Many conservatives Anabaptist leaders today avoid any teaching about the Holy Spirit. Our parents and grandparents saw a charismatic movement that wasn’t always aligned with Scripture. They saw and heard of some crazy things being done in the name of “Holy Spirit leading”. Many in our circles then rejected any teaching pertaining to the Holy Spirit as being false without even checking for biblical evidence.
Many of our people also discredit any miracles or gifts of the Spirit because they don’t believe that the Holy Spirit works like that today. The book of Acts is treated gingerly by some and if it is read or studied by groups or individuals much, they are often viewed with suspicion. 1Corinthians 12 and 14 do not get treated with nearly the amount of attention that 1Corinthians 11 does.
I don’t believe that miracles and gifts of the Spirit were only for a certain time in history any more than I think the head covering was only for the church of Corinth. I have been taught so often, while growing up in a conservative Anabaptist setting, that the entire New Testament is for all of us today– that I believe it.
A Backward Look
Interestingly enough, as I was doing what I often do– looking back at the earliest Anabaptist church to see how they did things–I ran across some information that I was never taught in my local Anabaptist history lessons.
We tend to hear names like George Blaurok, Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Dirk Philips, or Menno Simons. But while I was reading about the earliest Anabaptist views on the work of the Holy Spirit, I ran across the name, Pilgram Marpeck.
Marpeck was a writer and leader of the Anabaptists in South Germany during the sixteenth century, but his is not a name heard much in our circles. Some of this is because we are taught mostly Swiss and Dutch Anabaptist history, and some of this is because not much was known about Marpeck until more recently.1
There were three main branches of Anabaptists:
- Switzerland (Blaurok, Grebel, Mantz)
- North Germany and Netherlands (Dirk Philips, Simons, Melchior Hoffman)
- South Germany and Austria (Hans Denck, Hans Hut, Marpeck)
However, because of persecution, many within these groups emigrated and mixed together. Though they were different from each other, they were all recognizably part of the same group. All of the leaders from these groups interacted through letters, visits, and conversations. They exchanged ideas through this interaction and often debated or admonished each other.2 It was no secret that early Anabaptists found much to disagree about.
Opponents of Anabaptism accused Anabaptists of being both Literalists and Spiritualists. It seems that within these groups there was a tendency of some towards overt Spiritualism and some towards overt Literalism (legalism). The early Anabaptist leaders’ writings, to their critics and to each other, addressed these topics at times. The Swiss groups tended towards literalism and the South German/Austrian groups tended towards spiritualism. The North Germany/Netherland group seemed to have more of a mixed group with some of both extremes. In their interaction with each other and with their critics, they challenged and admonished one another about these tendencies.
In much of the writings of Pilgram Marpeck, we also find this addressed, but his was often the voice of reason. Much of his writing was an attempt to be a mediator between the two groups and he encouraged them to learn from each other.3
Stuart Murray describes Marpeck as resisting “divergent tendencies towards excessive literalism and legalism on one hand and a spiritualizing approach that risked jettisoning biblical teaching on the other”.4
Much could be said about the differences between these two complex extremes, but for the sake of sticking to my original topic, I will refrain from doing much of that in this post. I will give a brief summarizing description of the two opposing views and for those of my readers who wish to read more on this; check out some of Stuart Murray’s writing (you will find some of his books listed in the footnotes).
