Printer Friendly

Radicalizing Luther: how Balthasar Hubmaier (Mis)read the "father of the Reformation".

Abstract: Scholars have long noted the similarities between Martin Luther and Balthasar Hubmaier: they were born in the same period, trained in similar ways and institutions, and held similar clerical and academic posts in their early Catholic careers. Perhaps most markedly, both reacted to and ultimately rejected some of the core convictions of their training. Luther reacted against Hubmaier's mentor, Johannes Eck, who had articulated the Catholic notion that a sacrament confers grace upon the recipient regardless of the person's spiritual condition. Luther argued that faith was always necessary on the part of the recipient--faith, not the sacramental action, is that which justifies. The sacrament can only justify because it is believed, not based on the action itself. Hubmaier was greatly moved by Luther's argument. Indeed, even though Hubmaier may have misunderstood Luther's words--or intentionally applied them to a radical extreme--Luther's writings on faith and the sacraments became a foundational concept upon which Hubmaier built his own sacramental theology and helped shape the theology of the first generation of Anabaptists.


Sometime between December of 1527 and January of 1528, Martin Luther wrote a letter to two pastors in the form of a treatise titled "Concerning Rebaptism." Near the beginning of the letter, Luther penned the following:
 Unfortunately, I know full well, dear sirs, that Balthasar Hubmaier
 has included my name among others in his blasphemous booklet on
 rebaptism, as if I shared his perverted views. But I have comforted
 myself with the thought that no one, cither friend or foe, would
 believe such a transparent lie as his. (1)

What is apparent from this passage is that as the Reformation proceeded, Balthasar Hubmaier credited Martin Luther, among others, with sharing and perhaps inspiring many of his own beliefs, whereas Luther, for his part, wished to distance himself from any accusation of bolstering what he saw as Anabaptist heresy. The question remains, however, whether Luther's writings actually prompted Hubmaier toward his radical conclusions, or whether Hubmaier merely misunderstood and thus misappropriated the theology of the "father of the Reformation." A third possibility, as Luther insisted, is that Hubmaier prevaricated in making this association.


That Martin Luther and Balthasar Hubmaier were contemporaries both in age and in training is clearly observable by even a cursory glance at their lives. Born in the early 1480s (perhaps even in the same year since the specific birth year of Hubmaier is unknown), both men were raised in the late medieval environment of German Christianity. Luther was sent off to Latin schools for early training in Mansfield, Magdeburg and Eisenach. While there are few details of Hubmaier's early education, evidence suggests that he received training in a cathedral school in Augsburg. (2) David Steinmetz, who has written specifically about the relationship between these two figures, has helpfully summarized many of their developmental parallels:
 ... both had an old-fashioned scholastic theological education, Luther
 at Erfurt and Wittenberg, and Hubmaier at Freiburg and Ingolstadt;
 both earned a theological doctorate in the same year (1512); both
 made a point of studying Greek and Hebrew; both served as
 university lecturers ...; and both were associated during the early
 stages of their careers with the via moderna. (3)

While Hubmaier was a secular priest and Luther a member of the Augustinian order, both were exposed to the Franciscan tradition in theology and both studied such prominent theologians of their time as William Ockham and Gabriel Biel. As they continued in their theological pilgrimages, both subsequently set aside their late medieval approaches to theology, although Luther was generally more radical in this rejection while Hubmaier remained more attached to his Catholic training.


Upon his matriculation at Freiburg, Hubmaier came under the tutelage of Johannes Eck, who also was approximately the same age as Luther and Hubmaier. (4) Eck undoubtedly trained his compliant student in a brand of Occamist philosophy that was qualified by the influences of Bonaventure and the Old Franciscan tradition. (5) This schooling emphasized a highly optimistic view of humanity which claimed, as in the case of Gabriel Biel, that humanity had not lost its capacity to reason or its freedom of the will but that those abilities had merely been damaged after the Fall. Loving God and following in God's ways were freely accessible but were much more difficult than heretofore had been the case. Nevertheless, through God's grace a human was strengthened to strive after righteousness and to overcome his previous sinfulness. God would not predetermine victory over sin, for the freedom of the human will was held intact. The form of predestination that remained for God was one that came subsequent to God's own foreknowledge. Consequently, based upon the human freedom to choose or reject God and God's ways, a person's own natural moral acts would constitute the beginning of grace. Thus, Occamism tended toward a semi-Pelagian tendency in which God's grace was humanity's assistance to work and overcome sin. (6)

Hubmaier apparently was a gifted student, and the appreciation appeared to be mutual. In 1510, when Eck moved to Ingolstadt, Hubmaier assumed Eck's clerical post while Eck, in turn, praised his protege's eloquence in preaching. By 1512, Hubmaier followed Eck to Ingolstadt where he completed a doctorate in theology and joined his mentor on the faculty. Only some time after his subsequent appointment as cathedral preacher in Regensburg did Hubmaier demonstrate a period of independent thought and theological exploration outside of Eck's via moderna. (7)

Like Hubmaier, Luther was schooled in a similar vein under Bartholomaus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jocodus Trutfetter at Erfurt, where he encountered Thomistic thought complemented by Ockham and Biel. (8) However, Luther would soon demonstrate a complete break with late medieval theology in regards to the role of the will. His thoughts on the matter culminated in his 1525 treatise, The Bondage of the Will, which contributed to the growing popular revival of Augustinian soteriology.

Hubmaier, for his part, did not break with Occamist and Scholastic thought for several more years and indeed spent his remaining days articulating a Protestant, and then specifically Anabaptist, theology that continued to reveal its influence. Nevertheless, over the course of time, Luther and Hubmaier both broke with the Roman Church--Luther in 1517 over the abuse of indulgences, and Hubmaier in 1519 over the abuses of pilgrimages.

