The Case for Anabaptist Christianity

This article is an outline for an Anabaptist apologetic. Basically, it’s my method of evaluating the truth-claims of the view of Christianity that’s held by Anabaptists as opposed to the views of other faith traditions.

There won’t be much new material in this article. It’s mainly a reference for understanding how each argument on this site fits into the puzzle.

Note that you don’t need to belong to an Anabaptist church in order to use this apologetic. People from “Kingdom” churches and those who hold to the pre-Nicene faith could use this, whether or not they descend spiritually from the early Anabaptists. I just call it “Anabaptist” because that’s the largest faith tradition today which holds to basically these beliefs.

Goals

This post is intended to lay out a case for an Anabaptist worldview which is

  • Concise enough to be easily comprehended
  • Conclusive, if it’s true
  • Clearly stated to be easily understood by anyone, including Catholics and Protestants, without unnecessary jargon or explanations
  • Confirmed by underlying arguments

I. Arguments for an Anabaptist Worldview

Caveat: This is a case for a worldview on which Anabaptists can rest their signature beliefs, rather than a case for what all Anabaptists believe. An Anabaptist worldview is not held by all Anabaptists any more than a Catholic worldview is held by all Catholics.

A. What Is Our Method for Discovering Truth?

I categorize the principles for the most reliable method as follows:

  • Christian doctrine comes from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles that are found in the New Testament.
  • We should read Jesus’ and the apostles’ commands through a hermeneutic of straightforwardness.
    • Choose a straightforward interpretation over a typological interpretation or a re-interpretation that’s intended not to contradict a theological presupposition.
    • Interpret the text as an ordinary text, not a legally precise text.
    • Harmonize two texts that seem to contradict each other, rather than preferring the one text and re-interpreting the other.
    • If a text can have multiple reasonable interpretations, don’t count it as giving much weight to any one of them.
  • Our understanding of the faith can be powerfully confirmed by the historic faith method, which is a method of inquiring into what the apostles taught based on truths that the pre-Nicene church universally believed.
    • The early church was essentially agreed on what was necessary to the faith, and their points of agreement match the truths discovered through the previous principles.
    • Around the time of the Council of Nicaea, the church changed some doctrines.
    • Argument from transmission:
      • Later church fathers received the apostolic traditions solely through early church teaching.
      • If a source (B) receives information solely through another source (A), then A is more to be trusted than B.
      • Therefore, early church teaching is more to be trusted than later church fathers.
    • Argument from proximity:
      • Later church fathers were farther removed (in terms of time, place, culture, and changing of hands) from the apostolic traditions than early church teaching was.
      • If a source (B) is farther removed from the original information than another source (A) is, then A is more to be trusted than B.
      • Therefore, early church teaching is more to be trusted than later church fathers.
    • Argument from consistency:
      • Nonresistance and opposing beliefs both claim to be consistent with the teaching of the apostles, while nonresistance is both taught by multiple authorized teachers in the first generations of the apostles’ followers and condemned by none.
      • If a teaching and its negation both claim to be consistent with the teaching of the apostles, and if the teaching (A) is both taught by multiple authorized teachers in the first generations of their fallible followers and condemned by none, it is more to be trusted than its negation (¬A) is.
      • Therefore, nonresistance is more to be trusted than its negation is.
  • We should mistrust interpretations of Scripture that arose after the earliest era of Christianity
    • Not a new point, but a corollary of the first three.

B. What Is the Truth Arrived at By This Method?

I categorize the essential beliefs of the faith arrived at through this method as follows:

