Printer Friendly

Research note: the varieties of anabaptist biblicism: the weight of the old testament and the apocrypha in several sixteenth-century anabaptist groups.

The Anabaptists are generally, and correctly, described as "New Testament Christians." I well remember my one meeting with Harold S. Bender, the dean of Anabaptist/Mennonite studies, in the summer of 1961, at the Mennonite Historical Library in Goshen, Indiana. It was clear to him that the so-called "Anabaptists" of the regime that ruled Miinster in Westphalia from February 1534 to June 1535 were not "true Anabaptists," because, unlike genuine Anabaptists, they gave heavy significance to the texts and precedents of the Old Testament.

There was solid ground for the Bender position that sixteenth-century Anabaptists were New Testament Christians. For all Anabaptist groups, to state the obvious, the books of the New Testament were canonical. But none of them took the position of the ancient Marconites, that only the New Testament was inspired.(1) Recent Mennonite scholarship has modified any notion that the southern Anabaptism of Switzerland, south Germany, and Moravia entirely rejected the Old Testament, (2) or the Apocrypha, (3) for that matter. John D. Roth has pointed out that the major early texts of Swiss Anabaptism--including the letter of Conrad Grebel and associates to Thomas Miintzer of September 1524, Felix Mantz's protestation to the Zurich Council of December 1524, and the concordance found in the possession of the Anabaptist preacher Hans Krusi in eastern Switzerland in the early summer of 1525 (a collection that seems to have originated with Conrad Grebe')--all contain references to the Old Testament as well as the New. The notion that the early Swiss Anabaptists rejected the Old Testament originated in the polemics of Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger as an inference from the fact that the Anabaptists declined to accept the Reformed theologians' contention that New Testament baptism was a continuance of Old Testament circumcision. Bullinger insisted in 1532 in the preparation for the Zoffingen religious disputation that the Anabaptist disputants must be required at the start to agree that contested points "be decided and clarified with Holy Scripture of the Old Testament and the New Testament." This put the Anabaptists at a disadvantage, because they were more interested in ecclesiastical and ethical issues than in defining the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.(4)

The one university-trained theologian on the Anabaptist side in 1525 was Balthasar Hubmaier, the pastor of Waldshut in the Black Forest. His views have traditionally been regarded as unrepresentative of early Swiss Anabaptism, because he did not share the classical view of Anabaptist nonresistance, as expressed in the Seven Articles of Schleitheim of February 1527. However, recently Arnold Snyder has made a very convincing case that there was no consciousness on either side of basic disagreements between Grebel and Hubmaier in 1525.(5) In 2013, Graeme R. Chatfield published a study of Hubmaier's hermeneutics that has very important implications for the early Anabaptist understanding of the relation between the Old and New Testaments. While in Waldshut, Hubmaier's writings focused on the incarnate Christ in such a way as to significantly diminish the weight of the Old Testament. Anticipating the later work of Leupold Scharnschlager and Pilgram Marpeck, Hubmaier held that the Old Testament patriarchs lived in Sheol in hope of salvation by Christ, who would descend to save them as affirmed in the Apostles' Creed. In other words, the Old Testament was authoritative only to the extent that it contained the promise of the incarnate Christ.(6) Such a delineation of the relation between the testaments was greatly elaborated upon in the context of the controversy between Marpeck and Caspar Schwenckfeld in an 836-page text, Explanation of the Testaments (Testamentserletaterting), published in 1547. The Old Testament covenant was that of "yesterday," which contained the promise of the New Testament covenant of "today."(7) When Hubmaier moved to Nikolsburg in Moravia in the summer of 1526 he became the leader of an Anabaptist magisterial Reformation committed to a literal interpretation of the New Testament, including the baptism of adult believers. Here he moved to a hermeneutic rather similar to the Reformed theologians with whom he had disputed in 1525. In Hubmaier's publications of 1526-1527 he emphasized Christ as logos, performing a salvific function during the Old Testament period, a change that elevated the authority of the Old Testament to the level of the New.(8) Hence, among the southern Anabaptist groups, the authority of the Old Testament was never rejected but it was subordinated to the authority of the New Testament, either implicitly or very explicitly by Marpeck and Scharnschlager as well as by Hubmaier during his Waldshut period. Only during Hubmaier's year in Nikolsburg did a southern Anabaptist community assign the Old Testament equal authority to the New.

