Peter Coleman's Reviews > The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler

The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler by C. Arnold Snyder
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Mar 02, 2012

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The primary aim of Snyder’s work, originally his doctoral dissertation, is to set out a new paradigm for Michael Sattler’s biography and a new interpretation of Sattler’s theological influences. Previous works had not critically attempted to put forward a detailed analysis of the source material in order to arrive at firm conclusion of biographical details. Snyder did not overturn all of the details he looked into but many of the details from the previous paradigm were challenged.

Snyder’s new paradigm describes Sattler’s life as follows. Having become a prior at St. Peter’s monastery, Sattler left the monastery when it was overrun during the peasant’s revolt in May of 1525, likely having accepted their critiques of monastic abuses. Sattler then become what might be called an Anabaptist seeker, with but not of the Anabaptists and fielding the questions raised within himself. As such a seeker, he attended the November 1525 disputation in Zürich but was still not committed to the Anabaptist cause. Snyder concluded that Sattler became involved, working as a weaver, with the Anabaptists of the Unterland, north of Zurich. He finally committed to Anabaptism, accepting baptism, in the Summer of 1526. After acting as an ardent yet amiable apologist for Anabaptism in Strasbourg later that year, Sattler headed the Schleitheim conference in February 1527, which yielded the confession bearing that name. Snyder lastly recites the already well-attested trial and execution account.

Further looking into Sattler’s thought, Snyder found traces of Benedictine influence in Sattler’s Anabaptist theological formulations. Though Snyder cautiously did not describe the whole of Sattler’s thought as having arisen from his monastic background, he does strongly posit the parallels between Sattler’s distinctive form of Anabaptism, especially against the Zürich Oberland group of Grebel and Mantz. Snyder drew stark differences between the Anabaptists north of Zürich and those of the south Zürich Oberland Anabaptists. The former he viewed as more willing to follow the state-church model until persecution precluded that possibility. The latter had far more separatist tendencies.

The separatist model of Anabaptism that Sattler taught, then, Snyder explains as having resulted from his application of the Benedictine rule of separation from the world into an Anabaptist framework. Snyder also saw similarities with the stress of the nachfolge and imitatio Christi themes. There is some attribution to non-Benedictine sources for Sattler’s thought, however, for Snyder viewed the early Anabaptists as responsible for Sattler’s understanding of the believer not as one headed toward righteousness as a viator but as one who is immediately made righteous as sancti (166).

The historical groundwork that Snyder has provided is appreciated but the journey from historical evidence to conclusions is not as firm as Snyder seems to present it. Snyder often states his conclusions as “obvious” and “clear,” even if they rest on not entirely certain ground. The entire paradigm has the feeling of being able to be disassembled at the dismissal of only a few pieces of evidences after further research or at the introduction of even the slightest bit of new, contradicting research. It is like a three-legged stool in that taking out one leg will tip over the stool but it is also unlike a three-legged stool in that there are far more than three legs. There may be better interpretation should new evidence be brought forward but the unfortunate case is that sources are not extensive. Though Snyder’s conclusion might not be as certain as he suggests, his paradigm does appear to be the most competent interpretation of the available data.

Snyder’s evaluation of Sattler’s theological thought primarily asks the question of influence. Investigations into key areas of Sattler’s thought lead Snyder to conclude that Sattler incorporated elements from monasticism, Protestantism and earlier Swiss Anabaptism. Snyder concluded that Sattler’s Benedictine past was the essential distinctive driving Sattler’s unique brand of Anabaptism and other elements were incorporated insofar as they were consistent with that monastic heritage (197, 199).

While Snyder does draw clear parallels between Sattler’s thought and its historical antecedents, Snyder might be too trusting of the assumption that historical precedence indicates theological influence by appearing too eager to label what might simply be parallels as the propagation of earlier systems. For example, Snyder’s analysis of Sattler’s soteriology concluded that Sattler’s regard for justification and sanctification being a single event internal to the believer was a continuation of the Catholic conception of the same rather than an acceptance of the reformer’s doctrine, which bifurcated the event in forensic justification, making justification an external act on the believer (177). Sattler’s agreement with the reformers on this point was rather that he accepted the Catholic conception but rejected the sacramental means of mediating that inward righteousness.

