Menno Simons on Baptism

I’m researching the paedo- vs. believers-baptism question at the moment, and for various reasons, I’m reading a lengthy essay by Menno Simons on the subject. Menno Simons was a Dutch Anabaptist, and the man who bequeathed his name to the Mennonites. The Anabaptists were the predecessors of our own Baptists, and split from the Protestant Reformation because they believed that Protestant reform was not radical enough in rejecting non-Biblical practices. Their radicalism made them many powerful enemies, and Catholics and Protestants very quickly put them to the sword (and, ironically, drowned them) in the most horrific and abominable period of persecution.

To return to the subject, one of the chief targets of Anabaptist vitriol was infant baptism, and one of their most influential theologians was Menno Simons (many of his assumptions about baptism and arguments against infant baptism persist today largely unchanged). However, having thought about baptism for the last decade or so, and having moved from one camp to the other, I thought that I knew where either side was coming from. Menno Simons was able to surprise me.

The fights in baptism concern whether or not the sign stands for a profession of personal faith or for something else, and therefore whether or not someone who is not ‘of age’ (i.e. able to have faith and to make a profession) can be baptised. I had a eureka moment when I realised that the big (under-asked) question should really be whether the children of covenant believers are excluded from the covenant until they’re of age, or included. If the former, then they should not be baptised, and who knows what becomes of those who die before they’re of age? If the latter, then they should be baptised even though they can’t yet make a profession of personal faith, because baptism is at least a sign of the covenant.

Having just reached this insight, Menno Simons went and ruined it by saying something very strange. In fact, he repeats it a number of times. So for example:

“For Jesus’ sake, sin is not imputed to infants that are innocent, and incapable of understanding. Life is promised, not through any one ceremony, but out of pure grace, through the blood of the Lord… Again, Children are entitled to the kingdom of heaven, and are under the promise of the grace of God, through Christ; as has been said; and therefore we truly believe that they are blessed, holy and pure, acceptable to God; are under the covenant, and in his church, but by no means, through any external sign…” (from Concerning Baptism).

His view is that all children are provisionally saved and innocent of sin. His big gripes are that he doesn’t want anyone to say that baptism itself saves, because only Christ can save; and he doesn’t want baptism to be applied to infants, because Christ didn’t command it to be administered to them, but only seemed to include adults.

So, in the end, he agrees with Evangelical paedo-baptists that children are included within the covenant, and that the benefits of grace can be given to them; he just thinks that baptism symbolises personal obedience to Christ, and so can’t be given to babies.

That’s unusual enough, but in glorious 16th Century fashion, look at how radically he then polarises what need only be a minor disagreement:

“…we believe and teach that the baptism of believers is of God and his word, and infant baptism of the dragon and the beast… Since Christ has commanded that believers should be baptized, and not infants,” [although of course this is incorrect; Christ doesn’t command us not to baptise infants, he merely does not command us to baptise infants], “… all reasonable-minded men must admit, that infant baptism … is nothing less than a ceremony of anti-christ, open blasphemy, an enchanting sin, a molten calf; yea, abomination and idolatry.”

Subtle… conciliatory…

The 16th Century was crazy.

Postscript: Any baptist readers: What are your beliefs concerning the status of believers’ children in the covenant? Are children inside or outside the covenant until they’re able to have faith of their own? Have Menno’s beliefs on the subject persisted in baptistic circles?

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3 thoughts on “Menno Simons on Baptism

  1. Wes says:

    Although not from a Baptist heritage (I’ve grown up in the Churches of Christ) we would agree with Simons’ view concerning children. Because of a child’s inability to sin, they are within the covenant of grace until they enter into sin, as Paul says we all do. And we also agree with Simons’ that baptism itself does not save, yet we believe it to be a means of grace, a physical act that God chooses to work through to bestow forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit and entrance into the Church. This is not, as some would claim, water regeneration. The gifts given are not dependent upon the one being baptized…the work being done is being done by God through Jesus.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I found them very helpful and enjoyable to read.

