Holy Spirit

Jump to navigation Jump to search

1956 Article

Mainstream Anabaptists as orthodox Trinitarians confessed both the personality and the deity of the Holy Spirit, avoiding both unitarianism and tritheism. Grebel in his letters and defenses assumed the accepted doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the third Person of the Trinity (Bender, 287). Michael Sattler began the Schleitheim Confession in true Trinitarian fashion, speaking of the Spirit as the One "who is sent from the Father to all believers for their strength and comfort and for their perseverance in all tribulation until the end" (Wenger, Doctrines, 69). Menno Simons wrote, "We believe and confess the Holy Ghost to be a true, real, or personal Holy Ghost, and that in a divine way—even as the Father is a true father, and the Son a true son; which Holy Ghost is a mystery to all mankind, incomprehensible, inexpressible, and indescribable, . . . divine with His divine attributes, going forth from the Father through the being of the Father and the Son" (Works II, 186). Peter Riedemann said of the Holy Spirit, "Thus we acknowledge Him, with the Father and the Son, to be God," and emphasized the unity of the Godhead, using the illustration of "fire, heat, and light" to show that the three persons of the Trinity are inseparable, so that "where one is, there are all three, and when one is lacking, none is present" (Confession, 37).

Marpeck like Menno Simons and Riedemann emphasized the importance of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. The Holy Spirit in His relation to the believer effects regeneration, assures of salvation, guides into truth, activates the conscience, purifies the heart, comforts, produces love, and gives power and joy in service (Wenger, Marpeck, 214). The Anabaptists never identified the Holy Spirit with reason, or with emotion, or with the conscience, resisting the positions of rationalism and mysticism, but declared the Holy Spirit to be objective reality, revealing Himself to the believer in the Gospel (Friedmann, 82). In His relation to the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit was not considered to be a separate and independent "inner light" or "inner Word" whose authority might contradict and supersede the "written Word" as spiritualists taught. Anabaptists held that the Holy Spirit as the true author of Scripture is also the true interpreter of Scripture who does not contradict Himself. Concerning this Marpeck wrote, "We say again that there are not two, but there is only one Word of God, and the word of divine evangelical preaching . . . is truly the Word of the Holy Spirit and of God, for the Holy Spirit, who is God, has spoken through and out of the heart and mouth of the apostles" (Horsch, 351 f.).

While neither the Dordrecht nor the Ris Confession had a separate article on the Holy Spirit, both stressed the importance of the Trinity and of the place of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith and experience. Ris declared, "The Holy Spirit belongs, as a divine entity, to the essence of God. He is as well the Spirit of the Father as of the Son and proceeds from the Father and from the Son as the mighty worker of all divine and spiritual things" (Ris, 4 f.). Acknowledging the equality of the persons of the Trinity he adds that "equal honor and equal service are due them."

The Shorter Catechism briefly affirmed faith in the Trinity and in the Holy Spirit, while the Waldeck Catechism gave a more detailed description of the operation of the Holy Spirit, noting that "He testifies of Jesus; He comforts believers; He sanctifies them, and leads them into all truth; and through the Holy Ghost, the love of God is shed abroad in the hearts of believers" (Wenger, Doctrines, 104). The Roosen Catechism discussed more extensively the nature of God, stressing the unity of the Godhead to the extent that it appeared anti-Trinitarian. Commenting on Matthew 28:19 Roosen said, "From this it must not be understood that there are three beings, or three persons, much less that there are three Gods in heaven. But these names are thus differently expressed in consideration of the work of redemption and the salvation of the human race; as the Father, the origin; the Son, the means of redemption; and the Holy Ghost, sanctification and confirmation in salvation" (Wenger, Doctrines, 125 f.). In the light of its historical context and the writer's lack of theological training this statement may be accepted as Trinitarian in spirit though it lacked the precision of a trained theologian (Wenger, Doctrines, 125 f.).

American Mennonite groups, generally accepting the historic position, were largely agreed on the doctrine of the nature of the Holy Spirit as personal and divine but they reflected some differences in the relative emphasis given to the work of the Holy Spirit in Christian experience. Distinctive emphases may be noted in the following groups. The Brethren in Christ Church has "for many years made much of the influence and operation of the Holy Spirit," including an emphasis on the doctrine of sanctification (Climenhaga, 296 f.). While this group was not unanimous in its interpretation of sanctification, it seemed tö be agreed on its importance as a separate work of the Spirit. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church (in the 1950s the United Missionary Church officially affirmed the doctrine of "entire sanctification," which was "an instantaneous act of God, through the Holy Ghost, by faith in the atoning merits of Christ's blood, and constitutes the believer holy" (Huffman, 163). The Defenseless Mennonite Church (now the Evangelical Mennonite Church) included in its statement of faith a separate article, "The Baptism of the Holy Ghost," which it called "a distinct operation of the Holy Ghost, separate from His regenerating work, . . . an experience always connected with . . . equipment for testimony or service" (Manual, 27).

