Neither Catholics Nor Protestants
Brother William McGrath came to conversion through reading the Word of God and to his first acquaintance with the Mennonite Church through reading church history. His incisive article beginning on this page locates true Anabaptism in relation to some of the larger currents of church history. He shows that it is "more than Protestantism." This article appears in two installments. You will not want to miss the second installment in the forthcoming issue, for there Brother McGrath draws his significant conclusions.
The title of this article will seem somewhat strange to a reader who may have the rather popular but erroneous idea that there are only two kinds of professing Christians: Protestants and Catholics. Originally the term "protestant" was applied to a group of German princes of the early sixteenth century who wanted to manage the religious affairs of their own territories as they saw fit, without any interference from Rome, or any other "higher power,"—when an emperor denied them this right, they protested, and insisted on making the Church in their territories a department of the government, as the post office is in America. Because most of these princes professed "reformed doctrine" (that is, they favored the teachings of Luther and Calvin, as opposed to the teachings of the old Catholic church), the name applied to them came to be the name applied generally to the party and program of the famous reformers. But many evangelical churches reject this name protestant and claim to want no connection with it. As a matter of fact, the early Anabaptists (forefathers of the present-day Mennonites) not only rejected the name, but also repudiated the famous reformers themselves! We might ask, Why did they refuse to be identified with the Protestant movement? Why did they claim to have a Christianity which was more than Protestantism? Can we make the same claim today? We can find the answer to these questions in a survey of Church History—which we should always be eager to study since the Apostle Paul admonishes us not to be ignorant of what happened in Church History, lest we repeat the same mistakes that others before us made. (1 Cor. 10:1-14)
To understand why the Anabaptists refused to be identified with Protestantism, we must understand the problems which were in back of the whole Reformation movement of the sixteenth century. The Catholic Church was in a very decadent condition, with many unscriptural abuses tolerated and even dogmatically defended by her priests and popes. As we examine the scene of that time closely, we find eight flagrant violations of Scripture, crying out for correction or reform:
1. The system of indulgences, in which the Catholic Church claimed to have the right to excuse people from the penalty of their sins, and even release their loved ones from the fiery punishments of "purgatory," if they would make a certain "sacrifice" (—usually the payment of some money for a certificate of indulgence from the church). This practice became so rank that it even included a prior license to sin, for a monetary consideration.
2. The system of penance, confession, and meritorious good works, in which Catholics were taught that the church could forgive sins if the people would confess them to the priest and then work out a penalty which he would assign them, such as fasting for a certain length of time, or giving money to the poor.
3. The worship of saints, of Mary, and of images and relics, in which the common people were taught that they could secure intercessors with God, by prayer and petition to Mary and the saints, as well as that God was pleased by the veneration of images, relics (souvenirs of dead saints), and prayers for the dead.
4. Sacramental magic, in which the church taught that the waters of baptism properly administered made infants to be born again (and that an infant dying without such a treatment could never see God), and that the bread and wine of the communion were actually the real body and blood of Christ, rather than merely symbols to remind us of His sacrifice.
5. Monasticism, celibacy, and asceticism,—practices in which the church upheld a double standard of Christian living: one very strict standard for the monks, priests, and nuns, and a much lower standard for the laity, because of the theory that only a few were called to be disciples and they could by their holy life atone for the sins of the common members. This system developed many immoral abuses.
6. The sacerdotal system of the authority of priests, bishops, and popes interpreting and over-ruling the authority of the Scriptures: the growth of an "infallible" hierarchy, and ecclesiastical machine which made its own laws and defined as "heretical" all dissent, with the priest becoming the intercessor between God and man, displacing Christ, or making Him available only through the service of the priest.
7. The use of physical violence in religious matters, in which the Catholic Church employed force in torturing, imprisoning, persecuting, and causing the State to kill or banish those whose conscience and faith where not in conformity with Rome.
8. A mass-church, in which everyone baptized as an infant was automatically a member, regardless of whether he was born again and living the Christian life or not—membership coterminous with the entire population of the State.
