Hans-Jürgen Goertz’s book The Anabaptists was first published in German in 1980 as Die
Täufer: Geschichte und Deutung. This third edition is the English translation. In addition to
several more minor changes and editing, the author has added an additional new chapter entitled:
Simple Brothers, Self-confident Sisters.
Goertz begins with a very helpful, brief, and carefully nuanced overview of nine Anabaptist alternatives, all from the first half of the 16th century. (1) The group centered in Zurich around Zwingli with the humanist Konrad Grebel as their leader. (2) Michael Sattler and those who shared in the Schleitheim Articles who envisioned the alternative church of the persecuted and defenseless. (3) Those who participated in the Martyr’s Synod with leadership from Hans Hut and strongly connected to the views of Thomas Müntzer. (4) Hans Romer, Melchoir Rinck, and several others who struggled to find a place for secular authority while weaving between pacifism and militancy. (5) Jacob Hutter and those Anabaptists committed to the community of goods. (6) The Pilgrim Marpeck circle with its more moderate theology and open encounter with society. (7) The apocalyptic followers of Melchior Hoffman who led the debacle of a so-called New Jerusalem in Münster. (8) The Dutch group centered around the long leadership of Menno Simons. (9) Anabaptists in England who passed on their heritage to Quakers and Baptists.
Goertz acknowledges that these groups often were in contact and dialogue with each other and
occasionally influenced each other, but collectively they do not represent a
position but many Anabaptist alternatives. As he concludes this chapter:
I have written in this
overview not of the alternative of Anabaptism, but rather of Anabaptist alternatives.
If there is not a mono-genesis but a poly-genesis of Anabaptism, may one then ask another simple question: Is it possible to find a single uniting feature which all these pluralistic Anabaptist groups of origin can share? Can one quality or a single aspect of faith drawn out of the social and religious world of 16th century Anabaptism be used to define an imagined or actual unity after all? It is that question which forms the basis for the second chapter of this volume.
Anticlericalism and Moral Improvement, the second chapter sets the context for
Goertz’s basic and continuing interpretation of Anabaptism; namely, that it grew out of a cultural
context in which anticlericalism was thriving. Furthermore, he claims that Anabaptism
participated in and contributed to this anticlericalism, and it now serves as an essential
touchstone for Anabaptist interpretation. It is both the historical and theological key to
understanding all Anabaptist essentials.
In the Menno Simons lectures given at Bethel College, North Newton, KS, in October, 1995,
Sjouke Voolstra entitled his second lecture
The anticlerical priest: From father confessor to lay
preacher of true penitence. In the printed version of these lectures (Menno Simons: His Image
and Message, published by Bethel College, 1997) Voolstra writes:
In the recent socio-historical
approach to the Reformation, the concept of anticlericalism has been present as an inclusive
explanatory model of the third decade of the sixteenth century, when the Reformation was still
going through its In an extended footnote at this point he discusses Hans-Jürgen
Goertz and others; there he writes:
Goertz also stuffs Menno Simons’ life and teachings into a
tight anticlerical straitjacket, and this sometimes leads to forced interpretations such as those
regarding Christology, the doctrine of justification, ... In this way anticlericalism, as a
monocausal explanatory model of the early Reformation, appears to confer a new cohesion to
Anabaptism which, from the viewpoint of a similarly strict socio-historical approach, has lost the
innocence of its monogenetic beginnings and disintegrated into polygenetic factors.
A question which I found myself asking while reading Goertz was: How am I to understand the
anticlericalism? Voolstra ventures a very brief comment offering three understandings:
We must distinguish several forms of anticlericalism—the laymen complained about the clergy
(and vice versa!), the lower clergy opposed the higher clergy, and the clergy could come to hate
itself. Generally our assumed understanding rests in the first of these alternatives, though it
might be interesting to speculate whether the second or even third option might have been
present in some measure among the Anabaptist reformers.
