Polemics, Anti-Anabaptist

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Polemics constitute a branch of theology traditionally following dogmatics and apologetics. The theologian identifies and refutes theological and ecclesiological error as necessary defense of truth. Polemicists of the 16th century reflected late medieval attitudes of mind about religious error as metaphysically dangerous. Error not only misled simple folk and damned them eternally; it also countered the purposes of God in the universe. Refuting it therefore was an urgent necessity.

The 16th century overflowed with polemical controversy of rich variety: Lutherans against Sacramentarians (Sacramentists), Catholics against different groups of Protestants, Catholics against Catholics, etc. In this common form of religious discourse Anabaptists probably were treated no worse than other Christians, except for that special note of alarm that colored the first-generation anti-Anabaptist polemics. Europeans were anxious about the prospect of renewed Peasants' Wars or a recrudescent Münster at some fresh location, and they linked all Anabaptists to both.

Generally the Anabaptists did not write polemics, strictly interpreted. They wrote theological defenses of themselves and even intemperate attacks—against Protestants and Catholics, but also against each other. Polemics belong to religious argumentation that shapes its thought by traditional categories of logic. Most Anabaptist and Mennonite authors did not think that truth itself was enhanced, or even made clearer, by the use of formal logic; indeed, if anything they thought that logic obscured truth. Clarity of religious thought and expression was necessary for Christians, but was enhanced by simpler forms of thinking, especially by direct scriptural exegesis.

Lutheran Polemics

Beginning with Luther himself, the Lutheran critique of the Anabaptists centered on the means by which God had chosen to mediate his grace to humans: the Word and the sacraments (ordinances). To deny the efficacy of sacramental grace was blasphemy, a denial of the power of God in those means of grace that God himself had selected. In theological consequence Luther and Melanchthon, and Menius and Rhegius to only a slightly lesser extent, found the Anabaptists insufferably spiritualistic; they had spiritualized away that special union of matter and Spirit that God had bound into the form of the sacrament, for which the Incarnation was the most prized model. Baptism was the sacrament most frequently discussed. Luther and his co-workers were literally horrified at the radicality of Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism, believing that Anabaptists thereby damned infants, the most innocent of all humans.

But baptism of adult believers was also wrong because it broke the body of Christendom. Thereby the Anabaptists shattered an entire set of delicately shaped relations between church and state, insisting on a complete separation of the "two swords." That was sedition in Lutheran eyes. Although observers from later centuries, or Roman Catholics of the times, accused Luther of the same mistake, he and other Reformers of the first generation thought that they were restoring true faith to a singular body of Christ, which the Romans stubbornly rejected. Hence the monotony of the Lutheran detailed polemical attacks on "rebaptism." Therefore also the casual Lutheran expectation that Anabaptists would be spiritualists; all of them rejected the most essential work of God in the human by appropriating grace in extra scriptural forms, in the Lutherans' view.

In their polemics against the Anabaptists Menius and Rhegius elevated the issue of faith vs. works to a high level of significance. Both of them had met bona fide Anabaptists much more frequently than had either Luther or Melanchthon, and they had heard the Anabaptist complaint about Lutheran faith as dead because it produced no fruit in the form of good works.

Sacraments per se, baptism, civic order, good works vs. faith—on all of these points the Anabaptists developed a position so radical that the Lutherans expected the most extreme forms of social disruption. The events at Münster in the early 1530s rather than coming as a surprise, offered the supreme illustration of the diabolical fury of the Anabaptists, and therefore became a constant reference point in post-1535 Lutheran polemics.

Reformed Polemics

In the eyes of Reformed theologians in southern Germany and Switzerland Anabaptist errors regarding baptism, the Lord's Supper, excommunication and the ban, and the search for the creation of a pure church were all attacks on the newly established church and on its supporting governments. Adult believers' baptism was the first act of Anabaptist separation. Baptism became therefore the most frequently discussed issue in Reformed polemics. The Reformed preferred parallels between Old and New Covenants: circumcision in Old and baptism in New both brought infants under watch and ward of God's people. To deny that connection between the covenants was both a rejection of God's promise and a cruel denial to infants of God's love mediated through his people. Neither Reformed nor Anabaptist laid sacramental value on either baptism or the Lord's Supper (communion), even when a few Reformed wanted more of the Real Presence as spiritual food in the elements than did the Anabaptists. The Reformed found Anabaptists insufferably sectarian.

