Not for Today?

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.

acts-of-the-apostlesMany 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.

Pilgram Marpeck

Marpeck-7In 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

Charismatic Inclinations

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.

  2. Murray, Stuart, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith– Fifth Anniversary Edition, (Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 2010, 2015) pg. 180
  3. Ibid. pg. 174
  4. Murray, Stuart, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, (Herald Press, Scotdale, Pennsylvania/Waterloo, Ontario, 2000), pg. 64
  5. Ibid. pg. 126-127
  6. Ibid.
  8. Klassen, William, Klassen Walter, The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), pg. 49-51
  9. Ibid
  10. Murray, Biblical Interpretation, pg. 131-133
  11. Hans-Jurgen Goertz, The Anabaptists (London: Routledge, 1996), pg. 21
  12. Murray, Biblical Interpretation, pg. 133
  13. Williams, George H., The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992) pg. 443
  14. Thieleman van Braght, Martyr’s Mirror, (Scottdale, PA:Herald Press, 1950) pg. 440
  15. Murray, Biblical Interpretation, pg. 134, 147
  16. Ibid. pg. 145
  17. Ibid. pg. 137-138
  18. Ibid. pg. 141
  19. In Against the Terrible Errors of the Anabaptists (1582)
  20. Murray, Naked Anabaptist, pg. 66



7 thoughts on “Not for Today?

  1. A lot of very interesting history here. Before I started reading, I already agreed with you that the Holy Spirit is for our day in every way. God’s Word doesn’t change. The thought that really struck as I read this, though, was the Anabaptist’s belief that it is the Holy Spirit which gives a proper understanding of the Word and the ability to answer those who question us. That is powerful. In our age of skepticism and man-centered reason, very powerful. But surely study and understanding with the mind and understanding Christianity in its historical setting is also important. Isn’t it? You apparently think so, because you have spent considerable time researching the lives of the early Anabaptists and reading their writings, rather than just sticking with God’s Word. I love Christian apologetics, because my logical mind wants a reasonable faith and rejects anything that is based on subjectivity. I also want to be able to defend my faith to others with solid facts and reason. What is the proper balance between using a God-given mind to search out answers and depending on the Holy Spirit to give understanding and answers? What about in convincing/discussing one’s faith with unbelievers? Is it okay to try to convince/defend my faith with logic and historical evidence, or is that taking the completely wrong tack?


    • Hi Lucinda,

      Lots of good thoughts and questions here. I don’t know that I have all the answers but I have also pondered on some of those same questions. I think the Holy Spirit and logic will always go hand and hand when studying Scripture. It’s when you leave either of them out, that you run into issues. In witnessing to others, the Holy Spirit often brings verses to mind along with thoughts of logic and reasoning. Sometimes it may seem like the Holy Spirit’s leading is directly against logic and reasoning. But yet He will never go against the Word.

      Let me see if I can explain what I mean a little better.

      One of the gifts of the Spirit is knowledge– but not all of us have that. And some are more greatly gifted in this than others. (And just like all the gifts, the more you exercise it, the more it grows.) But what I see happening sometimes is someone else’s gifting may lie in another area, and they point fingers at those whose gifting is on a different level or a different gifting altogether, saying, “This is not how it should be done.”

      Someone with the gift of faith or healing operates on a different level than someone with the gift of knowledge. When someone gets healed miraculously (no logical reasoning can ever explain it), someone with the gift of knowledge may struggle with wanting to try to find a logical explanation. Then the Holy Spirit may bring to their mind 1 Cor. 12.

      Another gift that might feel like it contradicts knowledge is prophecy. Sometimes that feels like it’s going against logic and reasoning, but yet knowledge of Scripture tells us that one purpose of prophecy is used to “disclose the secret’s of the heart”. (1 Cor. 14:24-25) Knowledge can’t do that. But knowledge (of Scripture) assures us it can be done.

      Knowledge (with logic and historical evidence) may be one person’s gifting to convince unbelievers, and another person’s gifting to persuade unbelievers may be prophecy or miracles, etc. So if you have a logical mind, then use that gifting exactly like God intended. 🙂 He gave it to you for a reason.


  2. I found this post very interesting because it confirms my suspicions that the power and presence of the Holy Spirit was a tangible reality in the experience of the first Anabaptists. When I read the vibrant testimonies in the Martyr’s Mirror, so unlike that of the majority of my people today, I could not believe otherwise. Learning about consecutive Mennonite history (of which there is very little available), I come to the conclusion that this special intimacy with God was largely lost early and replaced with the deceptive myth that to preserve the faith of our fathers we needed to try to duplicate their religious practices as closely as possible. Since the very purpose of our creation is for us to have communion with God – redemption was provided to restore this lost relationship – that led us to deep trouble as a people. Our history reminds me of the church at Ephesus – Jesus had some good things to say about it but rebuked it sharply for losing its first love. In fact, the matter was so serious that they were commanded to repent or their candlestick would be removed. I think of this sobering reality when I observe the chaos which Conservative churches are currently experiencing. It is not because we are not “doing church” right but rather because we have replaced God and the constant direction of His Spirit with our “system”. He desires our total love, worship and joyous obedience. Following the prescribed rules of the church and fitting perfectly into the expected religious mold is a far cry from the same and totally unacceptable to Him!
    I firmly believe that to experience the Power and Presence of God among us we need to collectively first realize the magnitude of our sin, repent and confess it before God as a people and vow to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. I site the Biblical example of the returned captives in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as the pattern for ourselves to follow.
    However, this kind of revival never is the result of eloquent campaigning. Instead, it is the work of a sovereign God when His Spirit brings conviction of sin to the hearts of His lukewarm people. Almost invariably in history it takes place in response to intercessors upon whom He has laid the burden of His own Heart and they respond by crying out to Him in prayer. This, I believe is part of the work He has cut out for myself and those whom He has called to unite with me. I urge you to join me in this ministry which I believe is the highest calling in the church. Remember – we are not waging war against men but rather against principalities, powers and spiritual wickedness in high places.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David,

      “…this special intimacy with God was largely lost early and replaced with the deceptive myth that to preserve the faith of our fathers we needed to try to duplicate their religious practices as closely as possible.”

      I think you are on to something there.

      “It is not because we are not ‘doing church’ right but rather because we have replaced God and the constant direction of His Spirit with our ‘system’. ”

      Amen. This is exactly what I have felt God has been pressing on me for the past several years. And I’m with you, brother. I have been on my face in prayer, weeping for our people for quite some time. I have been praying for our dry bones to come to life. We need the breath of God to breathe life into these bones once again.

      I’ve been told not to waste my time, and at times it’s been discouraging. Thank you for your encouragement to pray and for reminding me again where that battle lies. And it’s good to be reminded-again-that God is laying that burden to pray on more than just my own heart.

      Thank for commenting. God’s blessings to you.


  3. Pingback: An open letter about the Bible, blogging, and why I choose the titles I do

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