Disputations (colloquia, religious debates) were discussions on matters of doctrine, with the purpose of eliminating differences within a group, throwing light on differences between various religious groups, and bringing victory to one side in the argument. Discussions of this kind have been known from the very early days of Christianity, but they were not of great influence in preserving the unity of the church until the time of the Councils, at which religious debates constituted a part of the arranged program. The presupposition was that the church was in possession of the absolute truth, that deviations were due to erroneous thinking on the part of the differing side, and that absolute truth would be restored by the revelation and condemnation of the error.
From the point of view of theological history these debates took place against a background of medieval views and concepts. Thinking does not yet have as its goal understanding through reason, but rather understanding through revelation. The word is still accompanied by mystical conceptions and a bondage to the medieval manner of thought is still noticeable in the leaders. The masses likewise were still more held by the medieval attitudes and frequently gave these disputations a significance approaching direct revelation from God. For this reason the leaders of the parties in the disputes often laid great value on publicity.
The disputations took place publicly and privately, before the assembled populace with noted speakers and theologians, or in the narrower circle of scholars and leaders. Public debates cut deeply into the life and thinking of all classes of society, since each side wanted to win the masses to decide in its favor. Thus the colloquia in the course of time became discussions with "party political" purposes designed to win popular support, which were hardly able to produce a change of opinion in the opposing party. Every utterance of either side was turned into a weapon against it, so that in medieval times the church frequently refused to sponsor such debates.
When the Reformation had progressed to the point where differences between the various parties were clearly defined and there was no possibility of union or arbitration of differences, the ruling princes of the most democratic regions (Switzerland, Holland, South German states) tried by means of public disputations to compromise divergent views among the representatives on certain definite doctrines, and to present them for decision to the populace, which thought in accord with "natural law," and thus hoped with more or less compulsion to eliminate debatable and disturbing questions from the relations of individuals to the church as a whole and to the state. For instance, the invitation to the disputation of Frankenthal in 1571 gives as its aim the lessening of the lamentable division then prevailing.
Besides the religious debates of a public and general nature there was also an enormous number of dialogs between the heretics and the pastors of the church, which were exploited as propaganda by means of broadsides. They had their influence upon the people, who were very deeply disquieted and were therefore actively interested in religious and political thought; but their benefit to the larger parties was merely incidental.
We shall consider here only those disputations that deal with the Anabaptists. Of the three great Protestant churches only the Reformed arranged public disputations with the Anabaptists and Mennonites, and usually at government initiation; there were none with the Lutherans. Public debates between Catholics and Anabaptists were completely out of the question; only individual cross-examinations by inquisitors in the various prisons are reported by van Braght in the Martyrs' Mirror.
In August 1525 the first debate between the Anabaptists and Oecolampadius took place in Basel. No formal decision was reached at the conclusion of this debate. Nor was the second disputation, 10 June 1527, sponsored by the government.
In Austerlitz (Moravia) a debate took place between the Anabaptists and the Reformed, at which it was decided that children should take part in the communion service. Conditions in Moravia were very similar to those in Switzerland.
At the great disputation of 1528 in Bern, which was to give impetus to the introduction of the Reformation, some Anabaptists were present, but they were held under arrest until the close of the disputation, lest their appearance disrupt the existing unity against Rome. They were invited to a private discussion with the clergy on 17 January. "Completely convinced of their error" they were banished from city and canton. Georg Blaurock and Hans Pfistermeyer of Aarau were the Anabaptist leaders.
In Zürich as well, there was no want of attempts to bridge the differences. On 17 January and 20 March 1525, disputations were held with the Anabaptist leaders, dealing chiefly with the question of infant baptism, without any yielding by the Anabaptists. Zwingli met their just demands to the extent that he introduced the Protestant communion service in place of the Catholic mass, as well as a new baptismal formula. Even though he remained far behind the actual demands of the radical Anabaptists, this concession, which was not even a concession to him, deprived the radicals of some of their basis for opposition. Of greater significance for both parties was the debate that took place 6-8 November 1525.