These eight flagrant violations of Scripture constituted the problem facing any reformation--any reformer must meet each of these eight issues and restore the church to Biblical truth in each corrupt area. Last, but not to be overlooked, was the social and economic position of the church in medieval society: the church owned more than one-third of all the real estate in Europe, collected a compulsory annual tithe from every person, high or low, and channeled enormous sums of money out of every country into Rome. Political homage and taxes were exacted of unwilling kings and princes, under threat of excommunication and revolution, and the church maintained well-armed military orders and even hired armies to enforce her decisions. "Crusades" were declared against disobedient rulers, "heretics," and pagan countries that looked ripe for conquest and plunder. The church was a super-State which held both the great and petty rulers of Europe in her power. As nationalism began to grow, rulers and nobles grumbled more and more at the super-national, international power and imperialistic interference of the church, and began to desire to keep the taxes that poured out of their lands to Rome, began to desire to appoint their own clergy (who would obey their kings and princes directly, instead of Rome), began to desire to confiscate and plunder the rich properties of the church (to "nationalize" them in the way in which foreign business is often "nationalized" today in Latin American and the Near and Far East). A true reformation would have to be one which would not only correct religious abuses but even more so one which would have to break the power of Rome (or any church) to interfere in the internal politics of a nation. The situation was tailor-made for revolution and change, all that was lacking was religious leadership to provide the "theology" for "nationalization," and to capture the popular enthusiasm. Such were soon found.
Martin Luther began his career in reformation little realizing the tremendous consequences of his action. Four rather distinct periods can be traced in his life and work:
1. The young, liberal Luther, who went all out for freedom, who captured the popular imagination by his courageous stand for freedom of conscience against Papal slavery and coercion.
2. The later Luther, disillusioned by the outbreak of social and economic revolution, and the rise of radical religious fanaticism—the Luther who halted between two opinions, whether to found a church composed of born-again believers and the disciples only, or whether to simply try to hold together the crumbling fabric of medieval society with another mass-church, controlled by the prince rather than the Pope.
3. The adaptable Luther, dismayed at the spread of fanaticism and economic revolution, who accommodated his church necessities to political exigencies, sacrificing conscience to expediency, wooing the princes and noblemen, and speaking harshly against the rebelling peasants.
4. The socially arch-conservative Luther, who "invested the godly prince and the civil power with that authority which formerly the church of Rome had claimed."[1]
All of our sympathy goes out to the young Luther who burned the Papal Bull of excommunication, and the book of canon law, thus repudiating the entire Papal system with all of its man-made authority,—the young Luther who said: "Here I stand. I can do nothing else, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. So help me God." He fully expected to die a martyr’s death; instead he was to live, and change, and eventually advise that other men should be put to death for their conscience’s sake. Luther’s life and work is in many ways typical of a number of the great reformers, who began well by the cry, "Back to the Bible," but who soon saw that more than religious opinion was at stake in a radical reformation. One after another they found themselves gradually compromising, gradually leaning more and more upon the rising nationalistic self-interest of kings and princes and city councils who wished to throw off the political and economic yoke of Papal interference. Let us examine each of the eight flagrant Catholic violations of Scripture and see how the Protestant reformers dealt with each of them.
One and all, the famous reformers overthrew the Papal system of indulgences, thus meeting the first great abuse fairly and squarely. They emphasized the Bible teaching that no church has the power to give an "indulgence" to lessen or remit the penalty of sin, or in any way to help those already dead and damned. Sad to say, however, the Protestant reformers’ emphasis on sola fide (salvation through faith alone, "only believe"), no mater how well-meant by them, was generally understood and practiced as a kind of "Protestant indulgence" to sin. The result was that one system of indulgences was overthrown only to be replaced by another. A modern Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes of this sad result in the following words, calling this "Protestant indulgence" to sin by the name of cheap grace:
"Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ The world goes on in the same old way, and we are all still sinners ‘even in the best life,’ as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind. . . . Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate (in the believer). . . . We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ. It is true, of course, that we have paid the doctrine of pure grace divine honors unparalleled in Christendom, in fact we have exalted that doctrine to the position of God Himself. Everywhere Luther’s formula ("sin boldly") was repeated, but its truth perverted into self-deception. So long as our Church holds the correct doctrine of justification, there is no doubt whatever that she is a justified Church! So they said, thinking that we must vindicate our Lutheran heritage by making this grace available on the cheapest and easiest terms. To be ‘Lutheran’ must mean that we leave the following of Christ to Nomians, Calvinists and Anabaptists—and all this for the sake of grace. We justified the world, and condemned as heretics those who tried to follow Christ. The result was that a nation became Christian and Lutheran, but at the cost of true discipleship. The price it was called upon to pay was all too cheap. Cheap grace had won the day."[2]
