(2) Whither 21st Century Anabaptist Theology?

“Whither 21st-Century Anabaptist Theology? A Conversation with Tom Finger”

Ted Grimsrud

[A slightly different version of this essay was published in Ted Grimsrud, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21st Century (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 23-36.]

During the last half of the 20th century and now into the 21st, the North American Anabaptist tradition has begun to produce a late flowering of intellectually rigorous doctrinal theology. Among many factors that have stimulated this production, certainly a key one follows from a sense that with modernity leading into postmodernity, we have seen a weakening of the tradition-sustaining communal environments that made it possible for Anabaptist convictions to survive without much more sophisticated, self-consciously constructed doctrinal theology.

However, the question of how best to articulate theological convictions that reflect the core commitments of Anabaptists remains vital and contested. In this essay, I will reflect on the future of Anabaptist theology. Following from my interaction with Tom Finger’s thought, I will propose that we may identify a theological method consistent with the core convictions of Anabaptism. This method places the priority on adhering closely to the biblical story and, in the same spirit as the Bible, on centering on practical, concrete, lived-out convictions.

Recent moves to construct Anabaptist theology in ways that stress commonalities with those who place the priority more on drawing on post-biblical (and, maybe even more so, the post-fourth century) dogmatic theological tradition and on centering more on the internal rituals of Christian communities threaten to diminish Anabaptist distinctions and diminish the potential of theology in the Anabaptist tradition to recover the core ethos of the biblical portrayal of the life of faith.

Tom Finger’s Project

A longtime professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a former Mennonite pastor, one of the most prolific serious Mennonite theologians of his generation, active participant as a Mennonite representative in various ecumenical endeavors (including serving as an official observer to the World Council of Churches), Tom Finger has made distinguished contributions to the theological life of the Mennonite tradition throughout the course of his career.

Finger has now produced a 600-page book typical of his style of thorough, objective, and carefully articulated theological scholarship: A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. This book provides what will surely be a widely referenced approach to Anabaptist theology, both of the 16th century and in our contemporary North American setting. Certainly Finger has made an important contribution to theological work within the Anabaptist community with this book, but he also has offered to the wider Christian community an entrée into Anabaptist thought.

Finger is well suited for this task. Few contemporary theologians have read the 16th-century sources as widely. Finger investigated for himself what the 16th-century Anabaptists actually said. Probably no one has read as widely in 20th- and 21st-century Anabaptist/Mennonite theology. Finger’s work is a pioneering effort to try to provide an analysis of the contemporary ferment. Finger’s combination of these two distinct realms of research, either of which deserves our attention, makes A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology important both for those within the broadly-defined Anabaptist community and those who are interested in it. There simply is nothing else remotely like it that has been produced.

Another reason for Finger’s suitability for the task of writing this book is how he stands with feet firmly planted both in the Anabaptist and the broader ecumenical worlds. An adult convert to the Mennonite faith, he brings wide ecumenical connections to the task. Yet he has also been deeply immersed in Anabaptist communities for several decades.

Finger also cares deeply for peace and justice as a committed pacifist, committed to ecological healing, and committed to following Jesus’ way and doing theology in light of that commitment. However, these commitments do not becloud Finger’s ability to listen respectfully to and learn from the whole spectrum of Christian theological frameworks.

The book begins with a brief summary of key aspects of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement based on up-to-date scholarship, followed by a summary of currents in recent historiography. Next comes a groundbreaking description of what Finger calls “Contemporary Approaches to Theology in Anabaptist Perspective.”

In practice, in considering “approaches to theology,” Finger’s “contemporary Anabaptist” category is pretty much synonymous with “Mennonite,” though he does include Baptist theologian James McClendon and Nancey Murphy from the Church of the Brethren. Finger impressive tries to bring order out of a plethora of “contemporary Anabaptist approaches” – surely an ultimately impossible task at which fully to succeed.

In sketching the present scene, Finger’s concerns are theological. He states, “since I am mainly concerned with comprehensive theologizing, I will chiefly consider authors who have completed at least one work of this kind or who often addressed this task otherwise.” As becomes clear in the course of the book, what Finger has in mind with “contemporary theologizing” is a pretty traditional view of “theology.” He focuses on formal doctrines, understandings of personal salvation, and church rituals. He defines theology on page 95: “The discovery, understanding, and transformation of the basic convictions of religious communities, and relating these convictions coherently to each other and to whatever else exists.”

