John J. Friesen is Professor Emeritus at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg. This article was produced for Meetinghouse, a consortium of Anabaptist publications.
2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting 95 theses on the doors of the churches in the city of Wittenberg, including the All Saints Church. What Luther intended as a debate over how to reform abuses in the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the break-up of the Catholic Church and the start of the Protestant Reformation.
Why should Anabaptist Mennonites care about Martin Luther, a young university professor, and his reforms? Why should this anniversary be noted in Mennonite denominational papers?
The principal reason why Mennonites should care about Luther’s reform is that Luther is the reason why there was an Anabaptist Mennonite reform movement at all. Luther’s reforms, and the conflicts they spawned between Catholics and Protestants, created space for the Anabaptist movement to take root.
They sprang up in German states, northern Switzerland, Moravia, and the Netherlands. Without Luther, and the other reformers who followed his lead, there would have been no Anabaptist movements.
Mennonites should also care about Luther’s reform because the early Anabaptist leaders were inspired by Luther’s key ideas. Luther’s reform began as a critique of the Catholic Church selling indulgences (payments to reduce the amount of pain suffered for sin). In response, Luther formulated his central view that salvation is by grace, that is, a gift from God, and not by works.
When challenged about how he could make such a claim since it deviated from the beliefs of most of the great teachers of the medieval church, Luther said his authority was the Bible, not tradition. Specifically, he based his view of grace on the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. It was the Bible alone, Luther said, on which he based his view that salvation is by faith through grace.
Following this claim, Luther decided to make the Bible available to the masses by translating it into the German language. Widespread distribution was made possible by the newly invented moveable type printing presses. Access to the Bible allowed people to read Scripture for themselves and to implement reforms that they believed were consistent with scripture.
Luther also rejected the control that the Catholic priesthood had over access to forgiveness. Luther believed that all believers had direct access to God – no priestly mediation was necessary. Luther called this the priesthood of all believers. All these emphases Anabaptists applauded.
Even though at first Luther seemed to empower common people, he also spoke highly of the role German princes should play in any reform. When the peasants revolted in the years 1524-25, Luther condemned them harshly. He cast his lot with the princes and adopted the state-church model for his reform. Luther looked to the German princes both for protection and direction. This decision set Luther and the Anabaptists against one another.
Anabaptists believed that Luther’s reform ideas should have resulted in a believers’ church. Such a church would have consisted of those who truly had faith in God and had committed themselves to a life of Christian discipleship. This option would have resulted in a church that was a minority in the population. Accepting a believers’ church would have resulted in a pluralist society, in which minority church groups were tolerated. When Luther opted for the state-church model, placed the Lutheran church under the authority of the state, and persecuted minority churches, Anabaptists believed that Luther had betrayed the teachings of the Bible.
This commitment to a believers’ church allowed Anabaptists to reshape basic Christian beliefs and practices. Anabaptists emphasized baptism on the basis of adult confessions of faith, instead of infant baptism. Church leaders were chosen from within the community of believers instead of being appointed by church hierarchies, or by state officials. Reforms were based on the church community’s reading of scripture, rather than on the basis of what was politically expedient and approved by princes. Church discipline and social shunning replaced trials and executions of those with whom they disagreed.
For worship, Anabaptists gathered in houses, barns and caves to read scripture together. They discussed biblical texts and discerned together, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, how to apply them to daily living. They sang songs composed by their own members based on experiences of persecution and martyrdom. No more majestic cathedrals, chants, organs, monastic choirs, and elaborate liturgies where members were largely spectators. They rejected feudal oaths since their primary loyalty was to God and not to princes and emperors. They advocated a life of peace, rejected violence, refused to carry swords, forgave those who wronged them, and reconciled conflicts between members of the church.
One cannot imagine the Anabaptist movement without Luther’s reforms. And yet, the direction that Luther’s reforms took resulted in Luther becoming one the Anabaptists’ bitterest enemies. Even the Augsburg Confession of 1530, the basic Lutheran confession, included the following among a number of condemnations: “We condemn Anabaptists who forbid Christians to hold office,” and “We condemn Anabaptists who reject the baptizing of children, and say that children are saved without baptism.” Most Lutheran states crushed Anabaptist groups within their borders.
This sharp break between Luther and the Anabaptists, however, is not the end of the story of Luther’s influence on Anabaptist Mennonites. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Lutheran Church spawned a Pietist movement, which has in many ways positively influenced Mennonites. Pietism emphasized Bible reading by laity, a warm devotional life, an experience of conversion and personal commitment to God, a life of discipleship, and an extensive hymnody. Pietists drew upon the early emphases of Luther, and thus in many respects, were close to the emphases of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement.