This past summer I found myself reviewing a number of classic early Anabaptist works as I researched and wrote a chapter on Anabaptist eschatology. As I researched and read I was struck by an unrelated phenomenon—the prevalence of the creeds in several of these writings. In the four years since I first began attending a Mennonite Church, I have sometimes heard Anabaptists referred to as non-creedal Christians. It is certainly true that, when asked to describe what it means to be Anabaptist, most Anabaptists will understandably give an answer that prioritizes doctrines and practices that are not common to the majority of Christian churches, particularly pacifism or credobaptism. Similarly, when drawing doctrinal boundaries around their churches (something they were as ready to do as the state churches, though not at the point of a sword), Anabaptists have tended to appeal to Scripture directly, since its authority superseded any creeds and confessions, however valuable.1 Nevertheless, insofar as the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds can be said to summarize the essentials of the Christian faith, the earliest Anabaptists upheld these teaching with only a few exceptions.
Of these exceptions, the anti-Trinitarianism of Adam Pastor and of the Polish Brethren was never particularly popular, and in Pastor’s case resulted in his being banned. The more significant exception is Melchior Hoffman’s Christology—his assertion that Christ took no human flesh from Mary, who served only as a vessel, and instead possessed his own, celestial flesh. Menno Simons also adopted and promulgated this Christology—indeed it was one of the most significant features the Mennonites inherited from their predecessors the Melchiorites as they sifted through the legacy of Münster and determined what to retain and what to rebuke. Despite Menno and Dirk Phillips’ defense of this doctrine, support for it faded over the ensuing centuries, as the Dutch Mennonites made common cause with Swiss Anabaptists.2 This teaching was not necessarily irreconcilable with the letter of the Apostles’ Creed (they did still believe Christ to be born of the virgin Mary) but it was unquestionably a departure from the way these creeds had historically been interpreted. Nevertheless, the Dutch Anabaptist Thieleman Janzs van Braght, writing in the seventeenth century, had no trouble including the Apostles’ Creed in the Martyrs’ Mirror as a distillation of true, simple faith, and he described the three representative seventeenth-century confessions of faith that followed as elaborations on this core creed.3
The most enthusiastically creedal of the early Anabaptists was undoubtedly Balthasar Hubmaier. He referred often to the Apostles’ Creed, or the Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith. He considered acquiescence to and understanding of these articles a prerequisite for baptism and included them in his Christian Catechism, published in early 1527.4 During his 1526 imprisonment in Zurich, he even produced a devotional writing centered entirely around the Apostles’ Creed. He expanded upon the creed’s articles and transformed it into a prayer by changing the pronouns for God from the third to the second person, expressing the comfort and hope that he found in these doctrines.5 He also found the Apostles’ Creed polemically useful and appealed to it to advocate against the doctrine of transubstantiation and for believers’ baptism.6 As far as Hubmaier was concerned, the form of Christianity for which he advocated was not only compatible with these twelve articles, it was in fact more faithful to them than Catholic, Zwinglian, or Lutheran forms of Christianity.
The Hutterite Theologian Peter Riedemann likewise drew extensively on the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote his Confession of Faith during his imprisonment in the early 1540s. The Creed formed the scaffolding of the first part of the confession, as he elaborated on each clause: his beliefs on God the Father, the creation of Heaven and earth, Christ the son, the incarnation, and so forth. In choosing this framework, Riedemann appealed to many beliefs he held in common with his captors, but he also provided a distinctly Anabaptist gloss on these beliefs, emphasizing the importance of gathering a church without spot or wrinkle.7 He then went on to elaborate the points where Hutterite teaching diverged, including believers’ baptism, community of goods, and opposition to warfare.
Hymnody has long been a method of doctrinal formation for Anabaptists, and the second hymn of the Ausbund provided the faithful in Switzerland with the opportunity to rehearse the teachings of the creeds. The hymn is described as “the Christian faith, in song form,” and consists of three verses, one for each person of the Trinity. It appears to be an attempt to harmonize the two principal Christian creeds: it contains elements unique to the Apostles’ Creed, such as Christ’s descent into hell, as well as to the Nicene Creed, such as the description of Christ as “begotten, not made” and “of one substance with the Father” and the mention of baptism. At times, it elaborates further than either Creed. Nearly half of the stanza on God the Father lists “things visible” he has created—plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, and humans—before concluding with a mention of “things invisible.”8
The first generation of Anabaptists all converted as adults, after having already received some amount of Christian spiritual formation. These creeds formed part of the foundation that they brought with them into their new understanding of Christianity. Even as they were foundational, however, they were largely taken for granted—unlike nonresistance or believers’ baptism, the creeds were never under attack by either Catholics or magisterial Protestants. The creeds, then, could be seen as a quieter, less visible part of early Anabaptist identity—not particularly useful to distinguish Anabaptists from other Christians or explain the persecution they suffered, but nevertheless a useful description of the God in whom they trusted and the future for which they hoped.
1 They did, however, consistently engage in the work of attempting to formulate confessions that they felt faithfully reflected Scripture. See Karl Koop (ed.), Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, 1527-1660, second edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).
2 For more, see C. Arnold Snyder, “Christology” in Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 375-390.
3 Thieleman Janzs van Braght, Het Bloedig Tooneel of Martelaers Spiegel der Doopsgesinde of Weereloose Christenen (Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts et al., 1685). https://books.google.com/books?id=UxmlV7PyedoC Support for the Melchiorite formulation of the Incarnation was already reduced by this point. The seventeenth-century van Braght includes take no firm position but instead acknowledge the longstanding debate among the Brethren on this question and content themselves with describing Christ’s incarnation as miraculous, however unknowable the specifics might be.
4 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Christian Catechism which Everyone Should Know Before He Is Baptized” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 349; Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Form for Baptism in Water of Those Who Have Been Instructed in Faith” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 387.
5 Balthasar Hubmaier, “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith, Phrased in the Form of a Prayer at Zurich on the Water Tower” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 235-240.
6 Balthasar Hubmaier, “A Letter to Oecolampad” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 70.
7 Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith, translated by Kathleen E. Hasenberg (Bungay, Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 38.
8 Ausbund, Das Ist Etliche Schöne Christliche Lieder, Wie Sie in Dem Gefängnis zu Passau in dem Schloss von den Schweizer-Brüdern und von Andern Rechtglaubigen Christen Hin und Her Gedichtet Worden (Lancaster: Johann Baer and Sons, 1856), 5-8. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Ausbund/VKZXSla-jKoC