January 5, 1527, is a date that will always live in infamy for me. On that day Felix Manz perished at the hands of his persecutors.
The Reformation had become splintered and fractured, and the Reformers realized they now had two opponents: Rome and the Radicals. Zwingli, in a letter to Vadian in 1525, noted that the struggle with the Catholic Church was "child's play" when compared with the struggle erupting with the Radicals. As many of you know, I devoted an entire chapter in The Jesus Paradigm to the Anabaptists' views on soteriology and ecclesiology. It is my conviction that a rehabilitation of the positions of the Radical Reformers is long overdue. Whenever we downgrade good works, wherever we make sanctification some kind of appendage to justification, whenever we emphasize more what God does for us than what He does in us, we have become proponents of an unbalanced Christianity. The doctrine of justification by faith is taught in the Scripture, and I rejoice in it! But an emphasis on the forensic and juridical nature of our salvation can easily lead to a light emphasis on the "good works that God has foreordained that we should walk in them." In this regard, Luther's theology was decisively one-sided, and it was his disparagement of good works that caused him to collide with the letter of James.
The Anabaptists assailed this imbalance, as did they did all forms of state coercion. If they were opposed to "christening," it was only because they were opposed to the "Christendom" this practice represented. For this insistence upon a "Believers' Church," separate from the state, Manz was bound and sent to the bottom of the Limmat. Oh yes, there were cries of "Freedom of religion" -- as long as you supported the right religion. And thus the Christian sacralism of Constantine became the Christian sacralism of Luther and later of Calvin.
What amazes me the most is how willingly and joyfully the Anabaptists went to their deaths. Conrad Grebel, a colleague of Manz, wrote, "He that is baptized has been planted into the death of Christ.... True Christians are sheep among wolves, ready for the slaughter." Zwingli, defender of the sword, died on the battlefield, caught between two "Christian" magistrates doing their duty. To me, Manz -- call him a Rottengeist, call him a Winckler, call him what you will -- died a far nobler death.
P.S. The battle against sacralism and Christian statism fought by Grebel and Manz did not end in the sixteenth century. Here are but a few Anabaptistic emphases that I think are still applicable today (taken from chapter 3 of TJP). The Anabaptists believed in:
- serving instead of ruling
- suffering instead of inflicting suffering
- breaking down walls instead of isolationism
- biblical authority instead of ecclesiastical tradition
- brotherhood instead of hierarchy
- the towel instead of the sword
- the headship of Christ instead of that of any pastor
- the way of peace instead of "just war"
- the church as a living organism instead of as a human institution
- the reign of God instead of a political kingdom
- the catholicity of the true church instead of sectarianism
- the power of suffering instead of the cult of power
- the Bible as a book of the church instead of as a book of scholars
- loyalty to their heavenly citizenship instead of to the principalities and powers
- Spirit-orientation instead of forced structures of church life
- being a "light to the nations" instead of a Christian enclave
- knowing Christ instead of merely knowing about Him
- faith that works (in both senses) instead of dead orthodoxy
- effectual grace as a living reality instead of as a theological dogma
- every-member ministry instead of clergyism
- baptism into Christ instead of baptism into a denomination
- a unity that is lived instead of a unity that is merely extolled
- welcoming the despised and marginalized instead of ignoring them
- a hermeneutic of obedience instead of a hermeneutic of knowledge
- individual conscience instead of theological conformity
- volunteerism instead of professionalism
- allegiance to Christ instead of allegiance to the state