On Traveling From Münster To Geneva

Munster_execution_detailIn 1535 the Reformation was about 14 years old. The Protestants had gained some legal status within the Empire but its existence was by no means secure. Internally it was wracked with dissension over the moral and theological implications of the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone (sola gratia, sola fide). There was open warfare between Wittenberg and Zürich over the sacraments and over whether the Lutheran Christology and doctrine of the Supper defined the new movement or whether there was room for disagreement, and if so, to how far could that disagreement go? To the theological and political left of both the Lutheran and burgeoning Reformed movements was a much more radical series of movements that threatening to discredit all of them and to foment all-out revolution: the Anabaptist movements or the Radical Reformation(s).

By the mid-1530s, many of the leading Anabaptists had been put to death by civil authorities but the movement still had enthusiastic supporters (pun intended). Beginning in 1534 Anabaptists began flooding into the new evangelical city. This resulted in a series of rapid changes, then a social and economic revolution, and finally into chaos, terror, and bloodshed leading to a terrible siege on the city. The Münster rebellion shocked Europe. It gave Romanist critics of the Reformation ammunition. They could now say, “Look, this is what Protestantism leads to: radical religious subjectivism and social chaos.” The Protestants had to explain repeated—and still must—that they were not Anabaptists and that the Anabaptists were sectarian fanatics.

Fairly or not, for many, Münster became the symbol of the Anabaptist movements. Theologically, the Anabaptists were radically different from the Protestants. They rejected the unique and sole sufficiency of Scripture as vehemently as Rome did. They were mystics. They had a doctrine of continuing revelation. They were proto-Pentecostals, anticipating Topeka and Azusa Street by nearly 400 years. For some of them, the Bible becomes the Word when it becomes the Word subjectively. There is a reason that Barth’s earliest critics saw connections between his doctrine of the Word and that of the Anabaptists. Until Menno Simons, they rejected justification (acceptance with God) sola gratia, sola fide as a path to immorality. By teaching the doctrine of Christ’s “celestial flesh,” both the first and second generation Anabaptists rejected the catholic Christology. Of course, their understanding of the continuity of the covenant of grace, the church, sacraments, and even last things—the Anabaptists tended toward an apocalyptic eschatology—was radically divergent from the more conservative Reformation movements.

This very compressed account of the Anabaptist movements in the 16th century is by way of background to explain the title. Münster represents one principle (radical subjectivism, radical religious autonomy, combined with moralism). Geneva, on the other hand, stands for a very different set of principles, Reformation principles. It represents the perspicuity and unique, sole authority of Holy Scripture (sola Scriptura). It represents the sovereignty of unmerited divine favor and free acceptance with God (sola gratia), received through trusting, resting in Christ alone (sola fide). The confessional Protestant Reformation was conservative of the established social order. In the 18th century, many Protestants in the New World would judge that it had, indeed, been too conservative of the received Constantinian theory of state and church. The Reformation received patristic and medieval theology and re-ordered but the Reformation was made out of existing stuff. The Anabaptist movements were conservative win their own ways and were also made from existing stuff (only creation happened ex nihilo) but they were made from different materials and operated on different principles.

It is not well recognized but if one takes the first-generation Anabaptist movements as a template and if one lays it over nineteenth-century American evangelicalism, the parallels are striking. Through the course of the 19th century, American evangelicalism came to look quite like the Anabaptist movements of the 16th century. Whether that was a transformation or a natural development is a question for another post but the result was that confessional Protestants became the visiting on what had been their home field and yet they never moved.

One result of what happened to the evangelical movements in America, in the 19th century, is that the baseline for what it meant to be “Protestant” shifted dramatically. Then came theological and ecclesiastical liberalism. This was a sort of theological and ecclesiastical World War which, like WWII, forced alliances between natural enemies. Just as some Americans confused the temporary alliance with the Russians for an approval of the Russian Revolution and communism, so many Reformed folk confused the temporary alliance that was fundamentalism for approval of or indifference about the various errors contained in American evangelicalism. That alliance continued, morphing from “fundamentalism” to “evangelicalism” for much of the 20th century and only finally broke down only when the neo-evangelical children of the fundamentalists realized that they didn’t need those stodgy old Reformed folks any more.

