Did the Reformation Spawn a Million Churches? or Who’s the Modernist Here?

That’s the old canard that the Emergent Village folks appear to be trotting out (HT: Daily Scroll). Honestly, I wonder where this lot went to school. I noted the strange historical story that EV folk tell themselves in my essay in Brian McLaren in Reforming or Conforming. Jonathan writes,

Put two people in a room with a Bible and conflict is inevitable. Put ten people in a room with a Bible and you might just have a riot. Until the Great Reformation there were essentially four major “denominations”


The source of the millions of churches we see today wasn’t Luther. It was arguably an unorthodox, rationalist Frenchman who died in the middle of the 17th century.

The quotation above assumes that the Reformation was a modern movement. It assumes a sort of autonomous individualism that was present during the 16th-century but that was repudiated by the Reformation. As a matter of history, Rene Descartes has a lot more to do with the proliferation of religious organizations claiming to be “churches” than Martin Luther. It was Decartes who made everyone his own ultimate authority. The sovereign autonomy of the individual is the source of sectarianism, not the Reformation.

The picture is even more complicated than that, however. The radical spirit of the sovereign individual was present well before Descartes. It was present in the Anabaptist movement. They were sectarians and regarded as such by all the Reformers and there can be little doubt that the chief animating spirit of the EV is not the Book of Common Prayer but the radical, mystical, rationalist Spirit of Munster (The kind reader will impute the umlaut to the “u”). Thus it is ironic to see EV types lamenting the Reformation for producing a million churches when, in fact, they have imbibed deeply of the very spirit and source of the problem.

If we consider the magisterial, confessional Reformation on historical terms, there were, by 1530, two churches in the West: Protestant and Papist. By 1580, there was one significant division within confessional Protestantism:  Lutheran and Reformed and this division continued through the 17th century. There arose distinctions between a variety of polities in the 17th century, and these were on display at the Westminster Assembly, but there they were at the Westminster regarding each other as churches and crafting a common confession of faith.

What blew apart the relative unity and consensus of confessional Protestantism? The radical, individualist, rationalist-mystical, egalitarian spirit of the  Anabaptists was secularized in the Enlightenment and thence we have a million sects with every man his own pope and every preacher his own source of new revelation.

The story is even more complicated. The medieval Western (Roman) church was a tangle of internal tensions just waiting to burst apart. The Anabaptist movement did not drop out of the sky. Behind them lay groups such as the Cathars and behind them lay the Montanists, Novatianists, and the Donatists. We’ve always had sectarians in the church who had (and have) an over-realized eschatology. Even the old chiliasts, however, who expected an earthly millennium, understood that they had to wait for it but  not so the Anabaptists and not so the Enlightenment optimists. Life was getting better every way and every day. Human perfectibility. Universal fatherhood of God, universal brotherhood of man. They were going to bring in the utopia now.

One of the more shocking facets of the EV movement his how obliviously yet obviously and deeply indebted they are not only to the Anabaptists but also to the Enlightenment. For all their noise about being “postmodern,” it’s quite obvious to me that they are rather “most modern.” Their religious subjectivism is as modern as Schleiermacher and Romanticism. Their eclecticism is entirely modern. When they, as McLaren does, mashup Anglicanism with the Anabaptists they’re acting as autonomous, reality-creating, sovereign entities.

In contrast, confessional Protestants are not “creators.” We are mere creatures living in a world of divinely created givens, muddling through with a semi-realized eschatology, an epistemology that starts with divine authority, with divine revelation and which reads that revelation with the church. We begin with a ecclesiology that includes real, visible churches (sins and all) with real, visible sacraments, and real preached gospel of grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. We sit on couches and drink coffee before and after our services but during our services we hear the gospel, sing psalms, and eat bread and drink wine with the church catholic.

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  1. R. Scott,

    A friend by the name of Rick correctly pointed out that I got my facts wrong regarding Anglicanism. I have since stated so in the comments on the EV site.

    This was my bad, not Tickle’s.


  2. Thanks Jonathan. I appreciate this. Correction noted and I’ll correct the post.

    The fundamental thesis, however, that the Reformation gave us the modern religious confusion is seriously flawed. It makes the Reformation a “modern” movement. It wasn’t! It was a pre-modern movement that started with divine revelation not individual autonomy. The Emergent/emerging writers routinely make this mistake, of treating the Reformation as just another subset of modern evangelicalism or fundamentalism. They assume that their evangelical/fundamentalist past (as McLaren does) was “the Reformation.” That’s a huge, unwarranted, and false assumption. Fundamentalism and evangelicalism are rooted in Modernity much more than they are in the Reformation.

