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

Ted Grimsrud—April 10, 2019

The purpose of this “thought experiment,” as I see it, is to reflect on how “Anabaptist” might work better than “Christian” or “Mennonite” as a descriptor of the radical faith that offers the best possibilities for responding creatively to the challenges of life in North America in the early 21st century. In Part One I described why I have problems with the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” ways of interpreting the Bible and our world and our faith. In what follows, I will describe more what I mean by “Anabaptist” as an alternative way of interpreting.

A way to think about Anabaptism

I believe that in approaching the topic of “Anabaptism” we should be straightforward about the kinds of questions we have in mind in approaching it as well as recognizing the need to be as accurate as possible in discussing the 16th century phenomena themselves. My questions have most of all to do with what resources might we find in the story of the original Anabaptists that might inform our lives today. I also wonder whether we might discern an Anabaptist approach to faith that could serve as a corrective to the interpretive angles we find in what I call the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” approaches.

A key theme for me in taking up this project of discernment is how these various angles relate to how we read the Bible. A central criterion for me is how helpful, accurate, and authentic the angles are to the message of the Bible. In fact, though the 16th century is of great interest in evaluating the Anabaptist take on faith, what matters even more is the first-century in that the truly normative “vision” that followers of Jesus should be concerned with is the one presented in the New Testament (and the Old Testament read in relation to the New). Is it possible that the Anabaptist angle gets us closer to Jesus’s take on things than the “Christian” and the “Mennonite” angles?

I have taken a cue from studies of Jesus for how I want to approach the Anabaptists—and seek for a sense of coherence among the diverse expressions of radical Christianity in the 16th century. It is common among historians of the Jesus movement to suggest that maybe the central question to ask for understanding what happened back then is this: Why was Jesus executed by the Romans? This is the version I ask of the Anabaptists: Why did they get into trouble? One thing that seems clear is that in their various iterations, just about all the Anabaptists got into trouble, and in their various locations they died by the thousands.

I suggest that we do find a sense of commonality when we ask this question. I think we may see four broad themes that were key reasons the large majority of them got into trouble—most of these themes are present in most of the Anabaptist communities, diverse as they might otherwise be. Continue reading ““Anabaptist” but not “Christian” (or “Mennonite”)? A Thought Experiment [Part two]”

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

The “essence” of Anabaptism

Ted Grimsrud—July 22, 2014

[On the evening of July 20, I spoke as part of a panel of four on theme of the meaning of Anabaptism, at Morning View Mennonite Church. I was assigned two general questions and given first five minutes and then ten minutes to speak. It was a great experience. It was challenging because it was a rural, quite conservative congregation (having split from Virginia Mennonite Conference because the conference was too “liberal” about the same time my congregation split from Virginia Conference because it was too “conservative”). I focused on finding common ground with other panelists—I was the only one who is now part of Mennonite Church USA. It’s a good exercise, I think, to reflect on our core identity.]

What are the core elements that define historic Anabaptism?

The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 1520s as part of the Protestant Reformation and, because of its radical call to return to the gospels, came to be known as the Radical Reformation. Anabaptists built on the work of mainline reformers such as Martin Luther who taught a direct appropriation of biblical teaching over church tradition. They took things a step further, though, and zeroed in on the message of Jesus. They affirmed following that message for all Christians—no matter what the cost. So, the core of the core in naming the essence of Anabaptism, I would say, is recovering Jesus’s way as the heart of Christian faith.

To say more than that gets complicated. There were many early expressions of the Anabaptist movement—some branched off the first group in Zurich, Switzerland. Some sprang up spontaneously—a revolution in the understanding of Christian faith was in the air. The Anabaptist movement was decentralized. When we talk about historic Anabaptism, we should acknowledge quite a bit of diversity. But I believe, in contrast to the recent generation of academic historians, that we may still affirm a sense of coherence in the movement—even if it didn’t take the form of a centralized organization or official creeds and dogmas.

Anabaptists believed Jesus to be more central than church tradition, the nation-state, institutional hierarchies, or top-down operated rituals. Because of this, Anabaptists got into trouble—to the point that thousands were killed for embodying their convictions. So I suggest if we want to flesh out our sense of the essence of Anabaptism in the 16th century—and of a usable Anabaptist vision—we should look at why all these diverse Anabaptists got into trouble (recognizing of course, that each group had its own distinctive way of embodying these core convictions). Continue reading “The “essence” of Anabaptism”

Anabaptist Evangelicalism?

Ted Grimsrud—July 8, 2012

What do you do if you are a young theologian or historian who is located in an evangelical tradition long removed from its Anabaptist heritage and you discover that heritage and find it attractive? If you are Jared Burkholder, a professor at Grace College, and David Cramer, doctoral student at Baylor University and former instructor at Bethel College (Indiana), you tap the shoulders of other like-minded young scholars and sympathetic senior scholars and produce a lively and thought-provoking collection of essays that, in sum, makes the case that evangelicals would benefit greatly from more appropriation of Anabaptist emphases—and that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism.

This is the book: Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds. The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

I am quite a bit more sympathetic with the first of these two cases (that evangelicals would benefit from more Anabaptism) than with the second (that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism). Without question, though, this is an excellent group of essays. Each one is readable and interesting.

What is “evangelicalism”?

The first section of the book, “Intersecting Stories: Historical Reflection on the Nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” draws on three of the senior scholars, including two Mennonites (Steve Nolt and John Roth) who warmly welcome the interest of evangelicals in Anabaptism and emphasize the compatibility between the two streams of Christianity. Roth, especially, seeks to counter the much more hostile response to evangelicalism characteristic from Anabaptist scholars in a much earlier collection (C. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism [Herald Press, 1979]) that is cited as the main previous book to take up these issues in depth.

The discussion by Nolt and Roth points to one of the most complicated issues that lurks throughout this book and, actually, in all such conversations. What precisely to we mean by “evangelicalism”? The editors state that they intentionally did not ask their writers to follow a given, stable definition but gave each the freedom to use the term as they saw fit. Continue reading “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?”

Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?

Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2012

I recently read a fascinating and well executed collection of essays, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, edited by Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Pickwick Publications, 2012). I interact more explicitly with the book in this review, but here I want to reflect a bit on some thoughts that reading it triggered for me.

One of the basic issues The Activist Impulse takes up is the relationship between “Anabaptism” and “evangelicalism”—especially how closely those in each movement should be linked. As many of the writers in the book acknowledge, each of these terms is difficult to define. Both refer to movements and mindsets, not to clearly delineated organizations.

What one means by “Anabaptism” is probably easier to settle on, at least in a general sense, than what one means by “evangelicalism.” Most of us would agree in linking the term with a particular (though surprisingly diverse and amorphous) movement that arose amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and ultimately found institutional shape in the Mennonite churches, their siblings (such as the Amish and Hutterites), and various cousins (especially the movement that evolved in diverse forms to produce the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren, and German Baptist Brethren).

However, since the term was rehabilitated following Harold Bender’s widely circulated and praised summary statement, “The Anabaptist Vision,” increasingly many non-Mennonites and Brethren have used the terms in a positive sense that speaks more to certain theological and ethical sensibilities—most notably pacifism, a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, simple living, and intentional community. Continue reading “Should Anabaptists be evangelicals?”