Sunday, June 14, 2009

More than Martin Luther

Although I haven’t studied it thoroughly, I find the era of the “Radical Reformation” to be pretty interesting. It doesn’t get a lot of attention compared to the “Magisterial Reformation” led by men like Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. Not many people know who Menno Simons is or Jacob Hutter or Conrad Grabel. As a rule, we are pretty ignorant of large swaths of our history in the church, almost as if we went from October 31, 1517 and jumped right into the current denominational structure we see today. But the Radical Reformation really took what the “Magisterial Reformers” started and went to a whole new level. In some ways that was very bad but in other ways it was (and is) sorely needed.

The Radical Reformers went beyond merely trying to "reform" the existing church and pretty much just chucked the whole thing. Given the state of Rome at the time, that is understandable. As these men shed tradition and turned to the Word, they found all sorts of issues to be outside of what was taught in Scripture, from an unhealthy laity-clergy distinction to infant baptism which led to many Radical Reformers being biblically baptized as believers and a lot of them subsequently paid for that action with their life, lives taken at the hands of both Roman Catholics and fellow Protestants.

So here is the problem. As the Radical Reformers broke away from centralized authority and sought their own way, inevitably many went so far afield that they wandered into error and outright heresy. For all of the quite orthodox men who led the early Radical Reformation, there were also plenty of heretics and kooks, men like Servetus and the “Zwickau prophets”. Freed from institutionalization of the church, some took that liberty and engaged in all manner of crass and immoral behavior like the libertines or abandoned core doctrines of the faith like the Trinity. That is a cautionary tale not a restrictive one. It really doesn’t matter what stream of the church you are in, from the most conservative and orthodox to the most liberal, the tendency to wander away from Scripture and into heresy must always be tempered by the Word of God.

The excesses of some parts of the Radical Reformation have led many to categorically dump everything they believed. The guys from the White Horse Inn use “Anabaptist” like a curse word (of course to be fair, some Baptists use “magisterial Reformer” as a pejorative). It is a classic “baby with the bathwater” syndrome. That has in turn led to a paucity of material about these men and this era. Luckily with the rise of the internet, much of the material that was inaccessible a few years ago is now readily available with the click of a mouse.

It is vital to remember that even the greatest theologians, preachers, authors, servants are merely depraved sinners saved by grace. Was Menno Simons a perfect guy with flawless theology? Not hardly but then again neither was John Calvin or Martin Luther. The fact that these men were flawed sinners saved by grace doesn't negate their value to us today, whether the man in question is John Calvin or Balthasar Hubmaier.

I am planning on spending some time studying the Radical Reformation and will likely post some thoughts here as I go.

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