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Church History - Anabaptist, English Reform, and the Catholic Counter Reformation Print E-mail
Church History

I.  Introduction:

 As we stated last week, the Reformation took place in stages.  We focused primarily on Luther and the Germans, as well as the Swiss Reformation last week.  Tonight we want to consider some of the latter stages of the Reformation.  Again, we must remember that ‘reform’ is taking place over a long period of time and in many different places.  Yet, this just serves to remind us of God’s hand in reforming His church.  He is not limited by space or time.  This morning we will be looking at the Anabaptists, who took their start from the Swiss Reformation, the English Reformation and Scotland, and also the response of the Catholic Church known as the Catholic Counter Reformation, which found its beginnings in Spain.  So as you can see, the wave of reform that struck the Church during the 16th century was very widespread and it’s impact is still felt today.

II.  The Anabaptists:

 The term ‘anabaptist’ means to re-baptize or to baptize again.  This title was given to those who believed that baptism was to be reserved for believers only and not for children.  Their critics accused them of calling for re-baptism, thus, the term Anabaptist.  This term does not simply refer to one centralized group with one set of beliefs.  Rather, it refers to many different pockets of radical reformers that sprung up throughout Europe in the 16th century.  We will not attempt to deal with them all.  We simply want to identify what characterized the different groups and mention a couple of specific ones.

 The beliefs of the Anabaptists were very similar to other protestant reform groups.  They believed in justification by faith and they supported the break from the Catholic Church.  Yet, due to their views on baptism they faced persecution from the Catholic Church as well as the new Protestant churches.  In order to understand the weight of this issue, one must remember how the institutional church had functioned since the time of Constantine.  As we noted earlier in this series, since the time of Constantine, the Church had had a powerful influence in the political arena.  There was no separation of Church and State.  Rather there was a State church.  The Anabaptists opposed the idea of a State church.  As for baptism, since the Church was a state Church, then all babies that were citizens of the State were baptized.  This resulted in a great blurring of the regenerate and the non-regenerate.  The shift to believers’ baptism would radically change the make-up of the Church.  This helps explain why they were so persecuted.  It also marks the beginning of a return to regenerate church membership.  Along with these beliefs, the Anabaptists also believed in communal living and strict discipline (both stressing separation).

 One of the more famous groups of the Anabaptists were known as the Swiss Brethren.  Two disciples of Zwingli who headed up this group were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz.  On many points they agreed with their teacher, but eventually they began to differ from him.  As Zwingli and others encouraged them to read the Bible, they began to be convinced of certain truths that were contra-Zwingli and contra-Catholic.  Shelley records the scene of their radical break from Zwingli:

Under the cover of darkness a dozen or so men trudged slowly through the snow falling in Zurich on 21 January 1525.  Quietly but resolutely they made their way through the narrow streets.  The wintry chill blowing off the lake seemed to match their mood as they approached the Manz house, near the Great Minister, the largest church in town.

The City Council of Zurich had that day ordered their leaders Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz to stop holding Bible classes.  Opposition was mounting!  Only four days before the council had warned all parents to have their babies baptized within eight days of birth or face banishment from the territory.  What were the brethren going to do?  They agreed to meet at the Manz house to decide.

Once inside, they shared their rumors and reports and then they called upon God to enable them to do his will.  They arose from prayer to take one of the most decisive actions in Christian history.
George Blaurock, a former priest, stepped over to Conrad Grebel and asked him for baptism in the apostolic fashion—upon confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ.  Grebel baptized him on the spot and Blaurock proceeded to baptize the others.  Thus, Anabaptism, another important expression of the Protestant Reformation, was born.

 The Anabaptists faced fierce persecution in many places, often being drowned for their belief in ‘re-baptism.’  Many groups fought back and became the source of much hatred toward the movement.  In the end they would produce groups like the Mennonites, the Hutterites, and the Amish.  Likewise their beliefs would greatly influence our own denomination.  We will say more about their influences on the Baptist denomination in later weeks. 

III.  The English Reformation and John Knox

 There was much going on in England even prior to Luther.  Wycliffe, Tyndale, and Coverdale had all fought for an English translation of the Bible which had led to much controversy and longing for reform.  Yet, God used an odd circumstance to move forward the Reformation in this area.

