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Why were the sixteenth-century Reformers so vehemently opposed

to the Anabaptist movement?

By Avril Smith

Introduction

Finally Zwingli succeeded in having twenty


men, widows, pregnant women, and young girls thrown
into misery in a dark tower. They were to be shut up with
only bread and water and see neither sun nor moon for
the rest of their lives, condemned to remain in the dark
tower - the living and the dead together - to suffocate in
the stench, to die and rot, until not one of them was
left...At the same time severe mandates were issued at
Zwingli's instigation: from now on, any person in the
district of Zurich who was baptized should be thrown
into the water and drowned without any trial or
judgment.1

The Anabaptists were arguably the most severely persecuted movement of the

sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thousands were drowned, beheaded or burnt to death,

and their enemies came in every religious hue, from the most convinced Roman Catholic to

the fiercest professor of Protestant doctrine. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Melancthon may

have disagreed on many things, but this one belief united them; that Anabaptists everywhere

must be rooted out and destroyed as vermin. This essay will attempt to determine just what it

was about the Anabaptist movement that so infuriated the Reformers. Chapter One will give

an overview of Anabaptist belief and practice, with some reference to those who were labelled

as Anabaptists, but would have been unwelcome additions to the congregations of those

whose beliefs were most closely bound up in the Scriptures. Chapter Two will deal with the

response of Huldrych (Ulrich) Zwingli to the Anabaptists who sprang from his Swiss

Reformation. Chapter Three will consider the attitudes of Luther and Melancthon, and

Chapter Four will deal with Calvin’s Treatise Against the Anabaptists. Chapter Five will seek

to determine what conclusions can be drawn from the evidence examined in the previous

chapters.

1
Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren Vol.I at http://www.anabaptistchurch.org
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Chapter One

An overview of the Anabaptist movement

To refer to an Anabaptist movement can be misleading, in that those who were

labelled as Anabaptists often had little more in common than a rejection of paedo-baptism.

Calvin, having distinguished between the Anabaptists who receive the Scriptures and those he

designates ‘Libertines’, still concludes that ‘those who belong to the first sect are not in such

accord with each other that one can easily produce a collection of their errors for the purpose

of condemning them in any order’.2 This essay will concentrate primarily on those who could

be described as moderate Anabaptists, since the antipathy of the Reformers to those with

extreme views is much easier to comprehend. I am indebted to Chris Good and his website

‘Anabaptists and the Reformation’ for a very clear explanation of the differences between the

various radical movements who came under the Anabaptist ‘umbrella’.3

In addition to those Anabaptists such as the Swiss Brethren, who would have

ascribed to the Schleitheim Confession, there were the Spiritualists, the Rationalists and the

Revolutionaries. Unfortunately for the moderate and peace-loving majority, the Reformers,

though recognizing that there were variations, rarely differentiated between the groups,

treating all who accepted re-baptism as seditious and prone to violence. Though this essay

will deal mainly with the doctrines of the evangelical Anabaptists, I will give a brief overview

of the key teachings of each group and identify both the common ground and where they part

company.

Whilst the Seven Articles of the Schleitheim Confession encompass the core beliefs

of the Swiss Brethren, it is possible to find evidence elsewhere of just what the majority of

moderate Anabaptists believed. Many of the doctrines held by the Swiss Brethren, and many

2
John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, edit. and trans. by
Benjamin Wirt Farley, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982) p.40
3
Chris Good, The Anabaptists and the Reformation (1998) at:
http://www.rbc.org.nz/library/anabap.htm
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other Anabaptists, are expounded by Conrad Grebel and his associates in their letter to

Thomas Müntzer, written on 5th September 1524. (This letter was apparently never received.)

Others can be found in Grebel and Hubmaier’s disputation with Zwingli on 26th-28th October

1523, and in the Eighteen Thesis of Balthasar Hubmaier given in 1524.4 They believed in the

absolute authority of Scripture and backed their teachings with biblical references. ‘We

therefore entreat and admonish you… to seek earnestly to preach only the divine Word, and

unafraid, to set up and defend only divine rites, to esteem as right and good only what is

found in crystal-clear Scripture…’5 They condemned the baptism of children, ‘From the

above Scriptures [the book of Acts and various Gospel references]…we conclude that infant

baptism is a senseless, blasphemous abomination, contrary to all Scripture.’6 Also, the mass,

the priesthood and all forms of worship not sanctioned by Scripture.7 Many of them also

rejected the Sword, since the believer’s sword is the Word of God, ‘True believing Christians

are sheep among wolves…They employ neither worldly sword nor war, since with them

killing is absolutely renounced…’8 They believed in free will and universal atonement, that is

that Christ died for all but we are free to accept or reject His sacrifice. This differed from the

teaching of Luther and Calvin, who denied that Christ could have died for any who would not

be saved, and taught that God predestined some to life and some to damnation. They also

believed that the return of Christ was imminent. For purposes of clarity, this group will be

referred to as ‘mainstream’ or evangelical Anabaptists.

The Spiritualists emphasised the importance of the Spirit over the Word. There were

two main branches of this group, the Evangelical Spiritualists and the Prophetic spiritualists.

The Evangelical Spiritualists were very influential in the Zwinglian Reformation and stressed

the symbolic nature of the sacraments. Because of the emphasis on the spiritual rather than

4
Conrad Grebel Letters to Thomas Muntzer from the Swiss Brethren, Conrad Grebel and Others:
Zurich, September 5, 1524 in William. R. Estep Jnr (ed.) Anabaptist Beginnings: 1523-1533
(Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1976) pp. 31-7 see also ‘The Second Zurich Disputation’ pp.15 - 21 and the
‘Eighteen Thesis of Balthasar Hubmaier’ (or Fridberger) pp.23-6
5
W.R. Estep Jnr, Anabaptist Beginnings (Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1976) p.32
6
Ibid p.36
7
Ibid pp.18 - 21
8
Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings p.35
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the external, many holding these views stayed within Catholicism, since outward forms were

considered of less importance than unity. Others tended towards the view that it was

impossible for a Christian to sin, as external actions were of no account.

