Contemporary Theology in Light of Anabaptism

Ted Grimsrud—Presented at the London Mennonite Forum, September 2009

During the last half of the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, many Mennonites and other Anabaptists have realized we need more intentionally to articulate our distinctive convictions. Perhaps for the first time in our now nearly five hundred years since the first Anabaptists, we have an abundance of intellectually rigorous, overt doctrinal theology being written by Anabaptists.

This production has been stimulated by a sense that things have changed in the modern world.  Many of the close-knit communities that made it possible for Anabaptist convictions to survive without self-consciously constructed doctrinal theology have weakened and even disappeared altogether.  We operate now in the arena where people choose to believe (or not).  So, it’s more important to bring beliefs to the surface.

Theology in Light of Anabaptist Distinctives

The question of how best to articulate theological convictions that reflect the core commitments of Anabaptists is hotly contested.  How should we approach theology in light of the distinctive characteristics of Anabaptist Christianity? I believe these characteristics center on an integration of theology with ethics. The ethical commitments of the 16th century Anabaptists such as pacifism, an emphasis on economic sharing, and rejection of the subordination of the church to nation-states reflected as distinctive theology—a theology that we may still learn from.

Recent writing on sixteenth century Anabaptism highlights extreme diversity in the first fifty years of the Anabaptist movement.  Such writing helps correct simplistic generalizations about Anabaptist uniformity.  However, it provides little clarity for those who seek to draw upon that movement as we negotiate our current challenges.  What might we mean by “Anabaptism” as an affirmative label for faith today with genuine content that also links with its 16th century origins?

Let me suggest a parallel for how we might work at identifying core Anabaptist convictions.  Scholars of the “historical Jesus” point out that the one certain fact about Jesus that is not dependent upon the reports of his followers is that the state executed Jesus as a political criminal. Whatever we might say about Jesus needs to be understood in light of that one fact. So, they assert, we start in analyzing Jesus’ life and teaching asking what led to his execution.

We may follow a similar path in seeking to understand the Anabaptists.  Amidst their diversity, we may identify one commonality. Each movement and leader was looked upon with suspicion, and usually hostility, by the state governments and state churches of Western Europe. Amidst diversities we see this common ground. What about these people led them to become enemies of the state? Here’s where we will find the core Anabaptist convictions—and, I would suggest, our most important clues for applying Anabaptist faith to our world today.

I’ll mention four elements of such a core.  I believe each element followed from the common way Anabaptists placed the way of Jesus at the center of their faith.

(1) They established themselves as a church free from state control. Thus, Anabaptists asserted an unprecedented (and unacceptable) level of independence.  They challenged the top-down social uniformity that political and religious leaders understood to be foundational for social order. The Anabaptists refused to accept the prince as ultimate authority.  They gave their ultimate loyalty to God’s call for how to live, not the government’s.

(2) They asserted that it is never God’s will for Christians to fight. Thus, Anabaptists challenged governmental appeals to God as the basis for war. Because of their rejection of participation in war, many Anabaptists tended to reject participation in government altogether, insofar as they accepted the common assumption that human government without violence was inconceivable.

(3) They rejected the domination of religious hierarchies.[2] Thus, Anabaptists pointed toward an upside-down notion of power. In their view, the gathered community of believers provided the best context for hearing Jesus. So, genuine power does not flow from the top of the social pyramid down. Discernment of God’s will for human beings is not filtered through establishment mediators such as a prince or bishop. Rather, it comes directly to the community that then determines its own approach to faithfulness.

(4) They insisted on an alternative approach to economics. Thus, Anabaptists separated themselves from worldly materialism.  They practiced simplicity, economic sharing, mutual aid and, in a few famous cases, common ownership of all property.[3]  The Anabaptists thereby challenged the emerging economic bases for empire and capitalism.

When I speak of “Anabaptist convictions,” I have in mind these four elements and the beliefs about God and Jesus that undergird them.  Various contemporary thinkers, among Mennonites and other sympathizers, have been working at making the term “Anabaptist” usable—though I am not aware of anyone who summarizes things quite the way I do.

