Anabaptists: Inerrantists and Biblicists

 In the offset, we need to define a few terms and establish some well-known notions (in the context of Anabaptistica), the first term being ‘biblicism’ or ‘biblicist’. Christian Smith wrote on the topic of Biblicism and he defines it as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability.”[1] The second being inerrancy. Kenton L. Sparks equates biblicism with inerrancy which entails “that there are no human errors at all—not even one—in the entirety of scripture”.[2]  According to Sparks, this is “because its adherents believe that an inerrant Bible gives them foolproof access to the fundamentals of Christian doctrine and Christian living”.[3] While these delineations are not becoming, they are the ones that individuals straightaway call to mind when the term is exercised. Phrased unlike the above John Sailhamer posits:

The term biblicism came into use in the mid-nineteenth century, used negatively to characterize approaches to the Bible that were, to one degree or another, uncritical or unhistorical. Today the term refers to any approach to theology in which the Bible itself is understood as divine revelation and the sole source in matters of faith and practice, not merely in its general concepts and teaching but in the very details of its words and letters.[4]

Regardless of the definition, one prefers they both convey similar sentiments. This term and its relationship to inerrancy are the key to comprehending the Anabaptists view regarding the function and form of the Bible. An additional area that requires attention is that the rows (disputes) between the Anabaptists and the Magisterial Reformers revolved around interpretation of scripture not the status of scripture except for a few exceptions.[5] Also it I important to take note that scholars articulate that much of what the Reformers taught the early Anabaptist believed in an identical  manner or close enough to it where there was no need for contention. Now we will turn our attention to see what exactly the Reformers taught regarding the Bible and its station.

Magisterial Reformers

Martin Luther said on the subject of scripture. The Bible is “perfect: it is precious and pure: it is truth itself. There is no falsehood in it.” And again, “Not only the words but also the expressions used by the Holy Spirit and Scripture are divine.” Luther contends, “One letter, even a single tittle of Scripture means more to us than heaven and earth. Therefore we cannot permit even the most minute change.”[6] In the concluding quote from Luther he stated “But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they [the fathers] have erred as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred”[7]

John Calvin forgoes employing phrases that denote scripture lacking ‘error’ but it is not a doubt he held to inerrancy when he wrote, “The Spirit of God…appears purposely to have regulated their [the Gospel writers] style in such a manner, that they all wrote one and the same history, with the most perfect agreement, but in different ways”.[8] In his commentary when speaking to Paul’s words regarding 2 Timothy 3:16 Calvin notes:

First he commends the Scripture because of its authority, and then because of the profit that comes from it. To assert its authority he teaches that it is inspired of God, for, if that is so, it is beyond all question that men should receive it with reverence….This is the meaning of the first clause, that we owe to Scripture that same reverence as we owe God, since, it has its only source in Him and has nothing of human origin mixed with it.[9]

Finally, we come to the Reformer that had the most influence and participated in laying the foundation of the initial Anabaptists (The Swiss Brethren) Ulrich Zwingli. He in the eyes of many scholars is identified as holding to biblicism. It was his firm grasp of the scriptures that propelled him to seek after the restoration of biblical faith and praxis. This also led to the rejection of those things found in the Medieval Church that did not line up with scripture. It is without a doubt that he held to the infallibility of scripture.[10]


At this time, we have finally arrived to where the Anabaptists line up on the matter of scripture. One of the seminal authorities on early Anabaptism and the Radical Reformation namely Werner O. Packull asserts:

Accordingly to scholarly consensus, the Swiss Anabaptists were radical biblicists who broke with Ulrich Zwingli because he reneged on the principle of sola scriptura when political push came to shove on practical reform issues. Harold Bender put it bluntly when he wrote that “the Anabaptists were biblicists and it was the biblical fountains alone that they drank.” Bender exaggerated…But the label biblicist was justified not only because of the unflinching appeal to the Scriptures as final authority, but also because the Swiss Anabaptists declared their loyalty to the principle that only what was explicitly commanded in Scripture or demonstrated by its examples should be normative for the Christian congregation.[11]

Fritz Blanke corroborates this in his work Brothers in Christ: the History of the Oldest Anabaptist Congregation Zollikon, Near Zurich, Switzerland. He writes “Both [Conrad Grebel and Ulrich Zwingli] were Biblicists, that is, defenders of the authority of the Bible, but Grebel in a narrower sense, Zwingli in a freer sense.”[12] Zwingli was mentioned above and Grebel was considered the ‘Father of Anabaptism’ he was the largest influence on the group during its formative years. He established the founding beliefs and practices with the other members of the core group.

In light of this, it is safe to say that the formative Anabaptists were in fact inerrantists. Now if someone is looking for a blunt articulation of inerrancy in quote form by one of the archetypal Anabaptists you will not find it. Just in the same manner you will not find them speaking to any number of subjects in the fashion of the Magisterial Reformers. The Anabaptists beliefs had to be grasped by ‘reading between the lines’ as it were. They had an implicit theology if one can even call it a theology to begin with. They did not have the leisure or desire to reflect and write volumes of works of a theological nature. They were more concerned with applying the scriptures. However, in light of current scholarship and universal concepts, in addition to history,  various accounts and the things they did in reality write about I believe that anyone can walk away with the assurance that they were in fact inerrantists or if you must biblicists.

In the end, I find it ironic that some of the very critics of inerrancy or alternatively biblicism embrace the very doctrines and practices that were formulated within the context of this ideology.

[1] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Mich: Brazos Press, 2012), viii.

[2] Kenton L. Sparks, Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012), 28.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1995), 152.

[5] The Spiritualists (precursors of present-day Charismatics) in the Anabaptist camp emphasized subjective experiences over written scripture. In this regard, they were at odds with not only the Magisterial Reformers but also with the ‘evangelical’Anabaptist camps.

[6] William A. Dembski, Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 122.

[7] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic [u.a.], 2001), 158.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jean Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon / T.A. Smail ; Editors, David W. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans, 1996), 329-30.

[10] Mark Ellingsen, Reclaiming Our Roots: an Inclusive Introduction to Church History, Volume II: from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King (Harrisburg, Pa: Trinity Press International, 1999), 74-5.

[11] Werner O. Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments During the Reformation (Baltimore, Md. ; London: Johns Hopkins University press, 1995), 15-6.

[12] Fritz Blanke, Brothers in Christ: the History of the Oldest Anabaptist Congregation Zollikon, Near Zurich, Switzerland (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2005), 10.


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