Reformation, Protestant

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The religious renewal movements of the 16th century took many forms; some remained within the traditional ecclesiastical structures, others broke away to form different religious communities. Gradually the term "Protestant" (from the "protesting" estates at the Diet [parliament] of the Holy Roman Empire in Speyer in 1529) came to be applied to most of the new religious bodies, although it was originally designed primarily for the followers of Martin Luther.

In the decades following Luther's protest against what he regarded as corrupted belief and practice in the traditional ecclesiastical system, reform movements gained a strong following in most of Europe. Often, they were successful in becoming the new "official" religion of a state or area, and so Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and Anglican churches came to be the established religion in various countries, and continued the traditional close interaction of church and state. Loosely categorized as Protestant, they shared a large body of doctrine and traditional practice; all regarded themselves as bearers of the legacy of the early church. At the same time, each of the new movements developed its own distinctives. These differences proved strong enough to prevent the development of a united church body, although many Reformation leaders, such as Martin Bucer and Philipp Melanchthon, tried repeatedly to bring about closer cooperation.

One of the expressions of the quest for church renewal came to be known as Anabaptism, an epithet that reflected a rejection of the validity of infant baptism and an insistence on baptizing only believers. In their call for a church independent of the state (hence, a "free" church), Anabaptists rejected traditional views of the society as a body of Christians (corpus Christianum). Catholic and Protestant opponents alike denounced them as a threat to religious and political order, a threat that should be suppressed. Very few states were tolerant enough to permit Anabaptists to live in peace; they stood outside the boundary of accepted religious and social deviation. Hundreds of court records attest to the zeal with which Catholic and Protestant authorities pursued these nonconformists and often subjected them to torture and to sentences of death, imprisonment, exile, or confiscation of property. Such incessant pressure eventually broke the dynamism of many Anabaptist groups so that they often tried to escape by withdrawing from society.

Although Anabaptists were perceived as an unacceptable threat to the religious and social order, they constituted a rather diverse movement, with differing theological and social emphases. Anabaptism drew its inspiration from many sources: reformation impulses such as those of Zwingli in Zürich; medieval Catholic traditions of asceticism and piety; social revolutionary movements such as the Peasants' War; anticlerical expressions rampant in the early 16th century; dissatisfaction with the nature and extent of church renewal as advocated by such reformers as Luther and Zwingli. At the same time, Anabaptists shared the widely held view that reformation was necessary, and that the Scriptures must be recognized as the source of authority and direction in any spiritual renewal. Like other reform movements, Anabaptism viewed itself as a recovery of the life of the early church (restitutionism).

The Scriptures

Luther's insistence on the unique authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) was echoed by other Protestant leaders. Religious belief and practice were to be determined by appeals to the Bible. The role of tradition in shaping current practices remained a matter of dispute; Anglicanism in particular, in statements such as the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker (ca. 1554-1600), argued for a greater emphasis on historical precedents in the church than continental reformers generally accepted. Anglicans and continental reformers agreed, however, that over the centuries the ecclesiastical system had acquired a form and substance at variance with biblical principles. A reformation in "head and members" (a phrase used since the late medieval era) had become necessary.

Most Anabaptists agreed that the Bible should be regarded as the expression of God's will for the church. Yet not all parts of Scripture were equally authoritative. Anabaptists tended to place special emphasis upon the life and teachings of Christ. Beyond that, many of them insisted that the New Testament, rather than the Old Testament, should be regarded as normative. Thus, when Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other reformers appealed to the Old Testament to justify their views of church-state relations as well as other beliefs, the Anabaptists appealed to the model of the New Testament church.

On other occasions, some Anabaptists warned that the Bible should not be viewed as a self-sufficient agent of spiritual renewal; rather, it could be effective only when illuminated by the Holy Spirit and received by the "pious heart," as Hans Denck said.

Another characteristic of many Anabaptists was an insistence on an almost wooden literalism in applying biblical statements. Only that which was enjoined by Scripture was to be accepted and retained. In this matter they stood much closer to Zwingli than to Luther and many other reformers.

The Nature of the Church

For Luther and for many of his contemporaries, the distinguishing marks of the church were that the Word of God be rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The essence of the church was to be found in the objective work of Christ, not in the subjective experience of the believer. For many, this also meant that the efficacy of a sacrament did not depend ultimately upon the state of the recipient; rather, it represented a work of grace, quite apart from human merit. Membership in the body of Christ was dependent upon divine grace alone, and reflected divine election.

