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early anabaptist trinitarian hymn

November 11th, 2005 by isaac · 2 Comments

In September of 1535, a few groups of Anabaptist refugees left Moravia and, as Bernard Schneider said it, wandered “wherever God would lead them, where they would be allowed to work and settle.” These Christian travelers were victims of the cultural climate of suspicion after John of Leiden and the Melchorite Anabaptists in June of 1534 violently established their rule in Munster. Imprisoned as possible anarchic threats to the social order, these Philippite Anabaptist travelers faced a tortured existence in the city of Passau’s dungeon. These dark prison cells served as the birthplace of “the hymnal in longest continuous use in the world today” (see The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund ). And it should not be any surprise to the modern reader that the first hymn (Ausbund 81) proclaims the power of the God who acts for us in the triune salvific work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As these Christians gathered together and waited for another series of interrogations and tortures, they found security in their songs of faith in the Triune God. Thus, it seems, the doctrine of the Trinity was not a trivial formulation for the earliest of Anabaptists. Rather, faith in God’s triune nature sustained those imprisoned Christians.

The hymn begins with a petition to the Father to grant His wisdom as Betz and the gathered attempt to sing praises to the God who is Trinity. From the outset, the hymn sets out the mystery of God’s unity and trinity that drives the hymn to its end: “I pray, lend your wisdom to me that I may sing a song about the essence of your Unity which manifests itself in the Trinity” (1.2-5). It is evident early in the hymn that Betz prioritizes the unity of the triune God. But the ultimate concern of the hymn is not to argue for an understanding of God as the divine monad. Rather, he wants to proclaim the hope they experience in the one God who acts for their salvation in the midst of captivity, while holding that experience accountable to Scripture. Thus, the statement that the unity of God “manifests itself in the Trinity” centers the hymn’s exploration into the Trinity of the God known through God’s acts of salvation on behalf of the prison-church—that is, the economic Trinity.

At the end of his address to the Father in the first stanza, the hymn reads, “Your hand nourishes everything” (1.13). Here we find the fuel that drives the hymn: the congregation’s hope in God’s triune work even in this place where life appears to fade into the darkness. For Betz and the Passau congregation, faith in the Trinity is the way they make sense of the Father’s continued work of redemption, even when their life appears to be cut off from the nourishing hand of the Father; it is a proclamation of the Father’s presence through the work of the Son and the Spirit. Betz roots their conviction of the Father’s continued gift of life in the Triune reality of God articulated in I John 5:7: “There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one” (this is a translation of the NT popular in Zurich during the 16th centurey). The Father creates through “the Word” in the power of “His Spirit” (2.7-10). The Father is present because the Holy Spirit is present: “If [the Father], therefore, should venture to gather the Spirit unto himself, all must pass away again” (2.11-13). But the presence of the Father in the Spirit is not separated from the work of the Son. “The Godhead cannot divide itself” (4.2). Rather, the advent of the Son reveals the triune work of God. The Father “sent his Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…to Mary, the gentle virgin” through the work of the Holy Spirit: the Son “became flesh by the Holy Spirit” (3.9-13). Thus, in the person of Jesus Christ we see the triune power of God—”the fullness of the Godhead” (4.7). The Father offers redemption through His Son who “is the way” (8.13). And this way is made known in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God who ‘empowers everything” (see stanza 2). The Father’s love manifest for humanity through the gift of the Son breaks through the prison walls of the Passau dungeon because the Holy Spirit permeates all creation; there is no place that can hide from the life of God’s Spirit. This is how the Father’s “hand nourishes everything” without separating the indivisible Trinity.

In stanzas 11-14 Hans Betz offers the metaphor of the sun as a helpful way to doxologically describe the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father is likened to the “light” whose “brilliance” surrounds everything (11.6-8). But it is important to note that Betz’s metaphor explicates the Trinity as it is made known to creation—that is, the metaphor helps focus the economic Trinity. Thus the light of the Father is especially linked to God’s work “at creation” (11.13). But the Father’s work is not restricted to that single moment of creation; rather, the Father is the “single good” that continues to order all creation (11.8)—or, as Betz puts it, “In him all lives” (11.9). Now, if the Father is “light” in Betz’s metaphorical exploration into the Godhead, then the Son is the “ray” of light (stanza 12). The “ray’s splendor” reveals the “zeal and righteousness” of the Father who righteously judges sinful humanity. Thus, the “Lord Jesus Christ” is especially linked to God’s work of redemption—the judgment of sin. But Betz is careful not to paint the “ray’s splendor” only in negative terms. When he turns to the Holy Spirit as the “heat” of the sun, Betz shows how the Spirit makes present Christ’s work of “ecstasy and goodness” (13.8-9). The Holy Spirit is the heat of the light and the ray that shows how “the Father and the Son in unity make their dwelling among human beings” (13.11-12). Thus, writes Betz, “Through the illustration of the sun, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one light” (14.3-5).

The metaphor breaks down for a number of reasons, and as it fails we may discover flaws in Betz’s trinitarian theology. He posits the sun as the unity of God that is something different than the triune activity of the light, ray, and heat. But it also appears that Betz does not hold too firmly to the metaphor. In the end he establishes the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit as the light (14.5). Thus, it seems, the Father—the light—is the principle of unity for the Son and the Spirit (and this resembles Augustine’s trinitarian grammar). Establishing the Father as light may be a way Betz attempts to articulate the economic Trinity, for it is the Father who is the origin of the Son and the Spirit. At the very least, Betz equivocates when attempting to fix the inter-relationship of divine persons in the unity of the Godhead.

But, at the end of the hymn we find where the doctrine of the Trinity offers hope to the prison congregation. The triune articulation of God’s salvific reality enables Betz to show how the Passau congregation still tastes the divine life. The believer trusts that the Holy Spirit “enrolled him in the church which his preserved through the Holy Spirit” (17.4-5). Through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the dungeon church, the believer is drawn into the ecstatic hope of the Trinity’s life: “He knows, therefore, that in unity the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwell with him” (18.1-3). The real presence of the Trinity, proclaimed in this song of praise, leads the persecuted church onwards in hopes of obtaining “the crown in [the Father’s] kingdom” (20.11-13). For Betz and the congregation that continued to worship in the dungeon of Passau, the doctrine of the Trinity was the foundation of their faith.

Tags: theology

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Nov 13, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    Wow, how very profound for a group in the 1500’s! Thanks for posting this.



  • 2 isaac // Nov 14, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Yeah, I found the hymn quite interesting. The language was very careful. It is striking to see how the author thought it so important to carefully expound a doctrine of God in the midst of so much death and suffering. I have to admit, I was surprised to see how thinking about the Trinity can be important for people in prison. It struck me because I always hear folks talking about how the Trinity is one of those extravagent doctrines that doesn’t really effect where we live. But, that is obviously not the case for those 16th century anabaptists. The hymn also suprised me because I hear folks who trace their history to the mainline Reformation talk about how the Anabaptists were a fringe group pushing on the edge of orthodoxy. But the hymn shows clearly that the Anabaptists, from the beginning, thought the creeds of the church were important.