These shocking words come not from an opponent of Luther, but are the sincere confession of a modern Lutheran theologian seeing the collapse of such empty Protestantism (with its "Protestant indulgence" to sin because of cheap grace) in Nazi Germany, where the great majority of church members fell away to follow a modern anti-Christian dictator, showing that German Christianity was only skin-deep. But it did not take four hundred years for someone to see through this kind of superficial Christianity. The Anabaptists, contemporary with Luther, immediately saw the fallacy of this "only believe" doctrine. We read hundreds of expressions from them like this of Menno Simons:
"The people they (the ‘reformers’) console with the teaching that Christ has paid for our sins, faith alone should have our thought, we are poor sinners and can not keep God’s commandments, and similar ease-loving consolations, so that every one selfishly seeks the liberty of the flesh through the new doctrine. They remain in the old corrupt way of sin, in an unchanged life, without any fear of God, just as if they never in their lives heard one syllable of the word of the Lord and as if God would not punish wickedness and unrighteousness."[3]
Scholars generally agree that one of the fruits of the Reformation was an undeniable decline in morality throughout all of Europe, wherever the doctrine of "only believe" spread among the common people. Menno Simons observed this general moral deterioration with sadness and indignation:
"Notwithstanding, through the preaching of their compromising gospel, such a wild and reckless liberty is in evidence in all Germany that you cannot rebuke them for their open unchastity, intemperance, cursing and swearing, lasciviousness and foul words without being compelled to hear that you are a separatist (a sectarian), vagabond, fanatic, heaven-stormer (a person who believes he can be saved by his own good works), Anabaptist and other terms of reproach and insult."[4]
Looking at the second glaring abuse of Catholicism, we again rejoice at first to see the famous reformers utterly rejecting the unscriptural system of penance, confession, meritorious works as an atonement for sin. However, it is also soon apparent, as we study their writings and the practice of their followers, that though they abolished good works as meritorious or capable of atoning for sin, they did not always make clear the truth of good works as a necessary result of salvation and abiding in Christ. Luther substituted for "penance" an almost morbidly pessimistic concept of continual sinning and continual repentance. The Anabaptists also rejected this as an immoral doctrine, and although clearly teaching the continued need of repentance (much more so than we see it emphasized today), and humility before the grace of God, they did not hesitate to assume that it was possible to live the Christian life and possible for the born-again believer to obey God’s commandments and be pleasing in God’s eyes through child-like obedience (See 1 John 3:22). One of their favorite verses was 1 Peter 3:21, which speaks of baptism as "the answer of a good conscience toward God." One of their most beautiful tracts, Two Kinds of Obedience, emphasized that there is indeed a legalistic obedience, which is slavish, but that there is also the filial obedience of a truly born-again child of God, for whom the keeping of God’s commandments is not grievous but rather a joy-bringing expression of love to the Father (1 John 5:3; John 15:10-11). In place of the Protestant concept of continual sinning and continual repentance, the Anabaptists emphasized the keeping power of God, the necessity of the born-again disciple’s being yielded to God (Gelassenheit, surrenderedness), and being ready always to confess and forsake sin whenever he might fall (Buszfertigkeit, a readiness to repent, an openness of heart to heed conviction of sin and rebuke). We are reminded again as we see these things in church history that it is not enough to destroy or overthrow a false doctrine, we must also be certain to restore the true Scriptural doctrine. Avoiding both legalistic works--righteousness and radical, proud perfectionism--the Anabaptists insisted on child-like obedience in the lives of born-again disciples, and did not take the morbidly pessimistic view held by many of the reformers.
If one word could sum up the piety and practice of the early Anabaptists, we should choose Nachfolge (discipleship), which might be further broken down into four parts: Gehorsamkeit (the loving obedience of the child-like regenerate soul), Leiden (the cross-bearing suffering which love must experience in an unlovely, Christ-rejecting world), Buszfertigkeit (a child-like teachableness, lovingly ready to be chastened, instructed, rebuked, and corrected when in error, voluntarily willing to be disciplined), and Gelassenheit. This fourth concept, Gelassenheit, yieldedness, is a calm and joyful resignation of the soul to God, in perfect rest and quietness of heart, even though the world might be shouting abuse and reviling and persecuting and threatening. It is completely different from the bitter resignation of despair, issuing in a reckless abandonment to the "only believe" doctrine, boldly heedless of sin, which characterized much of Protestant piety and practice. Gelassenheit is that quiet, deep joy of the soul which rests in Christ, lovingly yielded and at peace as in a deep sea of calmness when all around and above is trouble, suffering, rejection, and slander. It is that of which our Lord spoke in John 16:22 and 33—"your joy no man taketh from you," and "that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." It is the precious experience of abiding in Christ, and Christ abiding in the believer, a bond of love imperturbable by mere external circumstances.
