Anabaptism as a Hermeneutic

Ted Grimsrud

Paper Presented to Anabaptist Seminar — Eastern Mennonite University — April 8, 2006

My introduction to Anabaptism came nearly thirty years ago when I first discovered that there was a Mennonite congregation in my hometown, Eugene, Oregon.  I had just started reading John Howard Yoder and was anxious to learn to know actual Mennonites.  The pastor of Eugene Mennonite Church, Harold Hochstetler, loaned me several of his books. I especially remember Guy Hershberger’s The Way of the Cross in Human Relations and the festschrift for Harold Bender that Hershberger edited.

Not too long afterwards, I ended up at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and studied Anabaptism with Yoder and C. J. Dyck.  A couple of years later I was able to teach Anabaptism for the first time in a congregation.  I served as interim pastor at Trinity Mennonite in Glendale, Arizona, and taught a course mainly for people new to the Mennonite faith.  Several senior members in the congregation, including Guy Hershberger himself, also sat in on the class.  Strong affirmations I received from Guy meant a great deal to me.

Anabaptism as a resource for ethics and pastoral ministry

From the start, my main interest in the Anabaptists was ethical and pastoral.  My interest in Mennonites came out of a desire for faith that underwrote peacemaking and community-building.  Yoder and Hershberger directed me to the 16th-century Anabaptists as an important resource for embodying those concerns.  I have always been interested in the connections between the events told in the Bible, the events of the 16th century, and our own quest to live faithfully.  I never felt comfortable with the idea that one could approach the 16th century in a fully objective way.  The questions I have asked of the 16th century (as of the Bible) have always been self-consciously along the lines of what might I learn for today from those events.

After my interim pastorate in Arizona, I began my doctoral work in Christian Ethics at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.  My first year, I took the basic seminar on the history of ethics.  I perceived, as we whipped through a couple dozen thinkers, starting with Plato on down to Reinhold Niebuhr, that for the vast majority we considered, the basic ethical concern could be boiled down to a concern with “order.”  How might we support the present order in ways that are the most humane, perhaps, or maybe more often, in ways that are the least disruptive?

There were three exceptions to the concern with order, though; these were the ones that caught my attention.  The concerns of these minority voices could be characterized more in terms of a concern with “transformative justice,” especially “justice” for those least served by the present order.  These three exceptions were the biblical writers, the Anabaptists, and Karl Marx.  I was struck most with the clear differences between these two general approaches to ethics, order vs. justice – and that Anabaptist ethics were qualitatively different than mainstream Christian ethics.

A second big influence for me at the GTU was a course on Anabaptist Theology and Ethics that I took from Jim McClendon.  Among other things, McClendon helped me better to understand how to think about the sense of connection I felt with the story of the 16th century Anabaptists – and with the Bible.  He talked about a sense of “this is that.”  We are part of the same on-going story.

After grad school, I spent nine years as a pastor in Mennonite congregations in Eugene, Oregon and Freeman, South Dakota.  In each of these two dramatically different congregations, I spent significant time teaching Anabaptist and Mennonite history.  In Eugene, it was with urban, highly-educated, mostly new Mennonites, non-Mennonites, and post-Mennonites who needed to be persuaded that this history was relevant to their lives.  In Freeman, it was with rural, multi-generational Mennonites who needed to be encouraged to see how their looking at their heritage might challenge some of their embedded orthodoxies that may have owed more to South Dakota folkways than to the biblical and Anabaptist visions for faithful discipleship.

It was fun examining the Anabaptist tradition in these church settings because the debates were always about meaning, never simply about facts and historical details.  My interests, and those of the people in these classes, focused on the ethical and pastoral meaning of Anabaptism for today.  Through these thoughtful encounters, I came to some clarity on theological method.

Four sources for theology

As I have reflected on the task of theologizing in the Anabaptist tradition, I have come to see four different sources for theology that inter-relate.  Three are sources of information – scripture, history, and the present (in analysis and experience).  Each of these sources is ambiguous, giving us many different kinds of messages.  The fourth source, what I call “vision,” becomes crucial as we interpret and apply the other three.

All four of these sources interplay together, providing both the questions we ask of the materials we are interpreting and applying and the resources for answering those questions – in what we may call a hermeneutical circle.  Our thinking about history as a source, especially in our case, the history of the Christian tradition including at its center the Anabaptist strain of that tradition, needs to be seen in the context of the interplay with the other sources.