Distinctive emphases in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit also occurred among the French Mennonites. The Mennonites of Holland reflect various views on the Holy Spirit, some of which rejected traditional Trinitarianism and represented a revival of spiritualistic tendencies of earlier centuries (Meihuizen, 259-304). -- EW

1989 Article

The reality of the Holy Spirit was central to Anabaptist theology. The Anabaptists were in harmony with the orthodox Christian statements regarding the Holy Spirit. Some disagreed with the filioque clause in the western versions of the Nicene Creed, i.e., the assertion that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father. In his Confession of the Triune God, Menno Simons writes that the Holy Spirit proceeds "from the Father through the Son, although he ever remains with God and in God, and is never separated from the being of the Father and the Son" (Menno, Writings, 496). In other places Menno asserts that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son or the Word.

For the most part, the Anabaptists made no abstract theological statements about the Holy Spirit and whenever they did write about him, they usually used biblical language. The important thing for them was how the Holy Spirit worked in the life of the believer and the church. Much is said in Anabaptist writings about the work of the Holy Spirit (Klaassen, 1961, 130-132).

Considering the disparate origins of the movement it is not surprising to note that there is not only one Anabaptist view of the Holy Spirit. However, on the main points there was remarkable agreement. Throughout Anabaptism there was a profound conviction that the Spirit was at the center of Christian experience enabling the follower of Christ to rise above legalism to the transforming life of joyful obedience (Peter Klassen, in Witness of the Holy Spirit, 242).

The centrality of the Holy Spirit and his work in Anabaptist leaders arises out of their covenant theology. The new covenant in Christ is marked by the gift of the Holy Spirit to every believer. Already in the September 1524 letter of Conrad Grebel and the Brethren in Zürich to Thomas Müntzer we are informed that in the Old Testament the Word of God was written on tablets of stone, but in the New Covenant it is written in the fleshy tablets of the heart. The biblical references given were 2 Corinthians 3:3, Jeremiah 31:33, and Joel 2:28 (CRR 4: 289; Klaassen, 1961, 132).

Early Anabaptist writers develop the theme of the new covenant. In 1526 Hans Denck noted: "Whoever has received God's new covenant, that is whoever has had the law written into his heart by the Holy Spirit, is truly righteous. Whoever thinks that he can observe the law by means of the Book ascribes to the dead letter what belongs to the living Spirit" (CRR 3: 73).

In 1538 at the Bern Disputation the Swiss Brethren again affirmed that the possession of the Spirit was the chief mark of the new covenant: "Thus the essence and the usage in the old and new covenants is not the same.... That the ancients had the Gospel preached to them as with us today we cannot admit.... Thus the old obedience of the Law is not to be compared with the new obedience of the Spirit.... (They) are not against each other, but each in its own place" (Klaassen, 1961, 132).

Hans Hut and Peter Riedemann also indicate how the old covenant, one of servitude, is superseded by the new covenant of liberty, which comes by the indwelling Spirit. The strongest proponent of this position was Pilgram Marpeck who taught that there was a radical discontinuity between the old covenant and the new. There was no resemblance between the Spirits working in the old covenant and the new. The Spirit did not operate giving his gifts, comfort, and insight into truth in the old covenant, taught Marpeck. This work only began after Pentecost. "Only with the Holy Spirit of Christ did the law of love make its appearance, for only through this Spirit can it be fulfilled" (Klaassen, 1961, 133).

All Anabaptists believed that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth. Furthermore, the Spirit, wrote Menno "adorns us with his heavenly and divine gifts ... frees us from sin, gives us boldness, and makes us cheerful, peaceful, pious, and holy" (Menno, Writings, 496). The reception of the Holy Spirit follows upon hearing the Word, which produces faith, and upon water baptism. As they understood the words of Paul, the Anabaptists believed that the Holy Spirit takes control of the life of the person who believes and is baptized.

Anabaptists have often been labeled spiritualists, i.e., people who believe in the direct inspiration of the Spirit apart from Scripture. It is true that Anabaptists believed they were living in the age of the Spirit and that they often spoke about being led by the Spirit and being given divine illumination. There even were some cases of rejecting the Word in favor of the Spirit. But most Anabaptists managed to maintain the tension between Word and Spirit, holding firmly to both. The overriding view, affirmed even by men like Denck, Kautz, and Hut, who had spiritualist tendencies, was that Spirit and Scripture could never be in opposition. The Scripture always served as the norm to prevent claims of extra-biblical revelation.

For the Anabaptists, the work of the Spirit in the individual believer is at the same time the Spirit at work gathering and building the church. The individual was subordinate to the group and Anabaptists believed that the Holy Spirit expressed himself through the consensus of the believing community.

