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Protestants and Radicals – Martin Bucer's Debate with Hessian Anabaptists (1538)

The following text recounts a face-to-face disputation between the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551) and the spokesmen of the Anabaptists in the landgraviate of Hesse. The exchange stands in stark contrast to the Protestant reformers’ savage polemic against the sects. The disputation was staged at the order of Landgrave Philip of Hesse, one of the few princes who felt that the Anabaptist problem called for instruction rather than persecution. The debate led to the proclamation of a new Hessian church ordinance (1539), which introduced the rite of confirmation as a mature declaration of Christian commitment and created the office of the church elder to encourage lay participation in local church affairs. Most native Hessian Anabaptists accepted reintegration into the state church.

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I. Jörg Schnabel: Church Discipline (Bann). The Church. Usury Baptism. Government. The Humanity of Christ. Absolution. II. Leonhard Fälber of Maastricht: the Ministry. Separation. III. Hermann Bastian: Church Discipline. Government. Baptism. His Recantation. Peter Losse.

Done Wednesday after Sts. Simon and Jude the apostles (Oct. 30) in the year 1538. In the presence of Crafft Bauen, Dr. Eisermann (Montanus), Hartman Schlern, the Rector, Master Adam [Kraft], Dr. Trachen, the Pastor, and other learned men, also the Mayor, Town Council and others among the most important citizens of Marburg.

In the beginning Dr. Eisermann held up the Anabaptists to critical review, [describing] how they had been treated in various ways previously, that they might be brought back to a right understanding of the divine holy Scripture. But because that was fruitless, our gracious Prince and Lord [Landgrave Philipp] had brought God-fearing strangers here who should discuss with them, with the hope that if they previously had acquired rancor or hard feelings these could be eliminated; and one of them should speak up – Jorg Schnabel or Leonhard – and the others keep still, so that the discussion could be carried through and completed in orderly fashion. And then Jorg Schnabel, after he had conferred with Leonhard and Peter Losse, said that one couldn’t give the other his proxy; [he hoped] it wouldn’t be held against them.

They were asked why they had separated themselves from our church His answer came back, that he was repelled by false doctrine. When he had first heard the Lutheran doctrine he had become a servant of the cash box; he hadn’t realized that [pursuing] much commerce was against the Bible. In the first chapter of Amos it is written: “Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish; even the priests thereof shall fall.” And in the New Testament it says: “God will judge every man according to his work.” Note: “He has not spared the angels in heaven.” Now such is written for an example. Note that in Hebrews the same is written. Because of these he entered into discussion with his pastor, for he saw that it was worse with him than with the pope; and especially he explained to him two matters, Usury and Church Discipline. Note: he had read about these matters in Luther, Melanchthon and in (Dr. Eisermann’s book which he wrote on the common necessity, that they wrote perversely. And now he hoped that he should give honor to the gentlemen present) his pastor conceded that things were ill in the church; he would do his duty and he, Jorg, was answerable before God that he also look to the matter. But the pastor lightly let the matter drop. When they were next together, he, Jorg, had said: “Pastor, here is money that I am to contribute, but such is forbidden in the Bible and in the city there are many poor people.” The pastor said: “It is our Lord’s command that the cash box be enlarged.” And, in sum, he declared to pastor, mayor and town council that he wished to separate from them. Note: he had spoken here in the Marburg church office of the same two articles, church discipline and usury – which they maintain improperly. Note: the Marburg pastor had cited him to the authorities, that he wanted to overthrow kings and punish all evil with the sword. In that he had done him an injustice.

Then Martin Butzer began by calling diligently on the Lord God and admonishing that all present should also earnestly beg for grace. Then he told how our honored Prince and Lord followed this matter with earnest care and therefore it was of the greatest import that those in error should be brought again to a right understanding, etc. Now the Anabaptists were being asked what was the reason they had separated themselves from the parish. Thereupon Jorg had pointed out two reasons: one, church discipline, and the other, that the pastor wouldn’t face the issue of usury. Here Butzer asked if they didn’t have other points. Said Jorg: “Yes, but these are the most important.”

(Butzer) He hoped that a repentant life was preached here and that Christ had redeemed us. He hoped that the pastor and the preachers wouldn’t have fellowship with anyone who didn’t do that. But the way church discipline was exercised was plainly set in Matthew 18 (v. 17). And whoever now wasn’t living in great sin and declared to the church as such and then publicly convicted, one couldn’t ban according to the text. For Judas took communion, but was not yet convicted before the church. Now there cannot be a church without church discipline [the #]. And wherever there are whoremongers, usurers, and other sinners among the brethren who after brotherly warning declared according to the gospel will not reform, they shall not be kept in fellowship. The preachers show this beyond all doubt in proclaiming the death of the Old Adam and putting aside of all sins. And because Judas was not convicted before the church, Christ gave him communion like the others. He believed that the preachers gave no one the sacrament who would not stand aside from sins, whom one should let go as an enemy of God. No one can be banned unless he will not listen to the church or has been brought before the church. Christ preached his word; the one to whom it applies has to be held all the more urgently by the ban. And the Anabaptists have no justification from the Scriptures to separate from the church, for St. Paul refers to such in the churches as can be read about in I Cor. (v. 1), that they were puffed up, were immoral to a degree worse even than the heathen. Paul expelled the one who bedded with his stepmother; that was properly done, and one should cite first who is to be expelled.

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