One important thinker who has been engaged in this work is the American, Tom Finger, formerly of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, most notably in his recent massive book, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology.[4] Finger indeed helps us better understand Anabaptist theology in the 16th century and today. However, I am troubled by his decision to frame his theology within the general approach of mainstream Christian theology (which has not placed ethical faithfulness to the way of Jesus at the center of theological reflection). Such an approach risks minimizing the theological convictions that are the most important contributions Anabaptists have to make today.

Finger joins with others who have sought to construct Anabaptist theology in ways that stress commonalities with mainstream Christian theology. They draw on the post-fourth century creedal and doctrinal theological tradition and focus attention on the internal rituals of Christian communitiesSuch emphase4s, I fear, may diminish Anabaptist distinctives.  They may limit the potential of theology in the Anabaptist tradition to recover the core ethos of the biblical portrayal of the life of faith.

Finger’s theology does not share the conflictual dynamics characteristic of his Anabaptist forebears when they directly challenged status quo religion.  He seeks common ground with the tradition more than offering an Anabaptist critique.  I am not convinced Finger’s approach, focusing mostly on doctrinal formulations, the internal debates of theological discourse, and the sacramental practices within the church—theologizing that will likely not get him into trouble with anyone—best reflects the spirit of 16th century Anabaptist theology.

Anabaptist Theology as Pacifist Theology

I believe we should read Anabaptist history (16th century and since) similarly to how Christians say we read the Bible.  We say today that we are part of the same, on-going story as the biblical people, especially Jesus, and as the Anabaptists of the 16th century and since.  We do not critically distance ourselves from the story, but we also recognize that we need to read the story truthfully, to allow it to challenge us and not simply say what we want it to say.  We consider the entire story, trying to listen to it on its own terms.  However, we privilege themes in the broader story that (1) most accurately support Jesus’ own summary of the Law and Prophets (that is, his Commandment to love God and neighbor) and that (2) most helpfully support our calling today to apply Jesus’ Commandment to our context.

I suggest that reading both the Bible and the Anabaptist stories in the light of Jesus’ life and teaching underscores that both stories integrate belief and practice.  The stuff of biblical theology and the stuff of Anabaptist theology are made up primarily of real life, concrete practices, efforts to live faithfully.  This theology does not place abstract doctrines or what other theologians have said about theology at the center.

We Anabaptists are in a new era, where the times require that we more self-consciously articulate our theological convictions.[5]  Is our best strategy to link more closely with traditions with a longer history of formal theology, simply adding our ethical distinctives to the already-formulated “classical” theologies?  Or is the best strategy to think through the entire theological enterprise anew in light of core Anabaptist convictions?  This latter approach, which I endorse, would emphasize, for example, that a pacifist doctrine of God might be different than doctrines of God formulated by theologians in, say, Augustinian, Thomistic, Lutheran, or Calvinist traditions that have explicitly approved of Christians fighting wars.

The type of Anabaptist theology I advocate is, you could say, “radical pacifist Anabaptist theology.”  The core of Anabaptist theology, I believe, is pacifism.[6] By this, I mean: theology drawing on Anabaptism should see its foundational theological conviction being Jesus’ love command.  It is “radical” in the sense that love is the root, the radix, for all theology.  A “pacifist” sees love of God and of each human being as the core conviction that exceeds all other convictions.  For pacifism, no other value, truth, conviction, or commitment can be important enough to take priority over the love command—no value is worth committing violence for.

The “peace” Jesus embodied was the “peace” described in the Old Testament with a cluster of socially oriented terms such as shalom (“peace”), mishpat and sedeqah (“justice”) and chesed (“mercy”).  This is a broad, positive, active, life-affirming, world-transforming, and injustice-resisting concept.  “Peace” for Jesus’ followers includes direct involvement to resist evil (nonviolently), and to cultivate genuinely restorative social justice.

Doctrines, formal traditions, creeds, technical theological language, only have value for Anabaptist theology insofar as they illumine the message of love; they are not valued as ends in themselves.  Anabaptist theology focuses on people’s actual lives and applies theological convictions directly to practices that sustain a people’s vocation as agents of God’s shalom.  It sees as its model Jesus’ style of communicating his convictions concerning God and truth—life-oriented, practical, accessible, embodied directly in service of the love command.

