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1959 Article


Restitution, a term said to derive from a concept of early canonical law, restitutio in integrum, meaning the restoration (of some institution) to its original state. Further back the term points to the still better known New Testament use in Acts 3:21, where it denotes "the restoration of all things" (apocatastasis panton, in the Vulgate restitutio omnium) on the Day of the Lord. The 16th-century Anabaptists understood the term restitutio primarily in the sense of a restoration of the church to its former position, from which it had fallen under the Emperor Constantine the Great (A.D. 313) when state and church had become allied and later fully unified, thus belying the original meaning of the idea of the church. The idea of restoration or restitution then assumed a twofold meaning. (1) It meant an immediate concrete attempt at actual restoring the primitive church, something which the state churches would consider either heresy (Ketzerei) or sectarianism (Abspaltung), and consequently would persecute as a threat to peace. On the other hand, those who advocated such restitution would consider their new beginnings the true church, which must needs be separated from the "world" and be nonconformist to it, while the depraved "world" had to be left to its unhappy destiny. Some modern authors speak in this connection of these people as "restitutionists" and also of a "restitutionist movement" (2) Restitution could also mean a sort of dream or romantic hope that the true church will one day, most likely soon, be restored again by divine fiat, implying that secular history will then come to its final end. Such a view represents a stronger apocalyptic interpretation of history, going back in the main to the vision (and periodization of history) of the Abbot Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1200), and continued in the age of Reformation by a number of eschatologically oriented persons such as Melchior Hoffman, David Joris, and Michael Servetus.

The study of the entire attitude toward "restitution" and its meaning owes a substantial debt to some American church historians (Bainton, Littell, Wray, etc.), although the facts as such have long been known also among European historians of the period. Attention has been drawn to the fact that a considerable number of 16th-century books and tracts bear the term restitutio on their title page or use it otherwise as a reading concept in the text itself. Karl Rembert was perhaps the first to discover this idea in Anabaptism (1899); it was discussed in a more general fashion by K. Borinski (1919) and J. Huizinga (1930) without connecting the ideas too closely with Anabaptism. It has also been recognized that the idea of restitution is always intertwined with the idea of the fall of the true church (see e.g., G. J. Heering, De Zondeval van het Christendom, 1928) and is a part of a general outlook which A. Lovejoy aptly termed "Christian primitivism" (1935).

The Main Works Witnessing to This Trend and the Subsequent Polemics Connected with These Books

The first work here to be considered is that by Johannes Campanus, Göttlicher und heylliger Schrifft vor vilen jaren verdunckelt und durch unheylsame leer und leerer ... verfinstert-restitutio und besserung ... (1532) (Restoration and Reformation of Divine and Holy Scriptures, Darkened and Obscured by Unwholesome Teachings and Teachers Many Years ago, ...). This work is actually a shortened edition of his (now lost) work Contra totum post apostolos mundum (for contents see Campanus). It was soon widely read and became influential for the "Wassenberger preachers," Henrik Rol, and others who in turn influenced Bernhard Rothmann, one of the promoters of the New Jerusalem to be erected in the city of Münster.

Rothmann treats the idea of restitution in two works: first in his Bekenntnis van den beyden Sacramenten (1533) and then in his more elaborate work, Eyne Restitution edder Eine wedderstellinge rechter vnnde gesunder Christliker leer, gelouens vnde leuens vth Gades genaden durch de gemeinte Christi tho Munster an den dach gegeuenn (1534) (A Restitution or Restoration of Sound Doctrine, Faith and Life Brought to Light out of God's Grace by the Church of Christ at Münster). This is an extensive defense of the principles and institutions of the Anabaptist "kingdom" in Münster. It teaches that just as the Jews restored their temple after their return from Babylonian exile, so also the true "Israelites" today must now restore the kingdom and eliminate the pagans and unbelievers. Rothmann took his ideas so seriously that he did not hesitate to send a copy of his book to Philipp of Hesse, known as an open-minded and tolerant Christian ruler. Philipp took a critical look at this strange book, and with the help of two court theologians, Corvinus and Lenning, he came to the conclusion that it contains teachings which "began well but ended rather badly." In 1536 Rothmann's book was also critically answered by the Lutheran polemicist Urban Rhegius in a pamphlet, De restitutione regni Israelitici, contra omnes omnium seculorum chiliastes. Also Dirk Philips felt urged to answer the book, opposing Rothmann's idea of establishing the "kingdom" by way of the sword. Since the kingdom is a spiritual one, says Philips, it cannot be restored in any other way than by that which the Dutch brethren have chosen. This is the leading idea of Philips' Van de geestelijcke restitution, dat is hoe dat al wat van de beginne gheschiet is, in Christo Jesu geestelijck vervult, weder gehaelt ende weder gebracht (Spiritual Restitution, that is: Christ Jesus has Spiritually Fulfilled, Restored and Made Restitution for All Things that Were Done from the Beginning). This pamphlet shows that the Dutch Anabaptists were by and large rather cool to the idea of "restitution." To them discipleship and obedience to the divine commands were more central than restitutionism, even though some elements of it also appear in their thinking.