The Prophetic Spiritualists laid great stress on the importance of inspiration, visions

and prophecy. They believed that the imminent return of Christ had been revealed to them

through these means. The Zwickau Prophets were members of this group, as was Andreas

Karlstadt. The Zwickau Prophets were Nicholas Storch, a master clothier, Marcus Thomae

and Thomas Dreschel, a weaver. They were expelled from Zwickau for their radical ideas,

and arrived in Wittenberg in1521. They claimed to be inspired by direct visions and declared

that the Spirit of God that inspired them had nothing to do with Christ or the Bible.9 Karlstadt

was less extreme but he also insisted on the inner leading of the Spirit of God as more

important than the Scriptures.10 The Revolutionaries were extreme Prophetic Spiritualists and

are best represented by Thomas Müntzer, who was involved in the Peasants revolt of 1525.

He taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that magistrates should use the Sword to

establish the gospel.

The Rationalists put reason above the Word and rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.

Their most famous representative was Miguel Servetus who was executed in Calvin’s

Geneva. They are seen as the founders of theological liberalism.

Clearly all the groups did not agree on the primacy of the Scriptures, and they

differed in their attitudes to state involvement in religion. Some rejected the use of force

under any circumstances, whilst others saw it as a necessary tool to bring a sinful world to

salvation. One factor at least united them all and this was a belief in the necessity of

separation from the ungodly.

As John D. Roth clearly explains in ‘A Historical and Theological Context for

Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue’, there were large areas of agreement uniting the early

9
Carter Lindberg The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996) p.104
10
Lindberg, European Reformations pp.138-9
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Reformers and the Anabaptists.11 Both movements rejected the Catholic emphasis on the

importance of medieval tradition and the necessity of priesthood, arguing that the Spirit was

able to transform lives without the need of any intercessor but Christ. Both gave priority to

Scripture as the only authority and sought to disseminate the Word amongst the laity. Both

rejected the Catholic position regarding the number of sacraments, reducing them to two,

Baptism and Holy Communion. Without the actions and influence of the Reformers, it is

doubtful whether the Anabaptist movement would have taken place.

Chapter Two

Zwingli and the Anabaptists

Huldrych Zwingli could be charged with bearing some responsibility for the

emergence of the Anabaptist movement, since some of the early leaders began as his

disciples. Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier, Felix Manz and Simon Stumpf were amongst

those who came to feel that Zwingli had capitulated to the authorities over his stance on the

mass and the observance of images.12 Zwingli had, himself, instigated discussion about the

meaning and purpose of baptism, describing it as an outward sign, which does not wash away

sin but is a sign of admission into the church and a pledge to live a Christ-like life. From this

teaching, Zwingli’s followers drew the conclusion that baptism was appropriate only for

adults who had made a rational commitment to Christ.13 W.P. Stephens notes that in 1525,

Zwingli wrote, ‘I thought it much better not to baptize children until they had come to years

of discretion’.14 He held the view that the purpose of baptism was to strengthen faith, as it was

an outward sign of inward washing. However, he did not stop the baptism of infants and by

1524 he felt the need to write in defence of infant baptism. Arguing from John 1.26-7 (the

11
John D. Roth ‘A Historical and Theological Context for Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue’ in The
Mennonite Quarterly Review Vol LXXVI July 2002 No. 3 at:
http://www.goshen.edu/mqr/pastissues/july02.html
12
Lindberg, European Reformations pp.210-215
13
Ibid. p.206
14
W.P. Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) p.194
Page 6

baptism by John the Baptist) and Acts 19.4, ‘John verily baptized with the baptism of

repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after

him, that is, on Christ Jesus’, Zwingli explains that since those baptized by John were

baptized before they knew Christ, it is perfectly legitimate to baptize an infant before he can

express faith. Also, baptism replaces circumcision, which was applied to infants before they

had faith. To support this view he cites Colossians 2.11 ‘In whom also ye are circumcised

with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by

the circumcision of Christ’.15 He also argues that since infant baptism is not prohibited in the

Scripture, it is most likely that infants were baptized with their parents.

Zwingli published three major works on the question of baptism between 1525 and

1527. He was concerned that Anabaptist teachings on baptism would undermine the

Reformation, and accused them of troubling the church with an external issue when they

taught that salvation was an internal matter. He claimed that they added to God’s word by

prohibiting infant baptism, when no prohibition exists in Scripture.16 He also abandoned his

previously held view that baptism strengthened faith, though admitting that he had seen this

as a reason not to baptize infants in the past. He believed that the Anabaptists used baptism as

device to enable them to restrain their brethren from sin, which would lead to legalism, since

Christians should act from faith not from coercion.17

Zwingli was concerned to refute the Anabaptist doctrine that the church should be

pure and only those who are baptized believers can belong to it. To him, the visible church

was a mixture of ‘wheat and tares’ as described in the parable in Matthew 13.24-30. (The

debate over whether or not that argument is the undermined by the Lord’s explanation that the

field is the world, is dealt with in Chapter Four). He argued that the covenant was made with

all the people of Israel, including the children, and that Anabaptist views would lead to

divisions in the church because baptism was a basis for unity.18

15
Stephens, Huldrych Zwingli p.196-7
16
Ibid p.199
17
Ibid pp.200-201
18
Ibid pp.264-5
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Zwingli attacks the Anabaptists for seeking to make changes without consulting the

church. ‘For if every blockhead who had a novel or strange opinion were allowed to gather a

sect around him, divisions and sects would become so numerous that the Christian body (der