The heart of the book contains in-depth discussions of six themes that presumably constitute what Finger sees as Christianity’s core convictions. These are: (1) the personal dimension (personal salvation and justification theology), (2) the communal dimension (the community of faith especially focused on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, and economic sharing), (3) the missional dimension (evangelism and responses to the world), (4) Jesus and divine reality (doctrines of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Trinity), (5) human nature (theological anthropology), and (6) the last things (eschatology).

Finger follows the same outline for each theme. He begins by summarizing 16th-century Anabaptist views, then he describes and critiques contemporary Anabaptist discussions of his themes. He concludes each chapter by articulating his own constructive proposal.

Though Finger’s concern is with theology (as defined above), he seeks to view theology in an ethically oriented way. He understands one of the central elements of Anabaptist theologizing to be a concern with integrating belief and practice, not simply focusing on disembodied ideas. Finger expresses this concern by suggesting at that since Anabaptist theology emerged among people on the margins of their societies, it might have special relevance today for reflecting theologically about present-day situations of marginalization.

Appreciation and Critique

A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology usefully brings together a wide range of conversation partners. Finger both introduces his readers to many significant perspectives from the 16th century and today and models a style of respectful, constructively critical exchange of perspectives. If for nothing else (and there is indeed much more), this book is important as an example of serious, rigorous, but still fundamentally civil and irenic, conversation in our age of rampant incivility.

Finger provides access to 16th-century materials rarely presented in an overtly theological context – reflecting an up-to-date awareness of historical scholarship and, most importantly, an eye to the present-day theological relevance of these materials. Side-by-side with this effort of historical retrieval, Finger gives us a fascinating portrayal of theological ferment among current Anabaptist theologians. He helps us to see the wide diversity in our dynamic community of scholars. Finger also helps us to see how those within this diverse community of thinkers are nonetheless united in their deep concerns for peace and for the integration of belief and practice.

Finger also provides a clear, up-to-date discussion of important theological issues, drawing on a wide-ranging group of theologians from a variety of traditions – evangelical, ecumenical Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox. He is careful, irenic, and fair in discussing the various perspectives while also willingly articulating his own views.

A final point of appreciation for me is Finger’s outspoken commitment to Jesus’ way of peace. We in the peace theology community can only rejoice to see such a clearly pacifist point of view finding expression in the evangelical context served by InterVarsity Press.

My criticisms and questions are of two types. The first includes concerns about the book itself, the second focuses on Finger’s book as a model for 21st-century Anabaptist theology. Finger’s writing is clear, but in many places the details become numbing. This is a long book, and one wonders how many people’s attention will be held throughout. There is not much of a sense of plot or the unfolding of an argument; more so, the book feels more like a cataloging of various viewpoints on various issues without much of a sense of flow. Finger’s strength, his careful, logical, systematic delineation of arguments, also makes the book more difficult to read.

Finger’s method of jumping directly from the 16th century to our current scene in discussing Anabaptist theology raises concerns. To do otherwise would have surely thickened even more an already over-thick book. Yet, a very important part of the tradition is thereby left out, rendering Finger’s account more along the lines of reporting ahistorical theological ideas than giving an account of a living, evolving, in-history tradition.

Of all theological traditions, it would seem the Anabaptist tradition, with its central emphasis on lived-out beliefs, must be understood in terms of its concrete expressions. Surely, taking into account the four centuries between 1550 and 1950 would greatly complicate an account of Anabaptist theology, but can anything less do adequate justice to the tradition?

Finger is a rigorous methodological thinker, paying close attention to the dynamics of the reasoning process. He spells out his assumptions and tries to work within the logic of those assumptions in developing his arguments. Such an approach has many strengths, but one wonders whether sometimes he might be forcing some of his interlocutors into a grid they were not themselves, in their own minds, operating within.