Anabaptist theology as practice-oriented does its theological reflection assuming that the life and teaching of Jesus provide the most fundamental biblical context for present-day theology.  Rather than focusing much energy on the formulation of doctrines of scripture’s authority, it will directly focus on engaging with the story of Jesus as it engages with the crucial issues of present-day life.

In my North American context, I believe these are some of the central questions such an Anabaptist theology might see as crucial:

•Why does so much theology support violence?  Why are American Christians more likely to support capital punishment and current wars than non-Christians?  How might we think theologically in ways that overcome this problem?  How do we challenge what Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence” so widespread in our world?

•How does Christian theology respond to its rival, the “faith” of capitalism that currently is transforming our world into what social critic Mike Davis calls a “planet of slums”?[7]

•In relation to creation, what are the religious beliefs that underwrite the commodification and accompanying destructive exploitation of our natural environment? How might they be challenged?

•How do we reflect theologically on the ways many Christians have lifted the alleged sins of gay and lesbian Christians as bases for unprecedented levels of intra-church conflict all out of proportion with the weight these alleged “sins” are given in the Bible?

Contra Doctrine-Oriented Theology

We may contrast these questions with other types of questions and concerns expressed in more doctrinally oriented theology, both from the evangelical side and from the mainstream or “ecumenical” side.

The kinds of concerns focused on by evangelical theology may be illustrated by issues raised by Roger Olson in the final section, entitled “Issues in Evangelical Theology,” in his recent handbook on evangelical theology.[8]

•How do we understand the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit?  Do we think of a “second blessing” or second definite work of grace that lifts the Christian to a new level of faith-experience or more in terms of one completed baptism of the Spirit at the point of conversion?

•What beliefs are acceptable for one who wants to be identified as an “evangelical Christian”?  What are the boundary lines to acceptable belief?

•How does one know the truth status of truth claims about God?  Is true knowledge of God based only on special revelation and faith in God’s Word?  Can the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus Christ be rationally proven?

•Which view about the End Times is most persuasive—premillennialism, amillennialism, or postmillennialism?

•Is the Bible perfect—historically accurate and internally consistent—in every detail or is it more that it is trustworthy in what it teaches concerning salvation while also reflecting human fallibility in some of its historical accounts?

We may illustrate the concerns of mainstream or ecumenical theology with a randomly chosen recent issue of the Christian Century that devoted its cover article to contemporary views of the doctrine of justification by faith.[9]  The article examines recent writing on this doctrine—how theological ideas about justification are being debated.  It focuses on an internal doctrinal theme as an example worth extensive discussion to illustrate what is currently seen as important in ecumenical theology.

Another example of how the concerns of mainstream theology tend to be theological ideas more than actual life may be seen with the table of contents from a recent issue of Modern Theology, a pre-eminent journal devoted to academic theology.  These are some article titles: “On the Meaning and Relevance of Baader’s Theological Critique of Descartes,” “Philosophy and Salvation: The Apophatic in the Thought of Arthur Schopenhauer,” and “The Simplicity of the Living God: Aquinas, Barth, and Some Philosophers.”[10]

My point with these contrasting tendencies is not to critique more doctrinally oriented theology but simply to suggest that Anabaptist theology might be seen as something different.  I see Anabaptist theology insisting that doctrine serve practice—Anabaptist theology at its heart is about helping us be peacemakers and justice builders; it is never simply about ideas.

With this perspective on “practice-oriented” and “doctrine-oriented” theology in mind, I want to return to Tom Finger’s proposal for Anabaptist theology. Finger seek  to mediate between Anabaptist and mainstream theologies in a way that accommodates to the latter more than I want to. Two others who have also produced major “contemporary Anabaptist theologies,” James Reimer and James McClendon, reflect similar tendencies.

