The core: True Evangelical Faith

Ben Ollenburger’s essay suggests an answer to important questions about the nature of Anabaptist theology and the relationship of Anabaptist theology to that of other Christian traditions. In my brief response, I will provide some analysis of the particular kind of answer Ollenburger provided, and suggest an alternative answer that better reflects Anabaptist history and Anabaptist theologizing.

Ollenburger’s approach to Anabaptist theology posits a core common to all Christians, including Anabaptists. He refers to this core variously as the orthodox confession of the Triune God or trinitarian confession of the ancient church or orthodox creedal—trinitarian—confession. Along with trinitarian language, expressions of this core include the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian formula. Ollenburger uses examples from Menno Simons, Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann to argue that historic Anabaptism shares this irreducible common core with Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Christians as well as Pietists and Pentecostals. In fact, Ollenburger argues, the presence of this common core means that evangelical Anabaptists were intentionally, confessionally orthodox (emphasis Ollenburger’s). In Ollenburger’s view, it is this common core that necessarily identifies theology as Christian theology.

In addition to defining Anabaptist theology in terms of a common core shared with all Christian traditions, Ollenburger also uses the supposed shared common core to challenge a perception about the relationship of theology and ethics within Anabaptism. As formulated by Ollenburger, this perception, particularly for the previous generation of scholarship, is that Anabaptists were concerned about ethics more than about theology, and consequently did relatively little formal theologizing within the classic categories. Stated in classic categories, Anabaptists were more interested in orthopraxis than in orthodoxy. A further view challenged by Ollenburger is that what theology Anabaptists did inherit from classic sources (whether Catholic or Protestant) could and did undermine their ethical convictions. In other words, there was a tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. By depicting Anabaptist theology in terms of a core shared with all Christians, Ollenburger seeks to challenge both these assumptions or claims, arguing not only that Anabaptists shared the theology of the common core but also that their ethical concerns were grounded in that core. In other words, orthodoxy results in orthopraxis.

My analysis of Ollenburger’s version of Anabaptist theology identifies a series of unacknowledged but real choices and assumptions that shape his approach and determine the outcome.

The choice of a common core

The first such choice was to define Anabaptist theology in terms of a shared common core. That decision ought not be presented as self-evident. There are other approaches to developing an Anabaptist theology or theology for Anabaptists. Another choice will emerge from my critique of Ollenburger’s proposal.

Choice of content for the common core

Second, although it was presented as self-evident, Ollenburger made a choice about the content of the presumed common core. Actually, the idea of a core is not a new idea. Under several different names, the idea has been tried any number of times in various Christian contexts both within and without the Anabaptist tradition. Finding the common core of all religions produced the principles of eighteenth-century Deism. Rex Koivisto surveyed a number of efforts to identify a common Christian core before positing his own suggestion for it.1 The formative idea of the denomination known as the Christian Church was to organize around the core of essential doctrines and allow freedom of choice on other issues. The idea of a common core underlies the phrase In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love, which served as the mantra of the General Conference Mennonite Church as well as a variety of Lutheran groups,2 the United Church of Christ, at least one Unitarian-oriented minister,3 other religious groupings as can be determined with a quick Google search, and even the Irish Socialist Federation.4 The concept of a common core is present behind the two lists developed by Mennonite writers of both fundamentalist or evangelical and progressive or liberal persuasions in the twentieth century, identifying theological propositions shared with all Christians and those specific to Mennonites.5 Setting aside the Irish labor party, the interesting point for Ollenburger’s choice of a core is that there is far from a consensus on what belongs to the core. Not even Mennonites have a consensus on the content or number of issues that belong in the core—neither a core defined by fundamentalist nor progressive Mennonites corresponds with Ollenburger’s. The identity of the core only appears self-evident when other suggestions are not brought into view. Ollenburger has made a choice to define the Anabaptist core in line with the classic creedal tradition of Christendom rather than following a number of other, different suggestions for the core as defined by such Mennonite writers as John Horsch, J. E. Hartzler, John C. Wenger, or Ron Sider, as well as suggestions from outside of Anabaptism. Ollenburger made a choice of content for the core without rationalizing it or acknowledging that other choices for the core were possible.