  3. I would also state that Tickle validates Descartes as key to the proliferation process, but I’m not sure why you wouldn’t give Luther credit for his “protest”, and the subsequent empowering of each individual with the responsibility of the Gospel.

  4. Jonathan,

    1. By “modern religious confusion” I mean the explosion of sects religious groups all claiming to represent the Christian faith. In the 1570s there were relatively few distinct groups claiming to represent the Christian faith.

    2. Luther didn’t empower every individual as your question seems to suggest. That’s an anachronism. Luther is very often represented as the apostle of religious liberty but he didn’t understand himself in that way at all. That’s a modern revision of Luther. He saw himself as a minister of God’s Word, in a church, which confesses the Word together.

    The SBC doctrine of the “soul competency” of the believer is not the same doctrine as the priesthood of the believer. The idea of “soul competency” assumes a modern, autonomous individual.

    The real difference is between modernity and pre-modernity or Christian antiquity. I sketch out this distinction in the essay linked above in Reforming or Conforming and I elaborate on it in RRC (linked above). What people often miss is that the Reformation was not a modern movement. It didn’t make modern(ist) assumptions about the nature of authority, knowledge, institutions etc. It assumed that God is, that he has spoken and that we are subject to that revelation. Modernity doesn’t begin with God and his self-revelation it begins with the autonomous self.

    Thus, I argue that, in important ways, the Emergent/emerging movements are more modern and the confessional(ist) Protestants are, when they are faithful to their confessions, really much more like pre-modern Christians.

  5. Hi Mark,

    Well, the Anabaptists were a very complex and diverse movement. One can make generalizations about them. They frequently denied Christ’s humanity. Those that did are heretics as judged by the catholic creeds (e.g., Nicene, Athanasian, Chalcedon). They all denied justification by grace alone, through faith alone. To the extent that they denied what Protestant confess to be the gospel, they weren’t Protestants. They tended to be radical mystics and/or radical rationalists (some were both). Many of them were chiliastic utopians expecting the immediate return of Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom in their city. Many simply abandoned any pretense of Christianity on their way to non-Christian/rationalist sects. On top of all that, they essentially unabptized the existing church and, in many cases, rejected involvement in civil society.

    For these reasons, and for others, the 16th and 17th-century Protestants rejected the Anabaptists as “fanatics” (Schwaermeri). The Belgic Confession (of the Reformed Churches) rejects them explicitly.

    As far as I know, (I’m not expert – I’m a historian and generally more interested in dead people) contemporary Anabaptists tend to be less radical than their 16th-century forebears. They continue to reject justification sola fide, sola gratia. I could be wrong, but that’s my impression.

    Unlike the confessional Protestants, the Anabaptists were radical individualists.

  6. I’m fairly certain that many Anabaptist historians would find a lot wrong with your assertions. I can’t help but think that you’re regurgitating a lot of the anti-Anabaptist rhetoric typically used to justify the often violent suppression of the Anabaptists.

    You seem to exaggerate the crazier aspects of a the movement–which is often overplayed by those wanting to justify the rather harsh actions of Calvin, Luther, or Zwingli in their persecutions of the Anabaptists.

    I think your theological critique that Anabaptists were radical individualists who rejected sola fide and who were largely rationalists is a selective reading of Anabaptistic history. Sure, there were lots of crazies–those were tumultuous times of revolt in general–but there were also many that were pacifistic and–at the same time–orthodox. I think many mischaracterized the more theological acceptable strands of the Anabaptist movement because they were troubled by their rejection of the State churches. The movement was HIGHLY critical of paedo-baptism and the way in which it was tied to citizenship. So I tend to believe that rejection of the Anabaptists had more to do with the ways in which they were seen to be traitors rather than the ways in which they seemed to be unorthodox.

  7. Is it a transgression of the idea of salvation by faith alone to insist that such faith must be more than the acceptance of certain creeds? Should not orthodoxy consist of more than just one’s opinion but if one’s opinions actually impact the way they live their life? Is there not a place for orthopraxy? Some contemporary Catholic bishops think so, they are willing to withhold communion if people vote the wrong way.