In this latter connection they attacked Anabaptists' claims about the perfectibility of their church. Anabaptist close communion and their exercise of the ban with excommunication gave added focus to the issue of pure church.

The Reformed were disturbed by the sharp distinction drawn by Anabaptists between the two kingdoms, between the church and the world. In some sense the Reformed theologians could never quite understand the Anabaptists' rejection of the notion that civic office was Christian because of the forms of force used by the magistrate. Nor could they understand Anabaptist objections to selection of preachers by the state. In their eyes the Anabaptist rejection of the sword was an intolerable concession to either anarchy or Turkish hegemony.

The final subsuming issue was hermeneutics. The Reformed found Anabaptist biblicism too legalistic, and their preference for the New Testament an unbalanced interpretation of God's complete Word. Although hermeneutics underlay much of the Reformed polemics, it did not always rise to become a conscious issue for comment and refutation. Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, and Calvin, in that chronological order, were the most widely read anti-Anabaptist polemicists among the Reformed theologians.

Catholic Polemics

Catholic polemics against Anabaptists is a large, diffuse topic that is inadequately researched. No scholar has yet waded through the routine Roman condemnatory catalogs of heretics including Anabaptists, and certainly not the published and unpublished reports of papal nuncios or of Jesuits within their own order. Probably no scholar has found the topic intriguing enough to undertake because, with a few exceptions, Catholic authors tended to group the Anabaptists either with other Protestant Reformers, who seemed more dangerous to the Catholics, or grouped them with that long historical line of heretics going back to the early church: Hussites, Brethren of the Free Spirit, Cathari (Albigenses), Waldenses, and Donatists. Most Catholic polemicists did not bother to learn much about the 16th century Anabaptists' "heresies," which they described indifferently and inaccurately (Domenico Gravina, Georg Cassander, Johannes Corbachius, even Dickus on baptism, and others).

Relative indifference to the details of Anabaptist errors could be attributed to the events at Münster, which disqualified Anabaptist thought and all Anabaptists with it. Or, after the imperial edict of 1529 mandating death for Anabaptists, the nerve for refuting them in order to justify capital punishment already had been cut. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that some Catholic jurists were aware of Roman imperial edicts against both "rebaptized" and "rebaptizers," going back to the early 5th century, and that those edicts may have influenced 16th centuries enemies of the Anabaptists to give them the opprobrious nickname "Anabaptist" (rebaptizers) in order to bring them under the capital-crime penalties of Roman law. Catholic polemicists saw the Anabaptists either as the natural fruit of the Reformers' rebellion or the expected continuation of earlier heretics. Their accounts lacked the crispness of description and tinge of anger that characterized Lutheran and Reformed polemics.

There were exceptions, primarily in places and times where Anabaptists acquired some regional prominence. Hermann von Kerssenbroick, describing the Anabaptists of Münster; Christoph Erhard and Christoph Andreas Fischer, excoriating the Hutterian Brethren; earlier Johann Faber (Heigerlin), depicting the errors of his erstwhile academic colleague and friend Balthasar Hubmaier—all of these Catholics and a few more wrote with emotion, both to persuade political lords to be more resolute and to extirpate the Anabaptists, or to dissuade potential converts from joining.

Seventeenth-Century Polemics

Several distinctive features of these polemics marked them as substantially different from their 16th-century predecessors.

