Anabaptist Theology

Anabaptist Theology by Robert Friedmann

    No Anabaptist ever wrote a book or tract approximating systematic theology, comparable to what the Reformers of the sixteenth century have done. Therefore, a discussion here can point only to an implied, not to an explicit system of theology or theological thought, underlying all other activities of the brethren. No Christian group can exist without such an implied set of ideas, whereas their detailed expounding depends rather on actual occasions of polemics or defense.

The question which is foremost in the present endeavor of formulating this “implied” theology of the Anabaptists is whether or not Anabaptists accepted by and large the theology of the Protestant Reformers (Luther or Zwingli, hardly Calvin), adding in addition only those aspects otherwise neglected. In other words, should Anabaptism be regarded as a sort of Protestantism, with simply a greater emphasis on practical works and conduct, otherwise in line with the Reformers? The older outlook (such as that of John Horsch) was inclined to accept this viewpoint while at present it is felt that Anabaptist theology, as it gradually becomes better known, was in many ways as deeply different from Protestantism as the latter was different from Catholicism. Otherwise the violent opposition and persecution of the brethren would be hard to understand. According to this more recent viewpoint, Anabaptism was more than merely a radicalized Lutheranism or Zwinglianism, even though elements of both are found in Anabaptist thought.

While the great Reformers were in one sense or another Augustinians, Anabaptists were unaware of — or at least were uninterested in — the teachings of that great church father. As for the emphasis in biblical studies, the stress is shifted from Pauline doctrines, developed above all in the great Epistle to the Romans, to the basic instructions and teachings of Christ himself as found in the Synoptic gospels. The idea of discipleship therefore becomes foremost. In a rather general sense one could formulate this situation somewhat as follows: While for the Reformers the question of personal, individual salvation (from the taint of original sin and punishment for it) stood in the foreground, a question usually answered by the so-called “solafide” theology, the Anabaptists were primarily interested in the idea of Nachfolge(following Christ) which is based on an implied “theology of the kingdom of God.”

Of course, the Anabaptists too were sure that this idea means, in the last analysis, “salvation” (from the powers of darkness), but salvation as taught by Luther was certainly not their primary concern. Their concern was rather obedience to the Word of God which excluded from the outset too much thinking concerning one’s own fate. Only by obedience can one become a “disciple” and thus be active towards the promotion of the kingdom of God. Original sin exists, of course, but must not necessarily prevent man from such a way of Nachfolge, if man only fights in his own depth all the opposing forces.

Here we see immediately the great difference between them and the Reformers: there is no inescapable pessimism concerning man’s capacity to obey God’s commandments (including those of the Sermon on the Mount). The reason for this is that Anabaptism begins with the very idea of inner rebirth and a new and dedicated life, while Protestantism in general is inclined to despair of such an ability in man. Popularly, one might formulate the difference as an “emphasis on sanctification” versus an “emphasis on justification”; such a formulation, however, is too simple to satisfy, and the finer differences will become clearer only as we study the issue, point by point.

In reading Anabaptist tracts of a quasi-theological nature (usually provoked by polemics) one discovers quickly the absence of certain key words so familiar to everyone from the writings of Luther or Zwingli:

1) There is first and foremost the almost complete absence of the term “original sin” — or, if it appears, it shows but marginal significance. All the classical loci quoted by Luther are absent (e.g., in Friedemann, see Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1952, 210ff.), and their answer that “the sons do not inherit the guilt of the fathers” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) is utterly un-Lutheran. In other words, total depravity is unthinkable for men who have dedicated their lives to Nachfolge and discipleship. The reborn person knows ways and means to fight the “old Adam” in us, primarily by a life of nonconformity.

2) The term “atonement” is found nearly nowhere, and Anabaptists often express their opposition to the idea that inasmuch as Christ had ransomed us from the bondage of sin, we cannot do anything more but rely on this cosmic event and accept it as a free gift (cf. “Sweet or Bitter Christ,” Mennonite Encyclopedia, IV, 688-9). Man is not saved through Christ in his sin, but from his sin. The only known Anabaptist tract on this topic, from about 1530, Von der Genugtuung Christi [“On the Satisfaction of Christ,” in: John Howard Yoder, Ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler, 1973, 108ff.] does not really deal with the doctrine itself but only with the question: who may receive this divine grace? Only the disciple who dedicates himself altogether to a life of obedience is worth to receive this grace. Justification is Gerechtmachung, not only Gerechterklärung.