Other men of the 16th century who dealt with this idea follow: Hendrik Niclaes, a native of Münster, who established the "House of Love" somewhere around the middle of the century, speaks of the restitution of "original complete justice" (erste vollkommene Gerechtigkeit). Wilhelm Postell, the former Catholic mystic and enthusiast, likewise uses this idea prominently in his rather abstruse Panthenosia (1547). David Joris, who calls the fourth part of his famous 'T Wonderboek (1542 and 1551): Dat vierde deel, daer die restitutio oder wederbrenginghe Christi ... gheopenbaerdt werdt (Fourth Part in Which the Restitution or Restoration of Christ is Revealed). Joris and Niclaes knew each other quite well and carried on a brief literary dispute. The last name to be noted is a man of a very different type of vision—the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus, Calvin's famous victim at Geneva. In 1553 he published his Restitutio Christianisme, in which he (Völker in Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart) "dissolves rationalistically the doctrine of the church . . . in order to reveal Christ as the mediator of a spiritualized transcendental kind of life, to which adult baptism was to open the way." This pneumatic Christianity then was to represent the true and genuine "restitution" of the original (invisible) church. -- Christian Neff, Ernst Crous, Robert Friedmann

The Meaning and Significance of This Idea for the Radical Wing of the Reformation

Following the lead of Roland H. Bainton (1936), Franklin H. Littell and Frank J. Wray have developed the thesis that the idea of restitution of the true church, whether sectarian realization or eschatological dream, was the real tie which bound together Anabaptists and Spiritualists, Schwenckfelders and Polish Brethren (anti-Trinitarians). (Leonard Verduin in a yet unpublished study calls them all "restitutionists," where Bainton would have applied the term "Anabaptists" generically. See Radical Reformation and Anabaptist, Sixteenth Century Usage.) Characteristic of all was their antagonism to secular culture, which they judged corrupt and decadent, and also their expectation of the imminent triumph of the true church here on earth (Littell). "History in the eyes of sixteenth-century Anabaptists" (Wray) appears then as a tripartite affair: fall, redemption, restitution, whereby between redemption and restitution two more periods have to be inserted: a temporary fall in the days of Constantine, and a temporary restitution by true believers which continues until the Day of the Lord. (Rothmann, however, taught a number of successive falls and restitutions.) These true believers, among themselves called brethren and by their opponents called heretics or sectarians, are then a sort of trustee of this true church until the day when all the world will be redeemed and the true restitution (Acts 3:21) will come to pass. This was the idea of David Joris as much as of Sebastian Franck or, in due distance, of Michael Servetus. Whether or not it was also the idea of the evangelical Anabaptists is still an open question. To all of these men the great church history of Eusebius was a very welcome tool, undergirding their vision by an old and accepted authority, while the more radical spiritualists and millennialists liked to refer to Joachim of Fiore and his work.

Franklin H. Littell, who devotes an entire chapter in his Anabaptist View of the Church to this idea of restitution, and another to the idea of the fall, defines Anabaptism proper as that section of the "Left Wing of the Reformation" which gathered and disciplined a true church upon an apostolic pattern (50). He expressly says that the Anabaptists were pledged "to relive in studied fashion" the life of the New Testament community in all of its phases. The term "biblicism" is therefore not specific enough, and this type of life should rather be called "Christian primitivism," that is, a restitution grounded in the New Testament. This restitution follows a very definite pattern to which belong believers' baptism, spiritual government (ban, shunning, shepherds, deacons, etc.), the practice of community of goods in some form, nonresistance and non-swearing of oaths, the great commission (missioners being called apostles or Sendboten), the Lord's Supper as a testimonial sign of true fellowship in the Lord, etc. These people also became the earliest champions of the "free church" idea and of freedom of conscience in matters of faith (toleration, Christian voluntarism). Simplicity and purity of life were understood as undisputed external forms of such a church (in which life and worship become one). Also pacifism in the sense of nonresistance and absolute non-sword-bearing belong to the picture as a whole.

