I was out walking today and praying as I went. As I did I felt prompted to reflect on the fact that despite being raised in the Church of England I distinctly remember feeling the pull towards the radical reformation from a young age. Now that interest has varied over time but there was something I read recently in “Balthasar Hubmaier and the Clarity of Scripture: A Critical Reformation Issue” by Graeme R. Chatfield that I think helped explain that early appeal. It’s a work I’m fairly sure I’ve quoted from before but something I keep coming back to. In particular he wrote:

“In Anabaptist History and Theology, Snyder argued that Anabaptism reflected aspects of both anticlericalism and fervent lay piety. He listed six characteristics of medieval piety that the Anabaptists retained but that Luther wanted removed: 

1. An ascetic understanding of salvation and the Christian life. 

2. An idealization of the life of Christ as the model for pious Christians. 

3. A more communal understanding of life, the cosmos, and salvation. 

4. A linking of spiritual charisma to moral purity. 

5. A view of the world that interpreted life as a struggle between the forces of good and evil, Christ and Satan. 

6. A spiritualized view of the world that still considered the secular realm to be a place where Satan’s power held sway. 

He argued that these ideas are essentially more conservative and readily accessible and understandable to “common people,” whereas the ideas of the Reformers expressed the views of the literate elite of society.”

Balthasar Hubmaier and the Clarity of Scripture: A Critical Reformation Issue by Graeme R. Chatfield. P42-43

What spoke to me was that whilst I make no pretence about being middle class my family background is almost entirely working class and that very much colours my view of the world. There was, therefore, something of the appeal in the radical reformation that appealed to me in the same way the Book of Common Prayer appealed to me. Precisely because it presented a communal view of life and salvation. I struggled with the way the church I saw seemed so middle class, individualistic, and middle of the road growing up and the otherness of the radical reformation had an appeal that was similar to the appeal I’ve heard articulated by some to the otherness of high church sensibilities. Albeit each, in my experience, appeals predominantly (but not exclusively) to people of distinct socio-economic segments of society. 

Another area that captured my interest was the overlap between the radical reformers and monasticism. I was very much caught up in the Neo-Monasticism phase of the early 2010s. The only other place I’ve seen an interest in monastic practices, again, is within high church circles. This isn’t accidental as Chatfield points out: 

“The origins of Anabaptism undoubtedly lie in large measure in the radical reformers who first articulated an alternative view of evangelical reform; but they also lie with the regenerationist and ascetic tradition of late medieval piety which conceived of salvation in terms of sanctification … the Anabaptist movement has a distinctive theological “shape” that is rooted in medieval piety and spiritual ideals.”

Ibid. P. 30

Chatfield even goes on to point out how the Reformer Balthasar Hubmaier’s views on baptism in particular were informed heavily by Erasmus’s Christian Humanism. A point I’ve pointed out elsewhere. The key difference between high church circles and the radical reformation at root arguably being their view of the sacraments and with that the relationship between the world and God’s grace. Yet to confuse things Hubmaier, my own personal guide on this, has respectively been called a “Reformed Catholic”, “Catholic Baptist”, and “Magisterial Radical” because of his blurring of the lines in this area. Chatfield elaborates on this when he talks of Hubmaiers sacramental views:

MacGregor questions whether Hubmaier should be considered among the Anabaptists. He suggests the following definition: “Anabaptists should be formally defined as that set of Radicals, or rebaptizers, who regarded baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances rather than sacraments.” Hubmaier does not fit that definition because his sacramental theology understood that baptism and the Lord’s Supper both acted as “vehicles or channels of divine grace,” ex opera operato. Consequently, he should not be included among the Anabaptists. In fact, Hubmaier is not only atypical of Anabaptists, he “created a unique theological synthesis” among the early sixteenth-century Reformers. Nam utilizes the same definition of Anabaptism as MacGregor; that is, Anabaptists reject the term sacrament in favor of ordinance, though Nam does suggest an openness to Hubmaier using the term sacrament. Brewer asserts that Hubmaier has a sacramental theology, but continues to think of the necessity of faith preceding grace, independent of the enactment of the “pledge of love.” MacGregor sees Hubmaier as continuing the medieval view of a sacrament via the influence of Bernard of Clairvaux, and allows for a “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament, not in the elements of water, bread, and wine, but in the gathered believing church. Can Hubmaier be unambiguously placed among the Anabaptists? It would seem not, if the lens of sacramental theology is applied.