Considering next the third area of Catholic abuses, the system of worship of saints, images, and Mary, we are happy to see the famous reformers rejecting all such abuses, even destroying images, stained glass windows, paintings, altars, and statues, with ferocious zeal. Zwingli, Knox, and Calvin were especially zealous in this kind of iconoclasm, throwing all "aesthetic" "aid to worship" out of the churches, demolishing musical instruments and choirs and ornaments. Luther, however, did not go so far, but retained much of the ceremony of the mass, candles, organs and many other items of the Catholic worship service. A fairly clean sweep of reform was made in this area, although John Wesley later challenged the unfinished reformation in England, accusing the worldliness and nationalism of the "protestants" as follows:
"Are you clear of idolatry any more than the papists are? It may be, indeed, yours is in a different way. But how little does that signify! They set up their idols in their churches; you set up yours in your heart. Their idols are only covered with gold or silver, but yours are solid gold. They worship the picture of the Queen of Heaven; you the picture of the Queen or King of England. In another way they idolize a dead man or woman; whereas your idol is still alive. O, how little is the difference before God! How small pre-eminence has the money-worshipper at London over the image-worshiper at Rome; or the idolizer of a living sinner over him that prays to a dead saint."[5]
While Luther and many of the Protestants followed the principle of rejecting only those things that were specifically contrary to Scripture, the Anabaptists generally followed the principle of rejecting everything that was not specifically commanded to be observed in the Scriptures, H. S. Bender quotes and comments on this Anabaptist principle in the writings of Conrad Grebel to one would-be "reformer":
"‘We understood and have observed that you have translated the Mass into German and that you have ordained a new German liturgy. This cannot be good, for we find in the N. T. no teaching about (such) singing (and liturgy).’ This sentence announces Grebel’s method; everything must be tested by the New Testament, and what is not found therein as a teaching of Christ and the apostles or as an apostolic practice must be abandoned. To this first principle a second standard is added; everything must edify, must produce a true faith leading to right living, and dare not lead to an ‘external hypocritical faith’."[6]
This principle does not mean that the Church has no right to make Scriptural applications, but only that it has no right to introduce foreign and unnecessary practices which have no Scriptural foundation.
It is particularly sad to see how easily the nominally Protestant masses turned from saint-worship to hero-worship, glorifying kings and princes and other nationalistic heroes. This is just as much idolatry, as Wesley points out in the above quotation. We cannot under-estimate the massive influence of carnal nationalism in shaping the Protestant "reformation" in country after country. In a country like England, where the "reformer" was the vile and immoral Henry the Eighth, adulterer, drunkard, and tyrant, the "reformation" took on the dimensions of a mere nationalistic plundering of the Catholic wealth and properties.
Turning next to the fourth great Catholic error, that of sacramental magic, the teaching that God gave His regenerating grace only in the Baptismal waters administered by the priest (usually to infants), and that Christ was really present physically in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper,—we are disappointed to find that none of the famous reformers repudiated infant baptism, or baptismal regeneration. Almost all of them at one time in their career questioned the practice, but one after another decided it would be "necessary" to retain this unscriptural doctrine and practice. The reason for this was that if infant baptism were rejected, and only believers were admitted to baptism, on their voluntary confession of faith, this would make only a very small church—if the membership were purely voluntary, not many people would join, there would only be a few Christians, and society would fall apart, or at least so the reformers must have reasoned. They decided for a mass-church, in which everyone who was born in the country was baptized and automatically become a "Christian." Since an infant cannot have faith, this was a very poor decision according to Scripture, but it was a decision made for political and social expediency. Similarly in the communion emblems, only a minority of the reformers decided against Christ’s being physically present, and Luther strongly insisted that the emblems were indeed Christ. Thus the Church became all those who were baptized as infants, who agreed with the theology of the reformers ("only believe"), and who ate and drank ‘Christ’ in the communion service. The Anabaptists utterly rejected any baptism except baptism upon faith, and also refused to regard the communion emblems as anything more than signs. Thus the Anabaptists repudiated ceremonial magic, while the Protestants were confused and divided on the issue, many believing that God actually gave grace only through the sacraments themselves and the correct preaching of the "only believe" doctrine.
