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.

Purity Matters to God

The Bible often uses the words defile and unclean. The Sigma Frame blog has made the argument that these represent different things. The two English words are the same ancient Hebrew word. Many words in languages have multiple definitions and uses, and Hebrew is no different. Words differ in the their contextual meaning.[1] I will show that while there are meaningful kinds (or grades) of defilement and uncleanness, they all share a unifying biblical truth: purity matters to God.

In the Bible there are two kinds of impurities. Ritual impurities lead to ceremonial uncleanness. These include touching certain body fluids, like blood or semen. Such temporary uncleanness is removed by cleansing rituals. Moral impurities lead to a uncleanness as well, but are much more serious and sometimes permanent. These include idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual immorality. The uncleanness from these often requires serious punishments, even the death penalty.

Pamela Eisenbaum in her book, “Paul was not a Christian”, notes that ritual impurities apply only to the Jews, those living under the original covenant with God. Their purpose is twofold: (1) to regulate the boundary between human and divine; and (2) to keep the boundaries between Israel and (Gentile) nations. It is not associated with sin. By contrast, moral impurities are sins and apply to everyone.[2]

The ancient Hebrew language is a highly context sensitive one. Many words have a wide range of meanings. The Hebrews loved wordplay, including puns, and the Bible is full of it. The words were written without vowels. Single consonants and vowels could be swapped out to create similar sounding, but different meaning words. Double meanings are common and don’t always show up in single explanation, literal translations. There are many examples.

English speakers tend to speak and write more concretely, without wordplay. Puns are not often used in serious settings. We unconsciously read our own expectations and bias into the Bible. If we only look for concrete, specific explanations on the cause and effect of impurities that lead to uncleanness and defilement, we will miss the general context. Sigma Frame gets close to this:

“Put simply, the mundanities of life are just not fitting nor dignified, and thereby spoil the joys of a formal experience.”

There is something about the formal experience of entering God’s presence that requires something special: purity. Distinctions between unclean and defile or ritual and moral are not required to understand the context of purity and impurity. God desires our purity. This is not merely a lack of sin, but a way of life and a state of being. We must be pure to fully enter into the holy presence of God. David, after defiling himself by committing adultery with Bathsheba, penned the following words:

“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”

David understood the importance of purity. He understood that God could make pure anything that was dirty. Though his soul could be cleaned, he could not avoid the consequences of sin. He still had to suffer for the taint caused by his actions: he was not permitted to build the temple, for he had shed blood.

Purity or impurity comes from the heart. The purpose of rituals is not the rituals themselves, but to make sure the heart stays pure and focused on God. Jesus said in Matthew 12:33-35:

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. (NIV)

The Christian should maintain a holy lifestyle, not merely follow some set of rules. We can examine two hot-button issues in Christianity to see how this applies: homosexuality and abortion.

There are those who argue that the Bible is unclear on the topic of homosexuality because it is not explicit. Indeed, the NT references use language that is generic or unclear. This misses the importance of purity to God. God demands that we live a pure life. All non-marital sexuality is impure and stains the soul.[3] Attempting to get as close to the sin-line as possible without stepping over is the very essence of impurity.[4]

The abortion debate often hinges around when a human attains the right to life. Is it only when they are born? Is it only when the mother decides she wants the baby? Is when the fetus can feel pain? Is it at conception?[5] These questions miss the point. God takes life so seriously that the taking of human life was typically punishable by death. Human life is absolutely sacred. To take life, even justified, is to be impure: to go against God’s plan (e.g. David). Abortion is therefore impure, even if and when it can be justified.

We must flee impurity, to live pure and holy lives. This is what God desires.

[1] I will use the terms interchangeably and let context determine their meaning.

[2] For some reason, most Christians do not know this. This leads to confusion by those who think uncleanness and defilement are different things and only the latter applies to Christians. This is close, but incorrect. The Bible makes the distinction between the ritual and moral.

[3] After explaining that men and women were created with sex, marriage, and family as its goal, the Bible then dedicates page after page to condemning various deviations from this plan.

