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Benedictine Community and Anabaptist Ecclesiology

Anabaptism is unique among all ecclesial frames for reference derived from the Reformation in many ways, one of which involves its Catholic roots and specifically Benedictine roots. Unlike Luther the Augustinian, Calvin the lawyer, or Zwingli the Christian humanist, the Anabaptist tradition arose largely in the soil of the Benedictine tradition. This is seen most clearly in the influence of Michael Sattler over the Radical Reformation. The earliest Anabaptist confession, The Schletheim Confession, is widely accepted as deriving directly from the thought of Sattler, and its fundamental affirmations are clearly Benedictine in origination.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between Anabaptism the other major offspring of the Reformation, especially Lutheranism. Luther’s theology was shaped in a thoroughgoing manner by his rejection of human action and ecclesial practices as coterminous with divine action and merit. As such Luther vehemently rejected monastic profession and the Christian taking of vows. Anabaptism, by contrast never rejected the more “catholic” emphases in ecclesiology, even including the church’s ability to participate in divine action through the power of the keys in pronouncing absolution. Likewise Anabaptism did not reject the monastic (and particularly Benedictine) notion of intentional community, vows, and embodied life together.

The key point of disctinction between the Radical Reformation and its Benedictine roots came in regard to the issue of ecclesiology. For Sattler and the Anabaptist tradition as a whole, the monastic practices that originate in the Benedictine tradition are not intended simply for a monastic class within the church, but rather for all members of the church without exception. For the Anabaptists there is no salvation outside of the perfection of Christ. The “counsels of perfection” are not for a monastic caste, but rather for all believers. This is the center of the Anabaptist theology of discipleship, not a rejection of monastic practices and a catholic vision of the importance of the church as a locus of divine action, but a univeralizing and intentional ecclesializing of the monastic vision.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I like the general thrust of this post, but I don’t think your last paragraph is accurate. Monasticism does not mark out a class of individuals called to perfection while the Church at large is not. As you point out, there is no salvation outside of the perfection of Christ, but this is not an Anabaptist point, it is a Catholic one. Monasticism is a special vocation, marked out by special vows, notably poverty, obedience and celibacy, that need not be generalized to the entire Church (and there is ample scriptural warrant for this, eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, Paul on whether or not to marry, etc.). What you are suggesting Anabaptist ecclesiology “corrects” is a mischaracterization of Catholic ecclesiology and monasticism. The universalizing and ecclesializing tendencies of the monastic vision isn’t Anabaptist theology, it’s the way monasticism has always been understood. I still think this is a really fruitful investigation, however. Are there any sources that are inspiring this reflection?

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Perhaps I should be clearer, by “perfection of Christ,” I did not mean “perfection” in the sense of sanctification to which all Christians are called. Rather I meant many of the specifically monastic practices that the medieval Catholic church specifically did not require of the laity.

    These would include things like economic sharing, nonviolence, etc. For the Anabaptists a number of the elements of Christian life that were considered in the medieval Catholic church to be specific to monastics were transfigured in Anabaptist thought and practice to apply to the church as a whole, in a manner that called into question the sort of religious/laity distinction that existed at the time.

    In short what is at work here is a different concept of vocation as a Christian reality. The Anabaptists in a sense, minimize the degree of difference that can exist “vocationally” within the church by an insistence an a particularly sort of universal discipleship that does not admit the same kinds of distinctions in practice that was inscribed in the Catholic monastic tradition and the religious/laity distinction. Or, put differently, a lot of the “vocational” callings to which monastics applied themselves were re-envisioned by the Anabaptists as belonging to the essence of Christian discipleship for all believers. That is the point of differentiation and novelty. I did not mean to suggest that the Catholic church does not call all Christians to discipleship (though of course the situation of the laity in the Medieval church is a very complex and nefarious thing, which is a huge subject in itself).

    As for sources, a lot of what I’ve put forward here comes from C. Arnold Snyder’s very helpful book The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler. It clarifies the Benedictine roots of the Anabaptist tradition in more depth and historical context than I’ve encountered elsewhere.

    I wasn’t really intending this as a sort of advocacy type of post proclaiming the superiority of the Anabaptist tradition, by the way. More I was just trying to clarify the nature of how Anabaptism conceives of itself as a tradition, how that is rooted in its historical genesis, and perhaps why many “radical” Catholics find so much in common with many Anabaptist themes.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  3. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    This is a helpful post, Halden, and on an issue that should be explored in more depth. I, for one, know very little of the Benedictine roots of Anabaptism. Of course, whatever sharp distinctions had been worked out historically in terms of the specific forms that discipleship took in the religious and the laity in Catholicism (and this is a complex history, indeed!), it is crucial to recall Vatican II’s insistence that this was ultimately wrongheaded. As a sort of outworking of this, we might look at the recent popularity of oblates.

    Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I still want to question your historical narrative of what constitutes “monasticism.” It feels like you are looking at the tenets of Anabaptism and extrapolating them backwards as universalized monasticism. I’m not even sure what you mean by economic sharing. I’m pretty sure that almsgiving and charity is simply a Christian virtue and that the distinction you wish to draw doesn’t exist. Similarly, there is nothing formally monastic about nonviolence. When violence is a sin, it ought not to be done, by monks or otherwise. Whether or not violence is always a sin, or how we know the difference between violence and nonviolence is another question altogether. If monasticism is anything, it is being set apart from the community, often in solitude, chiefly through a vow of celibacy, and this is precisely what the radical reformation (and the rest of the reformation for that matter) left behind. The irony here is that this kernel of the monastic life, consecrated celibacy, is one of the most explicitly scriptural modes of discipleship we have.

    Your point is well taken that monasticism has not at all times and places been understood correctly, especially by the laity, but I would argue this is a much more modern problem that most people suggest. I just don’t by the rhetoric about how the laity had it bad in the Middle Ages, etc. In what sense was the situation of the laity in the Middle Ages “nefarious?” Not to accuse you of this specifically, but closer inspection of most of these narratives finds them almost universally uninformed, with their roots in the standard “liberal Protestant” narrative of our salvation from the darkness of the Middle Ages through the Reformation and the emergence of the nation-state. When one consults actual scholars on the matter, the picture is quite different (John Bossy and Eamon Duffy are good places to start).

    I think we are compelled by scripture to resist a complete leveling of the concept of vocation. If for no other reason than that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom (there’s far more than this in the NT, however, different gifts, same spirit, etc.). We are all called to be set apart, but I don’t think that implies we are called to be set apart in the same way. Just another connected thought, in the work of people like Francis de Sales, you can see how there was a vibrant understanding of the call of all laymen to sainthood, and that it was taken seriously as the core of the faith. I don’t think the existence of bad or unfaithful Christians weakens this claim substantially.

    Sunday, October 5, 2008 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  5. Sean wrote:

    Thanks for this. A long time ago I wrote an undergraduate dissertation that was eventually published in the Baptist Quarterly 34 (1991), 52-66 which argues that, while the Benedictine influence on Sattler is undoubtedly present, the historical arguments made by Snyder are not as convincing as it first appears and that the separatist vision of the Schleitheim Confession is more the logical outworking of the cut-short theology of Grebel and Mainz (among others). I am not sure I know the stuff well enough now to add further argument in favour of this view, but in the end I was unconvinced by aspects of Snyder’s book.

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  6. this is tops mate. Thanks. Lets hope Luther would accuse us of “monkery” as well. :)

    Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

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