Anabaptist historian defends church-state separation

FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – As evidenced by the 16th-century Reformation, secular authorities can have an alarming influence over the development of the church, renowned Reformation and Anabaptist historian Abraham Friesen said during the Day-Higginbotham lectures at Southwestern Seminary, Feb. 7-8.

“I need not tell you that there are forces abroad today in these United States that would once more attempt to break down the wall of separation between church and state,” Friesen said. “And, as I very often admonished my own students, (I admonish you) to be vigilant in the defense of the separation of church and state.”

Friesen made this statement during his second presentation in a three-part lecture series, titled “Radically Christian: A Study of Sixteenth Century Anabaptism.” He pointed out that Anabaptists saw themselves as carrying out the implications of the early writings of the magisterial reformers, such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. The Anabaptists insisted that these reformers had departed from their early, biblically-based teachings, turning to the use of deductive reasoning and the Old Testament to justify their changed views.

This deductive reasoning—that is, moving from a major theological premise to the interpretation of Scripture—was contrary to the fundamental Reformation principle of Scriptura sola (Scripture alone). After all, the doctrine of scriptural authority required inductive reasoning, building theological principles upon biblical interpretation. Friesen explained in his first lecture that the magisterial reformers inherited the doctrine of Scriptura sola, with its requirement of inductive reasoning, from the fourth-century theologian Augustine. Ironically, they also inherited deductive reasoning from Augustine by adopting his doctrine of the universality of the church and his interpretation of Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares.

In his fourth-century debate with the Donatists, Augustine interpreted Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30) to mean that unbelievers (tares) would exist alongside believers (wheat) within the church (field). Additionally, these unbelievers would finally be removed from the church at the end of the ages. The Donatists, in return, pointed out that Jesus himself had interpreted this parable (Matt. 13:36-43), explaining that the field was not the church, but the world. Augustine answered this critique by pointing out that the church covered the whole world, and the parable therefore applied to the church.

This interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares, Friesen said, “had been occasioned by the growing universality of the church.” It was an example of deductive reasoning, and the magisterial reformers employed Augustine’s interpretation to meet the challenges of Anabaptists who were pushing for believer’s baptism and a regenerate church membership. In so doing, they abandoned the solely scriptural basis for their doctrines, instead depending on theological principles that allowed them to interpret Scripture to support their views.

According to Friesen, this inconsistency among the magisterial reformers was symptomatic of a larger issue, namely church-state relations. The Nuremburg Diet of March 1523, he argued, gave secular authorities power to direct the Reformation, creating a problem for the reformers. At the Diet, these civil leaders authorized the preaching of the Gospel, but they prohibited any change of the church’s ceremonies, even though these practices contradicted the message of the reformers.

“Political intervention in the early years of the Reformation transformed the entire movement and forced the reformers either to revise their early positions or face, like the Anabaptists, a future filled with persecution,” Friesen said. The magisterial reformers opted to submit to secular authorities. Therefore, they had to justify church practices, such as infant baptism, through the use of deductive reasoning and an increased dependence on the Old Testament.

In his final lecture, Friesen argued that the revolutionary spirit exhibited in radical Anabaptists like Thomas Müntzer and Melchior Hoffman did not originate from within the Anabaptist movement.

“Peaceful Anabaptists opposed the use of the sword, not only for offensive but also for defensive purposes, suffering martyrdom because of it,” Friesen said. “What is more, as we hope to demonstrate, the ideology behind the revolutionary tendencies amongst the radicals did not come from within the Anabaptist movement, but were imported from the outside, coming directly from the greatest Western Church Father, Augustine himself.”

A millennium after Augustine’s death, his interpretation of Christ’s parable of the wheat and tares, combined with a growing sense that the end of the world was at hand, came back to “haunt the Christian world.” In Augustine’s interpretation of the parable, unbelievers would remain in the church until God’s servants removed them at the end of the ages. With visions of the immanent end of the world, some Anabaptists took it into their own hands to be God’s servants, purifying the church by use of the sword. Many prominent Anabaptist leaders, however, opposed this revolutionary spirit, along with the Augustinian interpretation of Christ’s parable, from the beginning.

Friesen served since 1967 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he is professor of history emeritus. He has written many books and articles on Reformation and Anabaptist history, including his recent History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition and Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission.

Audio files of the 2008 Day-Higginbotham lectures may be accessed on Southwestern Seminary’s web site at www.swbts.edu/lectures.

About Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Southwestern Seminary celebrates its centennial in 2008. Since its founding, the seminary has trained and sent out over 40,000 graduates to serve in local churches and mission fields around the world. In 1908, B.H. Carroll established the seminary on the campus of Baylor University. It was moved to its current location on Seminary Hill in Fort Worth in 1910 and was placed under the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925. Paige Patterson was elected as the eighth president of the seminary in 2003.

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Dr. Thomas White, Vice President for Student Services and Communications
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
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