My Absence and a Look at Free Will and Justification and Works

I’ve been extremely busy of late for the reason that I am entering into a PhD program. Well technically I am somewhat in except I had to revise my proposal to fit the parameters of the Historical Theology degree in place of the Religion Studies one that I was originally pursuing. During this whole revision period I had to familiarize myself with the original German language of the Anabaptists if you want to call it that. It is more like a semi-decent means of translating the material but anyway that explains why I have not posted anything in a while.

Even though I have not posted some good results was achieved overall in my understanding of Anabaptistica while writing the proposal. My comprehension of the nascent Anabaptist view of free will and justification has improved greatly. In order to accomplish this I had to return to a place where I initially caught the notion that the Anabaptists held to the notion of free will which was in the Brüderliche Vereinigung or the Schleitheim Brotherly Union. The very first article strongly states:

Baptism shall be given to all those who have been taught repentance and the amendment of life and [who] believe truly that their sins are taken away through Christ, and to all those who desire to walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be buried with Him in death, so that they might rise with Him; to all those who with such an understanding themselves desire and request it from us; hereby is excluded all infant baptism, the greatest and first abomination of the pope. For this you have the reasons and the testimony of the writings and the practice of the apostles. We wish simply yet resolutely and with assurance to hold to the same.[1]

The portion of note is where the Brotherly Union speaks of “all those who desire to walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be buried with Him in death, so that they might rise with Him; to all those who with such an understanding themselves desire and request it from us”.  J. C. Wenger translates this section as “to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it [baptism] of us and demand it for themselves.”[2] This passage was extremely controversial in the 16th century, so much so one would lose their life behind it.

To understand why this was the case one has to narrow the focus to be more specific, attention has to be on the term “desire” or “wish” in the case of Wenger’s rendering. These terms if read by someone that was Reformed they would immediately go on the offensives because of their belief in predestination. That one term challenges the very essence of the Reformed view of salvation. This is best illustrated in Ulrich Zwingli’s criticism of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union in his In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, 1527 (Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists, 1527). He wrote:

For when they say that remitted are the sins of all who wish to walk in the resurrection of Christ and to be buried with him in death, they elevate free will, and next to that justification by works. For it is in our choice or power to walk in the resurrection of Christ, or to be buried with him in death, it is open for anyone to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence. Then Christ spoke falsely the words: “No one can come to me except the Father who sent me draw him.”[3]

It is apparent that Zwingli immediately took notice of the term and how it is associated with the concept of free will.[4] The act of desiring something or to wishing for something is situated at the point prior to action but results from the unhindered mental conception of something. Zwingli rightfully sees it as an action thus exercising the free will is a work that leads to righteousness. In the previous quote he said that the first article elevates “justification by works” alongside free will. He charges “For they who trust in works make Christ of no effect”.[5] The reasoning is that Zwingli believes that if a person can wish or desire to “walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and be buried with Him in death” and ultimately to choose “to be a Christian and a man of perfect excellence” they control their salvation. This is stated even though the Swiss Brethren qualified their statement by saying that the person had to be repentant and modified their way of life prior to baptism. Zwingli acknowledged this but he felt that it was just subterfuge on the part of the Brethren. He wrote “[T]hey conceal justification by works, and though they admit remission of sins through Christ here, they clearly deny it elsewhere.”[6]

The Swiss Brethren never refuted the claim that they believe in free will. It is implied throughout all of their extant writings. However they did deny the notion of works righteousness. They believed they are saved by faith that works. That is works are so interconnected with faith that salvation is not possible without them. Around the same year as the drafting of the Brüderliche Vereinigung its primary contributor Michael Sattler is credited with penning the work known as Von der Gnugthuung Christi or Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ. In this document Sattler demonstrates the reality and gravity of the role works play in salvation. When speaking of the Protestant Reformers or “scribes” as he disapprovingly calls them Sattler critiques their interpretation of certain salvation related texts.

the scribes interpret as if a person could be saved through Christ whether he do the works of faith or not. If such were the case, why then should Paul say [in] Romans 2 that God will render to everyone according to his works, namely eternal life to those who strive after glory, praise and immortality with perseverance in good works, but to those who are quarrelsome and are not obedient to the truth, but are obedient to the evil, there will come disfavor and wrath, tribulation and anxiety, [namely] upon all the souls of men who do evil. He says, [in] Romans 2, Not those who hear the Law are righteous, but those who do the Law.[7]

Sattler reference to the second chapter of Romans encompasses verses 5-13 that advances the concept of:

“the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.”

This scriptural passage contains what some at present deem “eschatological justification”, that is in due course the God of the Bible will render judgment on the entire world or a final justification will be carried out based on works one has exhibited in life.[8] In light of this we see that the Swiss Brethren didn’t deny justification through faith but the type of faith they spoke of is one that would be immediately accompanied by works or rather the works are a crucial component of faith.

Michael Sattler wrote “just as one speaks of justification through Christ so must one also speak of faith, [namely] that repentance is not apart from works, yea not apart from love (which is an unction), for only such an anointed faith as one receives from the resurrection from the dead is [at all a] Christian faith, and [it alone] is reckoned for righteousness”.[9] When a person experiences justification it is not attained without faith and said faith is characterized by works of repentance and love. Love is a sign that we have in our possession genuine Christian faith.

Returning to my original topic it can be said that the main problem that the Reformed had with teaching free will was that it ultimately implied that humans has the means to determine their destinies by means of their attitude towards God. And since works is a part of defining faith one can potentially lose their salvation or do not pass the irrevocable adjudication for a lack of deeds. It totally takes the matter out of the hands of God, thus contradicting the Reformed doctrines of predestination and God’s maximal sovereignty.

__________________________________________

[1] John Howard Yoder, ed., trans., The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 10.

[2] J. C. Wenger, “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 19, no. 4 (1945): 249.

[3] Ulrich Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Reformer of German Switzerland, Vol. 1, ed. and trans. Samuel Macauley Jackson, Classic Reprint (1901; repr., London: Forgotten Books, 2012), 179.

[4] Ulrich Zwingli wrote his In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, 1527 in Latin. Prior to his replies he wrote out each article of the Brotherly Union in Latin as well.  When translating Zwingli’s Latin text into English Samuel Macauley Jackson employed “wish” in the fashion Wenger did years later. I have not found the Latin text of In Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus, 1527 to see exactly what term was employed.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] Ibid., 178.

[7] John Christian Wenger, “Concerning the Satisfaction of Christ: An Anabaptist Tract On True Christianity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 20, no. 4 (1946): 247.

[8] From a scriptural context this judgment applies to the believer and unbeliever alike. For the Apostle Paul says that those who are not a part of the Christian faith will be judged by their obedience to the law God instilled in all people—that is the law of conscience.  However it appears that Sattler applies this passage to the believer even though he qualifies elsewhere in the document “How then did Christ do enough for our sins? Answer: [He did enough,] not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world, insofar as they believe on Him and follow Him according to the demands of faith”. Romans 2 does not seem to indicate that the unbeliever can only attain a good judgment from God through believing in Christ as Sattler states.

[9] Ibid., 251-2.

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