    The idea of salvation by verbal or mental consent that does not include some impact on one’s life strikes me as a kind of magical thinking. Saying that one must demonstrate some level of orthopraxy is not a repudiation of salvation by faith alone but a strengthening of the concept of faith to include that which actually motivates us in the world.

    Of course we can argue about the content of orthopraxy, Anabaptist have been having this argument with each other since their beginning and, frankly, I am hard pressed to think of a group of Christians who do not have certain internal “red lines” that one should not cross. But I think markvans is, essentially, correct. We accuse those we do not like of betraying sola fide in order to provide theological justification for our rejection of them. In other words, it is an accusation you pull out when you are loosing the moral argument. Not that some individuals or groups were not heratical, only that painting them all that way was politically convenient.

  8. Scott,

    Thanks for your post and for your thoughts in the comments but, as one whose faith journey has been significantly shaped by both Anabaptists and (some might argue, their close cousins) Baptists, I’ve got to agree with Mark that your reading is, in this case, quite flawed.

    On the one hand, Calvin, Luther and Zwingli often used the term “anabaptist” to denote anyone with whom they disagreed who happened not to be Catholic. In Calvin’s institutes, for example, he often critiques “anabaptist” beliefs that have nothing to do with historic anabaptist thought or theology. In this sense, Mark is more right than he might realize since the historical critique of “Anabaptist heresy” is itself based on a mischaracterization and lack of understanding of Anabaptist thought at the time.

    On the other hand, the early Mennonites, Hutterian Brethren and the ancestors of the Amish were hardly individualistic. Their continued emphasis on a holistic life in community bears witness to this fact.

    In addition your assertion that “Many of [the Anabaptists] were chiliastic utopians expecting the immediate return of Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom in their city” could just as easily be applied to many of the earliest Christian communities up until the early 3rd century. Are we to claim here that the “early church” was, in this case, also heretical?

    Again, I do appreciate your perspective and your willingness to enter into dialogue in the comments but I still must, in the end, disagree with your assessment.

    Grace & peace in Christ,

  9. Hi Dr. Clark,

    The argument used by Jonathan is apparently similar to the one commonly used by Roman Catholics (especially the former Protestants) against Protestantism. The problem I see with his view is that many if not most of the thousands of the churches we have today deny one or more of the solas of the Protestant Reformation. So how can the divisions of churches which are hardly Protestant be used as an argument against Protestantism? Sola Scriptura, for instance, has been replaced either by a view of the Bible that rejects the use of creeds and confessions (“No creed but the Bible”), or by a TBN-like charismania. (I have been to both circles before discovering Reformed Theology, and I know how dangerous these two extreme views are.) Given the spiritual condition of these churches, it is easy to see why the article, Reformed Essentials: The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity by Dr. Michael Horton (or the Cambridge Declaration) is still relevant today. Or better yet, modern evangelicals should read and receive the confessions of the Protestant faith.

    I am also aware of the attempt of Roman Catholic historians to link Protestantism to the Enlightenment so as to discredit the former and describe it in the worst possible light. I find the historical information you provided very informative.

    Regarding the beliefs and practices of the Anabaptists, and their relationship to the Protestant Reformation, the people who read your blog might want to check this out.


    The article is written from a confessional Baptist (1689 LBCF) perspective, but does offer useful historical data on the subject.

    Thanks for posting.

  10. Mark,

    No, my account here is based on primary texts and most responsible secondary literature I could find.

    Please read G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (3rd edn). Read any of the major Anabaptist writers (many of them couldn’t or didn’t write so the record is a little skewed that way) and tell me which if them agreed with Luther on justification. None of them did. Williams argues that, if memory serves, Hubmair did but then goes on to say (as I note in RRC), that he denied simul iustus et peccator in which case I suspect that Williams doesn’t really get the Protestant doctrine of justification!

    My account here is more restrained that Lew Spitz’s now standard account in his Reformation history. He uses more colorful language to describe the movement.

    Mark, I wasn’t being polemical here but historical.

    Mind you, I’m not describing Baptists but the Anabaptists of the 16th century.

    Even Menno, who was probably the most moderate of the Anabaptist leaders, denied Jesus’ humanity (the doctrine of Jesus’ “celestial flesh” wide spread among the ABs). He argued in his Fundamentboek that Jesus did take his humanity from the virgin Mary (as the Creed says) but he simply passed through her. I call it the “freight train Christology.” That pattern of docetism is connected to the over-realized eschatology of the entire movement. Munster (impute the umlaut please) was not a compete aberration.