According to Ollenburger, Anabaptist beliefs that distinguished them from the Lutheran and Reformed are grounded in this common core. The particular Anabaptist convictions about the church, its call and character, were not self-sustaining or independent of—to the contrary, they were grounded in—orthodox confession of the Triune God. Ollenburger’s illustrative examples then come from Menno Simons, Pilgram Marpeck, and Peter Riedemann.

But Anabaptists were not the only Reformation tradition that expected a lived result—transformed lives—to sprout from this orthodox confession. Lutheran and Reformed also spoke of the necessity of what we can collect under the name good works. However, in spite of the common core, the end results of the transformations resulting from the core—trinitarian orthodoxy—varied widely within and among among the several Reformation traditions. In other words, there is the core, and then there are the multiple manifestations of that core but distinct from it in the several Reformation traditions. In discussing Riedemann’s use of the Apostles Creed, for example, Ollenburger states that every tradition has its own version of the Creed, incorporating it within a determinate confessional framework. There exists thus a core shared by all, and a series of differences particular to each tradition.

It is among these differences, which are the result of a transformation based on grace, that are located particular Anabaptist emphases such as rejection of the sword or their understanding of the church. In his discussion of Riedemann’s use of the Apostles Creed, Ollenburger wrote that the Creed did not define Christian faith completely, but it defines certain minimal, necessary conditions by which any particular theology can be identified as Christian. Particular Anabaptist beliefs then follow from that core. For Ollenburger, there is clearly a common core of minimally necessary beliefs that every tradition affirms, and without this core a theology is not Christian. Ollenburger then pictures beliefs particular to Anabaptists as one kind of manifestation that eventuates from that common core.

The choice of commonality over difference with Christendom

In choosing to identify and construct Anabaptist theology in terms of a common core shared with all other Reformation traditions, Ollenburger made another barely acknowledged choice. It is the decision to regard that which is held in common as more significant than that which is different or which distinguishes the traditions from each other. Accepting that which is common as the most significant appears self-evident only as long as one does not consider the alternative. Comments from John Howard Yoder in a posthumously published article provide important assistance in considering the implications of stressing commonalities as opposed to differences.

Yoder’s immediate concern was the starting point for ecumenical conversation. The most common practice, he observed, is to begin by searching for common ground, by seeking common positions that the different sides could affirm together. This approach produces measurable results when resources of time and money are limited, and it provides the satisfaction of producing a visible result. However, this approach has a drawback as well. Searching for a common core favors the agenda of the dominant group in the discussion. The procedure of seeking a common core inevitably pushes to the periphery the unique aspects of the smaller participant in the discussion; this procedure makes peripheral that which gives the smaller party its identity, it makes peripheral precisely that which distinguishes the smaller party from the dominant party in the group. Thus if an ecumenical discussion is to take seriously the concerns and the identity of each participant in the conversation, Yoder suggested, the conversation should begin with differences rather than with commonalities.6

Ollenburger’s essay was not structuring an ecumenical conversation, but Yoder’s analysis sheds significant light on Ollenburger’s approach to Anabaptist theology. In particular, note that all manifestations of a distinct Reformation tradition—whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Anabaptist—appear in the subordinate position. Ollenburger did not specifically declare these manifestations optional, but that is clearly the import of his discussion. These differences identify various Reformation traditions but none of the differences deal with issues essential to what it means to be Christian and none of these differences either detracts from or has an impact on the common core that they shared.

At this juncture, I submit that Ollenburger’s desire to identify Anabaptist theology with a theological core shared with the Christendom traditions has done a disservice to the narrative of Jesus. At least in my telling of that narrative, particulars such as Jesus’ rejection of the sword and his nonviolent confrontation of social ills and of evil in the person of the political powers of the first century is irreducibly part of that story—so that discussion of Jesus without reference to those elements is not really telling the story. Ollenburger objected to my unwillingness to bestow normativeness on the classic creeds because of their lack of reference to Jesus’ life and teaching. However, it appears from Ollenburger’s depiction of the common core, with the several traditions offering a variety of differing manifestations, that he has verified my point that the particulars of the story of Jesus that are relevant for ethics and that produce rejection of the sword for Anabaptists are missing from the classic creeds and his common core. Presenting Jesus without those elements depicting his nonviolent life, as is true for Ollenburger’s core, is perhaps akin to conveying Johnny Damon’s contribution to the Boston Red Sox’s win of the 2004 World Series but mentioning only his at bats and saying nothing of his stellar defensive play. The story of Jesus should not be reduced to a discussion of nonviolence, but if that element is missing then the story is not really the story. But that is the inevitable result of focusing on the discussion of Jesus in terms of statements common to all traditions rather than noting what distinguishes Anabaptists as Anabaptists.

