The Theology of Anabaptism
Soteriology: Salvation -justification - Grace
In the light of the preceding discussion it should not, be surprising that "soteriology," traditionally the very nucleus of all theology, is not and cannot be a major theme in Anabaptist thought. The concern as to "how to escape eternal damnation," or in Luther's terms, "how to find a gracious God," was certainly not a major concern of the Anabaptists. As has been said, they did not start with the crushing awareness of being lost sinners but began rather with the glorious experience of regeneration or spiritual rebirth. This signifies basically a positive experience of God's grace which subsequently leads to a rather different chain of insights. Granted, it was rather uncommon, this experience which so overwhelmed seekers that they spontaneously joined the flock of Anabaptist disciples wherever they found them. These early Anabaptists were not particularly bothered by guilt feelings; they desired to walk in the footsteps of the Master, "in love and cross," as Sebastian Franck described them. Therefore, the question of "salvation" naturally dropped into the background and was dealt with only casually.
A personal experience may serve to dramatize this situation and make the genius of Anabaptism come more alive. Several years ago, after a conference in South Dakota, a number of ministers decided to visit a nearby Hutterite Bruderhof, the oldest one in the United States, and I was invited to join this group. We were cordially received and shown around and then the elders were ready to discuss their way of life. One of the first questions the ministers asked was this: "What do you people teach regarding salvation?" Thereupon the very intelligent brother, who had very likely not anticipated this question, paused a moment and then said quietly but with great assurance: "If we live in obedience to God's commandments, we are certain of being in God's gracious hands; we do not worry further about our salvation. Rather, we try to walk the narrow path in the fear of the Lord. We fight sin and practice brotherly love. How then can redemption be lacking?" This reply was as simple as it was authentic. Now it was the ministers, trained in conventional theology, who were surprised and even a bit shocked. They had not anticipated such an answer.
One may rashly judge that such teachings smack of Werkgerechtigkeit (meritorious acts). But that would be a serious misinterpretation of such a statement as the one above, true to an ancient tradition. As early as 1541 Peter Riedemann, one of the great lights of early Hutterianism, vigorously denied this reproach in his great Rechen.schaft as follows: "Many say of us that we seek to be good [frombi] through our own works. To this we say "No," for we know that our work, in so far as it is our work, is naught but sin and unrighteousness; but insofar as it is of Christ and done by Christ in us, so far is it truth."
Peter Walpot, in his Great Article Book of 1577, wrote in a similar vein, while discussing the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19: "To give to the poor should not be understood in such a way as if being poor could save the young man. That he follows Christ in his words and commands: that alone is what saves him." This expresses quite generally the idea held by most Anabaptists.. It is living in "childlike obedience" without any thought of "working" for salvation or gaining merits by work that was meant by the Anabaptists of four centuries ago, as well as the Hutterite brothers in South Dakota today.
Thus the subject of soteriology does not really occupy the center of Anabaptist thought but receives its relevance primarily against the background of the tension between normative Protestantism and Anabaptism. It was only natural that the soteriological question should arise frequently in debates and court trials, and the brethren had to clarify their stand concerning salvation, justification, and atonement.