In 1518, Luther responded to Eck, who in his Obelisks had presented a strong case for the Catholic argument that a sacrament confers grace upon the recipient regardless of a person's spiritual awareness. Luther claimed instead that faith was always necessary on the part of the recipient, for the sacramental action itself does not justify. Scripture, Luther argued repeatedly, clearly teaches that faith alone brings justification. It followed for Luther that a sacrament can only justify because it is believed, not because of the sacramental action in itself. (9) By the time he wrote The Freedom of the Christian, Luther called Eck a "servant of Satan," an "enemy of Christ" and other similar pejoratives. (10)

Hubmaier ultimately joined Luther in disagreeing with Eck, though in a much milder fashion. In 1524, he challenged Eck to a disputation in the "Fundamental Articles"--better known as Theses Against Eck--and called him the "elephant of Ingolstadt." (11) In the pamphlet, Hubmaier underscored a Protestant principle developed by Luther: "Search in Scripture, not in papal law, not councils, not fathers, not schools; for it is the discourse which Christ spoke which shall judge all things. He is the truth, the plantation, and the vine." (12) "Where is now the wise man? The scribe? The debater of this world? Eck?" Hubmaier concluded, "Let him come to us, the lordly Hercules from Ingolstadt, seized (unless I am mistaken) by Herculean disease, and let him hold a disputation." (13) Hubmaier, then, like Luther, had broken free from his late medieval Scholastic training and began making public his belief in the principle of Scripture as the sole arbiter of all questions, the rule of faith and practice. (14) Nonetheless, even though he publicly separated himself from his former mentor, Hubmaier was not ready to reject entirely all of Eck's teachings.


In parallel fashion both Luther and Hubmaier began to implement reforms in their respective regions. Scholars have noted that Hubmaier and Luther arrived at similar Reformation conclusions on several theological positions: namely, the doctrine of the Word of God as singularly authoritative in Christian life; their interpretive rubric in reading in Scripture the "plain meaning" of the text; (15) and the conviction that worship should be held in the vernacular. At the same time, the two reformers drifted dramatically apart in their interpretations of the sacraments and in their ecclesiology. Their position on both of these related doctrines underscored their differing views on the human will.

The Occamist scholastic training of both Hubmaier and Luther taught that, despite the Fall, humanity still retains the ability to do good. This was especially pronounced in the theology of Gabriel Biel, who held that even though the human ability to love God had been damaged by the Fall, humanity still had the inner power to love God supremely; it is now merely more difficult to love God than it was in humanity's pre-fall condition. God granted to all humanity the power and capacity of free will, the direction of conscience, and rationality. Thus, a human, in Occamist theology, was responsible for his or her own salvation by deciding whether or not to initiate a relationship with God. God will not predetermine the destiny of the human. While Biel would have conceded that God possessed the absolute capacity to predetermine each human's destiny, he taught that God instead ordained to bind himself to save only those sinners who did what was in them to love their Creator. Thus the free will of each person is the determining factor, and such a will is universally available. "What makes the gospel good news rather than bad is that sinners can do what they should."(16) Upon humanity's good effort and heartfelt contrition, God has ordained to infuse his saving grace within them. Consequently, God's predestination is completely contingent upon divine foreknowledge, and the first move in salvation is left to each person.


Clearly, Luther broke decisively from the theology of his training--the Occamist view in general and Biel's view of the will in particular.(17) Instead, he emphatically insisted that God initiates the first move, the last move and, indeed, the only move, in regards to salvation. God is active on the human scene, determining the destiny of persons based not upon their works, their attitude or their love but merely based upon God's own mysterious will. God elects sinners to eternal life. In his response to Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will, Luther maintained that "God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will."(18) Luther borrowed the patristic image of a horse and rider.(19) "The human will," argued Luther, "is like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills; ... If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it." (20) Thus, Luther obliterated the notion of the freedom of humanity regarding salvation. God alone is free to determine each person's end. Likewise, Luther rejected the medieval notion of justification in which Occamists understood sin and righteousness as emanating from the human soul. Luther argued instead that righteousness does not naturally belong to the human; thus there are no innate resources upon which a human might turn to seek after God and receive God's pardon and grace. (21) Grace always comes not by human effort but as a gift from God.

What is of particular interest to our argument is the connection Luther then made between justification by faith and his evolving sacramentalism, especially regarding the sacrament of baptism. For Luther, baptism is salvific, but it carries this power only when faith is present, for faith, God's gift, is the basis of salvation. Therefore, Luther sought at times to differentiate between the act of water baptism and the faith requisite for its effectiveness. Baptism must be received by faith in the promise of God. Central to Luther's early thinking on baptism was an outright rejection of the Catholic notion of baptism being effective for salvation ex opere operato Thus, in Luther's earlier writing, faith in God's promise of justification played a central role in his view of baptism. (22)


In the spring of 1527, Hubmaier wrote two treatises on the freedom of the human will as a direct attack on Luther's response to Erasmus. Luther's Bondage of the Will had been popularly received by the masses; indeed, the influence was so far-reaching that apparently Anabaptists in Hubmaier's own Nikolsburg were attracted to Lutheran soteriology. (23) Thus, Hubmaier wrote On the Freedom of the Will and The Second Book on the Freedom of the Will, both in reply to Luther and, more immediately, to Hubmaier's own community of Anabaptists. These two writings reveal an argument for the freedom of the will consistent with the Occamist approach taught to Hubmaier by his former mentor and professor, Johannes Eck. (24) While he was quick to affirm that justification by faith is the gift of God through the Living Word, Hubmaier also held that one's initial belief stems from the freedom of the human will. (25) God grants humanity the freedom to turn voluntarily toward God for help upon hearing the Word of God. Echoing his Scholastic education, Hubmaier also differentiated between the absolute and the ordained wills of God. Thus, while God may opt to predestine a remnant to salvation without any foreknowledge of their faith and response, God normally operates according to his ordained will based upon foreknowledge of each believer's response to the Gospel. More specifically, salvation is a play with three acts: the initial response of the believer; God's response of inner regeneration within the believer (i.e., saving faith); and, finally, the new believer's appropriate response to grace through baptism. The initial belief, therefore, is an act of free will and is not to be considered a gift of God, but merely the response from the nature of the restored human after Calvary. God's regeneration is saving grace, and it is promised always to come to those who turn to the Lord. "Nevertheless," Hubmaier wrote, "the choice lies with them for God wants them, unpressed, unforced, and without coercion." (26) Thus, Hubmaier believed he had reached a logical harmony between otherwise seemingly disparate Scripture texts regarding humanity's freedom and responsibility for sin on the one hand, and God's sovereignty and decisive gift of salvation on the other. Consequently, modern scholars have characterized Hubmaier as anywhere from Pelagian to a proto-modified Calvinist. (27)

