Luther, Anabaptists, and Justification

In the Luther reading that I have done (and continue to do), more than one source has indicated that 16th c. Anabaptist soteriology was different than the Lutheran. For example, both Hughes Oliphant Old and Alister McGrath claim that justification by faith was functionally not accepted in Anabaptist theology. In fact, McGrath writes in his article on justification in the above cited volume, “[t]he radical wing of the Reformation, stressed the importance of obedience and discipleship, adopting doctrines of grace which stressed human responsibility and accountability towards God, rather than God’s transformation of the individual.”

My questions: Are these tendentious readings of the Anabaptists (both men are Reformed in their theological commitments)? Or, while not denying justification by faith alone, did the Anabaptist emphasis on “responsibility toward God” lead to a theology that practically eclipsed their salvation by grace through faith alone (e.g. Schleitheim Confession)?

Matt, help a brother out.



Posted on July 15, 2009, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I had thought the Anabaptists were fully faith alone, grace alone believers… I know they did heavily emphasize practical discipleship as well. Sorry, not going to be of much help here, my interests usually lean toward the historical contexts, so I haven’t delved as deeply into the theological intricacies as I could (should?) have…

    An interesting question though. I might snoop around some of my books and see if I can find anything on that…

  2. We should, of course, emphasize that ‘the Anabaptists’ actually comprised a number of disparate groups that did not all hold to the same teachings or, even when they did, not always in the same way. So, to say what the Anabaptists did or did not believe can be rather complicated.

    With that caveat in place, my understanding is that the Anabaptists definitely took a different approach to justification than Luther did on at least two key points. First, they rejected Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone. They were particularly troubled by the forensic understanding of justification that appeared to make it an entirely objective transaction that left the person unchanged (similar to the Catholic criticism). Instead, they emphasized personal, moral transformation and justification grounded in the ‘real’ righteousness of the believer. This doesn’t mean that they rejected justification by faith (the whole process is still grounded in the atonement), but it does differ from Luther’s understanding on some key points.

    Second, they tended to affirm free will in a way that Luther would have found unacceptable. Most of them acknowledged original sin and the resulting corruption of the will, but they usually affirmed some form of prevenient grace by which the person’s soul has been sufficiently restored to choose for or against the Gospel.

    Whether either of these amounts to a functional rejection of justification by faith depends on how you understand the phrase. They certainly seemed to have rejected the imputation theory that has predominated in Protestant theology. They also emphasized free will, personal holiness, and ‘real’ righteousness in a way that sounds like a rejection of justification by faith to many (of course, if this is the case, then Wesley might also be in trouble). I tend to think that their emphasis on free will and personal holiness is no more troubling that in Wesleyan theology (though some Reformed theologians don’t think they believe in justification by faith either), but I would be inclined to think that their emphasis on justification as grounded in the person’s ‘real’ righteousness inevitably inclines toward a functional downplaying of grace (akin to late-medieval nominalism).

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