  1. These polemics against Mennonites were fewer in number and less virulent. Composed by theological lightweights, often pastors instead of the most able theologians, they were directed more toward instructing common folk on how to avoid succumbing to erroneous Mennonite teaching and life, and less toward purifying an otherwise sullied truth of God.
  2. Anabaptist-Mennonite righteous living, compared with the moral lives of other Christians, had made far too strong an impression on rank and file Christians to permit Protestant leaders to characterize Mennonites as lustful Münsterites. Reformed polemicist Georg Thormann reported that his Bernese parishioners believed that because of virtuous living Mennonites stood in better salvific relations with a righteous God than did their Reformed neighbors.
  3. A century of religious wars, including the most gruesomely destructive of all, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), had blunted the edge of the search for an absolute theological rectitude. Surely a policy of adjusting to each others' religious differences in the interest of ending or avoiding civil war, the position of the so-called politiques of the late 16th century, was superior to the wanton destructiveness of the wars of religion.
  4. Authors writing against Mennonites reverted to critical history or unadorned disputation on confessional issues, rather than the more traditional polemics, writing in tones much less harsh than a century earlier. Johann Ottius wrote the former. In 1645 Johannes Müller, writing for his Hamburg parishioners, refuted the errors of Syvaert Pietersz's Confession of 1620. Ottius was informative and even erudite. Müller was theologically weak. That he, rather than some more astute theologian, should write against the Mennonites reflected perhaps a relatively lesser interest in the errors of those erstwhile archheretics.

Although Mennonites could not yet be justified in the thought-world of the religious, they were no longer excoriated as viciously as their Anabaptist forebears had been.

See also Apologetics; Pfeddersheim Disputation


This bibliography includes books or articles that treat polemics, not those that deal more broadly with religious differences.

Balke, Willem. Calvijn en die doperse Radikalen. Amsterdam: Ton Bolland, 1973. English Translation: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.

Eisenblätter, Winfried. "Die katholische Auseinandersetzung mit dem Täufertum," Mennonite Geschichtsblätter, 22 (1965): 47-53.

Fast, Heinold. Heinrich Bullinger und die Täufer. Weierhof: Mennonite Geschichtsverein, 1959.

Harder, Leland. "Zwingli's Relation to the Schleitheim Confession of Faith." 16th Century Journal 11 (Winter 1980): 51-66.

Loewen, Harry. Luther and the Radicals: Another Look. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University, 1974.

Oyer, John S. Lutheran Reformers against Anabaptists. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964.

See: Nisen, P. J. A. "De anti-doperse Geschriften van Petrus van Blommeveen, Cornelius Crocus, Joannes Bunderius en Georgius Cassander." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.r. 11 (1985): 171-84. For fresh work in prospect on Catholic polemicists.

For bibliographical information on polemical books and tracts, see the biographical articles in GAMEO on the polemicists mentioned above, plus Nicolaus von Amsdorf, Johann Bugenhagen, Johann Gast, Nikolaus Gerbel, and Lambertus Hortensius.

See also citations in:

Kohler, Walter. "Catholicism and Anabaptism." Mennonite Encyclopedia I: 532-535.

Some routine Catholic polemics, most of which were not included in Mennonite Encyclopedia I-IV, include:

Cassander, Georg. Opera quae reperiri potuerunt omnia. Paris: Pacard, 1616.

Calandrini, Scipione. Trattato dell origine delle heresie et delle schisme. Poschiavo: Landolphi, 1572.

Dupreau, Gabriel. De vitis, sectis, et dogmatibus omnivm haereticorum. . ." Cologne: Quentel, 1569.

Gravina, Domenico. Catholicae praescriptiones adversvs omits veteres et nostri temporis haereticos. Naples: Roncalioli, 1619.

For the 17th century, beyond Thormann and Müller, see:

Hanneken, Menno. Sylloge quaestionum theologicarum, qvas orthodoxis movent, Photiniani, Anabaptistae,

Suenckfeldiani, Weigeliani. Marburg: Chemlin, 1637.


[Pietersz], [Syvaert]. Bekentenisse des Gheloofs. Hoorn, 1620.


Bontemps, Petrus. Kort Bewijs van de menighvtddighe Doolingen der Wederdoopers ofte Mennisten: Met Wederlegginghe van hare Uytvluchten ende Bevestiginge der Christelijker Waerheydt. Amsterdam: Ravesteyn, 1653.

Author(s) John S Oyer
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Oyer, John S. "Polemics, Anti-Anabaptist." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 9 Aug 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Polemics,_Anti-Anabaptist&oldid=121279.

APA style

Oyer, John S. (1989). Polemics, Anti-Anabaptist. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 9 August 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Polemics,_Anti-Anabaptist&oldid=121279.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 707-710. All rights reserved.

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