In Anabaptist and Mennonite confessions of faith, the Holy Spirit has a transforming function, with his work in regeneration and sanctification being highlighted. The doctrine of the Spirit does not receive pronounced attention in the confessions. There is, however, a uniform emphasis on the nature (deity, personality, trinity, and procession from the Father) and the function (office and characteristics) of the Spirit (Loewen, Confessions, 39-40).

Mennonite catechisms affirm faith in the Trinity and in the Holy Spirit. The popular Waldeck Catechism, patterned after the Cornelis Ris Confession (1766), has appeared in at least seven German reprints among American Mennonites and in many English reprint editions. The Waldeck Catechism notes that the Holy Spirit testifies of Jesus; he comforts believers, he sanctifies them, and leads them into all truth; and through the Holy Ghost, the love of God is shed abroad in the hearts of believers" (Wenger, 106).

American Mennonite groups accept the historic position regarding the nature of the Holy Spirit but they reflect some differences in their teachings regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in Christian experience. The Brethren in Christ, while not unanimous in their interpretation of sanctification (holiness movement), agree on the importance of sanctification as a separate work of the Spirit. Their 1961 Manual of doctrine and government, states: "As a Christian experience, sanctification embodies the setting apart of the believer in entire consecration and the cleansing of the believer's heart from carnality, accompanied by the baptism of the Holy Spirit.... The work of holiness which was begun in regeneration is perfected, and the believer is 'sanctified wholly'" (Loewen, Confessions, 234). In its Discipline, the Evangelical Mennonite Church affirms that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a distinct experience subsequent to regeneration. "It is necessary for holiness and fruitfulness of life and enduement with power for service" (Loewen, Confessions, 218).

Mennonites by and large seek to be a faithful model of the community of the Spirit based on a personal knowledge of Christ. At the Eighth Mennonite World Conference (1967), gathered around the theme "The Witness of the Holy Spirit," John B. Toews stated that correct theology, even Anabaptist theology, without experiential knowledge of Christ through the Holy Spirit leaves the Church impotent. "The life of a dynamic church is in Christ through the Holy Spirit" (Witness of the Holy Spirit, 59).


Bender, Harold S. Conrad Grebel. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1950: 287.

Brown, Dale W. Led by Word and Spirit, Foundation Series adult curriculum. Nappanee, IN, Newton, KS,  Scottdale, PA,  Elgin, IL copublished by Mennonite, Brethren in Christ, and Church of the Brethren Publishing Houses, 1983.

Brunk, George R., ed. Encounter with the Holy Spirit. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972.

Climenhaga, A. W. History of the Brethren in Christ Church. Nappanee, IN, 1942: 296 f.

Dyck, Cornelius J., ed. The Witness of the Holy Spirit: Proceedings of the Eighth Mennonite World Conference. Elkhart, IN: Mennonite World Conference, 1967, esp. J. A. Oosterbaan, "Word and Spirit," 9-16; J. B. Toews, "Spiritual renewal," 56-63.

Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949: 82.

Harder, Leland, ed. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: the Grebel Letters and Related Documents, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 4. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press 1985.

Horsch, John. Mennonites in Europe. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942: 351 f.

Huffman, J. A. History of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church. New Carlisle, 1920: 27.

Klaassen, Walter. "Some Anabaptist Views on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit." Mennonite Quarterly Review 35 (1961): 130-39.

Klaassen, Walter. "Spiritualization in the Reformation." Mennonite Quarterly Review 37 (1963): 67-77.

Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: ch. 3: "The Holy Spirit"

Klassen, Peter. "The Anabaptist View of the Holy Spirit." Mennonite Life 23, no. 1 (January 1968): 27-31.

Klassen, William. Covenant and Community: the Life, Writing and Hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968: esp. 67-77.

Loewen, Howard John. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.

Meihuizen, H. W. "Spiritualistic Tendencies and Movements Among the Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th Centuries." Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (1953): 259-304.

Menno Simons. Complete Writings, Engl. trans. Elkhart: John Funk, 1870: 186.

Rideman, Peter. Confession of Faith. London, 1950: 37.

Ris, Cornelis. Mennonite Articles of Faith. Berne, IN, 1918: 4 f.

Wenger, J. C. The Doctrines of the Mennonites. Scottdale, PA, 1950: 69, 104, 125 f.

Wenger, J. C. "The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck." Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (October 1938): 214.

Additional Information

Mennonite Articles of Faith (Cornelis Ris, 1766)

The Holy Spirit In the Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977)

Author(s) Erland Waltner
Walter Unger
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Waltner, Erland and Walter Unger. "Holy Spirit." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 3 Oct 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Holy_Spirit&oldid=162897.

APA style

Waltner, Erland and Walter Unger. (1989). Holy Spirit. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 3 October 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Holy_Spirit&oldid=162897.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 795-796; vol. 5, pp. 388-390. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.