Reimer’s book of theological essays, Mennonites and Classical Theology, has the sub-title, “Dogmatic Foundations for Theological Ethics.”  Reimer explains that though often criticized for focusing too much on “dogmatics,” he does indeed take ethics seriously.  But he believes that “ethics, particularly Christian ethics (including the Mennonite concern for peace, justice, and nonviolent love) needs a ground outside itself”—a “foundation.”  Consequently, “there are few essays in this volume which deal specifically with ethical topics.”[11] Indeed, beyond on occasion mentioning that he is concerned with ethics, Reimer’s theological reflection rarely touches down in concrete reality—focusing almost exclusively on thinkers, thoughts, and traditions.

In doing theology that serves as a “foundation” for ethics while rarely directly touching on real life ethics, Reimer situates himself much closer to doctrine-oriented than to practice-oriented theology.  So, I see his approach, profound as it may be, as a quite different a model for a contemporary Anabaptist theology than my approach.

McClendon wrote a three volume systematic theology.[12]  Most of his life a Southern Baptist (he joined a Church of the Brethren congregation late in life), McClendon coined the term (lower-case “b”) “baptist” to describe his theology.  However, he did write that, under the influence of John Howard Yoder, “though I still have no love for the term itself [I became] an ‘Anabaptist’ Baptist.”[13] McClendon wrote his trilogy in an attempt to provide an alternative to the mainstream Christian traditions.  Rather than starting with the “foundations,” he started with “ethics.”  Then came his “doctrine” followed only at that point by the more foundational third volume.  And even that volume turned out to be called “witness,” not foundations.

So McClendon sought to give us what could certainly be termed “a contemporary Anabaptist theology.”  And it is a tremendous resource.  However, his stimulating but always demanding volumes almost overwhelm with their detailed focus on other theological work more than on life itself—this is especially the case with volume two, called Doctrine.

McClendon himself tells us why he took this approach.  “I was determined to write every sentence in light of my new-gained radical convictions, and yet to write in such a way that standard-account people, those who shared my pre-Yoder standpoint, could make sense of it.”[14]

I believe McClendon’s strategy was admirable (he was my teacher in my doctoral program).  And I hope his influence on “standard-account theology” will be profound.  Nonetheless, what he produced may be better seen more as a doctrine-oriented theology seeking to reform the problems of theology in that mode than as actual practice-oriented theology.  So, McClendon’s systematics also provides a different kind of  model for contemporary Anabaptist theology than my approach.

Finger follows a similar strategy.  He works within the mode of doctrinally-oriented theology.  He hopes to move it more toward practice-oriented theology.  He brings core Anabaptist convictions (such as, peace, close attention to Jesus’ life and teaching, an integration of belief and practice) to bear on the theological enterprise in a way that “makes sense to standard-account people.”  However, theology done in the doctrinally oriented mode, even with overt emphasis on Anabaptist convictions, is a different , approach for contemporary Anabaptists than my practice-focused theology.

The ideal I point toward combines serious engagement with the biblical story with careful analysis of contemporary social issues.  It remains a point of debate whether Anabaptist theology may take the form of systematic theology and remain consistently Anabaptist. If it may, it will retain at its core a privileging of the biblical story understood as centered on Jesus’ life and teaching as more crucial than later creedal formulations and internally oriented rituals.

I see Finger and the others trying to fit within the Western (non-pacifist!) theological tradition, accepting this tradition’s basic theological articulations but adding on an ethical, maybe even nonviolent, component.  Contemporary Anabaptist theology as I seek to practice it rethinks theology root and branch in light of its most fundamental conviction—that no other value or commitment takes precedent over the love command.

I should add that the two greatest American Mennonite theologians of the 20th century, John Howard Yoder and Gordon Kaufman, both in many ways model practice-oriented theology.  Neither Kaufman nor Yoder spend much time writing theology about theology (that is, interacting in intricate detail with other theologians).  The writings of both focus mainly on practice-oriented themes, asking how theology might serve “humanization” (Kaufman’s term) and the “politics of Jesus” (Yoder’s term).

