The Reformed Faith and the Danger of Subjectivism

The Anabaptist Problem

The recent appearance of Rev. L. Verduin’s book, The Reformers and their Stepchildren calls our attention to the problem of evaluating the 16th Century Anabaptist movement and its significance for the Reformed faith. Unfortunately, that book as I observed in a review of it in the October TORCH AND TRUMPET, despite the impressive amount of research which it reveals, is of little help to us in trying to evaluate the movement mainly because of the extreme partisanship it shows in favor of the Anabaptists. They are cast in the role of “heroes” and the Reformers where they differed from them are the “rogues.”

Perhaps the render might be inclined to ask, “Why should we bother about trying to evaluate a movement of four centuries ago? What difference docs it make to us?” It must be said to the credit of Verduin’s book that it calls attention to the way in which our handling of some very difficult and important modern problems is directly related to this history of Reformation times. We shall have to differ with some of his advice about current problems partly because we must differ with him in our evaluation of the history that lies behind them. What makes the study of Anabaptism of special interest and importance to us is the fact that the Anabaptist tradition came to dominate U.S. Protestant church history as it never did that of Europe. North American church problems are to an unusual extent “Anabaptist” church problems; therefore the study and analysis of Anabaptism may be of great help in trying to understand and solve them.

What other recent books have been produced in Reformed circles which might help us in evaluating Anabaptism? In the 1940’s two appeared. One of them by J. H. Wessel entitled, De Leerstellige Strijd tusschen Nederlandsche Gerefolmeerden en Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw,1 (Assen, 1945) in some 360 pages carefully and systematically analyzed the similarIties and differences between the Reformed and Anabaptist organizations, doctrines, and practices. It is the most extensive treatment of the subject that I have been able to locate.

Another, by J.W. Tunderman, Marnix van St. Aldegonde en de Subjectivistische Stroomingen in de 16de Eeuw2 (Goes, 1940), although it attempts no such systematic analysis of similarities and differences as that of Wessel, turns out to be much more revelant to our problem of evaluating Anabaptism than one might expect from its title.

Tunderman’s and Marnix’ Assessment of Anabaptism

The thrust of Tunderman’s book is suggested by a remark of Professor H. Bavinck in his Dogmatics (IV, 438, 4th Ed. 1930) which is cited in the preface, “The contrast (‘tegenstelling’) of internal and external, of spiritual and material, of eternity and time, of essence and form, etc., arises from a false philosophy and is in confiict with the Scripture.” Let us look at what Tunderman’s little, but massively documented book (over 650 footnotes to a mere 160 pages of text) has to say.

Philip of Marnix of St. Aldegonde, born in 1540 at Brussels, studied under Calvin and Beza in Geneva, and as a nobleman committed to the Reformed cause, assumed an important role in bringing about an understanding between the Prince of Orange and the Calvinists. Unlike his friend, William of Orange, Marnix saw in the Anabaptists, whose number was increasing in Holland, Friesland and Overijsel, a grave threat to the cause of the Reformation, In 1595 he wrote his last book, entitled, Ondersoeckinge erule Gron. delijcke Wederlegginge cler Geestdrijvische Leere,1 against them, urging the States General to oppose their movement as a threat to the civil order. Among the radical subjectivists Mamix included Thomas Munzer, Nicolaas Storck, Jan van Leiden, Bernard Knipperdollinck, David Jorisz, Hendrick Claessen, Hiel and especially Sebastian Frank. Marnix’ book aroused a storm of reaction. Coolhaes accused him of failing to distinguish Munsterites who were as different from other Anabaptists as heaven is from earth. Marnix was accused of being a bloodthirsty persecutor of quiet citizens, a traitor and a troublemaker. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Tunderman points out how completely this accusation misrepresented the mild man who backed William of Orange’s effort to seek peace between the Reformed and the Roman Catholics and who himself as burgomaster of Antwerp had permitted no persecution, His address to the States General had only asked that the Anabaptists not be permitted to use the freedom of the press to propagandize their attack on the public order. To the further accusation that he failed to distinguish between Anabaptists who threatened civil order and harmless mystics such as Sebastian Frank, Marnix answered that he recognized a difference in their practices but saw an underlying relation between them in the subjectivistic roots from which both sprang.

