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Spring 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 1 · pp. 126–27 

Book Review

Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission

Abraham Friesen. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998. xi + 196 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Kyle

The intellectual lineage of Anabaptism has been a controversial subject and the object of considerable scholarly inquiry. In this volume, Abraham Friesen offers us a different perspective on this matter. Friesen is a professor of Renaissance and Reformation history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a well-known authority in his field.

The notion that Erasmus influenced the early Anabaptists has generally been accepted within Reformation circles. But previous scholars have not firmly established this connection. In this volume, Friesen uses new research data to present a convincing argument for Anabaptism’s intellectual dependence on Erasmus. And in doing so, he tells us much about Erasmus, the essence of Anabaptism, and the broader implications for the church regarding the Erasmian impact on the Anabaptists.

Professor Friesen goes well beyond establishing the general connection between Erasmus and the Anabaptists. He contends that Anabaptism drew its understanding of believers baptism and discipleship from Erasmus’s 1522 preface to his Greek New Testament, his paraphrase of the great commission, and his annotations to the New Testament. Most specifically, Erasmus’s interpretation of Matthew 28:18-20, the “great commission,” laid the intellectual foundation for the Anabaptist movement. Christ’s commandment to make disciples precedes his directive to baptize. Most important, Friesen demonstrates how particular Anabaptists encountered and embraced the interpretation of this passage. And in doing so, believers baptism and discipleship became the core of early Anabaptist belief and practice.

Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission contains six chapters, an epilogue, and an appendix. In chapter one, the author examines some interpretations regarding Anabaptism and rejects most. Next, he discusses Erasmus, his humanism, and the general relationship of Erasmus’s relationship to the Anabaptists. The heart of the book comes through in chapter three, namely the Erasmian interpretation of Christ’s great commission. Chapter four examines various Protestant and Catholic responses to the commission.

Next, Friesen looks at various individuals and strands within Anabaptism, illustrating how they implemented the great commission. Indeed, Friesen concludes that “not only is the Great Commission as interpreted by Erasmus the key to the problem of the intellectual origins of Anabaptism; it is also the key to understanding the movement as a whole.” In the epilogue, the author contends that the Erasmian {127} interpretation of Christ’s great commission has implications for all Christian history, touching upon the church’s missionary impulse, the trinitarian baptismal formula, the divide between conservative and liberal Christians, and similar divisions within Mennonite circles.

In reaching these conclusions, Friesen does not hesitate to criticize earlier interpretations regarding the origins and nature of Anabaptism. Earlier scholars have often viewed Anabaptism from the perspective of rationalist theology and rigid biblicism and have tended to ignore the Erasmian influence, which cannot be placed in either camp.

Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission presents a well-researched and unique interpretation of Anabaptism’s intellectual origins. Still, it must be seen as one of the many perspectives regarding early Anabaptism, and undoubtedly it will be challenged by other scholars. However, this book should be read by anyone interested in the beginnings of Anabaptism.

Richard Kyle
Professor of History and Religion
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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