For a few issues, I have changed my mind quite rapidly. For example, when I entered college, I believed in six-day creationism and that the Genesis accounts of creation were scientific statements. I abandoned those views in just a few days, after hearing a class lecture by Norman Kraus on the historical development of evolution and after conversations with two seminary students who lived in my dorm and who showed me that reading Genesis 1 and 2 as theological writings rather than problematic scientific statements actually made the Bible more meaningful.
However, apart from such transformations, which came in my college years and belong to the early stages of my development of an adult Christian faith, my changes of mind have primarily been gradual and evolutionary. It might be identified most accurately as growth and development that came as the result of seeking answers to questions encountered in new contexts. The end result is that after some thirty years as a college professor I view the world theologically much differently than at the beginning of my career. Although each step along this path was in continuity with the previous one, a significant distance separates my current location from that first step. Using a different analogy, linking the beginning and the end sometimes seems like claiming to own George Washington’s axe except that it has had three new handles and two new heads.
I mark the begining of my career as a theologian with a specific question that I asked at the beginning of my first semester of teaching, the year I spent at Goshen College as a sabbatical replacement. My graduate study had been in church history with a focus on sixteenth-century Reformation. I considered myself a church historian. One of the courses I was asked to teach was
Christian Faith, a basic introduction to concepts like Christology and Trinity and atonement for college students. I had had no graduate school courses in this type of theology, and my only formal preparation applicable to the assignment was John Howard Yoder’s
Preface to Theology, which I had taken a number of years earlier at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Quite frankly, I felt unprepared, and I did not want to teach the course. I struggled greatly that first semester, and I still routinely apologize for my performance when I run into a student from that course.
However, although I was a reluctant professor in
Christian Faith, I did have a question. As I was trying to figure out what I might say in the course, I asked my colleagues,
Is there a unique Mennonite way to talk about theological issues such as Christology or Trinity or atonement? To my surprise, there was no clear answer forthcoming. But the question stayed with me. I thought about it through that difficult first semester, and the next semester, and then as I continued to teach the equivalent course in following years at Bluffton University. In a sense all my theologizing since then has been an effort to answer that question; and that course, which I have now taught in some form forty-five times, has become the heart of my teaching. To summarize how my mind has changed in a sentence: since that first course, I have been learning how Mennonites should think about theology. But one of my subsequent learnings, which I will explain presently, is that I needed to change the question I was asking.
From the perspective of thirty years I have come to see my theological learning in two parallel and interrelated trajectories. One trajectory dealt with the content of a theology for Mennonites as a peace church. The other dealt with methodology and with the nature of theology itself. The first trajectory was evident in my question with that first course. I became aware of the second trajectory relatively late in my career. The following elucidation of these learnings is schematic rather than chronological. What is presented here as orderly thought actually developed by fits and starts and lapses and re-learnings over an extended period of time.
My question about a Mennonite way to think about theology was the beginning form of the trajectory that dealt with the content of Mennonite theology. I considered several ways to answer the question. Did Mennonites talk about issues that others did notsuch as community or adult baptism or nonviolencewhich would mean that Mennonites simply had a longer list of important doctrines than other theological traditions? And if Mennonites simply had a longer list, which was more importantthe list of items that Mennonites shared with others or the list of beliefs unique to Mennonites? Were the items unique to Mennonites equal in importance or secondary to the items shared with other traditions? Or did Mennonites start at a different pointperhaps the nature of the church or discipleshipthan other traditions? For atonement, I did eventually conclude that some doctrines are wrong for the peace church and should be abandoned, and I constructed what I consider to be a better answer as a replacement. However, rather early I also came to the conclusion that the answer was not located in one particular issue or doctrine, nor was it a matter of getting the right list or combination of doctrines. This insight leads to the second trajectory.
Through a number of trial-and-error steps I came to see that it is primarily a methodological question that should identify theology for Mennonites as a peace church. I came to understand that a theology for Mennonites was not about which doctrines to include. In fact, a theology for Mennonites should include, or at least potentially be able to discuss, any and all doctrines that any other theology discussed. Thus it is not a matter of what to include in the outline. It is rather a matter of how to talk about those issues that every theology includes in the outline. It is a matter of how to talk about whatever is on the outline, particularly the classic doctrines of Christology, Trinity, and atonement.
Important assists in these learnings came from Gustav Aulén’s Christus Victor, lectures on Revelation by Willard Swartley at Bluffton University, Vernard Eller’s Revelation: the Most Revealing Book of the Bible, Millard Lind’s Yahweh is a Warrior, Norman Kraus’s Jesus Christ Our Lord, John Howard Yoder’s Priestly Kingdom, James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed, Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn’s edited book, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, Delores Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness, Walter Wink’s Powers trilogy, and more that I could name. Above all, however, it was John Howard Yoder’s Preface to Theology that shaped my theological awareness and set the frame of reference within which I would absorb insights from these other writers. I used Yoder’s Preface to prepare some lectures for my course
The Christian Faith. Although I had heard Yoder’s lectures during a seminary class, their formative impact on my thinking came from using the written version of the lectures that was available at the time from the book store at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.1
The relativizing of the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulas in Yoder’s Preface was thus part of my earliest theological formulation.2 As I thought about the christological and trinitarian questions with the help of these lectures, it became clear to me that the answer to my earlier query about a Mennonite way to do theology was not located in one particular doctrine nor in a list of additions to some standard orthodoxy. Rather a theology for Mennonites as a peace church is a matter of how to think about all the issues that any Christian tradition can envision. With the assistance of other Yoder writings, I came to understand that all theology begins with the story of Jesus and all theology is to some extent an extension of or the development of the meaning of that story for new contexts or in answer to new questions.3 Thus I saw that there was a
Mennonite way to talk about Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology. It was to talk about the relationship of Jesus to God and of Jesus to humankind from a perspective that made visible Jesus’ rejection of violence. This approach produced a result that contrasted with the standard Nicene and Chalcedonian formulas, which did not make visible that rejection of the sword. That separation of ethics from these formulas consequently enabled later Christians to lead armies and own slaves while simultaneously confessing Christ via these formulas.4
Stated differently, the understanding that all Christian theology begins with the story of Jesus reveals the particularity of Nicea and Chalcedon. These formulas, while providing a correct answer to a specific question posed by the New Testament writers, do so in terms of a particular social context and historical location. Yoder’s exposure of their particularity thus opens the door to developing other correct answers to the question posed by the New Testament writers but without passing through the juncture of these fourth- and fifth-century, supposedly standard formulas.