Christus) which we now build up with such difficulty would be broken to pieces in every

individual congregation’.19

Chapter Three

Luther, Melancthon and the Anabaptists

Luther was seriously alarmed by the claims of Karlstadt and the Swabian peasants

that their violent actions were justified by Scripture. He wrote to the Christians at Strassburg

in 1524, ‘Dr Karlstadt has started disturbances among you with his fanaticism in the matter of

the sacrament, images, and baptism.’20 As the peasant uprising continued, he also wrote to the

Princes of Saxony, quoting Müntzer’s dismissal of Scripture as secondary to the internal voice

of God through the Spirit. He continues: ‘As far as doctrine is concerned, time will tell…But

when they want to do more than fight with the Word, and begin to destroy and use force, then

your Graces must intervene…’21 During the Peasants’ War of 1525, Luther realised that it was

vital to regain control of the direction in which the Reformation was moving and his tract

Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants contains language which was much

harsher than that employed in previous tracts and letters. He writes:

Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab,


secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more
poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel…since the peasants
are not contending any longer for the gospel, but have become
faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious murderers, robbers,
and blasphemers, whom even a heathen ruler has the right and
authority to punish.22

19
Quoted in Stephens, Huldrych Zwingli p.266
20
Martin Luther Letter to the Christians at Strassburg in Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit (1524) in
Carter Lindberg The European Reformations Sourcebook (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2000)
p.87
21
Luther Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit (July 1524) in Lindberg
Sourcebook p.88
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It was the involvement of Anabaptist figures in the peasant uprising, whether real or

perceived, which really inflamed Luther’s hostility towards them. There is no doubt that some

of those who later became associated with the movement were, at the very least, sympathetic

to the claims of the peasants. Balthasar Hubmaier preached against the abuses suffered by the

peasants and had, in his past, been involved in anti-Semitic riots in Rebensburg and had

enlisted Swiss volunteer soldiers against Ferdinand, the Hapsburg overlord of Waldshut.23

The founders of the Swiss Brethren, who included Conrad Grebel, wrote to Thomas

Müntzer, and although it is unlikely that the letter reached him, the contents show that they

felt that his position was close to their own. So much so that ‘It made us wonderfully happy

to have found one who was one with us in a common Christian understanding, and who

ventured to point out to the evangelical preachers their deficiency…’24 However, the letter

also makes it clear that the Brethren expect Müntzer to conform to their views on certain

issues such as singing and the mass – ‘and operate only according to the Word, and draw and

establish from the Word the rites of the apostles…although we admonish and entreat you, yet

we do hope that you of yourself wish so to act.’25 As Müntzer was executed for his

involvement in the Peasants’ War, any connection with him, however tenuous, would lay the

Swiss Brethren open to accusations of rebellion and sedition.

The terrible events in Münster, where the Anabaptist leaders crushed all dissent and

encouraged polygamy, before being overthrown in the massacre of 1535, came about as the

result of the preaching of Bernard Rothman, a priest who was influenced by the apocalyptic

teachings of Melchior Hoffman. In his biography of Hoffman, Klaus Deppermen argues that

the tracts written by Rothman in 1533, clearly show that he saw the policies practised in

Münster as the logical conclusion to Hoffman’s theology.26 Hoffman’s tract On the Pure Fear

22
Luther Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants (1525) in Lindberg Sourcebook
pp.97-8
23
Werner O. Packull Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (USA:
John Hopkins University Press, 1995) p.188
24
Grebel Letters to Thomas Muntzer in Estep Anabaptist Beginnings p.32
25
Ibid p.34
26
Klaus Deppermann Melchior Hoffman: social unrest and apocalyptic visions in the Age of
Reformation (Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1987) p.342-5
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of God describes how the international kingdom of Joseph and Solomon would replace the

‘kingdom of Sodom and Babylon’ and when this was fully accomplished the bridegroom,

Christ, would appear to celebrate the Great Supper of the Lamb (as described in Revelation

ch.19).27 According to Rothman, God’s dominion must be restored on earth by the defeat of

sin, both within the individual and in society. Thus Münster, rather than Strasbourg, as

Hoffman had envisaged, was to be the New Jerusalem of the book of Revelations.

The events at Münster convinced the Reformers of the dangerous nature of Anabaptist

theology. They were unable, or unwilling to draw distinctions between those whose

apocalyptic beliefs led them to take up the sword against the ‘ungodly’, and those who

embraced pacifism, believing that ‘from the time of the apostles until Emperor Constantine,

no worldly power or sword was ever used among the Christians. Neither was it allowed

according to the commandment of their master, except the sword of the Word alone’.28 The

nature of Hoffman’s ‘revolutionary pacifism’ led to an inevitable division between those of

his followers who believed that it was the responsibility of the Christian to destroy the

evildoer, and those who totally rejected the use of force for the believer, as Hans Jürgen-

Goerst explains in The Anabaptists.29 He cites the case of Menno Simmons, who repudiated

the militant stance of the Münster Anabaptists, but held to Hoffman’s views on the question

of authority.

