The Reformed historian Edward Dowey regularly taught a course at Princeton Theological Seminary on the Radical and Counter-Reformations. On one occasion, while I was his junior colleague, Professor Dowey asked me to join the class and give a presentation on the Anabaptists. The assignment gave me pause. Dowey, one of the past century’s leading interpreters of John Calvin, had already given the students eloquent lectures on Luther’s theology, Zwingli’s, and Calvin’s. What should I then say about the Anabaptists and their theology? At something of loss, I brought a copy of the Martyrs Mirror to the class, pointing to its examples of faithfulness. While Lutherans and Presbyterians look to their founders as great theologians, I said, we who follow the Anabaptists look to them as inspiring models of obedience and discipleship—as people who show us what it means to follow Jesus—but we do not look upon them as theologians.
What I told that class of Princeton seminarians remains true, in at least two respects. First, as countless others have remarked, no Anabaptist produced theology of the systematic and comprehensive character of John Calvin’s or of the originality and range of Martin Luther’s. The factors accounting for this are doubtless several, but we need not debate them here. Second, while Thomas Finger’s recent volume marks a significant exception,1 modern heirs of the Anabaptists have tended to be more interested in social, political, and moral matters—in ethics, let us say—than in doctrinal theology. As Gordon Kaufman put it,
For traditional Mennonite understandings of Christian faith, what was most important for humans was not the creeds that we confess but how we live our lives in the midst of our neighbors and our enemies.2 Mennonites of recent decades have tended to be interested in theology to the extent that it may nourish and sustain a certain communal ethos and corporate or social ethics. The consequences of this tendency are themselves twofold. First, it has contributed to a widespread understanding of
historic Anabaptism3 as concerned typically or definitively with a disciplined egalitarian polity; commitment to mutual, loving service; and the repudiation of violence—all of which set the Anabaptists apart as an alternative community or counter culture. Second, the modern tendency to focus on ethics as the Anabaptists’ legacy has contributed to the view that the Anabaptists did not much concern themselves with doctrinal theology, whether intentionally or by default, or—on the other hand—that the doctrinal convictions they inherited from medieval Catholic sources or borrowed from Protestant ones actually undermined their real contributions and perhaps even their defining convictions.
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Before proceeding, let me make a couple of summary comments. We may characterize my remarks to Edward Dowey’s students in Princeton as suggesting that the Anabaptists were interested in ethics rather than doctrine; and we may summarize my remarks thus far by quoting a recent study by Karl Koop: the Anabaptists, Koop wrote, have been
hailed for their willingness to challenge Constantinian Christianity, their willingness to form egalitarian communities and their willingness to obey Jesus Christ and follow him in life. They [have been] studied and admired for their orthopraxis… not their orthodoxy.4
In what follows I want to argue that this putative opposition of orthopraxis to orthodoxy—an opposition of right action to right belief—is mistaken. Further, I want to suggest that historic Anabaptism makes a contemporary contribution by denying this very opposition, and, more positively, by commending to us the orthodox, evangelical source and foundation of our common life before God, in its doxological, liturgical, devotional, moral, and all other dimensions.5 I will also consider contrary arguments by two contemporary scholars—J. Denny Weaver, who claims that Anabaptist theology should demur from the orthodox creedal theology of Christian tradition; and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, who argues that the Anabaptists, in at least one case, adopted the form of orthodox creedal theology but destabilized orthodoxy from within. I will suggest that both Weaver and Biesecker-Mast are mistaken, in potentially instructive ways.
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First, then, the contrast of orthopraxis with orthodoxy—of ethics with doctrine. This contrast, as Koop himself points out, comes down firmly on the side of ethics, and it coheres well with an understanding of Anabaptism as distinctively ethical in character and emphasis.6 Perhaps the earliest and clearest expression of this view was Harold Bender’s essay,
The Anabaptist Vision, first published in 1944. Bender identified those features of what he called
evangelical Anabaptism that made it distinctive in its 16th century context. Bender’s first point was
the essence of Christianity as discipleship (italics added).7 Discipleship, in Bender’s text, is not simply the defining mark of Christian life, but the whole essence of Christianity defined as ethics. Further, Bender’s essay treated discipleship as an achievement on the part of the believer (pp. 43-44). In his second point, Bender defined the church essentially as a pledge: church members are
pledged to the highest standards of New Testament living (p. 48). His third point was an entirely ethical one, as if his first two points were not:
the ethic of love and nonresistance (p. 51). Christianity Bender defined as
most of all the transformation of life through discipleship (i. e., through achievement), and Christians, he wrote, have as their responsibility
creating a new life on divine principles (p. 52).
Bender’s own theological convictions were robust.8 However, his
Anabaptist Vision essay offered a thoroughly behavioral definition of Christianity. His only mention of grace was to diminish its importance, and his only mention of faith asserted its relative insignificance (p. 43).9
The effect and appeal of Bender’s essay were massive and enduring. Among other things, it helped to define Anabaptism in terms of ethics. Doing so also meant defining it, and favoring it, over against the alternatives—especially a Christianity that defined faith as mere assent to right doctrine.10 In other words, Bender’s essay defined for its readers both Anabaptism and its Reformation alternatives, and it did so, in its reception, by opposing orthopraxis and orthodoxy—right conduct versus right belief.