Tunderman was concerned with this little known but important book of Marnix especially because he felt that its point was highly relevant to the problems of the Reformed faith in the modern world. Like Verduin, Tunderman saw the Anabaptists as a continuation of earlier dissenting movements. Unlike Verduin, he pointed out that they were not following an orthodox tradition, hut were continuing the heterodoxy of those movements. He began his analysis by tracing in broad outline the philosophical background of the medieval church and the heresies. The old pagan thinkers had set out to analyze the universe. Lacking the Biblical revelation of the Creator, they had tried to determine what in creation was sovereign over the rest. Many of them proposed the doctrine of a universal world ordcr, which came to be called “Realism.” In the Middle Ages this doctrine was taken over by the church, first from Neo-Platonism, latcr under Thomas Aquinas from Aristotelianism. In the Later Middle Ages a reaction arose to this Realism in the form of Nominalism which denied the existence of such a universal world order. If, as the Nominalist maintained, only the concrete was real. they faced the question which part of the concrete was to be placed over the rest. Some said this superior law must be found in objects; others said that it must be found in the subject. The later view, and that especially in individualistic forms, came to the foreground in the Renaissance.

Following this broad discussion, Tunderman goes on to distinguish certain subjectivist themes that appeared in medieval movements and continued in Anabaptism. That of resignation was found in monasticism, which the church tried to control by organizing monasteries only to have them at times break away in heretical forms. He traced the themes of skepticism, of the imitation of Christ, of chiliasm, of the inner light. of mysticism and of symbolism. He traced the gnostic idea of the hidden God which appeared in an antinomian form in the “brothers and sisters of the free spirit” with their “free love” and in another form in Meister Eckhart. Tundcrman observed that in recent years efforts had been made by Protestants to claim this subjectivism as their own, but that the Reformers had recognized it as more dangerous than Roman Catholicism. Subjectivism makes man his own law-giver; therefore it is essentially humanistic and pagan. Rome accused the Reformers of being subjectivistic and promoting revolution, but medieval history contradicts this charge since subjectivism was at work long before the Reformation and the Roman church left it largely unopposed. The Reformation as a return to the Word of God was both anti-Roman and anti-pagan. Luther was at first under subjectivist influence, later repudiated it. Zwingli, on the contrary, became more subjectivistic as he grew older; Calvin. however, always opposed this tendency. He was, in fact. even more anti-subjectivist than anti-Rome.

There is much confusion about the Anabaptists since the term referred to many sects, estimates of their number varying between thirteen and seventy. The confusion is largely eliminated however if one raises the question. “What did each group understand by divine authority?” The Reformation was not in the first place a struggle for freedom of conscience, but for the recognition of the authority of the Word of God as superior to anything in human life, to the church. reason, personality or conscience. Against Rome this meant that the Reformers struggled for freedom from the church’s theology and the tyrannical claims it made for its offices. In this revolt these various other groups went along with the Reformation. But when the Reformers went on to demand submission to God’s Word, many of these humanists parted company with them. Some returned to Rome and others demanded freedom also from the Word, becoming thorough subjectivists or as Tunderman called them “geestdrijvers.” He observed that it was incorrect to call them Radical Reformed; they were Radical Subjectivists. Marnix saw the danger to the Reformation in these movements and warned especially against the influence of Sebastian Franck, who became probably the most widely read non-Dutch writer in the Netherlands.

Franck was first a Roman priest. then became a Lutheran pastor, in which phase he even translated an anti-Anabaptist work. Finally, losing faith in the effectiveness of the Word of God, he broke with all organizations and taught that only “the word within” had divine authority. Among other books he wrote a history of heresy, which, although not defending all of the earlier heretics, claimed that in general they were right and the church which persecuted them was wrong. (Doesn’t this sound familiar?) He taught that God is impartial, regarding Christian and heathen alike; that one must accept no firm truth; that the Bible is full of contradictions. His dialectic in some respects strikingly anticipated that of Karl Barth. For him the fall was really man taking on personality, and salvation was really the resignation of man’s own personality and once more identifying himself with God, The movement which followed him in general opposed the Word and church confessions with an appeal to mystical experience. 1t grew so strong that it was called the largest sect in the Netherlands.