1. The November disputation at Zürich was arranged under the influence of the peasant unrest. It was attended by Zwingli, Leo Jud, and the Anabaptist leaders, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Balthasar Hubmaier did not appear, contrary to his promise to be there. Four special supervisors were appointed to see that the debate took an orderly course: the abbot of Cappel, the steward of Küssnacht, Dr. Sebastian Hofmeister, pastor of Schaffhausen, and Dr. Joachim Watt, mayor of St. Gall. A great crowd appeared. The proceedings were held in the cathedral, since the council chamber proved too small. The theses formulated in Zwingli's Taufbüchlein were used as the basis of the discussions. In spite of the deficient discipline of the Anabaptists in their speaking, the victory was not an easy one for the Zwinglians. The arguments pro and con are given in Zwingli's book, Ueber Dr. Balthasar Hubmaiers Taufbüchlein. The disputation took its course without positive results, because the Anabaptists could not be deflected from their views. After this debate severe measures were passed against the Anabaptists.
The disputation of 20-22 December 1530, at St. Gall was an interlude, in which the Reformed sought clarification on the demands made by the Anabaptists, especially the church ban. At the Städtetag (27 September 1530) Oecolampadius made the proposal that the ban be introduced, but this was rejected by Zwingli.
2. The disputation in Zofingen (Bern), 1-9 July 1532, was attended by the pastors Berchtold Haller of Bern, Caspar Megander, Sebastian Hofmeister of Schaffhausen, and Sulzer of Basel. Among the 23 Anabaptists present were Hans Hotz, Simon Lautz, Christian Brügger, and Linggi (whom Haller described as homo doctus, eloquens et mirus hypocrita, ad imponenedum aptissimus, in a letter to Bullinger, 25 July 1532). The report (protocol) was edited by both sides. It constitutes one of the earliest doctrinal statements for many Anabaptist congregations of Switzerland and South Germany. The basis of the disputation was the first article, "The love of God and one's neighbor is an overriding principle in all discussions in this debate." The question as to whether the call of the Anabaptists was a divine one received a negative answer from the Reformed side. The Anabaptists required a church composed of members who had been converted to repentance and a reform of life. The discussion on the ban develops into the query, whether one man is competent to judge concerning the salvation of another and ends on the point of faith in good works, as a criterion. In reply to the question on the "call of the preachers, whether they are of God and who should send them out," the Anabaptists held to appointment by the congregation as the only Scripturally valid one and refused all material pay, i.e., all salary from the "possessions of idols," the Catholic endowed funds. The discussion ended with the question of baptism. Exile from the canton and a mandate against the Anabaptists were the tangible results of this debate.
3. The Bern disputation of 11-17 March 1538, was arranged at the request of the Anabaptists of the canton of Bern who sought an opportunity to explain their faith and doctrine. It is one of the most important disputations ever held and of great value in documenting the doctrines of the Swiss Brethren. The minutes were not published but have been preserved in three copies in the Bern Cantonal Archives. Many Reformed pastors from all parts of the canton were present; their chief speakers were the three Bern preachers, Dr. Sebastian Meier, Peter Kunz, and Erasmus Ritter, also Simon Sulzer of Basel, and Johannes Relligkan, although 20 speakers took part. The apostate Anabaptists, Andreas Rappenstein of Rohrbach and Hans Pfistermeier of Aarau, were present by request. Forty-one Anabaptists were present, five being from outside the canton. Their chief speakers were Hans Hotz of Grüningen, Mathis Wiser of Bremgarten, Wälti Gerber of Röthenbach, Lorentz Aeberli and Hans Haslibacher of Sumiswald, and Christian Brügger of Rohrbach. Seven articles were set up for the discussion, which was to be "based on the New and Old Testaments which were to be the authority": (1) the Old and New Testaments (their relative value and authority); (2) the ministry (its proper calling and mission, and which side has the true calling?); (3) the church (which side has the true church, and is it to be sinless?); (4) infant baptism (is it Christian?); (5) the oath (can a Christian take an honest, true oath?); (6) the state (can a Christian serve as an official?); (7) the ban (how ought it to be used, and which side uses it correctly?). Four presidents were appointed to represent the council, two from each house, who not only presided but determined the outcome. If the Anabaptists hoped to secure toleration they must have been disappointed. The conclusion was that the Anabaptists were heretics, not to be tolerated in the canton. The five foreigners, as well as any Bern citizens previously expelled, had to leave at once, while those who were condemned for the first time were given a short time to wind up their affairs and leave. And disobedience to the decrees, or return to the canton by the exiles, would result in an immediate death sentence. Only one Anabaptist recanted. Three of the Anabaptist speakers were later executed: Aeberli in 1539, Gerber in 1566, and Hans Haslibacher in 1571.
