From the time that Christianity became the official state religion of Rome (under Theodosius I in 391) until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the church was almost universally united in its acceptance that coercion must be connected with faith. One group in particular resisted this trend– the Anabaptists. Their view of freedom in faith separated them from the majority of Protestants (the Magisterial Reformation) as well as Roman Catholics and caused them to be viewed with suspicion by both groups.
An event took place in January 21, 1525 that we would think of as commonplace today, but it was perhaps the most revolutionary event during the Protestant Reformation. This was when two followers of the Magisterial Reformer Ulrich Zwingli chose to baptize one another. Roger Olson explains:
“While that may not seem a particularly courageous thing to do now, at the time it was. Refusing infants baptism and rebaptizing persons was illegal because it was considered both heretical and seditious. These Brethren, as they called themselves, had all experienced life-changing conversions and after careful study of the New Testament had come to believe that infant baptism is not true baptism because it precedes repentance and faith. Zwingli had refused their efforts to abolish it and the Zurich city council had threatened them with punishment if they acted on their beliefs” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).
If baptism seemingly came after repentance in the New Testament, why were the actions of these Anabaptists (a compound word meaning “to baptize again”) considered so dangerous to the church and to the state? Put simply, this doctrine undermined the broader church’s insistence upon coercion in faith.
In Roman Catholic thinking, infant baptism achieved two important goals:
1. It removed the stain of original sin, thus saving, without their will or even awareness, the souls of the infants who were baptized.
2. It made the church into the cement which held society together.
Both of these goals imply that a true conversion of the person is not the central concern when administering the sacrament of baptism. Indeed, the individual was believed to be saved by the actions of others (God and the Church) on his behalf apart from his own will or actions. Later, when this individual was capable of making a choice to reject or affirm the grace given at baptism, it was the coercive force of society, backed by its laws and threat of punishment, that was expected to keep him focused upon following Christ.
In defense of the Roman Catholic position here, it at the very least allowed that the individual could, after the age of accountability, make a grace-enabled choice to continue with Christ, or else to fall away. However, the major view of the Magisterial Reformers was that God not only enabled sinners to come to Him, but that this enabling coerced the sinner into salvation and was withheld from those whom God determined not to save. The Magisterial Reformers, in contrast to the so-called Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists) such as Balthasar Hubmaier, still maintained the need for infant baptism:
“Hubmaier likened infant baptism to an inn hanging out a sign announcing its fine wine before the growing season. It is presumptuous. Of course, Luther and Zwingli both defended infant baptism on the ground that faith is a gift of God and not a contingent, free decision. Their monergistic views of salvation form at least part of their foundations for the practice” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).
An important concession to make here is that since these Reformers believed that only those whom God chose would be saved, not everyone baptized would necessarily be saved, since not all who were baptized were necessarily God’s elect. However, the Magisterial Reformer Martin Luther and his followers, oddly, taught that infants could respond in faith to God’s effectual calling, so that their faith at the time of baptism saved them (see here). John Calvin, in his Institutes, also argued against the Anabaptist position, claiming that withholding baptism for infants was unchristian:
“Paul comprehends the whole Church when he says that it was cleansed by the washing of water. In like manner, from his expression in another place, that by baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 7:13), we infer, that infants, whom he enumerates among his members, are to be baptised, in order that they may not be dissevered from his body” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4, 16, 22).
For both Roman Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers, teaching against infant baptism was dangerous as it was believed to undermine God’s sovereignty and (for the Roman Catholics especially) called into question the state of the unbaptized infant. In stark contrast, the Anabaptists taught that baptism followed repentance and thus they baptized converted adults at the risk of their own lives.
This last point leads us into the second type of coercion that the Roman Catholic Church and Magisterial Reformers supported– that of the state.
The position of the Anabaptists was well explicated by Balthasar Hubmaier:
“Hubmaier wrote that ‘the inquisitors are the greatest heretics of all, because counter to the teaching and example of Jesus they condemn heretics to fire. . . . For Christ did not come to slaughter, kill, burn, but so that those who live should live yet more abundantly.’ He urged especially religious authorities to use only the weapon of God’s Word against those they perceive as heretics and to hope and pray for their repentance rather than kill them” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).
Those who sought to connect church and state (the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Reformers) held a very different view. The great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica gave perhaps the most eloquent defense for violence against heretics that could be rationalized:
“I reply that, with regard to heretics, two considerations are to be kept in mind: (1) on their side, (2) on the side of the Church. (1) There is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a much more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money, through which temporal life is supported… If he be found still stubborn, the Church gives up hope of his conversion and takes thought for the safety of others, by separating him from the Church by sentence of excommunication; and, further, leaves him to the secular court, to be exterminated from the world by death” (quoted from Bettenson & Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, p.141)
Likewise, the Protestant reformer Zwingli consented to the capital punishment of those he viewed as heretics (despite the fact that he was afforded the luxury to speak against the Roman Catholic Church), as did John Calvin (most famously in the execution of Michael Servetus). Though Luther acknowledged that a heretic should not be molested for holding his views in secret, he believed that the heretic who shared his views deserved the punishment of the magistrate. Though he felt that using the sword against heretics was cruel, he felt that “it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the true and in this way seek to subvert the civil order” (quoted from Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 376).
Even apart from the question of whether heretics should receive the death penalty, the status quo view of the church at the time was that the state’s job was to uphold the church and use the force that the church could not, though was necessary to ensure a Christian state. In Reformation circles, this has often been referred to as theonomy. The Anabaptists stood out from their culture and saw such an arrangement as leading to an insincere, merely cultural Christianity that Jesus would spit out of His mouth.
Freedom in Christ
In this article, I have set up a contrast between freedom and coercion. Though they were imperfect, the Orthodox Anabaptist Christians give a fair representation of what free Christianity looks like, and they managed to apply this concern for free individual conversion across the board:
1. Though grace is necessary for repentance and conversion, God does not force anyone to convert. He gives the individual the freedom to accept or reject Him, which comes from a grace-enabled will.
2. As a result, baptism, a sacrament that represents being reborn into Christ, should only be given after the individual actually is reborn into Christ, which happens during conversion.
3. Since true faith can only come from someone who freely chooses to trust in God, there can be no coercion in faith on the part of the state. This also requires a relationship between church and state that is not so entangled as to compromise freedom of faith or freedom of expression (let alone preaching). Heresy must be silenced by a thoughtful expression of true Christian faith and good conduct, not by threats of violence.
As one can see, this arrangement is consistent. Underlying all of these concerns is the belief that God wants true converts who choose Him freely. To remove these values is to posit a faith which is based on coercion and is thus no true faith. To hold to some of these values but not others is to hold to inconsistency. The Christian who believes that God desires true repentance while demanding that the state use force to make society look ostensibly Christian, for instance, is holding to incoherence.
“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:15-17, ESV).