Fifth, we must consider whether or not the "reformers" reformed the Roman Catholic institutions of monasticism, celibacy, and asceticism. Although "high church" factions of the Protestant camp today have revived monasticism and celibacy as special vocations for the select few, in general, the reformers simply dropped this double emphasis on a strict standard for the few along side a lax standard for the many, and replaced it by a generally lax standard for all, leading to the general moral deterioration we have already noted in the above quoted words of Menno Simons:
Truly it did not help the cause of Christ to demolish the double standard but then replace it by nothing better than general Antinomianism. The Anabaptists rejected both the double standard of Catholicism and the Antinomian worldliness of Protestantism, and restored all Scriptural standard of discipleship for all of God’s born-again children. Where men have relaxed the high and holy standards of the New Testament as binding upon all church members, discipline is inevitably lost, and when discipline is lost, discipleship is lost, sonship is lost, and finally salvation itself is lost.
Considering next the sixth great Catholic abuse, that of clericalism, and the authority of Popes, bishops, and councils, we are refreshed by the reformers’ cries of "back to the Bible." However, as we examine the facts, their real piety and practice, we are disappointed to find again a betrayal of the cause of true reformation. Though a watchword of the reformers was the priesthood of all believers, the fact is that they definitely forbade anyone to preach and testify who was not ordained by the official political and ecclesiastical machine. Again and again, Luther stormed against the "unauthorized" preachers of the Anabaptists, whom he contemptuously called "hedge-preachers." The reformers are often said to have introduced religious liberty, but the facts show that this was far from the truth: they persecuted those who did not agree with them; Luther even reviled the other reformers who would not agree with him. The Protestant historian, Hallam, reflects the judgment of all impartial scholars when he writes of Luther:
"An unbounded dogmatism, resting on an absolute confidence in the infallibility, practically speaking, of his own judgment, pervades his writings; no indulgence is shown, no pause allowed, to the hesitating; whatever stands in the way of his decisions, the fathers of the Church, the school men and philosophers, the canons and councils, are swept away in a current if impetuous declamations; and as everything contained in the Scripture, according to Luther, is easy to be understood, and can only be understood in his sense, every deviation from his doctrine incurs the anathema of perdition. That the Zwinglians, as well as the whole Church of Rome, and the Anabaptists, were shut by their tenets from salvation is more than insinuated in numerous passages of Luther’s writings."[7]
Another scholar, John L. Stoddard, is forced to the same conclusion by the disturbing facts of Luther’s life and writings:
"It is commonly said that Luther inaugurated the right of free investigation. Nothing is less true. He talked of it, as a reason for abandoning the traditions of the Church, but he did his utmost to bring about complete subjection to an unassailable Bible as he interpreted it! He instituted thus a Pope of printed paper, instead of a Pope of flesh and blood. Moreover, since he constituted himself the authoritative interpreter of the Bible, he practically claimed for himself infallibility. One of Luther’s contemporaries, Sebastian Frank, wrote despondently: ‘Even under the Papacy one had more freedom than now’."[8]
Nor was this tyrannical intolerance confined to Luther alone, all of the famous reformers displayed it, from John Calvin having Servetus (his theological opponent) burned at the stake, to Ulrich Zwingli forcing his former friend Hubmaier to give up his doctrine and conscience under torture and threat of death. Far from restoring the priesthood of all believers, and instituting a new religious freedom, the famous reformers all tried to impose their own interpretations by force, and intimidate their opponents into silence by threats. This unhappy situation resulted in great waves of persecution and terrible civil wars. Finally, after much confusion and bloodshed, an effort was made to work out a kind of peace through compromise. The principle, cujus regio, ejus religio (each ruler may establish his own religion), was adopted according to which the religion of the ruler was to become the official religion of his territory. "Freedom of conscience," says the Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 23, p. 15), "was thus established for princes alone, and their power became supreme in religion as well as secular matters." This was an unhappy principle which simply gave rising nationalism its charter of supremacy, and laid the foundations for that kind of absolute, totalitarian Statism which even today is bearing pernicious fruit. Under the Catholics, rulers at least trembled before the possibility of the church’s criticism and interference, but the reformation made the rulers heads of the churches in their own lands, and every critic was silenced. But the Anabaptists not only believed in the priesthood of all believers, they also practiced it fearlessly, and every member was expected to testify to Christ’s love and Lordship, and against sin; consequently they were charged with treason, subversive activity, and heresy, and nearly wiped out in bloody persecutions by rulers who patronized a tame State-church, but would not tolerate a fearless church of prophets of God. They met with the same fate as did John the Baptist before them, and for the same reason.
