In 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.
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!
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:
- The Reformed Confessions
- Why the focus on the Reformed confessions? (audio)
- Reformed Is Enough Or Why I Wrote RRC
- Pilgrims and Their Hosts
- Is the Reformed Faith Just An Accent?
- Why (Some) Reformed Folk Are Such Jerks.
- Reformed And Pentecostal?
- “On Being Reformed in Sister’s America” in Always Reformed.
- Defining “Reformed”
- Recovering the Reformed Confession
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.