The early Anabaptists of the Netherlands and the northern German lands received the Old Testament and the Apocrypha more positively than the Anabaptists of Switzerland, south Germany, and Moravia/Hungary. However, here, too, nuance is necessary. It is distorting to label them as "Old Testament Christians."

In 1529 and 1530 in Strasbourg and Emden (East Frisia) a second, largely independent Anabaptist tradition was begun by the Swabian lay Protestant evangelist Melchior Hoffman. Hoffman, a literate craftsman, a furrier, had worked from 1522 to 1529 in the Baltic and Scandinavian lands, for a time with Martin Luther's approval. Klaus Deppermann, who studied Hoffman most thoroughly, holds that by 1526 he had developed a characteristic body of teaching, which for the time being he attempted to harmonize with the Lutheran Reformation: a conception of the "deified person"; the assertion that conscious sins committed after illumination cannot be forgiven; the notion of a new revelation of the Holy Spirit through allegorical interpretation of Scripture, or in visions and dreams; and the assertion of an imminent end of the world to occur in 1533.9 Growing estrangement between Hoffman and the educated Lutheran clergy in the Baltic lands led Hoffman to renounce characteristically Lutheran ideas, starting with his development of a more symbolic, sacramentarian view of the Lord's Supper, reminiscent of Karlstadt, Zwingli, and the Strasbourg pastors, at the Flensburg Disputation of 1529.(10) This turn in Hoffman's outlook led to his being welcomed in Strasbourg, then tolerant of religious diversity.

In Strasbourg, Hoffman mingled not only with Anabaptists but also with Spiritualists such as Caspar von Schwenckfeld. Schwenckfeld certainly influenced Hoffman in the development of his most characteristic heterodox doctrine of spiritualizing the body of Christ, asserting that it descended directly from heaven and depended on its human mother, Mary, only for nourishment--thus a Christology that severely compromised the Chalcedonian orthodoxy that Christ was fully human as well as fully divine.(11) Hoffman's Christology connects him with the Anabaptists in Munster and with Menno Simons, and is a dependable litmus for "Melchiorite" Anabaptism, separating it from the Anabaptism of Switzerland, south Germany, and Moravia/Hungary throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A second belief that continued from Hoffman to Munster and Menno was the affirmation of the godly ruler--a more full-blooded endorsement of temporal authority than appeared in southern Anabaptism, whether in the Seven Articles of Schleitheim or in the writings of Balthasar Hubmaier. In Hoffman's thinking godly rule had an apocalyptic meaning in the struggles of the last days foretold in the book of Revelation;(12) but in both Munster and Menno the Old Testament associations of godly rulership received much more emphasis than with Hoffman.

Following his break with Lutheranism, Hoffman adopted such Anabaptist beliefs as the baptism of adult believers as a covenant with Christ, the universality of grace, and the freedom of the human will.(13) Hoffman drew on Maccabees I and II in his 1530 commentary on Revelation--he was correct, of course, to connect Daniel and Maccabean literature generically with the apocalyptic testimonies of the New Testament, even though he was most of all interested in the New Testament apocalypse. Later Mennonites were criticized by the official Protestant disputers for their free use of apocryphal books.(14) It is surely significant that Luther insisted that Maccabees I and H were not canonical because of their affirmation of free will. Whether beliefs in free will separated Melchiorite Anabaptists from the Anabaptists of the south is a difficult issue, because the Melchiorites were more explicitly theological than the southern Anabaptists, with the exception of Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Denck, who had a definite affirmation of free will in their soteriologies. In any case, Melchior Hoffman and his Mennonite successors found the Old Testament Apocrypha a buttress against the Pauline predestinarianism of classical Protestantism.

