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The Anabaptist Perspective: Martin Luther vs. Menno Simons

In contrast to this Church/State mentality, the Anabaptists seemed to grasp the fact that a New Covenant had taken the place of the Old.125 They understood that godly obedience must be rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This dissenting view led them to reject the notion of a "Christian state" that would use the sword to supposedly defend and perpetuate the Christian faith. Their concept of the church was a community of believers co-existing with, but separate from the world around them. It was a stark contrast to the traditional territorial church based on Constantine's theocratic model.126

Whereas the Reformers virtually equated the Old and New Covenants,127 the Anabaptists fervently maintained that the New Covenant was superior to the Old. Many Anabaptists went so far in separating the Old and New Covenants that they even denied the possibility of salvation before the coming of Christ.128

Because they saw a radical dichotomy between Old and New Covenants, the Anabaptists had to deal with how to use the Old Testament. It cannot be stated with fairness that the Anabaptists neglected the Old Testament, but their use of it did manifest a tendency to excessively spiritualize and moralize its contents.129

While Luther saw the Law imposed upon men in the Gospel, Menno saw the work of the Law as a necessary prelude to induce repentance before "the Gospel comes to give comfort."130 Both held that the Law had a necessary place in convicting men. The difference was only in methodology.

As noted earlier,131 there is no basis in the New Testament for either Menno's Law-then-Gospel or Luther's Law-in-Gospel approach to evangelism. Differences notwithstanding, both are simply variations of the traditional pattern, seeing Law as "threat and command" and the Gospel as "promise and comfort."132 It is a view that totally ignores the crucial redemptive-historical shift from Law to Gospel (John 1:17). Extended to its logical conclusion, it would find no promise in the Law and no command in the Gospel. Indeed, Herman Witsius, one of the original formulators of Covenant Theology, declares, "All prescription of duty belongs to the law . . . The promises of grace [must] be referred to the gospel, all injunctions of duty to the law."133 A view that is sensitive to redemptive history, however, will recognize that (1) there is promise in the Law, (2) the Gospel commands duty, and (3) Law and Gospel must not be fused together.

In other areas more significant to the Christian life, Luther and Menno differed more sharply. "For Luther, the commands of the New Testament are not the Gospel, but the Law in the Gospel. For Menno, the New Testament commands are an integral part of the Gospel."134 For Menno, the Gospel was not only "promise and comfort," but a rule of life for the believer. He recognized that the Law had been abrogated in Christ's fulfillment. Luther, however, taught that the Gospel "is always the promise of forgiveness, and never a demand."135 He held that the moral imperative for the believer must always be located in the Law and not in the Gospel - totally ignoring the important Law/Gospel shift in redemptive history. He did not understand that just as Israel's deliverance from bondage in Egypt provided the basis for the Old Covenant "command" spelled out in Exodus 20, so also does the believer's deliverance through Christ provide the basis for the New Covenant "command" spelled out in John 13:31-35.

In many ways, the Anabaptists were far ahead of their times.136 They saw that there were indeed important ethical considerations flowing out of the person and work of Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, they recognized that the New Testament distinguishes between the Old and New Covenants, rather than to fuse them together. They saw that geographical theocracy was part of an old age and that now in Christ the true church was comprised of true believers. They did have their faults, of course. But church history has only in the last thirty years begun to recognize the Anabaptists' singular contribution to the realization of the civil liberties we often take for granted. And, in the realm of ethics, their basic approach provided the rudiments upon which a New Testament perspective could be built.


125. William Klassen, Covenant and Community: The Life and Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968, p. 145.

126. Verduin, p. 121.

127. Klassen, p. 21.

128. Klassen, p. 42; H. Carl Shank, "The Hermeneutics of Anabaptist Thought," Searching Together, 7:3, 1978, pp. 46-47.

129. Klassen, pp. 75, 98.

130. Richard Detweiler, "Luther and Menno," Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1969, p. 201.

131. Detweiler, pp. 70-75.

132. Detweiler, pp. 204-205.

133. Herman Witsius, Oeconomy of the Covenants, I, New York, 1798, pp. 407, 411.

134. Detweiler, p. 209.

135. Detweiler, p. 212.

136. Unfortunately, many of the heirs of Anabaptism have retrogressed into an obscurantism which was not inherent in the core of Anabaptist theology and practice.

This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 38-40.