Enthusiasm and the Enthusiasts
The Reformation was not always as cut and dry as we would like it to be. We break doctrines into short little phrases and focus on a handful of important dates upon which orthodox teaching was recovered and clearly expressed. However, the Biblical teaching that Luther, Melanchthon, and many others taught and preached was challenged at every turn. Not just by Rome and the Pope but by another group called the Enthusiasts and radical reformers. Like Luther, the radical reformers recognized the corruption of 16th-century church doctrine and practice, but the manner in which they brought about reform meant leaving behind core Biblical teachings and intentionally exiling faithful believers. Enthusiast teaching is very much present in the modern church but is often confused or misconstrued with the emotion of enthusiasm. Below I would like to explore what it means to be an Enthusiast and how that differs from having enthusiasm.
The Reformation Enthusiasts:
The term Enthusiast is a catch-all for Protestant teachers and churches that place internal emotion and the personal motion of God in their life above or as a replacement to the external Word and means of God. This means they believe God works and communicates personally to the individual rather than through Scripture and physical means. During the Reformation, Enthusiasts included people like, Ulrich Zwingli, Andreas Karlstadt, Caspar Schwenckfeld, among many others. Their reforming movements have since been defined as radical due to both their substance and their style.
While you can find critiques of Enthusiast doctrine throughout the writings of Luther and the Lutheran reformers, the Formula of Concord Article 12 offers a good example of the contrast between historic Christianity and the errors and harmful teachings of the radical reformers For the sake of brevity, I will not list every error outlined here, but instead focus on core groupings.
Christology: “Christ did not receive his body and blood from the Virgin Mary.” “Christ is not true God but merely has more gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
Means of Grace: “Children should not be baptized until they attain the use of reason.” “The children of Christians, are holy without and before baptism.” “That bread and wine in the Holy Supper are not means through which and with which Christ distributes his body and blood.”
Christian living: “A Christian may not possess private property with a good conscience, but rather is bound to surrender all to the community.” “The Christian who is truly reborn through the Holy Spirit can keep and fulfill the law of God perfectly in this life.” (Arand and Kolb, “The Formula of Concord,” in The Book of Concord, 520-522).
While not every Enthusiast teacher held to these exact variations of error, they are unified by distorting the order and importance of internal faith and emotion and the external work of God. Even the radical reformers held to the doctrine of Sola Fide or faith alone. Zwingli himself states, “But we said that it is by faith that sins are forgiven. By this, we simply meant to affirm that it is faith alone which can give the assurance of forgiveness.” (“The Exposition of the Faith” in Zwingli and Bullinger, 268). Yet Zwingli and the other radical reformers incorrectly assert that God’s communication through emotion and personal faith empower Baptism, the Supper, and preaching. This is contrary to Scripture’s assertion that God acts through His Word and means in order to create, restore, and renew inward faith. Romans 10:17 declares the reality that it is the external Word that creates faith and not personal faith which reveals and validates the word. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Likewise, it is not our personal commitment to Jesus that gives Baptism its power but the physical death and resurrection of Christ “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)
The second identifier of Enthusiast theology is the concept of rapidly reforming the practice and attitude of Christian worship to something inward rather than external. In the same manner, the Enthusiast limits Christian involvement in the world and in vocation to specifically self-sacrificial activities. In other words, an Enthusiast is also largely a separatist. The Enthusiasts were typically iconoclasts, meaning they rejected and removed all images and symbols from churches. This included the removal of crosses as well as images and paintings of biblical figures. Enthusiasts also abandoned and exiled churches that were previously utilized by the Roman church. Unlike the Lutheran reformers, who worked with existing churches and congregations to guide and move them to orthodox teaching and practice, the radical reformers emphasized rebellion and a new call to and pronouncement of faith. Enthusiast theology outwardly rejects the historical establishment of Church and instead falsely promotes church as a physical building defined by the personal piety of those inside its walls. In contrast to this, the Lutherans focused on the external work of God to define what the Church is. Melanchthon writes in the Augsburg Confession, “The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is purely taught and the sacraments are administered rightly.” Again, the distinction is that the Enthusiast places the personal faith and action of the believer as the qualifier for whether or not God can do his Work.
Defining an Enthusiast is not dependent on whether or not they have enthusiasm for or in the Christian faith. Instead, the definition is based on whether or not faith, emotion, and internal things are how and where God works and speaks rather than the external Word given through physical means. In the modern church, we see this in practices like Believer’s baptism, the leading question, “How do you see God working in your life?”, and the idea that God will work amazing things if only you let him into your heart first. Even apart from the specific idea that good works save, Enthusiast theology is a sneaky form of self-righteousness and justification.
Instead of freeing the Christian, such theology places a heavy burden on the believer to prove faith and instills the fear that he or she might not have enough faith. When the emotion runs out, the Enthusiast is often left devastated. The gifts of God bestowed on us through Word and sacrament are the means of grace by which we are given faith and true assurance. This means when we feel the burden of sin and this world, and our enthusiasm runs dry, we can look extra nos - that is outside of ourselves - for forgiveness and hope. To this end, Luther says, “But whatever their measure or order, the outward factors (Word and Sacrament) should and must precede. The inward experience follows and is affected by the outward” (LW 40, Against the Holy Prophets, 146).
The Enthusiast is not the one who tears up during absolution, sings louder during their favorite hymn or song, crosses themselves during the service, or lifts a hand in prayer, but is rather the one who teaches and believes that these inward things enable God to speak and work. In doing so, the Enthusiast rejects the great gift of God delivered from outside of us even while we stood against Him. The truth is, each Christian has or will experience a lack of enthusiasm. However, our great comfort is that despite our constant attempts to seek after God in our own hearts, Christ pulls us away from ourselves to trust not in our own thoughts or perceptions but in the external accomplishment of His death and resurrection distributed to us with water, the Word, bread and wine.