What’s wrong with Anabaptism? (part 3) image

What’s wrong with Anabaptism? (part 3)

The establishment and subsequent collapse of the Munsterite “New Jerusalem” in 1534-35 did huge damage to the Anabaptist cause and to Protestantism as a whole. It is no coincidence that John Calvin, in publishing what became his seminal work, The Institutes (1536), made every effort to distance himself and the evangelical cause which he represented from events over the border in Germany. The Institutes, in its first edition, began with a preface to the King of France, Francis I, in which Calvin was at pains to point out the biblical basis for all he believed and his submission to secular government.

Meanwhile, back in the Netherlands, the thousands of ordinary people who had rallied to the Anabaptist cause in the 1530-34 period when the growth of Anabaptism was in revival proportions, were left “as sheep without a shepherd” (Menno Simons). In the next decades, Dutch Anabaptism divided into three distinct variants.
First, there were those who wished to continue the revolutionary apocalypticism of Munster. The chief proponent of this form was Jan van Batenberg (no jokes about cakes and “colourful characters” please). He held a full Munsterite theology, including community of goods and wives and the slaughter of the godless. After Batenberg’s execution on 5 April 1538 this sector of the movement descended into total anarchy. In May 1546 two Anabaptists were burned at Amsterdam. One claimed to be a new chosen king and the other his treasurer. The “king” had pushed his wife from a moving wagon and then murdered her to prevent her discovering his incestuous relationship with his daughter. He later killed the daughter also.
Second, there were other Dutch Anabaptists who, in condemning violence, drifted into mysticism and a rejection of the need for any outward forms of expression of Christian faith. David Joris, for example, who had joined the movement in 1534 came to reject water baptism in favour of a “baptism of the Spirit” and moved increasingly away from Scripture and towards an “inner light” of revelation. It was helpful that his name was David. This was, after all, a key sign that he was the third David, a spirit-anointed prophet–Messiah who would usher in the kingdom of God on earth. An even more bizarre figure than Joris was Hendrik Niclaes, founder of the “Family of Love” (no direct connection to the equally whacky Family of Love founded by David Berg in the USA in the late ‘60s). Niclaes declared himself to be the “one new man” of Ephesians 2:15 on the somewhat tenuous grounds that his initials corresponded to the Latin term for new man (Homo Novus). Convinced?
The third group were the followers of Menno Simons and became known as “Mennonites”. Menno was a priest from Friesland in the far north of the Netherlands. He had doubted the “magic” of transubstantiation (bread and wine physically becoming the body and blood of Christ) as a young priest, but he came late to Anabaptism, not being baptized as a believer until 1536. This gave him the distinct advantage of being completely untainted by the events of Munster. Menno’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine (1539) became the theological cornerstone of Mennonitism. There is much that is good in Menno’s theology and, after giving the Anabaptists a pretty hard time in recent blogs, I feel I owe it to them and to Menno to write one more blog paying tribute to Menno’s commitment to a thorough-going Biblical faith. Even so, there are two negatives that I would want to preface these comments with.
Menno held to a bizarre Christology which stemmed back to the original founder of Dutch Anabaptism, Melchior Hoffman. Many evangelicals were deeply disturbed by the almost divine status that the Virgin Mary had been elevated to in medieval Catholicism. In order to counteract this, Hoffman taught the doctrine of Christ’s “celestial flesh”, a monophysite Christology that Christ did not take his human flesh from the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary was, as one Anabaptist put it, a chimney, i.e. a vehicle for the safe passage of Christ to planet earth, rather than an instrumental part of the process. Menno and his supporters held to this position defiantly. One leader, Adam Pastor, was deposed from ministry and excluded from his own congregation in 1547 for denying this teaching.
Central to Menno’s ecclesiology was a gathered church. Admission to this gathered community was, of course, through baptism, and the community was kept pure through the use of “the ban” (excommunication). This is all highly commendable. However, all the evidence points to an excessive, frequent and over-ferocious use of the ban. I have even come across one Mennonite pastor who excommunicated every member of his congregation except, of course, his wife!
To be continued…

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