    Grace & Peace,

    Wes

  2. Jared says:

    Like Menno Simons, I too have come to the conclusion that infant Baptism is unscriptural. I’ve looked for instances in the Bible where infant baptism was applied or hinted, and even looked for instances where perhaps I could justify it, and I have found no such case. Through my study, I have concluded that baptism is only for those who have put their faith and trust in Christ, therefore infants are not eligible because they do not have the ability to make that decision. Furthermore, it is the first step of obedience, and not a necessity for salvation; if it were, our faith would not be completely on Christ, but also on a “work.” The thief on the cross is a prime example of this. I believe the primary function of baptism is to make public one’s belief (a public profession of faith) and decision to follow Jesus; and it is, like the Lord’s Supper, a way in which we remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    I’ve found one illustration that I believe exemplifies baptism quite well: it is like a wedding ring. It is put on after accepting the one to whom you will be marrying, but it is not necessary for marriage. Without a ring, a person can still be married. If a husband takes off his ring to wash his hands, he is still married. The ring merely shows that one is married, and that he or she is reserved for a lifetime. With that said, I believe that baptism is a big deal, but it is not essential for eternal life. Only Christ can supply that.

  3. Michael Archangel says:

    Roman Catholic
    I too am researching Menno Simmons as I prepare a lecture for my 7th grade religion class of Baptism. As far as Biblical references re: Baptism of infants. There is no specific directive either in the Gospels or the rest the New Testament to baptize infants but there is no directive not to baptize infants either nor does it specify what age a person has developed sufficient reasoning capacity to be able to understand and accept the teachings of Jesus. It is clear, however that Jesus intended and wishes that children come to him. (Mt 19: 13-14, Mk 10: 13-16, Luke 18: 15-17) Again in the Acts 2:38 Peter instructs the distraught Jews to “repent and be baptized” the curious part of this discourse is that Peter relates, “For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off…” It appears that Peter is not speaking of the future generations of Christians here as he includes ‘all that are far off’ which would seem to suggest that he is speaking of the here and now and that salvation through baptism is now to be given to all peoples in all lands then and there and to children. There are also accounts in Corinthians and other books that refer to the baptism of whole households including slaves. It does not say specifically whole households including infants but it does not say either whole households except the infants and small children either. This would seem to imply that there were children in these households who were baptized along with everyone else.
    It is also clear from the writings of the very early church Patriarchs that infant baptisms were being preformed while the church was being persecuted well before the Edict of Milan in 313 and that the early church Fathers were quite emphatic about this practice (infant baptism) was of Apostolic origin. In fact infant baptism was the unquestioned norm of the church for the first 1500 years of its existence till the Protestant revolt. Even Martin Luther, the Father of the Reformation, did not question the appropriateness of infant baptism and it is still practiced in Lutheran Churches today.At the time of the Protestant revolt the idea of baptizing only of those who could fully understand the teachings of Jesus and choose to accept them was quite novel and without precedent.

    One of the big issues I can see with baptism only for those who can comprehend and clearly understand the decision they are making to accept Jesus, is that it kind of leaves out all those people who are mentally retarded or just plain simple minded who would never have a clear understanding of the decision to accept Jesus and follow his teachings. Are they just out of luck and damned by their ignorance? You might say that because these people are feeble minded they are not capable of sin but if you have know or worked with many mentally challenged people they are very capable of lying, cheating, stealing etc. Even if you are of normal intelligence and you accept Christ and are baptized as a 10 to 18 year old we certainly don’t have the life experience yet to be fully understand our decisions at that age. You see, by requiring a standard that a person have a clear correct insight and sufficient judgment to understand what they are agreeing to when they accept Christ in baptism creates a fluid ‘moving target’ as to when a person is ready and capable of making a truly informed free will decision to become a Christian. Hence, following the reasoning of Simmons and others, many of the baptisms would not be valid for lack of understanding.

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