    The Reformed and Lutheran critique of the ABs was about much more than Christendom. That’s why I didn’t highlight it in my summary. It got mentioned in the confessions because the confessional churches needed to show that they were not a fundamental, radical threat to the existing social order. In their more extensive criticisms of the AB movement, however, the confessional Protestants spent time on the other issues I’ve highlighted in this post.

    I’m sorry you’re put out, but this is just history, not polemics.

  11. Andrew,

    I agree that there were Anabaptist groups who were communalist and who lived in community (as there were Roman monastic communities and orders of various sorts) but that’s not what I mean by “individualist.” I was speaking about their theology. The AB’s were theological individualists. The fundamental premise was the sovereignty (which itself was premised upon the moral responsibility) of the individual relative to God and the visible church. In the various AB communities they came together and sovereign individuals.

    Take the Schleitheim Confession for example. I remember being at a session of the Sixteenth Century Studies Society in ’94 (or was it ’95?) in Toronto on “confessionalism.” There was a scholar of the AB movement there, who was himself AB, to discuss the Schleitheim. He prefaced his comments by saying that the SC only stood for the the 27 or so who signed it. It wasn’t to be regarded as a statement for all ABs. That was very important to him. He said, in fact, that he really was only their as a concession to the Lutheran and Reformed types who think very differently from the ABs. I appreciated that. It was my first real clue into the nature of the radicals in the 16th century.

    In contrast, the confessional Reformed folk think of salvation as being administered through covenantal groups. Children are holy because they are children of believing parents. We think of the the covenant being administered through family units. Children are members of the covenant and that membership is recognized in baptism. It’s not a matter of sovereign, individual choice. It’s a fundamentally different orientation to the faith.

    The ABs were conservative of several strains of medieval mysticism and rationalism (more than a few ABs abandoned Christianity and identified with non-Christian rationalist sects) but they anticipated modernity in important ways. Their anthropology was quite like that of Descartes. Almost none of them preserved the Augustinian heritage on sin and grace.

    I realize that it’s widely thought that the ABs were just another variation on the Reformation but that’s just not the case. They were precursors to much of modern evangelicalism, but they were quite alienated from the Reformation on many fronts.

  12. There are many Anabaptist historians who simply disagree with the broad strokes of your assessment. It is like saying that Lutherans are antisemites because of many early Lutheran documents. Yes, I am aware of many primary documents and historical elements that cast poor light on the early “Anabaptists.” But the word “Anabaptist” was such a broad category–to hold all Anabaptist sects to what a handful of extreme examples believed is poor scholarship.

    And theologians have argued over just how “heretical” Menno Simons was in his doctrine of “celestial flesh.” I believe that most cries of “heresy” are simply characterizing his perspective. Menno NEVER denied the full humanity of Christ. (See Roscoe Estep’s “The Anabaptist Story” http://www.amazon.com/Anabaptist-Story-Introduction-Sixteenth-Century-Anabaptism/dp/0802808867/ref=si3_rdr_bb_product)

    History, as all historians should be reminded, is ALWAYS about polemics. What sources we have to work with are often those of the “victors.” The Anabaptists were subject to fierce persecution. They were, for the most part, nonviolent. When the Magisterial Reformers denounced the Anabaptists, they exaggerated fringe elements in order to justify persecution. It is, after all, easier to persecute a group if you say they are extremist radicals bent on destruction. It is harder to do so if they are peace-loving farmers.

    In the end, I’ll trust the good historians from places like Goshen College and Eastern and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary on the history of Anabaptism. And I’ll also look at the fruit of generations of faithful, peaceful service and commitment to Christ.

  13. I agree with Anabaptists not being cut from the same cloth as the Reformers. However, I do not think it is entirely tenable to say that they are individualists or some sort of quasi-Cartesian mystics. I think you are branding them this way because you cannot conceive of covenant community apart from your own theological grid.

    As you probably know, there are many scholars who accuse Calvin and Luther of laying the seeds for modernism.

    One such example of this is the way in which Calvin and Luther reinforced notions of God as a single substance over and against creation. This sort of view of God was reinforced through Protestant scholasticism and led directly to Deistic understandings of God or atheism altogether.