Writing to Melancthon in 1522, Luther does not seem to be overly concerned about the

emergence of a movement which rejected the baptism of infants. He declares that ‘If they do

not appeal to anything but this passage, “He who believeth and is baptized shall be saved”,

and to the fact that children cannot believe on their own account, that does not disturb me at

all’.30 In his book Luther and the Reformation, James Mackinnon gives a very comprehensive

explanation of Luther’s response to the challenge of the Anabaptist movement. He argues that

in the first instance, Luther merely notes the rapidity of their growth when writing to

27
Ibid pp.258-9
28
Anonymous Anabaptist Pamphlet c.1530 in Estep Anabaptist Beginnings pp.161-2
29
Hans Jürgen-Goertz The Anabaptists (London: Routledge, 1996) p.106
30
Martin Luther, ‘Letter to Melancthon, 13th Jan. 1522’ in E.G. Rupp and Benjamin Drewery (ed.s),
Martin Luther (London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd, 1970) p.76
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Spalatin, ‘The Anabaptists are reputed to be increasing and to be scattered throughout every

region’31 (28th December 1527), and to Jacob Probst, ‘The new sect increases marvellously in

consequence of the great show of activity on the part of the living and the boldness of its

martyrs in suffering death by fire and water’.32 Commenting on the treatment meted out to

Anabaptists in the Romanist territories, he wrote:

It is not right, and it fills me with pity, that such


wretched people are so murdered, miserably burned and
cruelly done to death. Every one ought to be allowed to
believe what he will. If his belief is wrong, he will suffer
punishment enough in the eternal fire of hell. Why will
men persist in martyring such people in this life as long as
they err only in matters of faith and do not, in addition,
preach rebellion or otherwise resist the civil powers?33

However, when the movement began to gain momentum in his own territory,

Luther responded with greater severity. Writing to Menius and Myconius he says:

As they are not only blasphemous, but highly


seditious, urge the use of the sword against them by right
of law. For it is in accordance with the will of God that
he should incur punishment who resists the civil power
as the minister of God (Romans xiii 1-3). We may not,
therefore, mete out better treatment to these men than
God Himself and all the saints.34.

In his preface to the work ‘Concerning the Sneaks and Hedge-preachers’, which was

addressed to Von der Thann, Luther asks who had commissioned these men and why they do

not consult with the Reformers and prove their credentials? He views the Anabaptist

movement as a device of the devil, which is designed to discredit the Gospel.35 Luther

appears to ignore the fact that the Anabaptists have been forced to behave clandestinely,

because of the persecution they have suffered. Mackinnon argues that whereas Luther

rediscovered the Gospel primarily through the writings of the apostle Paul, the Anabaptists

rediscovered it mainly through Christ Himself.36

31
Quoted in James Mackinnon, Luther and the Reformation (London: Longmans, Green and Company
Ltd, 1930) p.58
32
Ibid p.60
33
Ibid p.63
34
Ibid p.64
35
Ibid p.65
36
Mackinnon, Luther p.68
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By 1531, Luther was prepared to give his assent to the use of the death penalty for

Anabaptists: ‘I, Luther, approve (placet mihi Luthero) Although it seems cruel to punish them

with the sword, it is still more cruel to damn the ministry of the Word, to propagate false

doctrine and spurn the true, and in addition to seek to overthrow the kingdoms of this world’37

And, four years later, he joined Melancthon, Bugenhagen and Cruciger in signing a letter to

Phillip of Hesse, which favoured the death penalty, believing it to be in accordance with

Christian principles. Luther did add a postscript in which he reminded the Landgrave that

mercy could always go hand in hand with justice.38

Melancthon’s antipathy to the movement intensified after the disastrous events at

Münster. He was responsible for the interrogation of three prisoners at Jena. Heinz Krauth,

Jobst Müller and Hans Peissker were clearly simple-minded believers who held the to

doctrine of the community of goods, and refused to swear an oath. They did not accept the

authority of the civil government, but were willing to abide by its dictates, as far as

conscience allowed. Melancthon concluded that they were perverse, ill-conditioned and

opinionated, and recommended that they suffer the severest penalty. He supported this

conclusion on the grounds of their refusal to submit to civil government, their objection to

oaths, their communism and alleged infidelity to the marriage oath. As a result, they were

found guilty of sedition, and executed.39 Writing to Philip of Hesse, Melancthon insisted that

the devil was at work in the movement and their teachings would lead to anarchy. He argued

that the authorities had a duty to punish blasphemy, according to Leviticus 24.16 ‘And he that

blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death’. He concluded that the

State was threatened by Separatist movements, and that any ringleaders or obdurate followers

should be put to death.40

The main doctrinal objections to the Anabaptist movement, held by Luther and

Melancthon, were enshrined in the Augsberg Confession of 1530. Although the main intent of

37
Ibid p.69
38
Ibid p.75
39
Ibid p.71-2
40
Mackinnon, Luther p.73-4
Page 12

this document was to defend the Reformers position with regard to Charles V, the Reformers

took the opportunity to set down biblical arguments against what they perceived to be the

heretical teachings of the Anabaptists and other radicals.

The First Article declares the Reformers belief in the three Persons of the Godhead and

condemns those who express a belief ‘that the Word and the Holy Ghost are not distinct

Persons, but that the “Word” signifies a spoken word, and the “Spirit” signifies motion

created in things’.41 However, William Estep argues that there is abundant evidence that

‘mainstream’ Anabaptists were convinced of the Triune nature of God. He quotes from

Hubmaier’s Twelve Articles of Christian Belief of 1526, which state:

1. ‘I believe in God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and


earth, as my most precious Lord and most merciful Father…
2. I believe also in Jesus Christ, thine only begotten Son, our
Lord, that he for my sake has expiated (atoned) before thee
for this fall…
8. I believe also in the Holy Spirit, who proceedeth from the
Father and the Son, and yet with them is the only and true
God…’42

Estep also claims that Pilgrim Marpeck, who he describes as southern Germany’s

foremost Anabaptist theologian, was clearly a believer in the Trinity, and to illustrate this he

quotes a translation of Marpeck’s writing in which he approvingly quotes Caspar

Schwenckfeld:

We believe there is one God and one divine Essence,


but in the same divine Essence three independent (separate)
Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; that all three are
one God and that each Person possesses in Himself, undivided,
the fullness of the divine Essence, which is also common to all
three…43

Menno Simons had somewhat different views to those described, since he held the

view that the meaning of the text ‘The Word was made flesh’ (John 1.14), was that Christ

took nothing from Mary, but made Himself a body which merely used Mary as a channel.