As Reformed folk began to be kicked to the curb in the early 1960s they reacted by trying to make new alliances and the nomenclature “Reformed Baptists” came into use. Through the 1970s Reformed leaders formed partnerships with those elements of the broader evangelical movement who would have them. They said, in effect, “We’ll call you Reformed if you’ll call us evangelical.” The older sense of antithesis (e.g., Cornelius Van Til) with the broader evangelical movement became pockets of resistance. Faced with irrelevance or broadening its boundaries (e,g., calling for an ecclesiastical reunion of all evangelical churches), by the end of the 20th century many Reformed folk seemed happy to broaden the definition of Reformed if it meant escape from obscurity. The only remaining Reformed essentials seemed to be the inerrancy of Scripture and divine sovereignty. Everything else seemed to be up for negotiation.

Since the advent of the new millennium there has been some “push back” as they say to the latitudinarian drift among Reformed folk but that resistance is definitely a minority voice even in the confessional Reformed world. The upshot is that, whereas, when Reformed folk knew their own confession (their theology, piety, and practice) any one who denied infant baptism and who advocated extra-biblical revelation (beyond natural revelation) would have been regarded as some sort of Anabaptist. Today, however, if such an Anabaptist self-identifies as “Reformed” and affirms inerrancy, divine sovereignty, it is considered bad form to ask for identification before entering and it wasn’t that long ago that communicant members had to produce a token or a letter of attestation before coming to the Lord’s Table in their own churches.

Michael writes,

Hello Dr. Clark.

i attend a charismatic church(in Accra, Ghana_West Africa) and have recently been introduced to and have come to embrace Reformed Theology through such people as Piper and Sproul primarily and then other Reformed sites and blogs so you can imagine my shock when i read that Piper isn’t Reformed enough or indeed Reformed at all…this leaves me wondering, how much can one disagree in order to still remain Reformed?

i have been following the conversation and trying hard to understand as much as i can…if you could be a bit more lucid on what you term essential reformed doctrines, i would be grateful…thanks!

Hi Michael,

I understand your struggle. You’re on a journey from one city to another (yes, from the earthly to the celestial), from Münster to Geneva. Right now, Geneva looks weird but that’s partly because you’re evaluating it in light of Münster. They’re two different cities. Geneva must be evaluated on its own terms first. Münster and Geneva speak different languages and operate on quite different principles. Here are some resources for the trip:

I understand that a great lot of folk are saying that the only visa requirements into Geneva are divine sovereignty and inerrancy but that’s what happens in the flush of excitement over discovering a new city. Being a tourist and inhabiting a city are two different things. Intellectual and spiritual immigration are difficult and painful and it’s not always easy to know which maps to trust. Give it time and take a look at these resources. Stay in touch as you make your journey. The Heidelblog is here to help.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. In all integrity you surely cannot link Grebel and Mantz with Matthys and Bockelson, can you? The Zurich Anabaptists were a completely different group from the Münster lot.
    Tell me, does reformed Paedobaptist practice accept Jehovah’s Witness baptism and Mormon baptism as valid? And what about someone baptized as a Oneness Pentecostal (in the name of Jesus only by a Sabellian group)? and someone baptized as a Chard Pentecostal (also in the name of Jesus only, but by a group that holds a scriptural doctrine of the Trinity)?

    • John,

      Well, finding universals in a series of movements as diverse as the 1st generation Anabaptists is difficult. I did not lecture on them for several years in the Medieval-Reformation course because it seemed that there were as many movements as Anabaptists. That said, yes, I’m comfortable with those generalizations.

      Second, Calvin et al did not re-baptized Romanists because they had a Trinitarian baptism. The groups you mention do not. There is a material distinction.

  2. If I get you right, you’re saying the Reformed folks of old compromised on their stance just for the sake of gaining prominence?

    if so why resist the current repercussion of actions of our fathers when they deemed it fit to widen the territory?

    after all, you admit in your other posts that the Reformed are on the fringes among evangelicals

    • Michael,

      Well, if 60 years ago = old, then yes but:

      1. That’s not old by any reasonable definition;

      2. Even if it is, we don’t confess the mistaken tactical or strategic steps made by forefathers.

      3. We’re bound to the Word of God (sola Scriptura) as confessed by the churches.

      4. We confess a theology, piety, and practice. Semper Reformanda (properly understood—see Mike Horton’s essay in Always Reformed on this) means we must strive to recover and to be faithful to what we confess.

      5. We confess a covenant theology, a hermeneutic, and practices that flow from that reading of Scripture. Why should we abandon them? For what?

