“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2019

I have a good friend who is, shall I say, a little more conservative theologically than I am. We have some great conversations. Recently, he brought up the possibility of the two of us having a public conversation on the current state of Anabaptist theology. As we are both Americans, we recognize that we would be talking about Anabaptist theology in our context, acknowledging that there are many Anabaptist-oriented communities around the world with their own takes on Anabaptist theology.

My initial response was somewhat negative. Not that I would not enjoy having a friendly public “disputation” with my colleague, but I haven’t been thinking much about “Anabaptist theology” in any direct way for some time. However, after our talk I kept considering his suggestion. I doubt that we will have a public conversation (though it’s possible), but I have started thinking about Anabaptist theology again.

I realized that I am still interested in thinking about Anabaptism, though I look at it now from a bit of a different angle from when I wrote a book called Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury back in 2007. To frame it, as I do in the title of this blog post, as a question“Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)?is to be intentionally provocative and a little facetious. However, carefully stated this is a genuine question for me.

So, I want to do a little thought experiment here, not make a profound pronouncement. Let’s reflect on hermeneutics—comparing an “Anabaptist” way of interpreting things, especially the Bible, with a “Christian” way and with a “Mennonite” way. When I pose them as alternatives (which they are not, literally, of course), I am asking about a basic way of interpretation that can be seen to contrast with other ways. What are the basic biases we wantto be a part of how we interpret?

Why “Not Christian”?

Before I explain what “Anabaptist” means in this conversation, I will say a little about why I would say “not Christian” and “not Mennonite.” By “Christian” here (noting that in trying to be a bit provocative I will make some big generalizations) I have in mind the mainstream Christian theological tradition dating back to the fourth century. This is the tradition that I would call “doctrine-oriented” (see my essay, “Practice-oriented vs. doctrine-oriented theology: An Anabaptist proposal”) in the sense that it places creeds, confessions, and formal doctrines at the heart of its construal of Christian faith.

One of the major realities in the Christian tradition since the embrace of Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4thcentury has been its tendency to accept its role as a supporter of empire and the nation-state. One of the main reasons Christianity could be so cozy with state power has been its doctrinalization of the biblical message. When what matters most is belief in certain doctrines and belief in an autonomous God who transcends and exists outside of time and space, it becomes very easy for the religion to have little or nothing to say that challenges the social and political status quo. We need only note the long history of Christianity’s support for war to illustrate this point. Over and over again, movements that have challenged injustices such as slavery, patriarchy, poverty, and heterosexism have found their strongest opponents to be the forces of organized Christianity.

On the other hand, it is, of course, possible to advocate for, say, pacifism or economic justice based on Christian theology. It is even possible, as I long have done, to argue that such advocacy is based on the best readings of the Bible and find support in the theological tradition. However, I can no longer avoid the conclusion that if we define “Christianity” in terms of what the large majority of Christians have been taught and tend to believe, we cannot avoid the conclusion that Christianity’s place in the world has been and continues to be one of support for injustice and the status quo of the Domination System (in the sense articulated by Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers). So, that is why I would say “not Christian” in my theological self-identification and in my understanding the meaning of “Anabaptism.”

Why “Not Mennonite”?

“Mennonite” is a different kind of referent than “Christian” in many ways. Mennonites would certainly see themselves as a subset to Christian, as in “Mennonite Christian.” For the sake of my point, though, they both provide distinctive, and somewhat competing, hermeneutical approaches. I defined “Christian” above in terms of its mainstream expression, inclusive of Catholics, most Protestants, and—to some degree—most Orthodox. That definition does allow for some non-mainstream Christians being partially distinct from the general definition. This would include Mennonites, as I define the term.

The distinctiveness of the Mennonite hermeneutic, I would provisionally suggest, has most of all to do with the Mennonite sense of identity. Mennonites would, I perceive, place creeds and doctrines less in the center and have as their central interpretive directive (at least implicitly if not explicitly) what we could call the sense of being part of the Mennonite community or tribe. I’ll use a story a friend of mine told many years ago to illustrate. His family would regularly go camping. As they set up camp, they would become acquainted with their fellow campers, generally people they didn’t know. When the others were not Mennonites, my friends’ parents would remain aloof, making few overtures for further connection. But when the neighboring campers were Mennonites, the aloofness would leave and the families would join together in friendly conversation.