41
F. Bente &W.H.T. Dau (Translators) ‘Augsberg Confession’ in Triglot Concordia: Symbolic Books
of the Ev. Lutheran Church (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921) pp. 37-95 at: Project
Wittenberg: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/reso
42
Quoted in William R. Estep The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism
(Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1975) pp.183-4
43
Estep The Anabaptist Story p.185
Page 13

However, his acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity is clear from his own writings such as

A Solemn Confession of the Triune, Eternal, and True God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:

‘God, we believe and confess with the Scriptures to be the eternal, incomprehensible Father

with His eternal, incomprehensible Son, and with His eternal, incomprehensible Holy

Spirit…’44

Although the biblical Anabaptists accepted the doctrine of the Trinity, some of the more

radical movements rejected it. It has been noted that the Rationalists, represented by Servetus,

did not accept this doctrine, which Servetus famously described as ‘a three-headed

Cerberus’.45

Article VIII condemns those who deny the right to use evil men to administer the

sacraments since ‘Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and

commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men’.46 The position

taken by the Anabaptists was that unless a man really knew God, it was impossible for him to

lead others to know Him, since Christ, speaking of the Pharisees, said ‘they be blind leaders

of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch’ (Matthew 15.14).

The Schleitheim Confession states that: ‘The pastor in the church of God shall, as Paul has

prescribed, be one who out-and-out has a good report of those who are outside the faith.’47

Article IX deals with Baptism, declaring it to be necessary to salvation and explicitly

condemning Anabaptists as those who say that children should not be baptized. In his Large

Catechism, Luther explains the significance of Baptism, as a sacrament ‘instituted by God,

Himself’ and of supreme importance ‘since He Himself has honored it both by words and

deeds; moreover, confirmed it with miracles from heaven’.48 Proceeding to the subject of

Infant Baptism, Luther argues that God has shown His acceptance of it, by blessing many

who have received it with the Holy Ghost, ‘But if God did not accept the baptism of infants,

44
Ibid p.187
45
Michael Servetus ‘Letter to Abel Poupin, Minister in Geneva’ in Lindberg Sourcebook p.179
46
Bent and Dau ‘Augsberg Confession’
47
Michael Sattler, ‘The Schleitheim Confession’ in Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings p.102
48
Martin Luther The Large Catechism at: Project Wittenberg: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/reso
Page 14

He would not give the Holy Ghost nor any of His gifts to any of them; in short, during this

long time unto this day no man upon earth could have been a Christian’.49

Many examples could be supplied to illustrate the Anabaptist’s teaching on baptism,

such as that quoted in note 3, from Grebel’s letter to Müntzer, or this from Hubmaier:

Baptism in water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and
of the Holy Ghost or, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, is
nothing other than a public confession and testimony of an
inward faith and commitment. With this act one publicly testifies
and before everyone professes that he is a sinner. Even though
admittedly guilty yet he believes firmly that Christ, through his
own death, has forgiven those sins, and made him holy in the
sight of God, our Heavenly Father.50

Hubmaier makes it clear that since man must be brought to recognize that he is a

sinner, it follows that he must have reached the age of reason. In the following chapter he

states that ‘John never baptized young children but only those who felt the guilt of their sins

and confessed them’. 51 Hans Hut argues that baptism is a symbol or reminder to the believer

of the real baptism which he must experience in order to be truly saved:

Thus the baptism which follows preaching and


faith is not the true essence through which people
become pious, but only a symbol, a covenant, a
likeness, and a reminder of a person’s consent, so
that he is reminded daily to expect the real baptism.
Christ speaks of real baptism as the water of all
grief, through which the Lord purifies, washes and
justifies all carnal lusts, sins and impure actions
(Matthew 20).52

Article XII explains the Reformers stance on repentance and states that ‘for those who

have fallen after Baptism there is remission of sins whenever they are converted and that the

Church ought to impart absolution to those thus returning to repentance…[This condemns]

the Anabaptists, who deny that those once justified can lose the Holy Ghost’.53 This Article

presents the Reformers belief that it is possible for a Christian to lose his salvation and then

49
Ibid
50
Balthasar Hubmaier Of Baptism: Of several kinds of baptism, which are the same, In Estep,
Anabaptist Beginnings p.69
51
Ibid p.71
52
Hans Hut, On the Mystery of Baptism in Michael E. Baylor (ed.) The Radical Reformation
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.162
53
Bent and Dau ‘Augsberg Confession’
Page 15

regain it, whilst the Anabaptists argued that, once saved, it was impossible to then be lost.

They would undoubtedly have cited texts such as Romans 8.30, ‘whom he called, them he

also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified’. The Anabaptists believed that

one who persistently sinned, was indicating that he had never been truly converted, but those

who were truly converted were as good as ‘glorified’ already. Hubmaier denies that

Anabaptists believe in sinless perfection in his tract Concerning the Christian Baptism of

Believers. ‘We know that both before and after baptism, we are poor and miserable sinners…

If any such speech were uttered by some foolish men, they should be confronted and set

right’.54

Article XVI deals with civil affairs, and maintains the duty of the Christian to ‘sit as

judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to

engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers’55 and so forth. Since the Anabaptists refused to swear

oaths, and did not consider themselves to be subject to civil authorities, this article

condemned them.

