Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Some thoughts on Luther and Anabaptists...

Have you ever heard of the book The Martyrs Mirror?

It is an account of Christian/ Anabaptist/ Mennonite martyrs. I was once presented it (actually, parts of it) as a book "every Christian should read", and indeed I have often heard Martyrs Mirror mentioned by modern-day Baptists when they refer to the Protestant doctrine that the 'true church' has somehow persisted throughout the centuries, in direct opposition to the institutionalised Church (and we all know which one that is...).

The bottom line has always been that Martyrs Mirror is a dedication to all true Christians throughout the ages who have been persecuted, murdered by the Inquisition and finally given their voices by the advance of the Reformation.

The full text of the Mirror can be found here:

The rhetoric is easily illustrated by the following quotes on account of the rite of baptism:

"We do not find it stated by a single authentic author [...] that during the first two centuries any one departed from the foundation of Christ's true order of baptism, that is, from baptism upon faith, by changing this, the true baptism, into a vain or infant baptism; but it appears that in the third century there were men who not only originated, but also put it in practice and administered the same; yet it was adopted only in a few places."

"Ambrose was baptized in adult years, at Milan, though his parents were Christians. He advanced sound views on baptism, against war, of the sacraments, etc.
Ephrem, Gregory of Nyssa, the Councils of Laodicea and Elibertum, and also Optatus Milevitanus, give correct views on baptism
(by this the book mostly means that these sources confirm that baptism can be given to an adult person)

"We shall begin the fifth century, concerning baptism, with the fifth chapter of Jacob Mehrn. History of Baptism, [...] "Henceforth we shall not dwell upon quite so many testimonies taken from the ancient fathers and church historians, as had necessarily to be the case in the preceding centuries, in order to prove that during the first four centuries after the birth of Christ, infant baptism had neither in the holy Scriptures nor in the authentic books of the teachers of the church, a firm foundation; that is, that it had been ordained by Christ, or that it was an apostolic institution or tradition." "

So far so good. The Anabaptists' method of supporting their ideas is familiar: the Church Fathers, the Apostolic Tradition, the Counsils (and they seem to have undertood well that the Canon of the Scripture was not yet established in the centuries referred to). Note this last paragraph particularly - the authentic books of the teachers of the church, a firm foundation ... apostolic tradition...

Eventually, of course, the Church becomes institutionalised, and the account of the latter centuries is basically an account of the resistance movement of true believers, abounding with quotations and historical references, some of them quite interesting. The account ends with the 16th century, "the century in whichLuther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and afterwards Calvin in France, began to reform the Roman church; and to deny, oppose and contend with the authority of God's holy Word against the supposed power of the Roman Pope, and many papal superstitions, however, in order to avoid too great dissatisfaction, as it seems, they remained in the matter of infant baptism, in agreement with the Roman church".

Written by non-violent, Mennonite Anabaptists, the book seems to approve of the Reformers, and only accuse them of compromising the belief that had allegedly been held throughout the centuries - that of adult baptism - for the sake of pleasing people.

Alas, the Reformers were not equally non-violent. When it comes to Luther, the matter is straighforward, as usual. In 1530 he writes:

"If some were to teach doctrines contradicting an article of faith clearly grounded in Scripture and believed throughout the world by all Christendom - for example if anyone were to teach that Christ is not God, but a mere man and like other prophets, as the Turks and the Anabaptists hold - such teachers should not be tolerated, but punished as blasphemers" (Commentary on the 82nd Psalm)

Huh, Turks and Anabaptists? So much for the hidden one true church?
Is Luther exaggerating? As a matter of fact, no. He is speaking of different Anabaptists (there were many). Luther is referring to the Anti-Trinitarian Anabaptists, who may have been influenced by the writings of Servetus (Calvin strongly advocated death penalty for the latter). They held a council in Venice in 1550 and formulated a statement of belief, that declared, among other points, that Jesus Christ is not God, but man, born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God... Ironically, when the persecution started, this group sought refuge in the lands ruled by - yes, the Turks (cf. Latourette, A History of Christianity, v.II p. 792).