Such an explanation is not only a unique synthesis of various theological traditions in its own right, but it also addressed the specific danger of upholding what Hubmaier saw as a deterministic extreme among the pro-Lutheran Anabaptists in Moravia. David Steinmetz notes:
 Hubmaier saw clearly, as the Luther partisans did not, that the
 doctrine of the bondage of the will undercut the Anabaptist
 understanding of conversion, baptism, the nature of the Church, and
 Christian morality. Therefore, while he confessed that he had been
 deeply influenced by Luther (a claim which Luther bitterly
 disputed), and while he conceded the importance of at least some
 of Luther's observations, he nevertheless dismissed Luther's
 teaching on the bondage of the will as a dangerous half-truth. (28)

While Steinmetz rightly sees the association between human freedom and Hubmaier's defense of believer's baptism, his observation should not be interpreted as if Hubmaier's commitment to believer's baptism shaped his understanding of human freedom. Hubmaier's understanding of faith spawned his baptismal conclusions and not vice versa. This is evidenced by his own slow conversion, first to Protestant thought, and then, only subsequently, to Anabaptism.

Regardless, the traditional interpretations of Hubmaier and Luther argued that as their theologies matured Luther repudiated the Occamist theology entirely while Hubmaier retained his late medieval outlook, influencing his views on baptism and the voluntary church. (29) Yet even though Hubmaier remains, in essence, more Catholic than his Protestant counterpart, Lutheran thought nevertheless also significantly influenced his theology. In fact, Hubmaier was deeply indebted to Luther for his Anabaptist view of baptism and the church, even though he appropriated those concepts through his own more Occamist perspective. Regardless, Luther's understanding of the sacraments was integral to Hubmaier's developing Anabaptism.


It is uncertain whether Martin Luther ever read any of Hubmaier's works. Luther made little mention of his South German counterpart, except for the reference in 1528 when he distanced himself from Hubmaier and rejected any possibility of his own influence, intentional or otherwise, on Anabaptist baptismal practices. (30) That comment may suggest that Luther had read or at least was familiar with Hubmaier's work Old and New 'Teachers on Believers Baptism. (31) Otherwise, the only other potential interaction they might have had was a decidedly one-sided discussion, in Hubmaier's On the Freedom of the Will (in two parts), which he wrote in reaction to Luther's Bondage of the Will and as a response to Hubmaier's own experience of and perhaps frustrations with numerous Lutheran-influenced Anabaptists in Moravia. This tract went unanswered by Luther, however, and there, it seems, ended any other possibility of a relationship. However, a deeper reading into Hubmaier's letters and works suggests a greater possibility of intellectual corroboration or at least an implicit parallel.

Hubmaier noted several times his own reading of Luther and German Lutheranism. It would have been natural for Hubmaier, situated in South Germany and along the Swiss border in Waldshut, somewhat between Wittenberg and Zurich, to have come across the many treatises of Luther, Zwingli, and other Protestant and Anabaptist reformers in the region. Hubmaier's own correspondence and occasional references within his works confirms this assumption. For example, in 1521 Hubmaier is known to have forwarded a copy of Johannes Oecolampadius's work, Judicium de doctore Martino Luthero, to his friend Beatus Rhenanus, in which he informed Rhenanus that he had brought the text with him from Ulm, a city Hubmaier had visited en route from his second stint as cathedral preacher in Regensburg to his second pastoral assignment in Waldshut. (32)

Later correspondence seems to suggest that it was on this trip through Ulm that Hubmaier interacted with Wolfgang Rychard, a member of the growing humanist circle in Ulm that had become increasingly sympathetic to Luther's reforms. Rychard was a physician who "collected and distributed writings which had been inspired by the Reformation." (33) He claimed to have read Luther's writings, and thus, one might speculate, it was he who supplied Hubmaier not only with the book by Oecolampadius but quite possibly with other early Reformation resources.

Other letters from Hubmaier in 1521 reveal Hubmaier himself to be a fully-fledged humanist who was interested not only in Erasmus but also in Martin Luther. Correspondence between Hubmaier and a physician in Schaffhausen named Johann Adelphi, for example, reveals that the two men had had a long-term relationship with both expressing interest in Luther and the Lutheran reforms. Elsewhere Hubmaier wrote of his rejection of his Scholastic training in favor of Pauline theology and humanist philosophy. In one letter, Hubmaier confided that he was currently studying I and II Corinthians and was looking forward to beginning a study of Romans. Additionally, he asked Adelphi for his thoughts on Luther's book, Two Kinds of Righteousness, remarking that he also owned Luther's book On the Holy Mass. (34) Thus, it is clear that Hubmaier had become quite familiar with Luther's works, making it very plausible that these works helped to shape Hubmaier's theological perspective as he joined the Reformation.


