From now on this blog is a part of the MennoNerds network, a bunch of bloggers (or nerds) who like Anabaptism. Ana-what? Anabaptism, the grandmother of the Baptist, Pentecostal and a bunch of other movements, which was and is characterized by pacifism, economic equality and radical theology. While I’m not a part of an Anabaptist church (they simply don’t exist (yet) in Sweden), I was involved in forming the Anabaptist Network of Scandinavia, and together with my friend Andrew Meakins I’m administrating a facebook page called Charismatic Holiness Anabaptist Theology.
While several modern-day Anabaptists eagerly seek miracles and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, there still are many who don’t. Not necessarily because they don’t believe in miracles but rather that they believe it isn’t part of their tradition. But it is. In 1995, Stuart Murray, one of the leading Anabaptist theologians in Europe, wrote this article about the early Anabaptists’ view on spiritual gifts. Here is an excerpt:
Anabaptism as a Charismatic Movement: Diverse Phenomena in Early Decades
What would sixteenth-century Anabaptists have made of the “Toronto Blessing” that has impacted many churches in Great Britain in recent months? How did the Radical Reformers respond to such spiritual phenomena’? The charismatic aspect of Anabaptism has not received much attention from historians, but evidence of spiritual phenomena in early Anabaptist groups is substantial. Some welcomed manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while others were wary and attempted to regulate or discourage such expressions. Basic to the Anabaptist view of charismatic gifts, however, was a belief that a transformed life was the true measure and sign of Holy Spirit presence.
For Dirk Philips, the Spirit had a vital role as agent of regeneration. The Spirit writes the new convenant on the hearts of believers and enables them to participate in the divine nature. The Spirit is the earthly presence of Jesus, empowering ministers called by God and helping believers interpret the Scripture. Anabaptists equated “baptism in the Spirit” with conversion, but expected more to happen experientially than did the Reformers. The radicals were not satisfied with forensic ideas of grace, typified by the legal terminology of “justification by faith”. Rather, they saw grace as “the inner light that directed a life of righteousness “.
Hans Hut, the must successful evangelist of first generation Anabaptism, often relied on prophetic dreams and visions, Melchior Huffmann, who introduced Anabaptism to the Netherlands, encouraged the exercise of charismatic gifts and valued the prophetic ministries of both male and female colleagues. Later Dutch leaders, such as Menno Simons and Dirk Phillips, were more wary of reliance on visions. Perhaps this was because “revelations” played a significant part in the Munster catastrophe (1534-35), when an Anabaptist faction gained control of a city government in Germany and inaugurated practices such as polygamy and holy war. But even the later Dutch leaders accepted charismatic gifts to the extent that they were authenticated by Scripture.
Jacob Hutter (from whom the Hutterite movement takes its name) claimed a miraculous dimension to his ministry as authentication of his calling. The Hutterite Chronicle contains several accounts of miraculous events. Among other Anabaptist examples of charismatic expression were the “prophetic processions” (at Zurich in 1525, at Munster in 1534 and at Amsterdam in 1535). The Martyrs’ Mirror mentions a martyr named Martin whom authorities led across a bridge to execution in 1531 He prophesied, “this once yet the pious are led over this bridge, but no more hereafter.” Just “a short time afterwards such a violent storm and flood came that the bridge was demolished”. In Germany some Anabaptists, “excited by mass hysteria, experienced healings, glossolalia, contortions and other manifestations of a camp-meeting revival”.
Pilgram Marpeck rejected the belief that miracles were restricted to the early church, and assured readers miracles still were occurring. He referred to several Anabaptists who had gone joyfully to martyrdom “through the abundant comfort and power of the Holy Spirit”. He makes the astonishing statement that “moreover, one also marvels when one sees how the faithful God (who, after all, overflows with goodness) raises from the dead several such brothers and sisters of Christ after they were hanged, drowned or killed in other ways… Even today, they are found alive and we can hear their own testimony.” Marpeck said these things occurred “among those who are powerfully moved and driven by the living Word of God and the Spirit of Christ”.
Early Anabaptists certainly were acquainted with phenomena like the “Toronto Blessing”. Indeed, there are reports from some sixteenth-century radical groups of practices as bizarre as anything reported in recent months – including adults playing with toys as a sign that they were “becoming as children”, nude processions, and bodily contortions.
Reactions among Anabaptists probably would have been as divided in the sixteenth century as modern responses seem to he. Perhaps the questions their more discerning leaders asked in relation to contemporary phenomena are still helpful: What are the ethical results of spiritual experiences? How is the authority of the written Word maintained alongside activity of the Spirit?
It was the focus on ethical renewal, including a commitment to nonviolence, costly economic sharing, and truth-telling that prevented the Anabapti s ts from getting hung up on spiritual phenomena for their own sake. Pilgram Marpeck insisted, “Christ bids us to recognise prophets not by miraculous signs but by their fruits.” And it was the ability of leaders like Menno Simons and Pilgram Marpeck to hold in creative tension the Word and the Spirit that ensured their churches were built on secure foundations as well as being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Not all Anabaptist groups managed to maintain this tension: some slipped into spiritualism, many more into a wooden literalism where the work of the Spirit was quenched. Similar dangers continue to confront the church 450 years later.
Stuart Murray wrote his doctoral thesis an Anabaptist hermeneutics. He teaches evangelism and church planting at Spurgeon’s College in South London.