Tunderman observed that Marnix, in his attack on subjectivism, did not oppose it with an objectivism or from a position that tried to balance subjectivism and objectivism, as is often done. It needs to be observed that such distinctions between (1) subjectivism, (2) objectivism and (3) a balance between the two arc themselves based on subjectivist grounds. for man can only make them when he looks at the situation from a subjectivist point of view and therefore has in principal already capitulated to a subjectivist assumption. If one begins from such a point of view he must regard the Scripture, being external to ourselves, as an object, as something passive on which the subject works. When anyone proceeds in this way he places the Scripture under himself, reducing it to a mere object of investigation instead of seeing that it is over him as the sovereign will of God for all of life. When one submits to it he cannot treat it as a mere object.

When one starts from the subjectivist basis of the contrast between the individual and the world outside, he puts the emphasis on the individual; on man’s experience rather than God’s promise. On that basis he cannot distinguish between the work of the Holy Spirit and that of his own human spirit. This procedure must necessarily result, therefore, either in permanent uncertainty or in an arrogant identification of one’s own thoughts with the work of the Holy Spirit. One can never fight subjectivism successfully with an objectivism that is itself in principle subjectivistic. One must, as real Calvinists have always done, direct the subjectivist to the word of God. It is much more than a mere object; it is the “living and powerful” Word of the Living God. Attempting to strike a balance between subjectivism and objectivism is no more satisfactory than this kind of objectivism, for it really attacks neither position and is itself unstable. The Bible never speaks of a truth between two extremes, but of a truth opposed to all lies. Also it does not warn us against carrying the truth “too far.”

If Marnix had started with this common point of view, his work would have been quite different from what it was. Then he would have accused these “spirituals” of “extreme one-sidedness,” of putting too much emphasis on the Holy Spirit and too little on the Word. This was, doubtless, true. But Marnix’ real concern was not with Franck so much as with the growing subjectivism that threatened the Reformation in the Netherlands. Calvin and the fest of the Reformers did not attack the subjectivists for having “too much spirit” but for their lack of the Holy Spirit as He works with His Word. They attacked them not with an “objectivism” but with the Word as the sword of the Spirit. Tunderman pointed out that the 16th Century Calvinists repudiated a construction of the problem which is accepted by many Reformed people in the 20th Century.

How has it come about that many 20th Century Reformed people have adopted a subjectivism that in the 16th Century was found only among the Anabaptists and was opposed by the Reformers? Tunderman, following Herman Bavinck, finds the answer to this question in the influence of modern philosophy since Descartes. This movement which began with the human self as the only thing that was certain was opposed by Reformed people in the 17th and 18th Centuries, but gradually gained the day. In the 19th Century there arose a new Reformation which repudiated this subjectivism, but in our day this subjectivism threatens to destroy what is left of both the 16th and 19th Century Reformations. We must oppose it today as Marnix did four centuries ago. This is Tunderman’s thesis.

Our Evaluation of Tunderman’s and Marnix’ Thesis

What must one say of this portrayal of the Anabaptists, so radically different from that of Verduin? Since it is 25 years old and was done before the publication of some recent research one might summarily dismiss it as “dated.” But that would certainly he too superficial a judgment. Must we not, to be fair, at least consider the possibility that Marnix and his contemporary Reformed leaders knew the movement which they confronted constantly and with whose leaders they conducted extended debates, as well as a modern student who tries to develop a “new interpretation” of what happened 400 years ago?