Finger appears at times to be mining his sources for implicit methodological data and pushing them toward logical outcomes of what he understands their methodologies to be. He wants (with a genuine commitment to fairness) to compare and contrast the various thinkers, but sometimes he truly is dealing with apples and oranges – and the methodological grid he adds can be pretty artificial, even distorting, in relation to the source.

Though Finger is obviously concerned with ethics, and with how theology translates into practice, as a rule this concern is evinced mostly in statements that he has this concern more than in the clear content of the theological analysis. That is, Finger in practice still seems to treat theology more as ideas and disembodied beliefs than as always-embodied convictions that reflect political and socio-cultural interests and cannot truly be understood apart from those interests. For Finger, ethics seems more like an add-on to pure theology than something that is inextricably a part of all theological reflection.

Finally, Finger is by far the strongest on description. He carefully and cautiously describes, then proposes. This descriptive element of his work greatly overshadows the sharper prophetic critique and ethical exhortation that seems to have been at the center of 16th-century Anabaptist faith. The irenic tone of A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology will insure that it will not alienate and drive away readers from other traditions. Finger will likely get a respectful, considered hearing from such readers, which is all to the good.

At the same time, this means that Finger does not share the conflictual dynamics characteristic of his Anabaptist forebears that followed from their directly challenging status quo religion. Given that probably the most universal characteristic shared across the diversities of 16th century Anabaptism was how their convictions and practices got them into serious trouble, one wonders whether there might be somewhat of a tension with latter-day theologies that want to call themselves Anabaptist and yet end up being quite safe and comfortable.

What Should Contemporary Anabaptist Theology be Like?

Because of his admirable (in my mind) boldness in claiming the label “Anabaptist” for his theology, Finger challenges others in his theological community to reflect on how we, in turn, would construct a contemporary Anabaptist theology. Finger self-consciously calls his A contemporary Anabaptist theology; he writes with humility and a spirit of inclusiveness. He is not interested in drawing boundary lines for who may legitimately use the label Anabaptist (or Mennonite) and who may not. This spirit is much to be appreciated.

I have no intention of challenging Finger’s right to use “Anabaptist” for his theology, but I do want to suggest a somewhat different take on what approach to theology best uses the “Anabaptist” rubric – a suggestion given in the spirit of shared conversation and mutual respect.

Finger’s book could not be timelier. More than ever before, North American Anabaptists are challenged to become self-conscious about articulating our theological convictions. Our tradition has been sustained for many generations more by the strength of family and cultural ties than by clearly, overtly stated common convictions. However, in North America’s ever-more transient culture, into which Anabaptists are increasingly being acculturated, those old ties are weakening. The future viability of our tradition cannot be taken for granted. We need, more than before, to be self-conscious about why we want to be Anabaptist Christians. So, theology becomes much more important – and Finger’s work speaks directly to this need.

I read Finger as making an important contribution in uncovering and helping to make more coherent important theological resources from the 16th century and familiarizing his readers with contemporary options. Certainly his constructive proposals are well-considered, and useful for contemporary Anabaptists (and all other Christians for that matter).

However, my take on what questions contemporary Anabaptists ought to be asking is different. I am not convinced that theologizing as Finger has done, 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 – is the best reflection of the spirit of 16th-century Anabaptist theology or the best kind of contribution pacifist Christians might make to theology seeking to engage our present historical context.

As Finger shows us, we in the Anabaptist tradition need continually to be reflecting on what our theology is and should be. For one reason, as pacifist Christians, we have a call to witness to Jesus’ way in the face of whatever forces in our present world are hurting, violating, oppressing, and dominating the human beings God loves.

I support Finger’s use of “Anabaptist” as a rubric for the kind of theology we need to be producing. This rubric both anchors us in a particular tradition, the spiritual descendants of the Radical Reformers, and allows us to be open in engaging the entire Christian tradition and to seek to be relevant in the catholic Christian community.

A Proposal: “Radical Pacifist Anabaptist” Theology

Contemporary Anabaptist theology should read Anabaptist history (16th century and the years since) similarly to how we read the Bible. We today 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 use a reading strategy that privileges 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.

Reading the Bible and the Anabaptist stories in the light of Jesus’ life and teaching underscores that both stories at their cores integrate belief and practice. The stuff of biblical theology and the stuff of Anabaptist theology are made up primarily of real life, concrete moral practices, the effort to live faithfully. This kind of theology does not place abstract doctrines or what other theologians have said about theology at the center – either in theory or in practice.

