John Wright’s Universal Apologia and Anabaptism

In Universal Apologia, John C. Wright’s cursory exploration of the Anabaptists lists Nicolas Stork as the source of its ‘message’. Is it reasonable to conclude that Anabaptists got their message from one man? Where did that one man get his message or did he make it up on the spot?

We know (or presume) that there is a single origin point for each book of scripture. For example, Mark wrote his Gospel and then started distributing it. From this point it changed hands and copies were made. The number of messengers (thus copies of the message) entered a period of expansion. But who gave Stork his message?

This is a loaded question.

One of the key consequence of the issues raised in “The Biblical Textual Criticism of Bart Ehrman“, is that spread of information over long periods of time does not follow either a linear path (a string) or a continuously expanding or contracting branch (a tree). It is more like a net, with two points spaced far apart from each other by multiple connected paths.

Think of a tree, branching out from the origin, each branch weaving between other branches and sending out new branches the farther it goes. Now imagine two trees with their trunks pointing opposite directions and their branches growing together at their respective tops. This is closer to what is happening. Many different branches branch out from the origin, just as many different branches converge onto the end-point. In a true mesh network, there are many more ways back to the origin than there are end-points.

The Anabaptists got their message from the great cloud of witnesses that came before them.[1]

It begs-the-question to say that Nicholas Stork[2], Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Hans Denck, Hans Hut, Thomas Müntzer, Sebastian Franck, Andreas Karlstadt, et al. either (1) got their message from a single man in a linear chain from end-point to origin and that only a single corruption in that chain was required to destroy the original; or (2) was the sole source of the message and the corruption.[3]

Both the idea of “apostolic succession” (a linear assumption) and Erhman’s belief that the copies got more unreliable the closer they got to the origin (an continuous expansion/contraction assumption) both hinge on mathematical oversimplifications of information transmission. They are both logical, given their assumptions, but they are not correct.

[1] Wikipedia notes that it is very hard to pin down the origins of the Anabaptists, in part due to slander by their enemies and in part due to the distributed nature of their origin. Even the theory of monogenesis (single point of origin) only explains when a particular group of men rebaptized each other on January 21, 1525, but doesn’t explain where they got their ideas from or how Anabaptists were and would be influenced from many different sources, including the Waldensians and their predecessors.

[2] The Zwickau prophets—which included Nicholas Stork—were not Anabaptists. Stork had limited influence in the development of the Anabaptists and is not credited by most as its founder. He participated in the Peasants War, a doctrinal error. Anabaptists would come to universally embrace nonresistance as a keystone principle.

[3] Besides getting the message from another person, many (most? all?) radical reformers got their message from reading the Bible, avoiding the transmission problem entirely. They utilized church councils and generally repudiated the acts of rogue individuals. Doctrines that did not meet with consensus (such as the use of violence and emphasis on eschatology) quickly fell to the wayside. Indeed, the Swiss Anabaptists and the Dutch Mennonites would set aside their differences to find common ground. This was not the last time unification would happen, although this is not without some irony.

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