The Anabaptist Challenge image

The Anabaptist Challenge

The success of Zwingli’s Reformation was, from the very outset dependent on support from the Zurich magistrates. The Bishop of Constance was outraged at the implied criticism the 'Affair of the Sausages' made of the Church, but when he voiced his protests he found that the city’s ruling council was quick to line up behind Zwingli. When Catholic preachers began to attack Zwingli’s criticism of the veneration of the saints they were given short shrift and simply told to preach Biblical sermons like Zwingli. Zwingli received further endorsement from the city Council on 10th October when he was re-appointed as a preacher and, four months later was given the opportunity to make the case for the evangelical position in a public debate.

The public debate held by the council in January 1523 was a high water mark in the Zurich Reformation. As a debate it was something of a charade, because the Council decreed that arguments be confined only to Scripture which somewhat weakened the Catholic cause! However, the acceptance of the 67 articles summarizing Zwingli’s position meant that Zurich now became an evangelical city. At this stage the evangelicals were still united but this was to be very short-lived. The fact that Zwingli’s vision was of Church and State working hand in hand in the defence and propagation of the Gospel meant that division lay just around the corner.

A second debate was held in October 1523, this time to settle the issue of images and statues of saints in the Church. Radical followers of Zwingli had already begun to take matters into their own hands by committing acts of iconoclasm. Even at this early stage of Reformation future Anabaptists like Conrad Grebel had rejected the city Council’s authority in spiritual affairs. Divisions which were to emerge in the next couple of years over believers’ baptism were rooted in the more fundamental issue of what constitutes the Church. If, as Zwingli believed, the Church embraces the whole of society (the medieval view of corpus christianum), then it seems only reasonable that the magistrates, as God’s representatives, inputted on spiritual decision-making. On the issue of images, for example, Zwingli and the town Council were in agreement theologically on their danger. Zwingli was more than happy, therefore, to recognize the Council’s right to decide on the timing of the removal of images since the Council had a clear God-given duty and responsibility to maintain law and order. Zwingli’s view of the Church was as something akin to Israel in the Old Testament, with himself as a sort of Prophet Samuel and the Council as the newly established Israelite monarchy.

There was disquiet in the ranks over iconoclasm, but as Zwingli and his radical supporters seemed to be still moving in the same direction (ie images were idolatrous) the more fundamental disagreement over the nature of the Church remained masked. The decisive break came in December 1523. Zwingli had planned to hold the city’s first evangelical communion on Christmas Day but the Council got cold feet, fearing that this was too much too soon. Not surprisingly Zwingli was happy to go along with this. For him, the decision was not of fundamental importance; since the theological issue had been settled it was better to wait rather than to destroy the unity of worship in the city. However, for the radicals this was proof that Zwingli was a false prophet who had made unacceptable concessions. Within a few months they had moved ground to question infant baptism. They lost a debate on this issue on 17 January 1525 but, only four days later, they pressed ahead and began to re-baptize members of the group.

As we have already observed, believers’ baptism was not the decisive factor that separated Zwingli and his radical supporters. The crucial issue was ecclesiology. If the Church embraces the whole of society as Zwingli believed, then infant baptism is a logical consequence. Of course, this was not a position that Zwingli alone asserted. The “magisterial” reformers – Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Bullnger, Oecolampadius etc etc – all defended this view of baptism. Society was, they believed, essentially Christian, albeit a somewhat doctrinally confused and sub-standard version of the faith. The Anabaptist view was altogether different. Their ecclesiology was one of a “gathered Church”, a Church into which individuals consciously opted via believers’ baptism and membership was maintained and the Church kept pure through discipline. Such a Church was very definitely, in the view of the radicals, outside the control of the magistrates. Authority lay with the congregation and with elders appointed from within the congregation.

It quickly became clear that the Anabaptists, as the radicals became known, posed a serious political and doctrinal threat to the Zurich Reformation led by Zwingli and the Zurich magistrates. The authorities responded by imprisoning or banishing all the radical leaders. By 1526 the death sentence had been introduced for all Anabaptists. As something of a sick joke, the method was by drowning. By January 1527 Felix Manz had become the first of many Anabaptist martyrs for their faith in the sixteenth century.

Church history, like much of life, is messy! Much as I admire Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the other magisterial reformers, I am embarrassed and ashamed of their treatment of the Anabaptists. Fundamentally, I also think that Anabaptist ecclesiology is nearer to a New Testament model than the Protestant reformers who trumpeted Sola Scriptura so confidently. Sola Scriptura sounds great, but as soon as you get to the tricky issue of interpreting Scripture the waters become much muddier. However, as I have expressed in previous blogs, there is also much that concerns me about early forms of Anabaptism. The early Anabaptists were frequently violent, apocalyptic, had poor Christology and a muddled and confused theology of justification. These are not inconsiderable shortcomings!

Why is life so complicated?

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