This essay will not argue that Hubmaier was influenced in his radical "conversion" singularly or even disproportionately by the Wittenberg pastor. At the same time, Luther played a significant role in the formulation of Hubmaier's theology - even in his theology of baptism, an issue about which Hubmaier and Luther would, at first blush, appear to disagree fundamentally. in his pilgrimage to Anabaptism, Hubmaier borrowed especially from Luther's sacramental thought, particularly the importance of faith as preceding the sacramental sign. (35) Incredulous at even the suggestion of his own influence on Hubmaier, Luther would later dismiss the notion, writing:
 I know full well ... that Balthasar Hubmaier has included my name
 among others in his blasphemous booklet on rebaptism, as if I shared
 his perverted views. But I have comforted myself with the thought
 that no one, either friend or foe, would believe such a transparent
 lie as his. Not only is my conscience at rest in this, but my
 reputation is sufficiently safeguarded by the number of my sermons
 and especially by the latest Postil [containing sermons for the
 Sundays] from Epiphany to Easter, wherein I have made known
 abundantly my faith concerning infant baptism. (36)

The document including Luther's name in support for his own position was Hubmaier's Old and New Teachers on Baptism. Here Hubmaier wrote:
 Luther wrote a sermon six years ago on the mass, wherein he points
 out in the seventeenth article how symbols like baptism and the
 Lord's Supper mean nothing without prior faith. They are like a
 sheath without a knife, a case without a jewel, a hoop before an
 inn without wine.(37)

Here Hubmaier in July of 1526 was clearly referring to Luther's A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, The Holy Mass of 1520, where, in article 17, Luther actually stated:
 ... in every promise of God there are two things which one must
 consider: the word and the sign. As in baptism there are the words
 of the baptizer and the dipping in water, so in the mass there are
 the words and the bread and wine. The words are the divine vow,
 promise and testament. The signs are the sacraments, that is, sacred
 signs. Now as the testament is much more important than the
 sacrament, so the words are much more important than the signs. For
 the signs might well be lacking, if only one has the words; and
 thus without sacrament, yet not without testament, one might be
 saved. ... We see, then, that the best and greatest part of all
 sacraments and of the mass is the words and promise of God, without
 which the sacraments are dead and are nothing at all, like a body
 without a soul, a cask without wine, a purse without money, a type
 without a fulfillment, a letter without the spirit, a sheath
 without a knife, and the like. ... For sacrament without testament
 is a keeping of the case without the jewel, a quite one-sided
 separation and division.(38)

Scholars have traditionally argued that Hubmaier wrote his treatise, Old and New Teachers, by scouring patristic and modern sources in order to find references that might plausibly be interpreted as lending support to his own Anabaptist position on baptism. In locating--or, more likely, simply recalling--a citation from one of Luther's sermons, the argument goes, Hubmaier grossly misunderstood Luther regarding the relationship faith had to baptism. Both magisterial and Anabaptist scholars have noted that while Hubmaier generally remembered Luther's illustration in this article of the sermon, he misapplied it to faith instead of to the word (i.e., the promise of God). (39) Luther here stressed the importance of the words and testament of God, not faith itself. Consequently, Hubmaier's citation of Luther for support of the former's view is incorrect.

Unfortunately, however, because of this misapplication of Luther's illustration scholars have consequently dismissed Hubmaier's reference without further testing Hubmaier's more basic claim: namely, that Luther corroborated, even if unwittingly, Hubmaier's Anabaptist perspective on the sacraments. Abiding questions to be considered are whether Hubmaier simply misunderstood his Wittenberg contemporary, whether he purposefully twisted Luther's words for the purpose of winning Lutheran converts or for some other reason, or whether Hubmaier saw in Anabaptist theology a logical conclusion to Luther's early baptismal positioning. Rollin Armour has rightly noted:
 Although Luther did not intend what Hubmaier attributed to him, it
 is probably true that Hubmaier's first questions about baptism did
 arise from Luther's doctrine of sola fide, just as that doctrine,
 interpreted in Hubmaier's own way, served as his principle defense
 of "believer's baptism." (40)

Thus, Hubmaier's citation of Luther in his Old and New Teachers should not be interpreted as merely a passing comment irresponsibly taken out of context and thereby to be discarded by modern scholarship. Instead, given Hubmaier's similar training, his own record of reading Luther and his subsequent appropriation of Luther's thought into his works, Hubmaier's acknowledgment of Luther in Old and New Teachers merits further scrutiny.


The early Luther had one primary focus: the reform of the Roman Catholic Church, its abuses of power, and its lingering semi-Pelagianism. Luther had these perceived ecclesial abuses in mind when he wrote the early documents for which he is best known: The Two Kinds of Righteousness; The Babylonian Captivity of the Church; The Freedom of a Christian; The Bondage of the Will; and An Appeal to the Ruling Class of German Nationality as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom, among others. As noted above, Hubmaier himself acknowledged that he had read widely in Luther's works. Thus, in Luther's The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, one of his most influential documents within the general public, Luther argued:
 For where there is the word of a promising God, there must
 necessarily be the faith of the accepting man. It is plain
 therefore, that the beginning of our salvation is a faith which
 clings to the Word of the promising God. ... With plain words, life
 and salvation are freely promised, and actually granted to those
 who believe in the promise. (41)

It is clear that Hubmaier interpreted Luther to be arguing in his writings that faith is a prerequisite for the sacraments. Indeed, Luther himself stated that "nothing else than faith is needed for a worthy observance of the mass." (42) For Luther then, the basis of a sacrament is not only the sign itself (and herein he rejects any ex opere operata quality to sacramentalism) but also the promise which must be closely tied to the accompanying sign. The sign represents and reminds the believer of this promise. Luther expounded: "We may learn from this that in every promise of God two things are presented to us, the word and the sign, so that we are to understand the word to be the testament, but the sign to be the sacrament. Thus, in the Mass, the word of Christ is the testament, and the bread and wine are the sacrament." (43) Yet Luther also brought faith into this equation: " ... nothing is more important for those who go to hear mass than to ponder these words diligently and in full faith. Unless they do this, all else that they do is in vain." (44) Again, when he broached the sacrament of baptism, Luther remained consistent: "The first thing to be considered about baptism," he argued, "is the divine promise, which says: 'He who believes and is baptized will be saved' [Mark 16:16]." (45) However, not to be confused, Luther continued to hold out his principle of sola fide and not ex opere operato in baptism: "For the power of baptism depends not so much on the faith or use of the one who confers it as on the faith or use of the one who receives it." (46) Thus, Luther vehemently argued, it is not the rite itself that saves but our faith in the promise of God that is actually salvific:
 Hence they are signs or sacraments of justification, for they are
 sacraments of justifying faith. ... Their whole efficacy,
 therefore, consists in faith itself, not in the doing of a work.
 Whoever believes them, fulfills them, even if he should not do a
 single work. This is the origin of the saying: "Not the sacrament,
 but the faith of the sacrament, justifies." (47)