Accusations of Literalism-
Some of the Spiritualists that were not part of the Anabaptist movement, such as Caspar Schwenckfeld and Sebastian Franck, accused them of being so interested in keeping the letter of the Word that they quenched the Spirit and missed the Spiritual significance that lay deeper within the Word. The Reformers also at times chastised them for focusing so much on the literal sense of Scripture rather than its spiritual or allegorical senses. Many of the South German Anabaptist leaders also admonished the Swiss Brethren about this with concern that their literalism caused legalism, formalism, and works righteousness. 5
Accusations of Spiritualism-
The Reformers also simultaneously accused Anabaptists of spiritualism because they didn’t approve of Anabaptists’ lack of regard toward scholarship and for some of their use of allegory. There were also fringe groups that the Anabaptists sought to remove all association from, such as those associated with the Peasant War, the Munster Uprising, and those with apocalyptic leanings that the Reformers pointed to. The Swiss Brethren also admonished some of the South German groups and those within the Melchiorite movement of straying from actual texts and “relying on spiritual meaning that was subjective and detached”. Hans Hut was also criticized for relying too much on dreams and visions. 6
Many of us in conservative Anabaptist circles will find many of our beliefs mirroring more closely those of the Swiss Anabaptists’ tendencies towards literalism, legalism, and a “works righteousness”. We would do well to consider that maybe there are things we could learn from the other side as well. Because of this, I was more interested in the writings of Marpeck in which he addressed those with leanings towards literalism/legalism.
In Marpeck’s writings, he chastised Spiritualists for prioritizing “inner spirituality” too much and chastised the Literalists for focusing on externals too much. He saw the two groups as both being extreme positions that needed to be bridged and addressed the errors on both ends of the spectrum. He has been referred to as an ecumenical Anabaptist. 7
In A Clear Refutation, Marpeck wrote against those who wanted to exclude miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church stating, “Nor does Scripture assert this exclusion…God has a free hand even in these last days”.8 He denied that miracles were only for the early church in Acts and spoke of miraculous happenings still occurring. He made some further statements that were astonishing when he spoke of some who were even raised from the dead:
“Many of them have remained constant, enduring tortures inflicted by sword, rope, fire and water and suffering terrible, tyrannical, unheard-of deaths and martyrdoms, all of which they could easily have avoided by recantation. Moreover one also marvels when he sees how the faithful God (Who, after all, overflows with goodness) raises from the dead several such brothers and sisters of Christ after they were hanged, drowned, or killed in other ways. Even today, they are found alive and we can hear their own testimony… Cannot everyone who sees, even the blind, say with a good conscience that such things are a powerful, unusual, and miraculous act of God? Those who would deny it must be hardened men.”9
I personally had not ever heard of any charismatic phenomena among Anabaptists, so this evoked some curiosity in me. I have since found quite a number of others who also wrote of things like this among our ancestors.
Stuart Murray makes the claim that even in the Swiss congregations there was evidence of an experience of the Holy Spirit in the earliest groups that was in similarity to that of the South German groups. He writes of the Swiss Brethren stressing that it was only the work of the Holy Spirit that empowered them to live differently. Grebel, Mantz, and Blaurock were all reported to have had dreams and visions. 10
In Thuringia, there was an account of about forty Anabaptists that were in prison and spent their time singing, dancing, and experiencing visions. When they went before the judge, they came with joy and peace. When they were sent to their execution, they went “as if in a trance”.11
Jacob Hutter wrote in a letter, in 1535, that God had given him a blessing. “He has made His Word alive in me and in many to whom I proclaimed His will, sealing it through the working of His Holy Spirit with mighty miracles and signs.”12
George Williams wrote about a group of Anabaptists that were “excited by mass hysteria, experienced healings, glossolalia [speaking in tongues], contortions, and other manifestations of a camp-meeting revival”. 13
Alan Krieder’s extensive research of the Martyr’s Mirror pointed to a 1531 story about a man named Martin who was led across a bridge to be executed. As he was led across, he prophesied saying, “This once yet the pious are led over this bridge, but no more hereafter.” A short time later, such a violent storm came that the bridge was consequently destroyed by a flood and carried away.14