  • “Mere Christian” doctrines which are believed by virtually all Christians:
    • Such as the divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit; Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension; our salvation through Jesus; the resurrection to final reward or judgment.
  • “Kingdom Christian” doctrines—that Christianity is separate nation from earthly nations, and doctrines that follow from this.
    • Jesus’ identity is defined by his kingship, and the Kingdom of God is the main thrust of the gospel.
    • The Kingdom of God is the present reality of Christians, but it will not be present in its fulness until Jesus returns.
    • Christians are saved by transferring their allegiance to the Kingdom of God and remain saved through obedience to King Jesus’ commands.
    • Earthly nations have rightful authority. Christians are asked to obey and pray for earthly nations, but are never expected to be patriotic.
    • The Kingdom of God defines our lives as an earthly nation would, and when loyalties clash, we obey God.
    • The Kingdom of God will always have different values and methods from earthly nations; thus, Christianity cannot mix with earthly politics.
  • Christianity is a lived faith that includes obedience to even the most difficult New Testament commands. It is an obedient love–faith relationship with Jesus Christ (paraphrased from David Bercot).
    • Examples: New Testament community ethics, sexual ethics, financial ethics, and interpersonal ethics (which includes truth-telling, no evil speaking, and mutual submission).
    • More distinctively, the witness of the New Testament and the early church is clear that we should be nonresistant (nonviolent peacemakers).
      • We should not use violence against other people, even to defend ourselves.
      • We should not participate in war.

C. What Christian Movements Are Indicated By These Truths?

  • The faith described above can be lived out in any Christian movement or denomination, and many Christians have in fact done so.
    • These truths are not specific to one institution or spiritual pedigree.
    • Note: There is no One True Church—this is the one place where I take exception to the teachings of the early Christians, for reasons offered in the next section.
  • Though this faith can be lived out in any tradition, there are movements that encourage this faith more so than other movements do.
    • These truths happen to be basically the same ones that were definitively Anabaptist when that movement arose.
    • Many Anabaptist groups continue to hold to essentially these beliefs, while it’s not typical for groups from other movements to hold to them.
    • Note: There are a few truths turned up by this method which weren’t typically accepted by the Anabaptists (such as the real presence in communion), but these are easily correctable issues which are indeed corrected by a movement of historicism among Anabaptists and similar groups.

This argument should be enough to support a view of Christianity similar to Anabaptism. However, a complete case must contend with the conflicting claims put forward by other views of Christianity, which I will do in the following sections.

II. Arguments Against Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy

A. Apologetic Method Against the Claims of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches

The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church not only believe that they have correct doctrine; each of them also claims to be the one true authoritative church to which all Christians should belong. Here is how I address their claims:

  • I show that their authority claims aren’t true, in which case
    • They are not the one true authoritative church to which all Christians should belong. Thus, Christians who are fully Christians can belong to any church.
    • They teach doctrines that are incorrect (e.g., the authority claims); therefore, their view of Christianity is not correct with regard to those doctrines.
    • Since they do not have authority over Christian doctrine, we do not need to accept their doctrinal statements; instead, we revert to finding out true doctrines through the method I proposed.
  • I show that they have made alterations to the faith, in which case
    • Their authority claims are again shown to be false, since one cannot truly authoritatively teach Christian doctrines that are false. Thus, Christians who are fully Christians can belong to any church.
    • They teach doctrines that are incorrect (e.g., the alterations); therefore, their view of Christianity is not correct with regard to those doctrines.
    • Since their doctrinal statements are shown to be unreliable, we revert to finding out true doctrines through the method I proposed.

Both methods get us to the same point. However, I include both so as to give a more complete response to the positive case for Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

B. RC and EO Authority Claims Are Not True

Here is why their authority claims aren’t true:

  • Apostolic succession of ordination is incorrect. It is not true that bishops have authority like the apostles by virtue of having been ordained by other bishops in a direct line from the apostles.
    • Many, if not all, churches in the apostolic era and directly thereafter were ruled by a plurality of men in the office of bishop/presbyter, which suggests that there weren’t single monarchical bishops to succeed the apostles.
    • The early evidence does not support the idea that bishops have special authority like the apostles by virtue of being ordained by other bishops in a direct line from the apostles.
    • The bishops of the ancient churches have not legitimately filled and passed on this office in a direct line from the apostles, due to simony, immorality, and false doctrine.
    • There seems to be early support for the idea that a congregation (of people who don’t carry the office of bishop) can legitimately ordain a person into that office.
    • The office of bishop does not include the continued ability to make definitive pronouncements on the faith under any circumstances.
  • The Papacy is an innovation developed since 325. The bishop of Rome does not inherit the apostle Peter’s role of infallibility or of supremacy.
    • There is evidence that Jesus gave the apostles authority to teach infallibly and to lead the church, and Peter was foremost among them, but not evidence that he was foremost in the specific sense of having supreme authority over the whole church, including the other apostles.
    • There is evidence that Peter and the other apostles founded Jesus’ church such that it would never cease to exist, but not evidence that it would continue as a singular institutional church.
    • There is evidence that Peter and the other apostles ordained bishops to lead the church when they were gone, but not evidence that Peter’s special role of infallibility and supremacy passed on to each succeeding monarchical bishop of Rome.
    • There is evidence that this institution was intended to uphold true Christian doctrine, but not evidence that it made certain that the teachings of the Roman church remain free of doctrinal error.
    • There is evidence that, historically, the church at Rome for many years aided in the leadership of other churches and lead out in the defense of the apostolic faith, but not evidence that the early church taught that all churches everywhere must abide by the Roman bishop’s decisions.
  • There is no One True Church. This is the one place where I do not hold to the consistent teachings of the early Christians, for the following reasons.
    • The apostolic writings indicate that the church is fundamentally composed of local groups of individuals who come together in the unity of Christ. The evidence doesn’t indicate that the church is primarily an organization, that it is defined by its hierarchical government, or that it is necessarily ruled by centers of authority located in particular cities.
    • Unlike in the pre-Nicene era, there are now four contenders to the claim of being the original church, all of them similar enough that the early Christians wouldn’t have appreciated the differences between them.
    • Unlike in the pre-Nicene era, it is no longer true that retaining the One True Church doctrine provides its intended focus of insulating us from heresy, since all four One True Churches have altered the faith.
    • There is not good reason for the ancient churches to hold up the early Christians as the ultimate standard in this area, yet to reject the very lifestyle and teachings that they were attempting to promote through this doctrine.
  • Councils do not have the authority to define Christian doctrine.
    • This idea rests on the idea of apostolic succession of ordination, which I’ve disproved above.
    • I am aware of no evidence, pre-dating the councils, that suggests that councils of bishops, without apostles being present, have authority to define the faith.
    • I am aware of evidence pre-dating the councils that suggests that only the apostles could define the faith.
  • The extra traditions of the RCC and EOC are not apostolic and thus don’t have authority.
    • Their extra-biblical traditions that weren’t defined as such by the apostles aren’t true, since Christian doctrine doesn’t change.
      • As stated earlier, no one besides Jesus and the apostles have authority to define the faith.
      • This means that doctrine cannot develop or be further defined.
    • Their extra traditions that were supposedly defined by the apostles, and not to have changed, aren’t true. This is because those traditions, such as doctrines about Mary, don’t meet the criteria for an extra-biblical doctrine to be considered apostolic:
      • There must be no substantial reason from Scripture against that doctrine’s authority.
      • There must not be a high likelihood that it would have arisen from cultural influences.
      • It must be attested to as early as the Scriptural apostolic traditions are attested in extra-biblical sources. There must be good evidence that it was believed or practiced from the very beginning. This would necessarily mean that it was recorded by pre-Nicene writers.
      • When discussed in sources, the contextual elements surrounding the tradition must speak of it in the ways that apostolic traditions found in Scripture are spoken of in those sources.
      • Since all apostolic traditions were made available to every church that the apostles founded, there must be good evidence that it was believed or practiced as widely throughout the Christian world as Scriptural apostolic traditions were.
      • Since all apostolic traditions were made available to every church that the apostles founded, there must be only one viable candidate for the content of the tradition. If different beliefs were held during the same early time period by apostolic churches, it is highly improbable that either one is an apostolic tradition.

C. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches Have Altered Doctrines

After about 325, the church made several alterations to the faith. Hence, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are no longer following apostolic Christianity and can no longer claim to be the apostolic church.