Frank J. Wray elaborates still further on this idea in his dissertation "The Anabaptist View of History," calling restitution the "fundamental concept among Anabaptists," using the term in the broader sense developed by Bainton, which, however, is not generally accepted by Mennonite scholars. After discussing the close ties between restitutionism and eschatological vision (Hoffman, Rothmann, etc.), Wray concludes, "Although the radical fringe connected the restitution with the Day of the Lord more closely than did the main stream of Anabaptists, setting a definite date, Anabaptists in general believed that the restitution was a prelude to greater things to come." And again, "The term was used more frequently by those on the fringe of Anabaptism than by the representatives of the main stream of the movement." These are significant restrictions to the general thesis discussed above, but we will presently see that even under this new aspect the thesis is still open to debate, stimulating though it is in the endeavor of an understanding of the essence of Anabaptism.

In his essay "Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism" (1955) Robert Friedmann tried to analyze this thesis of Bainton, Littell, and Wray as far as the evangelical Anabaptists were concerned. Does restitution mean that the Anabaptists actually and consciously planned such a (historic) restoration as two millenniums earlier the Israelites had planned the rebuilding of their temple (Rothmann) ? Does it mean a historic consciousness, an emulation of earlier patterns? If attitudes are considered (as they are in this context), it should be said that what actually concerned the brethren was not such an historic re-establishment of something previously lost but rather obedience to the divine will without reservation (see Reason and Obedience). Obedience is another term for discipleship, something extremely non-historical, and certainly it does not mean a "return" at all. Furthermore, many Anabaptists of the first generation were most emphatic with regard to the idea that what they were really striving after was nothing but a continuation of the true apostolic church. "We are not wrong," wrote Pilgram Marpeck in 1545 (Verantwortung, 405), "in wishing to consider our church in Christ equal to the first apostolic church." Ludwig Keller wrote in this connection of the invisible continuity of "old-evangelical brotherhoods." In other words, the opinion prevailed that the true church was never lost but existed as a timeless and perennial community of believers both before and after Constantine. From an interpretation of Anabaptism as discipleship (see Anabaptist, Modern interpretation), it follows that restitution has too strong a historical connotation to fit a description of the Anabaptist genius. The books enumerated above seem to indicate that the term was significant only to some fringe figures of the Age of Reformation, who dreamed of restitution or attempted its realization in Münsterite fashion. The larger body of evangelical Anabaptists (Swiss, Dutch, Austrian), however, did not have too much use for it, all the quotations in recent literature notwithstanding.

To clarify the situation still further, it might be useful to quote an unpublished remark by Bainton in a letter to this writer (1953): "The ideal of restitution or restoration was common in the Age of Reformation, and all parties desired to restore something. The difference was only as to what, and as to how far back one would go. Luther wished to restore the church of the early Middle Ages, since for him the great corruption [of the church] was the rise of the temporal power of the papacy in the eighth century. The Anabaptists went back further than any of the other groups, and turned exclusively to the New Testament. Even within the New Testament they tended to neglect Paul and to push back to Jesus. That is why the ideal of restoration tends to coincide with the ideal of the imitation of Christ." -- Robert Friedmann

1990 Update

Restitutionism was not only an important category in Anabaptist self-understanding, but has remained so throughout Mennonite history. Mennonite renewal movements from the Kleine Gemeinde through the Mennonite Brethren and the Church of God in Christ Mennonite, to the house church movement, the intentional communities, and the Concern Pamphlets movement after World War II all bear the mark of a search for a pristine church before it "fell" into apostasy or error. Menno Simons recognized that the introduction of infant baptism and some of the other aspects of Catholicism he rejected had occurred long before Constantine (306-37), and that the "fall of the church" would need to be placed soon after the deaths of the apostles, if not during their lifetimes (Menno, Writings, 279-80). In more recent decades the "Constantinian Fall" of the church has been the most common rallying point for Mennonite restitutionism. This is evident in much contemporary Mennonite peace and sociopolitical activism as well as Old Testament studies of kingship and prophets, Mennonite feminism, and the Mennonite charismatic renewal. In contrast, the neo-Hutterian movement led by Eberhard Arnold, which bore many of the marks of classic restitutionism throughout much of its history, has in the last two decades begun to establish a traditional theology and culture similar to much of Hutterite, Amish, and Mennonite history. It thus appears to be making the transition from restitutionism to second-generation institutional and traditional Christianity. Additional aspects of the Anabaptist and Mennonite understanding of history and tradition are covered in articles on those subjects. -- Dennis D. Martin