The Schleitheim Confession deals with the question of civil duty:

Lastly, it should be pointed out that it is not fitting


for a Christian to be a magistrate for these reasons: the
authorities’ governance is according to the flesh, but the
Christian’s is according to the spirit. Their houses and
dwellings remain in these worlds, but the Christian’s is in
heaven. Their weapons of conflict and war are carnal and
only directed against the flesh, but the Christian’s weapons
are spiritual and directed against the fortifications of the
devil.56

This doctrine was based on the example of Christ: ‘Christ did not wish to decide or pass

judgement between brother and brother…therefore we should do likewise’ and, ‘They wished

to make Christ king, but he fled…Thus shall we do as he did, and follow him’.57 Hubmaier

disagreed with this interpretation and argued that although Christ rejected the office of judge

in earthly matters, this was because it was not the purpose for which he became a man.

54
Balthasar Hubmaier On the Christian Baptism of Believers in Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings p.67
55
Bent and Dau ‘Augsberg Confession’
56
Michael Sattler The Schleitheim Articles in Baylor, The Radical Reformation p.178
57
Sattler, ‘The Schleitheim Confession’ in Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings p.103
Page 16

Referring to Christ’s question ‘Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?’ (Luke

12.14) he explains ‘Notice here that Christ does not reject the office of judge…Rather, he

shows that no one should set himself up as a judge unless he has been called and elected to be

one’.58 Speaking of the sword of justice in the hand of a Christian magistrate, he continues

‘for the sword is nothing but a good rod and scourge of God, which he ordered to be wielded

against evildoers’.59

Although many biblical Anabaptists held to the doctrine that civil government was for

the kingdom of this world, and did not have authority over those who were in God’s kingdom,

on the whole they were willing to obey civil governments as far as their consciences would

allow. This did not protect them from accusations of sedition and the severe penalties which

ensued, as the case dealt with by Melancthon, at Jena, illustrates. (See note 27).

Article XVII deals with the second coming of Christ and the judgement of the lost.

This states that the devils and the ungodly will be tormented for eternity, a doctrine which the

Anabaptists are accused of denying, claiming that there will be an end to their punishments.60

According to Estep, this misconception arose from a wrong understanding by Johannes

Kessler, of the soteriology of Hans Denck: ‘His opinion was that no man would go to hell nor

would the devil be lost forever, but after a certain time all would be saved; for Paul said: God

desires all men to be saved’.61 Estep refers to J. J. Kiwiet who, in his Life of Denck,

demonstrates that Kessler misinterpreted Denck’s theology, which actually taught that Christ’s

death was sufficient for all but only effective to those who believed.62 Certainly, this

accusation could not be levelled at Melchior Hoffmann, who writes in 1533, ‘For eternal

vengeance is at the door…there will be eternal torment and suffering for those who have gone

against the Lord’s will on purpose and for those who have knowingly spilt innocent blood and

for those who have unjustly rejected and hindered God’s truth’.63 Ulrich Stadler, who was a

58
Balthasar Hubmaier On the Sword in Baylor, The Radical Reformation p.188
59
Ibid p.197
60
Bent and Dau ‘Augsberg Confession’
61
Quoted in Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings pp.110-111
62
Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings p.111
63
Melchior Hoffman, Von deò reiner forchte Gottes quoted in Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman p.259
Page 17

leader of the Hutterite community at Butschowitz, and who died in 1540, writes ‘In the final

judgement, God will sentence the immortal to either eternal life or to eternal punishment.

Whoever here, in this life, is punished by God, and who accepts the punishment will not

perish with the world (I Cor 11:32). Whoever does not is bound by God's word to eternal

death’.64

Chapter Four

Calvin’s Treatise against the Anabaptists

Jean Calvin probably first came in to contact with the Anabaptists in the 1530’s but it

was not until 1544 that he wrote his Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the

Libertines in reply to a plea from William Farel. The Treatises contains a reply to the Seven

Articles of the Schleitheim Confession, and also includes a treatise against the Libertines.

Calvin accepts that they are quite distinct from the Anabaptists, who do at least receive the

Holy Scriptures. This should not give the impression that Calvin had any sympathy for the

Anabaptists, who he describes as; ‘vermin [who] give rise to a whole sea of insane views…

full of many perverse and pernicious errors’.65 The Treatise deals with the First, Second Sixth

and Seventh Articles, rejecting each one with Scriptural arguments, and occasionally

accepting minor areas of agreement, and on the Anabaptist teaching on the Incarnation and

the State of Souls After Death.

The First Article deals with baptism and states that ‘Baptism ought to be given to those

who have been instructed in repentance, who believe that their sins have been blotted out by

Jesus Christ, and who want to walk in His resurrection. Consequently, it ought to be

administered to those who request it for themselves, not for infants, as is done in the pope’s

kingdom’.66 In response to this, Calvin argues that infant baptism has been observed since the

64
Ulrich Stadler The Writings of Ulrich Stadler ‘Justice and Judgement in the House of God’ at: the
Anabaptist Church, http://www.anabaptistchurch.org/stadler1.htm
65
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.39
66
Quoted from the Schleitheim Confession in Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.44
Page 18

time of the apostles and that to attribute it to the popes is ‘impudent slander’.67 He goes on to

explain that instruction before baptism was necessary for those who came to Christianity from

pagan or Jewish roots, but that for the children of believers, their salvation is promised by

God, ‘For it is said to him: “ I am thy God, and the God of thy children after thee”

(Gen.17:7)…for this reason infants of believers are baptized by virtue of this covenant’.68

Hubmaier rejects this argument in his On Baptism, insisting that: ‘history often shows that

fathers and mothers bring forth good and bad fruit. Take as an example Cain and Abel, Esau

and Jacob, God does not decide according to parentage’.69 Calvin also uses the argument that

baptism replaced circumcision as the confirmation of acceptance into the church, contending

that, though Abraham received instruction concerning faith and repentance, his seed

participated in the same benefit: ‘And thus Isaac and all the other successors were

circumcised at infancy’.70

The Second Article states that: ‘The ban ought to be used against all who have made a

profession of faith and who have been baptized, but who nevertheless have fallen into some

error inadvertently without intention’.71 The offender should be warned twice in private before

being publicly banished. Calvin accepts the necessity of the ban but argues that it is the

