The Core Message of 16th Century Anabaptism: The Gospel

In an earlier post, I listed the Core Beliefs and Practices of the 16th Century Anabaptists. However that was not ‘THE’ core message or belief, all those others find their foundation to be the one I am addressing at this time. I hinted at this in an earlier post. In the present day, many celebrate the writings of N.T. Wright and Scott Mcknight for their refocus on the ‘Kingdom of God’. However, this is nothing innovative, the New Testament Gospels has an unmistakable emphasis on the Kingdom. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible states:

The word ‘kingdom’ is found fifty-five times in Matthew; twenty times in Mark, forty-six times in Luke and five times in John. When allowance is made for the use of the word to refer to secular kingdoms and for parallel verses of the same sayings of Jesus, the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ and equivalent expressions (e.g., ‘Kingdom of heaven,’ ‘his kingdom’) occurs about eighty times. . .These statistics show the great importance of the concept in the teachings of Jesus. . .There can, therefore, be little doubt that the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ expresses the main theme of His teaching.[1]

Furthermore, Jesus declared that his gospel was the Kingdom in many instances. However, during the Reformation era the sola fide or sola gratia model became the embodiment of the gospel. This thinking eventually infiltrated Anabaptism during the era of orthodoxy when Anabaptist groups began their evolution into institutionalized bodies and they began to formulate systematic formalized doctrine.[2] Individuals like Menno Simons began to articulate formal theological codifications that paralleled the Reformers. Simons is recorded as teaching in the work The Complete writings of Menno Simons as saying, “we teach with Christ and say, “Believe the gospel,” Mark. 1:15. That gospel is the glad tidings and promulgation of the favor and grace of God toward us, and the forgiveness of our sins through Christ Jesus.” This is in harmony with Reformation language, particularly Luther when voicing his fixation with justification and salvation. The first generation (nonorthodox) did not emphasize personal salvation in the fashion that was common during that time and what we see at present. Salvation was in the focus for Soterians (salvationists) that is those that hold to sola fide theology.

While the phrase the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” is not frequently found in the corpus of Anabaptist literature, it is the heart of the Anabaptist thought and praxis. This is discovered when one looks at their writings from all-encompassing perspective. Within the context of Anabaptism, we see a dualistic theme that plays throughout the entirety of the Anabaptist written corpus. This dichotomy is called the “Two Kingdoms” or “Two Worlds” it is alternatively known as simply “Kingdom Theology”.  James M. Stayer subscribes that the above-mentioned dualism is what defined Anabaptism, he writes, what “was typically Anabaptist was not violence or non-violence but rejection of the wickedness of the world, as represented by the established church government.”[3] Returning our attention back to the epoch of orthodoxy, all did not follow the path of the Reformers within the ranks of the Swiss Brethren was member named Hans Schnell (also known as Hans Beck). He was the first to enunciate a lucid and fully formed treatise on Two Kingdom theology from the Anabaptist perspective.[4] His treatment is known under the following (extremely long) title.

Thorough Account From God’s Word, How to Distinguish Between the Temporal and Spiritual Regimes, Each with Its Order; and Concerning the Power of the Temporal Sword: Whether a Magistrate May, in Accord with the Demand of His Office, Wield the Sword over Evildoers in Order to Bestow Vengeance, Fight Against His Enemies, Preserve and Protect the Citizenry with Force; and Whether He May at the Same Time Be and Remain a Christian in the Peaceable Kingdom of Christ.”[5]

According to Schnell:

There are two different kingdoms on earth—namely, the kingdom of this world and the peaceful kingdom of Christ. These two kingdoms cannot share or have communion with each other. The people in the kingdom of this world are born of the flesh, are earthly and carnally minded. The people in the kingdom of Christ are reborn of the Holy Spirit, live according to the Spirit, and are spiritually minded. The people in the kingdom of the world are equipped for fighting with carnal weapons—spear, sword, armor, guns and powder. The people in Christ’s kingdom are equipped with spiritual weapons—the armor of God, the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit to fight against the devil, the world, and their own flesh, together with all that arises against God and his Word. The people in the kingdom of this world fight for a perishable crown and an earthly kingdom. The people in Christ’s kingdom fight for an imperishable crown and an eternal kingdom. Christ made these two kingdoms at variance with each other and separated. There will therefore be no peace between them. In the end, however, Christ will crush and destroy all the other kingdoms with his power and eternal kingdom. But his will remain eternally. Christ has chosen his elect from the darkness of this world and called them to his heavenly kingdom and enlightened them through the Holy Spirit with the true godly understanding of his eternal truth. One can distinguish the children of God and the children of this world by their fruits. The children of God let their light shine with good works before the children of this world, so that they shine amid this perverse generation like a light in all honesty.