The Martyrs Mirror advocates a completely opposite view of Christ, that smacks of Monophysitism:
"and also another ..., who was censured because he held that the body of Christ was not of the substance of Mary" (an account of the martyrs of the second century-emphasis mine)

"They also asked me whether I did not believe that Christ had received flesh and blood from Mary. I said that Christ came by His divine power out of heaven, was conceived in Mary through the Holy Ghost, and born of her, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and became like unto us in all things, except sin, so that He was not born of the blood, nor of the will of the flesh, and did not receive flesh or blood from Mary"

"We also spake with the Jesuits, and with others, about the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we did not agree, for they said that He had flesh and blood from Mary. And I said that He is the Son of God, who was born of the virgin Mary, since she had known no man [...]That which she received (mark well) did not come from her; else it would be of the earth, as was Mary, and as are all the children of Adam."

"who, among other things, believed and confessed with Menno Simons and all true believers, that the Son of God became man for our sakes, and that He did not receive His humanity from Mary or any other source, but that the eternal Word or Son, became Himself flesh or man."

So much for Mary.

I have read somewhere that in the ancient world it was widely believed that women only carried children in their wombs and gave birth to them, while it was solely a man's semen that actually produced a child. I can only speculate in regard to the origin of the doctrine of these particular Anabaptists, but this is certainly not the belief of the Church, ancient or not ancient. The Fourth Ecumenical Counsil of Chalcedon states in the year 451: "Following the holy fathers we all, with one voice, define that there is to be confessed one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ [...], of the same substance with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same substance with us according to the manhood, [...] begotten of the Father before all time according to the Godhead, [...] born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God according to the manhood..." The parallelism of these lines is self-explanatory.

So when Martin Luther rages against the heretical doctrines of Anabaptists he does it with full authority and conviction of someone who is backed by Church history and the Word of God, as he understands it. That the same Word of God is understood differently is another matter, but here is what Luther writes:

"That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin, and inspiration, which have no connection with the Word of God, and are indeed opposed to it. . . Secular authorities are also bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine . . ."

Just to clarify the matters - these were not mere words. Inquisition was not the only force behind executions (nor was Inquisition merely a Catholic invention - I am referring to the Orthodox equivalent, which is, however, beside the point here). According to Dave Armstrong, Mennonite historian John D. Roth estimated about 4000 Anabaptist martyrdoms in Europe, between 1525 and 1574: a little less than half of them were committed by Protestants, and about one-quarter of those (roughly 500) in Luther’s province of Saxony.

God bless those poor brave souls who gave their lives for what they believed in, and perhaps every Christian should read the Martyrs Mirror, but I would rather every Christian study history, and study it well...


  1. "...but I would rather every Christian study history, and study it well... "

    Inga, your blog is great reading.
    I think the quote above summarizes much of what it takes to find The Church.

    As a protestant, I started to dig into history quite few years ago, and as a result, I had to reconsider my whole theological system and finally found myself as a heretic.

    So, gradually, I shifted from not only to want to belie in the same dogmas at the early church, but also want to be part of it. :-)

  2. Thank you.
    Yes, it's quite simple isn't, we thought we were restoring the early church when in fact we couldn't have been further away from it. We thught we were the historical church, when in fact we knew nothing of history. Sad.
    There were two things that convinced me to become a Catholic - reading history of Christianity and then the Cathechism. The latter is a treasure. I read half of it and couldn't wait any longer, phoned the church and said "What do I do?" :-)

  3. Yes, the cathechism is a treasure.
    One great part of it is the articles of justification. I understand this as more Biblical than most of the protestant take on this isuue - and this was said to be the issue that divided christianity?

    So I thought that the Church' teaching of salvation must have changed the last 500 years, but my investigation on this shows that the teaching is basically unchanged and consisten, not only the last five hundred years, but even from the beginning of christianity. :-)