July 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 3 · pp. 351–53 

Book Review

Anabaptism and Asceticism

Kenneth Ronald Davis. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1974. 365 pages.

Reviewed by Rodney Allen Janzen

Kenneth Davis, in his book Anabaptism and Asceticism, sets forth the idea that Anabaptism represents the laicization of Catholic monastic spirituality, not the logical outgrowth of the teaching of Luther or Zwingli. Anabaptism denotes the radicalization of the lay-oriented, ascetic reformation for which Erasmus is the principle spokesman.

Anabaptism arose within a Protestant context, and is Protestant in the sense that it chose to separate from the institutionalized sacramental-sacerdotal system of the Roman Church. It severed itself just as “necessarily” from the Protestant State-Church complex.

“Christian Asceticism,” as defined by Davis, encompasses three main principles. The first involves inner and exterior mortification: controlling fleshly desire and the need to do penance. The second indicates methodical effort toward the development of Christian virtue: “Faith without works is dead.” The third principle is an ideal of perfection which undergirds both the positive and negative efforts aimed at its attainment. {352}

All three of these principles are fundamental to Anabaptist teaching. They embrace the basic tenets of Anabaptism.

The ascetic tradition teaches a limited doctrine of free will. It is neither Augustinian nor Pelagian. Like the Anabaptists, ascetics believe that each individual has an innate capacity to accept or reject God’s grace. God’s grace is still necessary, however, to sanctification (to the individual’s ability to “perform the good”).

Davis traces the ascetic tradition from the fourth century “Desert Fathers” through the monastic system to the Catholic reform movement in the Fifteenth Century. Davis insists that the essential Anabaptist teaching—the necessity for all Christians to strive toward holiness within a Christian community—was alive in the late Middle Ages. It is evidenced in the teachings of Franciscan monks (especially Third Order Franciscans), and the Brethren of the Common Life (the Devotio Moderna tradition).

Davis finds the “Protestant” nature of Anabaptism in its total break from the institutional church. Protestantism unleashes a spirit of freedom which enables many descendents (at least spiritual descendents) of medieval asceticism to bring their principles to fulfillment in a new way. In ascetic teaching, the “keys” to salvation are still held by a church; salvation is not a private matter. But the church is re-defined as a community of believers.

Davis defends his thesis by naming a tangible intermediary between the Devotio Moderna tradition and Anabaptism. This intermediary is Erasmus, who, in early life, attended one of the schools of The Brethren of the Common Life. (Davis cannot find a direct tie between the “Brethren” themselves and Anabaptists. Neither does he accept Ritschl’s thesis that the Third Order Franciscans had direct ties with the first Anabaptists.)

According to Davis, Erasmus was a Christian humanist whose beliefs fit very well into the ascetic tradition. Erasmus was one of the few reforming leaders who refused to write tracts against the Anabaptists (who held him in high esteem). Davis notes that Anabaptist fathers such as Grebel, Manz, Hubmaier, Denck, and others were all trained in Humanist schools. Furthermore, Balthasar Hubmaier (and perhaps Conrad Grebel) had direct contact with Erasmus. Hubmaier had face to face discussions with Erasmus. What is more, Erasmus saw the limitations inherent in institutional monasticism.

The Anabaptist movement had its beginnings in Zurich. Anabaptists separated from the Zwinglian, not the Catholic, Church. After about 1523, Zwinglianism had become far removed from ascetic teachings. Davis notes that it had become increasingly Lutheranized in these years (for example, its acceptance of pre-destination and justification by faith alone). The year 1525 marks the birth of Anabaptism. But Zwinglian reformism was very Erasmian in the beginning. Thus, Anabaptist leaders were essentially trained in Erasmian asceticism, which accounts for the dissatisfaction of men like Grebel and Manz with the course of Zwinglian reform.

Davis notes that there is little basic similarity between the {353} teachings of Zwingli after 1523 and the ascetic tradition. The mistake in Anabaptist studies has been to center on the external similarities between the mainline Protestant reformation and Anabaptism (for example, common opposition to the Roman Church), without seeing the basic differences in doctrine. As Davis sees it, Anabaptism represents a regenerated continuation of the Catholic ascetic tradition now “Protestanized” in its demand to be free from the authority of Rome. Anabaptists agreed with Protestants that “reform” was needed, but they utilized Erasmian principles to bring this about. But Anabaptism was not totally Erasmian, for it advocated separation from the Catholic Church. Erasmus was interested in unity. The inadequacy of Davis’ study emanates from the need of extended research determining the degree to which Erasmian Christianity is rooted in the Devotio Moderna tradition (Davis notes this himself), and the extent to which Ulrich Zwingli preached Erasmian asceticism in the years when Grebel and Manz first came in contact with him.

Davis suggests that perhaps anti-Catholic prejudices have been the primary reason behind the failure of previous studies to perceive these Anabaptist origins. But while this book raises an interesting thesis, more research linking Anabaptists to Erasmus and to the ascetic tradition is needed.

Rodney Allen Janzen,
Pacific College, Fresno.