A more serious criticism of Tunderman’s thesis is that it is a philosophical analysis concentrating on a small group of the Anabaptist leaders who it labels “subjectivists” and proceeds to attribute their characteristics to the whole movement. There were radical subjectivists such as Franck who opposed their “inner light” to the authority of the Bible, but it ·is by no means obvious from the writings of more sober leaders such as Menno Simons that all did so, In their debates with their Reformed opponents, they also attempted to defend their position on the basis of the Word of God, or at least of the New Testament. In dealing with concrete movements and people one can rarely do them full justice by making sweeping philosophical generalizations. People are not often consistent enough to warrant this. Today one finds many Baptists who are far more appreciative of the Reformed doctrine and history than are some Reformed ministers, and we are witnessing the peculiar phenomenon of Baptists proudly calling themselves Calvinists in theology while the larger traditionally Calvinistic denominations are publicly abandoning that system of doctrine.

Despite these criticisms, we may not just dismiss Tunderman’s main thesis that the Anabaptists were subjectivists. The fact is that the Anabaptist and the later Baptist position was and is in comparison with that of the Reformed undeniably subjectivistic. What distinguished them as Anabaptists and distinguishes them today as Baptists was and is that in their view of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper they regarded these sacraments not so much as signs and seals of God’s covenant toward us, but rather as actions of ours testifying to our faith. The church for them was and is not coextensive with God’s covenant but rather a society of experiential believers. This distinguishing emphasis on the individual and his experience is subjectivistic.

Furthermore, we might be inclined on the basis of Menno’s and his fellow-moderates’ obvious intent to be true to the Bible to dismiss the charge of subjectivism as unjust, were it not for one disconcerting fact. Even these moderates showed a peculiar susceptibility to the influence of the radical subjectivists. Among them radical heresies often arose or gained ready foothold. The easy distinction between the good Anabaptists and a few rare bad ones which Verduin and other apologists like to make simply cannot be maintained. Too many facts contradict it. Obbe Philips, for example, who has been called the most attractive and lovable leader of the Dutch Anabaptists, a predecessor and close associate of Menno Simons, had received his ordination from the Munsterites. After serving as leader for a time he gave up his office and deprived the movement of his badly needed moderating influence because he had come to doubt the legitimacy of his calling. These doubts were traceable to the influence of Sebastian Franck who taught that the original church was completely destroyed and only a person whose calling was attested by miracles might set up a new one. When, after the Munster fiasco some twenty to twenty-live leaders of the Anabaptists met in the 1536 Convent at Bockholt to preserve the unity of the movement, David Jorisz (who had evidently been ordained a bishop by abbe Philips in 1535) took the lead in trying to work out a compromise between the extremists. But he turned out to be one of the most radical, not to say unscrupulous of the lot. When among the moderates (after the departure of abbe Philips and David Jorisz) only Menno Simons and Dirk Philips were left of the original leaders, five new leaders were chosen. One of them, Roelof of Martens, called Adam Pastor (more learned than the others) came to deny the deity of Christ. The effort of Dirk Philips to excommunicate him brought a split since two of the other new leaders accompanied Pastor.

