May 06, 2015

The First Reformation Confession

Stephen Nichols
The First Reformation Confession


The earliest confession from the Reformation was written not by the followers of Luther or Calvin but by another group called the Radical Reformers. It's called the Schleitheim Confession, and it was written in Switzerland on February 24, 1527.

The Radical Reformers thought that the other Reformers—including Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, and John Calvin in Geneva—did not go far enough in their reforms. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin are called Magisterial Reformers because they argued for the interdependence of the church and secular authorities (or magistrates). The Radical Reformers thought the root of the problem was this true union of church and state, so they advocated for the separation of church and state.

They also differed from the other Reformers in their view of baptism, in that they rejected the idea of infant baptism. Since they were all born as Roman Catholics, they had all been baptized as infants. This group saw their Roman Catholic baptisms as invalid and argued that they—and all others baptized as infants—needed to be baptized again as believers. For this reason, they were also called Anabaptists, from the Greek ana, meaning "again."

The Radical Reformers met in Schleitheim under the leadership of a man named Michael Sattler. The document they produced contains seven articles outlining the group's distinctives and beliefs.

The first article of the Schleitheim Confession is on baptism. It shows again the distinction from believing in infant baptism and moving toward a believer's baptism view. Arguing that infant baptisms are invalid, the article says one needs to be rebaptized to be part of their society.

The second article is called "the ban." If you're familiar with Anabaptist groups today such as the Amish or the Mennonites, you might have heard of the practice of shunning. This is the ban. This is a practice that takes church discipline very seriously; it calls for the ban when there is repeated behavior that is outside the bounds of the group.

The third article is on the Lord's Supper. They shared the view of Zwingli that the Lord's Supper is a remembrance or a memorial, and they allowed only those who had been baptized as believers to participate.

The fourth article concerns separation from the world. As they applied this principle in their group, they went so far as to dress differently from those around them, and they ended up living in sort of isolated communities.

The fifth article concerns the clergy. The Radical Reformers did not have a trained clergy. Instead, they advocated for the idea of nominating a minister, with some even going so far as to draw lots to pick their ministers. This practice frustrated Luther. He thought having an untrained clergy could be a problem for the church in later generations and could easily lead people astray. This was thus a significant point of departure between Luther and the Anabaptists.

The sixth article of that Schleitheim Confession concerns pacifism. They were against the sword; they stressed Jesus' teachings on loving one's enemies and turning the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount. They were very much in favor of pacifism and not violence.

The seventh article of the Schleitheim Confession prohibits taking oaths or swearing. This also demonstrates the Anabaptists' wanting to come out and be separate and not be under the rule of government.

So, this first Reformation confession outlined the principles of the Radical Reformers, laying out the distinctives that set them apart, even at this relatively early point in the Reformation, from the other Reformers.