In addition to suggestions for further reading listed under other articles designated history and other articles linked in the article see:

Bainton, Roland H. "Changing Ideas and Ideals in the Sixteenth Century." The Journal of Modern History 8 (1936): 428 ff.

Borinski, K. "Die Weltwiedergeburtsidee in der neueren Zeit." Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-Historische Abteilung (1919).

Bouterwek, Karl Wilhelm. Zur Literatur und Geschichte der Wiedertäufer: besonders in den Rheinlanden. Bonn : Adolf Marcus, [1864].

Braune, Ernst. Die Stellung der hessischen Geistlichen zu den kirchenpolitischen Fragen der Reformationszeit. Marburg: Joh. Hamel, 1932: Chapter I: "Hessische Geistlichkeit im Kampfe gegen die Wiedertäufer von Münster"

The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956.

Cramer, Samuel and Fredrik Pijper. Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, 10 vols. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1903-1914: V, 504, 559-564.

Eggers, Wolfgang. Community for Life. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988: esp. 252-265.

Franz, Günther. Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte II. Marburg, 1954: 214-224.

Friedmann, Robert. "Recent Interpretations of Anabaptism." Church History 24 (1955):132-151, particularly 137.

Harder, Johannes (interview). " Ketterij als motor van de kerkgeschiedenis." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.r. 8 (1982): 84-87.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 476 f.

Hughes, Richard T. "A Comparison of the Restitution Motifs of the Campbells (1809-1830) and the Anabaptists (1524-1560)." Mennonite Quarterly Review 45 (1971): 312-329.

Huizinga, Johan. Wege der Kulturgeschichte. München : Drei Masken, 1930: 124-127.

Keller, Ludwig. Geschichte der Wiedertäufer und ihres Reiches zu Münster. Münster, 1880: 149-151.

Kreider, Alan. Journey Toward Holiness. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987.

Littell, Franklin H. The Anabaptist View of the Church. American Society of Church History, 1952: Chapters 3 and 4.

Martin, Dennis D. "Nothing New Under the Sun?: Mennonites and History." Conrad Grebel Review 5 (1987): 1-27.

Oosterbaan, J. A. "De reformatie der Reformatie: Grondslagen van de doperse theologie." Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.r. 2  (1976): 36-61, translated in Mennonite Quarterly Review 51 (1977): 171-195.

Oyer, John S., transcriber and translator. "The Pfeddersheim Disputation of 1557." Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (1986): 304-351.

Peachey, Paul. "The Challenge of Europe." Mennonite (10 April 1951): 236-51, 253.

Ramseyer, Robert L. "The Revitalization Theory Applied to Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 44 (1970): 159-180.

Rembert, Karl. Die "Wiedertäufer" im Herzogtum Jülich. Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899: 241ff.

Wenger, J. C. Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine, 2nd ed. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Pub. House, 1947: 1-11.

Wray, Frank J. "The Anabaptist Doctrine of Restitution of the Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 28 (1954): 186-196 (this essay is a chapter of the unpublished Yale doctoral dissertation, 1953, "History in the Eyes of the Sixteenth Century Anabaptists").

Yoder, John H. "The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision." Concern, pamphlet no. 18 (July 1971).

Leonard Verduin's book on the "Restitutionist Movement" has not yet been published; BRN V, 504, 559-64; ML III, 476 f.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Ernst Crous
Robert Friedmann
Dennis D. Martin
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Neff, Christian, Ernst Crous, Robert Friedmann and Dennis D. Martin. "Restitutionism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 12 Apr 2024.

APA style

Neff, Christian, Ernst Crous, Robert Friedmann and Dennis D. Martin. (1990). Restitutionism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 302-304; vol. 5, p. 768. All rights reserved.

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