  • Criteria for an alteration vs. a development:
    • Newman’s criteria for determining a doctrine to have legitimately developed rather than corrupted are
      • “There is no corruption if it retains one and the same type, the same principles, the same organization; if its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases, and its later phenomena protect and subserve its earlier; if it has a power of assimilation and revival, and a vigorous action from first to last.” (On the Development of Christian Doctrine, Chapter 5)
      • I disagree that even these criteria are sufficient to demonstrate a legitimate development, but I grant them for now because they are sufficient to demonstrate actual alterations.
    • If a doctrine or practice that was held to be true by the apostles and their followers is no longer held to be true, that is an alteration. It doesn’t retain “one and the same type” or “the same principles,” and it’s not true that “its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases,” because it is a negation of the previous doctrine or practice.
    • If a doctrine or practice that the apostles and their followers were unaware of was later added, that is an alteration. It doesn’t retain “one and the same type” and “its later phenomena” don’t “protect and subserve its earlier,” and it’s not true that “its beginnings anticipate its subsequent phases,” since it is a new doctrine unlike any original apostolic doctrine.
    • Note that a doctrine must meet all of Newman’s criteria in order to be a legitimate development, since they are connected by “and.” Thus, a doctrine can meet all but one criterion and yet be an alteration.
  • Veneration of images was not a pre-conciliar Christian practice, but developed sometime after 325 and was made mandatory in 787.
    • Pre-Nicene Christians consistently believed that images cannot stand in for anything sacred.
    • Pre-Nicene Christians consistently saw veneration of images as a difference between pagans and Christians
    • Pre-Nicene Christians did not describe veneration of images as a Christian practice, either in favor or against.
    • No extant archaeological evidence is clear enough to overthrow this consensus.
  • The apostles and early Christians taught that we should not use violence to defend ourselves, nor should we participate in war. (Defended in more detail earlier.)
    • The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches no longer teach this.
    • Both churches have encouraged wars in the past.
    • Both churches have allowed/encouraged the state to persecute their detractors.
  • The apostles and early Christians taught that Christians belong to the Kingdom of God, and should maintain a separation from the kingdoms and methods of this world. We are to be obedient and supportive, but not patriotic or nationalistic. The Kingdom of God will always have different values and methods from earthly nations; thus, Christianity cannot mix with earthly politics. (Defended in more detail earlier.)
    • The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches were state churches for centuries.
    • Huge numbers of members of both churches take part in all levels of politics and are patriotic and nationalistic. Their churches often encourage this.

III. Arguments Nuancing Protestantism

Protestantism has not typically made authority claims, and has typically defended the belief that doctrine derives its authority from Scripture. Thus, though the early church and similar movements like Anabaptism have typically differed from Protestantism on some important issues of doctrine and lifestyle, the critique of Protestantism is less foundational and more doctrinal.

A. Is Anabaptism a Form of Protestantism?

  • Anabaptists arose around the same time as the Protestant Reformers
  • Yet some of the Anabaptists’ most definitive doctrines are not ones that defined the Reformers. Some of them still don’t define Protestantism.
    • Nonresistance (presented earlier)
    • Two Kingdoms (presented earlier)
    • Believers’ baptism and a church made up of only those who chose Christ (though other traditions also picked up on these later)
    • Religious freedom and separation of church and state (though other traditions also picked up on these later)
  • Furthermore, the Anabaptists haven’t defined themselves according to the standard doctrinal formulations that typically define Protestantism.
    • Some Anabaptists hold to Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura as they are formulated by Protestants.
    • Some, like me, hold to doctrines of faith and Scripture that are not formulated as Protestants typically do.
    • Typically, though, the Anabaptist emphasis is less on a doctrinal position, and much more on the lived faith.
      • Focusing on a lived faith that includes good works, without defining the way they interface.
      • Focusing on obedience to Scriptural commands, without fitting them into a theological system.
  • Conclusion: I am fine with being called Protestant, so long as those major differences are clearly understood. Otherwise, applying the term will lead to confusion and talking past one another. To avoid that, I prefer the term “Anabaptist.”

B. Anabaptist Critiques of Protestantism

  • I suggest that Protestants could be more true to the apostolic faith by adopting nonresistance and the two-kingdom view.
  • I suggest that less time should be spent in hammering out the relationship between faith and works. I suggest further that we should discuss the relationship between faith and works using Scriptural language rather than phrasing developed from the concerns of people in the 1500s. More important is to live out the faith of the apostles.

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