Most Anabaptists were uneasy with Luther's doctrine of salvation "by faith alone" (sola fide). Nor could they accept the view that subscribing to propositional truth was enough to make a person a believer and a member of the church. Rather, belief must be accompanied by a determination to follow "in the footsteps of Christ," as Hans Hut stated. The church was the company of the committed, not simply those who had once been baptized. It is thus not surprising that Anabaptists tended to take church discipline very seriously; indeed, some developed rigidly legalistic standards. In this respect they shared some of Calvin's insistence on strict adherence to external forms of piety.

Early in the Reformation Anabaptists adopted the practice of expelling from their fellowship those regarded as insufficiently committed to a life of discipleship. The pronouncement of the "ban" became a very controversial issue, and it demonstrated a determination to go beyond many other reformers, such as Luther, who held that a person should be barred from the life of the church only if guilty of flagrant sin. It is not surprising that Anabaptists, with their insistence that faith must be combined with works, were sometimes accused of holding to belief in salvation by works, to a doctrine of "works righteousness."

Baptism and the Lord's Supper

When Luther published his treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he alienated many who had earlier supported him. To reject many of the traditional sacraments was enough, as Erasmus said, "to rend the seamless robe of Christ." Luther's retention of only baptism and communion provided the model for Protestantism, but at the same time, the meaning of these sacraments (ordinances) became very controversial within the reformation movements. Some reformers insisted that baptism was essential to salvation; others were content to describe it as a covenant sign. Luther and many Protestant contemporaries regarded the teaching of the real presence in the Lord's Supper so important that they refused to recognize as fellow-believers those who, like Zwingli, regarded the elements as symbolic. On the other hand, some movements of reform, such as Anglicanism, eventually accepted creedal statements designed to be elastic enough to permit broadly divergent views on the sacraments.

In their practice of baptism, Anabaptists most visibly and sharply differed from other Reformation movements. Baptism symbolized conscious identification with Christ and his church; only an adult believer was capable of taking such action. When reformers such as Luther insisted that baptism was essential to salvation and should be administered to infants, Anabaptists responded that baptism had meaning only when it was the expression of personal and deliberate choice. Again, when Calvin and Zwingli stressed baptism as a covenant symbol, similar to Old Testament circumcision, Anabaptists, while affirming the covenantal nature of the church, insisted that the New Testament covenant of faith required faith on the part of the individual participant. They rejected any notion about the adequacy of "dormant" or "vicarious" faith. At the same time, Anabaptists did not accept the widely held Catholic and Protestant view that infants were born condemned because of original sin.

Since most reformers, as well as the traditional church, still adhered to the view that members of society should constitute the corpus Christianum and be initiated into it by baptism, the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism quickly brought confrontation. Protestants and Catholics alike contended that this revolutionary view would be destructive of both church and society and could not be tolerated. Numerous edicts condemned Anabaptists and prescribed the death penalty for them.

Differences between Anabaptists and other Reformation movements on the doctrine of the Lord's Supper were less pronounced, for the reformers differed sharply in their views. Very few Anabaptists agreed with Luther's insistence on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; rather, they stressed that the elements were to be viewed as mere symbols and thus largely shared Zwingli's interpretation of communion. In addition, many of them viewed the Supper as an expression of identification with Christ in his suffering and as an expression of fellowship among the participants, as a demonstration of their unity.

Political and Religious Structures

In their hope to create God's kingdom on earth, or at least a society that would be patterned on biblical principles, most Protestant reformers held that the state was the divinely-ordained institution to assure adherence to these principles. Coercion, even inflicting the death penalty, was viewed as appropriate for the sake of achieving this lofty goal. In Luther's two-kingdom theory, the arena of faith functioned in accordance with laws quite different from those that regulated society at large. The one should be guided by principles of love and faith; the individual believer should emulate the life of Christ. The state, however, was dedicated to the maintenance of peace and order; it was to be guided by ideals of justice as enunciated (especially for Luther) by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans. Other reformers appealed to the Old Testament to justify their views on how societies should function. For most reformers, the belief that the power of the state should be used to preserve truth was axiomatic. Evil made the use of force necessary. The coercive suppression of nonconformity was the result.