I accept Ollenburger’s affirmation that he share[s] many of [the Anabaptists’] convictions and rejection of the sword is visible in his description of historic Anabaptist theology. However, it is visible in the way that rejection of the sword has always been visible and present in Christendom’s theology. It is present as an option for those who choose it, but it does not exist as an intrinsic element of Jesus’ identity that challenges everyone who claims the name of Jesus. When Ollenburger’s Anabaptist theology is comprised of an irreducible common core shared with the other Reformation traditions, plus an abundance of issues on which they disagreed, the Anabaptists’ rejection of the sword falls in this latter category of elements on which there was major disagreement but which does not separate one from the faith expressed in the common core. This is an approach to theology that presents rejection of the sword as an Anabaptist particularity but not an issue that is an intrinsic challenge to all Christians.7

Ollenburger cited a source that demonstrated the organic relationship between the creedal definitions and the New Testament itself. I have no difficulty accepting that one can construct a path of relationships from the New Testament to Nicea and Chalcedon. What I object to, and this is what Ollenburger has not rightly understood, is making the terminology of these classic creeds the required or normative and only way to talk about Jesus once we have moved out of the New Testament. I object to requiring these creeds as the necessary norm that determines whether we have read the New Testament correctly. I object to assigning normative status to these creeds, making them a de facto extension of the New Testament.

For people who claim the authority of the Bible, it ought to be self-evident that the Bible has more authority than creeds. If the creeds are necessary to ensure proper reading of the Bible, if the classic creeds are necessary in order to safeguard theology about the Jesus depicted in the New Testament, then the creeds have become a de facto extension of the biblical canon. To anoint the classic creeds—which emerged from a particular and identifiable historical context—with the mantle of universality by making them a required norm is actually to accept the answers from that particular historical context as the answers for all Christians in all contexts for all time.8

At a minimum, we ought to acknowledge that the categories used for God as Trinity and for Jesus in the classic creeds is not terminology found in the New Testament. There has been a shift in categories from the New Testament to these classic creeds. It may bear mentioning at this point that the new terminology developed in the creeds is dealing with New Testament materials and with questions left open by the New Testament writers. Then if one wants the answers to those questions posed by the New Testament writers in terms of the philosophical categories and worldview of the fourth-century terminology, then these are the best answers within those conditions. However, pointing out that the terminology of the creeds is not New Testament terminology raises the obvious question whether there may be other language, reflecting a different cosmology and philosophical background, that can also provide true theological reflection about the life and work of Jesus. It becomes quite thinkable that there can be new discussions of Jesus and his work—Christology and atonement—that make intrinsic and visible the rejection of the sword that is not visible in the classic creedal statements. Exploring and developing such possibilities is eliminated, however, by Ollenburger’s choice to base Anabaptist theology on a common core rather than on what distinguishes Anabaptists from other Reformation traditions. Seeing that choice removes the mantle of self-evidence that Ollenburger places over his choice to build Anabaptist theology on a supposed common core. This point leads to yet another unacknowledged choice in Ollenburger’s essay.

Commonality versus difference in historic Anabaptist theology

As Ollenburger noted, I recognize that Anabaptists in the sixteenth-century referred to the classic creeds of Christendom and wrote expositions of the Apostles Creed. Those sixteenth-century references to the classic creedal statements are not in doubt. What is in dispute is whether it is the commonality—the fact that Anabaptist referred to classic statements also used by the other Reformation traditions—or the many additions that is of most significance. Ollenburger chooses to make the commonality the most significant element.9 Opting to stress commonality produces the results already identified and given visibility via John Howard Yoder’s article on approaches to ecumenism—that which distinguishes Anabaptists from other traditions is rendered peripheral.