With Melchior Ho nian's imprisonment in Strasbourg in 1533 and the takeover of his movement in the Netherlands at year's end by the prophetic pair Jan Matthijs and Jan van Leiden, his movement underwent an ideological transformation. Its apocalyptic hopes under Hoffman had centered on Strasbourg. Now they centered on Munster in Westphalia. In Miinster the leading pastor, Bernhard Rothmann, had advocated the baptism of adult believers since the summer of 1533. Melchiorite refugees from Westphalia and the Netherlands were welcomed there following a victory in the civic elections by Rothmann's followers in February 1534.(15)

In the Confession of Both Sacraments, written by Rothmann and his fellow pastors in October 1533, he sounded the note, later echoed by Menno Simons, that "Christ is the foundation upon which the holy church is established and built."(16) After the death of the senior prophet, Jan Matthijs, killed in battle in early April 1534, his successor, Jan van Leiden, eclipsed Rothmann in the leadership of the Anabaptist regime in Miinster. Jan van Leiden immediately established a theocratic government, replacing the Munster civic council with the Twelve Elders of Israel, and then in September setting himself up as a Davidic king.(17)

Jan van Leiden is responsible for the profusion of Old Testament themes in Anabaptist Munster and in Melchiorite Anabaptism generally. Jan had various personal motives in instituting polygamy in July 1534 in response to a situation in which adult women greatly outnumbered adult men. Rothmann led the pastors in searching the Scriptures and discovered that, while there was no generalized endorsement of monogamy, the polygamy of the patriarchs was approvingly described in Genesis. Further, polygamy was justified by God's command to men and women at creation in Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and master it." Since women were infertile during pregnancy and sexual relations were justifiable only for reproductive purposes, the right of men to have several wives was obvious. In a substantial discussion in Rothmann's Restitution, published in October 1534, polygamy was particularly justified on the basis of the lordship of men over women, which supposedly paralleled Christ's lordship over the church.(18)

In the writings of Rothmann during the siege of Miinster he faithfully expounded the doctrines of Melchior Hoffman; but at the height of the siege, in the Consoling Message of Vengeance (December 1534) and the Hidden Meaning of Scripture (February 1535) he broke with traditional exegesis by insisting that Old Testament references to the coming of the messianic David referred not to Christ but to Munster's own David, Jan van Leiden. The Old Testament promises of human redemption truly referred to the Jesus Christ of the first century; but the militant messianic role of humbling God's enemies had yet to be fulfilled. This was the task of Jan van Leiden, the king of Munster, the new Israel of the last days. Only when these promises of the vindication and vengeance of God's people were fulfilled could the End come, at which point Jan-David would hand over the world to Christ, "the peaceful Solomon [whose] kingdom will have no end."(19)

For the Anabaptists of Miinster, this function of Jan van Leiden, the promised David, the fulfiller of prophecies, made the Old Testament a good deal less obsolete than it was for conventional Christians. Of course, Jan van Leiden was discredited by his failure and the fall of Munster in June 1535. But one way for his scattered flock to deal with this debacle was to transfer the mantel of Promised David either to Jan van Batenburg or David Joris, whose following continued to practice Old Testament polygamy in the case of Batenburg, or to spiritualize it in the case of Joris.(20)