Luther continued his explanation by reference to the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. "It was obviously not Abel's sacrifice," he said,
 that justified him, but it was his faith [Heb. 11:4] by which he
 offered himself wholly to God, and this was symbolized by the
 outward sacrifice. Thus it is not baptism that justifies or benefits
 anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is
 added. This faith justifies, and fulfills that which baptism
 signifies. For faith is the submersion of the old man and the
 emerging of the new. (48)

The strong tie that Luther asserted here between faith and the sacrament-a claim he made frequently-may clarify at least to some extent why Hubmaier later confused Luther's sacramental images of the sheath and knife, or the case and jewel. Thus, while Luther in his sermon, A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass, paired the sacrament with the word or promise of God and not with faith itself, Hubmaier's conflation of promise with faith is somewhat understandable. After all, Luther concluded in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church: "For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed. But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments." (49)


It is not difficult to ascertain how Hubmaier could have drawn on Luther's argument to shape his Anabaptist beliefs. If faith must precede the sign, then it followed in Hubmaier's mind that only those who are capable of manifesting that faith should participate in the sacraments. Hubmaier then subsequently used Luther's own terminology to express Anabaptist sacramentalism. The baptism of water, he argued,
 is an outward and public testimony of the inner baptism in the
 Spirit, which a person gives by receiving water, with which one
 confesses one's sins before all people ... before which church the
 person also publicly and orally vows [i.e., promises] to God and
 agrees in the strength of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy
 Spirit that he will henceforth believe and live according
 to his divine Word. (50)

Therefore Hubmaier adopted Luther's nomenclature of sign and promise but altered the meaning of the latter. While Luther intended the concept of "promise" to convey the divine promise rooted in Scripture (e.g., for baptism, that all who are baptized shall be saved, Mark 16:16), Hubmaier understood "promise" through the lens of his late medieval anthropology to mean the human commitment or pledge to follow Christ and His Church. Thus, in baptism, one professes a faith already appropriated in the heart of the baptizant; in the eucharist, the congregation renews its baptismal commitment to serve and love Christ and to live in the discipline of His Church. Hubmaier argued for a temporal order of salvation. The Great Commission and the Mark 16:16 text made clear that baptism should follow the manifestation of faith. Luther connected the two but without requiring the same order in the life of the individual. (51) "When ten years after baptism faith appears," Luther argued, "what then is the need of a second baptism, if baptism was administered in all respects? For now he believes, as baptism requires. For faith doesn't exist for the sake of baptism, but baptism for the sake of faith. When faith comes, baptism is complete. A second baptism is not necessary." (52) Luther therefore disagreed with the Anabaptist principle of using Mark 16:16 ("He who believes and is baptized will be saved") as a prescriptive sequence in which the human must manifest an indubitable faith prior to baptism. Such a practice was far too subjective for Luther. (53) Though an Anabaptist would see the validity in faith as that which is openly confessed, Luther argued that such faith could never be certain:
 You say, I know, that he confesses that he believes, etc. Dear sir,
 confession is neither here nor there. The text does not say, "He
 who confesses," but "He who believes." To have his confession is
 not to know his faith. With all your reasoning you cannot do
 justice to this verse unless you know he has faith, since all men
 are liars and God alone knows the heart. So whoever bases baptism
 on the faith of the one to be baptized can never baptize anyone.
 Even if you baptized a person a hundred times a day you would not
 at all know if he believes. (54)

Through their differing views on faith and the human will, Luther and Hubmaier developed sacramental theologies that were the mirror image of each other. For Luther, God works on the inner person through the external signs that are linked to divine promise. (55) Hubmaier, by contrast, argued that the external signs are images of the fact that God has already acted on the inner person. Thus the signs serve as a means of public proclamation witnessing to that end. For Luther, the outer baptism can be a means through which God infuses divine grace. For Hubmaier, outer baptism is the public testimony of the inner baptism already affected through divine grace. Yet, both theologians pointed to the sacraments as promise accompanied by a sign.

Hubmaier, it appears, developed much of his sacramental theology on Luther's writings. While the two reformers were never in direct dialogue with each other, the working parallels within their emerging theologies are clear. In response to Luther's argument regarding the effectiveness of the eucharist (i.e., "nothing else than faith is needed for a worthy observance of the mass"),(56) Hubmaier wrote, "for not all who break bread are participants in the body and blood of Christ, which I can prove by the traitor Judas, Matt. 26:25. But those who are partakers inwardly and of the spirit, the same may also worthily partake outwardly of this bread and wine."(57) Paralleling Luther's notion of baptism, that "the power of baptism depends not so much on the faith or use of the one who confers it as on the faith or use of the one who receives it,"(58) Hubmaier responded, "Thus nobody is baptized by John or with the baptism of Christ unless he is instructed beforehand in the Word of God and led to the recognition of his sins, or to the recognition that they are forgiven him by Christ Jesus. (59) The similarity of these statements is marked and cannot simply be dismissed as coincidental. Hubmaier believed he was merely bringing Luther's thought to its inevitable conclusion: that sola fide necessitated that faith be made manifest before one enters the church through baptism or recommits to the life of Christian discipline through the Supper. Faith was prerequisite for the Christian life, and thus the condition of faith unavoidably effected a visible church.

