Who are they?
And does a Reformed church have to bother itself with them?
Are they such a threat to the Reformation faith as to warrant devoting an entire issue of the Standard Bearer to their errors?
Our people must know that the Anabaptist heresy is alive and well. Indeed, it is thriving as never before. Of the two great foes of the faith of the Reformation in history, Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism, Anabaptism is by far the more serious danger to the faith today. Every Reformed Christian worthy of the name is on his guard against Rome. But many are swept away, almost unawares, by the seductions of Anabaptism.
Part of the problem is that the people do not know that the great Reformation of the 16th century had to struggle to the victory of a sound, truly Reformed church against enemies on the left as well as against the enemies on the right. The foe on the right was Rome. The foe on the left was Anabaptism. Historians have wrongly called the Anabaptists “the left wing of the Reformation.” This name is wrong because it describes the Anabaptists as part of the Reformation movement itself. Although the Anabaptists followed Luther and Zwingli out of the Roman Catholic Church, they were not part of the movement. For immediately they also separated from the Reformation churches. They went out, as John writes in I John 2:19, that they might be made manifest that they were not of the Reformation.
The Anabaptists were not “the left wing of the Reformation” but the enemies of the Reformation on the left. They were not the “radical Reformation” but a radical departure from the Reformation.
The Reformers regarded them as worse enemies than Rome. Luther declared that the Anabaptists were further removed from the gospel than Rome and that if he had to choose he would rather return to Rome than become Anabaptist. The Reformer of Scotland, John Knox, agreed. In his “A warning against the Anabaptists,” he wrote:
But of the other sort (the Anabaptists – DJE) . . . the craft and malice of the Devil fighting against Christ is more covert, and therefore more to be feared; for under the color and cloak of mortification of the flesh, of godly life, and of Christian justice, they have become privy blasphemers of Christ Jesus . . . and manifest enemies to the free justification which comes by faith in his blood. . . . the general consent of all that sect is that God . . . has no sure election, neither yet any certain reprobation, but that every man may elect or reprobate himself by his own free will.
What was it about Anabaptism that made it abhorrent to the Reformers?
The Anabaptists were a diverse lot. They ranged from the pacifistic Menno Simons to the mad millennialists of Munster. Almost in wonderment, the Reformers spoke of the “marvellous and manifold divisions and bands (of Anabaptists).” What they all held in common was the rejection of infant baptism. This meant that all those who had been baptized as infants were required to be baptized as adults. Hence their name, “Anabaptists,” that is, “Re-baptizers.” Their rejection of infant baptism was not an incidental matter to the Anabaptists but the chief article of their religion. In a letter to Thomas Muntzer, Conrad Grebel railed on infant baptism as “a senseless, blasphemous abomination, contrary to all Scripture.” The very first article of the document that comes closest to being an Anabaptist statement of faith, the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, repudiates infant baptism as “the highest and chief abomination of the pope.”
The rejection of infant baptism involved the denial of the covenant, both as regards the inclusion of the children of believers and as regards the unity of the old and new testaments. It also meant the denial of original sin and total depravity. A leading Anabaptist, Pilgram Marpeck, wrote, “When the children grow in the knowledge of good and evil, only then do sin, death, and condemnation come into play.”
With one voice, the Anabaptists preached the false gospel of salvation by free will. Such was the place of, and so did they stress, good works in their teaching that they denied, if they did not set aside entirely, justification by faith alone – the heartbeat of the Reformation and the cornerstone of the biblical gospel. The first article of the confession of faith of Anabaptism’s leading theologian, Balthasar Hubmaier, was, “Faith alone makes us holy (German: Fromm, that is, ‘pious’) before God.” Thus he clearly expressed Anabaptism’s radical difference from the Reformation. For the Reformation, the first article of faith is righteousness by faith alone, a righteousness that has nothing to do with man’s works but consists of the imputation to him of the obedience of Christ. For Anabaptism, the first article is man’s own holiness, a holiness that does not have its source in a preceding justification.
But the Anabaptists had little use for sound doctrine, and none for creeds. Their concern was instead the Christian life, good works, spiritual experience, and a holy congregation.
Running strongly through the movement until the debacle at Munster dampened its ardor was a revolutionary spirit. Not only did the Anabaptists despise and reject civil government as the epitome of the godlessness of the world, feeling free to overthrow government whenever this was deemed necessary and possible, but they also yearned to overturn the entire established order. Fueling this fire was the dream of establishing the kingdom of heaven here and now. The saints must rule. The “Fifth Monarchy” of Daniel’s vision must become an earthly reality through the efforts of the saints.
