AT 22: The Anabaptism of Balthasar Hubmaier

by Tim Foley
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 22, Autumn 1999

Anabaptists did not always agree with each other. Over time some common convictions emerged, but in the early years of the movement they argued about many issues, such as

• Is it always wrong for Christians to use violence in the pursuit of good?

• How deeply can Christians participate in the state?

• Is state-sponsored church renewal possible?

• What level of holiness is achievable for the Christian?

• Does the uniqueness of Jesus imply that we are incapable of living as he lived?

Balthasar Hubmaier disagreed with the answers given by many other early Anabaptists to these important questions. His writings provide us with alternative perspectives. Hubmaier, formerly a colleague of Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zürich, was the only professional theologian within Anabaptism and had an extensive public ministry prior to his baptism. Nobody else, not even Zwingli, could write with his clarity, exegetical rigour and wit. Hubmaier is regarded by some as the virtual initiator of the German Peasants’ War (1524-1526); while the evidence does not support this, he was certainly the most prominent Anabaptist leader who was associated with the Peasants’ War while he was an Anabaptist. Copies of his many treatises were widely distributed. These helped make Anabaptism more peasant-friendly and encouraged the creation of congregations from radical peasant groups. He was befriended by Conrad Grebel, was baptised by Wilhelm Reublin, and was active among the Swiss Anabaptists. From his baptism in Easter 1525 to his execution in March 1528 he published frequently and earned the title “theologian of Anabaptism”.

Baptism and the Church

Hubmaier devoted considerable energy to the subject of baptism, writing seven treatises, which gave theological support to the developing Anabaptist movement, but which provoked strong reactions from his former colleagues, including Zwingli. Hubmaier’s thinking on baptism also gives us access to his convictions about biblical interpretation, salvation and the church.

Hubmaier’s major work, On the Christian Baptism of Believers, was published in June 1525. In this treatise Hubmaier provided a critical response to Zwingli’s recent attack on the Anabaptist movement (On Baptism, Rebaptism and Infant Baptism) and a manifesto for Anabaptism. It has been described as Hubmaier’s best and most significant writing, and it enjoyed rapid and wide distribution. Zwingli had to make a quick and forceful response with his Answer to Balthaser Hubmaier’s Baptism Book on 5 November 1525, the day before the third dispute on infant baptism was to take place in Zürich. This dispute was a key turning point in the Reformation; it increased the power of the Magisterial Reformers, and it provided a model for other states in their treatment of Anabaptists.

In contrast to Zwingli’s approach to biblical interpretation (which allowed that which is not explicitly forbidden in Scripture), Hubmaier rejected any practices which were not commanded in those matters which concerned God and souls. Later, in his Dialogue with Zwingli (November 1525), Hubmaier put it like this: “For Christ does not say, ‘All plants which my heavenly Father has forbidden should be uprooted.’ Rather he says, ‘All plants which my heavenly Father has not planted should be uprooted.’”1 Zwingli’s approach justified infant baptism and so was not radical enough for Hubmaier.

In his examination of the apostles’ ministry, Hubmaier noted three practices (preaching, faith and baptism) which the apostles were commanded to do. Here he related baptism to the church: in order for converts to interact with the church as Christians, they must first give public testimony to their faith through baptism. This church is therefore a visible church, where baptism in the entry point and church discipline is practised according to Matthew 18. Hubmaier’s order of salvation was: confess sin; believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins; resolve to live a new life and to order it according to the will of Christ, in the power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and receive admonishment according to the rule of Christ in order to grow in faith. Christians, through baptism and by virtue of the rule of Christ, have given authority to their brothers and sisters to admonish, punish, ban and re-accept them. “Where does this authority come from if not from the pledge of baptism?”2

So, for Hubmaier, believers’ baptism was the foundation of the church and the public testimony of discipleship according to the rule of Christ. Believers’ baptism defined a new kind of church – the believers’ church: “no baptism, no church; no baptism, no discipleship”.3 In his last writing

on baptism (A Form for Water Baptism in autumn 1526) he redefined the meaning of “sacrament” as referring to the commitment to follow Christ, rather than anything that happens in the rite: “The baptismal commitment or the pledge of love is really and truly ‘sacrament’ in the Latin; i.e. a

commitment by oath and a pledge given by the hand which the one baptised makes to Christ.”4 This is a good summary of Hubmaier’s thinking on baptism – this sacrament of obedience both creates the church and is the basis of the church as a new prophetic community.