Anabaptist’s insistence that where the ban does not operate, there is no church, which is at

fault. He agrees that ‘it certainly is an imperfection and unfortunate stain [mauvaise tache] in

a church where this order is absent. Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor

persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate

themselves from the church’.72 Once again the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13) is

used to illustrate the point that both good and evil people, believers and unbelievers, will

remain together until the end of the world. The Anabaptists would have undoubtedly have

pointed out that when Jesus explained the parable to his disciples in verses 37-42 of Matthew

67
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.45
68
Ibid p.47
69
Hubmaier, Of Baptism, in Estep, Anabaptist Beginnings p.93
70
Ibid p.49
71
Quoted from the Schleitheim Confession in Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.56
72
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.57
Page 19

13, He said that the field was the world, not the kingdom of God. They would have

understood the parable to be an explanation of why God did not immediately judge those who

rejected the gospel. The Reformers did not see the church as separate from the world in the

same way as the Anabaptists did, but rather viewed it as all-embracing, in the way that

Anglicans consider everyone born within a parish to be part of the parish church.

Calvin dismisses the Fourth Article, which deals with separation from the world,

because it concludes with a rejection of the sword, whether to assist one’s friends or against

one’s enemies. He maintains that the public sword is ordained by God for our protection, and

that to condemn it is blasphemy.73

Article Six deals with the question of whether a Christian should be a magistrate, and

the Anabaptist arguments have already been considered. (See notes 54-57). Calvin comments

that the Anabaptists have modified their original position in that they allow that the sword

‘punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good’.74 However, they

insist that this is ‘outside the perfection of Christ’75, which means that it is unlawful for a

Christian to hold the office of magistrate. Calvin refers to many instances in the Old

Testament where godly men such as David, Hezekiah and Josiah had positions of kingly

authority, and also mentions Daniel, who made use of temporal power.76 He also quotes

passages which prophecy that kings will worship Christ and foster the church. He actually

uses the same arguments as Hubmaier when dealing with the point that Christ refused the

office of judge, explaining that this was not the purpose for which he entered the world.77

In dealing with the Seventh Article, which states that ‘for Christians, all swearing is

forbidden by our Lord Jesus Christ’, Calvin agrees that the name of God is cheapened by the

proliferation of swearing oaths. However, he feels that the Anabaptists have not paid

sufficiently close attention to the meaning of the words of Jesus, when He said ‘Swear not at

all’, (Matthew 5.34). He refers to Deuteronomy 6.13 and 10.20, where God’s people are

73
Ibid p.72
74
Sattler, ‘The Schleitheim Confession’ at: http://www.anabaptists.org/history/schleith.html
75
Quoted in Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.77
76
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.77
77
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.84
Page 20

commanded to fear Him, serve Him and swear by His name. Calvin insists that Christ is

teaching that our words should be truthful and free of hypocrisy, but that it is acceptable to

swear to do one’s duty. Only swearing that is vain and thoughtless, is wrong, and to be

condemned.78

Calvin concludes the Treatise by dealing with two issues that he feels are of great

importance, and which he claims are common to most Anabaptists. These are; the form in

which Christ became incarnate, and the state of souls between death and the Day of

Judgement. Benjamin Firley, the translator of the Treatise, argues that it is unlikely that the

view of the Incarnation which Calvin attacks here was held by Michael Sattler, and that it was

actually the teaching of Melchior Hoffman, who would not have been seen as an evangelical

Anabaptist.79

According to Calvin, the Anabaptists maintained that Christ was not a true man, since

He took nothing from Mary, and only used her as a channel. Hoffman explains that since ‘the

whole of Adam’s seed was cursed and damned and belonged to death and Satan…If

redemption had been achieved by Mary’s flesh and blood God would have wronged Satan’.80

Menno Simmons held a similar view, quoted by Firley: ‘This same woman conceived in her

womb the afore-mentioned seed, which is God’s Word, not from her body, nor of her body,

but by God, by the power of the Holy Ghost, through faith’, and ‘The Word…was not

Abraham’s flesh and blood’.81 The reason that this doctrine was of such great importance to

those who held it, was that they believed that if Christ had any part of human flesh in His

being, then He would be tainted with original sin, and unable to redeem sinful people. Calvin

argues that this difficulty is overcome by the miraculous conception: ‘For the Holy Spirit

intervened in order to sanctify Him from the beginning and, in sanctifying Him, to preserve

Him so that He might not be stained by any human pollution of any kind’.82 He also points to

numerous texts which refer to Christ as the ‘seed’ of Eve (Genesis 3.15), Abraham (Genesis

78
Ibid p.100
79
Ibid p.106 fn.6
80
Quoted in Deppermann, Hoffman p.225
81
Quoted from Menno Simmons Incarnation in Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.114-5 fn.58
82
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.116
Page 21

12.3) and Jacob (Genesis28.14), as coming from the loins of David (Psalm 132.11) and being

a shoot ‘from the root of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11.1).