      6. Show me the evidence that Latitudinarianism has resulted in the prosperity of the churches? The evidence is all to the contrary. The CRC went this route and is heading toward the Gehenna of the mainline. I’ve been documenting this decline for years. Why would we want to follow them off the cliff?

  3. As I suspected, reformed Paedobaptists correctly will baptize people who have been baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, even though the words used by these cults at baptism are “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and if the Holy” “Spirit”/”Ghost”, because what is meant by the Son by JWs is a created being, etc., i.e., the doctrine of these groups behind the phraseology is heretical. How then can you refuse baptism to someone who’s been baptized in the name of a Father who’s prepared to share His title of Holy Father with a piece of filth in the Vatican, a Son who at the word of a piece of filth is prepared to become a wafer and a sip of wine, and a Holy Spirit who acknowledges Vatican filth to be Vicarivs Filii Dei (the letters of which, as Robert Edwards pointed out, add up to 666)? Or how can you refuse it to someone who’s been baptized into the name of a Trinity who will acknowledge that person to be his solely because they’ve been through the waters, irrespective of whether any fruit is brought forth? Or what if they’ve been baptized into the name of a Trinity who will approve the imposition of a traditor on their congregation as minister against the wishes of that congregation (Oh, it’s pity that the Donatists later neglected the Scriptures as badly as their persecutors did)? Of course there comes a point where the error in the teaching is not serious enough to nullify the original baptism. Perhaps where this point is should be left, at least partly, to the conscience of the person seeking baptism. Is it for nothing that Hebrews 6:1 talks of “baptisms”, not “baptism”? Yes, we have one Lord, one faith and one baptism, but does the “one” in this phrase mean “one occasion of baptism” rather than “one source of baptism”? We shouldn’t go through the waters more than once for our own individual baptism if we are satisfied that we have already received that one baptism, but if accidentally, because we mistakenly think we haven’t, we do so more than once, is it really such a serious matter?

  4. I love the clarity of RSC and I love the Heidelblog. It was instrumental in my move from Munster to Geneva. If it wasn’t for Scott Clark’s “cruel”, “unkind” and “schismatic” writings on true Reformed theology, piety and practice, I think I’d have chucked in going to church a long time ago.

    There are burned-out evangelicals in these “Reformed” baptist churches, who suffer from spiritual neurosis due to a confusion over certain areas such as: the nature of saving faith; the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification; works at the final judgement; the necessity of assurance; the law/gospel distinction; the marks of true piety; the ceasing of extra-biblical revelation; the dangers of activism; a Reformed sacramentology and finally, acceptable worship. I should know, I was one of them. A doctor diagnosing a sickness does not make him a jerk. Just sayin’.

    • Well, Nick, I thank God for the approximately forty five year ministry in Aberystwyth, still continuing, of a Westminster Theological Seminary graduate, who has been one of your “burnt-out evangelicals” during his entire ministry, without having been disowned by his alma mater; and the current minister at the Metropolitan Tabernacle has a similarly illustrious history.

  5. There was also the Reformed Scottish Highland leader John Kennedy, the “ultra-conservative” who condemned the well known Bonar brothers for associating with Moody. This same John Kennedy had Britain’s most prominent “Reformed Baptist” preach at the opening of his new church building. Do you invite such a man to preach at such a major occasion and then deny them a seat at the Lord’s Table?

  6. Peter, no paedobaptist of my acquaintance would deny a baptist a place at the Lord’s table simply because he was a baptist (Dr. Clark, please correct me if my experience cannot be generalised). Sadly, it’s the other way round. There are baptists, they all used to be called Strict Baptists, who will deny a place at the Lord’s Table to anyone who has not been immersed, and there are others, who, left to themselves would not, but whose church trust deeds constrain them to do so. I know a baptist church who have on several occasions had a beloved paedobaptist I know to preach and yet have never admitted him to the Lord’s Table. We live with these things in the UK and they haven’t destroyed the love between us. I’m glad my church is Open Baptist.

    • OK, John, I’ve skimmed through the blog post and comments again and I think maybe I read something into it that was not what was being talked about.

      But I believe I have read that certain Lutheran denominations will not admit others to the Lord’s Table, and I may be mistaken but I believe the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland now regards Anabaptist beliefs as a bar to the Lord’s Table at least in new cases (as I think I have heard that there are a few who hold these views who have been in membership for years). And I did think that, whilst this would be unusual in UK, some in USA denominations were expecting agreement with the Westminster Confession before admitting members (as opposed to office bearers). Also I think some in the FP Church would regard such agreement as implicit even though it may not be made explicit when someone comes before the Kirk Session.

