This is Part One of two guest posts by Simone Ramacci, a friend from Great Britain.
Simone is a biology research student and the leader of a campus ministry at the University of Essex (England). He is currently serving as an intern at the local Congregational church and as Science & Religion Rep for the Student Christian Movement (UK).
Anabaptism: The Gospel Reformation
- An Introduction
Anyone who is familiar with the kind of theology Michael Hardin and his friends do on this blog will have at least heard of Anabaptism, even more so if they live in a country where Mennonite or Amish communities are present. If you are unfamiliar with this Christian tradition, you will (hopefully) find this series to be a good place to start. My main sources for this are The Mennonite Trust (UK) website and the booklet What Is An Anabaptist Christian? by Palmer Becker.
Anabaptism emerged from the tumultuous times of the Reformation during the 16th century, more as a movement than a unified community. Following the example of Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli, the Anabaptists questioned everything that was taught by the Catholic Church, and they went beyond what he dared teach, refusing to accept the idea that Church membership began at birth, and thus refusing the baptism of newborns. Because of this belief that Christendom was not a matter of birth, but one of conscience, they were mocked by being given the name of “re-baptisers” (Anabaptists or Wiedertäufer). They also taught radical obedience to the Gospel, which meant being separate from government because the army and the administration of justice both required killing.
Of course, mockery was not the only tool available to the Church of Rome and the Reformers, so these people were also violently persecuted by both sides, an incredible feat!
Persecution and offensive names did not stop the spread of this radical Reformation across Western Europe, and to this day, many movements remain which have their roots in the Anabaptist tradition: Amish, Mennonites, Brethren (some of them) and Bruderhof.
Why do I think that Anabaptism is important for the Church today? Many of the core values of the Anabaptists are the exact opposite of the beliefs of the wider Church today which are criticised by many outside the faith. Furthermore, expanding from these beliefs and integrating them with the whole Peace Church tradition (e.g. Quakers) and the most recent developments in peace-centred theology (such as Michael Hardin, Brad Jersak, Matthew Distefano) can provide us a better way of reading Scripture and a more genuine form of Christian witness.
In the end, it all boils down to going back to the sources and reading Scripture “with first-century eyes and 21st-century questions” (N.T. Wright), asking ourselves what made the Way of Jesus so appealing to the very early converts and where can we find again the heart of Jesus’ message amongst all the rubble and dirt of centuries of Christianity as religion of the Empire(s).
- The Bible
One great thing about the Anabaptist tradition is how close they can be to the way the early Church believed and acted. We can see this in the way they approach the Bible.
Both the Catholic and the Protestant traditions usually see the Bible as a whole: from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells the acts of the one God of Israel, who is finally revealed in Jesus Christ, the creative Wisdom incarnate as a human being. Whilst there may be different emphasis on different parts of Scripture (e.g., no one wants to bless infanticide, Psalm 137), if the Jewish Scripture allows or models something, we can expect to see it in the Christian tradition as well. Well known examples of this are the “Just War Theory”, tithing, and some of the more strict views of what should not to be done on the “Sabbath”.
On the other hand, Anabaptism has always been distinguished by a different way of reading Scripture, which is closer to how early Christians themselves did it. While agreeing with the Reformers that the Bible should be central in the Christian life, Anabaptists believe that the emphasis should be put on the person of Jesus. It is not enough to say that our Lord is foreshadowed in any specific Old Testament prophecy, we also need to read the Bible using Jesus as our hermeneutical lens. One ought to read the Bible the way Jesus did, as Michael Hardin is keen on instructing.
If Jesus himself refused the idea of a warlord-type messiah and quoted his Scriptures removing anything that had to do with God being wrathful, if his teachings were centred on the ideas of a non-violent, non-retributive, merciful Abba, if the Sermon on the Mount is a convenient summary of Christian catechesis, how can we take a passage from the Old Testament and use it against the teachings of Jesus and of the Apostles?
In their quest for a more faithful way of living the Christian life, the Anabaptists realized that a “flat” reading of the Bible had been an early mistake of the Church and decided to take the road less traveled and acknowledge that “all the Scriptures point us to the spirit, gospel, example, ordinance and usage of Christ” (Balthasar Hübmaier).
Usually Protestants and Catholics are distinguished by their understanding of salvation, in what school books call the “works versus faith” issue. Catholics do stuff to be saved, Protestants believe in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour instead. Of course, this is an extreme oversimplification: not only Lutherans have been keen on how good works spring from faith, but also the Catholic and Lutheran Churches have now come to a shared understanding of salvation through grace.
Anabaptists took issue with both sides of the debate during the Reformation. If Catholics at the time did indeed tend to emphasize action as a way to deserve salvation, the other side was guilty of focusing on right belief and – Anabaptists said – ignoring when their followers acted in an unchristian manner. Menno Simons is known to have criticised the Reformers for this: “Shame on you for the easy-going gospel”.
For Anabaptists, the emphasis was on following and obeying Jesus through the Spirit, not just to trust him. The call to be disciples was a call to action, to a life offered to conforming oneself to the person of Jesus testified by Scripture and the Spirit. If the Protestants seemed to advocate for faith without works, and the Catholics for works without faith, the Anabaptists wanted instead to have a faith that expressed itself in works (Michael Sattler), or – as we’d probably call it today – a faith in action. The truth is, as we’ve seen above, Lutherans did advocate for works flowing from faith, but many other Reformers tried to out-reform Luther.
Just as the early disciples of Jesus were known by their actions, which were of course the result of the experience of the vindicated Jesus in their lives, so now the Anabaptists wanted to live the Gospel, rather than just believe it. How this was done concretely in their lives will be a subject in my next post, but for now a quote from Hans Denck will do the job nicely:
“No one can truly know Christ unless he follows him in life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.”
— Simone Ramacci