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Karlstadt as the Father of the Baptist Movement


Karlstadt as the Father of the Baptist Movement by Calvin Augustine Pater. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993. xiv + 350 pp.

This study offers a radically new interpretation of Andreas Karlstadt which extends the previous studies by Sider and Bubenheimer. Contrary to the traditional Lutheran consensus, begun by Luther himself, Karlstadt was no mystic, legalist, or fringe player in the first decade of the Reformation. Rather, he had a significant impact on the whole development of the Reformation as the "intellectual progenitor of the Baptists." Pater's intent is to pursue Karlstadt's peculiarities, original contributions, and specific impact on the development of a baptistic theology in order to make the case that Karlstadt should be considered the theological father of the Baptists much as Zwingli is for the Reformed, and Luther is for Lutherans. This has been historically obscured, according to Pater, because of the hostile vilification of Karlstadt by Lutheran and later Reformed historians as well as the distancing of the Mennonite tradition from radical elements (as Karlstadt would have been perceived through the eyes of magisterial reformers). However, if one recognizes "Karlstadt's fathership of the Baptist movements," it will radically alter one's perspective on the rise of the Baptists.

The work is divided into three parts. First, Pater provides a detailed exposition of Karlstadt's theology which concentrates on how Karlstadt and Luther differed on key theological points. Karlstadt affirms an Anabaptistic version of free will, stresses biblicism, primitivism, an early version of congregational polity (e.g., the local church elects its own shepherd), and adult baptism. Second, Pater concentrates on Karlstadt's relationship with the Zurich Reformation. He argues that Karlstadt significantly influenced Zwingli, and that the radicals in the Zurich Reformation had significant contact with Karlstadt. They sold 5,000 copies of his Basel treatises, and two months after his visit to Zurich the first adults were baptized. This section contains an extended and helpful section on Conrad Grebel. Pater brings some fresh perspectives to this important Anabaptist. Karlstadt, according to Pater, had a formative influence on the Zurich baptists. Third, Pater argues that Karlstadt had a "tangible influence" on Melchior Hoffman and consequently upon the northern Baptist movement. Karlstadt is the "main historical link between the northern and southern Baptists of Europe." Karlstadt, through his influence on the northern Baptists (including Hoffman and Menno Simons as Hoffman's heir), also influenced the beginnings of English Baptists. Pater sees this beginning in John Smyth, who became a Baptist through the influence of the Waterlanders (as well as Mennonites) in the Netherlands.

Pater has convincingly rehabilitated Karlstadt, and has provided the scholarly community with much fodder for discussion. His use of original sources is impressive, judicious, and insightful. He builds his case with care and tenacity.

This book makes at least two significant contributions. One is his theological interpretation of Karlstadt. He provides students with the best summary of Karlstadt's theology in English, and offers a convincing positive perspective on Karlstadt. The second is a rather full interpretation of Hoffman's life and thought. The weakest link in his argument is the connection between Karlstadt and the English Baptists through the northern Baptist movement. Clearly it is not so strong as the Zurich movement (particularly on Grebel), but it is nevertheless significant. The general debate over the origins of English Baptists will continue, and further discussion must take account of Pater's work here.

One of the more valuable contributions of this work is the complete primary source bibliographies of Karlstadt and Hoffman, and a secondary source bibliography that is quite extensive. The usefulness of the volume is also enhanced by a large name and subject index.

First appeared in The Sixteenth Century Journal 26 (Winter 1995), 1004




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