A common charge against Anabaptist communities is that they are legalistic and behavior-obsessed, rejecting faith as a gift and insisting on works righteousness. Ollenburger’s essay rightly challenges the perception that sixteenth-century Anabaptists were exclusively concerned with ethical living and helpfully acknowledges the role of doctrinal convictions in shaping Anabaptist faith and life. Yet, he ultimately brings the same charges against modern Mennonite writers such as Harold Bender and Gordon Kaufman that magisterial Protestants brought against the sixteenth-century Anabaptists: the privileging of works to the exclusion of faith and belief.
However, neither the Anabaptists nor Harold Bender were responsible for posing orthopraxy against orthodoxy. Rather, it was the credo of the magisterial Reformation—sola fide—that forced an unbiblical choice. The Anabaptists, when push came to shove, rejected
faith alone without rejecting faith. However, within the discursive world produced by the Reformation, the rejection of
faith alone was assumed to be a rejection of faith. That is why, for example, in the Formula of Concord, to which Ollenburger alludes, the Anabaptists are deemed to be in error because they claim
that our righteousness before God does not consist in the merit of Christ alone, but in our renewal.1 Of course, Anabaptists would typically reject this either/or proposition to begin with, as one writer did in the tract On the Satisfaction of Christ, where in opposition to both Lutherans and Catholics, the writer asserts that
when one speaks of justification through Christ, one must also speak of that faith, which cannot be without works of repentance, yea, not without love, which is an anointing.2
The choice of Anabaptists to insist that right faith is above all else discernable through right fruits continues, even in the contemporary world, to be misconstrued through the dominant doctrinal lenses crafted by the triumph of magisterial Protestantism, lenses that I fear Ollenburger seems not to have entirely discarded. Ollenburger, for example, accuses Harold Bender of diminishing the significance of grace and faith in The Anabaptist Vision. What Bender actually says in The Anabaptist Vision is that
the great word of the Anabaptists was not
faith as it was with the reformers, but
following (Nachfolge Christi) and that
the Anabaptists had faith indeed, but they used it to produce a life.3 Bender is clearly privileging following over faith in this text, but the only way that such a prioritization can be construed as a neglect of faith is from the perspective that equates faith with belief and then makes that equation the most exclusively important aspect of Christianity to begin with. Such a
faith-based perspective Bender rightly called perplexing to Anabaptists:
The Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity which made regeneration, holiness, and love primarily a matter of intellect, of doctrinal belief, or of subjective 4 That an increasing number of Mennonites—even scholars and theologians—find a claim like Bender’s problematic suggests the disturbing possibility that the Anabaptist
experience, rather than one of the transformation of life.
world view is being replaced among Mennonites by an evangelical or mainline Protestant world view—a view in which the question of
doctrinal belief has in fact surpassed
discipleship as the first and most important question.
I share Ollenburger’s interest in bringing practice and belief (deed and word) back together and I agree that Anabaptist texts provide a model for how to do this. However, it seems to me that Ollenburger has made several mistaken assumptions about the views found in early Anabaptist texts.
First, Ollenburger overvalues the role of orthodox belief in Anabaptist texts. For him, the two options seem to be that (a) the Anabaptists rejected creedal orthodoxy in favor of faithful discipleship or (b) the Anabaptists built faithful discipleship on creedal orthodoxy. He rightly challenges option a. I suggest that a careful reading of Anabaptist texts also challenges option b.
Since Ollenburger invokes Menno, I will turn to what Menno says about the Apostle’s Creed in his Reply to Gellius Faber. Responding to the accusation that Anabaptists harm the unity of the church by ignoring the twelve articles of the Apostle’s Creed, Menno responds as follows:
I trust also that we who are grains of one loaf agree not only as to the twelve articles (as he counts them), but also as to all the articles of the Scriptures, such as regeneration, repentance, baptism, Holy Supper, expulsion, etc., which Christ Jesus (whom we together with Isaiah, Peter, and Paul confess to be the foundation of the churches—and not the twelve articles as he has it) has preached by His own blessed mouth, and left and taught us in clear and plain words.5
Menno quite clearly here contradicts Ollenburger’s claim that evangelical Anabaptists grounded their
convictions about the church in
orthodox confession. Menno instead makes Jesus himself,
not the twelve articles, the church’s foundation. Moreover, this focus on Jesus Christ as the church’s foundation both sharpens and expands the doctrinal identity of the church. Emphasizing the authority of Jesus requires the disciple to be committed to more than merely the twelve articles.