Luther's and Hubmaier's point of departure, then, was not in the sacraments themselves, for their theological rhetoric on this doctrine can often sound quite similar. They separated more fundamentally on the concept of the will and therefore on the origin of faith. For Luther, salvation was wholly a gift of God, given to humans in response to faith. Hubmaier used roughly the same words but with a somewhat different understanding. Whereas for Luther, faith itself was a gift of God, for Hubmaier faith arose initially in the human nature and by virtue of the human capacity that had been restored after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Thus, for Luther, baptism typically served as a means of conveying God's grace. "For unless faith is present or is conferred in baptism," he wrote, "baptism will profit us nothing." (60) To him, the practice of infant baptism was not only acceptable but also useful in representing God's objective work in salvation. Hubmaier had no place for the idea of infused grace, since humanity must take the first step in faith. Consequently, "believer's baptism" was the only acceptable baptism.

Nevertheless, what is abidingly significant is the influence that the "father of the Reformation" had upon one of Anabaptism's most significant theologians. Luther's writings on faith and the sacraments made a powerful impression upon Hubmaier, which, in turn, affected Hubmaier's own sacramental theology and helped to shape the theology of the first generation of Anabaptists. (61) Hubmaier drew on Luther's sacramental terminology while redefining the meaning of the Wittenberg reformer's notions of faith and promise. At the same time, however, it should be clear that Hubmaier's appropriation of Luther's sacramentalism is not too distant from the early theology of Luther himself.


Luther modified his baptismal doctrine over the course of his life. The earlier one looks in Luther's writings, the more open to the Anabaptist sacramentalism and even soteriology he appeared to be. In a very early treatise, The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism, written in 1519, Luther tied baptism both to the work of God and to the intent of the baptizant. Here Luther wrote: "In the first place you give yourself up to the sacrament of baptism and to what it signifies. That is, you desire to die, together with your sins, and to be made new at the Last Day. This is what the sacrament declares. ... God accepts this desire at your hands and grants you baptism." (62) Hence, baptism seems to be God's work in the human after his or her submission to God, a point in keeping with Hubmaier's ordo salutis. But, strikingly, Luther stressed the anthropological facet of baptism even more: "In the second place," he wrote, "you pledge yourself to continue in this desire, and to slay your sins more and more as long as you live, even until your dying day. This too God accepts. ... So long as you keep your pledge to God, he in turn gives you his grace." (63) This notion of baptism as a human pledge to God, then, was not foreign to Luther. But the emphasis he placed here on the human response and even on the contingency of salvation based upon that response is not typical of the later Luther. In his defense, Luther had not yet encountered Anabaptism, and thus the covenant of God through baptism might underscore the mutual participation of the baptizant and God, a concept emphasized in opposition to the Catholic ex opere operato view of the sacraments. Here again Luther continued to argue that faith plays a key role in baptism:
 ... [faith] establishes a covenant between us and God to the effect
 that we will fight against sin and slay it, even to our dying
 breath, while he for his part will be merciful to us, deal
 graciously with us, and-because we are not sinless in this life
 until purified by death-not judge us with severity. (64).

In 1525, Hubmaier wrote in his own treatise on baptism:
 But baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy
 Spirit takes place when a person first confesses that he is a sinner
 and guilty, when he then believes in the forgiveness of sins through
 Jesus Christ and therefore resolves henceforth to live according to
 the Rule of Christ as far as God the Father, and the Son, and the
 Holy Spirit will give him grace and strength, and when he now
 testifies all such publicly before people and with the reception
 of the outward water: that is water baptism. (65)

Thus, both reformers saw baptism as a pledge accompanied by the sign through water, and both the early Luther and Hubmaier understood that promise actively to involve both God and the baptizant. Baptism was a means by which one pledged a desire to turn from the old man to the new and to abide in the grace of Christ.

In 1527, the last full year of his life, Balthasar Hubmaier wrote an Anabaptist liturgy that exemplified the spirit of this baptismal covenant. Following the candidate's confession in the triune God, the administrator asked the baptizant: "Will you henceforth lead your life and walk according to the Word of Christ, as he gave you grace?" and "Do you desire now upon this faith and pledge to be baptized in water according to the institution of Christ, incorporated and thereby counted in the visible Christian church, for the forgiveness of your sins?" (66) Thus, Hubmaier liturgically designed a baptismal pledge for the Anabaptist community that admonished the baptizant to turn from a life of sin and depend on the mercy of Christ.


Luther and Hubmaier clearly agreed that faith and baptism were closely associated. For Luther, the theology of infant baptism would be justified based upon his own changing or at least layered notions of fides infantium, fides aliena, and the representative faith of the covenant community. (67) But regardless of his form of argument, Luther understood that faith - at least in general, though perhaps not yet specifically within the baptizant - was inexorably present before the sacrament took place. Hubmaier underscored this argument requiring faith before baptism, but he translated that faith as specific to the baptismal candidate, concluding: "Therefore all those who want to be considered Christians should let themselves be baptized according to the command of Christ and confess Christian faith publicly before the church with mouth and water." (68) Since little children were incapable of such confession, they were not yet appropriate candidates for the rite for Hubmaier.

The proper qualifications for baptismal candidates, connected to differing views of the origin of faith, (69) became significant points of departure for Luther and Hubmaier. Nevertheless, both men found some agreement on the definition of the sacraments, with Luther's arguments likely influencing the thought of Hubmaier. Although Luther attempted to distance himself from his Anabaptist counterpart, his notion of the association between faith and sacramental signs helped shape Hubmaier's thought in his journey from Catholic priest to Anabaptist theologian.