The dynamics of this tribalism shape how Mennonites view the world and how they interpret and apply the Bible. As descendants of the original 16thcentury Anabaptists, Mennonites do articulate a theology of resistance to domination in many ways. However, over the years Mennonites have tended more to focus on their own communities and to find ways to live as “the quiet in the land” in relation to their wider societies. Their inward focus has also made it difficult for outsiders to join with their communities. In times of stress, down to the present, even the more progressive and open-seeming communities have often eventually made newcomers feel unwelcome.

So, in affirming a theological approach that is “Anabaptist” and “not Mennonite,” I am suggesting that this tribalism has served as the dominant element of Mennonites’ on the ground theology in a way that has actually distinguished them quite markedly from the original Anabaptist approach. Because there is a connection that we could call “genetic” between 16thcentury Anabaptism and present-day Mennonitism, we need to keep the Mennonite approach in mind as we think of what “Anabaptist” means. However, I think the differences are more important than the similarities. We certainly cannot simply equate the Mennonite approach to theology with the Anabaptist approach. I believe that as a denominational approach to faith with its own strong limitations, the “Mennonite” expression has limited value as a resource for facing the world we live in and are evolving toward, with its profound uncertainties and dangers.

The Anabaptists of history, their rediscovery and abandonment

Until the mid-20thcentury, the 16thcentury radicals known as Anabaptists who broke with the Protestant Reformation and suffered death-dealing persecution from both Catholics and Protestants in Western and Central Europe were little remembered or appreciated. I think it is important to note that the small groups that descended from those radicals—Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites—did not use the term “Anabaptist” of themselves until quite recently. The term was generally a negative term used by their ecclesiological enemies (note the pejorative use of Anabaptist in Lutheran and Reformed confessions of the 16thand 17thcenturies—confessions authoritatively cited down to the present).

However, owing in large part to a widely circulated 1943 essay by Mennonite leader Harold Bender, “The Anabaptist Vision,” the term came to signify something positive. Bender, though, was pretty specific in who he had in mind as authentic Anabaptists—those directly linked with the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 and who made its core tenets (such as separation from the world and nonresistance) normative. He left out those who did not fit with his criteria of authenticity (which, some have noted, seemed mostly to have been his criteria for what should be normative Mennonitism in the 20thcentury).

The role of Bender’s essay, and the thinkers and institutions shaped by it in the decades that followed, was to make of Anabaptism a construct of ideals about Christian faith. The fact that no groups in the centuries following the Reformation ever explicitly named themselves “Anabaptist” should help us recognize that this term has always only been about a perspective on faith, not an organization or institution. I think Bender’s big mistake was to push too hard at trying to create a normative “Anabaptist vision” that actually was an attempt to create a normative “Mennonite vision.” His work had a lot of influence, but inevitably also led to a backlash.

Three “secular” (i.e., non-Mennonite) academic historians joined together to write an epoch shifting essay, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis” (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1975) that challenged Bender’s reading of Anabaptist origins and suggested that the movement emerged from several quite separate sources—with the implication that one could not accurately think of one definitive “Anabaptist Vision” in the way Bender did. They did not face (as they expected they would) strong rebuttals from Mennonite scholars but instead were soon joined by most of the Mennonite scholars of the 16thcentury. In a short period of time, the study of the 16thcentury Anabaptists among Mennonites became a matter more of seeking to describe history accurately and less a matter of trying to find normative guidance in the tradition for present-day Mennonites. Inevitably, interest in the 16thcentury among Mennonites dropped precipitously and before long there were virtually no professors in Mennonite colleges and seminaries whose main training was in 16thcentury studies.

What remains?

I am uncertain what the term “Anabaptist “ means any more. However, I’m a person who affiliated with Mennonites as a young adult about 40 years ago due in large part to my initial enthusiasm about what I knew about the “Anabaptist Vision.” I read the collection of essays, The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (a festschrift that honored Harold Bender published in 1957), a couple of years before joining a Mennonite congregation in 1982. So I am reluctant simply to let the notion of Anabaptist faith go—this is true partly due to the problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” orientations I mentioned above.