“Neo-Mennonite” Sensibilities

Another context where practice-oriented Anabaptist theology has found expression has been in various small, mostly urban, Mennonite communities in contemporary North America.  In the rest of this essay I would like to look at some characteristics of the implicit theology embodied by many of these communities.  I will call these voices “neo-Mennonites.”[24]  They affirm many of the elements mentioned by Kaufman in his book Nonresistance and Responsibility:

Many persons—especially younger professional people, well-educated and living in settings quite far removed, at least culturally, from traditional rural Mennonite communities—feel the need for an interpretation of the Mennonite perspective which breathes more freely the atmosphere of the contemporary life and culture in which they are so deeply involved.  They do not wish to give up some of the basic insights and convictions of the faith in which they were raised, but the only interpretations of that faith which are readily accessible do not seem to address the questions and problems they are facing.[25]

Kaufman’s concern reflects the concerns of many congregations made up of “neo-Mennonites.”  The “neo-Mennonite” perspective exists now within the circle of the broader Anabaptist community.  Even if not well understood, or even acknowledged by many in the more traditional churches, it is part of what the Anabaptist faith community has become.

One important element of the contemporary world within which “neo-Mennonites” live and think is “historical consciousness.”  By this I mean the self-awareness that we are all always part of history, and that, consequently, our awareness of meaning, truth, values, and spirituality has a relative cast because we are unable to separate ourselves from this historicity.

Within Christian theology, the emergence of historical consciousness has caused turmoil.  Part of the dynamic has been an attempt by those who resist historical consciousness to continue to do theology as if the traditional “house of authority” of objective, even absolute, authorities such as scripture, church tradition, and church hierarchies still held sway. Such theology seems inadequate for people who think self-consciously in terms of historical consciousness.

For people shaped by historical consciousness, the dogmatic method that bases its authority on absolute “facts” existing outside historical relativity has little value.  For such people, these “facts” simply do not exist. This immersion in the thought-world informed by historical consciousness shapes “neo-Mennonites.”

(1) Historical consciousness denies that outside, objective authorities determine belief and practice.  “Neo-Mennonites” likewise resist citing such authorities as a means of ending discussions.  Such citations assume that the absolute “truth” cited resolves any possible disagreement.[26]

Such use of the “way of authority” has often occurred among American Mennonites.  All three elements are used, even in spite of our claim not to be a hierarchical tradition.  Certainly scripture is cited authoritatively, in particular verses that are said once and for all time to forbid certain behaviors.  However, tradition is also a major authority, as in “the Church has always believed this.”  Perhaps even more surprisingly, current church pronouncements (what we could call, in a sense, church hierarchies) are also utilized to end discussion.

Historical consciousness leaves many “Neo-Mennonites” suspicious of such a method.  If everything that comes into the heads and out of the mouths of human beings is historically relative, then we have no authorities that we can simply cite as an end to conversation.

This hermeneutics of suspicion based on the principle of criticism is simply part of how many people think.  Part of what makes many church controversies difficult is the lack of weight many “neo-Mennonites” give to citations that people still operating within the way of authority make.  These authorities are cited as if they obviously will bring closure to the debate.  However, to people dwelling outside the house of authority, they carry no such weight.

(2) Many “neo-Mennonites,” show more interest in spirituality and ethics than in classical creeds and dogmas.  They experience life concretely and practically—that is, in history.  They see abstract theological constructs as having little practical relevance; such constructs mostly emerge from a way of thinking that tries to transcend historical being.

Contemporary uses of doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the divine inspiration of the Bible often do not emerge so much from practical historical life in the present as from past constructs.  For many shaped by historical consciousness, these now seem like abstract, ahistorical intellectual constructs long disconnected from their original controversies and ways of life. That is not to say “Neo-Mennonites” reject these doctrines, so much as question their centrality and their use as discussion enders.

“Neo-Mennonites” find it difficult, for example, to see how belief in the Trinity has made a practical difference.  Many Trinitarian Christians support imperialistic wars, nuclear weapons, economic exploitation, and sexism.  On the other hand, many non-Trinitarian Christians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists come much closer to following the teachings of Old Testament prophets and Jesus against violence and in favor of care and compassion for the poor and oppressed.