In my understanding of this process, I see “vision” as the key strand.  The vision that animates my theology is hope for peace and wholeness for all of creation, the embodiment in history of the vision of the New Jerusalem that concludes the Christian Bible.  This vision leads to questions of our other sources – what from the Bible, what from history, what from our present experience and knowledge will serve the realization of this hope for wholeness?

When we look at the 16th-century Anabaptists, then, and at the history of their spiritual descendants, we look at them in the context of the much broader story that includes the Bible, our present experience, and our vision for God’s will for human life.  What in the Anabaptist segment reflects the biblical message and may inspire and guide us in our quest to be part of this same story?

Seeing ourselves as participants in the Anabaptist story

Present-day Anabaptists are in sync with the spirit of the 16th century Anabaptist movement when we consider the movement seeing ourselves as participants in the same story, recognizing that we do not stand outside of it as “neutral” observers.  The kinds of questions participants will ask of the story will be at least somewhat different from non-participants’ questions.  And the questions asked will inevitably shape how the story is retold.

Historical research, in uncovering and describing the materials that give us access to the Anabaptists, provides an absolutely necessary service for our contemporary appropriation and application of the 16th-century Anabaptist story.  However, all historians too have biases (their own questions that guide their research) shaping which materials they describe and how they describe them.  Sometimes historians’ questions may be different than ours in pacifist, Jesus-oriented Anabaptist communities.  Ultimately, present-day Anabaptists are not accountable to definitions of meaning and relevance from within the discipline of academic history nearly so much as to the needs and interests of present-day Anabaptist communities.  At the same time, historical research does serve to help us avoid mistaking our biases for 16th-century Anabaptists’ (even when these biases overlap a great deal).

I believe we best think of “Anabaptism” as a hermeneutic, an interpretive framework, a set of values and convictions that guide how we see our world.  The content of this framework, the source of these convictions, emerges initially and most formatively from the story of Jesus.  The 16th-century Anabaptists and their successors sought to embody Jesus’ way and understood themselves to be subject to Jesus.  Consequently, those who draw on the 16th-century Anabaptists appropriately will value that from the 16th century most closely linked with the Jesus story.

For instance, on the issue of pacifism, present-day Anabaptists are not bound by “loyalty” to historical objectivity to argue that Anabaptism was not pacifist due to the existence of scattered non-pacifist 16th-century Anabaptists.  To a large (and, given the context, quite impressive) extent, the Anabaptist movement as a whole in its early years did embody Jesus’ way of peace.  The affirmation that pacifism was central to Anabaptism, then, is a synthesis of evaluating the Anabaptists in light of the Jesus story, recognizing the impressive (though not universal) embodiment of pacifism in those early years, and a conviction that both in the years since 1540 and in our present, pacifism stands as an extraordinarily high priority.

How Anabaptism might work as a conversation partner

As we work at formulating a perspective we may appropriately refer to as a contemporary Anabaptist Vision (or, better, Visions, emerging from the work of many of us engaging in the process of reflection and application), we best see such visions as aids for on-going conversation and discernment, a process that never ends.  We seek to resist the temptation to issue statements that serve as instruments meant to establish boundaries, enforce conformity, and exclude dissent.  We are not seeking to articulate contemporary Anabaptist Visions in order to “get it right” in a scientifically historical sense once and for all.  Nor to construct boundary lines, separating “true” Anabaptists from “inauthentic” Anabaptists.  Rather, we hope to speak meaningfully to our present in order to encourage, instruct, inspire, and empower.

In articulating an Anabaptist Vision applicable for early 21st-century Americans, we start with reflections on our situation.  What kinds of guidance do we need?  What issues shape the questions we ask of the Anabaptist tradition? To ask what is relevant for us from the Anabaptist tradition is to ask: what resources might we find in the tradition to help us face creatively and faithfully the challenges, even crises, of our day?

Modern-day American Anabaptists should see themselves as, to some degree at least, sharing the 16th-century Anabaptists’ sense both (1) of separating themselves from many of the basic values of the wider society, especially those that under gird violence and domination and are underwritten by Christian rhetoric, and (2) of witnessing against that violence and domination, making known as widely as possible the peaceable message of Jesus.

