What’s wrong with Anabaptism? (Part 2)
When we look a little closer, however, we find that Anabaptism, in its original form, was not nearly so “pure” as we might be led to believe. Right from the start of their Reformation, the Anabaptists did not wish merely to form a “gathered” church marked by admission through believer’s baptism, but were bent on capturing the whole Zurich Reformation from Zwingli. It was only after they had lost a public debate on the issue of baptism in January 1525 that they began to move towards the concept of a church within but separate from the rest of the city community. This is because Anabaptism was always a mixture of radicalized Zwinglianism with late medieval anticlerical and “heretical” traditions. One of the earliest Zurich radicals, Simon Stumpf, for example, argued that attempts to reform the church would be in vain “if the priests were not slain”. There was also a strong late medieval apocalyptic strain to early Zurich Anabaptism. By 1525 groups were on the streets prophesying “Woe!” to Zurich and identifying Zwingli as the red dragon of Revelation and his pastors as the seven heads.
Not only did the Zurich Anabaptists draw on late-medieval apocalyptic and heretical traditions from in and around Zurich, but they also looked to two of the more “colourful” Reformation leaders on the wider European stage in the 1520s, Andreas Carlstadt and Thomas Muntzer. Andreas Carlstadt was in correspondence with Conrad Grebel, the recognized leader of the Zurich Anabaptists and, in 1524, Carlstadt actually visited the city. By this point in his ministry Carlstadt, who had originally been Martin Luther’s academic superior as Dean of the Theology Faculty at the University of Wittenberg, had been condemned as a schwarmer (fanatic) by the great German reformer. Carlstadt had become an anti-intellectual, renouncing his three doctoral degrees, calling himself “Brother Andreas” had grown increasingly mystical and, to put it simply, had lost the plot theologically. Amongst his more bizarre beliefs was his insistence that when Jesus spoke the words “This is My body… This is My blood” (Matthew 26:26-27) he was pointing, not at the bread and wine, but at his own human body!
And what of Thomas Muntzer? Muntzer was an early disciple of Luther, but broke from him very early in the 1520s, criticizing him for “easy living”. He was quick to distance himself from Luther’s Reformation-defining doctrine of justification by faith alone. Muntzer drew on an older medieval German mystical tradition, believing that justification was a process of deification or “divinisation” achieved through suffering. For Luther Scripture was the final authority in all matters. Muntzer, on the other hand, emphasized the “inner word” and, in effect, placed contemporary prophecy at least on a par with, and possibly even above, God’s written word. Muntzer was also a militant apocalyptic. His Sermon before the Princes (July 1524) interpreted the feet of the statue in King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2) as a symbol of feudal-papal Christendom. The stone which broke the feet was God’s elect and Muntzer encouraged violence to bring about the destruction of the wicked.
The influence of Muntzer on the Zurich Anabaptists must not be exaggerated. Most of the Zurich radicals were non-violent. Nevertheless, the correspondence and agreement between Conrad Grebel and Muntzer on the issue of baptism and the former’s knowledge of several of the key writings of the latter suggests a significant influence on the movement beyond “radicalized Zwinglianism”. A radicalized Zwinglianism would not have produced apocalyptic violence, a rejection of justification by faith alone and a questioning of the supreme authority of Scripture, all of which can be traced to the earliest phase of Anabaptism in the 1520s. Long before the lunacy of the “Munsterites” of the 1530s there was a great deal wrong with Anabaptism.
To be continued…