[4] See Matthew 5:27-28: impurity starts in the heart, before it even crosses the line into sin.

[5] Science answers this affirmatively. At conception, a human is created. That said, an argument can be made that preventing conception devalues life as well and that this too goes against God’s will. That is a topic for another day.

Is the New Testament Relevant?

This post is a twist on the much more common question of “is the old testament relevant?” As far as I know, nobody has ever asked whether the new testament is relevant to Christianity.[1] Let me rephrase the question: what would Christianity need in order to survive intact if the new testament were lost?

In the study on the important parts of the life of Jesus, there were a few points that were critical, mainly, that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. He took on the four roles of prophet, king, priest, and sacrifice. Of these only the latter was completely unexpected and yet the most important. It is critical, therefore, that the story of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection supplement the OT. Without this, there is no Christianity.

A bit of history is therefore required to explain how the death and resurrection of Jesus was sufficient to wash away sins, but this information is historically explanatory in nature, not sacred in a doctrinal way. Indeed, if the NT were to be lost, we would want to be able to reconstruct the historical context and keep some measure of the historical narrative so that we could make sense of it all.

That’s it. If you have the OT, the knowledge that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, that he fulfilled the roles of prophet, king, priest, and sacrifice, along with enough historical context and narrative, you have enough to build Christianity.

Let’s look at some of the core teachings of Christianity that come out of the NT:

1) Salvation

Jesus taught that salvation required an act of recognition of sin and repentance. But the OT already taught that salvation came from repentance and sacrifice. The only difference is that Jesus became the final sacrifice and that faith in Jesus led to salvation. This information is covered by the minimal replacement NT.

2) Moral Code

We would certainly be poorer to lack the clarity of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but Jesus derived all of these teachings from the OT principles. The same goes for many other teachings. He didn’t change the moral codes of the OT, he just clarified them. The holy living requirement, from the OT to the NT, has never changed.

3) Love

Jesus identified the greatest commandments in the law (the OT) as loving God and loving others. Jesus just pointed out what was already there.

4) Eschatology

Want to know about the end-of-times? Well Jesus didn’t change that. The OT always promised that the Messiah would come at the end-of-times to take everyone to final judgment. They just didn’t know that Jesus had to come to be a sacrifice first. Even though the replacement NT doesn’t contain any information on what happens at the end-of-times, that isn’t important. All that matters is faith: trust that God will keep the promises he made in the OT. Jesus didn’t change those, and you really don’t need to know the play-by-play at the end of days. You’ll get by without that knowledge.

5) Heaven and Hell

Along with eschatology, knowing what happens after you die is unimportant. Knowledge of salvation is sufficient. Trust God for the rest. Details are nice, but you really don’t require them.

Is the NT relevant?

Of course parts of the NT are important, as stated above. But the vast majority is optional. The complete OT and a key summary of the NT is sufficient to maintain Christianity. Why? Because unlike all the other world religions that have ever been, God chose to interact with his people through relationships, not yet-another-holy-book. That’s why he never gave us a new canon. Human councils came up with those.

Christianity lives in the people: not a book, not an organization, not a building, nor doctrines, nor a history. This is the genius of God revealing himself; to do so in relationships multiplied in the lives of his followers. It is the Christian life lived out for all to see.

That is why Christianity would survive even if the sacred cow doctrines of various denominations fell because the NT were lost. God’s message to humanity and the love of his followers does not rely on a book. It relies on the living example of its followers.

Am I saying the NT is unimportant? No. It provides clarity and makes finding God a whole lot easier. But sometimes we over-complicate things. Jesus was all about actions. Repentance, living a holy life, and loving. It was never about rote doctrinal expression, which is why only two rituals were mandated: baptism and the Lord’s supper.[2]


[1] Presumably because it is an incredibly stupid question.

[2] Baptism is not much of a ritual: it only happens once per person. Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) probably does not even qualify as a ritual either. The request to “remember Jesus’ death and resurrection every time you eat or drink” is fairly mundane as far as rituals go.