It should surprise no one that both the Institutes of Calvin and the Belgic Confession had as one of their main purposes to disassociate the Reformed churches from Anabaptism.
It is, however, the urgency of the conflict of the Reformed faith with Anabaptism in our day that needs to be sounded and appreciated. If one thinks only of the physical descendants of the Anabaptists, the Hutterites in South Dakota and the Amish in Indiana, he will regard the notion of a conflict as nonsense. But let him consider that the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists dominate the American religious scene. Non-Roman Catholic religion in America is overwhelmingly Anabaptist. It rejects infant baptism; the covenant; total depravity; justification by faith alone; and sovereign, gracious predestination. Its gospel is salvation by free will and good works. It is anti-doctrinal and anti-confessional. It spurns the unity of the church as manifested in a denomination. It is individualistic; experience-centered; and millennial, dreaming the Anabaptist dream of the thousand year, carnal reign of Christ on earth.
There is even in some quarters the surfacing of the latent Anabaptist characteristic of revolution. The latter-day Anabaptists are willing to resort to force against the state over their church-schools, over abortion, and over other laws that they judge oppressive and unjust.
These churches call themselves evangelical or fundamentalist. In fact, they are Anabaptist.
The preachers who are the successors of Karlstadt, Muntzer, Grebel, Hut, and Joris are Graham, Hyles, Falwell, Ed Dobson, Hybels, and the entire charismatic swarm.
In one of history’s ironies, the Anabaptists who once skulked in woods and fields, the outlaws of society, now worship in huge cathedrals and command the attention, and even deference, of the president.
The Reformed churches are wide open to the Anabaptist influence. They eagerly adopt Anabaptist doctrines and ways. In Grand Rapids, Reformed people flock to the Anabaptist services. Reformed consistories welcome the popular Anabaptist preachers to their pulpits.
A recent account in a Reformed periodical of a convention of supposedly young Calvinists read like the description of a wilder Anabaptist evangelistic meeting: invitations to children of the covenant to walk the aisle to embrace Jesus for the first time; music calculated to stir the emotions; arms waving in the power of the Spirit; and even a ritual of Christian hugging. And the leaders in the denomination approve. All that remains is to rebaptize as adults, repudiating infant baptism. This is coming.
Is the warning against Anabaptism urgent in our day?
Anabaptism has almost extinguished the light of the Reformed faith rekindled by the Spirit of Christ at the Reformation.
But not quite. And not ever.
There are still confessional Reformed churches that maintain the life-and-death conflict of the Reformation with the Anabaptist radicals. Among them are the Protestant Reformed Churches. This too is an irony of church history. For the beginning of the existence of the PRC was that they were cast gut as “Anabaptistic.” “Doopersch,” their adversaries shouted. It was a ridiculous charge. Denial of common grace was supposed to lead to “world-flight.” In their response, Niet Doopersch Muar Gereformeerd (Not Anabaptist but Reformed), Henry Danhof and Herman Hoeksema dismissed the pitiful accusation as mere “mud-slinging.”
“World-flight” is absolutely not our view. Exactly the opposite is our view. We exactly are determined not to go out of the world. It is exactly our intention to abandon not one single area of life. We have exactly called to God’s people that it must occupy all of life. Only, we are determined that this people of the Lord, which is His covenant people, shall not forsake or deny its God in any area of life. In every sphere, that people has been called to live out of grace, out of the one grace, by which it has been implanted into Christ . . . . “World-flight,” therefore, is not applicable to us…. If by “world” you mean “nature,” you see clearly that we do not separate nature and grace, but everywhere want to live out of grace. And if you mean “world” in the evil sense, we do not take to flight from the world, but fight the good fight to the end . . . (my translation of the Dutch).
Let it be known that the Protestant “Anabaptist” Reformed Churches contend as sharply with the Anabaptist churches as they do with Rome. Like Rome, the Anabaptists are false churches. This is the official Reformed judgment upon them in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.
In this conflict, we renounce the physical means that were once sinfully used against the wretched Anabaptists – drowning, fire, and sword. Those weapons accomplished nothing anyway, except to spread the heresy.
We use the weapon of the Word of God, the Word of free, sovereign grace in the covenant.
Precisely the same weapon with which we contend with Rome.