Reformed Reflections

Profile of Radical Reformers
Biographical Sketches from Thomas Mϋntzer to Paraceisus
Hans-Jurgen Goertz, Editor; Walter Klaassen, English Edition Editor;
Published by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA., Kitchener, Ontario; 1982; softcover; 280 pages.

Who were the radical Reformers? Many of them were Anabaptists. They were the "third party" in the days of the Reformation. The Anabaptists, a name repudiated by them, looked back to the New Testament church. They made a valiant effort to reconstitute primitive Christianity. The Anabaptist movement included spiritualists, pacifists, but also people who held communistic practices and principles of a subversive nature and morality. The Munster tragedy caused by extremists, who pillaged, murdered and practiced polygamy in the name of Christ, gave the Anabaptists a horrible reputation. But this incident was only an aberration in their development. The Reformers took sharp issue with fanatical Anabaptist leaders, who considered themselves recipients of direct divine revelation on par with Scripture, exalting the "inner word" alongside and even above the Bible.

The history of the Anabaptists is filled with drama. They risked their lives for their beliefs, and often enough died on the scaffold or perished in prison or were drowned or burned at the stake. In recent times there is a renewed interest in Anabaptism. Academics among the Mennonites in North America, occasionally joined by the Baptists, began an intensive study of Anabaptism. In North America the emphasis was on the peace oriented currents. The movement has also received ample attention from the communists. Friedrich Engels reminded the German people of their "revolutionary tradition" which began with the "unruly, but powerful and unyielding men of the Great Peasants' War."

Profile of Padical Reformers focuses on some of the lesser known figures of the Reformation era. It describes the lives and times of the most important thinkers or leaders in the radical camp. The selection begins with the early critics of Luther's Reformation and moves on to the leaders and partisans of the rebellious peasants. Included are Anabaptists from Switzerland, South Germany, Moravia, Mϋntzer and the Netherlands, as well as anti-Trinitarians. Some of the biographers place the emphasis on the history of ideas and theology and others on the social aspect. From reading the biographical sketches you learn about the development from a militant view of solving unjust conditions to a pacifist position.

Thomas Mϋntzer, like all other radicals, was both a revolutionary and a mystic. Only in the circles touched by the French revolutionaries was he seen and gloried as a courageous leader of the German people's war of liberation. Ultimately he attracted; great interest among socialists. Hans Hut taught that it was not Scriptural, for a believer to bear arms in the service of his country or for self-defense, or to pay taxes for carrying on a war. Hans Denck was strongly committed to an individualistic spirituality. Sebastian Lotzer's understanding included the possibility of social radicalism. Johann Hergot's vision rested on an "agrarian-communist state organization, including the whole world." Conrad Grebel, as the first "baptizer." gets his place at the beginning of the Mennonite-Baptist movements. Grebel, as the "first Anabaptist," was one of the men who "established the main theological supports of Anabaptism, believers' baptism and the readiness to suffer. Central articles of the faith were the congregational principle and discipleship."

One of the characteristics of Anabaptists was the attempt to adhere to a distinct and simple lifestyle. For example, they avoided "costly clothing, preferred coarse cloth, and wore broad felt hats. They disdained expensive food and drink, and in general their ways suggested humility." According to Sebastian Franck, God communicated with men and changed their lives by means of the "inner word." For him the important thing was not belief, but experience, not creeds but deeds. A chapter is also devoted to the outright heretic Michael Servetus. I fail to see the reason for this. He was outside the Christian camp. Servetus taught that Christ gave man a path to deification and a return to the Father. Man does not need atonement "but a divine ritual and a celestial Christ to transform man into God." The author comments that Servetus' execution "was testimony to the intolerance and closed-mindedness of the times. but his life and accomplishments were a witness to creativity, originality, and uniqueness."

The book contains a total of 21 well documented and interesting profiles. The original editor of this volume is Hans-Jurgen Goertz, professor at the Seminar fur Sozialwissenschaften at the University of Hamburg. All the authors are scholars from Europe and North America. Walter Klaassen, editor of the English edition, is professor of history at Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo, Ontario.

Why this lengthy review-article style? Because some of our Reformed leaders appear to be influenced by Anabaptistic thinking. One of the authors of Profiles of Radical Reformers is Ronald Sider, whose book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, has become a popular work in our Reformed circles. In line with many historic Anabaptists. Sider shifts' the primary focus of the redemptive message to the materially poor. I find it interesting that Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario, is the home of Project Ploughshares, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, which publishes a bi-monthly magazine Ploughshares Monitor. Project Ploughshares paints the U.S. as an aggressor. It advocates that Canada becomes a nuclear weapon free zone. They call for Canadian refusal "to operate any communications devices which supply targeting information to U.S. nuclear weapons systems" (Ploughshares Monitor, March. 1982).

The Observer of the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada to the Project Ploughshares recommended in the 1981 Council meeting that the C.C.R.C.C. becomes a sponsoring organization. Have some of our leaders forgotten our church history? The Reformers had good reasons for their opposition to the Anabaptists. They confessed that our sole authority is not just the New Testament, but all of Scripture. The poor are not propaganda pawns. Rich and poor alike need the Gospel! The message of redemption is not just for the poor in worldly goods. The Bible condemns the poor and the rich alike who consider things as the essential mark of life. To declare Canada a nuclear free zone is an empty gesture. Deterrence is needed. Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. Communism is a threat.

I highly recommend the reading of Profile of Radical Reformers. This book paints an excellent panorama of the Anabaptists' faith and practice. We need to know their history so that we can have informed discussions with today’s Anabaptists.

Johan D. Tangelder
September , 1984