At the same time, I have become a bit disillusioned with the Mennonite expression of Christianity. Thus, I am reluctant simply to equate “Anabaptism” with “Mennonitism”—or even to see Mennonites having the privileged role of defining what “Anabaptism” might mean. In a sense, I suspect we need an understanding of an Anabaptist style of interpreting things that is, to some degree at least, untethered from Mennonite institutions and traditions.

I do think the polygenesis approach has been disastrous—maybe mostly for simply handing over to the “secular” historians the sense that the 16thcentury manifestation of radical faith is not particularly relevant for how people of faith might want to live today. When the agenda of those studying the 16thcentury was how to gain resources that might bolster and even guide radical faith today, some creative interpretations arose that inspired many to act in transformative ways in the present. When the agenda became simply describing what was back then, interest in the radicals quickly waned—and an important guiding resource was lost.

I have published a few pieces where I have tried to think about the on-going relevance of Anabaptism (two scholarly articles [“Anabaptist Faith and American Democracy” (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 2004) and “Anabaptism for the 21stCentury” (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 2006)] and a collection of essays [Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the 21stCentury (Wipf and Stock, 2007)]). In part two of this current piece, I will offer a few thoughts about Anabaptism today that will summarize and update what I wrote back then.

Part Two

 

5 thoughts on ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part one]

  1. I found this very useful, Ted. Especially as I am making my way through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years” (2009), which I recommend highly though it has received much more important recommendations, such as the Cundill Prize in History. I find it a very engaging and detailed (1000 pages of text plus notes, etc.) history which includes aspects of and locations of Christianity I knew little or nothing about. He places church history within a wider social and political context which help explains how church developments I find unfortunate came about. Thus it provides some interesting checks on my automatic and often simplistic “Anabaptist” reflexes. As well as increasing my understanding of the tradition of some of my Roman Catholic friends, including a Trappist monk. While I’m in a recommending mode, I will add that for some of the same reasons (e.g., contextualizing church history) I really appreciated Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” (2007).

    1. Thanks, Phyllis. I am familiar with both the MacCulloch and Taylor books. I’ve not read either but both have long been on my to-read list, especially MacCulloch.

  2. Your analysis makes sense to me. While I have been a member of Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations and worked as a Mennonite minister, I have identified as an ecumenical Christian with strong Anabaptist leanings. As you note, Mennonites have strong familial or tribal identities which too often are stronger than the will to truly welcome outsiders. I have appreciated the nurturing aspects of community and the encouragement to follow Jesus in a way that can challenge destructive cultural norms. It is my experience that currently, many Mennonite and Church of the Brethren congregations aren’t much different from Mainline Protestants or Evangelicals but for their historic and familial ties to their denominational tradition. The trend among most Protestants is the same. In recent years we have been part of United Methodist and Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations where this has been true. If Anabaptism is relevant, maybe it is as it appears in various new forms among counter culture disciples. Maybe, as it was when I first encountered Anabaptist ideas in the early 1970’s in house church form as we experienced re-baptism and pondered how to live according gospel values. I don’t know really, but I’ll be interested to read more of your thoughts about this.

    By the way, what do you think of the AMBS name change to include “Anabaptist?” When Sara Wenger Shenk came to Salem Mennonite several years ago to introduce the idea of the change, I asked, “Anabaptist Mennonite” as opposed to the non-Anabaptist type? She didn’t respond.

    1. As always, I appreciate your thoughts, Gary—and note once again similarities in our respective “pilgrimages.”

      I do think that Anabaptist sensibilities continue arise among (mostly non-Mennonite) “counter culture disciples.” I think of the way some anarchists talk about “temporary autonomous zones” where something creative takes shape–but often only for a short time.

      I was not real pleased with the new title “Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.” I get that “Associated Mennonite…” was kind of clunky, but I think they should have bitten the bullet and been willing to spend the money and changes the signs and stationary and get rid of “AMBS” altogether. Or maybe show some humility and call it “A Mennonite Biblical Seminary.”

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