The Nature of the Anabaptist Church
By: Gregory S. Neal
As outlined by Philip Jacob Spener, the Church of Jesus Christ, and especially the Lutheran Church in Germany, was in dire need of reform in the latter quarter of the fifteenth century. Christian society was "Christian" in name alone, with the vast majority of political and ecclesiastical leaders failing in their duty to the people and the people, as a result, failing to live up to their calling as followers of Christ. In response to the "defects" of the civil, clerical, and public estates, Spener offers a series of reforms which are basically designed to return the Cchurch to its roots--the foundations of Holy Scripture and Christian Love which are seen as the core of what it means to be a Christian.
Let's look at a few of the reasons for reform within the church. Directly related to the life of the church are those "defects" within the clergy and the laity. Spener makes the claim that the clerical estate was 'thoroughly corrupt," and in much need of "reformation as any estate can ever need it" (p. 43). Specifically, the minds and lives of the clergy were indicative of materialistic ambitions and "worldly spirits." There existed a prevalent lack of self-denial in the face of ministerial service, with the minister's own needs and "carnal" desires being forefront in their sight. While they played the role of pastor, they lacked the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in their ministry thanks to their self-serving nature.
The defects of the clergy result in defects within the laity, essentially identified as a basic lack of Christian love and charity. Actions such as drunkenness, legal suits, and immoral business practices are all unbecoming of Christian brothers and sisters, and yet they are still engaged in them. Clergy and parishioner defects both combine to produce a devastating effect on the unchurched, the unbelievers and enemies of the church. Their suspicions and arguments are only furthered by such hypocrisy, and the mission of the Church is irreparably undercut (pp. 68-75).
. . . These preachers, with their own human efforts and without the working of the Holy Spirit, have learned something of the letter of the Scriptures, have comprehended and assented to true doctrine, and have even known how to preach it to others, but they are altogether unacquainted with the true, heavenly light and the life of faith. (p. 46)
Spener proposes a series of reforms which, as he intends, are designed to effect changes in the above listed defects of the Church. The first of these reforms is to promote a "more extensive use of Scriptures" in worship and in daily life. The primacy of the Holy Writ is not in question here, nor had there been a lessening of the importance of Scripture for faith and doctrine, but it's meaning and efficacy had been clouded by poor practices and traditions. Only a small amount of the Scriptures are read over a number of years, and certainly not all of it in any specified period of time. And, even among those passages which are read, their meaning is lost in poor exegesis or plain and simple omission. To counteract these trends, Spener recommends that the Scriptures be read daily within the home, and that the Scriptures be read in public, as well as in private, in sequential order in the order of the books themselves, and that the passages for each day be read, but not interpreted. Finally, he recommends that the Apostolic Church meeting be reintroduced along the lines of I Corinthians 14:26-40. The purpose of the meeting would not be to replace the regular service of Word and Ttable on Sunday mornings, but rather would provide a time for reading and reflection on the Scriptures in direct relation to the gifts that members of the congregation have or are developing (pp. 87-90).
The second of the reforms calls for "exercise of the Spiritual Priesthood." This is basically the intention of renewal in the doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers," and it is at this point that Spener is most like the Anabaptists. It is a recognition that "all spiritual functions are open to all Christians without exception" (p. 92). In the context of the priesthood of all believers, each Christian is called to prayer, thanksgiving to God, good works, alms, etc.; diligent use of Scripture and priestly action should be united in practice to be efficacious, and this is where the third reform comes into play (pp.92-95).
The third of the reforms calls for the practice of the Christian Faith over and above just its knowledge. In other words, Spener is declaring that Christianity is knowledge in praxis, and Love is this praxis of faith (p. 96). Love for Christian brothers and sisters, and also for all humanity, needs to be practiced if a Christian's duties are to be accomplished. Such love cannot be accomplished, however, if the Church is bickering or behaving in unchristian ways (pp.95-97).
The fourth reform speaks of the need for the proper "conduct of religious controversies." The Christian's conduct needs to be such that it is a light and an example toward the non-believers. Christians are called to pray that God may give unbelievers "His light," are called to be good examples of God's light and love within them, and are called to love one another and the world. In doing so, Christians need to refrain, as much as possible, from disputation. All discourse and argument must be designed so as to bring the conversion of the opponent, and it must also be known that we must add the love of God to debate and logical discourse in order to ensure the presence of Christ (pp. 97-102).
The fifth reform calls for an overhauling of the schools and universities so that the future ministers of the faith may have the best theological training possible. This is also, in some ways, the most effective reform for it calls for fundamental shifts in the ways in which theological education is actually done: from the direct impact of professors in the academic lives of their students to the content of their lectures and their personal faith-devotion and Christian love. In this reform professors are particularly called upon to exercise more and greater control over the social, spiritual, and academic life of the student body, providing greater guidance than before and greater influence in all areas of the Christian life (pp. 103-115).
The sixth and last of the reforms calls for an elevation of the purpose and goal of preaching and its function in the edification of the individual Christian. To this end the critical importance of Sermon development is stressed, with the orthodoxy and sound exposition of the message being of even greater importance than simple delivery. In the strength of content, a sermon can and will serve to edify those involved, both the preacher and the listeners. It is in this way that people will learn the truth, and one of the only ways in which the above five reforms may be advanced (pp. 115-122). While this last reform might seem a little strange to modern ears, it was critical because, in Spener's days, style of the message was more important in preaching than its content. This reform called for this to change.
Without a doubt, Spener is much closer to Martin Luther than to the Anabaptists; he often refers to Luther as the "dear," "sainted" "Doctor Luther." He is often appealing to the teachings and writings of Martin Luther in order to plan the reforms he suggests, a move in justification for action which is indicative of his attempt to return the Church it its origins (pp. 51-52, 91-93). These reforms, if executed, would not solve the problem, but they may address the problem in such a way that they may become at least understandable, if not solvable. In Spener we see the renewal of Lutheran teaching and doctrine, a stream of thought that extends back to the denomination's founder. In the ills of his church, we see the effects of time and thought on the Protestant church in the second generation. And, in his solution, we see a trend which is common in almost every age: return to the roots of faith.
Spener, Philip Jacob, Pia Desideria. New York: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1984.
© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved
*This paper was written in 1990 for a course in Reformation Church History which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.