(3) For “neo-Mennonites,” sensitivity to historical consciousness leads to openness to other expressions of faith.  If one believes that Christian theology is historically conditioned; and if spirituality and ethics take priority over abstract, doctrinal theology as resources for faithful living, then one will be much more open to common ground with other expressions of faith.

“Neo-Mennonites” spend little energy defining how they differ from other religious or even non-religious people.  Few “neo-Mennonites” concern themselves with converting others to their religion, though they always happily welcome people to walk with them should they so choose.  They find common ground within their faith communities based on a sense of tolerance for different views, similar ethical ideals, an enjoyment of singing, and a respect for traditional Mennonite practices such as pacifism, service concerns, potlucks, and quilting projects.

“Neo-Mennonite” communities do facilitate a meaningful expression of faith.  Historical consciousness does not lead to total relativism or individualism.  These communities still come together; people show great commitment of resources to keep them going.  Worship, a sense of community, encouragement for faithful living, do not require the house of authority.

However, “Neo-Mennonites” do have difficulty articulating positive expressions of belief.  Many find the old way of authority to be untenable as a means to express their beliefs.  They mourn this loss little.  With all its tensions and even pain, Christian living within the contemporary thought-world is possible, even exhilarating.  The question is not whether “neo-Mennonites” can be Christians outside the house of authority.  They have shown that they can.

“Neo-Mennonites” do suffer from not having a widely articulated theological language that might help them better to make sense out of their Christian experience and to communicate it with others.  For people who live in the thought-world of historical consciousness, a moral-theological language based on the house of authority will not be viable.  However, that does not mean that no language is possible.  Nor does it make the construction of such a language less crucial when it comes to sustaining their faith communities.

Toward a “Neo-Mennonite” Approach to Theology

As I understand key aspects of “neo-Mennonite” thinking, this is how I believe a “neo-Mennonite” alternative might begin in constructing an approach to theology.  My second essay will go further in constructing a contemporary Anabaptist theology.[27]

An attitude of trust toward life in this world, created by God characterizes theology that affirms historical consciousness.  This theology can refer to God without positing “classical” notions of Transcendence and Eternity.  “Neo-Mennonites” understand the central criterion for one’s own theology to be that theology be meaningful for the theologians’ communities, addressing their reality in terms they understand and can relate to.  Scripture and creeds must serve this criterion of meaningfulness or one engages in mystification.

Neo-Mennonites would say that the best “governor” for theology is not some external authority.  These authorities do not prevent differences and even intense conflicts.  Investing those differences with “absolute” certainty often leads to violence.  The best “governor,” rather, is an on-going quest for truth.  If one seeks truth, one will be open to learn and to adjust one’s viewpoint. Theology then becomes a process of working together better to understand rather than working against each other to win arguments.  To seek truth (rather than to defend truth) fits well with a trust in God that does not need us to coerce others on God’s behalf.

Does one believe God (and, hence, life) to be trustworthy or not?  If one does, then one will not feel the anxiety to “protect the truth” that seems, at times, to characterize “mainstream” theologians.  This relates to our view of humanity. A positive anthropology is based on (1) seeing creation as good;  (2) believing that God acts mercifully in human history; and (3) an awareness of human responsiveness to love.

 We best see “neo-Mennonite” theology as inductive theology, flowing out of their experience, expressed in their language. They would say we all do this anyhow.  Attempts to do theology deductively, starting with settled doctrines, often result in mystification due to the gap between archaic religious language and one’s actual experience of meaning in life.

“Neo-Mennonite” theology is committed to Anabaptist distinctives.  These include a positive attitude toward the world, consistent with pacifism (non-coercive love is possible in this life) and adult baptism (infants are not born condemned to Hell).  This theology is dialogical, consistent with the Anabaptist emphasis on community.  It is concrete in history, consistent with Anabaptist low-church worship patterns that emphasize immediacy more than sacramentalism.