Starting with the idea that differences are most instructive for understanding Anabaptism and Anabaptist theology produces very different results. Ollenburger’s treatment of Peter Riedemann’s commentary on the Apostles Creed, for example, stresses that Riedemann plugged into standard orthodoxy. But analyzing difference, as does Gerald Biesecker-Mast, produces a quite different result. After analysis of Riedemann’s commentary and many additions to the creed, Biesecker-Mast concludes that the Creed as Creed is hardly recognizable anymore, and that Riedemann has rendered untenable the idea that the Creed represents a core of Christian beliefs held to by all Christians.10 Ollenburger, using an earlier version of Biesecker-Mast’s analysis, discounts the significance of the commentary and additions, claiming that the Creed only adumbrate[s] faith’s content and that each tradition makes its own commentary on the Creed and incorporates it within a determinate confessional framework. In effect, Ollenburger’s focus on a common core renders all denominational dimensions incidental to the important focus on the core.11 But there is more going on with these commentary and additions than mere denominational appropriation. Stressing the importance of the additions, as does Biesecker-Mast, leads to the conclusion, at least for Riedemann, that the additions comprise the beginning of a new theological direction that cannot be contained within the bounds of the Creed. Further, it is precisely those items specific to Anabaptist Riedemann, such as rejection of the sword and espousal of community of goods, that propel the additions to the Creed. Focus on a common core eliminates by fiat the possibility of seeing Anabaptism as a new, different, or separate theological tradition. Analysis of what is specific to Anabaptists makes out identification of a new tradition to be a viable interpretative option. What Ollenburger treats as a given is actually a decision to downplay the theological distinctness of Anabaptism in favor of identification with the creedal tradition of Christendom.

Beginning with a focus on difference alters the evaluation of other items as well. A particular example is the nonstandard Christology of Menno Simons, which Ollenburger calls heretical. If the norm is the creedal tradition of Christendom as defined by Ollenburger’s core, then Menno’s Christology is heretical, an unacceptable deviation from the norm posed by the irreducible core. However, Menno’s effort to forge a new direction—even if based on an erroneous understanding of human reproduction and ultimately judged not very successful—takes on a positive dimension when examined from the perspective of difference. In this light, Menno’s effort merits commendation as an early attempt to understand Jesus in a way that reflected a church that was a rejection of the established church of Christendom, a church defined by righteous living. The questions posed by this analysis can be brought to any sixteenth-century Anabaptist writing. For further development of these arguments, see the accompanying essay by Gerald Biesecker-Mast, as well as Biesecker-Mast’s Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion,12 and a section of chapter 5 of the revised edition of Becoming Anabaptist.13

Concluding Remark

Ben Ollenburger wants to establish a theological core that escapes human particularity.14 It is not possible, however, to find or develop such a core. Every statement of theology has a social context and a particular history, and making a given statement normative is to establish the answer from a particular context and history as an answer for all contexts and all epochs both past and future. Even in attempting to dispute my association of Nicene-Chalcedonian Christology with the developments in ecclesiology represented by the name Constantinian, for example, Ollenburger referred to the development of the creedal definitions from early Christians’ experience of Jesus. In my view, the foundation—the beginning point—of theologizing about Jesus is not a collection of creedal and conciliar texts that developed over several centuries and were accorded normative status sometime after the fourth century. The real beginning point for theologizing about Jesus is the narrative of Jesus that one finds in the Gospels. That narrative belongs to every person who professes the name of Jesus. Theologizing about Jesus is reflection on and appropriation of and application of that narrative. What became the trinitarian creedal statements that comprise Ollenburger’s core are an important, early part of that theologizing. But as I indicated above, it is not self-evident that we who inhabit a different cosmology and a different philosophical paradigm must of necessity use that inherited language in a normative way. Unless we want to make a de facto extension of the canon, it is thinkable that there be other fitting and true ways to appropriate Jesus theologically in the world in which we live.

This new theologizing should not happen without limits. This new theologizing should not be merely regurgitating contemporary experience nor making up theology to rationalize contemporary life or experience. This new theologizing has the same foundation and the same limits as any theology that claims to be Christian. That foundation and limit is the narrative of Jesus found in the Gospels.

With the narrative of Jesus as a foundation and a limit, a norm appears for adjudicating between and among theologies claiming to be Christian. How do these various theologies give expression to the fullness of the narrative of Jesus? Is a proposed theological core that puts Jesus rejection of the sword on the periphery just as valid as a theology that makes Jesus’ rejection of violence an intrinsic and visible element of theologizing? Since Anabaptism came to be known as a movement characterized by discipleship, this latter question is vital to the development of a theology for Anabaptists.