In the end, Luther's rejection of Anabaptism may have been visceral and political as much as theological. Given the erratic behavior and wild enthusiasm of some Anabaptists, coupled with inaccurate and exaggerated rumors spread by their detractors, any association with Anabaptism would have been anathema to Luther. Thus, as the historian John S. Oyer noted,
 If Luther was conservative, it was primarily because the radicals,
 the Anabaptists, wanted to go too far. There is a note of
 exasperation in his vituperation. He thought the Anabaptists tried
 to claim a spiritual kinship to himself. ... He took pains therefore
 to clear himself of any identity of opinion with the Anabaptists on
 the issue of baptism.(70)

Yet, despite Luther's best efforts, it is likely that the Anabaptists indeed were inspired and stimulated by Luther's foundational Protestant works, especially regarding the doctrine of sola fide, while, at the same time, interpreting the nature of that faith quite differently. In the case of Balthasar Hubmaier - a contemporary to Martin Luther in age, development, education and experience - this connection is profound and unequivocal. Though Luther could not control the implications that others might draw from his work, rightly or wrongly, Hubmaier found in the thought of his Wittenberg contemporary a fundamental ingredient for his Anabaptist theological synthesis.

Prof. Brian Brewer, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97126, Waco, TX, 76798-7126. E-mail:

* Brian C. Brewer is an assistant professor of Christian theology at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University.

(1.) Martin Luther, "Von Der Widdertauffe an zween Pfarherrn. Ein brief Mart. Luther, " D. Martin Lathers Werke (Weimar: Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1909), 26:144-145 [hereafter cited as WA]; the cited English translation can be found in ''Concerning Rebaptism, " Luther's Work 40:229 [hereafter cited as LW].

(2.) H. Wayne Pipkin, Scholar, Pastor, Martyr. The Life and Ministry of Balthasar Hubmaier (ca. 1480-1528) (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008), 38.

(3.) David C. Steinmetz, "Luther and Hubmaier on the Freedom of the Human Will," in Luther in Context, ed. David C. Steinmetz (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1995), 60.

(4.) Indeed, Torsten Bergsten notes that in 1505, at the age of 19, Eck presented a set of lectures on the Old and New Testaments and by 1509 was made professor of theology and served as rector of Peacock Hall.--Bergsten, Balthasar Hubmaier: Anabaptist Theologian and Martyr (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1978), 49

(5.) Ibid.

(6.) Denis R. Janz notes that for Occamism, "the natural human act [was] the decisive factor in human salvation. Here, then, is Occamism's Pelagian tendency," in his chapter, "Late Medieval Theology," in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, ed. David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 12.

(7.) Ibid., 50-51.

(8.) Martin Marty, Martin Luther (New York: Viking, 2004), 5.

(9.) Martin Luther, "A sterisci Lutheri adversus Obeliscos Eckii," D. Martin Luthers Werke (Weimar: Bohlau, 1883), 1:286, here cited from Brian C. Brewer, "A Response to Grace: The Sacramental Theology of Balthasar Hubamier" (Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 2003), 114.

(10.) Luther, "The Freedom of the Christian," LW, 31: 338, 340.

(11.) This nickname Hubmaier writes in Latin as "Ingoldstadiensi Elephanto" as part of the formal title of his articles: "Theses which the fly Badazar Pacimontanus [Pastor of Waldshut] a brother in Christ, of Huldrych Zwingli, has offered to the elephant John Eck at Ingolstadt, to examine them masterfully. In a conflict of faith, where two are in disagreement, then who should be the proper judge? Truth is Unkillable," in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, trans. and ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), 49; see also Balthasar Hubmaier, Schriften, ed. Gunnar Westin and Torsten Bergsten (Gutersloh: Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1962), 87 [hereafter cited as Schriften].

(12.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "Theses Against Eck, " 53; Schriften, 88.

(13.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubnaier, 57; Schriften, 94.

(14.) Henry C. Vedder, Balthasar Hubmaier: The: Leader of the Anabaptists (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905), 92.

(15.) This doctrine, often called the Perspicuity of Scripture, is found particularly in Luther's early writings, notably in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where he writes: "They are to be retained in their simplest meaning as far as possible. Unless the context manifestly compels it, they are not to be understood apart from their grammatical and proper sense, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of all the Scriptures."- LW 36:30. Additionally, in his Bondage of the Will, Luther argues: "The subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms. ... It is true that for many people much remains abstruse; but this is not due to the obscurity of Scripture, but to the blindness or indolence of those who will not take the trouble to look at the very clearest truth. ... Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God." - LW 36:26-27 Hubmaier, for his part, arguing against Catholic notions of baptism, writes: "Thus one sees very well in their writings that they prefer to obscure and darken the clear, bright, and plain baptismal Scriptures. So that one does not see their error and stumbling. ... May God grant us not such obscuring or glossing but the clear simple understanding of his living Word" - "On the Christian Baptism of Believers," Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, 98; Schriften, 120.

(16.) Steinmetz, "Luther and Hubmaier on the Freedom of the Human Will," (62).

(17.) Says Steinmetz, "Luther is on the warpath against what he regards as Judaizing tendencies in Christian theology."--Ibid., 66.

(18.) LW 33: 37; WA 18: 616-617.

(19.) Ironically, Biel himself used this same illustration in a quite different way, when he wrote of the horse and rider saying: "But grace does not determine the will. The will can ignore the prompting of grace and lose it by its own default ... Augustine speaks in this way when he says that the will is related to grace like a footservant to her lady--it accompanies but docs not precede grace. And in his book on free will he says that grace is related to free will as a rider to a horse, the rider guides the horse and chooses the direction in which to go. Indeed it is in this way that grace steers and prompts the will to direct itself toward God."--Gabriel Biel, "The Circumcision of the Lord," here cited in Denis Janz, A Reformation Reader (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 49. However, Philip Watson, the editor of LW 33, notes that the metaphor of the horse and rider may originate from the pseudo-Augustinian Hypomnestion III, xi.20, where it is connected (as Luther links it) with Psalm 73:22f. At the same time, Watson writes that its antecedents may be as early as Origen--See his fn. 71 in UV 33:66.

(20.) LW 33:65-5; WA 18:635.

(21.) Steinmetz, "Scholasticism and Radical Reform: Nominalist Motifs in the Theology of Balthasar Hubmaier," MQR 45 (Apr. 1971), 128-129,

(22.) See Jonathan D. Trigg's excellent study of Luther's evolving view of baptism in Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther (Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001), esp. 67-99.