The 16th-century Anabaptists wrote little formal theology. Most early leaders had little formal education and the few more highly educated ones ended up dying early (e.g., the one leader with a doctorate in theology, Balthasar Hubmaier, was executed by the Viennese government in 1528, three years after the movement began). Few of their spiritual descendants have written formal theology either; until recently this relative silence has led to debates about how much we should assume they share with the mainstream of orthodox Christian theology.

Do their mostly positive allusions to commonly-held Christian doctrines (trinitarianism, creedal formulations, et al) imply that they are best seen as theologically orthodox Christians who added on some distinctive ethical practices such as pacifism? Or does their basic lack of interest in formal dogmatic theology imply an alternative orientation to Christian faith that privileges right practice over right belief in way that actually, if spelled out, would lead to an entirely different type of theology, root and branch?

I lean towards the latter inclination in relation to Anabaptist theology. I believe that theology done after the Anabaptists (meaning, following their path even while going beyond what they directly said) should be a distinctive kind of theology. Anabaptists have resisted the systematizing and formalizing of theology into doctrinal formulations and insider language games. Their approach to faith has been more concrete and practical.

If we in North American Anabaptist communities are in a new era, where the times require more self-consciousnessly articulating our theological convictions (since we may no longer so easily depend upon family and cultural ties to sustain our tradition), 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 that, e.g., 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.

To be clear on this point we could call ours “radical pacifist Anabaptist theology.” Since such a term, in my mind, would actually be redundant, I will not seriously propose to use it. But in saying that “Anabaptist theology” should be seen as, by definition, meaning “radically pacifist Anabaptist theology” I am asserting that the core of “Anabaptist theology” is pacifism.

Theology drawing on the Anabaptist stream of Christianity sees the root or foundational theological conviction being Jesus’ love command. Hence, it is “radical pacifist theology,” “radical” in that sense that at its root pacifism affirms love as the core truth. By “pacifist” I mean understanding the loving God and each human being as the core conviction that exceeds all others. For pacifism, no other value, truth, conviction, or commitment can be important enough to take priority over the love command – that is, no value is worth committing violence for.

It is important for Anabaptists today to emphasize (in a way not clearly seen in our tradition until quite recently) that 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” as presented by Jesus includes direct involvement in resisting evil (nonviolently), in seeking to bring healing to the world’s brokenness through fostering genuine social justice.

Reading the Anabaptist convictions that matter most as “radical pacifist convictions” captures the authentic core of tradition as read through the lens of Jesus’ message. This is not to say that Anabaptists have always embodied this message so much as to say that insofar as they have done so, at that point what matters most about the tradition is at the forefront.

For “Radical pacifist Anabaptist theology” (from now on, just “Anabaptist theology”), the stuff of theology is the message of love, its embodiment in actual life, its need in our broken world, and theological reflection in light of this message, embodiment, and need. The 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.

Practice-Oriented Theology

Contemporary Anabaptist theology may thus be conceptualized as directly connected to social life and concrete ethics. It seeks to follow the biblical mode of focusing on people’s actual lives and applying theological convictions directly to practices that sustain a people’s faithfulness to their 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 in life, directly in service of the love command.

This practice-oriented theology sees its central concern as theological reflection on the stuff of actual life. It may be contrasted with other types of theology that focus their reflection more overtly on doctrines and creeds, past and current theological formulations, and insider rituals as the stuff of theology. This more doctrine- and ritual-oriented theology primarily refers to theology, its own internal set of concerns.

Contemporary Anabaptist theology as practice-oriented theology will tend to be theological reflection that directly applies the biblical story to life in the world such as the problems of violence and poverty, the quest for meaning in a consumerist society that dominates the world economically and militarily, and the future of life in face of environmental degradation. This focus contrasts with theological reflection that focuses first of all on theological formulations in various forms and only turns to life in the world as a second level concern.

Anabaptist theology will see the life and teaching of Jesus as the most fundamental contribution the Bible makes to present-day theology. Rather than focusing energy on the formulation of doctrines of scripture’s authority, it will focus on drawing on the story of Jesus for interpretive clues for engaging with the crucial issues of present-day life.

