Anabaptist Roots Part 3: Radical 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 blogs suggests that the church needs to give thought to the Anabaptist[i] tradition as it seeks to make its way through “the transition zone.” 

This week I am attempting to provide a brief overview of the development of the Anabaptist ecclesiology.  The last two posts have compared and contrasted the two major ecclesiastical traditions of Christianity:  Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.  Today we will explore the birth of the Radical (Anabaptist) ecclesiology.

The Development of Radical Ecclesiology 

Most of the ecclesiastical controversy of the sixteenth century revolved around the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation (i.e., Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin).  It is important to note, however, that another ecclesiastical tradition developed and flourished during the Reformation. This movement believed that the church had gone astray from its biblical foundations and needed not a reformation, but rather a restoration.  The primary concern of the Anabaptist movement was to restore the church to its New Testament model.[ii]

Anabaptism was born on January 21, 1525.[iii]  On this day a dozen or so individuals gather in the home of Felix Manz, near the Grossmunster.  George Blaurock recorded the events of the evening

And it came to pass that they were together until anxiety came upon them, yes, they were so pressed within their hearts.  Thereupon they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Informer of Hearts and they prayed that he would give to them his divine will and that he would show his mercy unto them.  For flesh and blood did not drive them, since they well knew what they would have to suffer on account of it.

After the prayer, George of the House of Jacob stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge.  And when he knelt down with such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained minister to perform such work.[iv]

Originally these persons had been disciples of Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli.  Zwingli was a popular folk preacher and teacher widely known for his knowledge of Latin and Greek and his ability to freely translate the scripture into Swiss German.  In applying the gospel, he sounded more like a radical reformer than a Roman Catholic.  He advocated, among other things, changes in the liturgy, the removal of engraved images from places of worship, and the replacing mass with the Lord’s Supper.[v]  When it became clear that the bishops in Rome did not tolerate his views, Zwingli resigned his ministry and was immediately reappointed by the city council of Zurich, to which he then became responsible.[vi]   Zwingli’s allegiance and loyalty to the council of Zurich would eventually lead to his falling out with persons like Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and the other Anabaptist founders.

To institute reforms, Zwingli used his position as a representative to the Zurich city council.  He selected items of ecclesiastical concern he was prepared to debate against all challenges.  Following a debate, the city council would make a decision concerning the issue he had raised.  The council nearly always sided with Zwingli.  While this advanced the cause of  Reformation, Grebel and his companions questioned the method and wondered where Zwingli’s loyalty rested, with God or with the city council.[vii] 

In AD 1523 the dispute between Zwingli and his followers came to a head as Zwingli proposed that the mass be replaced by the Lord’s Supper and that engraved images be removed from places of worship.[viii]  These concerns were addressed in October of  AD 1523 by the council of Zurich.  Before the meeting,  Zwingli assured Grebel that the word of God and not the decision of the council ought to be viewed as authoritative.[ix]  After the council, however, Zwingli submitted to the will of the council who rejected his proposal. Grebel and his brethren were left with a choice:  joining Zwingli in submission to the council or facing exile, imprisonment, and persecution.  They chose the later. 

When Conrad Grebel and the others gathered for prayer and an impromptu baptismal service they turned their backs on the Reformation.  Unlike Luther, whose initial desire was to correct perceived inadequacies in the established church, Grebel and his comrades felt their mission was to start over from the beginning.  They proposed to reinstate the New Testament church.  As a baptismal confession, they voluntarily pledged themselves to a life of discipleship and Christian community.[x]  Believer’s baptism, discipleship, and Christian community became the defining marks of Anabaptist ecclesiology.

This week blogs posting have aim to provide a brief historical survey of the development of the Anabaptist movement, comparing and contrasting its vision of the church with the two major ecclesiastical traditions of Christianity—Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation.

Next week, I will offer a more detail description of the Anabaptist vision of the church. Specifically we will examine:

            The Challenges of a Changing World

            The Church in a Changing World

            The Identity of the Church

            The Church as Covenant People

            The Church as a Sign of the Kingdom

            The Church as Community

            The Purpose of the Church

[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] John J. Kiwiet, “Anabaptist 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), 228.

[iii]Three schools of thought exist regarding Anabaptist origins.  The sectarian school believes that this tradition falls within a larger movement throughout history that  sought to restore the church to its New Testament roots (though they rejected an unbroken line of succession). The puritan school of thought believes that the “believer’s church” tradition was a product of the left wing of the British Puritan movement (from which sprung the Baptist). The Anabaptist school asserts that the “believer’s church” developed as a part of the evangelical wing of the Reformation. For further details see Durnbaugh, The Believer’s Church, 8-21.

[iv] A.J.F. Zieglschmid, Die ãlteste Chronik der Hutterischen Bruder, (New York:  Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, 1943), 47, translated into English and quoted in William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story,  (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1963), 9-10. 

[v] Dycks, Mennonite History, 37.

[vi] Dycks says that similar actions were being taken by the aristocrats in Germany with regard to Luther and his assistants.

[vii] On December 18, 1523, Grebel wrote a letter to his brother-in-law who served as pastor of the Reformed Church at St. Gall.  In the letter, Grebel indicates that he had lost confidence in Zwingli’s leadership and did not approve of the method of reformation in Zurich.  Information about the content of this letter can be found in William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story,  (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1963), 11-12.

[viii] Ibid., 10.

[ix] John Howard Yoder, “The Turning Point of the Zwinglian Reformation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 32 (April, 1958), 128-40.

[x] Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 10.

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