3) Salvation by faith alone: This formulation leads easily to confusion because the opposite formulation, “salvation by works,” contains so much ambiguity that the issues become easily blurred. A passage by Riedemann may easily illustrate this situation. He violently opposes the accusation “as if we would seek to be good [fromm werden, the Anabaptist term for salvation] through our own works…. To this we say ‘no,’ for we know that all our work, insofar as it is our work, is naught but sin and unrighteousness; but insofar as it is of Christ and done by Christ in us, so far is it truth — just and good….”  (Riedemann, Account of our Religion, 1950, p.36).

4) The term “sacrament” is of course totally absent in Anabaptist writings, but the subject itself — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — is much discussed, more or less in a Zwinglian way (symbolism). That baptism means a “sealing up of the new birth” is of course specific with all groups favoring adult baptism. Often the Anabaptists call it with Titus 3:5 a “bath of rebirth”; to them it means a vow to walk the way of discipleship; till the end of life. Thus we might say that discipleship is more than mere “sanctification of life,” rather it is sanctification after having experienced God’s grace of actual (existential) justification (Gerechtmachung). Work under such condition is not a “marital act” (as with Catholicism) but the evidencing of faith in life-obedience to God’s commandments. Peter’s word, You are a royal people (1 Peter 2:9), is more central to Anabaptists than Paul’s cry of despondency in Romans 7.

Once dedicated to this way the Anabaptist no longer worries about personal salvation. His way is not “salvation by works” (as opponents used to say and still say so now and then) but the Anabaptist knows that no salvation is thinkable without works which show the reality of one’s conversion. The term “by faith alone” is too indefinite as to be well usable for such a vision.


    Traditionally, theology is subdivided into several topics such as christology, soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. Naturally, Anabaptist writings are unaware of this classification, but in broad outlines we may find some salient points to each topic in these writings:

    1) Christology. It has to be stressed that the Anabaptists were thoroughly “orthodox” in their faith, i.e., they accepted without any reservation the Apostolic Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity. That holds true for all groups without distinction. Christ is the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, fully man and fully God, who redeemed mankind by his death — that is, by opening a new way to fight the powers of Satan, and also by opening God’s immeasurable grace to all who will follow him in true sonship. The Anabaptists accepted the orthodox “old-evangelical” teachings — prior and up to the time of the Nicene Creed. With Zwingli they eliminated all magical ideas, so often connected with the person of Christ. We should stress here also that the Anabaptists were soberly scriptural, that is, all kinds of fanaticism, enthusiasm and false spiritualism were foreign to them.

    2) Soteriology. That humans are born in sin, is of course readily admitted; but this birth does not mean a sort of fate which cannot be overcome or escaped. The basic presupposition of Anabaptist thought is the existential fact of inner rebirth, the total change of mind. Only individuals of this type could (and would) ever join the Anabaptist brotherhoods; those who passively despaired of any essential change of life could never understand the Anabaptists both in their everyday life and in their stand at trials. Faith meant to them more than merely a “creedal assent,” it meant rather an experience leading to decision and commitment.

    Naturally such an attitude will unavoidably lead to conflicts with the “world” (which lives in a mixture of powers derived both from light and darkness), and with it, to persecution. The Anabaptist, however, is prepared to accept it, what was aptly called the “theology of martyrdom,” meaning the expectation of the cross for the disciple — “cross,” not as a marital event, but as a sign of one’s own stand, challenging the world which will always contradict the path of Christ and his disciples. (Note: theology of martyrdom, i.e., the “church under the cross,” is to be distinguished from a “theology of the cross,” so well-known from later Pietism, but also from the writings of Thomas Müntzer and other writers of the sixteenth century.)

    The idea of a suffering church is not really a “theology” in the strict sense of the word, just as the idea of “discipleship” is not theology proper (though part of it). Discipleship (Nachfolge) is often called “obedience” in Anabaptist tracts. Neither this disciple-ship nor martyrdom as such has in itself any “saving” quality.

    The central concepts of Anabaptist theology therefore have to be sought on a still deeper level. It was recently called the “theology of the two worlds,” or kingdom-of-God theology (Robert Friedmann, “The Doctrine of the Two Worlds,” in: The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, 1957, 105-18). Its basic idea is the primitive Christian dualism of God and Satan, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, light and darkness, Spirit and flesh, and the like. Facing this prime situation of all existence, each person has to decide for himself which one of the two sides he is ready to join. All the well-known radicalism of the Anabaptist such as martyrdom, community of goods, innerworldly asceticism, etc., has its roots in this basic theological vision or outlook.