These are some of the questions contemporary Anabaptist theology might engage:

•Why does so much theology support violence? Why are American Christians more likely to support capital punishment and the War in Iraq 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 American society?

•How does Christian theology respond to its rival, the “faith” of capitalism that currently is transforming our world into a “planet of slums”?

•What are the religious beliefs that underwrite the commodification and accompanying destructive exploitation of our natural environment?

•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 “sins” are given in the Bible?

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 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.

•How do we understand the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit? Do we think in terms 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 theology by noting a randomly chosen (June 14, 2005) issue of The Christian Century that devoted its cover article to various contemporary views of the doctrine of justification by faith. The article examines recent writing on this doctrine, focusing on how theological ideas about justification are being debated. As it turns out, the article concludes with some sharp questions of these writers and their neglect of the social-ethical relevance of justification. Nonetheless, except for these questions at the end, the article focused on an internal doctrinal theme as an example worth extensive discussion illustrating what is currently seen as important in ecumenical theology.

Another example of the concerns of mainstream theology, concerns tending to be theological ideas more than actual life, may be seen with the table of contents from the most recent issue available to me (April 2005) of Modern Theology, probably the pre-eminent English-language journal devoted to academic theology. These are some of the 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.”

My point with these contrasting tendencies is not to critique more doctrinally-oriented theology but simply to suggest that Anabaptist theology is something very different.

Whither Contemporary Anabaptist Theology?

With this contrast between “externally- oriented” and “internally- oriented” theologies in mind, along with my assertion that contemporary Anabaptist theology should tend toward the former, I want to return to A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology. I do believe Tom Finger has made a major contribution to the task of Anabaptist theology today. Yet I remain convinced contemporary Anabaptist theology is better pursued somewhat differently.

One question is whether in trying to mediate between Anabaptist and mainstream theologies, Finger tilts too far in the direction of the latter style of theology. Two others who have also produced major theological works that could be seen as “contemporary Anabaptist theologies” (though neither uses that term for their work), James Reimer and James McClendon, reflect similar tendencies.

Reimer’s massive collection of theological essays, Mennonites and Classical Theology, has the sub-title, “Dogmatic Foundations for Theological Ethics.” In the introduction, Reimer explains that though often criticized for focusing too much on “dogmatics,” he does indeed take ethics (which he defines as “the principles guiding human behavior”) seriously. But he is convinced that “ethics, particularly Christian ethics (including the Mennonite concern for peace, justice, and nonviolent love) needs a ground outside itself” – what he calls a “foundation.”

Consequently, “there are few essays in this volume which deal specifically with ethical topics.” 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 – and, for that matter, in understanding “ethics” primarily as “principles” rather than concrete, embodied practices – Reimer situates himself much closer to the doctrinally-oriented than to practice-oriented theology. So, I would not see his approach, profound as it may be, as a model for a contemporary Anabaptist theology.

McClendon completed his three volume systematic theology in 2000. 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, he became, “though I still have no love for the term itself – an ‘Anabaptist’ Baptist.” 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 “witness.”

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, 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.”

Admirable as McClendon’s strategy was – and profound as his influence on “standard-account theology” may be – what he produced may be better seen more as a doctrinally-oriented theology seeking to break free form and transform the problems of theology in that mode more than as actual practice-oriented (or Anabaptist) theology. And, hence, McClendon’s systematics also may not be the best model for contemporary Anabaptist theology.

Finger follows a similar strategy – working within the mode of doctrinally-oriented theology but with the intent of moving it more toward practice-oriented theology, bringing core Anabaptist convictions (e.g., 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.” Like with McClendon, I perceive that Finger also would hope to persuade the “standard account people” to regard Anabaptist convictions more positively.

However, is theology done in the doctrinally-oriented mode, even with overt delineation of Anabaptist convictions, the best approach for contemporary Anabaptists? This mode may relativize these convictions so much that what we end up with is not “radically pacifist” enough.