Developing these other answers is not a call to abandon totally or to ignore the presumed standard formulas. Neither is it a claim that one can start over without reference to any prior discussions throughout the history of doctrine. The presumed standard formulas obviously are part of the historical record, and they remain part of the conversation. Recognizing their particularity, however, also makes clear the problems of identifying one particular historical answer as the authoritative answer that must be used by all people in all times and places now and into the foreseeable future.
At this point, the two trajectories of theological content and theological methodology have merged. What emerges is that a peace church perspective, a theological perspective shaped by the nonviolence of Jesus, is a particular understanding and a particular perspective from which to consider any theological question. Of course, just like Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology, this nonviolent perspective is a theological perspective, whose roots can be located in a particular social context and historical location. However, recognizing the particularity of each theological tradition changes significantly the nature of the conversation between theologies and between theological traditions. It is no longer the case that the standard theology, which is represented by Nicea and Chalcedon, is given automatic and unquestioned authority with other formulations presumed deficient or deviant. It is rather that each particular theology has an obligation to justify itself with reference to the narrative of Jesus, and with respect to that narrative some formulas can be judged closer to the truth than others. Pointing to the particularity of the standard formulas can then also create tension since this argument challenges the very basis by which the presumed standard formulas are granted that status.
The fact that all theology begins with the narrative of Jesus brought a marked revision to my question of whether there was a unique Mennonite way to do theology. I came to understand that theology should indeed reflect the rejection of violence that is intrinsic to the story of Jesus. But I also came to understand that Jesus, and Jesus’ rejection of the sword, were not the sole property of Mennonites. Thus theology that reflected the Anabaptist, Mennonite peace tradition should be written in ways that were accessible to all Christians. I have learned to say that I am writing Christian theology that makes visible Jesus’ rejection of the sword rather than writing theology for Mennonites. Of course when I say that, I trust that my Mennonite brothers and sisters will recognize my effort as done for the peace church.
I began my professional career as a church historian and as a scholar of sixteenth-century Anabaptism. My first few published articles dealt with sixteenth-century Anabaptist topics, as did my first book Becoming Anabaptist.5 As I followed my nose into other theological interests it seemed that I was leaving Anabaptism behind. I worked extensively in nineteenth-century Amish and Mennonite theology, and pursued a major project to develop a nonviolent approach to the doctrine of atonement. Alongside these projects, Gerald and Susan Biesecker-Mast drew me into discussions of what is called variously postmodernity or the crisis in modernity.6 Through these varied discussions I developed a deeper and stronger sense that every belief or doctrine or statement of belief has a history behind it. This in turn brought me to relearn the importance of Anabaptist history for Mennonites and for the modern peace church. Anabaptists posed a new ecclesiology based on discipleship and separated from the ecclesiology of Christendom. This separation is a stance of engagement from a posture that makes visible the church as a witness to the reign of God as well as the rebellion of the world against God. This ecclesiological stance also opens the door to new theological directions that make more visible discipleship to Jesus and Jesus’ rejection of violence than did the received, supposed standard theology of Christendom. It was thus a natural progression in my work to move from developing a nonviolent atonement theology to return to the work at the beginning of my career and to work again on the history of Anabaptism, which produced a revised version of Becoming Anabaptist for publication in the fall of 2005.
A concluding point, which represents the significance of my learning, is that I have come to appreciate the great importance of theology. Every person is committed to something, or lives out of a number of commitments. To be Christian is to have Jesus Christ as the primary element of our commitment; Jesus Christ is the commitment that preceeds all others and that shapes or guides all others. The way one livescall it ethicsis a lived version of those commitments. For Christians, life should be shaped by the story of Jesus Christ. Theology is the words and the images that we use to express and explain our commitments. The heart of Christian theology thus concerns Jesus Christ. Of course, ethics and theology should match. The problem with the presumed standard theology of Christendom is that it has separated theology from ethics. In Politics of Jesus, for example, John Howard Yoder stated that one way that Jesus is rendered irrelevant for ethics is the dogmatic reason.
Jesus came, after all, to give his life for the sins of humankind. The work of atonement or the gift of justification, whereby God enables sinners to be restored to his fellowship, is a forensic act, a gracious gift. For Roman Catholics this act of justification may be found to be in correlation with the sacraments, and for Protestants with one’s self-understanding, in response to the proclaimed Word; but never should it be correlated with ethics.7
What I have been learning to do since that first class in Christian Faith, now thirty-one years ago, is to articulate a theology for the peace church that makes visible Jesus’ rejection of the sword as a parallel to a discipleship of nonviolence based on the narrative of Jesus. Without such a theology I fear for the future of Mennonites as a peace church. After all, if the theology of Christendom were the intrinsically necessary foundation for the peace church, the majority of Christians and the majority of churches of Christendom would already be practicing nonviolence.