In the unpublished "Blasphemy of Jan of Leiden," probably written in 1535, (21) Menno Simons indignantly rejected the claims of the King of Munster--only Jesus Christ was the Promised David. He applied the substance of his denunciation equally to the "corrupt sects," the Batenburgers and the Jorists. Menno clearly read the writings of Bernhard Rothmann. The distinctive heterodox Christology that so sharply separated Mennonites from southern Anabaptists probably came to Menno from the writings of Rothmann, rather than directly from Melchior Hoffman. The Melchiorite conception of the godly ruler, rather than having an apocalyptic meaning, as it did for Hoffman or in Munster, turned Menno to the kings of Israel and Judah described in the Old Testament. In the introduction to the first, 1539, edition of his very influential Foundation Book, Menno counseled rulers that they must play the role of David(!) or Josiah, not that of Jeroboam or Ahab, so that on the day of Judgment they would be found to be "Christian, wise, true, and God-fearing." Moreover, just as Melchior Hoffman had earlier expected good kings to defend Strasbourg at the apocalyptic moment, Menno in the 1540s seems to have hoped to find a godly ruler to take the initiative in reforming the church: "Dismiss blind and false teachers, be they popes or monks, baptized or unbaptized, of whatever sect or name.

..."(22) He expected an astonishingly Constantinian role of the Christian monarch. In his last decade Menno abandoned such hopes and realized that his followers were fated for martyrdom.

Martyrologies played a very important part in the maturing and consolidation of the Mennonite/Doopsgezinden movement that Menno did so much to found. In 1562, the year after Menno's death, the first edition of Het Offer des Heeren (The Sacrifice of the Lord) appeared with a mere twenty-one Dutch martyr stories. At first the editions of the martyrologies were narrowly sectarian, a special project of the Frisian Mennonite micro-confession. However, by the time Hans de Ries published his much longer History of the Martyrs in 1615, the martyrology had become an instrument of Anabaptist ecumenism, defining "true" Anabaptists as recipients of believer's baptism and as essentially nonviolent. The tradition culminated with the publication of the Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman Jansz van Braght in 1660. Unlike de Ries, whose objectives were more inclusive, van Braght was concerned to maintain a distinct confessional identity for the Mennonite/Doopsgezinden movement, but his enumeration of more than 600 martyrs from the Netherlands had moved far beyond the micro-confessionalism in which the martyr literature had begun a century earlier.(23)

For our purposes the relevant issue is the importance of the Apocrypha in Dutch Mennonite martyr literature. It is a matter of significance that up to 1599 no vernacular edition of the Bible with Old and New Testaments published on the European continent omitted the Apocrypha.(24) Menno quoted the Apocrypha in his writings, particularly stressing the accounts in Maccabees II of Jewish martyrs refusing the Hellenizing religious program of Antiochus, king of Syria. This same chord is struck even more emphatically by van Braght in his preface to the 1660 Bloody Theater. He singles out the individuals who laid down their lives "from Abel to the Maccabees" as "the true army of God and the heroes of the old covenant." He adds, "the whole volume of holy Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, seems to be almost exclusively a book of martyrs."(25)

Recent study of the southern Anabaptist traditions from Switzerland to Moravia has added nuance to the earlier one-sided presentation of them as "New Testament Christians," who had little use for the Old Testament. The study of the Biblicism of the northern Anabaptist tradition, which is the primary focus of the present article, also requires nuance. The Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition beginning with Melchior Hoffman (from which Bernhard Rothmann surely cannot be excluded) was not as oriented to the Old Testament as Harold S. Bender told me in the summer of 1961. It did not, by comparison, have as heavy a tilt to the Old Testament as the writings of Thomas Muntzer.(26) Nevertheless, in the Christian spectrum of theology about the relative authority of the Old and New Testaments, the northern Anabaptists were decidedly more Old Testament oriented than their southern Anabaptist cousins, even at the fringes of southern Anabaptism, when Balthasar Hubmaier became an Anabaptist magisterial reformer in Nikolsburg, in 1526-1527.

(1.) Thomas Miintzer, in marginal notes to Tertullian, accused the "Erasmians" of his time of being followers of Marcion.--The Collected Works of Thomas Milatzer, ed. Peter Matheson (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 410.

