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Chatfield, Graeme R.
Balthasar Hubmaier and the Clarity of Scripture. A Critical Reformation Issue
Cambridge: James Clarke (Lutterworth) 2013. XI, 420 S. Kart. £ 27,50. ISBN 978-0-227-17418-0.
Like several others in the first generation of the Reformation era, Balthasar Hubmaier is a transitional figure who is difficult to categorize theologically. Should his rejection of infant baptism lead to his traditional labelling as an Anabaptist? Or, given Hubmaier’s acceptance of a role for the state in reforming the church and his failure to embrace pacifism, is this too straightforward a conclusion? There are also questions concerning theological influences upon Hubmaier. Is he shaped primarily by the course of the Zurich Reformation and divisions between Zwingli and the early Swiss Anabaptists? Or is the work of Erasmus or the ideas of the magisterial reformers also important? And do ideas rooted in the medieval Catholic tradition continue to influence Hubmaier’s theology in significant ways? Graeme R. Chatfield attempts to cut through all these de-bates about Hubmaier by offering a careful and detailed explora-tion of Hubmaier’s hermeneutic. He does this by analyzing all of Hubmaier’s writings, categorized into five periods by correlation with major events in Hubmaier’s life. Included are both analysis of Hubmaier’s arguments and examples of his use of Scripture.
During the first two periods Hubmaier was pastor at Waldshut, a small city on the Rhine. From 1523 until his baptism at Easter 1525, Hubmaier’s writings emphasize the sole authority of Scrip-ture for Christian doctrine and practice. Any texts which appear to be obscure are to be interpreted in relation to clearer ones. These writings also stress dependency upon the Holy Spirit for correct interpretation and the Christological basis of the unity of the two Testaments. All of this is compatible with Hubmaier’s initial strong support for Zwingli, but as Hubmaier begins to develop diverging ideas about baptism there also emerge differences concerning the role of the congregation in interpretation. Hubmaier is prepared to allow more of a role for a united local congregation hear-ing the text in the vernacular than is Zwingli. This difference be-comes even more pronounced in texts from 1525 that follow Hubmaier’s baptism. He is explicitly critical of Zwingli’s insistence on the necessity of biblical languages for secure interpretation of the text and argues that a literal reading of the order of salvation (word, hearing, faith, baptism, work) invalidates infant baptism.
By the end of 1525, Hubmaier’s circumstances were radically changed. His decision about baptism isolated him from former friends and allies and the collapse of the Peasant’s Revolt left Walds-hut at the mercy of the Catholic imperial authorities. Hubmaier fled to Zurich but found there only persecution and, following torture and recantation, he fled again, arriving in Nikolsburg in Moravia in July 1526. His writings from the months of this third period reveal the central hermeneutical aspect for Hubmaier of the baptismal debate: does the absence of a specific command for infant baptism mean that to practice it is to add to Scripture? Except under coercion, Hubmaier’s answer is yes. He reiterates »his foundational principle that only what God commands is to be obeyed and that the negative of the command is included in the command as a prohibition« (187).
In the year following his arrival in Nikolsburg, Hubmaier produced liturgical works on the sacraments, works on ecclesiology and church discipline, and, in the aftermath of Luther and Erasmus’ famous debate, works on the issue of the freedom of the will. This is by far the longest chapter of the book and in this fourth period Ch. finds several important developments. In his ecclesio-logy, Hubmaier comes to recognize more clearly the significance of the universal church alongside that of the local congregation and to emphasize the proper exercise of discipline as essential to the true church. The role that he gives to the pastor in granting admission to baptism hints at an adjustment to his earlier insistence on the capacity of the unified local congregation to interpret correctly. The preacher is now the central figure in the congregation’s interpreting activity. Hubmaier also now explicitly distinguishes be-tween the authority of the spiritual sword held by the church and the role of the magistrate in wielding the physical sword, something in which the Christian can participate without sinning. Both here and in the role given to the pastor, there is a closer proximity to the views of the magisterial reformers than earlier in Hubmaier’s career and a contrast with typical Anabaptist positions. On the issue of the will, he asserts a limited freedom in fallen human beings such that although no-one can come to Christ unless drawn by the Father it does not follow that all those so drawn do indeed believe. Hubmaier is thus closer to Erasmus in his conclusions about the will, but does not emphasize human reason in the same way and shares with Luther a stress on the importance of the preached word and the accompanying work of the Spirit.
Ch. argues that these doctrinal developments were accompanied by underlying hermeneutical changes. Hubmaier now distinguishes between different kinds of texts and will draw some of these distinctions from the medieval Catholic tradition. For example, in his discussions of free will, apparent contradictions between biblical texts are resolved by applying the distinction between the ordained and absolute will of God. The texts are not contradictory but simply belong in different categories. Hubmaier also now recognizes that Christ is not simply promised in the Old Testament but is the logos who speaks with one effective voice across both Old and New Testaments. This recognition modifies the priority of the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular often asserted among the Swiss Anabaptists. Following his imprisonment by the Catholic imperial authorities in June or July 1527, Hubmaier produced one further work, his Apologia, before his execution in March 1528. Ch. argues that in this final fifth period there continues a move back towards a hermeneutic rooted more in the medieval Catholic tradition. Nevertheless, in his overall conclusion Ch. sees as most significant the particular development in Hubmaier’s hermeneutic that owed most to the magisterial re-formers: »No longer did the correct understanding of Scripture emanate from the gathered community of the church. Rather, the interpretation of Scripture was vested in the leader of the congregation, the preacher of the Word of God« (380).
Hubmaier thus emerges as an independent-minded theologian drawing from numerous influences in his environment. Yet important methodological questions remain. In reconstructing Hubmaier’s views, can those parts of the corpus produced while imprisoned or under imminent threat of torture be regarded as simply reflecting what Hubmaier would have said if not under such duress? For good reasons Hubmaier’s recantation on infant baptism in Zurich is not taken as evidence of his own views, but the
Apologia of 1528 is treated as straightforward evidence for Hubmaier’s later opinions. More significantly, it is not clear that the topic of hermeneutics can bear the weight of determining Hubmaier’s place in the Reformation. The book title and conclusions emphasize the clarity of Scripture, and it is certainly legitimate to deduce Hubmaier’s position from his writings, but it should be noted that Hubmaier »does not specifically discuss the clarity of Scripture« (363). Would he have recognized the changes identified by Ch. as departures from his own previous positions or not? Finally, comparisons are made between the hermeneutical views of Hubmaier and those of other Reformation figures but without any detailed consideration of the positions of those (Luther, Zwingli, Erasmus etc.) with whom Hubmaier is being compared. Ch. may be right in what he asserts, but it is not demonstrated. Yet if the somewhat sprawling nature of this book limits the degree to which the author is able to achieve his goals, its comprehensiveness is also a significant strength. Ch.’s analysis represents an important step forward in that he considers Hubmaier’s entire corpus of work. He also provides a comprehensive and valuable discussion (chapter 3) of recent scholarship on Hubmaier. Future researchers will find in this volume an important orienting guide to Hubmaier’s corpus.