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Rick Warren: The Anabaptists were right

John D. Roth - 02/13/12


California pastor Rick Warren and Anabaptist historian Abraham Friesen were the featured speakers at the third annual “Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists Conference” held on the campus of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas on Jan. 30-31. 

The conference, which drew more than 500 people, featured recent scholarship on the Radical Reformation by SWBTS graduate students and open reflection on the relevance of the Anabaptist movement for the Southern Baptist church today.  

Warren, the well-known pastor of the Saddleback congregation and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, was effusive in his praise for the impact of Anabaptist thought on his ministry. In 1981, after a year of working eighteen-hour days trying to establish a new congregation in the rapidly growing community of Lake Forest, Calif., Warren said he was exhausted and depressed.  

Then, while on a retreat of prayer and fasting in the desert, he began to read the writings of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists.

“That encounter,” he told the gathering, “transformed my ministry.  Almost everything we do at Saddleback we stole from the Anabaptists.” 

“I’ve studied the Anabaptists all my life,” Warren said, “and I believe they were right. The roots of the global missions are not in the magisterial reformers; they are in the Radical Reformation.” 

Warren went on to express deep appreciation for the Anabaptist influence on contemporary Baptist understandings of mission, discipleship, and ecclesiology.

In his welcome to the conference, Paige Patterson, president of the SWBTS and one of the architects of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, echoed Warren’s words.

“Baptists are indebted more to the radical reformers than to the magisterial reformers,” he said. 

In January 2010 Patterson inaugurated the first annual Radical Reformation Day at SWBTS, in commemoration of the original Anabaptist baptisms in Zurich on January 21, 1525.

In addition to presentations by Baptist scholars on various Anabaptist theologians such as Hans Denck, Michael Sattler, Leonard Schiemer, and especially Balthasar Hubmaier, Abraham Friesen, a Mennonite Brethren historian from Fresno, California, gave the major address for Mennonites. 

In his chapel presentation, Friesen argued that the Dutch humanist, Desidarius Erasmus, played a decisive role in early Anabaptist beginnings, particularly their emerging understanding of the Great Commission and believer’s baptism. Included among the attenders was a group of 25 German Mennonite and Baptist pastors, many of them recent immigrants from Russia, associated with the Bibelseminar Bonn, a Mennonite seminary that has had a formal partnership with SWBTS for nearly a decade. 

Although Baptist scholars such as William Estep, Jr. have long been interested in Anabaptist history, the  recent emphasis on Anabaptism at SWBTS is also driven by a current theological debate unfolding within the Southern Baptist circles. One side of that debate, represented by Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, has recently sought to anchor Baptist theology firmly within the Calvinist tradition.   Patterson, by contrast, considers it crucial to keep the Baptist tradition rooted in an Anabaptist orientation. 

In the conclusion of his address, Rick Warren admonished Baptist pastors assembled at the gathering, to “study the Anabaptists. They have more than you could possibly imagine. We have in these great saints and martyrs an understanding of what it means to be Christ-like that nobody else has understood so clearly.”