4. In 1540-1550 the disputations already had a political character. The attempts of some Anabaptists to emigrate to Moravia led to other disputations, in order to retain the Anabaptists and their economic value in the country. This was especially the case in South Germany, where Calvinistic tendencies had found entry, which made contacts with the Anabaptists easier. It was hoped that "the poor, misled people" could be won for the church, i.e., for the nation. The more open-minded theologians sought points of contact. This must be considered as the reason for calling the disputation of Pfeddersheim shortly before the disputation of Worms, by Otto Heinrich of the Palatinate (August 1557). Marbach, the more liberal theologian of Strasbourg, conducted the debate; 19 heads of Anabaptist congregations were also present. Subjects for discussion were all the debated questions (baptism, government, oath, leaving the state church, etc.). The state church declared itself the victor and demanded that the other side, "convinced of its error," give up its views. A mandate against the Anabaptists settled the matter; the leaders were expelled from the country. The disputation in Worms (September-October 1557) found the Catholic and Lutheran clergy united in their condemnation of "all the sects and mobs of the Anabaptists," upon penalty of death.
5. The minutes of the Frankenthal disputation of 28 May-19 June 1571, for the various views of the Swiss, German, and Dutch Anabaptists furnish by far the most important document of the period. It was instituted by Elector Frederick III with the purpose of uniting the Reformed and the Anabaptists. All Anabaptists, of whatever branch, were promised safe conduct. It was a larger version of the disputation of Pfeddersheim. To avoid all misunderstandings, the program for each day was presented and reviewed in advance. Representatives of the Palatine church were G. Verstegus, Peter Dathenus, Eng. Faber, P. Colonius, Fr. Mosellanus, Xylander, Martin Neander, C. Eubuleus, and G. Gebinger. The Anabaptists were represented by 15 persons. The speakers of the Swiss Brethren were Hans Büchel, Rauf, and Ranich; Peter Walpot, Peter Hutt, and Leonhard Summer were the Hutterian Brethren speakers. According to Wolkan (Lieder) there were also Mennonites among them, though they cannot be identified. Nor did the Hutterites speak officially; indeed, they refused to speak when challenged to do so by Dathenus.
