Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History: Balthasar Hubmaier

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on B&H Academic Blog and is part of a series of theological biographies by Jason Duesing: Seven Summits Worth Climbing in Church History.

One man’s noise is another man’s symphony. Indeed, the sirens of Balthasar Hubmaier (1480?-1528) and the Anabaptists clamored in complete cacophony to Huldrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformer’s idea of a Magisterial Reformation. What is more, most of the historical tradition that followed until the twentieth century agreed with Zwingli that the Anabaptists were disorderly radicals of extreme dissonance. Yet, as William Estep argued, “Anabaptism might well be, outside the Reformation itself, the most influential movement the sixteenth century spawned” for “concepts such as religious liberty and its concomitant, the separation of church and state, may be directly traced to sixteenth century Anabaptism.” George Hunston Williams provided the most extensive treatment showing that not all sixteenth century Anabaptists were a part of a “program for violent destruction of Europe’s religious and social institutions.” Williams identified three groups of Anabaptists: revolutionary, contemplative, and evangelical—with the latter most theologically close to the Magisterial Reformers in terms of their doctrines of the sole authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone. In the doctrine of salvation and especially the doctrine of the church they differed, but never to the point of violence or mass social revolution. Among these evangelical Anabaptists, Balthasar Hubmaier emerged as the chief theologian and spokesman. 

One man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

Though born into the peasant class, Hubmaier grew to be called the “Doctor of Anabaptism” in recognition of his educational attainments under the famous Roman Catholic apologist, Eck of Ingolstadt. By the 1520s, the scholar-priest served the parish church in the town of Waldshut, on the South German border. He began there faithfully, as he had in all his other places of ministry, carrying out the Roman Catholic traditions and rituals with zeal. But, unknown to many, he also studied the Scriptures. The more he studied and conversed with those participating in the Swiss Reformation, Hubmaier realized he had been preaching for some years “yet had not known the way unto eternal life.” After his conversion, he took up both the preaching of the gospel and initiating reforms in his church following those in Zurich. Abandoning celibacy, he married Elizabeth Hügline, who became a sustaining and faithful compatriot. The rapid pace of change in Waldshut attracted the governing authorities and rather than harm his congregation, in late 1524, Hubmaier fled. During this time he wrote his influential pamphlet on religious liberty, Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them.

After some time passed, Hubmaier returned to Waldshut welcomed by great fanfare. He gave himself further to the study of Scripture and preaching the gospel. As a few disciples of Zwingli were separating from the Zurich reform movement over the doctrine of infant baptism in 1525, Hubmaier began questioning the doctrine’s biblical foundation. On the Saturday before Easter, Hubmaier submitted to believer’s baptism (by effusion not immersion) by a colleague of the former Zwinglian group. Now both Reformer and an Anabaptist, Hubmaier’s days again were numbered in Waldshut and again he left. On the run toward Zurich, he was arrested by Zwingli and after considerable interrogation, Hubmaier recanted his Anabaptist convictions. After his confession, the free, though humiliated, Humbaier traveled with his only companion, Elizabeth, to the more tolerant Moravia.

Regaining his courage and strength, Hubmaier took up his pen and wrote somewhere near seventeen tracts or pamphlets reasserting his Anabaptist convictions in matters relating to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline. He also published Freedom of the Will, which articulated his distance from the Reformed theological tradition on the doctrine of salvation. Hubmaier’s theology emphasized the Christian life as one of consistent discipleship, and while most evangelical Anabaptists pursued pacifism, Hubmaier argued for a place for governmental use of the “sword” and supported Christians serving in places of civil authority. The agents of King Ferdinand I apprehended Hubmaier and his wife in August 1527. Held in prison in Vienna until spring, Hubmaier endured trial and torture but refused to recant. Led to a pile of wood, the authorities rubbed gunpowder in his beard for explosive effect. As the fire was lit, he called out, “O my Heavenly Father! O my gracious God!”

Hubmaier’s theology emphasized the Christian life as one of consistent discipleship.

Balthasar Hubmaier’s Concerning Heretics pamphlet, though written before he joined the evangelical Anabaptists, served to build a foundation upon which the Anabaptist movement later advanced their belief in the separation of the state from the church. The true “heretics” were those who “wickedly oppose the Holy Scriptures,” and these “inquisitors” condemned and executed any who chose the Bible over the church. For Hubmaier, the issue was that true faith cannot be coerced. He stated, “A Turk or a heretic is not convinced by our act, either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer.” Hubmaier defended the existence of the state to put “to death the criminals who injure the bodies of the defenseless (Rom 13:3, 4),” but advocacy and enforcement of “a law to burn heretics is an invention of the devil.” In Hubmaier’s Europe, a person found to hold a view contradictory to the Roman Church was first given the opportunity to recant. However, if he persisted in his view, he was condemned by the church and then handed over to the state for execution. Hubmaier countered this practice by reminding that the sword of the church is the “Word of God,” not a physical weapon that wounds. Neither the attempt to coerce faith nor to execute those who deny the faith are functions of a New Testament church in any society. Hubmaier and his evangelical Anabaptists foresaw, beyond their own lifetimes, that the defense of every citizen’s right to pursue what they believe or do not believe only exists when the church operates independent of the state. For the Anabaptists and later evangelicals, the defense of this civil right ensures the proclamation of the gospel for all either to accept or reject freely, without coercion. Further, it prevents the state from using it’s sword of civil protection for matters of the soul and Spirit.

While some may still consider Balthasar Hubmaier mere dissonant noise of little value and continue to hear the Anabaptists through the overtures of Münster radicalism, a reexamination of Hubmaier can reveal a theological harmony with contemporary evangelicals—especially those rediscovering the vital doctrine of religious liberty. What might have been pestering noise to many living in the comforts of late twentieth century cultural evangelicalism, may prove to be an inspiring symphony for those seeking to survive the cultural restrictions of the twenty-first. One man’s noise is another man’s symphony.

Further Reading:

  • William R. Estep, Jr. The Anabaptist Story. 3rd rev. ed. Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Johann Loserth and William R. Estep, Jr. “Hubmaier, Balthasar (1480?-1528).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1990.
  • H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism. Herald Press, 1989.
  • Malcolm Yarnell, ed. The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity. Essays in Honor of Paige Patterson. B&H Academic, forthcoming, 2013.