Menno makes this point most clearly in The True Christian Faith, where he takes on the charge that Anabaptists are guilty of legalism:
The true evangelical faith sees and considers only the doctrine, ceremonies, commands, prohibitions, and the perfect example of Christ, and strives to conform thereto with all its power.6 Menno follows this claim with a narrative theology focused around rhetorically charged accounts of biblical heroes of faith, accounts designed to elicit in the reader a faithful response. Such rhetorical strategies illustrate the priority found in Anabaptist texts of inducing faithful practices among believers. Rather than seeking first of all to be orthodox, Anabaptist texts are designed primarily to encourage obedience to Christ. That is because, as Menno puts it,
It is not enough to say with the mouth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that He fulfilled the Law for us, that He paid for our sins with His blood, and made reconciliation with the Father with His sacrifice and death, and
neither will it suffice to say that the Gospel is true; indeed the Gospel
must also be grasped in the heart and taken up in the soul.7 Those who
believe with their whole hearts also
obey His Word, walk in His commandments, bow to His scepter, and quiet their consciences with His grace, atonement, merit, sacrifice, promise, death, and blood.8
From all this it becomes clear that Menno felt that there is much missing in the Apostles Creed that is as important as what is included. For Menno, the
doctrine, ceremonies, commands, prohibitions, and the perfect example of Christ as found in the Scriptures are to be considered of greater significance than creedal doctrine, even though the classical creeds are valid, when proclaimed within a context of faithful discipleship. Confirming the priority of faithful practices over orthodox creeds with reference to the Nicene Creed, Menno writes in the Reply to Gellius Faber that
Where the Spirit, Word, sacraments, and life of Christ are found, there the Nicene article is pertinent, I believe in one, holy, Christian church, the communion of saints, etc. But where the Spirit, Word, sacraments, and life of Christ are not found, but where the spirit, doctrine, sacraments, and life of Antichrist are found, there the church of Antichrist is, and not the church of Christ, although we might boast a thousand times, I believe in one holy, Christian church, etc.9
Thus, rather than seeing the creeds as criteria for the proper interpretation of scripture, a role claimed by Ollenburger for the creeds, Anabaptists like Menno insisted that fidelity to the Spirit, Word, sacraments, and life of Christ, were a basis for determining the validity of doctrinal or creedal statements. Put differently, for Anabaptists the creeds were not a hermeneutical tool that defined
certain minimal, necessary conditions by which any particular theology can be identified as Christian, as Ollenburger would have it; rather, the Scriptures, especially as they attested to the life of Christ, were seen as the hermeneutical tool for reading and validating creedal statements. This was so much so that Anabaptists can often be found objecting to specific language found in the creeds that does not appear in the biblical text—language that attributes distinctive personhood to each of the members of the trinity, for example.10 The principle of evaluating the creeds by the Scriptures has perhaps been stated nowhere more clearly than by Thieleman van Braght in the Martyrs Mirror during his discussion of the Council of Nicea:
This is the great Council which is extolled as orthodox and Christian by nearly all so-called Christians. Be this as it may, we see no reason to praise it so highly, seeing that we must honor the precepts of God’s holy Word alone, whereas the rules of that council were made by fallible men. Yet, so far as these men have laid down precepts that accord with the precepts of God’s holy Word, or, at least, do not militate against them, so far we accept, or, at least, do not oppose them.11
Such a posture of not opposing the creeds insofar as they do not conflict with scripture seems to me to be a good distance from Ollenburger’s insistence that Anabaptist churches were based on creedal orthodoxy.