Firley describes Calvin’s treatment of the Anabaptist doctrine on the state of souls after

death in the Treatise as a more readily accessible version of his Psychopannychia, which was

his first theological work as a Protestant.83 Calvin claims that ‘the Anabaptists in general all

hold that souls, being departed from the body, cease to live until the day of the resurrection’.84

It is unclear whether this was a generally held doctrine for the evangelical Anabaptists, but it

is of interest to note that the Mennonite Encyclopaedia of 1617 states that:

And, even as, when a man falls into a deep sleep,


his heart, soul or spirit does not entirely sleep, as the
body; so also the spirit or soul of man does not die or fall
asleep with the body, but is and remains an immortal
spirit. Hence temporal death, in the Scriptures, is called a
sleep, and the resurrection of the dead an awakening
from this sleep of death. And as a sleeping man cannot
receive and enjoy any good gifts, either according to the
soul or the body, much less any punishment, pain and
torment, unless he be previously awakened from his
sleep; so also, believers cannot receive the perfect
heavenly existence, nor unbelievers the eternal death or
the pain of hell, either in the soul or in the body, except
they have first been awakened from the sleep of death,
and have arisen, through the coming of Christ.85

This would seem to envisage an existence in which the body sleeps but the soul is in a state

somewhere between full appreciation of eternal bliss and total oblivion.

Calvin differentiates between those who believe that the soul is not a separate entity,

and those who accept the existence of a soul in essence, but deny that it has ‘any feeling or

consciousness, [after death] until the day of judgement’.86 He establishes the many ways in

which Scripture uses the term ‘soul’ and concludes that though man shares a living soul with

the beasts, yet his soul differs in that it bears the image of God. This difference is illustrated

by the words of Solomon, who says that at death ‘the body returns to the earth…and the soul

83
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists (Editor’s Introduction) p.24
84
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.119
85
Mennonite Encyclopaedia Article 31, at Mennonite Historical Society of Canada: http://www.mhsc.ca
86
Calvin, Against the Anabaptists p.120
Page 22

returns to God, who gave it’ (Ecclesiastes 12.7).87 Calvin also refers to the passage in

Revelations where the souls of the martyrs cry out ‘Lord, how long dost thou delay before

avenging our blood?’, and are given white robes and commanded to be patient for a while

(Revelation 6.9).88 Some might deem this choice of text ironic considering the vast numbers

of Anabaptists who suffered martyrdom. Calvin deals with this issue in greater depth than can

be covered here, but he clearly sees this doctrine as dangerous and unscriptural, and is at

pains to discredit it. Farley argues that, for his time, Calvin’s treatment of the Anabaptists was

more charitable than most. He views them more with pity than with blame, describing them as

‘ignorant’, ‘deluded’ and ‘foolish ignoramuses’, rather than ‘scoundrels’ or ‘blasphemers’.89

Chapter Five

Conclusions

The Reformers presented clear doctrinal reasons for their antipathy to the Anabaptist

movement, primarily, their rejection of infant baptism and the swearing of the oath, with the

resulting ban on the believer serving as a magistrate, and the emphasis by some Anabaptists

on the community of goods. However, no two Reformers had identical responses to

Anabaptist teachings, and in some instances Anabaptists doctrine was closer to what one

Reformer taught than the teachings of other Reformers. An example of this is Zwingli’s

teaching on the Lord’s Supper, that the words ‘This is my body’ (Matthew 26.26) are

symbolic.90 The Anabaptists would have agreed with him, but Luther was never able to

reconcile himself to Zwingli’s view and declared ‘Ye have another spirit than ours’.91 The

Reformers feared that doctrines that included the rejection of infant baptism and the refusal to

take the oath, would be viewed as seditious by the civil authorities, and could undermine the

87
Ibid p.121
88
Ibid p.126
89
Quoted in Calvin, Against the Anabaptists (Editor’s Introduction) p.30
90
Stephens, Huldrych Zwingli p.238
91
Quoted in H.G. Haile, Luther: A Biography, (London: Sheldon Press, 1980) p.125
Page 23

Reformation. They also failed to differentiate between those Anabaptists who were known to

be involved in violent and seditious activities, and those who were simply peaceful and peace-

loving believers who interpreted Scripture in slightly different ways to their own. Estep

believes that the Reformers were careless, in that the Lutherans confused the teachings of the

Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer with that of the Swiss Brethren, and the Calvinists

associated them with the Rationalists and the Libertines. This, he argues, was unhelpful both

to the Anabaptist cause and to accurate historical judgement of the movement.92 Zwingli’s

particular detestation and vicious treatment of the Anabaptists may have owed much to the

fact that some of the founders were his own disciples, who had found fault with the direction

the Reformation was taking under his leadership. Luther clearly took fright over the Peasant

War, and could not tolerate any movement that appeared to be associated with it. Finally, it is

hard to escape the conclusion that much of the hostility of the Reformers was due to a

combination of confusion over the particulars of doctrine held by the various groups, and an

inability, or lack of will, to differentiate between those who genuinely posed a threat, and

those who were innocent of any offence beyond the way in which they interpreted the

Scriptures.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

* F. Bente &W.H.T. Dau (Translators) ‘Augsberg Confession’ in Triglot Concordia: Symbolic


Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921) at: Project
Wittenberg: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/reso
* John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, edit. and trans.
by Benjamin Wirt Farley, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982)
* Martin Luther, The Large Catechism at: Project Wittenberg: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/reso
* Mennonite Encyclopaedia (1617), Article 31, at Mennonite Historical Society of Canada:
http://www.mhsc.ca
* Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren Vol.I at http://www.anabaptistchurch.org (n.d.)
* Sattler, ‘The Schleitheim Confession’ at: http://www.anabaptists.org/history/schleith.html
92
Estep, Anabaptist Story p.4
Page 24

* Ulrich Stadler The Writings of Ulrich Stadler ‘Justice and Judgement in the House of God’
at: the Anabaptist Church, http://www.anabaptistchurch.org/stadler1.htm

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1991)
* Klaus Deppermann Melchior Hoffman: social unrest and apocalyptic visions in the Age of
Reformation (Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1987)
* William R. Estep The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism
(Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1975)
* W.R. Estep Jnr, Anabaptist Beginnings (Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1976)
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* Werner O. Packull Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the
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