Thirteen points were presented to the Anabaptists to be answered. The first question, whether the Scriptures of the Old Testament were equally valid with those of the New Testament, they answered by saying that they gave the preference to the New Testament, but without rejecting the Old. To the second question, whether Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were one being and three persons, they answered yes. The third question was purely theological: whether Christ received His physical being from the physical substance of the Virgin Mary or elsewhere. The Brethren gave an ambiguous answer. They admitted that Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin, but they declined to discuss "what or how much He received from the Virgin Mary." The fourth question concerned "whether children are conceived or born in original sin and are therefore by nature the children of wrath and deserving of eternal death." The Brethren admitted that children were sinful, but they declined to say anything about their damnation. On this point the Swiss Brethren differed from the Hutterian Brethren. The formulation of the question by the Palatinate clergy was based on this difference. The Swiss Brethren were also at variance with the Mennonites in asserting that all men must die for their own sin and not because of Adam's disobedience. To the fifth question, "whether the believers of the Old Testament are one church with the believers of the New Testament, and one people of God," the Swiss Brethren replied that the people of the Old Testament were governed by the law, the others by the liberty of the Gospel, and that the former would also receive forgiveness of their sin. The fifth question carried the additional point, whether a Christian could accept government office; this the Anabaptists answered negatively, but expressly denied having asserted that the government serves the devil, and said they considered the government to be a "servant of God, which will reward each justly." The sixth question treated the question whether salvation comes by grace through faith, or whether it could be partly earned by good works. The Brethren agreed with the Reformed that the ground of our salvation is absolute obedience to Jesus Christ. The seventh article discussed the question whether the essence of this flesh will be resurrected, or whether another body will be created by God. The Reformed insisted that the substance of this flesh will be resurrected, whereas the Brethren believed that this body will be dissolved and that the risen body will be a glorified one. The eighth article discussed the harsh regulations of the Dutch Mennonites on the ban and the divorce of the unbelieving spouse, whereas the Swiss Brethren consented to divorce only on the grounds of unfaithfulness. The ninth question, whether Christians may buy and own property without violating brotherly love, had reference to the Hutterian Brethren, for whom Walpot replied that none of them wished to discuss this question. The Swiss Brethren condemned only the misuse of possessions and superfluous possessions by some in the face of the poverty of others. The tenth question dealt for the second time with the government, the eleventh with the oath, the twelfth with baptism and infant baptism, the thirteenth with communion, which the Brethren interpreted as an outward symbol in memory of the suffering and death of Christ.
6. The disputation of Emden in 1578 was occasioned by the imprisonment of an Anabaptist preacher for holding forbidden meetings. When he declared himself willing to discuss his faith with the Reformed, he was released. Other political questions became involved. Mennonite leaders from Holland were called to Emden to heal the breaches between the parties. Leaders of the Flemish, Frisians, and Waterlanders were present, even Dirk Philips came. The Reformed were represented by laymembers and preachers (Menso Alting, Mellesius of Huite, Frito Ryords of Oldersum, and others). Alting had already published a book against the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were represented by Pieter van Ceulen, Brixius Gerritsz, Busschaert, Paulus de Bakker, Christiaen Arends, and Jan van Ophoom. The disputation lasted from 27 February to 17 May 1578, with 124 sessions. The minutes were immediately recorded and signed by the secretaries and the participants. The public was admitted by Duke John, contrary to the original intention. Many citizens attended.
Fourteen points were agreed upon for the Emden debate: (1) the Trinity and its essential unity; (2) the creation of man; (3) the fall, original sin, and freedom of the will; (4) Christ, His true deity and humanity, and whether He was born of the substance of Mary; (5) justification, sanctification, and regeneration; (6) good works; (7) the church and membership therein; (8) the call of the preachers and ministers; (9) baptism and infant baptism; (10) communion; (11) the ban; (12) government; (13) the oath; (14) the resurrection of the body.
The representatives of the Anabaptists were all simple men who insisted on Luther's translation of the Bible as the foundation of their arguments. Only of Brixius was it said (reported by Emmius) that he was "somewhat unusual in this sect, well-versed in the ancient languages and the liberal arts." Of Pieter van Ceulen one of the chairmen said that he would argue them all out of the church, if he had the education of his opponents. Questions and illustrations were generally taken from real life. Herein Pieter van Ceulen occasionally embarrassed his opponents. The course of the disputation produced less ill nature than might have been expected. Pieter van Ceulen's questions: should a preacher in time of revolution on the basis of his office and not on orders of the government assume governmental power? Does the call of a minister give him the inherent right to cause his brethren and sisters to sentence Mennonites to death, so that these are burned to death? could be answered by the opposition only with a provisional yes. Alting postulated a different concept of the church, which transferred government authority to the church (Gemeinde) and permitted the persecution of heretics. The outcome was not a definite success for the Anabaptists. They were afraid of the consequences and also refrained from joining in the conclusions. The minutes were accepted by the Anabaptists with only slight objections (Protocol van Emden: U. Emmius, Vita Mensonis Altingii).