Ibid. P46

The synthesis that is mentioned is something I find deeply appealing and the “real presence” in the sacrament mentioned can’t help but make me think of Richard Hooker’s words on the sacrament when he wrote:

“The soul of man is the receptacle of Christ’s presence.”

Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.2

Or

“The real presence of Christ’s most blessed body and blood is not therefore to be sought for in the sacrament [that is, the elements], but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament.” 

Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.6

And 

“There ensueth a kind of transubstantiation in us, a true change both of soul and body, an alteration from death to life.” 

Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.11

I am not pretending in this that Hubmaier would necessarily use this exact language. Yet I see an overlap that doesn’t detract. In the likes of Hubmaier you get something of monastic piety, communal life, and sacramental union fused with the Protestant belief that the individual, and all their life stands, Coram Deo, before God.

Hubmaier has been interesting to me because he’s served as a constellation that’s helped me connect some of the dots between fragmented aspects of my own thinking. Whilst I wouldn’t agree with all his beliefs he points to a genuine synthesis between a range of ideas and movements interesting to me. A fellow traveler who has walked down similar theological paths to the one’s I’ve explored and interacted with some of the most famous figures on both sides of the Reformation. 

Not many know of Hubmaier today but he is infamous in that he is named alongside Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and Oecolampadius by Erasmus as the ‘learned men’ who led many away from Rome. By the Council of Trent he is also listed alongside Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Schwenckfeld as the leading example of heresiarchs whose works should be banned. Yet given he was a former Roman Catholic Priest, and neither cleanly Magisterial nor Radical as a Reformer, he’s seemingly slipped through the cracks of history. His motto in any case was: ‘Truth is immortal’ and it was to that he attempted to be faithful.

I don’t think we’d agree necessarily on everything but he’s one of the few characters from history that I’d almost consider a friend or guide having read something of him. If you’re interested there’s a critical edition of his works available in English worth investigating for yourself which I’d highly recommend.

2 thoughts on “The Radical Reformation and Medieval Piety through the lens of Balthasar Hubmaier

  1. A lot of radical reformation historiography tends to the above kind of differentiation from the “magisterial Reformation”. I don’t think the lines are so easily blurred. The 6 things that differentiates Hubmaier from Luther aren’t even true. And even worse, his theology of the sacraments is not different from Zwingli’s (which makes sense since they were both very early allies as German-speaking humanists), which is not very different from Hooker’s (or the Elizabethan Church of England’s, for that matter). The radical reformers were not necessarily enemies to governments, even if they wanted to redraw the boundaries, advance different goals, or proclaim different theological programs. Hubmaier was quite magisterial in his views of the state and even Menno Simons wrote to king Francis about his group’s peaceability and compatibility with French government. A lot of historiography seems stuck because it’s simply undoing the myth of a Protestant principle (that resulted in a certain kind of liberal individualism) articulated in the 19th c.

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    1. I’m not sure if that’s true regarding six points. Framing is important there but the differences do exist and become clearer around topics like forensic justification and free will.

      I think the main point is that Hubmaier wouldn’t consider himself radical or magisterial as these are largely categories projected backwards. So whilst our picture of him may be warped by the scholarship on him being predominantly Anabaptist we wouldn’t know of him at all without it. Beggars can’t be choosers in that sense. I’d love to see broader scholarship on him from a range of traditions but that still seems rather peripheral at this point in time.

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