The construction of contemporary Anabaptist theology remains an always-open task. The ideal I am pointing 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. It such an articulation is possible, it must retain at its core a privileging of the biblical story understood as centered in Jesus’ life and teaching over later creedal formulations and internally-oriented rituals. That is, an Anabaptist systematic theology must remain “radical pacifist” theology.

In the past half-century’s emergent theological scholarship among Anabaptists, two giants have at least somewhat approached my ideal – John Howard Yoder and Gordon Kaufman. Yoder’s classic text, The Politics of Jesus, provides a blueprint for an appropriation of the biblical story for present-day social ethics. Yoder, however, engaged present social issues only indirectly and he as a rule self-consciously avoided systematic theology.

Kaufman, on the other hand, has fruitfully engaged current social issues in light of his pacifist theology and has written a wide-ranging, if unconventional, systematic theology. Kaufman, however, has not directly engaged the biblical story – though his chapters on Jesus in In Face of Mystery, make it clear how much his theology is shaped by the Jesus story and indicates that calling Kaufman’s theology “Anabaptist” is not as far-fetched as some may think.

J. Denny Weaver, like Yoder, draws directly and effectively on the Jesus story in addressing contemporary theological issues – see especially his construction of an overtly pacifist atonement theology in The Nonviolent Atonement. Weaver has worked a bit more overtly than Yoder at theological method, making the case for understanding Anabaptist theology as radically pacifist and hence clearly distinct from non-pacifist theology at its very core. Also like Yoder, Weaver addresses contemporary social issues only in passing and has not sought to construct a systematic theology.

C. Norman Kraus’s God Our Savior: Theology in a Christological Mode, is a one-volume systematic theology that most helpfully seeks to orient all theology in terms of a discipleship-oriented Christology. Kraus does not engage contemporary social issues, though, so the ethical ramifications of his theology remain largely undeveloped.

As we enter the 21st-century, the task for contemporary Anabaptist theology, in my view, may be seen as working to bring together the emphases of Yoder, Kaufman, Weaver, and Kraus – a biblically-based, socially-engaged effort to orient all theology around the message of Jesus and to provide clarity and resources for fruitful living in our Anabaptist communities and beyond.


Self-consciousness about our theological convictions is more important for Anabaptist Christians in North America than ever before. Tom Finger deserves our gratitude for his valuable contribution to our common task of thinking carefully about and articulating those convictions.

I am proposing, though, that if we understand embodying and applying Jesus’ love command (what I call “pacifism”) as our core Anabaptist conviction, then Anabaptist theology should self-consciously focus on practical social ethics as an intrinsic part of all our theologizing rather than seeing it as a second-level concern after working on “pure theology.” That is, our theology from the start and throughout should be practice-oriented more than doctrinally-oriented. As I read Finger’s work, he remains too committed to engagement with the doctrinally-oriented approach to be our best model for contemporary Anabaptist theology.

Pacifist theology, which by definition is concerned at its core with the embodiment of Jesus’ love command, will always be practice-oriented. Since Anabaptist theology understands itself as, above all else, based on the message of Jesus, it should always be pacifist theology. Such a theology will find itself at odds with non-pacifist theology in relation to its articulation of the core convictions of Christian faith.

Rather than trying to fit within the Western (non-pacifist!) theological tradition, accepting this tradition’s basic theological articulations but adding on an ethical, even nonviolent, component, contemporary Anabaptist theology has the calling to rethink theology root and branch in light of its most fundamental conviction – that no other value or commitment takes precedent over the love command.


Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

See Finger’s earlier book, Self. Earth, and Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997).

Finger, Contemporary, 57.

I mean here to echo Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder’s sentiment at the beginning of his book, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983): “The vision of discipleship projected in this collection is founded in Scripture and catholic tradition, and is pertinent today as a call for all Christian believers” (8).

I have been influence by J. Denny Weaver’s work on this point. See especially Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000). See also Weaver’s critique of Finger’s book: J. Denny Weaver, “Parsing Anabaptist Theology: A Review Essay of Thomas N. Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” Direction Journal 34.2 (Fall 2005), 241-263.

See the Conrad Grebel Review symposium, “Is God Nonviolent?” 21.1 (Winter 2003).