The seventh great Catholic error had been the system of the use of power, violence, and bloody coercion against those who had disagreed religiously with Rome. The famous reformers made no attempt to undo this terrible anti-Christian principle. On the contrary they exploited it to the full. A contemporary Baptist historian has succinctly put the facts:
"All of the leading Reformers, who so heroically freed the Church from the Roman Catholic church and the Pope, fastened a State Church upon the people wherever they went, and the true New Testament sovereign local church that stood for absolute religious liberty was persecuted by these State Churches of the Reformers. This was true of--Luther, who fastened a State Church upon Germany; Zwingli . . .in Switzerland; John Knox . . .in Scotland; Henry VIII . . . in England; (and John Calvin in Geneva, whose consistory was nothing more than a bold-faced inquisition). They all become persecutors like Rome before them!"[9]
That this is a historical fact cannot be denied, but many sentimental hero-worshippers have tried to excuse the state-church reformers in some way or another from the blood-guilt of these persecutions. One of the most common excuses a generation ago was that it was a brutal, rough time, and everybody did that sort of thing anyway. Five years ago, a book entitled Christianity and Fear was published in Switzerland, in which the author, Oscar Pfister, at great length analyzes the crimes of the reformers. Concerning Calvin, he writes in the following words an evaluation which applies to all of them:
"Acquaintance with the period (of the Reformation) shows that many scholars of the time, men with followers who in some instances numbered many thousands, zealously opposed the persecutions of the ‘heretics,’ and in the name of the Gospel, called for merciful treatment. (Prominent among them were)...the Anabaptists. Most of these men and their love-inspired eloquence were known to Calvin; but their opposition to the persecution of heretics made no impression whatever on him. An end should therefore be made of propagating the ancient falsehood that Calvin’s cruelties are adequately explained by the spirit of the times." "And we marvel at the great logician’s (Calvin’s) lack of logic, whose wrath was roused against the persecution of Protestants in Catholic countries and who yet showed himself so merciless towards alleged heretics."[10]
The Anabaptists protested against this anti-Christian activity on the part of the famous reformers, but it availed nothing. Menno Simons writes of this bloody cruelty in which thousands of Anabaptists were put to death by the Protestant State-churches:
"Observe, dear brethren, how far the whole wide world has departed from God and His word,...How bitterly do they persecute, defame, and destroy the eternal saving truth, the pure, unadulterated Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the pious, godly life of the saints. And this is done not only by Papists and the Turks but to a great extent also by those who boast of the Holy Word, although in their first writings they had much to say concerning faith, that it is the gift of God and can be created in the hearts of men alone through the Word, for it is an assent of heart and will. But this principle has for some years been again discarded by the theologians and, it appears to me, has been effaced from their books. For since lords and princes, cities and countries have identified themselves with their carnal doctrine, they have widely published the contrary opinion, as is fully evident from their own writings. And through their inciting publications and sermons they deliver into the hands of the henchman (executioner) many God fearing pious hearts who contradict, reprove and admonish them with the clear Word of God and point out to them the true fundamentals of the holy Word, namely the powerful faith working through love, the penitent new life, the obedience to God and Christ and the true evangelical ordinances of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline, as Jesus Christ Himself instituted and commanded and His holy apostles taught and practiced. Yes, all who out of pure love insist on this, must be these accursed Anabaptists, disturbers, seducers and heretics; all the pious may expect this at their hands. Nevertheless, one and all of them, be they lords, princes, preachers, theologians or common people, be they Papists, Lutherans or Zwinglians wish to be called the Christian congregation, the holy Church."[11]
