A Radical Church? A Reappraisal Of Anabaptist Ecclesiology -- By: John E. Colwell

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 38:1 (NA 1987)
Article: A Radical Church? A Reappraisal Of Anabaptist Ecclesiology
Author: John E. Colwell

A Radical Church? A Reappraisal Of Anabaptist Ecclesiology1

John E. Colwell

Tyndale Historical Theology Lecture, 1985


Though it could be claimed that there has been a revival of interest in the Anabaptists in recent years realistically one must admit that this has tended to be restricted to a renaissance amongst their spiritual descendants. Beyond the historical research pursued by Mennonites, Baptists and perhaps Brethren and Pentecostalists the Anabaptists remain liable to dismissal with a passing censorious reference to the polygamy and violence of Münster.

In optimum partem serious study of the Anabaptists may be inhibited not so much by prejudice as by the sheer difficulty and breadth of the subject. Who were the Anabaptists anyway? We are not referring to a single ‘stream’ or ‘movement’ but to a series of separate and largely independent groups some of which began to merge in the course of time; to an amalgam of differing strands in which the heterodox and the orthodox occasionally appear strangely blurred. That which survives of their own writings may be less than representative, is indicative of considerable difference of emphasis and sometimes exposes a lack of opportunity for detached and rigorous academic theological reflection on the part of the various writers. All of which is, of course, compounded by the danger inherent in all historical research (and into which this present paper may well fall) of only finding that which one’s presuppositions determine one should seek.

That which unites the early Anabaptists (and several other reforming groups in the history of the church) is the

agenda of issues they were probing, particularly in the sphere of ecclesiology. The intention of this paper is not just to review this unwritten agenda of issues but to attempt to define the distinctive ecclesiological perception or perceptions which led the major ‘streams’ of Anabaptists to address such issues in a particular manner.

I. The Distinctive Ecclesiological Perceptions Of Anabaptism

The most obvious distinctive feature uniting the Anabaptist movement was their practice of baptism, yet it would be simplistic to fail to recognize that, in the majority of cases, the practice of believers’ baptism was an expression rather than the root of a distinctive ecclesiology. The practice of believers’ baptism was an expression of a commitment to discipleship and brotherhood within the church but these values were themselves derived from a conception of the nature of the church that distinguished the majority of Anaba...

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