Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Reformers and their Stepchildren

storming title for a book, eh? And someone got there first, in 1964, in fact...

Review of Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and

their Stepchildren (Exeter: Paternoster, 1964)

Verduin aims to rehabilitate the so-called ‘Radical Reformers’ by examining more critically than most historians the charges hurled at them by their opponents both Catholic and Protestant. He calls these ‘radicals’ the men and women of the ‘Second Front’, or the ‘Stepchildren’ of the magisterial Reformers, with whom they shared much in common in doctrine but less in ecclesiology and vision of society.

Their main bone of contention was with ‘medieval sacralism’, a social order designed to ensure homogeneity in religion, ritual, political thought and many strands of culture. Verduin goes so far as to say that this sacralism was ‘monist’. He is fighting fire with fire, since the Stepchildren are often labelled ‘dualists’, which is unfair

unless it be dualism to insist that the rule-right that comes to expression in the State (which is a creature of common grace) and the rule-right that comes to expression in the Church (which is a creature of common grace) are discrete. (p.99)

Finding that the social world envisaged by the New Testament is plural – for there are always two groups in a society, the believers and the unbelievers – Verduin argues that the sacralism challenged by the Stepchildren was unbiblical and inherited from the Roman Empire. The Reformers, because of their concern for a certain kind of peace and order, and because they imagined that their reforming efforts would be more likely to succeed with the backing of the sword, courted secular powers. The Stepchildren ignored secular powers, defied them, or in some cases tried to seize the sword directly in the name of the peasants or an apocalyptic ‘prophet’.

Verduin returns to the bone of sacralism in each chapter, reasoning that it lay behind the insults made, whether apparently theological or not. “Donatisten” (Donatists) is the first and most fundamental charge, since its object struck directly at a monistic sacral order by claiming that another, purer church could (and should) exist alongside the mainstream one. The Stepchildren were also callsed “Stäbler” (Staff-bearers) since they did not want a sword in their hands, “Catharer” (Pure Ones) since they emphasised holiness, “Sacramentschwärmer” (Sacramentarians) since they opposed the Catholic teaching and practice of sacraments, “Winkler” (Corner-gatherers) because they wanted to meet in homes to study the Bible, “Wiedertäufer” (Anabaptists) because they wanted a church for believers with entry by believers’ baptism, “Kommunisten” (Communists; perhaps the most easy to refute) because they allegedly abolished private property, and “Rottengeiester” (Sectarians) because they split off from mainstream society and the church insofar as they refused to take the oath of allegiance. Verduin also tries to trace similar ideas – peaceful resistance to sacralism, greater biblical knowledge and concern for holiness, and a certain amount of dissembling before the authorities – through European history, in the sporadic records of heretic trials or passing comments in mainstream catholic writers. He has some success in this, as he is slightly more measured than Broadbent’s The Pilgrim Church, though adopting a similar position. By implication, the (wilful?) misunderstandings shown by the 16th century opponents of the Stepchildren were shared by at least some earlier medieval heresy-hunters.

Verduin is very direct: he wears both his analysis and his heart on his sleeve. This is refreshing in an age of fudge, but did make me a little suspicious that he was over-stating his position. For example, when he says that it was not concern for the salvation of infants that drove ‘the medieval paedobaptist’, so much as its potential for promoting sacralism and the magistrate’s interests (see pp.192-5), I would hestiate to be quite so sweeping about the motives of the average parish priest or monk, though the point is taken. He is briefly carried away by his passion when discussing the burning of Servetus. It is enough to argue that the sacral order that executed heretics was wrong to do so, and that Calvin was wrong to acquiesce in the case of Servetus. It is not necessary to (falsely) argue in addition that Servetus’ false teaching wasn’t really all that bad or wrong (p.52). The case against sacralism and its co-opting of the sword stands or falls regardless of the heresy in question.[1] Verduin usually realises this, but he does sometimes find (or widen) orthodoxy where it isn’t really present.[2]

The extensive use of primary sources is a real srength; surprisingly, Verduin assumes that his readers know Latin, German, French and Early Modern Dutch so he doesn’t always translate the quotations from those languages! Where translated, it is wonderful to read the Stepchildren in their own words, and rather less wonderful to read some very telling comments by the famous Reformers that reveal how deeply they were steeped in sacralism. Sadly Luther’s famous quote about siting back with his beer and letting the word do its work sounds rather hollow: ‘I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion…’ (Reeves, p.75) feels to me like a half truth, given what the Lutherans did to the Anabaptists.

Having argued the case well that (most of?) the Stepchildren were not dangerous in the way they have often been portrayed, it would have been helpful to have some more detailed sociological analysis of their various groups/movements and a careful assessment of the numbers of pacifists versus the number of violent revolutionaries. Verduin’s marshalling of sources tells us a lot about quality, but not so much about quantity. I am trying to resist being carried away uncritically by Verduin’s enthusiasm, given Reeves’ pages on the Anabaptists theological weaknesses (pp.82-85), but since Reeves does not quote the sources I will need to delve for myself…

The Reformers and their Stepchildren has pulled me up sharp in my general ignorance of the Anabaptists and encouraged me to read some of their writings, and some Yoder for a modern take. I have found myself telling people all about the book in conversation, partly in the excitement of new learning, and partly as an encouragement. Despite the persecutions The Reformers and their Stepchildren recounted there was evidence of plenty of spiritual life in Europe in times and places we might not have realised. Insofar as Verduin is right about the social-political attitudes of the Stepchildren then there is a lot to be said for the idea that they are major contributers to the modern idea of a religiously plural and tolerant state. The question that remains open, however, is how much their beliefs link directly to John Locke and others who argued for religious freedom over a century later. So, it has stimulated my political thinking again, which is helpful in advance of a possible swan song Cambridge paper on eschatology and politics.

[1] Here, Verduin has the edge on two recent popular evangelical histories of the Reformation, Kirsten Birkett’s The Essence of the Reformation (1998) and Michael Reeves’, The Unquenchable Flame (2009), which are great, but rather light on the Anabaptists. Both Birkett and Reeves try to defend Calvin on the Servetus issue as a man of his time (Birkett, pp.55-57; Reeves, pp.106-7). This argument fails because the Stepchildren had been around for several decades preaching and practising non-violent ways of dealing with heresy, and, as Reeves points out, (p.82), suffering horribly for it.

[2] He is reassuringly cautious about endorsing possible docetism among the Stepchildren (pp.258-59; compare Reeves, p.84), and an over-eagerness to be martyred (pp.252-56).