 Henry VIII was having an affair with Anne Boleyn.  When she came up pregnant, Henry wanted to annul his marriage and get married to Boleyn.  Yet, the Pope refused to grant Henry the annulment.  This of course enraged the King and so he decided to split from Rome and form the Anglican Church, which would be the state Church of England.  This split from Rome obviously caused much strife in England and the battle over the Anglican Church would be fought for years to come.  Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter, decided that the Anglican Church would be “Protestant in their theology and Catholic in their ritual.”    This only led to more controversy and more division which would all depend on the beliefs of the ruling monarch.  If the monarch was Catholic, then there was a lean towards catholisism.  If the monarch was Protestant, then the Anglican Church would lean towards protestant beliefs. 

 I want to say a word about John Knox.  We do not have time to cover everything that happened in and between Scotland and England in the 16th century.  Yet, we do need to at least mention Knox.  After being imprisoned by the French and finding his way to England, Knox was forced from England by the persecution of Mary Tudor, who was the ruling monarch in England and was pro-Catholic.  During this exile Knox met and was trained by John Calvin in Geneva.  After being trained by Calvin, Knox was convinced to go back to Scotland, where he was born, and to continue his fight for reform there.  In Scotland John Knox became the leader of the Scottish reformation with his fiery preaching and faithful labor. 

IV.  The Catholic Response

 As we saw with Erasmus, there were pockets of reform in the Catholic Church even before Luther.  Specifically, in Spain there was much reform taking place due to Queen Isabella and Cardinal Francisco Jimenez (1436-1517).  These two were working for monastic reforms and the conversion of the Jews and the Muslims by force.  The method they used was the Inquisition, which was a court established by the Catholic Church in 1490 (and lasted until 1854).  Isabella and Jimenez also fought for moral reforms with their priests and leaders in the church.  All of this led to much reform in Spain.

 A monastic order that developed in Spain was the Jesuits.  They patterned their order after the military, focusing on strict discipline.  They had a three-fold mission: education, fighting heresy, and missions.  Again, they also used the Inquisition as a weapon to fight heresy and for missions.  They were able to conquer the Protestants in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. 

 One of the official responses of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation came at the Council of Trent.  This was called by Pope Paul III.  It lasted from 1545-1563 with a long delay in the middle of the sessions.  They responded to Protestant theology with the Tridentine Profession of Faith.  In this document, the Catholic Church rejected salvation by faith, claiming that works were required and also reaffirmed the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, communion (transubstantiation), penance, extreme unction, ordination, and marriage. 

 As we have said, due to the connection of the Church and the State, many battles of the Reformation were fought with the sword.  The last of these wars was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which took place throughout central Europe and involved all of the major powers.  The end of this war in 1648 is considered the end of the Reformation era.

V.  What can we learn?

 I want to identify two lessons from this period in Church history.  First, with the Anabaptists we see the vitality of regenerate membership.  This important doctrine for the Church had gone unheeded since the time of Constantine and had allowed a great blurring of the difference between believers and unbelievers.  This is one of the reasons that so much corruption had infiltrated the Church.  Yet, as the Swiss Brethren studied the Bible and were convicted of the importance of regenerate Church membership and believers’ baptism, an important doctrine was recovered.  In our day there is still a fight over the importance of regenerate Church membership.  Our fight in Baptist circles is not against the State Church or paedo-baptism (although this could be an issue), but we do have a problem with regenerate church membership due to our lack of accountability and often our hunger for more numbers at all cost.  Yet, it would do us good to remember the battle fought by the Anabaptists and to labor for regenerate church membership and the purity of the Church.

 Another lesson we can learn from this period is the importance of the separation of Church and State.  We see again and again the problem of fighting for the Kingdom with the sword.  Again, this doctrine has greatly influenced the Baptists and continues to influence us today.  As we conclude our talk of the Reformation we will do well to be thankful for what the Lord accomplished in the Church during this time and to be encouraged for our labor in our own time.  Amen.

1 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), 247.
2 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 55.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Sunday, 19 August 2007 )

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