Question: It’s great you’re rebuking the errors of Calvinism. But here’s my problem: Luther was wrong (baptismal regeneration; infant baptism). Calvin was wrong on the same point. I just read a history of the Anabaptists who disagreed with Luther and Calvin on baptism, but also disagreed with them on sola fide and the role of works in salvation [and] sided with the Catholics on that one! So who, of all the Reformers, was right?
Response: The Reformers and Anabaptists were partly right and partly wrong. Each contained groups with many variations in doctrine. Anabaptists saw from Scripture that baptism is only for believers. The Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip to baptize him. Philip replied, “If thou believest [in Christ] with all thine heart, thou mayest” (Acts:8:37,38). Nor did Philip baptize him by putting a wet hand on his brow or by sprinkling (which the Reformers carried over from Catholicism), but “they went down both into the water....”
Most Anabaptists had been baptized as infants, either as Catholics, Lutherans or Calvinists. When they were born again through faith in Christ, they were biblically baptized as believers, recognizing that as infants they knew nothing of the gospel. For being baptized “again” they were persecuted and even martyred by all three state churches: Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist. Today those who become Christians out of these systems through faith in Christ and are then baptized as believers, though no longer martyred, often are shunned by family and friends and in some cases disowned.
Unfortunately, some factions within the early Anabaptist movement at times reflected extreme tendencies. The “new baptism” became the means to a “new reformation” that would transform Zurich, for example, into the “Little Jerusalem” and bring perfection to the world. A biblical truth was turned into what J.H. Merle d’Aubigné, in his History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (A.D. 1846), described (pp. 418-20) as “lamentable disorders....Some burnt the New Testament, saying: ‘The letter killeth, the Spirit giveth life.’ ”
Anabaptists Thomas and Leonard Schucker, who lived near St. Gall, were known “for their fanaticism.” After a night of “convulsions, visions, and revelations” along with much wine, Thomas “prophesied” over Leonard, then cut off his head, “exclaiming, ‘Now the will of the Father is accomplished.’” He then ran through the streets of St. Gall shouting loudly, “I pro- claim...the day of the Lord!” The same blow that killed Leonard killed Anabaptism in St. Gall. Thomas, of course, was executed by the civil authorities.
Zwingli’s polemic against Anabaptism remains the chief argument of Lutherans and Calvinists today. He insisted that “Children born of believing parents are children of God, like those who were born under the Old Testament, and consequently may receive baptism. Baptism under the New Testament is what circumcision was under the Old; consequently, baptism ought now to be administered to children, as circumcision was....Those who are rebaptized crucify Jesus Christ afresh.”
The city of Münster, Germany, was taken over by fanatical Anabaptists who com- manded all to be rebaptized, leave Münster or die. They intended to create a “New Israel” ruled by a certain John of Leyden, whom they crowned “king of the whole earth.” So-called “revelations” spawned growing errors, including polygamy. Under siege by the bishop’s troops, the inhabitants fought bravely until a traitor opened the city to the attackers. “Then began the slaughter [and] none were spared. A band of 300 defending themselves desperately in the marketplace were promised safe conduct to leave the city if they would lay down their arms. They accepted these terms...and they perished with the rest....John of Leyden and other leaders were publicly tortured and executed in the place where he had been crowned....
“Advantage was taken of these events to apply the hated name of Anabaptist to all who dissented from the three great Church systems [Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism] and, by pretending that [all Anabaptists] were of the same mind as those...in Münster....Though they [most Anabaptists] were of godly and kindly life, they were described as guilty of conduct which existed only in the vile imagination of their accusers, that the cruelty of their murderers might be condoned.” (E.H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, pp. 194-99; see offering list.)
Not all of the Anabaptists were by any means guilty of the fanaticism that characterized some. One of the chief leaders was former Catholic priest, Menno Simons, the Dutch Reformer (c. 1496-1561). Many among his followers (known as Mennonites) have departed far from the truths Simons believed, practiced and taught. But we must not judge Simons by those errors any more than Christ should be judged by the errors of His supposed followers. Nor can we judge the original Anabaptists by the belief and behavior of their modern descendants—much less by their enemies’ false accusations. Broadbent (p. 200) quotes Menno Simons: “[F]or seventeen years...I have opposed and striven against it [the Münster teaching]...by voice and pen....”
Simons’s followers were repeatedly accused of being “heaven-stormers,” that is, of meriting heaven by works. Simons responded, “...we have always confessed, and by the grace of God ever will, that we cannot be saved by means of anything in heaven or on earth other than by the merits, intercession, death, and blood of Christ....” (The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, p. 569). He also states that the Scripture condemns “all who prove plainly by their deeds that they do not confess the saving grace of God, do not believe in Christ Jesus, and according to Scripture abide in damnation, wrath and death” (p. 328). He is reflecting Christ’s own words in Matthew:7:15-23 and John:3:36.
Simons’s concern was the loose living into which many Lutherans had quickly fallen, and he exhorted believers to avoid sinful behavior which would call into question the genuine nature of their salvation. Christians of our day would do well to call themselves to the same accountability.