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The Extraordinary Awakening: Why We Celebrate Radical Reformation Day

On Jan. 30-31, 2012, Southwestern Seminary will host the Anabaptism & Contemporary Baptists Conference, featuring guest speakers Abraham Friesen, Rick Warren, and others. For more information and to register, visit www.swbts.edu/anabaptist.

Radical Reformation Day? Absolutely! But isn’t Reformation Day enough? Absolutely not! While Southwestern Seminary continues to celebrate the biblical progress made during the Protestant Reformation with Reformation Day on October 31, we are compelled to honor the recovery of New Testament Christianity with Radical Reformation Day on January 21. On this day in 1525, after an extended period of intense Bible study in the original languages, a period described by an early chronicler as an “extraordinary awakening and preparation by God,”[1] the first Anabaptists or “Brothers,” as they called themselves, recovered the New Testament practice of baptizing only believers.

The celebration of the earliest recorded restitution of believers’ baptism raises some important questions: First, what was the impetus for this “Extraordinary Awakening,” an awakening which occurred over two centuries before the “Great Awakening” of more recent fame? Second, what were the characteristic beliefs during this Extraordinary Awakening? Third, who were some of the leading figures in the Extraordinary Awakening, which formed a major part of the Radical Reformation? Finally, what were the results of the Extraordinary Awakening?

Study and Yielding to the Word of God

First, the impetus for the Extraordinary Awakening came with the serious study of and God-given desire to yield to the Word of God. Caspar Braitmichel, a contributor to the Chronicle from which our knowledge of this seminal event derives, noted that Conrad Grebel and Felix Mantz joined with Ulrich Zwingli in examining Scripture. All three were “much experienced and men learned” in both modern and biblical languages. They “came together and began to talk through matters of belief among themselves.” In the midst of their congregational exegesis of Scripture, they “recognized that infant baptism is unnecessary and recognized further that it is in fact no baptism.” (While Zwingli agreed at the time with the Anabaptists, he refused to go with them in actually obeying Jesus’ command to baptize only believers. Zwingli, worried about the social and political implications, “shuddered before Christ’s cross.”) In other words, the compulsion for the Anabaptist recovery of believers’ baptism arose from their careful reading of the Greek New Testament alongside their Spirit-given willingness to follow Christ’s commands entirely. The Reformed refused to follow the Radically Reformed in such reckless regard to obey Jesus Christ.

Characteristic Beliefs

Second, the characteristic beliefs of these early Anabaptists were described in one long sentence. “They came to one mind in these things, and in the pure fear of God they recognized that a person must learn from the divine Word and preaching a true faith which manifests itself in love, and receive the true Christian baptism on the basis of the recognized and confessed faith, in the union with God of a good conscience, henceforth to serve God in a holy Christian life with all godliness, also to be steadfast to the end in tribulation.” Many characteristic beliefs of the evangelical Anabaptists are summarized here:

  • They believed in the necessity of hearing the Word of God preached; the early Anabaptists were Biblicists in the best sense of the term.
  • They believed that the best interpretations of Scripture occurred when the regenerate congregation carefully considered (“came to one mind” about) what was preached; the early Anabaptists were congregational.
  • They believed salvation was by grace through divine activity, for God produced in them an overwhelming “fear” to believe and obey Christ Jesus in all things; the early Anabaptists were not merely evangelical but thoroughly evangelical.
  • They believed salvation must be personally appropriated in “true faith” through one’s own “conscience”; the early Anabaptists held persons responsible before God for their own spiritual welfare.
  • They believed Christ gave baptism to the church, which must recognize a “confessed” faith in a new believer before granting baptism; the early Anabaptists were thus “baptist” in their church life.
  • They believed that true faith “manifests itself in love,” and the saved person should seek “to serve God in a holy Christian life with all godliness”; the early Anabaptists denied the contrasting errors of antinomianism and perfectionism.
  • Finally, they believed they were living in troubled times in “the end” and therefore must carry the cross to witness to everyone; the early Anabaptists held to a unique fusion of evangelistic fervor, eschatological realism, and a cross-centered piety.

Early Anabaptist Leaders

Third, the early Anabaptist leaders included George Blaurock, a gregarious preacher, who was the first to ask for New Testament baptism. Another was Conrad Grebel, a member of Zurich’s aristocracy, who baptized Blaurock and went on to become a leading evangelist of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A third was Felix Mantz, who was drowned at Zurich by the magistrates under Zwingli (on January 25, 1527). Mantz became the first Anabaptist martyr when he would not deny his true faith in Jesus Christ and would not renounce His Great Commission, which commands both the universal making of disciples and believers-only baptism. Blaurock and Mantz were martyred for their faith and Grebel went on to die while being hounded from place to place for preaching the gospel. During these early years, the number of Anabaptist martyrs increased into the thousands. Their precious blood was shed both by the Roman Catholics and the Reformed, but God honored their faithful witness. Braitmichel concluded, “Thus did it [the movement] spread through persecution and much tribulation.”

Results of the Extraordinary Awakening

Finally, what were the results of the Extraordinary Awakening, which most scholars believe occurred on January 21, 1525? Well, as noted, the New Testament faith spread like wildfire in spite of the oppressive methods of the Roman and Reformed state-churches. Part of their success was due to the fact that the Anabaptists established the first mission-sending agency in August 1527 at “The Martyrs’ Synod,” so called because many of their missionaries were drowned or burned at the stake, even as they continued to baptize thousands upon thousands of new believers. For us, today, perhaps the most relevant doctrinal result of the Extraordinary Awakening was the fact that the cherished beliefs which we call “Baptist identity”—such as utter devotion to Jesus as the only Lord of the church, believers-only baptism, congregationalism, and the separation of church and state—received their first definition at this time. Our Baptist identity, which we too often take for granted, received its first expression in the New Testament church and its first modern awakening during the Anabaptist portion of the Radical Reformation. Honoring the Anabaptists’ devotion to restoring Jesus Christ as the only Lord of His church, who revealed His will for us in the New Testament, is why we celebrate Radical Reformation Day.


[1] Beginning in the sixteenth century, Hutterite leaders compiled the Great Chronicle from original records gathered over many years. The quotations cited in the present essay come from the translation in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), pp. 41-46. For more detail on the rise of the Anabaptists, see William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

 

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Malcolm Yarnell

Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Oxford Study Program, Director of the Center for Theological Research, and Chair of the Systematic Theology Department

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