Hubmaier and the peasants

During Easter 1525, the town of Waldshut embraced Anabaptism. Hubmaier and sixty other Waldshuters were baptised by the Swiss Anabaptist Reublin, and this was quickly followed by the baptism of most of the town’s adults by Hubmaier. Waldshut was under threat from Austria because of Hubmaier’s reformation programme: he had encouraged the people to remove themselves from Austrian authority, to oppose tithes and to defend themselves. Around this time it dawned on Hubmaier and the city council that they could not rely on the Reformers in Zürich for military assistance against Austria. Hubmaier encouraged co-operation between armed peasants and Waldshut, and he himself carried weapons. It was natural to look to Reublin and his close connections with the peasant forces for help. Reublin was one of the first people to forge links between Anabaptism and the peasants and was also active in resistance against the tithe system. Anabaptist Waldshut was later to send forces to support the peasant army in the siege of Radolfzell and also to Anabaptist Hallau.

Given Hubmaier’s gift of popularising through print, it is not surprising that he was accused of writing for the peasants. The Catholic “heresy hunter” Faber reported that Hubmaier had admitted to elaborating and interpreting The Peasant Articles. But, as Faber’s agenda included Hubmaier’s prosecution, we can be certain only that Hubmaier recognised the articles as scriptural and just, and that he probably supported the peasants’ cause. It is more likely that Hubmaier was editor of Draft of a Constitution and author of the Letter of Articles. There are parallels in both to his other writings, including a striking similarity between Hubmaier’s instruction on the Christian “ban” (avoidance as an aspect of church discipline) and the secular ban mentioned in the documents. The latter ban was a non-violent attempt to dispose of holders of castles and monasteries, who had been the cause of the peasants’ misery, by boycotting them until they left their lands: “Absolutely no intercourse should be maintained or carried on with those who refuse and decline to enter the brotherly union and to promote the general Christian welfare – neither by way of eating, drinking, bathing, grinding meal, baking, tilling the soil, mowing hay.”5

On the Sword

However, Hubmaier was also known as a friend of the nobility, and his criticism of the rulers during his Waldshut days resulted from their treat-ment of the peasants rather than from hostility towards their social class. He often dedicated his treatises to nobles, and his reforms at Waldshut and Nicholsburg had the approval of the city authorities, to whom he had an advisory relationship similar to Zwingli’s in Zürich. One of the reasons for his significant treatise, On the Sword (1527), was to prove his positive attitude towards government and to show the difference between his position and that held by most Swiss Anabaptists. This gives us an alter-native Anabaptist view of the state to that espoused by the Schleitheim Confession (written four months earlier) and demonstrates that there were different stand-points on the sword in early Anabaptism.

For the Swiss, it was enough to quote Scripture with a minimum of com-men­tary, but Hubmaier, the theologian, exhaustively exegeted the text and used the tools of analysis, rhetoric and humour to convince his readers. Article 6 of the Schleitheim Confession did not tackle any of the difficult New Testament passages on the sword and omitted any reference to the Sermon on the Mount, but Hubmaier tackled these head on. Whereas the Confession briefly mentioned Matthew 20 (“it shall not be so among you”) as part of Jesus’ teaching forbidding the sword, Hubmaier expounded it for two pages (although from Luke 22). He argued from the context that the passage was addressed to preachers (a point which is not obvious), who should stay out of worldly affairs, in contrast to ordinary Christians who could be magistrates and wield the sword of government.

Hubmaier did not have a simple “following Jesus” model of discipleship. He insisted that Jesus could not be our model because Jesus’ calling was to the salvation of humanity and our calling is to a variety of social and state roles. In his exegesis of Luke 9, Hubmaier made the point that Christ was not called to be a judge or to get involved in worldly affairs, but to save people by his word. This was a powerful attempt to pull the carpet from under the “brothers” who emphasised following the example of Christ. According to Hubmaier, Christ gave no example here, so the brothers had no point. While Jesus forbade killing out of anger and mockery, this did not apply to the government who killed out of obedience to God and keeping the peace. When the government needed the believer’s help, it was the call of God to which one should respond: “For whoever does not protect the righteous kills him and is guilty of his death as much as the one who does not feed the hungry.”6 Because of his conviction that Christians could kill, Hubmaier’s approach to Matthew 5, like Zwingli’s, really called for a change of spirit rather than behaviour, obedience to Christ in private but not in public service. While he shared with the Swiss Brethren a literal approach to Scripture, his theology led him in a different direction.

Like virtually everyone at the time, he believed that the sword was the result of sin and the Fall. Hubmaier frequently used Romans 13 to explain that the government should use the sword to protect the innocent and punish the wicked; this would not have been controversial at Schleitheim.

