In some Mennonite congregations and in the broader Mennonite church we occasionally struggle just to get along with each other. An important part of the wrangling over contentious theological and political issues is whether new stances taken by the church represent the faithful extension of, or a radical departure from, an Anabaptist/Mennonite theological tradition. Karl Koop's study of three Dutch Mennonite confessions of faith from the first half of the seventeenth century both reminds us that the problems we face are not altogether new or unique and that a clearer understanding of patterns from the past can provide useful tools for us as we do the theological work of the church today.
Koop begins his study by noting that as academics since the 1970s focused on the diverse origins of Anabaptism their work raised the question of whether any Anabaptist core exists at all. He argues that it does and that an
identifiable and coherent Anabaptist-Mennonite theological tradition (9, 13) can be excavated from the seventeenth-century Dutch confessions. His undertaking moves the locus of Anabaptist/Mennonite identity or authority from the origins alone to include the developmental trajectory of Mennonite theology. Pushing us to make this shift is one of the major contributions of this study.
The three confessions Koop examines are the 1610 Waterlander Short Confession, the 1630 Frisian-High German Jan Cents Confession, and the 1632 Flemish Dordrecht Confession. These three confessions were selected because they came from the three largest groups of Dutch Anabaptists of the period and because they all in different ways were used by Anabaptist groups outside of the Netherlands, with the Dordrecht Confession, for example, still playing an important role for some groups today.
The book is organized into seven chapters that fall into two parts. The first three chapters have a historical focus. The first reviews the historiography on Anabaptism, on Harold S. Bender's The Anabaptist Vision, and on Anabaptism's relationship to the wider Christian world. Chapter two reviews historical developments in the Netherlands including Protestant groups who influenced Mennonite thinking. A close history and outline of the confessions' development follows in the next chapter. Again a comparison to contemporary Protestant developments is helpful for documenting, for example, that Lutherans and Reformed do indeed love to cite Paul in their confessions when all three Anabaptist groups favor the Gospels.
The last four chapters address theological topics. Chapter four highlights the function of the confessions in fostering unity in the early seventeenth century and in fomenting a schism later on. Koop notes the irony that a confession designed to create unity splits a church that cannot agree on how authoritative that confession should be. Chapter five examines Dutch Anabaptist formulations on classical topics of doctrine such as Christology and soteriology while chapter six analyzes their ecclesiology. The chapter on doctrine is important for placing Anabaptists in relation to other Christian groups, while their ecclesiology, Koop argues, was the key area for inter-Mennonite dialogues because the question was whether they could see each other as part of the
bride of Christ. They seemed to have the most difficulty with marriage and church discipline, specifically if a member could marry outside the church and how the ban was to be applied, especially within families.
In the final chapter, Koop presents a summary of his findings by outlining the core elements of an Anabaptist-Mennonite identity that emerges from these three confessions, clearly adumbrating where they largely agreed with other Christian groups and enumerating six points where they had distinctive emphases: on human nature, the link between new birth and discipleship, voluntary church membership, believers' baptism, the church as a admonishing community, and one that lives a life of peace built on the moral foundation of Christ's example (148). In some ways this does not read so differently from the core identified by Bender, yet Koop provides a nuanced context and shows how these elements were discussed, reformulated, and internalized by succeeding generations of Anabaptists. Indeed Koop concludes with a persuasive argument that claims which appeal over the head of history to a pristine theological past will inevitably reflect the
bias and prejudices of our own time and place (151).
On a couple of points Koop's study raises more questions than it answers which is, of course, a good thing. Some elements of the confessions were apparently written to please or evade authorities or in response to social pressures or to enhance ecumenical conversations (43, 52, 53, 62, 91). A theological analysis of such maneuvers seems lacking. When is it appropriate to change confessions of faith for the sake of fitting into society or being irenic and when is it not? On what basis can one decide? Although it is helpful to note that familiar pressures existed already back in the seventeenth century, how could we go about finding a better alternative today to the schisms that
settled seventeenth-century debates? A second question is whether Dutch confessions can indeed supply an
Mennonite theological tradition or if other voices need to be added yet. Koop obviously did not set out to answer this question. His study simply shows how fertile this new territory is for additional research.
In summary this book breaks valuable new ground by pushing the Anabaptist story out of its century of origin. Scholars interested in figuring out how Anabaptist beliefs were transmitted over the next several generations will find many good answers here. Church leaders and members looking for theological tools to address the spirit of divisiveness in their congregations will find some good examples as they reflect on the development of seventeenth-century confessions of faith.