We might particularly notice two things in the above-quoted passage: First, Menno states that the Anabaptists rebuked and prophesied against the sins of their persecutors. I remember reading of the court trial of an Anabaptist who was standing accused before his judges and a number of State-Church preachers, one of whom cried out: "Dieser Hermann hat sich gegeben zu einer verdammten Sekte, die unsverdammt!" (—This fellow Herman has given himself over to a damned sect that condemns us.) Undoubtedly the consciences of the reformers smarted guiltily under the fearless testimony of the Anabaptists. Secondly, we should notice that Menno observes a change in the reformers themselves—if at first they had been courageous in their convictions that faith must be voluntary, they soon changed when they saw that they needed the support of the rulers, if their ‘reformation’ were to be a "success." This observation of Menno’s is not just his own--a recent scholar of Reformation history, Harold J. Grimm, of Indiana University, writing in 1954, says the following:
"Luther’s courageous act at Worms has rightly been regarded as an important step in the history of the development of religious liberty. He steadfastly maintained that the authorities of both the church and the Empire were bound to convince him, an individual, of his errors before condemning him. On the other hand, this was still a far step from complete religious individualism and the denial of authority. This position, supported by the subsequent history of the reformer, shows that he firmly believed that by his personal religious experience and study he had arrived at the absolute religious truth, which did not permit any individual interpretation. It was his duty to show the authorities this truth, and it was their obligation to defend it. If the papacy would not do so, he would turn to the government. If the emperor refused to do so, he would turn to the territorial lords."[12]
If any man should come to this conclusion in modern times, he would probably be sent to a mental institution, but Luther was "successful" in his plans—perhaps not least because the territorial lords were looking for some way of escaping the interference of the Roman Church and welcomed this opportunity to espouse the cause of "liberty" by supporting the reformer. But when the peasants of Germany tried to apply this "liberty" to themselves by overthrowing the tyrannical lords and gaining their independence, Luther raged against them:
"For if a man is an open rebel, every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is best man. . . . Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you. . . . Stab, smite, slay, whoever can. If you die in doing it, well for you! A more blessed death can never be yours, for you die in obeying the divine Word and commandment in Romans XIII, and in loving service of your neighbor, whom you are rescuing from the bonds of hell and the devil." "A rebel is not worth answering with arguments, for he does not accept them. The answer for such mouths is a fist that brings sweat from the nose. The peasants would not listen; they would not let anyone tell them anything; their ears must be unbuttoned with bullets, till their heads jump off their shoulders....On the obstinate, hardened, blinded peasants, let no one have mercy, but let everyone, as he is able, hew, stab, slay, lay about him as though among mad dogs, . . . . so that peace and safety may be maintained. . . . And beyond all doubt, these are precious works of mercy, love, and kindness, since there is nothing on earth that is worse than disturbance, insecurity, oppression, violence, and injustice, etc., etc."[13]
Luther’s writing on the peasant wars are full of such expressions as the above. When he was in later years reproached for such violent language, and for inciting territorial lords to merciless slaughter (they killed over 100,000 peasants), he answered defiantly:
"It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants in the insurrection, for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is upon my shoulders. But I cast it on our Lord God who commanded me to speak in this way."[14]
Sadder yet, Luther reacted with equal violence to the Anabaptists who tried to apply the principle of "liberty" to themselves. Though he knew there were both nonresistant, harmless Anabaptists as well as a radical fringe of social revolutionaries, he condemned all together—favoring a policy of extermination. We might also, had we space, quote some of his violent sayings against the Jews. Luther, assuredly riding the high tide of German nationalism with the territorial lords, wrote several horrible anti-semitic tracts advocating the plundering and slaughter or banishment of the Jews, a project never realized until Hitler. It was essentially the support of the power of the princes and rulers which ensured the "success" of Luther’s movement, as is frankly acknowledged by the Encyclopedia Britannica which says:
"Had the German princes not found it to their interests to enforce his principles, he might never have been more than the leader of an obscure mystic sect. He was, moreover, no statesman. He was recklessly impetuous in his temperament, coarse and grossly superstitious according to modern standards." (Vol. 23, p. 11).[15]
The German princes had a considerable selfish interest in a "reformation" which would enable them to throw off church interference, to stop paying tithes and taxes to Rome, and to confiscate and plunder the rich Catholic ecclesiastical properties, farms, and monasteries.