It was his assertion that Christians too should be sword-bearers which would have offended many of the Swiss. It is intriguing that Hubmaier’s use of the Old Testament is almost exclusively concerned with justifying this position. Anabaptist biblical interpretation was generally Christocentric for precisely the opposite reason – Jesus is the lens through which we should read the Old Testament and so Christians are forbidden to wield the sword.

Up to Our Ears in Sin

Hubmaier gave more attention to anthropology and the freedom of the will than any other Anabaptist. His two treatises on free will show his concern that the doctrine of predestination encouraged a lazy Christian life, and he clearly believed that the idea of salvation “by faith alone and not from works” provided an excuse for this. His views on free will can therefore be understood as an anti-clerical concern to improve morals. In effect: Don’t listen the priests, listen to Scripture, “For God made you without your help; but he will not make you holy without your help.”7

Hubmaier’s thinking on holiness was more sophisticated and more negative than that of most Swiss Anabaptists. In contrast to their emphasis on the kingdom of God, he argued that we are stuck “right up to our ears” in this worldly kingdom of sin, death and hell.8 Christ alone can say, “my king-dom is not of this world”, for he is the only one without sin. Even righteous Christians must also confess their wretchedness. The implication is that Christians are not capable of following Jesus. Hubmaier’s outlook is realistic in the sense of recognising humanity’s common culpability and common responsibility to restrain evil, even with the sword.

Thus he argued that in reality Christ is not our head and we are not his members, for Christ is just and truthful and we are evil and deceitful. He was convinced that we remain rooted in sin, that perfection is impossible, but that spiritual growth is possible and desirable: “Now we become members of Christ in faith, not in nature, that is, not in willing and doing as it concerns the flesh, which does not want to be subject to the law of God; but in faith the power is now given to us to become the children of God accord- ing to the spirit and the soul, also to will and work Good, although all our works according to the flesh are still blameworthy, lazy, worthless, and not all just before the face of God.”9

The Readiness to Disobey

Hubmaier was one of the few Anabaptists whose ministry attempted to answer the question of whether a reformation undertaken with the blessing of a civil government in sixteenth-century Europe could be Anabaptist and still survive. Luther and Zwingli had decided, between 1523 and 1525, that the pace of reform should be governed by the civil rulers. Anabaptist leaders like Michael Sattler and Hans Hut rejected this, but Hubmaier hoped that, with proper teaching and God’s blessing, a supportive government could be found for an Anabaptist state church. His programme, which was little different from Luther’s or Zwingli’s, was unusual but not unique within Anabaptism, and Hubmaier experienced its outworking briefly in Waldshut and in Nicholsburg. So why did it fail?

John Howard Yoder observed that, without readiness to disobey the authorities, no renewal movement will survive which intends to redefine the church on the basis of personal faith. The rulers’ managing of the implementation of reformation is not in principle compatible with the Bible being normative and its interpretation being congregational.10 The issue separating the Swiss Anabaptists and Zwingli from October to December 1523 was how and when to implement changes in the mass. Zwingli decided to rely on the Zürich council and was opposed by the Anabaptists. This was a defining experience for the formation of Swiss Anabaptism but one which Hubmaier did not go through. His theology led him towards a state church. His optimistic view of government was naïve, but experience had not taught him the “readiness to disobey”.

Hubmaier’s reputation as the “theologian of Anabaptism” is well deserved. More than anyone else, he defined the theological core of Anabaptism. His Catechism, while probably used only in Nicholsburg, encapsulated Anabaptist distinctives which were widely echoed elsewhere, and his writ-ings were to influence European Anabaptists well into the seventeenth century. The rapid spread of his writings also had the effect of imparting to his readers confidence that they too could interpret Scripture using simple principles. Although his model of an Anabaptist state church did not suc-ceed, his ministry and writings demonstrate the variety within early

Anabaptism. While we may finally disagree with him, Hubmaier’s writings

will have to be taken seriously by students of Anabaptism who have the courage to face the ambiguity of living between the times.

Tim Foley serves on the leadership team for Wood Green Mennonite Church in north London and is an associate of Bridge Builders mediation training at the London Mennonite Centre.


1 Pipkin, H. Wayne & Yoder, John H: Balthasar Hubmaier (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press 1989), 184.

2 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 127, 142.

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3 Pipkin, H. Wayne: “The Baptismal Theology of Bathasar Hubmaier” Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 (Jan 1991), 40.

22 Anabaptism Today Autumn 1999

4 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 391.

5 Stayer, James M: The German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991), 71.

6 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 515-516.

7 Goertz, Hans-Jurgen: The Anabaptists (London: Routledge, 1996), 63.

8 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 497.

9 Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 519.

10 Yoder, John H: “The Believers’ Church Conferences in Historical Perspective”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 65 (Jan 1991), 16.