Anabaptist Roots Part 2: Reformed Ecclesiology

The serious of blogs under the heading “the transition zone” are all about helping the church develop a meaningful theology of evangelism in the post-modern era.  The challenge come from the fast that the dominate cultural paradigm under which the church has operated for the last 500 years no longer hold sway.  Like it or not, things have changed – and congregations and denominations that don’t recognize that are destined to die a slow death.

Previous blogs has discussed the rise and fall of modernity and how that has impacted the church.  The blogs for this week are exploring an oft overlooked ecclesiastical tradition that I believe may offer some guidance for the church as it makes its way through “the transition zone.”  That often overlooked vision of the church—that coming from the Anabaptist[i] tradition. 

This week I am attempting to provide a brief overview of the development of the Anabaptist ecclesiology, comparing and contrasting it with the two other major ecclesiastical traditions of Christianity—Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.  The last post looked at the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic tradition (their doctrine of the church).  Today we will explore the birth of the Protestant Reformation. 

The Development of Reformed Ecclesiology

Attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church were made prior to the sixteenth century.  In AD 547, Benedict of Nursia’s concern for the church prompted him to initiate a monastic renewal movement. Benedict wrote instructions to guide the ministry of monastic orders.[ii]   Later, in AD 814, Charlemange and other advisors began training the clergy, reforming monasteries, establishing schools, initiating church discipline, and encouraging the public proclamation of the gospel.[iii]  In addition to the leadership of Charlemange the conscience of many church leaders was raised by the witness of persons like Francis of Assisi, Peter Waldo, John Wyclif and John Hus.

Despite many efforts to correct the church prior to the sixteenth century,  a genuine reformation movement did not begin until AD 1517.  In that year an Augustinian monk challenged the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church to a debate by posting 95 thesis statements on the door of the Wittenburg University in Germany.   That monk was Martin Luther.  Whether intended or not, Luther’s challenge to the church initiated a movement now known as the Protestant Reformation.  The Reformation spread like wild-fire across Europe.  Bibles were translated into the common vernacular of the people.  Pamphlets were published containing the writings of the Reformation theologians.  Indeed, if it were not for the advent of the printing press, the Reformation of the Sixteenth century might never have taken hold.[iv]

At first glance, Martin Luther does not seem to be a prime candidate for leading in an overhaul of the ecclesiastical structures of the church.  By most accounts, he was an ill-tempered individual given to fits of rage, depression, and excessive use of libatious beverages. These are not exactly the qualities one would expect to see in the life of a theologian and prophet.  Upon further reflection, however, Martin Luther is seen as a complicated person who engaged in many internal struggles concerning the state of his soul and the doctrines of the church. 

At the core of Luther’s struggles was his overwhelming fear of God.[v]  The teachings of the church said that salvation involved doing good works (meaning, primarily, the reception of the sacraments).  For Luther, this soteriological formula was difficult to satisfy.  No matter how hard he tried to be faithful receiving the sacraments, Luther still saw himself as a sinner.  If Luther saw himself as a sinner, he was certain that God must see him as the worst of sinners.  Luther was certain that his fate would be eternal damnation in the pits of hell. 

In frustration, Luther did what most medieval men struggling with issues of faith might do—he became a monk.  In July of AD 1505, Luther was caught in a violent thunderstorm and struck by lightning.  In that sudden confrontation with death, he cried, “St. Anne help me, I will become a monk.”[vi]

In the monastery, Luther devoted himself to Bible study, prayer, fasting, and the reception of the sacraments.  His disciplines were often the most dedicated and intense in the entire monastery.  Despite monastic life, however, Luther’s doubts remained. The disciplines of monastic life offered no reprieve.  Indeed, his continual reflections on the sacraments and words of Scripture only increased the intensity of his doubts.  Monastic life gave Luther a view of God that was so high and holy that he felt there could be no peace between himself and God as long as any hint of sin remained in his life.[vii]