“Neo-Mennonites” tend to be suspicious of the Bible—to an unfortunate extreme.  In reacting against authoritarian uses of the Bible, they tend to shy away from finding much useful meaning in the Bible at all. I belief, though, that construction of practice-oriented theology should take place in conversation with the Bible.  Each affirmation can and should utilize biblical images because the Bible genuinely has meaning for Christians.  It connects with actual life and it provides a common faith language.  However, the Bible works best as a conversation partner that shapes our construction of theology.  The Bible is not authoritarian but the key source of language that must always merge with our present context in ever-evolving ways.

For “neo-Mennonites,” to say our theology must be done in terms of our thought-forms is mostly a descriptive statement.  We cannot do theology otherwise.  “Neo-Mennonites” call for honesty and self-awareness about what we in actuality cannot help but do.

“Neo-Mennonites” believe the mainstream theologians do tend to claim too much for the Bible.  This over-claim contributes to many thoughtful “neo-Mennonites” distancing themselves from the Bible altogether.  They have been taught authoritarian hermeneutics as the only approach.  When that approach proves unhelpful, they jettison the Bible itself.  “Neo-Mennonites” need a constructive, non-authoritarian biblical hermeneutic that allows them to utilize the Bible in ways that connect with their lives.

A theology that will be genuinely practical and conversational has a great deal to gain by turning back to the Jesus story as a central source.  This story should be read non-fearfully and non-foundationally.  Then, we find extraordinarily useful content: God’s compassion, the “divinity” of the everyday, the rejection of conventional wisdom and power politics, and seeing what matters most in life as abundant and not scarce.

Reading the Bible together as a witness of openness to God and life provides a way to converse together.  Is the biblical story, especially regarding Jesus, in itself meaningful enough or do we need external claims to buttress its authority (such as doctrines of inspiration; an absolute, transcendent God; church hierarchies)?  Do we best connect with the Bible through our experience of life and our growth in self-understanding or through submission to external authorities/doctrines/creeds that tell us what the Bible must be?

Jesus and Paul (and the Old Testament prophets) themselves challenged the conventional wisdom and the received theological method of their own times.  They gave priority to God’s word spoken directly to them in the context of their own world.  They modeled creativity in how they respected and worked within the faith as passed on by their forebears while also responding in new and at times iconoclastic ways.  Through their honesty and courage, they became channels for new, life-giving gifts of God’s Spirit.  They serve as models for “Neo-Mennonites”—and for all other Christians.

[2] This point is emphasized especially by German Mennonite historian Hans-Jürgen Goertz, who argues that the main commonality among the diverse Anabaptist groups was their anticlericalism (Hans Jürgen Goertz, The Anabaptists [New York: Routledge, 1996]).

[3] See especially James Stayer, The German Peasants War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Buffalo, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991).

[4] Thomas Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

[5] For another discussion raising similar issues, see J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2000).

[6] I sketch my understanding of pacifism in more detail in the introduction to Christian Early and Ted Grimsrud, eds., A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009).

[7] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso Books, 2006).

[8] Roger E. Olson, The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 291-315.

[9] Douglas Harink, “Setting it Right: Doing Justice to Justification,” The Christian Century 122.12 (June 14, 2005), 20-25.

[10] Modern Theology 21.1 (April 2005).

[11] A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Theological Ethics (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2001), 15-16.

[12] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume one (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986); Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume two (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994); Witness: Systematic Theology, Volume three (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).

[13] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., “The Radical Road One Baptist Took,” in John D. Roth, ed., Engaging Anabaptism: Conversations with a Radical Tradition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 22.

[14] McClendon, “Radical,” 22.

[15] I am in agreement with Jim Reimer’s somewhat surprising linking of Yoder and Kaufman closely together in his 1983 essay, “The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology,” Conrad Grebel Review 1.1 (1983), 33-55.  “The common thread which ties all four [Reimer is also discussing Harold Bender and Robert Friedmann] together is an emphasis on the historical-ethical.  All four have a deep suspicion of a more classical emphasis on that part of human experience which one might variously call the vertical, mystical, ontological,, sacramental, or ahistorical dimension of reality” (51-52).  The difference between Reimer and me, of course, is that he is troubled by this emphasis and I strongly approve of it.