    To this “kingdom-theology” might be added as a supplementary thought the idea of “covenant” (Bund). The Anabaptists have made their covenant with God (1 Peter 3:21) when accepting baptism, but more correctly God made his covenant with all those who are ready to be his children. Thus Anabaptists are “covenant people,” having committed themselves to unceasing enmity to whatever belongs to the prince of the world (such as violence, adultery, greed, hatred, etc.)

(Note: One author prefers to speak of two aeons rather than two worlds, but it appears that the aeon-theology belongs in a different context.)

    3) Eschatology. Except for marginal figures such as Melchior Hofmann and his like, eschatology has nowhere been treated in detail by Anabaptists. And yet, they draw courage and good cheer from an unelaborated-upon hope and confidence that “these are the last and most dangerous days.” In other words, they believe that the kingdom of God has drawn near and will come at any moment. That gives them calmness in tribulation — they are sure that God will not delay for long his coming. Again, Anabaptists were reading Peter (“new heavens and a new earth,” 2 Peter 3:13) with more understanding in this regard than any one of the other epistles of the New Testament. But one should stress the point that Anabaptists were never adventists or millenarians of any kind. When, in 1527 at the famous Martyr’s Synod in Augsburg, this question came up, Hans Hut was expressly instructed to keep back his own ideas concerning the near end of this world, and he kept his promise. Anabaptists were loath to indulge in speculations of this kind. Only as an undercurrent would they allow remarks of this kind. After all, the kingdom of God was not only coming, it was already “among us.”

    4) Ecclesiology. The Corpus Christi is here stressed over against the Corpus Christianorum. In other words, the brotherhood of dedicated Christians stands here against the body of all baptized Christians, saints and sinners. The Catholics as well as the Reformers accepted the Corpus Christianorum, the concept of a Christian society at large, hence their opposition to the idea of an exclusive Corpus Christi[anum].

    The church (Gemeinde, also Gemein, Gemeinschaft) and the brotherhood are with the Anabaptists one and the same, both a sacred and a secular body without separation of these two functions. No one can ever reach God except together with his brother. The Anabaptist church was once well-called the “fellowship of committed disciples,” and the Lord’s Supper among them is the external symbol of this fellowship (occasionally called the “fellowship at the Lord’s Table”). Brotherhood is more than a concern for the other’s salvation, it is Gemeinschaft, community, both in things spiritual and worldly. It is essentially a love-relation (hence it implies more than merely an “ethic” of love).

    At the same time this church is a disciplined church, a church which insists on supervision by the bishop or Vorsteher, and naturally insists on the ban. More than once it was called a “church of order” (cf. Mennonite Encyclopedia, I, 595-a), the term itself occurring time and again in Anabaptist tracts. Of course, the world of the children of God must be a world of order, and not one of confusion or arbitrariness. Whether Grebel or Riedemann, Marpeck or Menno Simons or Dirk Philips, they all stressed this element of order and discipline as part of the true church of God. It belongs as a second element to the first one of brotherly love and cooperation and sharing.


    These then are the salient elements of Anabaptist theology. Its core appears to be the doctrine of the two worlds, with its corresponding idea that the Anabaptists’ task is to attempt to realize the kingdom of God in the here and now, at least in part, and in weakness. The disciple knows the temptation of sin, but he has arrived at the decision where he will fight it and will try to follow the Master. This is possible only if he separates from the “world,” but in a different way from that of medieval monasticism.

That official Protestantism with its so profoundly different genius could not understand this vision and was bent to eliminate it altogether is regrettable but understandable. Only a period of slackening of this theology, and at the same time a converging towards a “general Protestant pattern” (around 1700, see Gerhard Roosen as an example) could radically change outlook and persecution. (October, 1958)

Reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Historical Bulletin Vol. LI, April 1990, No. 2 pages 4-7.

The essay, as published [above], was Robert Friedmann’s first-draft attempt at defining what should go into the Mennonite Encyclopedia under “Theology, Anabaptist.” The editors did not see fit to use this approach, and the essay was never published. One reason for this may well have been the fact that Friedmann’s analysis was based more on the Swiss and Hutterian traditions, with less emphasis upon Dutch Anabaptism. Even so, the essay is of great importance. Its significance lies in part in its early date, 1958, but also in unique formulations. For here is none other than Friedmann’s encapsulation of what later would appear as his Theology of Anabaptism (Herald Press, 1973). Friedmann’s interpretation may prove useful, currently, in the light of present interests in the question of Mennonite merger, and in a conjoint Mennonite confession of faith.


Posted in Anabaptist Theology.

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