In spite of his continued anguish and doubt, Luther became a popular preacher and teacher at the Wittenburg University.  One day, while preparing to deliver a lecture at the university, Luther discovered a new meaning to Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.”  The impact of this revelation was overwhelming.  Luther realized that at the center of Christianity was the truth that human beings are loved, not hated, by God. Furthermore, this love was not based on what people might do for God, but rather on what God had done for all people through the work of Christ on the cross.  It was not good works or the reception of the sacraments that provided salvation, but faith.  What a new picture of God this painted for Luther.  Roland Bainton writes:

Luther, as no one else before him in more than a thousand years, sensed the importance of the miracle of divine forgiveness.  It is a miracle because there is no reason for it according to man’s  standards.[viii]

After making this discovery, Luther could say, “Now I felt myself newborn in Paradise.  All the Holy Scripture looked different to me . . .”[ix]

For the Luther salvation was based on the divine gift of grace that was mediated in Christ, expressed in God’s word, and then responded to by faith.  By faith Luther did not mean some sort of intellectual exercise or any other internal attempt to create courage and strength within ourselves.  Indeed, such an approach would make faith merely a “work” of giving assent to propositional doctrines—and Luther was convinced that human beings could not be saved by “works.”  On the contrary, genuine faith could not exist apart from an “object or trust and apart from a personal relationship.”[x]  Paul Althaus describes Luther’s views by writing:

Faith exists only as a response to God’s word.  The word alone gives it its basis and content.  This word is the word of ‘promise,’ that is, of the gospel.  God’s law is written in the hearts of all men.  Everyone knows at least something about it before it is proclaimed to him.  The law is therefore not the object of faith, at least not in the same sense that the gospel is…For this reason the hearing of the word precedes faith, as both Luther and Paul repeatedly emphasized, (Rom. 10:14; Gal. 3:2) ‘Faith comes only through hearing,’ that is, through the preaching of the gospel.  For Luther then faith means accepting God’s promise from the heart and taking a chance on it.  Faith is an act of the will with which a man ‘holds to’ the word of promise.[xi]

God’s work of providing salvation to human beings takes place within the context of this interdependence between the proclamation of the word of promise and the accompanying response of faith.  God approaches us in the word (the proclamation of scriptures) with a message of grace (the gospel) to which we respond by faith.  What, then, is the role of the sacraments in Luther’s theology?  In what way, if any, do they usher in grace and call for faith?  For Luther, a genuine sacrament was a combination of a message of grace in conjunction with a sign instituted by God.  Describing Luther’s theology of the sacraments, Althaus writes:

 This means, first, that a sign or a symbol by itself is not yet a sacrament.  Luther explains that every visible act can naturally mean something and be understood as a picture or an analogy of invisible realities.  This is not enough, however, to make a symbolic act into a sacrament.  The symbolic act must be instituted by God and combined with a promise.  Sacramental character ultimately depends on the presence of a divine word of promise.  Where this is missing, as in marriage or confirmation, one cannot speak of a sacrament.  On the other hand, however, there are realities and deeds in the Christian life such as prayer, hearing and mediating on the word, and the cross, to which God has attached a promise.  But they lack the characteristic of a sign or a symbol.  This is the case, for example, in the so-called sacrament of penance.  Strictly speaking therefore there are only two sacraments in the church of God: baptism and the Lord’s supper.  For only in these is there both a sign instituted by God and the promise of the forgiveness of sins.[xii]

According to Roland Bainton, Martin Luther’s ecclesiology was based upon his view of the sacraments.[xiii] Luther recognized the reception of the Lord’s Supper was important, but affirmed its efficacy only upon the prerequisite of personal faith.  This emphasis on personal faith would seem to suggest that Luther sought to create a confessional or congregational church. On the issue of baptism, however, Luther failed to apply fully the logic of his faith.[xiv]  If he had, Luther might well have embraced the doctrine of believer’s baptism.[xv]