These few examples are more or less typical of many more such developments and prompt one to raise the question, “Why did such obvious and radical heresies appear so readily among these people?” One does not need to look far for the answer. They wanted to be biblical, but not only did they dismiss the Old Testament as no longer applicable to the Christian church; they also repudiated what fifteen hundred years had taught about the history, offices and creeds of the church. The Anabaptists accused the Reformers of stopping half way in their Reformation because they refused to join them in this. When the creeds, which had been laboriously formulated during the centuries to defend the Christian faith against heresies, were removed, is it surprising that a flourishing crop of the old heresies promptly reappeared? Dorothy Sayers once observed that the heresies are not mere historical antiques which can be dismissed as hopelessly irrelevant to the present. “Heresy is largely the expression of opinion of the untutored average man, trying to grapple with the problems of the universe at the point where they begin to interfere with his daily life and thought.” Christ not only gave the church his word; he also promised his Spirit who would “guide it into all the truth,” and be with it forever (John 16:13; 14:16). Can we expect to benefit from that guidance if we reject the record of fifteen or nineteen hundred years as irrelevant to us? That is what the Anabaptists of the 16th Century and their counterparts in contemporary American Christianity did and want to do. “No creed but Christ, no hook but the Bible!” has often been their motto. “But if you don’t join us in this rejection you are compromising the Reformation and arc still tied to Rome,” was and will be the Anabaptist and Baptist retort. Then we must go on to explain that the decisions and confessions of the church must be subjected to constant scrutiny and criticism to see whether they are biblical, as was done by the Reformers but was no longer done by the Roman Catholics. One must determine by the test of the Word whether the doctrines in question are the work of the Holy Spirit or the errors of man’s own spirit. This is a very different procedure and results in a very different and much more stable doctrine and church than that of the Anabaptists who rejected the churches’ history out of hand as being in errol’ at least since Constantine and sought the truth only in their own impressions of the Bible as though each had a monopoly on the Holy Spirit. That kind of individualistic subjectivism necessarily results, as Tunderman aptly observed, either in permanent uncertainty of in an arrogant identification of one’s own thoughts with the work of the Holy Spirit. Assumed by the people it led and leads to anarchy; assumed by church leaders it led and leads to dictatorship and splits. That is what it did among the thirteen to seventy Anabaptist sects; that is what it has done among the 250 denominations and sects in the United States.

The Subjectivist Problem in our Reformed Family

Despite criticisms and questions one may raise about the details and construction of Tunderman’s argument, it seems to me that we are compelled to recognize the validity of his (and Marnix’) main thesis that the Reformed faith was and is vitally endangered by subjectivism. The value of their warning becomes the more impressive when one begins to consider its implications for and applications to some of our present problems.

Especially we who live in Canada are made aware from time Lo time of a kind of funning debate between the adherents of the Association for Reformed Scientific Studies and representatives of a diverging current of thought which often appears particularly at Calvin College. If both movements aim to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ over all things and seek to attain positive Christian leadership, “biblically oriented, God-honoring, and Christ-centered” as is claimed, why cannot the two merge in seeking to develop one Christian University? What difference is there to occasion any argument?

One of the most interesting answers to the question was given by Rev. R. Kooistra in an article entitled “Towards Sharing in Caring for Calvin College,” in the December, 1964 Church and Nation. He pointed out that while Calvin’s leadership acknowledges this ideal it refuses to commit itself further to the promotion of concrete efforts to realize it, to the support of a distinctly Christian labor movement or a Christian political program, for example. Thus the ideal is left hanging vaguely in the air and fa r too little is accomplished or even attempted toward realizing it. The ARSS wants to get rid of this confusion, break with compromises and confused efforts to combine Christian and anti-Christian motifs, and work towards “scripturally directed higher learning.”

Admittedly the problems we face in these matters are very difficult, and we recall that even the Apostle had to admit, “We know in part” (1 Cor. 13), so that one should not be unduly critical of what is being done at Calvin. It seems to me, however, that we must recognize that there is point in some of the criticisms that come especially from the ARSS circles, and that there is a good deal of merit in what it in turn is attempting to do. Does not Tunderman’s thesis that our problem is subjectivism shed some light on these matters? Why has there usually been so much con· fusion among us about what a Christian policy in education, in labor problems or in politics is or ought to be? Why do we so often think and speak in terms of a relativism that seeks expedient compromises or operates with the distinctions of more or less desirable instead of distinguishing alternatives as true and false, right and wrong? Is it really because these matters are so complex that they defy such simple, clear analysis, or is it possibly because we have, perhaps unconsciously, been so conditioned by modern subjectivist philosophy that our perception of the authoritative distinctions of God’s word has become blurred? How often, especially recently, do we not notice that arguments about the proper interpretation of biblical data seem to be introduced into this or that discussion, not because the Bible is not clear, but because facing its clear demands would be embarrassing, difficult or unpopular?

