What’s wrong with anabaptism?
Long ago when I was an undergraduate I wrote a dissertation on Anabaptist eschatology. The Anabaptists of Holland in the early 1530s have long been recognized as those who did most harm to their movement as a whole. Their over-realized eschatology led to the formation of an Old Testament kingdom in the north German city of Munster in 1534. Jan van Beuckels, a tailor by trade who became the leader of the kingdom, had himself crowned “king” of Munster and introduced Old Testament law as the basis of the town’s constitution. Polygamy was introduced with Beuckels taking more than his fair share of wives (16 to be precise) and the death penalty was introduced for backbiting or complaining. The “theologian” behind this nightmare (theologian is probably too strong a word!) was Melchior Hoffman who, in his Commentary on Daniel 12 (1526) had predicted that the two periods of 3 ½ years which Daniel had prophesied would usher in the end of the world in 1533 (bear in mind Hoffman was writing in 1526!)
Nobody in their right mind would try to defend Munsterite Anabaptism. However, in my youthful naivety I was in far too much of a hurry to champion the cause of the more “peaceful and biblical” Anabaptism, the kind that Menno Simons (from which we get the word Mennonite today) advocated. It was Menno who led Dutch Anabaptism in the period after Munster. In the heady days of the 1980s in my rebellion against the excesses of Thatcherism where the individual was everything and “society” as such did not exist, I became a great admirer of the Anabaptists with their commitment to the Scriptural practice of believers’ baptism and their consequent view of the Church as a “gathered” community of believers. I guess this is because, unlike Mrs Thatcher, I believed in community. From all of this I now thoroughly repent! It’s not that I have gone soft on baptism or on the Church. It’s just that what Anabaptists got right on these issues cannot begin to excuse their massive errors on so many other issues. It’s rather like an archer who claims that he is Olympic class because one of the 100 arrows he fires happens to hit the target when the other 99 ended up in adjacent fields!
In a recent discussion with Andrew Wilson I discovered the same youthful naïve admiration of the Anabaptists I had some 30 years ago. In order to spare my dear friend all those years of theological confusion (just joking Andrew), I thought I would spell out exactly what I think is wrong with Anabaptism.
To be continued…