A second assumption made by Ollenburger is that Anabaptist and evangelical Protestant views about the necessity of good works were fundamentally the same, even if complicated and varied in nuance from one another. For him, the real problem between various Reformation groups was one of caricature and misunderstanding, not fundamental difference. At some point Lutherans, Reformed, and Anabaptists all finally said that good works were necessary. While this is true, such a conclusion does not adequately account for the extent to which these groups did experience themselves as believing differently from one another about the necessity of works, nor does it account for the widespread perception, even among the enemies of the Anabaptists, that Anabaptist communities had achieved a greater degree of Christlikeness than had other Reformation communities.12 I suggest that if we concentrate on the rhetorical movements of confessional texts we will discover that Anabaptists were simply not in agreement with their Reformed interlocutors about the role and purpose of faithful practices.
Lutheran and Reformed confessions typically proceed from a beginning premise that salvation is accomplished in human beings through faith in Christ alone, by which it is assumed that human actions play no role whatsoever in salvation. The salvation achieved by Christ for human beings is usually categorized under such terms as justification or satisfaction or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to human beings. However, just to be clear that such a view does not justify sin or anarchy, the confession shifts gears and insists that good works must of necessity follow the confession and reception of faith in Christ. The Formula of Concord for example can state clearly
that good works must certainly and without all doubt follow a true faith (provided only it be not a dead but a living faith), as fruits of a good tree.13 Such a gesture of denying all human agency in salvation on the one hand, while insisting that the good works of human agency will
true faith establishes a framework wherein the basic concern becomes the motivation behind obedient deeds, which for the Formula of Concord is most properly
not of constraint or compulsion of the law, but of a free and spontaneous spirit.14 One must do good works because one desires to do them as one who has been saved by faith, not because one must do them in order to be saved.
The Anabaptists had little interest in probing the motivations associated with good works and typically avoided worrying about such fine distinctions as the difference between claiming that good works are necessary for salvation and claiming that works are the necessary fruit of salvation. Such distinctions were assumed to distract from the basic choice of obedience which was considered essential. Hubmaier said it perhaps most baldly in his Apologia, written to King Ferdinand from prison in 1527:
Mere faith alone is not sufficient for salvation.15 Hubmaier in this text bemoans
with tears that people have in so many years not learned better than to say Such people are
We believe, faith saves us; while in this age brotherly love and loyalty have grown staler and colder in us than before.
nothing but mouth-Christians, ear-Christians, paper Christians, but not hand-Christians.16 Hans Denck echoes Hubmaier’s concern in his definition of true faith:
Faith is obedience to God and the confidence in his promise through Jesus Christ. In the absence of this obedience, confidence is false and fraudulent; but this obedience must be righteous, that is, heart, mouth, and deed must completely agree with each other.17 Certainly Anabaptists acknowledged again and again that the ability for obedience was a gift of God’s grace; yet, they insisted that this ability must be exercised in order for true salvation to occur. Peter Riedemann states this view eloquently:
Therefore, faith is truly a power of God, renewing people and making them resemble God in his nature, living in God’s righteousness, ardent in God’s love, and observing his commandments.18 By way of contrast with the magisterial Reformers, then, who led with
faith alone in their confessional statements and worked their way to the ultimate significance of good works; Anabaptists tended to lead with the empowerment to a necessary obedience made possible by faith and then worked their way to the point that of course all of this was a gift of God, not dependent on merely human works in the ultimate sense.
