The Radical Reformation is a term to describe the groups of religious innovators who remained in neither the Roman Catholic nor mainline Protestant churches. Radical reformers lived outside the established order. Many of them accepted exile, torture, and capital punishment for their views. Radical reformers often took Protestant teachings to their logical conclusion putting them at odds even among Protestant reformers. For instance, many Protestant reformers were unwilling to go far enough on the concept of the “believer’s church” as evidenced by their willingness to continue baptizing infants. However, most of the Radical groups practiced baptism for believer’s only.
Menno Simons was the most outstanding leader of the Anabaptist branch of the Radical Reformation. Menno was born in 1496 in Witmarsum, a village in the northern Netherlands. The son of a dairy farmer who grew up in a war-torn area, Menno became a priest around 1524 and served for seven years in the village of Pingjum before being called back to his hometown of Witmarsum in 1531. By Menno’s accounts, in Witmarsum as a priest he was quite worldly and said of himself, I was “a lord and prince in Babylon . . . everyone sought me and desired me. The world loved me and I it.”
There were several events that brought Menno to evangelical views concerning the church and his role in its reformation. As with other Reformers, Menno at first began to question the Catholic practice of “transubstantiation” which was the belief that the bread and wine actually becomes the Lord’s body and blood in the Mass. About this time he also became aware of Anabaptists being persecuted and some even killed for practicing rebaptism. Anabaptists (literally meaning “re-baptizers”) staunchly believed that baptism was for believers only; therefore, infant baptisms were rejected. Menno himself searched the Scriptures and could find nothing about infant baptism. Thus, he concluded that “all were deceived about infant baptism.” His continued study of Scripture to resolve his growing questions led Menno to begin preaching from the Bible in such a way that he gained a reputation as an “evangelical preacher,” even though he still remained within the Catholic Church.
However, the death of Menno’s brother, who had become an Anabaptist, by the authorities led to a crisis in Menno’s life. He realized that he had not lived up to the light which he had received. He asked God for forgiveness and began to speak much more clearly and forcefully. Menno’s first writing set the theme of his ministry and put him at odds with the authorities. The Blasphemy of Jan van Leyden was a stirring tract in which Menno opposed the kingship of Christ to the false pretensions of “King John.” In the tract, Menno writes against the “proponents of the sword philosophy” and calls for a life of nonresistance, a theme that will become common among certain streams of later Anabaptist groups. In the same month that Jan of Leyden was tortured to death, Menno made his decisive break with the Church of Rome. During most of Menno’s years he lived as a hunted heretic, preaching by night in small groups of believers, baptizing new believers in country streams and out of the way lakes, establishing churches, and ordaining pastors.
For Menno and running through all of the Radical Reformers was the emphasis on the personal, individual, and experiential nature of salvation. Menno spoke out against those who held to a mere “historical” faith which gave no evidence of a changed life. The story of Zacchaeus was one of Menno’s favorite Scripture passages. Zacchaeus, the wealthy tax collector reminded Menno of many people he had dealings with, in and out of the church. But once Zacchaeus had received Christ into his house with joy, his life was radically altered. He walked no more in his former evil ways, he was born again. For Menno, faith and fruit were inseparable. He stated, “We must hear Christ, believe in Christ, follow his steps . . . be born from above. . . Whoever boasts that he is a Christian, the same must walk as Christ walked.”
Menno did not baptize infants not only because they could not express personal faith in Jesus, the new birth being a prerequisite to water baptism, but because he believed that Jesus’ death on the cross removed the guilt of original sin for everyone. Infants were universally in a state of grace until they reached the age of “shame” or of the “discrimination of good and evil.” Furthermore, for Menno and other Anabaptists, the church “must” be a gathered community of believers in opposition to other reformers who still held to a combined church and state concept. Strict separation between church and state was necessary because the church consists only of the saints. Of course, this idea, revolutionary in its day would entail the dissolution of the whole structure of medieval society, something that most of the mainline reformers were unwilling to do.
Menno found himself at odds with the mainline reformers over how believers should live. Menno felt that justification set forth by Luther could lead to “antinomianism” (abusing grace) something he witnessed among some followers of Luther who he perceived being in a state of drunkenness. Menno upheld that discipleship was a repudiation of the old life and involved a radical commitment to Jesus as Lord that left little room for presuming upon the grace of God. Out of this concern for the purity of the church, Anabaptists exercised strict church discipline. Menno also set himself apart from the other major reformers in his understanding that Jesus Christ is the object of predestination and the key to interpreting all of Scripture. Menno as well as other Anabaptists insisted that the New Testament take precedence over the Old Testament in the interpretation of Scripture. One of Menno’s favorite Bible verses cited in all of his writings was 1 Corinthians 3:11. This verse became Menno’s motto. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
The enduring vision and contribution of Menno and the Anabaptists has been summarized as a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood, and a new ethic of love and nonresistance. “For Menno following rather than faith was the great word of the Christian life.”
Source: The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Roland H. Bainton; Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George; Anabaptism in Outline, Walter Klaassen.