(23.) Steinmetz, "Luther and Hubmaier on the Freedom of the Human Will," 59.

(24.) Walter Moore argues that Eck's soteriology influenced Hubmaier throughout his life. See Walter J. Moore, Jr., "Catholic Teacher and Anabaptist Pupil: The Relationship between John Eck and Balthasar Hubmaier," Archive for Reformation History 72 (1981), 68-97. Kirk R. MacGregor proposes that ''Hubmaier integrated Scholastic categories concerning God's will, the Erasmian exegetical underpinnings in support of libertarian freedom, ... and Hans Denck's theodicy ... together with his own philosophical insights to craft a doctrinal framework."--MacCregor, "Hubmaier's Concord of Predestination with Free Will," Direction 35 (Fall 2006), 280.

(25.) Sec Eddie Mabry, Balthasar Hubmaier's Understanding of Faith (Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1998), 57f.

(26.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "The Second Book on the Freedom of the Will," 475; Schriften, 418.

(27.) See Johann Loserth, "Balthasar Hubmaier," Mennonite Encyclopedia 2:52, for the former; Robert Macoskey, "The Contemporary Relevance of Balthasar Hubmaier's Concept of the Church," Foundations 6 (Apr. 1963), 99-122, for the latter.

(28.) Steinmetz, "Luther and Hubmaier on the Freedom of the Human Will," 59.

(29.) Brewer, A Response to Grace, esp. 23-25.

(30.) LW40: 229.

(31.) Though some scholars have noted that given the fact that Hubmaier so badly reconstructs his reference to Luther's work, as shall be developed later in this essay, it demonstrates the likelihood that Luther had actually not read Hubmaier's own writings. The editors of the Weimar edition to Luther's works posited that Luther would have undoubtedly not failed to underscore Hubmaier's misinterpretation if Luther had actually read Old and New Teachers himself- WA, 26:144-145.

(32.) Bergsten, Balthasar Hubmaier, 71.

(33.) Ibid., 72.

(34.) Ibid., 73.

(35.) That by 1522-1523 Hubmaier was won to Lutheran Protestantism before his Anabaptist conversion of 1525, due mostly to the writings of Luther and Oecolampadius, suggests not only his methodical progression from Catholicism to Anabaptism but also that Lutheran Protestantism was a turning point for the Waldshut reformer. See David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in thee Wings: From Geiler uon Kayserberg to Theodore Beza, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 140.

(36.) LW 40:226; WA. 26:144-145.

(37.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "Old and New Teachers on Believers Baptism," 256; Schriften, 233.

(38.) LW 35:91.

(39.) See fn. 1 in "Von Der Widdertauffe an zween Pfarherrn. Ein brief Mart. Luther," in WA 26:144-145, for the magisterial critique of Hubmaier. The editors note that Luther does not underscore Hubmaier's misunderstanding but merely discounts any association with the Anabaptist leader. Thus, the editors conclude, Luther had likely not actually read Hubmaier's pamphlet. Also see Pipkin and Yoder's assessment of Hubmaier's misunderstanding in Hubmaier, "Old and New Teachers on Believers Baptism," 256, fn. 43, for Anabaptist scholars' perspective.

(40.) Rollin S. Armour, Anabaptist Baptism: A Representative Study (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1966), 24.

(41.) Luther, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," LW 36: 39, 40.

(42.) Here cited in "The Pagan Servitude of the Church," in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writing, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 278 [hereafter, Dillenberger, Martin Luther]; see also LW 36:40.

(43.) LW 36:44.

(44.) Ibid., 43.

(45.) Ibid., 58.

(46.) Ibid., 64.

(47.) Ibid., 65-66.

(48.) Ibid., 66.

(49.) Ibid., 67.

(50.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "A Christian Catechism," 349; Schriften, 313-314.

(51.) See Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, 211.

(52.) Luther, "Concerning Rebaptism," LW 30:246.

(53.) See John S. Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964), 120f.

(54.) Luther, "Concerning Rebaptism" LW 30:240.

(55.) See Steinmetz, "Scholasticism and Radical Reform," 129.

(56.) Here cited from Dillenberger, Martin Luther, "The Pagan Servitude of the Church," 275; see also Luther, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church," LW 36:40, where Abdel Ross Wentz translates this phrase: "nothing else is needed for a worthy holding of the mass than a faith that relies confidently on this promise."

(57.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "A Form for Christ's Supper," 398; Schriften, 358.

(58.) Luther, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,"LW 36:64.

(59.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "On the Christian Baptism of Believers," 110; Schriften, 130.

(60.) LW36: 59 [italics mine].

(61.) For a greater development of Hubmaier's influence over the Anabaptist movement, see Bergsten, Balthasar Hubmaier: Anabaptist Theologian and Martyr, 382-398.

(62.) LW 35: 33.

(63.) LW35: 33-34.

(64.) LW35: 35.

(65.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "On the Christian Baptism of Believers," 142; Schriften, 156-157.

(66.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "A Form for Water Baptism," 389; Schriften, 350.

(67.) see Trigg's outline of Luther's various arguments in defense of Kindertaufe--Trigg, Baptism in the Theology of Martin Luther, 103-109.

(68.) Pipkin and Yoder, Hubmaier, "On Infant Baptism Against Oecolampad," 292; Schriften, 268.

(69.) Steinmetz argues, given Hubmaier's abiding nominalism in this thought, that "when the subject is justification, then it is Martin Luther and not Balthasar Hubmaier who is the flaming radical."--Steinmetz, "Scholasticism and Radical Reform," 137.
COPYRIGHT 2010 Mennonite Historical Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:theologian Martin Luther
Author:Brewer, Brian C.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Previous Article:Toward an Anabaptist covenantal soteriology: a dialogue with Balthasar Hubmaier and contemporary Pauline scholarship.
Next Article:Johann Fabri's Justification concerning the execution of Balthasar Hubmaier.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters