The ninety-five theses Martin Luther posted on the door of Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, are very famous. They began a revolution in world affairs religiously, politically, and even socially. Four years later he was called to account before the greatest spiritual and secular powers on earth: representatives of the Pope and Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Luther’s answer still rings out as a monument to the freedom of conscience and the dignity of the individual. Indeed, his stand that day has been called one of the greatest moments in history:
Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!
Just ten years after Luther’s ninety-five theses shook the world, another young priest posted seven theses on the door of the same cathedral in Worms in which Luther was called to account by the Imperial Diet. 1 The seven articles of Jacob Kautz were posted in exactly the same style and for exactly the same purpose as Luther’s ninety-five theses — to stimulate discussion and debate. However, Kautz and his movement, the Anabaptists, met the fate the Pope desired for Luther’s Reformation also — fire and the sword.
They achieved the dubious and dangerous distinction of being labeled heretics by both Catholics and Protestants. And why?
This was because their radical theology was a threat to the existing social order in which church and state were collaborators. This radical criticism of the very structure of society resulted in the unrelenting attempts of Catholics and Protestants to stamp it out.2
To understand why they were viewed that way takes us to the heart of Christian theology and its age-old insistence on encompassing all of society in an authoritarian embrace — no exceptions allowed. And in many ways, even today in nations where church and state are separate, this fundamental world view remains in Christian theology, and its expression may well see the darkness of night once again.
Jacob Kautz and two others, Hans Denck and Ludwig Haetzer, defended the seven articles in the town square of Worms on June 13, 1527. The third thesis they had posted on the door of the cathedral struck at what many saw as a pillar of society — infant baptism. One was tied from birth to his church and to his state. But these men objected:
The baptism of infants is not of God. It is against God and his teaching given to us through Christ Jesus, his beloved Son.3
This rejection of historic Christian doctrine was founded upon two things. First, the baptism of infants was found nowhere in the New Testament, and secondly, infants could make no free choice in the matter. Anabaptists could not stand Luther’s insistence that man’s will was enslaved, either to God or to the devil, and man could not freely choose whom he would serve. 4 This was a point of contention between not only the Reformers and the Anabaptists, but between the Reformers and the Catholics.
The essence of what the Anabaptists said, which got them in so much trouble, was that the life of believers had to be different or else the Reformation was just a farce. People had to live their convictions out. Their challenge to the Reformers in these Seven Articles was simple: “How can you say all these things and not live them?”
The sixth thesis of Worms said that if they weren’t living them out, then all that Christ had done for them was of no value. In other words, the Anabaptists taught that whoever did not follow Christ and obey His commands did not believe in Him. For them, Christ may as well not have come:
Jesus from Nazareth did not suffer for us in any way, he did nothing to satisfy God for us, as long as we do not follow him in the way he went before us — unless we follow the commands of the Father, like Christ follows them — every man according to his ability.5
This was revolutionary talk! Two weeks later, the councilors of Worms expelled the “troublemakers” from their midst. They dared to expose the Reformation’s nakedness, like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous parable, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Just as the foolish emperor’s “new clothes” were imaginary, so was the Reformation’s connection to Christ. It was, in their view, only adorned with the intellectual doctrines of clever men like Luther.
Naturally, the Reformers responded on the basis of theology, not on whether their religious instruction made any difference in the lives of the people. Indeed, it was an essential aspect of their theology that the Reformation need make no radical difference in the lives of the people. Their works were irrelevant to God. Only their “faith” mattered. To expect the Reformation to make the people more holy or godly would be advocating “works righteousness.” This charge was hurled at the Anabaptists.
There were areas where Luther did want his reformation to make a difference in society. One of them was compulsory education. He compared it to the state’s supposed right of appropriating a man’s life and compelling him to bear arms and kill other men in war. If the state could do one, it could do the other.
But I hold that it is the duty of the temporal authority to compel its subjects to keep their children in school, especially the promising ones we mentioned above... If the government can compel such of its subjects as are fit for military service to carry pike and musket, man the ramparts, and do other kinds of work in time of war, how much more can it and should it compel its subjects to keep their children in school.6
The state could compel citizens in this manner because to Luther the citizen was the property of the state. So you can see how Reformation theology would be very useful to princes! In fact, the Reformation, especially that part of it under Luther’s leadership, ended up exalting the authority of the state even more than it was under Catholicism. He upheld in his teaching what scholars call “princely absolutism.”
Because they taught that believers should imitate Christ and obey His commands (including the commands to lay down the sword, to not take oaths or serve in government), the Anabaptists were charged with preaching “works righteousness.” Disobeying Christ’s commands was not “works,” but to put any urgency on obeying them was. For this heresy, the state churches, Catholic or Protestant, ruthlessly persecuted the Anabaptists.
Underlying this charge against the Anabaptists was the theological issue of the atonement of Christ for sin. What was its nature? Or to put it another way, since the Reformers and Anabaptists believed similarly in many ways about the atonement, what was man’s part? What was his response to the atoning sacrifice of Christ? Luther gives the typical Reformation response — man has no part in or response to atonement at all:
There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.7
This view of man’s redemption as something doctrinal, relating to man’s legal status before God, as essentially something done to him, profoundly shaped Reformation theology. But such a view of the atonement was inadequate or insufficient for the Anabaptists, since,
It concentrated chiefly on Christ’s death and had been reduced to a passive or forensic doctrine which concerned only a change in humanity’s legal status before God. It was an external benefit bestowed by God regardless of human involvement. No wonder that Luther and Calvin who followed this line of thinking resorted to the Augustinian doctrine of predestination.8
The benefit of Christ’s atonement was bestowed on those who, like the citizens in Luther’s Reformation, had no more choice in the matter than they did in schooling their children or waging war. So Luther quite rightly regarded his book, The Enslaved Will, as his greatest work, for it encapsulated his whole view of humanity’s relationship with God and the devil. For the Anabaptists, such views of God and man were contrary to Scripture and abhorrent to conscience.
Atonement was far more than a legal transaction in the heavenly court. It meant “at-one-ment” with God and referred to all the ways in which God and humans have been reconciled through the work of Jesus Christ... In what way does the atonement bring God and humanity back together again? To them Christ was not only redeemer, he was also example. The gospel was not only the good news of salvation but also a series of directives for the Christian on how to live, how to follow Christ the example. And in following Christ, humanity could be brought back into the life of God.9
Yet in the end the Anabaptists proved that they also lacked the power to overcome sin in their lives. Their keen understanding of Christ’s work towards them and in them, which set them apart from their fellow Christians (who murdered them), did not, in the end, keep them from relentlessly dividing. Whatever kept their groups together through the intense persecution they endured from without was not sufficient to deliver them from the disputes within. The evangelistic fire was quenched and they took their ranks among the legions of Christian laity silenced under their preachers and their doctrines.
But the memory of the often noble lives and courage of the Anabaptists serve as stepping stones for those who would someday go beyond them to restore all things that have been lost. For all things must be restored, beginning with the good news. The Scriptures promise it will happen.10