Unfortunately, the ARSS which is so opposed to compromises and wants to promote “scripturally directed high learning” also seems to be threatened although in a somewhat different way by subjectivism. It is coming under criticism, especially in Canada, not because of its aim but because of (1) its “educational creed” and (2) its personal screening of members. Although it claims the name “Reformed,” it refuses to commit itself to any of the common Reformed Creeds and insists on subscription “without qualification or reservation” to its own, much briefer, privately formulated “Educational Creed.” When that procedure is questioned it is defended by the argument that an educational institution is not a church. But the difference between a school and a church by no means explains why the same Christian should make a different confession of faith in one area of life than in the other! Although there will be more extensive applications of that faith in a school than in a church. must not the faith be the same? How strange it is that an organization that in principle was set up to get rid of the intolerable contradiction between the faith taught in the church and that taught in the public school should so quickly proceed to reintroduce a conflict between its own creed and that of the church! If the kind of argument going on in our Canadian churches means anything, it reveals plainly that the refusal to commit the organization to the commonly confessed Reformed creeds and substitution of its own private confession is producing disunity just as certainly as the Anabaptist refusal to commit themselves to a common confession of faith split them into mutually hostile parties. As someone aptly quipped the “educational creed” threatens to become a “form of disunity.”

When the weakness of this confessional basis of the ARSS is observed, its promoters assure us that any weaknesses in the area of creed will be met by careful personal screening of all who join the organization. While one can appreciate the cancel’ll for orthodoxy that prompts such a procedure, it unfortunately even more plainly commits the movement to a kind of subjectivism akin to that of the Anabaptists. The strength of the Reformed movement has always been its confessional commitment to the Word of God which because of its Divine authority can unite men of widely differing tastes and temperaments. Building a movement around personal opinions or personalities cannot help but produce divisions, just as it did in the Corinthian church and in 16th Century Anabaptism.

Subjectivism not only threatens our educational efforts; it is also one of the biggest obstacles we face in seeking church unity with those who share the same faith. One who becomes at all involved. for example, in our negotiations with the Canadian Reformed Churches soon discovers that the differences center not on our common confessions of faith, but on our evaluation of the personal struggles experienced in the Netherlands. We may in a measure come to sympathize with them, but if they make it a condition of unity that we come to share their experience of “liberation” in the Netherlands, unity will be impossible and the barrier that forbids it is not the Word of God but subjectivism.

We face the same problem of subjectivism in the protracted effOrts of the Christian Reformed Church to seek a closer relationship with the Orthodox Presbyterian Churches. In this case also the differences do not seem to concern our commitment to the Word of God and its doctrines; they are differences of history, confessional formulation, church polity and customs. If each group is going to insist that the other must accept its position with respect to these differences, progress toward unity will be impossible and the barrier is again subjectivism.

Our increasing evangelistic efforts are handicapped in various ways by the same problem of subjectivism. We must be concerned that converts as well as we submit to the Word of God, but we have no right to demand that they accept all of our customs and habits.

Discussions of the biggest issues that trouble and divide our churches today are usually clouded and confused in more than one way by such subjectivism. Both the traditionalist argument, “We have always done it so,” and the anti-traditionalist’s retort, “Don’t be so old fashioned; we have to move with the times,” are purely subjectivist argument’s and should really carry no weight with us at all. Both considerations all too often get in the way of our facing the real question. “What does the Word of God say?” We have no business setting the Word of God aside either in the interests of our traditions or of our love of novelties.

To the extent that the study of early Reformed and Anabaptist history helps us to see and make this distinction between the Word of God and Christian men’s subjective opinions it will be of tremendous value as we face the problems of our own day. We may thank God that he has used Tunderman, Marnix and a host of others through the centuries to direct the attention of his church to that distinction.

One of the central and decisive emphases of the Reformation was “Sola Scriptum,” through the Scriptures alone! Many of the children of the Reformation, however, seem tempted today to barter away this precious birthright, often under tile illusion that only by a shift of emphasis will experiential religion become a reality.

In this article the Rev. Peter De Jong, pastor of the Christian Reformed Church, Telkwa, British Columbia, points “I” the threats which all subjectivist movements hold for the Christian church ill all ages.