[16] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus. Second edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

[17] But see his posthumously published, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), a book that contains useful pointers toward a biblically-based systematic theology.

[18] See Gordon D. Kaufman, Theology for a Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985).

[19] Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[20] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

[21] See especially his chapter, “Twentieth-Century Mennonite Theology in Face of Presumed Theology in General,” in Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity.

[22] C. Norman Kraus, God Our Savior: Theology in a Christological Mode (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991).

[23] Kraus’s earlier book, Jesus Christ Our Lord: Christology from a Disciple’s Perspective (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987), develops a full-scale Christology that interacts with the creedal tradition but takes its main cues from the gospels as interpreted in Anabaptist fashion.

[24] My own formative experience in a “Neo-Mennonite” community came through my seven-year pastorate in Eugene, Oregon.  I have also had extensive contact with “Neo-Mennonite” congregations in Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Calgary, San Francisco, Chicago, Wichita, Boston, Philadelphia, and Harrisonburg (Virginia).

[25] Gordon D. Kaufman, Nonresistance and Responsibility and Other Mennonite Essays (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1979).

[26] For an important analysis and critique of such use of authority, see Edward Farley, Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1982).

[27] See also Ted Grimsrud, Theology as If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009).

2 thoughts on “Contemporary Theology in Light of Anabaptism

  1. ethnicanabaptist

    To find that I am an ethnicanabaptist, Swiss Mennonites and Amish are my history, daughter of a Baptist turned Congregational minister, wife of a Jew, mother to a son; to simply BE this is to connect me to Israel. I am rooted in Israel as a daughter of what for me is a reality, a daughter of Israel’s ten tribes in the first diaspora, a wife of a son of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and mother of the reunion.

    And that is what I am. Jesus is the name I grew up with, a name unconnected to his own roots, his own DNA. He floated, unconnected to a real people, but theologically connected to “the church.” None of it made sense for me.

    Yeshua, perfectly connected to his people in every way, found himself to be a messiah. And he was sent to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Israel is a complicated reality of lives and DNA, dirt and acreage tilled and built upon, marriage of a people to their elohim and divorce because of their adultery. Yet the love was never over. And that love story has been preserved in the scrolls of animal skins with Hebrew and Aramaic letters.

    I think I am writing here because Ted Grimsrud is saying that all of this matters. This messy reality of a people living amid greater peoples, all of whom belong to El Shaddai, who gave his son, Yeshua, to look out for us. There seems to be a plan.

    I wake up to find myself alive in a time just after Israel was re-established on planet Earth. That fact may explain the cognitive dissonance I experienced when the church WAS Israel. Well wait a minute. Israel is Israel. But no, the Church was Israel. Except the Church encompassed centuries of inquisitions, torture and death for the millions who did not accept their baptisms and lives of subjugation to their creeds.

    I think I am writing here because I am connected to a people who heard the voice of their own shepherd. His voice, telling us we don’t have to be afraid even when we find ourselves in the middle of a plan being worked out over the centuries, telling us we are connected to the brilliance and intelligence of the great Abba and ruach, of their child sent to grow into a shepherd who would remind us who we are and make it possible for us to be reunited with all there is above and on earth.

    Do I have doubts? Sure I do. I’m not privy to much. But my nature is such that I try to clear my vision and say what I’m seeing. And I’m seeing a nation and the millions of tortured deaths of my brothers and sisters who came before me in the establishment of that nation. The re-establishment of that nation. History records my own people’s glimpse of understanding that they were free. And history records their tortuous deaths. For those who lived, their possessions were taken as were their lands. They ran and sailed to America.

    Now I’m not so sure that pacifism is of the highest order in this plan, but what Ted Grimsrud said about following the Lamb as put forward in Revelation, following him wherever he goes; these are words of peace. America is in a state of continual war as it continues in its way of empire building. Who knows, maybe I will tire of living in a land of empire building. Maybe my husband and I will move to Israel. I know my own conviction of being a child of Israel is not the standard of acceptance of the Israel of today. But if I’m right about who I am, then I am the daughter of a strong ass lying down between two sheepfolds.

    And maybe, so are you.


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