Anabaptists: Proto-Arminians?

This morning I received a tweet regarding something I stated in a previous post. The tweet says:



This was in reference to my statement where I said, “From all that I have read on Anabaptistica they were Arminians”. Now this needs some clarification. I used the designation “Arminian” as an easy reference point for the readers. To be technical what is intended is that the proto-Anabaptists were “synergists”. I will address more a little later in this post but I want to present some historical facts prior.

Jacobus Arminius lived from 1560-1609; Anabaptism began in 1525 until the present according to the opinion of some. The Anabaptists could not hold to Arminianism when the person in which the belief is named did not exist yet. The Five Articles of Remonstrance or The Five Arminian Articles was not drawn up until 1610. Either way you look at it the Anabaptists could not be Arminian proper.

As mentioned above they were synergists, the term synergism is taken from the Greek word synergeō, which means to “work together”. The concept behind it is that “a cooperation of human beings with divine → grace, so that both their own action and divine grace are the cause of their →justification . . . [i]n contrast to this view are theological systems that regard human beings as incapable of → salvation because of their corruption through original → sin . . . and the bondage of their will.”[1] Many (generally Lutherans and Calvinists) have a tendency to call any form of synergism in their minds Pelagianism. However, Kenneth Ronald Davis posits a corrective for this line of thinking regarding Anabaptism. He writes, “Anabaptists insistence on some universal human capacity for free choices leads Anabaptism into the camp of synergistic theology, dominant in the medieval church. But there are variations and degrees of synergism, and it is questionable whether all can be lumped together as Pelagianism –as Luther does.”[2]

He goes on to explain that there are “many variations and complexities, to discover and unravel the exact nature of the principle of free, human cooperation with grace for the “attainment” of salvation which permeates the Anabaptists’ soteriological formula is vital to any attempt to isolate its intellectual antecedents.”[3] While there are many parallels with the Anabaptists’ view of the redemption, process and Arminianism such as the belief in total depravity.[4] The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online states:

The South German Anabaptist view of free will is probably best represented by Pilgram Marpeck, who, unlike Hubmaier and Denck, accepted the Augustinian premise of the total depravity of man. Marpeck therefore stressed the atonement of Christ to a greater extent than did Hubmaier, but at the same time he accepted in substance Hubmaier’s doctrine of God’s attracting and repelling will. Marpeck’s Biblical literalism, however, would not permit him to ignore such passages as Romans 8 and Romans 9. He found a solution by subjecting God’s foreordination to His prescience, not the reverse. Marpeck also pointed out that God’s eternal condemnation must not be confused with manifestations of His wrath in this world, where innocent and guilty may suffer alike. Thus the ultimate destiny of each is still determined by his free choice, even though God may know in advance what that choice will be.[5]

In addition, regarding the Hutterites:

In many respects the Hutterite elder Peter Riedemann was in agreement with Marpeck. With respect to the total depravity of man, the necessity of God’s intervention in Jesus Christ, and the consequences of resisting the proffered grace, the views of the two men appear essentially the same. Riedemann, however, placed greater emphasis upon the sovereignty of God over history, and stressed the view that disobedience to God does not establish human independence, but makes the culprit a slave of Satan. Riedemann also stressed the necessity of surrendering oneself completely to God in order that God’s grace may operate. Man’s actual deeds are immediately determined by the master he serves. Thus Riedemann reduced the scope of human freedom to the choice between obedience to God and the service of Satan, but the responsibility for this choice rests squarely upon man.[6]

Now while some believed in total depravity they positioned the work of God’s grace in a place one would not generally see in Reformed circles. Anabaptists’ entire concept of grace and how it is applied is altogether different as well. While the above-mentioned groups held to similar concepts but defined them differently the Swiss Brethren “were more concerned with practical Christianity than dogmatic theology, the idea of human free will appears now and then in the hymns in the Ausbund (1564, 1583, and later). Rewards and punishments are genuine, the result of voluntary obedience or disobedience.”[7]  To use a theological term, the Anabaptist soteriology is complicated and I used “Arminianism” as a means to convey something similar but in the end is genuinely complex in comparison to the standard positions regarding salvation.


[1] Peter Neuner, “Synergism,” in Encyclopedia of Christianity: Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999-2008), 5:271.

[2] Kenneth Ronald Davis, Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins, vol. 16, Anabaptism and Asceticism: a Study in Intellectual Origins (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 149.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Genuine Arminianism is Reformed in this regard.

[5] Frank J. Wray, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 1956), s.v. “Free Will,” accessed March 29, 2014,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s