Two problems come to the fore, the first being particular to this aspect of Snyder’s evaluation and the second being more generally applied to Snyder’s overall conclusions. The first is that Anabaptists do not seem to have merely held on to the Catholic conception of the unity of justification and sanctification but seem to have been reuniting the two after the reformers had divided them and resulting in what the Anabaptists generally critiqued as an allowance for libertinism. Sattler’s agreement with then would then be derived from Anabaptism, which itself could be characterized not by a continuation of Catholic thought but a reaction against the Protestant overreaction to Catholic thought. The second problem is that Snyder did not give much consideration to the formation of Sattler’s thought directly from his reading of Scripture, even if Sattler’s Biblicism was not of the same humanistic vein that produced the initial group of Zürich Anabaptists. In raising the question of the origin of Sattler’s eschatology, Snyder only allowed for a unique contribution from Sattler only after not being able to find a historical antecedent. It would seem that Sattler’s Biblicism deserved greater weight.

Further, in identifying Sattler’s ecclesiology of a separated community as having stemmed from the Benedictine sense of separation (191-194), Snyder did not account for a significant difference between monastic separation and that of Anabaptism. In monasticism, the separation was within the church while Anabaptist separation was from the world. This essential difference does not indicate as strongly that Sattler was keeping Benedictine separation but could indicate that Sattler derived his understanding unmediated from Scripture. Essentially, the question is of which factors carry more weight, whether the similarity of separation or the difference of the separation as being within the church or being the church separated from the world. Snyder appears to occasionally assign weight to these factors arbitrarily in order confirm his broader thesis of asserting Benedictine priority in the formation of Sattler’s thought. This he does in his analysis of Sattler’s understanding of the struggle between the flesh and the spirit. He claimed that the structures of Sattler’s and Benedict’s portrayal of the struggle were the same while the aims and conceptions of each were different. It appears to be an arbitrary assignment of greater weight on the structures of those portrayals that lends evidence toward Snyder’s overall conclusion.

That discussion of separation was instrumental in the last of Snyder’s conclusions, which was to challenge the arguments that emphasized the socioeconomic concerns of Anabaptism. Those arguments were that Anabaptist separation resulted from the failed establishment of Anabaptist civil and societal reform. Only after those attempts failed did the movement pragmatically turn toward a separatist doctrine. Snyder labeled this a necessary condition but rejected that it was sufficient (201-202). Sattler’s Benedictine-inspired sectarianism, in Snyder’s view, was injected into the Anabaptist movement right at the time when the attempt at social reform failed. It was then Sattler’s sectarianism tat completed the Anabaptist turn toward sectarianism in the wake of the failure of social reform. Snyder thus offers a corrective to an interpretation that overemphasizes the social dimensions of the Radical Reformation. This further highlights the need to explore the normativity of Schleitheim for later generations of Anabaptists.

Regarding the debate that has followed the book, Heinold Fast challenged a key document that would seem to undermine Snyder’s paradigm in this way. Fast suggested that the Michal referred to in a letter dated May 21, 1526 was not Sattler but Michael Wüst, Bullinger’s cousin. That letter referred to this Michael as not having yet been rebaptized. Subtly pointing to Snyder’s overconfident tone, Fast concludes that this then takes away a key piece of evidence that suggests a later date for Sattler’s baptism, which then could have been at the earlier points of Sattler’s contact with Anabaptists in 1525 rather than Snyder’s date of late Summer of 1526. Fast was gracious to Snyder, allowing that the source material was not widely available at the time of Snyder’s writing but Fast still suggested that this left many new questions to be asked of Snyder’s paradigm.

Should Fast’s objection be sustained, this would not cause as grave of doubts as Fast suggested but would only leave yet more empty spaces. The stool might not fall over but it might wobble like your high school math desk. Snyder did respond, acknowledging the strength of Fast’s remarks but holding to his position. He offered that the Michaels of the letter could be the reverse of what Fast had argued, further proposing that Wüst could have been the “brother Michael in the white coat” who had been arrested in Zürich in March 1525. The answer to this debate may be lost to history and philology might never be conclusive, yet Snyder’s paradigm seems to hold in light of the available historical data and the most that could be at stake is a switching of a date while the order would likely remain.

Snyder’s work is valuable for understanding this significant figure and, because of its review of the previous literature, might serve well as a first in-depth look into Sattler’s life alongside the primary material of Yoder’s The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Again, Snyder generally seems surer of his conclusions than the evidence might warrant but a cautious reader expressing a critical reservation toward this end would greatly benefit from the discussion. Snyder has not given into the purely socioeconomic interpretation of Anabaptism but this work can be instructive for future students of the movement in that it does not display the over-idealism that is often presented in Anabaptist studies.
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