In all of these examples from Luther’s life and writings, we can see a pattern which was repeated in the career of each of the reformers. Not all, to be sure, were so crude and outspoken as Luther, but all followed a policy in which the Roman Catholic unholy union of Church and State was repeated, not repudiated. A modern-day Methodist bishop and scholar, R. F. Weaver, well sums up our alarmed conclusions about the relation between Church and State, Church and nationalism as a result of the "reformation":
"The Protestant Mind is the precursor of the nationalistic mind and is to a large degree the creator of the dominant thought-pattern of the era that follows, namely, the divine right of Kings. Luther gave to the secular power an authority and dignity almost, if not completely, divine: ‘The hand that wields the sword is not a human hand but the hand of God. It is God, not man, who hangs and breaks upon the wheel. It is God who wages war.’ It is not too much to say that, powerful as the influence of Luther was in the realm of religion, his doctrine of the State was mightier in Protestant lands than his doctrines of grace, and created a new phase of the age-long problem of the relation of organized government to organized religion."[16]
Prior to the time of the Reformation, kings and princes were subject to the check of the Church, but the reformers introduced a new reasoning about the political arm of society—a few words from Luther’s writings again will suffice to show the new attitude which soon made the State the great centralizing power (and made the church but another arm of government, so that soon every petty German principality had its state-church, just as it had its office of the mails, its state-opera, etc.):
"As a Christian, man has to suffer everything and not resist anybody. As a member of the State, the same man has to rob, murder, and fight with joy, as long as he lives....A prince may indeed be a Christian, but he must not rule as a Christian. . . . No one must think that the world is governed without blood. The worldly sword must be red and blood-rusty. . . . Wherever the princes take their power from, it does not regard us. It is the will of God, irrespective whether they have stolen their power or assumed it by robbery. . . . If anybody has the might, he obtained it from God. Therefore he also has the right. . . . Even if the authorities act unjustly, God wills that they should be obeyed without deceit. . . . for to suffer unjustly harms no man’s soul; indeed it is profitable to it. . . . Even if the authorities are wicked and unjust, nobody is entitled to oppose them, or to riot against them."[17]
That a Christian must obey and suffer even under an unjust ruler is Biblical truth, but he must never take part in the administration of either justice or injustice, and it was just this which Luther never saw; to the end he believed that a Christian was a dual personality, what he did as a Christian, he did in his private life (yes, he must even be nonresistant there!), but when the State called upon him to do something, he must obey unquestioningly, as a citizen, a public man. To disobey even the unjust State was to disobey God. In such a system, in case of conflicting localities, the Christian’s duty must always yield to the citizen’s duty! Luther made it also clear that he would, if he were a Christian minister living in a Mohammedan State, obey the Sultan and go to war to kill Christians! But the Bible nowhere teaches such an extravagant dualism—every man has only one soul, and we are responsible to God for the deeds done in the body. It makes no difference whether we sin at the State’s command or not. It is still sin. The apostles said: "We must obey God rather than man." The apostles were accused (Acts 17:7) of treasonable, subversive activity, because they taught that there was a Higher Power to Whom we are responsible, a Power higher than the State,—"and these all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus!" Amen!
The Protestant "reformation" failed to reform the Roman Catholic abuse of the relation between Church and State, and failing in this, it failed in one of the most crucial problems confronting it.
[1] Liberty magazine, vol. 50. No. 2; p. 28 (a review by J. M. Dawson).
[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich: The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 37-38; 47.
[3] Complete Works of Menno Simon, p. 283/II, 8b.
[4] Ibid., 251b/II, 29a.
[5] Great Voices of the Reformation, “A Word to a Protestant,” p. 533.
[6] Bender, H. S.: Conrad Grebel, p. 175.
[7] Hallam, Literature of Europe, Vol. I, p. 372.
[8] Stoddard, J. L.: Rebuilding a Lost Faith, pp. 97, 98.
[9] Tulga, C. E., “The New Testament Doctrine of the Church,” from the Introduction.
[10] Pfister, Oscar: Christianity and Fear, pp. 418-419, 427-428.
[11] Menno Simons, Ibid: 147a/I, 196a.
[12] Grimm, Harold J.: The Reformation Era, p. 139.
[13] Martin Luther, Werke, Erlangen edition, vol. 24, p. 294; vol.15, p. 276; passim.
[14] Ibid., vol. 59, p. 284.
[15] Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 23, p. 11.
[16] Weaver, Rufus W.: The Revolt Against God, p. 155.
[17] Luther, Werke, Weimar edition: vol. 30, p. 1, passim.

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