On “getting into trouble”

In sharing such a sense of separation and call to witness, modern-day Anabaptists might focus first of all on the elements of the early Anabaptist movement that led to their getting in trouble with the established churches and governments of Western Europe.  Such a starting point is not an anachronistic imposing of a 21st-century agenda onto a 16th-century context.  In fact, perhaps the main commonality shared by all of the various groups of Anabaptists, with all their polygenetic differences, beyond practicing adult baptism was that they almost all got into trouble, almost all were persecuted, almost all faced the genuine possibility of martyrdom.

This tendency to get into trouble for their faith was one of the main “this-is-that” elements of the Anabaptists’ own self-perception.  By getting into trouble they linked back with Jesus.  Scholars today are recognizing that one of our keys to understanding Jesus and his ministry is to ask what it was that he did to get into so much trouble.  Consequently, in considering the Anabaptists as continuing in the story of Jesus, we will understand that this is a logical question to ask of them as well.  If we consider what kinds of things got the Anabaptists in trouble we might actually find both important elements of commonality among the groups of the 16th century and direction concerning their relevance for us today.

Four central characteristics of the 16th-century Anabaptists may be seen as directly linked to their being attacked by the powers-that-be and as potentially constituting the core of an Anabaptist Vision for 21st-century America.

(1) The Anabaptists established themselves as a church free from state control and from the dominance of the state churches.  By breaking with the state-church and refusing to submit to the state’s domination expressed through infant baptism, Anabaptists were not simply guilty of heresy; they committed sedition, rebellion, a capital offense.  They were executed by both Catholics and Protestants; to all of Western Europe they were rebels.

(2) A second and closely related reason the Anabaptists got into trouble was their refusal to participate in or even support the state’s wars – especially in the 16th century, wars with the Muslim Turks invading from the south.  A common complaint against the Anabaptists was that they were refusing to take up arms to defend their nations – especially to defend Christian Europe from the Turks.  In doing so, they threatened the security and well being of their societies.  As Walter Klaassen writes, “Refusal to fight meant that one was ready to let the infidel conquer Christian Europe.”

(3) A third characteristic indicative of a counter-cultural sensibility that posed a threat to the cultural consensus was the Anabaptists’ upside-down sense of social power and hierarchy.  Some historians argue that the main commonality for the various Anabaptist groups was their anticlericalism, their rejection of church hierarchies and top-down leadership.  This stance of deep suspicion towards established power dynamics was a source of conflict between the Anabaptists and their society.

(4) A fourth characteristic is the alternative economics that characterized Anabaptist communities.  While only the Hutterites self-consciously instituted thoroughgoing community of goods, all Anabaptist groups worked at mutual aid and wide-ranging sharing of wealth.  These practices ran against the grain of the broader society and occasioned much scorn and criticism from those outside the Anabaptist movement.

Today, in another time of trumpet-blowing nationalism that underwrites imperialism as a “Christian” duty, for Anabaptists to insist on a reading of the Jesus story that names nationalism as idolatry certainly might lead to trouble.  When this trumpet-blowing nationalism rallies behind the invasion and violent occupation of another nation (in our present case, Iraq), outspoken witness to a faith that rejects warfare might well seem seditious.

In face of a national political culture that through absolutist assertions of power by leaders, closely-guarded secrecy of policy deliberations, and seeking to intimidate and thereby silent media scrutiny, moves ever-closer to authoritarianism, to insist that genuine power flows from the bottom up goes strongly against the grain.

As our economic system continues to extract wealth from the world’s poor that flows into the hands of the wealthy and powerful in the name of “free trade,” and “privatization,” and to empower corporations to seek the lowest possible labor costs, for Anabaptist Christians to reiterate their convictions concerning economic sharing, simplicity, and accumulating wealth is to witness against some of the most tenaciously “religious” beliefs in our culture.

These examples illustrate that the core Anabaptist convictions maintain an undiminished relevance.  Communities seeking to embody this vision may also face at least some of the same kinds of hostility from the dominant culture that 16th-century Anabaptists did.  Hence, to consider following this path also requires taking seriously the need to cultivate various sources of encouragement, solidarity, and hopefulness.  These sources certainly include at their heart a critical mass of similarly-committed people to stand with one another.

The calling to live in the Anabaptist tradition is a rigorous calling.  If “Anabaptism” is linked with Anabaptists of 16th-century history, it will never be used simply to evoke some vague positive feelings.  The historical specificity of actual Anabaptism is a specificity of genuine commitments that generally required a self-conscious counting the costs of living out convictions seen as heretical and treasonous by the people with power to arrest, to injure, even to execute.  Of course, when Jesus called upon his followers to take-up their crosses, he expected nothing less.

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