Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 2: An Anabaptist anthropology

Balthasar Hubmaier was one of the most important first-generation Anabaptist leaders in Moravia in the 1520s. The best writer of the Swiss line of Anabaptists, he was a Catholic priest and a Zwinglian pastor before becoming a renegade Anabaptist. Here’s his anthropology (understanding of human nature) in a nutshell:

Human beings have three parts, all three referenced biblically, namely the spirit, the soul, and the flesh. All were created good and remained good until the fall.

The spirit is the part of us that, even after the fall, resonates with the divine and is in every moment capable of responding to the holy.

The flesh is the part that, beginning with the fall, is rebellious and, Hubmaier would say, entirely corrupt if left to its own devices.

The unconverted soul is generally swayed by the flesh to chase distractions and destruction. The conversion moment, for Hubmaier, is the hearing of the word in such a way that the soul knows it has a choice. This moment is the moment of new birth.

Once the soul knows it has a choice (ie, once it has heard the echoes of the divine in the spirit), the process of becoming Christ-like has begun for a Christian. This process involves the soul’s increasing alignment with the spirit, which then shapes the flesh’s response. Hubmaier is convinced that the flesh will go along with the soul and the spirit if those two are aligned with one another, which becomes a way of understanding how Christ-likeness is possible, since the spirit is always aligned with God.

For Hubmaier (and this was a big difference between Anabaptists and Protestants in the Reformation), conversion toward Christ cannot said to be full unless it involves an outward disciplining of the flesh (or the actions / will), because the human being can choose to do good, to become more like Christ. But the disciplining of the will does not come about through pure effort or even through fighting evil desires. It comes about through allowing the spirit to seduce the soul, which then tugs the flesh in a Christ-ward direction.

As we continue to work with this anthropology, teasing out ways of understanding “the flesh” and “the world” without demonizing bodies or creation will be very important. Although Hubmaier does have some very negative things to say about the flesh (and Eve, unfortunately) along the way, I believe that his view of the flesh is different from the total condemnation of the body that feminists and others rightly abhor. For Hubmaier, the ultimate end is not to be rid of the flesh, because the flesh was not created evil or even as sloppy seconds. Likewise, in the final perfection, Hubmaier asserts, we are raised with bodies, and the unity of the spirit / soul / body is the consummation of humanity’s created nature. That unity of spirit / soul / body is also possible to approach in this life.

I find this understanding of human nature to be compelling. It is akin to that of the Orthodox monk I heard, who spoke of the seed of divine in every person. It grows when it is watered and nurtured, but even if it is covered up it is always present, always offering possibility to move toward theosis (union with God). But Hubmaier’s framework allows for it to be even more active than that.

In this framework, every person has part of their core, created nature that stretches toward God. Beginning to conform to that nature (thereby conforming to God) requires only hearing the Word so fully that one accepts the spirit’s existence, begins to hear its voice, and recognizes that the soul has a choice. The spirit is constantly whispering sweet nothings into the soul’s ear longing for it to fall in love with God. This is grace if there ever was grace.

By the same token, though, the soul’s choice to be conformed to the spirit is an every-moment thing. As seductive as the spirit (through God) is, the flesh is distracted by the evils of the world, and it has its own tricks and tantrums that can mire the soul. The Christian’s choice is never finished, but in the end, for Hubmaier, the flesh will follow where the soul leads, so physicality and spirituality can be (indeed are meant to be) united in God.

I think this has implications for spiritual guidance in the Anabaptist tradition. First, if new birth is the point at which the Word awakens the soul to the spirit’s existence, before that new birth a spiritual guide can serve as midwife, fostering the growth and birth of the soul’s awareness of the spirit (of the connection to God).

Second, if the spirit stretches toward God and the soul has a choice in every moment whether or not to conform to the spirit, the spiritual guide can be a witness to the aligning of the soul and spirit, pointing out and celebrating those alignments in service of fostering new ones. Taking it one step further, the spiritual guide can be a witness to the ways in which the acts of the will and physical nature are in union with the soul and spirit and with Christ.

And third, if the soul will always have the distractions of the world’s evils and smallnesses to contend with, a spiritual guide can function as parent or elder, gently calling the soul back from its stuckness in the petty or destructive. In this, the spiritual guide as parent or elder could help the person develop discipline, in the mode of teaching or inspiring virtue- and habit-forming practices.

Ultimately, this framework means that, although the soul will always need all the help it can get, no person who comes for spiritual guidance is bereft of the resources to move toward spiritual healing. The freedom in this framework is that the spiritual guide can trust God to work in the person through the tugs of grace.

And on the other hand, this framework means that, although connecting with the spirit is essential, a person is free and unified with Christ insofar as their whole being (including their actions) is unified. Thus, our habits and worldly life become essential subjects for the spiritual guidance relationship.

I’m sure there are other connections I’m missing… What would you add to this list? If we take Hubmaier’s framework, how might we structure or enact spiritual guidance? And then, connected to those questions, do we take Hubmaier’s framework? Could it bear Spirit-fruit in the world?

Next up in the series: Ritual and mystagogy as possible contexts for spiritual guidance.

1 thought on “Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 2: An Anabaptist anthropology”

  1. Hubmaier’s distinction between soul and spirit is most informative and helpful. It is a quite sensible distinction; the soul being a medium or conduit between flesh and spirit. Spiritual guidance, therefore, can and often does employ creative acts (ritual music, sacramental text, poetry, even dance, and certainly stories) that work on the flesh through the soul, thus allowing for greater alignment with spirit. In other words, spiritual guidance cannot be merely intellectual or simply mental will or effort. An “opening of the heart” implies work at the soul level, gaining entrance into the body through the flesh and raising it up Christ-ward.

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