Another frequently seen focus in the foreground of Anabaptist thinking and writing was ‘obedience’ or ‘Nachfolge Christi’. Nachfolge meant ‘following’ and when one follows Christ they would in essence behave in the manner of Kingdom nationals. As citizens of the Kingdom, one would receive salvation from the dark authorities (World) which happens to apply in a spiritual and concrete sense later i.e. a person that authentically follows Christ now would be a citizen in the future Kingdom via resurrection. The Kingdom of God exists in two modes, one present the other future. In Anabaptists thought, the Gemeinde (From the German meaning community or congregation) was the visible manifestation of the Kingdom on earth; it was not the kingdom in the sense that every assurance of God was realized but in a practical sense. It is the real-world manifestation of the theological concept of ‘already’ and ‘not yet’.

Jesus ruled over them as the head of the Gemeinde (or in the New Testament Greek ekklesia) however in the future he will rule over a restored paradisiac earth deficient of the societal ills that exist at present (Col. 1:13; Ps. 110:1-7; Heb. 10:12–13; Rev. 21-22). The work titled The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision: a Sixieth Anniversary Tribute to Harold S. Bender notes. “These two views, the kingdom present in every reborn Christian (or present where two or three are assembled in the Master’s name), and the kingdom as the new order to be expected at any moment and for which proper preparation is needed, are intermixed in Anabaptist thought just as they are in the original source of the teaching, the Gospels.”[6]

The members of the Gemeinde lived out the ethics of the Kingdom (The Sermon on the Mount and The Rule of Christ). It was a family of transformed believers living in synchronization with each other and their Creator. Baptism was the means of becoming a citizen of the Kingdom and a member of the household of faith. This is only one of the reasons why baptism was so important to the 16th century Anabaptists. Now the question that needs to be answered is what could this CORE message be described as? The answer is very simple, it is the gospel as I implied in the offset. This aspect takes some explaining. I have been searching numerous works for months now and it is very difficult to find the word ‘gospel’ in the early material (that I have access to in English) beyond their use of it in the sense of the Four Gospels penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

There is an instance or two where I am not entirely sure what is meant. Nevertheless, we have to look beyond the typical Popish and Repopish categories and look at what the word gospel and related terms indicate. The noun evangelion, translated gospel simply denotes ‘glad tidings’ or ‘good news’. Gospel is the content of the message that is proclaimed; alternatively speaking it is what is preached. Related to this is the verb evangelizo and it suggests to ‘carry’ or ‘bring good news’. This is related to evangelistes and it is generally translated as ‘evangelist’ and implies a ‘bringer of good tidings’ if you must a ‘messenger’ that conveys significant news to the people. Since the Kingdom was the Anabaptist principal message to the general public, one can have confidence in arguing that their gospel was the Kingdom of God in contrast to the Repopish and Popish soterian proclamation.


[1] Merrill C. Tenney, Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Zondervan, 1976), 3:804.
[2] The era or epoch of orthodoxy reaches from the 1570s to the nineteenth century.
[3] James M. Stayer, German Peasants’ War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal: Mcgill-Queens Univ Press, 1994), 123.
[4] Martin Luther had a Two Kingdom theology as well. See “Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms by William J. Wright”: http://lutherantheologystudygroup.blogspot.com/2010/10/martin-luthers-understanding-of-gods.html
[6] Guy F. Hershberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision: a Sixieth Anniversary Tribute to Harold S. Bender (dissent and Nonconformity), Dissent and Nonconformity 22 (1957; repr., Paris, Ark: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2000), 110-11.
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3 thoughts on “The Core Message of 16th Century Anabaptism: The Gospel

  1. Hey A.O., thanks for this post. We traffic in some of the same online circles, but not sure we’re ever have the chance to connect 1-1. I’m part of a Doctor of Missiology cohort at Fuller focused on “Anabaptist Perspectives in Missional Ecclesiology.” I’m rounding the corner of my research and heading toward the dissertation. My main point of focus is articulating a Trinitarian, Anabaptist soteriology, and I just wanted to say that I think your thoughts here on the implicit kingdom focus to how Anabaptists have understood the gospel is A) spot on and B) far from commonly understood. I see this as pivotal to unpacking how salvation and discipleship stand together from the theological perspective of Anabaptism. Keep it up my friend!

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