  14. Mark,

    William’s volume is THE STANDARD survey treatment of the Anabaptist movements and Radical Reformation. I’ve read Estep and I’ve read the writers from the AB schools. Of course, the ABs are get kinder treatment from the AB schools. Scholarship requires reading beyond partisan sources.

    As to Calvin, show me a reputable contemporary scholar who regards Calvin as a proto-Modernist. This is my field so I’m more than a little skeptical of your claims.

    If you want an orientation to contemporary studies of Reformed orthodoxy see Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark eds., Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment. See also the volume by Van Asselt published by Baker and see the Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols).

    The observations I’m making Mark are well grounded in primary and in responsible, non-partisan, secondary literature.

  15. Is it a transgression of the idea of salvation by faith alone to insist that such faith must be more than the acceptance of certain creeds? Should not orthodoxy consist of more than just one’s opinion but if one’s opinions actually impact the way they live their life? Is there not a place for orthopraxy? Some contemporary Catholic bishops think so, they are willing to withhold communion if people vote the wrong way.


    I think to read a neglect of orthopraxis here is to quite overstate things. I don’t think anyone is suggesting there is no place for the Christian life.

    And I am not so sure that a Romanist ecclesiology is the best example to reach for to make a presumably Protestant point. I know this sort of thing is quite popular, but to some confessionally Reformed ears this form of discipline is a lot closer to the violation of the spirituality of the church and conscience than anything resembling faithfulness to the third mark of the church.

  16. Daniel,

    Re: orthopraxis, Reformed folk don’t have to choose between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. I just published a book touching on that: Recovering the Reformed Confession

    We might define orthopraxy differently. Where the visible church is concerned, orthopraxy has to do with worship and piety and charity. The Reformed Churches don’t prescribe for their members what orthopraxy might be re social issues. That is a matter of Spirit-directed, Word-informed conscience.

  17. Mark,

    I’ve read Estep. I lost a lot of respect for his historical judgment when I read his ignorant and appalling caricature of Calvin. It’s one thing not to like Calvinism. That I can understand, but to completely misunderstand it is quite another thing.

    This doesn’t mean that Estep is wrong about Menno’s doctrine of “celestial flesh,” but I will say that I learned of it from Anabaptist writers and from GH Williams. I didn’t learn my view of the Anabaptists from Reformed or even confessional Protestant sources.

    My earlier students will tell you that, for several years, I did not lecture on the AB movement because it is so incredibly diverse that I feared I would not be able to do justice to it. You may not believe me and you may not like the story I tell about the AB movements but they are my historical, not dogmatic/theological judgments. I’m quite open to being corrected by primary and responsible secondary lit.

  18. It is interesting to me how easy it is to point out Rationalism, Spiritualism, and Dogmatism in other beliefs, yet ignore where they crop up in our own.

    • Amen. Again, I go after my own “people” in Recovering the Reformed Confession. There’s an entire chapter on the problem of rationalism in contemporary Reformed theology, piety, and practice and another chapter on subjectivism.

  19. R. Scott,

    I appreciate your responses. I may have over-reacted. I occasionally run across contemporary reformed thinkers of a negatively over-eager sort that insist on the heretical status of Anabaptists past and present and I interpreted your post in that light.

    Having said that, I’ll try to take a look at the primary sources available. It is possible that you are stating things accurately, though I suspect that you (like others in the past) may be too hasty in your assessment of early Anabaptist theology (like Menno rejecting the humanity of Christ). But the onus is on me to study these things better myself.

    You may be right. After all, history is filled with false beliefs and, fortunately, not all movements continue in those false beliefs. Many traditions are more reluctant to baptize the power of the State (as was common by the Church in Rome and also among the Reformers). And, if you are correct about the extent to which false beliefs permeated the Anabaptist movement, it could show that Anabaptists have largely learned their lessons. At its heart, Anabaptism is an ethical movement. Its witness is as important today as it has ever been. I am glad that the Munsterite stream of Anabaptism died out. Today’s Mennonites and Bretheren and Hutterites and Amish often beautifully display the loving humility and nonviolence of Christ.

  20. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for this. As I said, I’m a historian. I’ve had almost no contact with contemporary Anabaptists or related movements.

    As for theocracy, you should be relieved that most Reformed folk rejected theocracy long ago. The American Presbyterians rejected it formally in the 18th century.

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