In their earliest comments about church-state relations, Anabaptists were somewhat ambiguous about how the rule of Christ on earth might be effected. Clearly, many leaders hoped that their message of renewal would be widely accepted, and thus form the basis for a changed society. When it became apparent that these expectations would not be realized, they adopted a radically different approach. They called instead for a separation of church and state structures so that a church "free" of political and secular entanglements might be formed. This revolutionary proposal struck most reformers as dangerous and divisive; a centuries-old tradition would have to be abandoned. Many Anabaptists responded by withdrawing from any participation in political institutions. They would not be part of a system that used coercion in matters of faith, and that rejected the view that the ethics of Christ should be normative in society. In part their repudiation of the citizen's oath reflected this view, although they also insisted that Christ's prohibition about oath-taking should be taken literally. Similarly, many Anabaptists rejected participation in war, contending that it was contrary to the rule of Christ and usually a means of aggrandizement of states and rulers. Some Anabaptists, e.g., Balthasar Hubmaier, supported the right of military self-defense, and argued that the believer owed such service to society. Other Anabaptists, such as those at Münster, were prepared to use violence to achieve their goals. Most Anabaptists, however, followed the position taken by the Swiss Brethren and Menno Simons: Christ's call to a life of love and service was incompatible with participation in war. It was better to suffer than to kill.

Most reformers held to the just war theory, and regarded the resort to war as an appropriate response by the state to certain kinds of problems. It should be noted, however, that they usually (with the possible exception of Zwingli) did not condone aggressive war, or attempts to use the military crusade to gain religious goals. Both Luther and Calvin regarded the state as God's gracious gift to a world torn by evil; law and order must be maintained so that the work of the gospel might not be impaired. In the pursuit of that goal, the use of force, including warfare, was a valid option.

The Role of Clergy and Laity

Luther's emphasis on the priesthood of all believers came to be shared by most of Protestantism. Thus, the priest was no longer viewed as an essential intermediary between God and members of the church. Most Protestant reformers, however, continued to stress the necessity of maintaining a separate clergy, empowered to carry out the functions of the church. Some movements, such as Anglicanism, retained a rigidly hierarchical form of episcopal church government. The bishop (episcopos) ruled the church, and was also very closely tied to political structures. Calvin, on the other hand, stressed the necessity of sharing authority between clergy and laity. His "consistory," however, as a form of representative government, still fell short of the Anabaptist polity of congregational autonomy.

Protestants, such as Luther and Calvin, stressed the role of the preacher in spreading the new teachings. Anabaptists urged all members to become advocates of their beliefs.

For the Anabaptists, the difference between clergy and laity was de-emphasized, often obliterated. Some of the insistence on this equality may have stemmed from an anticlericalism that grew out of perceived abuses of the priestly office; on the other hand, Anabaptists tended to reject sacerdotalism, that is, an emphasis on the sanctity of the priesthood (from sacerdos, Latin for priest). Everyone should participate in the same way in the life of the church; a professional clergy was viewed with suspicion.

Anabaptists generally held that ministers should be selected by the members of the congregation, and that policies within the body should be decided by the entire membership. They thus rejected episcopal structures. It should be noted, however, that many Anabaptist congregations later chose authority figures, such as elders or bishops, and vested them with considerable power in the congregation.

The Church and Social Responsibility

Most reformers agreed that society bore a significant measure of responsibility for the well-being of those unable to care for themselves. At the same time, no one should presume on the generosity of someone else. Luther stressed the dignity of labor and the importance of one's calling, or vocation, to "secular" occupations. Similarly, Calvin held that each person's work should be viewed as a means of glorifying God. Many of the reformers also stressed the necessity of implementing popular education. Here the church played a major role; indeed, in the Europe of the Reformation, education continued to be the province of the church.

For the Anabaptists, however, the church held center stage both in social welfare and education. Anabaptists generally insisted that religious belief must find social expression. Members of the congregation were expected to help those in need (mutual aid). Failure to do so could bring expulsion from the congregation.

Some Anabaptists, most notably in Moravia, felt that there could not be a true community of spirit unless there was also a community of goods. Thus, they rejected private property. Economic possessions were given to the entire community, to be dispersed by stewards as needed. Court records of Anabaptists being prosecuted demonstrate that most reformers and political leaders regarded the practice of having community ownership of property as revolutionary and dangerous. It was not to be tolerated.

Anabaptists also stressed education in the home and in the congregation. Learning was often tied to religious goals. In this, Anabaptists shared a widespread characteristic of the Protestant Reformation. 

See also Atonement; Biblical Interpretation; Grace; Justification; Roman Catholic Church; Salvation


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Author(s) Peter J Klassen
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Klassen, Peter J. "Reformation, Protestant." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jul 2024.,_Protestant&oldid=128078.

APA style

Klassen, Peter J. (1989). Reformation, Protestant. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from,_Protestant&oldid=128078.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 750-753. All rights reserved.

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