While our well-known Reformation heroes were fighting to restore the comfort of the gospel for the medieval Christian, the outcasts of the movement - the Radical Reformers - also made inroads in the villages, cities, and homes of sixteenth-century Europe. Many Radicals began by sharing similar concerns with Magisterial reformers, and yet, they often ended up with entirely different conclusions. This worked to confirm the Church of Rome’s fears of a broken and fragmented church and amplify a sometimes chaotic diversity of beliefs found within the Reformation movement as a whole.
It’s tempting to identify all Radical Reformers as either lunatics or Reformation oddities. However, it would do us well to take a closer look at their theological motivations and convictions. Doing so may lead us to a greater understanding and appreciation of the Reformation in general and give us insights into potential parallel beliefs found in modern Christianity. Three groups in particular (following the trailblazing work of George Hunston Williams, who coined the term “Radical Reformation”) are worth learning about for both their unique distinctions as well as their unified theological concerns.
Anabaptism initially grew out of Zwingli’s Zurich (1484-1531) and quickly spread across both Switzerland, Germany, and the European Low Countries. Key to the movement was an attempt to restore early Christianity’s spiritual purity through strict biblical literalism and moral rigor. The Anabaptists (along with most Radical Reformers) were concerned with both the moral corruption of the Roman Church as well as what they considered a lack of moral reform from the Lutheran Reformation. These concerns were so strong that they often referred to salvation only through terms of sanctification. The primary question for the Anabaptist was not whether or not an individual had salvation, but how an individual expressed their salvation through daily life.
True Christians, according to the Anabaptists, lived within the confines of a community of faith, were re-baptized as adults, and suffered for their beliefs. These were defining factors when it came to an individual Anabaptist’s identity and, therefore (indirectly) the ways in which they were assured of their salvation.
The primary question for the Anabaptist was not whether or not an individual had salvation, but how an individual expressed their salvation through daily life.
The Anabaptists concluded that infant baptism was not only unbiblical but could be harmful to the Christian. While for Luther and Melanchthon, faith and reason were not contradictory to each other but were also not to be equated with one another, the Anabaptists would inextricably link the two. They would repeatedly state that without Verstand (understanding) an individual was not capable of sin. Thus, to be baptized before one had the rational capability to reason could put you in danger of falsely believing you had received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This would only lead to a false sense of assurance.
Personal responsibility or duty was essential to faith itself. In other words, the Anabaptists defined faith by the ability first to understand and then act. Baptism could not bring about faith, but faith could affect baptism as a declarative act of one’s understanding of spiritual rebirth. Water baptism would then be followed by what came to be known as the third stage of baptism: “baptism by blood” or a life full of suffering.
The Anabaptists were well versed in personal suffering as they were often imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and even put to death for their beliefs. By naming their persecution, “baptism by blood,” they were able to tie their real-life experiences to a means of assurance that fit within their understanding of the salvation process. Salvation could only be sure based on a life of discipleship, hardship, and good works. Early Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528) said it this way, “faith cannot remain passive but must break out to God in thanksgiving and to mankind in all kinds of works of brotherly love.” The impetus here from Hubmaier and others is not just that works must follow faith, something Luther and Melanchthon would certainly agree with, but that works confirmed faith.
Luther certainly disagreed with the Radical Reformers as a whole, but it’s the tradition of the Spiritualists he opposed most visibly during his lifetime. As Luther saw it, these Schwärmer (or Enthusiasts) were responsible for much of the damage done to the reputation of the Lutheran movement through their uprisings and violence (e.g the Peasants’ War of 1524 and the Münster Rebellion). This movement – which shared leadership and beliefs with the Anabaptists – moved one step further from outward confirmation of salvation and towards an emphasis on personal, religious experience as assurance of salvation. This can be seen most prevalently in the Spiritualists’ distinction between the inner and outer word.
Well-known Spiritualists like Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525) and Caspar Schwenckfeld (1490-1561) would divide reason and Scripture from salvation and the Holy Spirit. The inner word was true salvation brought by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit while the outer word, or Scripture, could serve the believer in his faith journey but offered nothing as far as salvation was concerned. By separating the Holy Spirit from Scripture, the Spiritualists also could assert that Scripture was not a necessary means by which God spoke. External means should not be trusted in matters of salvation, and therefore one could be saved apart from the Word. Salvation would come not from the gospel but from the law. This left the Spiritualists with only one option when it came to where to look in matters of assurance: the realm of emotion and subjective feeling.
The Evangelical Rationalists
Led by Italian theologian, Faustus Sozzini (1539-1604), Evangelical Rationalism or Socinism, which didn’t begin to develop until the late 1500s, rejected many of central tenets of Orthodox Christianity, including the sacraments, trinitarianism, original sin, and Christ’s satisfaction for sin. The movement can be tied directly to the beginnings of the Unitarian church and the rationalistic theology of the Enlightenment.
Central to the Evangelical Rationalists understanding of theology was Sozzini’s belief that divine revelation must be supported by man’s use of reason. Although he did argue for the authority of Scripture, Sozzini would ultimately establish rationality as the norm of Biblical interpretation. This can be supported by the 16th-century Racovian Catechism, which presents a comprehensive and detailed account of Socinian belief:
The use of right reason is great in things that pertain to salvation, since without it, it is impossible either to grasp with certainty the authority of Holy Scripture, or to understand those things that are contained in it, or to deduce some things from other things, or, in fine, to recall them that they may be applied. Therefore, when we say that Scripture is sufficient for salvation, we not merely do not exclude right reason, but we altogether include it.
This emphasis on reason moves salvation back into the realm of man’s abilities, similarly to the emphasis of the other Radical Reformers. While the Spiritualists leaned into personal experiences as a sign that the individual had salvation, and the Anabaptists looked to good works for comfort in their faith, the Evangelical Rationalists defined assurance of salvation by one’s personal success at ethical behavior and rational thinking.
All three groups relied either explicitly or implicitly on the potential for man to overcome his rational limitations through either experience, practice, or direct cognitive ability. While such means can be deemed as “assurance,” the reality is that such subjective definitions lack the surety and tangibility gained when assurance is instead rooted in concrete objective means.
By basing our assurance on the promises of God, which we not only hope for in the future but live in now, the Christian can finally rest in the comfort that they are both saved and not responsible for their own salvation.
When assurance based on good works, the testimony of the Holy Spirit, or our ability to doubt and question is separated or given authority over assurance based on the promises of God, the same problem continues to arise. At some level, these means of certainty must be based on elevating one’s cognitive abilities to know or discern what is true for the self over what God has revealed about himself through Scripture and the assurance he gives us through faith in his son. Thus, one’s reason becomes primary rather than God’s promises, and God is defined by our terms rather than through his own.
In contrast to the hunt for certainty within, as we see in the Radical Reformation, God has given us a word from without that not only tells us what we need but better yet saves and comforts us. By basing our assurance on the promises of God, which we not only hope for in the future but live in now, the Christian can finally rest in the comfort that they are both saved and not responsible for their own salvation. The internal wrestling towards perceived progress, goodness, or some sort of hope based on our limited reason and sinful nature is laid to rest, and we are offered certainty which, especially in times of doubt, we can trust will comfort us.