The Mainstream Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Theological Anthropology

This paper argues that most sixteenth-century Anabaptists subscribed to a trichotomous anthropology of body, soul, and spirit, an anthropology which allowed them to contend that the events of Genesis 3 adversely affected the body and the soul but not the spirit. They therefore held to a libertarian view of human freedom stemming from a doctrine of partial depravity rather than a compatibilist view stemming from a doctrine of total depravity. For the Anabaptists, human beings, by virtue of the purity of their spirits, are born good, though with a resistible predisposition to sin rooted in their bodies. Innovatively interpreting the Pauline tension between sarx and pneuma as a tension between the human body and the human spirit, Anabaptists argued that the soul freely chooses between the corrupt desires of the body and the pure desires of the spirit. However, the choice is not equally motivated, as the sin of our primal ancestors makes it much easier for the soul to choose the ways of the flesh over those of the spirit. Anabaptists believed that even though it is possible for any person to live a sinless life, God foreknows that no one, except Jesus, will freely choose to avail themselves of this possibility. Hence humans bear total responsibility for their sins. Soteriologically, the spirit makes it possible for humans in their sinful condition to embrace Jesus, thereby appropriating his saving grace. By a discipleship to Jesus marked by obeying his teachings, Anabaptists postulated a form of theosis where the believer participates in the moral dimension, though not the ontological dimension, of God’s nature. This anthropology put Anabaptists at odds with Lutherans and the Reformed, both of whom viewed the Anabaptist anthropology as a form of Pelagianism. Anabaptists charged with Pelagianism responded that their anthropology was neither Pelagian nor Augustinian but a media via between the two.

The paper contributes to the fields of church history and historical theology by demonstrating that sixteenth-century Anabaptists, for the most part, held to a unified anthropological model rather than a diversity of models. It further raises the question of whether sixteenth-century Anabaptists were in fact able to negotiate a biblically faithful middle way between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. The research for the paper consists of interaction with primary sources, including but not limited to those of Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, Jakob Hutter, and Menno Simons, and with secondary sources, including but not limited to the anthropological writings of Robert Friedmann, Duane Ruth-Heffelbower, Cornelius Dyck, Eddie Mabry, and George Huntston Williams.

1 thought on “The Mainstream Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Theological Anthropology”

Leave a Comment