Menno Simons and Dirk Philips were wary of visions and prophesies because of claims of such visions in Munster and in the Spiritualist groups. However they accepted them as long as they were validated by and subordinated to Scripture.15 Marpeck also added his admonishment to this, warning his readers not to “force the Holy Spirit” nor to “allow personal desires or opinions to masquerade as the Spirit’s leading”.16
Holy Spirit’s Help in Interpreting Scripture
The early church believed that the Holy Spirit within them would help them to interpret Scripture. They believed this was much more trustworthy than the help of scholars, traditions, or official representatives of state churches. They trusted that the Holy Spirit would guide them actively in understanding it more than reliance on their own reasoning abilities and hard work. One of their complaints about the Reformers is that they felt the Reformers equated the Spirit’s work with that of human reasoning. They criticized the Reformers for quenching the Spirit and said they could not be relied on to interpret Scripture in a trustworthy fashion. Marpeck complained that “the dull teachers have lost the sharpness of the Word, and the sword of the Spirit has been stolen from them and given over to human power. Thus the discipline of the Spirit, the sharpness of Word, has been discontinued and blasphemed”.17
Imprisoned Anabaptists claimed that the Holy Spirit gave them such an understanding of Scripture that they were able to “confound” those questioning them, even though their inquisitors were educated men. This seems to be true as their opponents were often astonished and had a grudging admiration for their understanding and ability to explain biblical texts. 18
Anabaptists did not just believe the Holy Spirit would give them understanding, they also believed that the Holy Spirit within them would change their lives so they would then live out what they understood. Even their enemies noted that they lived holy lives. Franc Agricola, a Roman Catholic opponent seemed confused when he wrote of them:
“As concerns their outward public life they are irreproachable. No lying, deception, swearing, strife, harsh language, no intemperate eating and drinking, no outward personal display, is found among them, but humility, patience, uprightness, neatness, honesty, temperance, straightforwardness in such measure that one would suppose that they had the Holy Spirit of God!”[emphasis mine]19
And interestingly enough, sometimes non-Anabaptists were arrested on suspicion of being Anabaptists because they lived upright lives. They could escape prosecution if they could convince their accusers that they weren’t really Anabaptists. They did this by cursing freely and convincing their accusers that they weren’t as holy as they appeared.20
Anabaptists Today in Regards to Holy Spirit Leading
My concern with our people today is that we don’t have those in our circles that teach much about the Holy Spirit. Often, when someone teaches anything that puts us out of our comfort zones, we push them out. We have grown so comfortable in our literalist/legalism views and with no push back from any other views, it seems we are contently staying in our ditch.
Our views regarding the Holy Spirit’s leading are not the same as those of our ancestors. Even the most literalist Swiss groups seemed to have at least some understanding. We have done well through the generations of teaching truths from Scripture, but without teaching about the Holy Spirit’s role in making that Word come to life in us, it is easy to approach the Word like a rule book of do’s and don’ts.
We want to pass on our culture and belief system to the next generation, so we make rules to insure that, but no amount of rules could ever “pass on” the Holy Spirit in the lives of our descendants. All we can do is faithfully teach what Scripture says about Him and point to His work in our lives. Could it be that we don’t want to risk trusting Him to do His work in our children/descendants, so we attempt to force them into the mold we choose instead?
I don’t think that we need to idolize or view the earliest Anabaptists through rose colored glasses, but there is much we can learn from our history. We need more “Pilgram Marpeck” leaders who will speak up and give us a balanced viewpoint without just pointing to another ditch.
- Murray, Stuart, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith– Fifth Anniversary Edition, (Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 2010, 2015) pg. 180
- Ibid. pg. 174
- Murray, Stuart, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, (Herald Press, Scotdale, Pennsylvania/Waterloo, Ontario, 2000), pg. 64
- Ibid. pg. 126-127
- Klassen, William, Klassen Walter, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), pg. 49-51
- Murray, Biblical Interpretation, pg. 131-133
- Hans-Jurgen Goertz, The Anabaptists (London: Routledge, 1996), pg. 21
- Murray, Biblical Interpretation, pg. 133
- Williams, George H., The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992) pg. 443
- Thieleman van Braght, Martyr’s Mirror, (Scottdale, PA:Herald Press, 1950) pg. 440
- Murray, Biblical Interpretation, pg. 134, 147
- Ibid. pg. 145
- Ibid. pg. 137-138
- Ibid. pg. 141
- In Against the Terrible Errors of the Anabaptists (1582)https://www.goshen.edu/mhl/Refocusing/d-av.htm
- Murray, Naked Anabaptist, pg. 66