This rhetorical difference between faith alone and faithful obedience as the first point in the doctrine of faith was not merely a surface matter of style or theological taste; rather, it signaled fundamentally different definitions of faith. For the magisterial reformers, faith was a prior quality which made works possible. For Anabaptists, obedience was seen as intrinsic to faith. This difference is made visible most notably in the extent to which the magisterial reformers tended to talk about good works in a rather abstract sort of way, using phrases such as
works of love or
deeds of repentance, whereas the Anabaptists moved quite quickly to specific deeds that appeared to them as central features of faithful obedience, such as refusing the sword and vengeance, avoiding the oath, and caring for the poor. To illustrate this posture, one only has to recall Menno’s famous riff on
true evangelical faith manifesting itself in destroying forbidden lusts and desires, clothing the naked, comforting the sorrowful, sheltering the destitute, returning good for evil, binding up the wounded, and becoming all things to all people.19 By way of contrast, the magisterial reformers repudiated many such Anabaptist
faith practices, as errors which could not be tolerated either by the
church or the
police.20 Thus, it is not surprising that for Anabaptists, the sword is understood as
diabolical whereas for the magisterial reformers the rejection of the sword is seen as
intolerable.21 On this issue, perhaps more than any other, it is apparent what is at stake between the evangelical Protestant posture that is built on creedal orthodoxy and the evangelical Anabaptist posture which begins with the
Spirit, Word, sacraments, and life of Christ.
These two mistaken assumptions—the centrality of orthodoxy and agreement with magisterial reformers on the role of works in faith—both derive, in my view, from a third basic assumption that is implicit in Ollenburger’s argument. This assumption is an acceptance with Plato and Augustine of an idealism which assumes that behind every apparent earthly practice one can locate a more abstract true form on which the earthly practice is imperfectly based.22 These ideal forms are basically inaccessible to humans although careful and intelligent philosophers or theologians may approach recognition of these ideal forms through rigorous analysis and study. So, for example, in order to discover whether a practice is
good one must develop first of all an understanding of
the good as such. One can never in fact fully embody the good; however, one can approximate it. This structural logic by which any concrete earthly existence is understood to be necessarily a dim reflection of some more basic true ideal (or, as in Aristotle, some as yet fully realized potential or end), undergirds the confessional understanding of creedal orthodoxy as far as I can tell by making certain core beliefs or definitions—such as of the Trinity or the nature of Christ—the prior grounds for any necessarily lesser concrete actions which follow from such convictions.23 Likewise, such a logic seems at times also to articulate the relationship between faith and deeds in Protestant creedal orthodoxy, faith being the prior acceptance of who Christ is that provides the basis for evaluating any works which flow from such prior convictions.
Abraham Friesen has noted how this neo-Platonic framework carries with it an insidious tendency, from an Anabaptist perspective, to render any earthly practice of discipleship necessarily an imperfect reflection of a truer ideal or core conviction. Rather than assume that the teachings of Jesus were ideals to be approximated, the Anabaptists asserted instead the possibility and necessity of obedience.24 On the one hand, such an assertion of the possibility of faithful discipleship assured conflict between Anabaptists and the surrounding society, as well as endless conflicts among themselves. On the other hand, this view also made such
hard teachings of Jesus as defenselessness and economic sharing significant and even central features of Christian faithfulness for Anabaptist communities. From the standpoint of creedal orthodoxy, such an emphasis on odd practices was perceived as legalistic obsession with non-essential (even dangerous) details. But from the standpoint of the
Spirit, Word, sacraments, and life of Christ, such practices were seen as gifts from God intrinsic to faith. Thus, I remain convinced that for Peter Riedemann his glosses on the Apostles’ Creed were not seen by him or his community as secondary to the core beliefs of the creed. Riedemann did not think it any less important to confess the defenselessness of the true church than to confess the deity of Christ. In this refusal to set the creed apart from right biblical obedience, Riedemann was indeed not unique.
It should be apparent that there is a great deal at stake in the question of whether Anabaptists will continue to accept with Menno and other Anabaptist forbears
not only the twelve articles but also
all the articles of Scripture in a church that confesses Jesus Christ and
not the twelve articles as its foundation. Ollenburger clearly assumes that creedal orthodoxy will assist the church in such faithfulness, that the creeds are even necessary for faithfulness. I think Menno was right that confessing creedal orthodoxy is simply
not enough and thus can pose a spiritual danger to communities of Christian obedience, especially when elevated in importance to the status Ollenburger wants to claim: the
source and foundation of our common life before God.