Adult believer’s baptism leads to an ecclesiology that sees the church as a gathering of individuals who have experienced regeneration.  Infant baptism (at least during the Reformation) points toward a church composed of everyone in the state baptized upon birth.  Luther had a difficult time deciding which baptismal form he would affirm, but eventually opted for infant baptism.  It was this decision that allowed for the continuation of a chief problem in pre-reformation ecclesiology, namely the unification of the church and state.  To step away from such unification toward congregationalism was, for Luther, a step toward mob rule.  Penrose St. Amant writes:

He (Luther) sought to sustain the medieval idea that the same people constituted the state and the church.  The alternative seemed to him to be anarchy.  He could not bring himself to reject the alliance between church and state, which he believed was the basis not only of a Christian society but also of social accord.  Deep in the European mind the idea persisted  into the Reformation and beyond that a state church was essential for harmony and justice in society.[xvi]

For the sake of stability in society, Luther held fast to the pre-reformation doctrine of infant baptism despite the fact that it contradicted the basic tenets of his faith.  He believed that a stable society, rooted in a state church and symbolized by infant baptism, was much more important than the personal faith of the recipient.[xvii]

It was this view of the sacraments that gave rise to Luther’s ecclesiology.  Within the wider state church, Luther believed that one would find a true church made up of “earnest Christians.”[xviii]  In fact, Luther often entertained the idea of establishing a true Christian church—a church made up “earnest Christians” who would “confess the gospel with their lives as well as their lips.”  They would meet regularly, apart from the larger body of nominal Christians, to study scripture, pray, and receive the sacraments.[xix] Luther failed to realize his dream.  Indeed, later in life, Luther expressed distress over the results of the Reformation, stating that the moral and religious outlook of society seemed more lamentable than ever.[xx]  The central enigma, which Luther never satisfactorily resolved, was that he had two competing ecclesiologies.  On the one hand, he wanted a confessional church made up of everyone who exercised personal faith.  On the other hand, he wanted a territorial church consisting of everyone, baptized into the church at infancy.[xxi]

[i] The word Anabaptist means “to re-baptize.”  Anabaptists believe that baptism is the first step in a life of Christian discipleship.  Early Anabaptists rejected the efficacy of their childhood baptism and were “re-baptized” as adults upon their confession of faith. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944); Paul M. Lederach, A Third Way, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1980); Donald F. Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church:  The History and Character of Radical Protestantism. (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1985); and Franklin H. Littell, The Free Church, (Boston:  Star King Press, 1957).

[ii] Davies, The Early Christian Church, 244.

[iii] Dycks, Mennonite History, 18.

[iv] Thomas M. Lindsey, A History of the Reformation, Vol. 1, (Edinburgh:  T. And T. Clark, 1907), 45.

[v] Dycks, Mennonite History, 29.

[vi] Bainton, The Reformation, 28.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 34-35.

[ix] Dycks, Mennonite History, 30.

[x] Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1966), 43.

[xi] Ibid., 43-44.

[xii] Ibid., 345-346.

[xiii] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, (New York:  Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 140.

[xiv] Luther was aware of this lapse in the logic of this doctrine and tried to respond to his critics in two ways.  First, Luther suggested that there were two types of faith—faith awake and faith asleep.  Children are recipients of God’s grace, but it is still asleep.  Infant baptism, Luther suggested, was a sign that the child was a beneficiary of God’s grace. Second, Luther also suggested that the child could be sustained by the faith of his or her parents (or sponsors), as they would already be a part of the community of faith.  For further treatment of Luther’s defense of infant baptism, read Bainton’s The Reformation, 50-51.

[xv] C. Penrose St. Amant, “Reformation Views of the Church,” in The People of God:  Essays on the Believer’s Church, ed. Paul Basden and David Dockery, (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1991), 209.

[xvi] Ibid., 210.

[xvii] Ibid., 211.

[xviii] Luther’s understanding of  “earnest Christians” being found within the regional church is very similar to Augustine’s understanding that an “invisible church” of true believers exists within the larger church in which all are considered members because of their baptism as infants. 

[xix] Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision, (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1944), 17-18.

[xx] Ibid., 19; and Bainton, The Reformation, 52-54.

[xxi] Bainton, Here I Stand, 311.

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