he concludes that the Anabaptists were “ahead of their time.” Perhaps, particularly in terms of their advocacy of the separation of church and state as well as religious liberty, they were made for our time. In short, what many for years have found cacophonous noise, contemporary Baptists now should hear these lessons from Reformation Anabaptists as symphonious.