  7. Peter, it’s a while since I spoke with an FPCOS on this kind of subject, and the minister with whom I spoke has been with the Lord now for some years, but as I understand it, an FPCOS congregation will not admit to the Lord’s Table someone they would expect to communicate at another local church (The phrase he used included the word “promiscuously”). However, any person believed by them to be a genuine Christian and not communicating at any other church in the area, e.g., an evangelical baptist on business or holiday, will be welcomed at the Lord’s Table as a visitor. “We have open communion” said another FPCOS believer to me. For the record, I have never heard baptist views mentioned during any fencing of the table, and I have enjoyed quite a number of FPCOS communion seasons (I have never communicated at an FP church, because I have never been in circumstances that would warrant it).
    As regards your certain Lutheran denominations, is it specifically baptists they exclude, or Calvinists/Zwinglians/Anglicans as well? If the latter, it’s a different issue.

    • John

      I do not know whether or not the FPs would debar holidaymakers on the grounds of Baptist beliefs, but I have heard that they no longer admit such people who are local residents to membership. Yes they have open communion in that *some* people who are not members of the FP church are admitted to the Lord’s table while visiting from another area, but as with conservative Open Brethren assemblies they basically have to ask beforehand unless they are already “known” as suitable – i.e. probably have partaken of open communion before. A problem is that in the case of at least some FP congregations no-one tells folk who turn up unannounced on the Lord’s Day about the fact that an invitation will be given from the pulpit which does not in fact apply to those who are “unknown” (because the FPs can at times be so insular that they don’t realise the necessity of saying anything at the door). Unconnected people occasionally do attend FP congregations either in a rural tourist area or because they came with ill-informed friends. I had two cases reported to me by different people at different times where people were turned back from the table and were quite hurt because this conflicted with their own background/understanding, but conversely was told of a woman who was *determined* to go to the table and went and sat down there and partook – evidently the elders chose not to cause a scene.

      As for the Lutheran thing, I think maybe it was someone on PuritanBoard or somewhere (probably a Presbyterian or Reformed) who said that when visiting an area they might prefer to go to a Lutheran church if the only other alternatives were contemporary worship, despite the fact that they would not be admissible to the Lord’s table which I gathered was open to Lutherans only. I think the reference was to Missouri Synod but I can’t be certain.


  8. If someone hasn’t participated in an open communion before, that doesn’t mean they aren’t known as suitable, particularly if they are known to church officers. And I suppose it depends on the particular congregation as to whether they’d create a scene or not. When an Anglican lady, visitor to the London congregation, went and sat at the Lord’s Table before anyone had had a chance to talk to her, she was allowed to remain seated and partake – but then, the Table had been properly fenced.
    I think the requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table and for admission to membership are different. The FPs would not admit people to church membership who did not adhere to the Westminster Standards in all particulars, but that does not mean they would not admit them to the Lord’s Table as visitors. It might depend on whether there was a suitable church in the area for them, in which case they would be exhorted to communicate there rather than at the FP church.

  9. Actually, Peter, I can’t vouch for it absolutely that ordinary members have to adhere to all the Westminster Standards, but I’m pretty sure they would have to adhere to at least the Shorter Catechism, which would almost certainly cut out us baptists. However, in FP congregations, adherents have a status that you don’t always find elsewhere; for instance, their votes are taken when the call to a minister is discussed (and their votes are recorded separately from those of the members). I assume that as a baptist my status would always be that of a visitor.

  10. Ubbo Phillips’ peaceable Brethren never condemned their radical Brethren, when they convened in Buchholz, Westphalia 1536. They only maintained the kingdom of the elect was not yet, so the militant seizure of power from the secular authorities was premature. The principle of chiliastic militancy was only suppressed, when the rebellions and Peasant War didn’t swing their way. Their militancy was alive and well.

    One hundred years later, Quakers presaged the English Revolution, “No Friend has reason to be ashamed of his Anabaptist origins. Even in Munster they rebelled merely against the cruelty of the German tyrants, … Their uprising was violent because their oppressors were still more violent.” If there is no institutional unity, there is no allegiance of thought?

Comments are closed.