There are moments in history that contain an element of mystery, a sense that something innovative, creative and arguably divine is being forged. Karl Barth’s rediscovery of the Bible and his consequent “Copernican revolution” in theology is one such moment. By his own confession, Barth “stumbled into the strange world of the Bible”. He felt himself to be like one who climbed a bell tower, inadvertently caught hold of the bell rope and caused all around to hear the ringing of the bell.
Barth’s “accidental” rediscovery of the power of the Word of God has had a prolonged impact upon the theological world. It came about during the First World War, during a period of intense political pressure and social dislocation. Barth’s personal experience proved significant far beyond his own life because it came at a particular time into a world which, whether it knew it or not, was ready for it.
The English Civil War of the seventeenth century was a similar moment of innovation and creativity. In the midst of that huge social, military, economic and religious clash, new ideas came to birth. Creativity found political and institutional expression in ways which marked have the western world ever since. English society crossed thresholds in its conceptions of what is politically right and good, and could not go back. People who at other times and places merely would have gone their way in obscurity actually incarnated these changes in their lives. Revolutionary times made revolutionaries of the most unlikely people.
The days and weeks of Christ’s resurrection appearances rank supreme in a Christian view of history. Here something radically new took place, difficult though it is to fathom within categories of secular history. New ideas, new language and new experiences came to birth in the white heat of that event. Followers of Jesus came to understand the world in radically new ways.
I am tempted to describe each of these moments as “revelatory”. For the theologically fastidious, however, I shall reserve this language for the resurrection alone and speak of other historical events as “illuminatory”. In the events cited, and others not listed, illumination took place in ways beyond ignoring. It is possible to see in each event a conjunction of revolutionary historical circumstances, human longing and activity of the Spirit of God. These were breakthroughs leading to paradigm shifts in the way a significant number of people viewed reality.
Anabaptism as a threshold moment
Both by its role in history and its impact on my own life, Anabaptism is such a paradigm shift. The more I read about it, the more I sense that the emergence of Anabaptism was yet another “magic” moment, a breaking in of illumination through the hard crust of resistant humanity.
As far as I am concerned, the pivotal event in the emergence of Anabaptism took place at Zürich on January 21, 1525.1 The political and religious landscape of Europe was in a period of tumultuous change. A growing dissident group of Zwingli’s followers had come under censure from the town council and had now met secretly at the home of Felix Mantz. Conrad Grebel and a fiery newcomer to town, Georg Blaurock, were among those present.
Suddenly the breakthrough came. Georg Blaurock requested Conrad Grebel to baptize him with true Christian baptism. Grebel did so, after which Blaurock baptized those present in the room by pouring water. This was a threshold moment. No one had dared do this since the time of the Donatists over a thousand years before. It was a proscribed act since it was regarded as re-baptism, a breach of church discipline. The church was backed by the power of the state, and could exercise discipline with real force. Re-baptism was a simple act, yet it had immense implications.
Discipleship embracing responsibility
Re-baptism had implications for the nature of the church. To baptize upon profession of faith was to imply that up till this time these people had not been true Christians. Simply being baptized as a baby into a “Christian” society was not enough. Something more was necessary for the fashioning of a true Christian, some act of discipleship that embraced responsibility. The church had to be a committed fellowship of those who freely believed and in so doing set themselves, in matters of faith, beyond the dictate of monarch or town council.
The Anabaptist view of discipleship and church also had implications for society. Anabaptists saw society in a radically different way from their contemporaries. Theirs was a protest movement operating under extreme conditions, and they did not usually produce carefully honed or systematic theology. Yet their theology did emerge through a ragged series of insights and encounters. It amounted to a rejection of the sacral state, a rejection of both the ideological use of religion by the state and the oppressive use of secular power by the church. This understanding of church and state anticipated freedoms which later became the heritage of western nations. Although it may not be possible to draw a straight line from Anabaptism to religious tolerance and freedom, it is possible to draw some sort of line.
The emergence of Anabaptism shed light upon western religious and political structures, and enabled improvement. Anabaptism marked both a return to the sources of faith in Jesus Christ and a belief in the possibility of progress in society. The first of these predominated for the Anabaptists. But the movement is evidence that where people take Jesus Christ seriously and adhere to him, their witness has power beyond expectation and imagining.
A source of renewal for church and mission
Anabaptism still has power to illuminate, and this conviction undergirds my interest in the movement. The illumination continues to concern the way of being the church and the consequences of this for Christian witness to society. Anabaptism may act, therefore, as a source of renewal for the church and its mission.
In the present era, the whole church must come to terms with the fact that its existence is a sectarian one. It does not occupy the dominating, central ground in society. It no longer provides a canopy embracing the whole of reality for substantial masses of humanity. It must come to terms with this existence as a dissenting minority which nonetheless has immense transformative potential. It is here that a return to the paradigms of Anabaptism has ecumenical significance. There is something here for the whole church to learn.
My interests lie particularly in the area of mission and the ways in which renewal of the church offers potential for renewing the wider community. Anabaptists wanted to restore the true church on biblical and supremely on christological foundations. The consequent missionary impetus manifested by the movement was in stark contrast to other Reformation traditions.
If various traditions of Christianity need to heed the Anabaptist witness, they do not need to cease being what they are. Rather, the church ecumenical might benefit from the leaven of Anabaptist thought as it relates to responsible discipleship, the believers’ church, and freedom of the church from dominance by state and culture. The outcome of this is beyond immediate prediction, but not beyond creative imagination. The motive for renewed interest in
Anabaptism is not narrow sectarianism, but ecumenism in the belief that illumination is here for us all.
Fruitful impact as voluntary minority
Along the way we need to revise the language of “church” and “sect” which often predominates in these discussions. When Ernst Troeltsch developed his typology along these lines he was using the language in precise terms. However, it is too easy to use the word “sect” pejoratively. What the church needs to recognize is that a sectarian reality now confronts us all. Increasingly the church’s existence will be as a voluntary minority which does not hold the centre ground in our cultures.
We may either lament this status as a fall from past glory or embrace it as the way it should have been all along, as a return to the normative mode for existence of the church. To recognize our marginalisation is not to capitulate to paganism, or to abdicate social and political responsibility, or to accommodate to the privatisation of religion – although all of these temptations lie to hand. It is rather a return to the mode of existence in which the church makes its most fruitful impact as it actively waits and prays for the kingdoms of this world to become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.
On a more personal level, it is impossible to read of the Anabaptists without admiring both their heroism and their Christian character in adversity. As a British Baptist, I am aware of the suffering endured by my own forebears. But the tally of martyrs produced by the Anabaptists exceeds anything in my own tradition.
Some years ago I stood by the River Limmat in Zürich, not far from Zwingli’s church, at the place where Felix Mantz was bound before being carried off to the middle of the river to endure the “third baptism” of martyrdom. Mantz was the first Anabaptist to die at the hands of fellow Protestants, and he did so testifying cheerfully. His mother and brothers in Christ urged him to be faithful to the last. While being bound he sang with a loud voice: In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum (“Into your hands I commit my spirit, O Lord”). Mantz was consciously echoing Stephen, the first martyr for Christ, the shedding of whose blood furthered the Christian mission no less than his life. In such a testimony there is more than intellectual force, but a quality of commitment which exemplifies the offering of the whole of life in discipleship. I felt myself to be at a place of breakthrough, and that instinct has not lessened.