As a minister myself and now a former Director of Ministerial Leadership Services for the
General Conference Mennonite Church, I confess that my defensive sensitivities rise appreciably
when the discussion turns to anticlericalism. It is not because I feel compelled to protect and
defend any form of clergy elitism, and certainly I am not called to defend the actions of all clergy
persons, but I know that within our present North American context of the last fifty years there
has lingered around the edges of Anabaptist interpretation an anticlericalism that believes that if
we were true to our heritage we would abolish anything that marks a difference between those
who serve in pastoral roles within the church and those who do not. In the popular language of
Everyone is a minister. To diffuse and confuse the issue, much of the church speaks of
leadership in preference to ministry.
I recall John Howard Yoder once saying:
If one is to be ordained, all should be ordained. This
too is a form of anticlericalism—of a type not known to the 16th century Anabaptists. At least
Yoder was honest enough to acknowledge that when he wrote that the Anabaptist reformers
should not be looked to for special guidance or illumination on the matters of how to renew
ministerial patterns. Indeed, he adds later,
The universalism of ministry is the radical
reformation that is still waiting to happen.
One could site passage after passage from Menno Simons (and I’m confident from others as
well) that speaks vigorously in critique of the clergy as he knew them and as he knew himself.
From his writing on
The New Birth we read:
If we turn to the divines, whether preachers,
priests, or monks, there we find such an idle, lazy, wanton, and carnal life, such a corrupted, anti-Christian doctrine and interpretation of the Scriptures, such hatred, envy, defaming, betraying,
lying, and turmoil against all the pious, that I would be ashamed to mention it before the virtuous
and honest. But this never meant for Menno a rejection of the call to the office of ministry.
Foundation of Christian Doctrine we read:
They (the true preachers) were driven into
this office by the Spirit of God, with pious hearts, and did ever esteem themselves unfit to serve
the people of God or to execute such a high and responsible office.
For no one can serve in this
high and holy office conformable to God’s will, except he whom the Lord of the vineyard has
made capable by the Spirit of His grace.
It is significant that Menno and all the early Anabaptist confessions speak concerning the
of ministry in a way that affirms its importance to the life of the church. His anticlericalism was
never a rejection of the need for ministerial leadership within the church, but it was a strong
critique of the abuse which is always a potential within every responsible office, both within and
without the church.
Using anticlericalism as the key to interpret the Anabaptist reformation reminds me of the
If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!
Searching for the single key by which to interpret Anabaptist life and faith is not new to Goertz nor to the present socio-historical approach. Various themes have been suggested in recent history: Anabaptist theology of the church as community, believer’s baptism, discipleship, the free church in relation to state and society, pacifism, and martyrdom. Shall we now add a new key in anticlericalism?
Or should we better follow the course of those like Goertz who have asked us to approach Anabaptist history from a poly-genesis interpretation of its beginnings? Would not he and we alike be better served by a poly-thematic understanding rather than the mono-thematic approach which his anticlericalism seems to ask of us? Does it not seem reasonable to enlarge our Anabaptist interpretation by moving both from mono-genesis to poly-genesis and from mono-thematic to poly-thematic understandings?
We could then acknowledge that the multiple Anabaptist groups, from the 16th century to the present, have chosen to emphasize one or several themes, even while their sisters and brothers chose to emphasize others. It would enrich and enlarge our understanding of all Anabaptist groups whose life and faith could not be reduced to single and simple interpretations. It would allow us to embrace the paradoxes which are endemic to faith and faithfulness. It would allow us to be more historically honest as we are freed from some of our present persuasions and contemporary biases.
Despite my basic critique of the anticlerical key to interpret Anabaptist history which dominates this volume by Goertz, I did find my understandings enlarged and enriched by the book as a whole. In a quite concise manner, he has a way of giving a close reading to the story. He combines history and theology in a manner not often experienced. He offers an occasional critique of other North American and European Anabaptist scholars, which I found enlightening. He has a broad enough ecumenism that Anabaptism itself is not always portrayed as God’s greatest and only wisdom. As a North American Mennonite too often limited by provincial interpretations, I found it an important experience to read our history from a contemporary European interpretation.
John A. Esau
North Newton, Kansas