Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Whether Christian Princes Are Obligated to Apply Physical Punishment and the Sword against the Unchristian Sect of the Anabaptists (1536)

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Whether Christian Princes Are Obligated to Apply Physical Punishment and the Sword against the Unchristian Sect of the Anabaptists (1536)

Article excerpt

The rise and fall of the revolutionary Anabaptist kingdom in Munster (153435) confirmed the worst fears of many European authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, regarding the Anabaptist "threat to civil government." Even relatively moderate reformers like Johannes Brenz, who earlier had opposed capital punishment for Anabaptists, reversed his view in part because of the episode at Munster.

As something of an exception to these sentiments, Landgrave Philip of Hesse continued to question the use of harsh measures against peaceful Anabaptists, even after the Munster debacle. In May of 1536, Philip asked various Lutheran magistrates and theologians, including those in Wittenberg, for counsel on how he should respond to Anabaptists in his territories. Later that year Philip Melanchthon, the brilliant emerging theologian of the Lutheran movement, drafted a reply entitled Ob christliche Fursten schuldig sind, der Widertaufer unchristliche Sect mit leiblicher Straffe und mit dem Schwert zu wehren. His short treatise, signed by Luther, Bugenbagen and Cruciger, outlined procedures Lutheran magistrates were to take against Anabaptists and, in the judgement of historian John Oyer, offers "the clearest single declaration of Melanchthon's views on the subject." (1)

In his writing, Melanchthon makes a sharp divide between one's inner faith--which is not of concern to the magistrate--and one's outer expressions of faith, which may give legitimate cause for prosecution. His primary concern is directed toward political order and social stability: if Anabaptist views were to become generally accepted, "then indeed the magistracy, the oath, personal possessions, etc. would all be abolished."

More generally, the document also grants insights into the nature of Christianity, as interpreted by the Lutheran church. Here the outlines of the gulf separating the emerging Lutheran position from the emerging Anabaptist position come into focus: the Lutheran insistence on sola fideism (rooted in the bondage of the will) versus the Anabaptist emphasis on discipleship (rooted in the freedom of the will).

Although Melanchthon and Luther could differentiate among the various established churches (Roman Catholic, Zwinglian and Lutheran), they seemed far less able to distinguish with clarity the various non-established believers' churches in the region--although Philip of Hesse believed that this should be possible. In any event, official Lutheran policy after 1536 made it obligatory for princes to impose physical punishment on all Anabaptists, and the death sentence upon those who remained obstinate.

At least one unpublished version of Melanchthon's treatise survives. (2) Since, however, the published booklet became the official, disseminated version, it has served as the basis for the following translation. I am grateful to Prof. James Stayer for his suggestions, improving on my original English-translation draft.

That the Civil Magistracy is Obligated To Apply Physical Punishment Against the Anabaptists: A Few Considerations from Wittenberg


Whether Christian princes are obligated to apply physical punishment and the sword against the unchristian sect of the Anabaptists

First of all it is to be noted that with this question, the office of preacher (Predicanten) is not being spoken of, for the preachers and servants of the gospel do not wield the sword. Therefore, they are not to use any physical force whatsoever, but are to fight against error solely through correct teaching and preaching. Where they, however, delve into another office and want to wield the sword, as did [Thomas] Munster, and as happened at Munster, such is incorrect and seditious. Here, however, the question deals with the civil magistracy, whether it is obligated to proceed with physical force and punishment against the false teachings of the Anabaptists and other similar sects.

Second, before punishment is meted out, misled people are first of all to be presented with clear Christian instruction and admonition that they might be induced to renounce their errors. …

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