(2.) See, for instance, C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology. An Introduction (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 1995), 162, who argues: "The words of Scripture are all words of God, but they do not carry the same weight or significance in guiding the life of believers. The Bible is not 'flat"; the Old Testament has been superseded by the New, arid within the New Testament Christ's words and example are definitive."

(3.) Loren Johns, "Reading the Maccabean Literature by the Light of the Stake: Anabaptist Appropriations of the Apocrypha," The Mennonite Quarterly Review 86 (April 2012), '162-164.

(4.) John D. Roth, "Harmonizing the Scriptures: Swiss Brethren Understandings of the Relationship Between the Old and New Testament During the Last Half of the Sixteenth Century," in Radical Reformation Studies. Essays Presented to James M. Stayer, ed. Werner 0. Packull and Geoffrey L. Dipple (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 3440.

(5.) C. Arnold Snyder, "The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism, 1520-1530," MQR 80 (Oct. 2006), 501-645.

(6.) Graeme R. Chatfield, Balthasar Hubmaier and the Clarity of Scripture. A Critical Reformation Issue (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013), 106-192.

(7.) Walter Klaassen and William Klassen, Marpeck. A Life of Dissent and Conformity (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2008), 308-31.3.

(8.) Chatfield, Hubmaier, 193-333.

(9.) Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman. Soziale Llnruhen und apokalyptische Visionen im Zeitalter der Reformation (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 73-75.

(10.) Ibid., 84432.

(11.) Ibid., 186-191, 197-202.

(12.) Ibid., 232.

(13.) Ibid., 191-212.

(14.) Johns, "Anabaptist Appropriations of Apocrypha," 156, 168-169.

(15.) Ralf Klotzer, "The Melchiorites and Munster," in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700, ed. John D. Roth and James M. Stayer (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 216-234; Willem J. de Bakker, Michael Driedger, and James M. Stayer, Bernhard Rothmann and the Reformation in Minster, 1530-35 (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2008), 112-157.

(16.) Die Schriften Bernhard Rothmanns, ed. Robert Stupperich (Munster: Asc.hendorff, 1970), 192: "Christus is dat fundament, dar up de hyllighe kercke al gerichtet vnde gebouwet warden."

(17.) Klotzer, "Melchiorites and Munster," 237-246; de Bakker, Driedger, and Stayer, Rothmann, 169479.

(18.) Klotzer, "Melchiorites and Minster," 240-242; de Bakker, Driedger, and Stayer, Rothmann, 172-174, 186-187.

(19.) De Bakker, Driedger, and Stayer, Rothmann, 183-205.

(20.) James M. Stayer, "The Radical Reformation," Handbook of European History, 1001600. Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Thomas A. Brady Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 2:271-272.

(21.) James M. Stayer, "Oldeklooster and Menno," The Sixteenth Century Journal 9 (April 1978), 63-67; Helmut Isaak, Men no Simons and the New Jerusalem (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2006), 34-46, 113-116.

(22.) James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword (Lawrence, Kan.: Coronado Press, 1976), 313.

(23.) Brad S. Gregory, "Anabaptist Martyrdom: Imperatives, Experience, and Memorialization," in Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 488-502.

(24.) Johns, "Anabaptist Appropriations of Apocrypha," 154.

(25.) Ibid., 152, 167-168.

(26.) James M. Stayer, "Prophet, Apocalyptiker, Mystiker. Thomas Muntzer und die 'Kirche' der Patriarchen, Propheten und Apostel," in James M. Stayer and Hartmut Endzeiterwartung bei Thomas Miintzer und im fruhen Luthertum (Muhihausen: Thomas-Muntzer-Gesellschaft, 2011), 5-25.

*James M. Stayer is professor emeritus of history at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario.
COPYRIGHT 2014 Mennonite Historical Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Stayer, James M.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
Previous Article:Calvin and the anabaptists: the "brieve instruction" of 1544.
Next Article:"Whether the writings of the old testament are as valid for christians as those of the new": swiss brethren perspectives.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |