Balthasar Hubmaier's Use of the Church Fathers: Availability, Access and Interaction

By Klager, Andrew P. | Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Balthasar Hubmaier's Use of the Church Fathers: Availability, Access and Interaction


Klager, Andrew P., Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: While scholarship during the past half-century has provided insights into the reception of the Church fathers among the magisterial reformers, little attention has been given to Anabaptist altitudes toward the patristics. Yet Balthasar Hubmaier exhibited an impressive familiarity with the Church fathers, especially given his short-lived Anabaptist career and imposed itinerancy. The arrival of patristic manuscripts from Byzantium into Italy, where they were translated into Latin for a wider readership, expedited the preparation of monumental editions of the Church fathers, especially north of the Alps. Once in Hubmaier's hands, these patristic sources functioned as historical and apologetical witnesses to the post-apostolic survival of doctrines such as believer's baptism and the freedom of the will. Hubmaier embraced the fathers--in contrast to the scholastic theologians and papacy--for their faithfulness to Scripture and as co-affiliates within the one, universal Church to which he also belonged.

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In contrast to the scholarly attention devoted to the interaction of Renaissance humanists and magisterial reformers with the Church fathers, investigations into the reception of the fathers by Anabaptist leaders have been relatively sparse.(1) Since 1961, when the eminent Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller challenged historians to explore "whether or to what extent the newly diffused ideas of these Greek [Christian] authors exercised an influence on the theological discussions and controversies of the Reformation period," (2) numerous studies have appeared on the general reception of the fathers during the Reformation era along with many detailed analyses on the use of the fathers by such figures as Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, (3) Erasmus, (4) Johannes Oecolampadius, (5) Martin Luther, (6) Huldrych Zwingli, (7) Beatus Rhenanus, (8) Martin Bucer, (9) Philip Melanchthon, (10) John Calvin, (11) Andreas Musculus (12) and Theodore Beza. (13)

Although nothing comparable exists yet in Anabaptist scholarship, several theologians and historians have acknowledged the value of investigating the Anabaptist reception of the Church fathers. Historian Peter Erb, for example, has challenged scholars of the Radical Reformation to be attentive to "the abiding influence of the Fathers, chief among whom were Augustine and Gregory." "Trained in a society which no longer reads," Erb continues, modern scholars "are often too quick to leap to the closest chronological similarity for a source, being unaware that Augustine's monitions were much more familiar to our sixteenth-century ancestors than they are to us ... hat a study of early Christian literature as a source for ascetic forms for Anabaptists would be of value."(14) Jonathan Selling has also lamented the absence of "significant analysis of the Radicals' use of patristic writers either for arguments of doctrine or ordinances," (15) a sentiment echoed by theologian Chris Heubner, who notes that "Mennonite theology too often skips directly from the New Testament to the sixteenth century ... We should recall that patristic and medieval sources are part of our tradition ... too." (16) This essay begins to fill this void by examining the way in which the Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier (c.1480-1528) used the Church fathers and the conditions that shaped his exposure to patristic treatises, epistles and commentaries.

Hubmaier's significance within the Anabaptist movement has been a point of debate from the very beginnings of the Radical Reformation. Although many of his contemporary opponents clearly identified him as a prominent Anabaptist leader, (17) later historians of the movement have been more ambivalent. Baptist scholars like Henry Vedder, Torsten Bergsten, Rollin Armour and William Estep have all emphasized Hubmaier's lasting impact on the Anabaptist-and later, Baptist-tradition. Bergsten, for example, called Hubmaier a "pioneer of the Anabaptist movement," one of its "most important leaders and thinkers" whose views on baptism, the Lord's Supper, church discipline and freedom of the will "exercised a considerable influence for a long time over a wide area among all Anabaptists. …

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