For a description of “restorative justice” see Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses third edition (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2004) and Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rrapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001). For a portrayal of Jesus’ vision being one of active nonviolence, see John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) and Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). See also Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994) for an account in the evolution of Mennonite understandings of their peace position.

For reflection on these issues, see Ted Grimsrud and Howard Zehr, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 35.3-4 (2002), 253-279, and Ted Grimsrud, “Violence as a ‘Theological’ Problem,” Justice Reflections Issue #10 (December 2005).

See David Loy, “The Religion of the Market,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65.2 (Summer 1997), 275-290 and Harvey Cox, “The Market as God,” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1999), 18-23.

See Mike Davis, “Planet of Slums,” New Left Review #26 (March/April 2004), 5-34.

Roger E. Olson, The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Louisville: Westminster JohnKnox Press, 2004), 291-315.

My concerns are paralleled by these comments from John Driver: “Members of radical faith movements frequently direct their lives according to the authority of scripture. They often attempt to translate scripture into living experience. Historically, that has contrasted with the established church’s dependence on right doctrine, as defined in ecumenical councils, and on the church’s institutional tradition, embodied in its clerical leadership and ecclesiastical polity. Clearly there exist notably different understandings of what constitutes a history of the Christian church. The history of established Christianity is traditionally told through church doctrines and institutions, with a focus on the influence of clerical leaders. Considerable attention is also given to the on-going development of doctrine and tradition. Radical movements tend to focus on the salvation story as told in the Old Testament and New Testament. The biblical history is central to the history told by radical movements because that story underpins their own life and mission. Radical movements generally bear a closer resemblance to the Messianic restoration movements of biblical history than do their established church counterparts.” Radical Faith: An Alternative History of the Christian Church (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1999), 328.

Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2001.

Reimer, Mennonites, 15.

Reimer, Mennonites, 16.

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.

McClendon, “Radical Road,” 22.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

4 thoughts on “(2) Whither 21st Century Anabaptist Theology?

  1. Pingback: Is Karl Barth Good for Mennonites?—part one « Thinking Pacifism

  2. Albert Steiner

    I am glad to see this thought about how we experience and understand God in the 21’st century. I am moved by your writting about Jesus and his central importance for us today.
    I realize I am not an expert on Theology and Eclesiology, but I wonder where the work of Jesus Spirit is being included? I read most of the New Testament is about the work of Jesus Spirit in His body at various places. I read that we should pray to be able to live in peace and survive the conflict with the Kingdom of earthly power, but I don’t read about converting this Kingdom of Ceasar.
    Instead, lots of space was spent on how this body of Jesus can live together. In the letter to the Galatians, the argument about right practice, was how did they receive the Spirit of Christ. I also read about the need to reject teachers and teaching that reject the fact that God came as a human mortal with flesh and bone, allowed himself to be killed, and was raised again. We read that what we do in our body, our ethics are critical.
    Doesn’t a theology for us need to spend a lot of time on what Christ’s Spirit is doing in his body now? It isn’t a question of what the Spirit is doing to individuals, but how the Spirit is using individuals to help build the body of Christ. That somehow the saving work of Jesus is continued in the body of Jesus, all those little communities called together by Jesus Spirit, to live redemption.
    This is why I find the emphasis of new groups searching intensely into what it means to live together as Christs body. Usually these bodies are very concerned about the poor, peace and justice, an alternative to the Kingdom of wealth, greed, lust and selfish power.

  3. Richard Worden Wilson

    It always seems odd to me that the earliest Anabaptist theological example, at least from the Swiss arena, placed more emphasis on devotion to the whole teaching of the New Testament, the teaching of the apostles, on the gospel as a whole along with its various practical message, rather than on pacifism _per se_. It appears there is a rather prominent tendency in contemporary Mennonite and Brethren theological thinking to make theology be about Jesus’ message of non-violence rather than his teaching as a whole. That teaching surely incorporates a concern for peace with God as well as peace among men, but the spiritual side becomes secondary or tangential if not mostly irrelevant. For many Mennonites the practical teaching of love and non-violence has become the center of their theology replacing Jesus himself–relationships among people have become more important than relationships with God. The gospel of pacifism is replacing the gospel about Jesus, which is in my estimation a different kind of systematization of Christian theology, yet still a kind of Systematic theology.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s