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While reading Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology, I noticed an interesting tidbit about the beliefs of "extreme Anabaptists" on regeneration. He argues:

[Regeneration is not] a complete or perfect change of the whole nature of man, or of any part of it, so that it is no more capable of sin, as was taught by the extreme Anabaptists and by some other fanatical sects. (4.6.C)

From this I gather that these "extreme Anabaptists" believed that at least some part of the "nature of man" was completely, perfectly transformed in regeneration, making the regenerate unable to sin.

This does seem outside the norm for Anabaptists, and it makes me wonder:

  • Who taught this, and when?
  • Did they consider regeneration to be something instantaneous (as in Reformed theology), or a process (like sanctification)?
  • Did they believe that the whole nature of man, or only a part of it (soul? spirit?) was transformed?
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    In the 5th century, after the fifth council of Carthage, the re-baptizers became known as Anabaptists, though the churches in various regions of the empire were also known by other names, such as Novatianists, Donatists, Albigenses, and Waldenses. Then there were the Hutterite Brethern (1528). Before pursuing this question further, can you confirm if this is the right place to start looking because I have been unable to identify any group officially known as "extreme Anabaptists." Thanks. – Lesley Jul 13 '18 at 16:53
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    @Lesley I'd expect this to be a reference to some faction within 16th or 17th century Anabaptism. It could be later, I suppose, but I doubt it would be pre-Reformation. The Anabaptists were (and are) pretty diverse and thus probably why I was having difficulty tracking down this reference. Whoever it is, they wouldn't go by the name "extreme Anabaptist" (they don't even like the "anabaptists" title), so Berkhof is likely just indicating that this is a minority viewpoint in the broader tradition. – Nathaniel Jul 13 '18 at 17:01
  • From what I’ve read, the most identifiable of the Anabaptists today are the Hutterian Brethren, Mennonites, and Amish but I can’t find anything on how they view regeneration/sin. Sorry. – Lesley Jul 15 '18 at 17:30
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The belief you're interested in is Christian perfectionism. Perfectionism was held by a number of people during the Reformation era, and was especially widespread in the low countries. Advocates included Anabaptist Melchior Hoffman, the Reformed Sebastian Castellio, and the nondenominational Dirck Coornhert (Van Veen, 2004).

However, it's also worth considering the context for Calvinist claims of Anabaptist perfectionism. That name has been used as a derogatory epithet from the Reformation until the present.

John Calvin's own frustrations with the Anabaptists had to do with the fact that the Anabaptists "out-Calvinisted" the Reformed community on at least two important points. The first was church discipline. The Calvinists were very critical of Catholics and Lutherans for their lack of attention to the role of discipline in the Christian community. The Anabaptists, however, took discipline even further than the Calvinists, insisting on very tight patterns of communal control. The Calvinists, obviously stung by this criticism, responded by labeling the Anabaptists as "perfectionist."

-Mouw, R. J. (2000). Reflections on my encounter with the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Mennonite Quarterly Review, 74(4), 571-577. summarizing Balke, 1981

As Mouw describes, Anabaptists can be understood as the extreme perfectionist end of a spectrum in terms of expectations for regeneration and personal transformation, so Berkhof may well be thinking of that spectrum without having any particular writer in mind.

While in this post I'm accepting that the label of perfectionism can be objectively applied to some writers, Perfectionism is usually a label applied by others while rejected by those to which it is applied (Augsburger, 1981).

Often those Christians and groups of Christians who have honestly and earnestly sought to live a life of high dedication, obedience, and holiness have not only been misunderstood but also frivolously condemned as hypocrites or self-righteous. The attempt to strive toward perfection ("Be ye therefore perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect") has often been erroneously labeled perfectionism. The Anabaptists and Mennonites have suffered under this charge from the beginning.

-Harold S. Bender, Perfectionism, in Mennonite Encyclopedia.

To be thorough, you'll also want to look into early Christian debates about post-baptismal forgiveness of sins in early Christianity. Tertullian, was highly regarded among early Anabaptists, and they were surely influenced by his position.

For mainstream early Anabaptist authors perspectives on regeneration and quotes that could easily be interpreted as perfectionist, see especially Augsburger, 1981.

Further reading on early Anabaptist perfectionism

  • Augsburger, M. S. (1981). Concern for Holiness in the Mennonite Tradition. The Asbury Journal, 36(4), 28-44. doi:10.7252/Journal.01.1981W.03
  • Balke, W. (1981). Calvin and the Anabaptist radicals. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans.
  • Hughes, R. T. (1986). Christian Primitivism as Perfectionism: From Anabaptists to Pentecostals. In S. M. Burgess (Ed.). Reaching Beyond: Chapters in the History of Perfectionism. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, p. 213-255.
  • Van Veen, M. G. (2004). "No One Born of God Commits Sin": Coornhert's Perfectionism. Dutch Review of Church History, 84, 338-357.

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