7. The disputation of Leeuwarden in the Dutch province of Friesland was held 16 August-17 November 1596, between Ruardus Axronius and Pieter van Ceulen. The chairmen were Douwe van Sytzama, Aede van Eysinga, Rombertus Ulenborgh, mayor of Leeuwarden, and Dr. Pieter Jansz, a sheriff. Pieter van Ceulen was supported by Dirck Doedesz, a fellow citizen. The disputation was conducted in question and answer, in statement and refutation. Sessions took place every morning and afternoon. The occasion for the disputation was Mennonite agitation on behalf of their teaching, to which Ruardus had replied with a polemic pamphlet, which was to be answered by Isbrandt Isbrandtsen, "preacher of a part of the Anabaptists," and Jelmer Symonsz, who however declined to do so. Pieter van Ceulen, "a preacher of the other part" of the Mennonites, then wrote a reply in 1595. The chairman knew the results of the Frankenthal and Emden disputations. The disputation was held in the Galileër Reformed Church.
The subjects for discussion included eleven articles: (1) the equality of the Old and the New Testaments; (2) the Trinity, the unity of the Divine Being and threefoldness of the persons; (3) the true humanity of Christ and the union of the two natures in Him and its significance for our salvation; (4) the covenants of divine grace; (5) baptism as the seal of God's grace; (6) the ability of man to do good works, or his incapacity to do them since the fall; (7) Ruardus' charge that the Mennonites turn the Christian ban and church discipline into dangerous and disgraceful tyranny; (8) the written and oral oath; (9) the government and whether a Christian may hold government office; (10) nonresistance and the use of arms; (11) the fact that the Anabaptists consider only themselves as the true church of God; also the believers of the Old and New Testaments, the office of preaching, the effectiveness of the Word of God is not dependent on the person who preaches it. The minutes, with a long preface, were published at Franeker in 1597 by Gillis van den Rade.
Several other minor disputations were held to bridge the gap between groups, or to expose the opposition, especially in the Netherlands. They played a part in the total picture of the Reformation. The disputations also furnish evidence that under the cover of current and religious questions all the important events and movements of social and individual life were given expression. Anyone who does not allow superficial appearances to confuse him will find the questions anchored in the economic, social, intellectual, religious, and political conditions. Religious disputation is merely the form, not the exclusive content. These were the times of social and political revolutions, the release of the individual from the bondage imposed by the church and the social conditions established by the church. This release was sought in the only means the church had developed in which right and wrong in the field of religion could be recognized. There was a search for formulations, necessarily conditioned by the new state of affairs. The disputations are indicative of the nature of contemporary organized groups and their new ideals and goals.
Cate, Steven Blaupot ten. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Groningen, Overijssel en Oost-Friesland. 2 v. Leeuwarden: W. Eekhoff en J. B. Wolters, 1842: II, 88 f.
Hege, Christian. Die Täufer in der Kurpfalz: ein Beitrag zur badisch-pfälzischen Reformationsgeschichte. Frankfurt am Main: Kommissionsverlag von H. Minjon, 1908: 112-135.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: I, 282, 451-456.
Matthijssen, J. "The Bern Disputation of 1538." Mennonite Quarterly Review 22 (1948): 19-33.
Wolkan, Rudolf . Die Lieder der Wiedertäufer . Berlin, 1903. Reprinted Nieuwkoop : B. De Graaf, 1965.
Zijpp, N. van der (Nanne). Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1952: 137-139.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 70-74. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bergmann, Cornelius and Harold S. Bender. "Disputations." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/disputations.
APA style: Bergmann, Cornelius and Harold S. Bender. (1956). Disputations. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/disputations.