Radical Reformers

Protestant ReformersThough hardly an accurate representation of the varieties and differences among the plethora of multiform reformation theologies and practices at work in Europe during the 16th century, the term “Radical Reformation” has long been used as a ‘catch-all’ phrase describing non-magisterial reformers such as Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, and Pilgrim Marpeck. In this paper we examine the perspectives of these reformers, noting that despite their theological differences, each of these reformers argued for a conception of Christian faith that emphasized a strong reliance upon scripture alone as the basis of authority as well as arguments against the coercion of conscience and faith by force.

In his “Letter to Munzter,” Conrad Grebel took note of some similarities and differences that existed between the two reformers, especially those concerning appropriate Christian worship, the institutions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the relationship between Christian and force. For Grebel, baptism was a scriptures based institution (74) that needed to have removed the corruptions of false forbearers (75). Key in this conception was performing baptism according to the precise prescriptions in the scriptures (75). For Grebel, baptism signifies that the faith and blood of Christ have washed away sin, a man has changed his life, that he is dead to sin, and that if he continues in the faith he will be saved according to faith (80). Baptism does not save, along the traditions of the church fathers, but signifies Christ (80-1). Similarly, the Lord’s Supper, according to the words of scripture alone, stood as a fellowship of Christians (76) and joyful remembrance of Christ’s body, blood, and work for salvation (76). Grebel notes several times that the bread of the Supper remains just bread, and writes that the words of institution are words of fellowship and not consecration, lest his position concerning the importance of this fellowship meal be misunderstood and lead to idolatrous worship of the bread and cup (76). Grebel believed that a personal faith, confirmed by conscience and not coercion, remains the best form of Christian faith (79). In writing to Muntzer, Grebel argued that warring and violence are not permitted among true Christians according to the scriptures, and that Munzter must cease all use of opinion in forming an understanding of the relationship between Christian and state (84-5). For Grebel the actions and words of Christ found in the scriptures should be the sole basis for Christian action, and thus he condemns all forms of Christian application of force, including Munzter’s revolutionary violence (84-5). Further, while Grebel argued that the state should allow each person to adhere to their conscience in belief, he did not seem to advocate any form of forceful rebellion were that not the case. As we can see from this summary of Grebel’s letter, both a commitment to the truth of scripture alone as well as a reinforcement of a faith free from coercion were central concerns.

Schleitheim Confession

In Michael Sattler’s Schleitheim Confession he laid out seven key points that he believed were the defining locus of true Christian faith in contrast to the corruptions of the Roman church and magisterial reformers. In a rejection of allowing violent force to be used within the church, Sattler writes that the only acceptable form of church “discipline” to be observed was the “ban,” in which Christians, having fallen into sin, are addressed on account of the sins. In accordance with the manner prescribed in Matthew 18, those who are living in are to be approached at least twice before being brought before the congregation and treated as a “tax collector or sinner” if they do not repent (36-37). Later in the Seven Articles, Sattler lays out the requirements necessary to participate in the Lord’s Supper, arguing that before participating in the supper those involved must be united in Christian fellowship with the congregation with which they are communing and must be professing and baptized Christians (37). Implicit in the calls for unity preceding the administration of the Lord’s Supper is clearly a “memorial” view of the elements within the Supper (37). Sattler’ articles also call for a distinct separation of Christians from the world, by which he appears to solidify this portion of the Radical Reformation’s preference for a Christian community that is strongly divorced from not only the civic and secular authorities, but also the rest of a given society in which “abominations” are practiced (37-8). This creating of distinctions between the true Christian community and the rest of the corrupt world seems to be an attempt at maintaining the boundaries of the Christian community as well as an attempt to keep those within the community from being polluted (and potentially damned) on account of their interaction with those outside the fellowship of Christ (38). Finally, Sattler discusses at some length the proper Christian relationship that should exist between true Christians and coercive force, the “sword.” Here Sattler argues that not only should Christians divorce themselves from weapons of violence (38), but they should reject use of the sword and coercive force on a wider scale as well (39). Sattler allows that the sword has an appropriate function within the realm of secular authority, but argues that no form of discipline other than the ban should be effected within the Church (39). Because of Christian love (38) and because the church is founded upon reliance on the spirit and not force, Sattler argues that any coercive or disciplinary use of the sword in the church remains inappropriate, unbiblical, and unsatisfactory for Christians who claim to be following the spiritual rule of Christ (40-1). By examining Sattler’s position in the Seven Articles, we can see here too an emphasis placed upon scriptural bases for theological tenets as well as calls for Christians to hold fast to conscience, especially concerning the relationship of the secular world to true Christians.

In his chapter “Gerecthigkeit and Marpeck’s Social Theology,” Stephen Boyd examines the wider implications of Pilgrim Marpeck’s theology. While the contents of this chapter touch on a wide variety of consideration regarding Marpeck’s theology, for the purposes of this paper we will examine Marpeck’s notion of sin, drawing from his hamartiology his emphasis on the authority of scripture and freedom of conscience and action. Marpeck rejected the traditional Augustinian notion of “original sin” due to its lack of direct scriptural support, instead arguing for “inherited weakness” which allowed him to maintain an aspect of personal responsibility between the individual and the community (148). For Marpeck, sin could not be understood as a mechanical causation passed on by the community, but needed to be understood in some manner of personal responsibility (148). An age of accountability clouds somewhat Marpeck’s understanding of sin among children, but his understanding of sin in those who were old enough to be held responsible constituted a concrete “knowing disobedience” to that which was right (149). In viewing Marpeck’s conception of sin, it becomes clear that, like Grebel and Sattler, he too placed an emphasis on finding scriptural warrant for his theological constructions. Additionally, his theology emphasized leaving room enough for human freedom and responsibility in choice making and beliefs, thereby not only arguing for freedom of conscience before secular human authorities, but also advocating a theology that emphasized freedom relative to God as well.

As this short summary and survey of these three Radical Reformers has demonstrated, despite significant theological differences in their respective programs, Grebel, Sattler, and Marpeck all emphasized the authority of scripture and freedom from coercion in their theological programs.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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