BALTHASAR HUBMAIER – HISTORY & SOTERIOLOGY | Jordan Velazco
In the course of history, there are people beyond count who have influenced the events of the future. However, of those influential people, only a few are truly remembered. Such is the case with the Reformation. While the major reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin are celebrated, there are a host of Reformation theologians that are forgotten that were also influential. Among the forgotten ones is Balthasar Hubmaier, the most prolific writer of the Anabaptist movement. Often considered to be intellectually equal with Luther and Zwingli, Hubmaier is all to often wrongfully ignored by modern history. This injustice is clearly shown when one studies his life and doctrines on salvation, baptism, the freedom of the will, and government.
Hubmaier was originally a Catholic priest who began to have doubts concerning traditional doctrine based on his understanding of the Bible and his study of Luther’s works. He then began to preach the pure gospel and led his city, Waldshut into the Reformation. Sadly though, the Austrian government threatened the city with invasion if they did not turn over Hubmaier. Fearing for his beloved city, Hubmaier fled. During this time of flight, Hubmaier became a prolific writer publishing several books, including the first treatise on religious tolerance Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them. Eventually, Hubmaier fled to Zurich where he was imprisoned and tortured by Zwingli for his Anabaptist beliefs. At this point, Hubmaier recanted Anabaptism, recanted his recantation, and was banished from Zurich. After this, he fled to Moravia, where he did the majority of his writing. This good moment could not last, however. Moravia was taken over by Austria, resulting in Hubmaier’s imprisonment. During this imprisonment, Hubmaier compromised on several points, but did not recant on baptism, the Eucharist, or purgatory; this was not enough to the authorities though, who proceeded to burn him at the stake. To this day, Hubmaier is recognized as Anabaptism’s most published early theologian.
Hubmaier’s soteriology affirms the classic Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone but does so in his own unique way by addressing repentance. In his Christian Catechism, Hubmaier defines both terms. Faith is, “the realization of the unspeakable mercy of God, his gracious favor and goodwill, which he bears to us through his most beloved Son Jesus Christ, whom he did not spare and delivered him to death for our sakes that sin might be paid for, and we might be reconciled to him.” At the same time, repentance is, “Accusing oneself of sin before God, asking him for forgiveness, and thenceforth never again committing it; that is the highest form of repentance, namely, to guard oneself against sin and to walk henceforth according to God’s Word.” Hubmaier’s definition of faith as a realization of God’s blessings at first appears surprisingly intellectually centered, sounding much more like Melanchthon than Luther or Zwingli. However, when you examine Hubmaier’s other writings on faith, a more nuanced understanding of saving faith comes to light. In his Summa of the Entire Christian Life, Hubmaier describes salvation in the context of a patient and a doctor. Christ, the doctor, comforts the sinner, his patient, and tells him the gospel; in response, “Through such words of comfort the sinner is again, comes to himself, becomes joyful, and henceforth surrenders himself entirely to the physician. All the sicknesses he commits submits, and entrusts to him.” In this statement, we begin to see more than just an intellectual side to Hubmaier’s understanding of faith. While the first sentence of the quote could potentially fit into this solely intellectual conception of faith, the second goes far beyond it into the realm of reliance and dependency. When Hubmaier says, “All his sicknesses he commits, submits, and entrusts to him,” he is showing that saving faith is not only an agreement to a series of propositions but fully trust in the healing capacity of the Holy Physician.
This said Hubmaier continues past this point placing great stress on repentance, “Now this person surrenders himself inwardly in heart and intention unto a new life according to the rule and teaching of Christ… from whom he received life. Thus, Paul confesses publicly that he does not live but Christ lives in him, is life in him, and outside of Christ he confesses that he and his works are empty, worthless and that he is a lost sinner.” This explanation of surrender to a new life bears significant resemblance to Hubmaier’s definition of repentance, namely the accusation of one’s self as a sinner and a dedication to following God’s Word. This inclusion shows how important of a factor repentance plays into Hubmaier’s soteriology. It is so important in fact that he says God’s first leads a sinner to an attitude of repentance before He shows them the gospel. However, Hubmaier is certain that justification by faith alone is true and states so in his first thesis at Waldtshut, “1. Faith alone makes us righteous before God.” This apparent inconsistency is reconciled in Hubmaier’s distinction between dead faith and living faith. In his Christian Catechism, Hubmaier has the pastor ask the layman what the distinction between dead faith and living faith, to which the layman replies, “One that is unfruitful and without the works of love… One that produces the fruits of the Spirit and works through love, Gal. 5.” Given his emphasis on repentance in salvation, it can be deduced that Hubmaier believes that only living faith, which requires repentance, can result in salvation. This is not to say that he believed that the works of faith were necessary for salvation, but that true faith will inevitably result in good works out of gratitude. This is confirmed in Hubmaier’s third thesis which says, “Such faith cannot be idle, but must break forth in gratitude toward God and in all sorts of works of brotherly love toward others. This casts down all artifice such as candles, palm branches, and holy water.” In this way, Hubmaier’s soteriology emphasizes the role of repentance while maintaining justification by faith alone.