The arguments against any such opposition are first logical and then historical. To claim that one pattern of conduct is right and another wrong implies some criteria for distinguishing between them. It also implies a conviction, a belief, that these criteria are in some sense true: that they are neither false nor arbitrary. More fundamentally, to claim or to believe that a particular pattern of conduct is right, or that it is good, implies beliefs about goodness or about morality itself, about its nature, its source, its value, its justification. As Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, all of the contributors to the Enlightenment project of justifying morality held certain beliefs in common, including ones inherited
from their shared Christian past.11 Apart from these beliefs—apart from this orthodoxy, we may say—the Enlightenment project named
ethics would have been impossible. An opposition between orthopraxis and orthodoxy, or between practice and belief, makes no sense.
The Anabaptists did not talk about ethics, but they did talk and write about the church, about Christian life and faithfulness, yieldedness to Jesus Christ (Gelassenheit), discipleship, witness, patience, devotion, holiness, peaceable love, and righteousness. They corporately enacted these qualities, these virtues, these scriptural injunctions—or this Christian calling and vocation—in varying degrees short of perfection. They certainly did encourage each other toward these virtues (these forms of fidelity), and Bender was right to identify among his
evangelical Anabaptists certain convictions regarding the church, its calling, and its character that distinguished these Anabaptists, more or less, from their Lutheran and Reformed, often inhospitable, neighbors. It may bear mentioning that I share many of their convictions. However, my point here is that these Anabaptist convictions, which are themselves beliefs, are integrally a part of and integrated with other beliefs—doctrines—about God. Moreover, these doctrines, in their most basic expression, the evangelical Anabaptists shared with Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Christians. In other words, the evangelical Anabaptists were intentionally, confessionally orthodox. Their convictions about the church, its calling and character, were not self-sustaining or independent of—to the contrary, they were grounded in—orthodox confession of the Triune God. I cite three examples.
Menno Simons: Among the early Anabaptist elders in Friesland were Dirk Philips, Menno Simons, and Roelof Martens; the last took the name Adam Pastor when he—like the other two—left the Roman Catholic Church. In time, Pastor adopted doctrinal views at odds with what Dirk and Menno considered to be
the plain testimony of the Word of God, as Menno put it.12 Specifically, Pastor laid definitive stress on the eternal oneness of God, who could neither be born nor die; thus, Pastor denied the divinity of Christ and the Trinity.13 Menno took this deviation from Christian confession seriously, debating Pastor several times, in Emden and Lübeck, and writing, in 1550, a booklet to circulate among the Anabaptist congregations; it bore the title,
A Solemn Confession of the Triune, Eternal, and True God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Menno wrote:
This one and only eternal, omnipotent, comprehensible, invisible, ineffable, and indescribable God, we believe and confess with the Scriptures to be the eternal, incomprehensible Father with His eternal, incomprehensible Son, and with His eternal, incomprehensible Holy Spirit (p. 491).… To go on, beloved brethren, we believe and confess Christ Jesus to be the true God with the Father (p. 493).… We believe and confess the Holy Ghost to be a true, real, and personal Holy Ghost, as the fathers called Him; and that in a divine fashion, even as the Father is a true Father and the Son a true Son (p. 495).14
In this booklet and elsewhere, Menno shared, and insisted upon, the trinitarian confession of the ancient church, in conformity with the ecumenical creeds. Surprisingly, Dirk Philips and Menno Simons both followed the Greek Orthodox formulation of the Nicene (Constantinopolitan) Creed, according to which the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.15 In the Latin West, after the Council of Toledo in 589, the filioque clause held sway: the Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son.16 How sixteenth-century Frisian Anabaptists found themselves in agreement with Greek rather than Latin Christianity remains a mystery (perhaps Greek Orthodox theology is more biblical than that of the Catholic and Protestant churches!). Regardless, Menno and Dirk clearly regarded
right doctrine and trinitarian confession of vital importance to the church, its nature, and the life of its members.
Pilgram Marpeck: Like Dirk and Menno, Marpeck shared something in common with Greek Orthodox theology. All three of them, along with other Anabaptists, spoke of what the Greeks called theosis, or divinization. Through the sending and sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit, Christians are granted a new birth, by which Christ is, as it were, born in and lives within them in unity with the Father—so that Christians are drawn into the very life of God and thus, to this extent, divinized or vergottet. At the same time Marpeck stressed the importance of Christian existence in all of its humanity and materiality. To this end, Marpeck tried to negotiate persistent debates about spirit and matter, the inner and the outer word, Christian freedom and discipline, and authentic Christian worship. His argument took trinitarian form.
In arguing against both spiritualism and an unspiritual biblicism, Marpeck developed his own understanding of the inner and outer word, based on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the incarnation, the Son—the Word of God—became flesh, became human, and suffered. He lived and taught, healed and preached, as one among us. Christ’s work was external. But incarnate as Jesus Christ, the Son is one person in two natures, human and divine. Thus, corresponding to the external, outer work of the Son is the internal work of the Father and the Spirit. That continues to be the case now, after Pentecost, which was the goal and completion of the incarnation. We Christians are co-witnesses through the Spirit with the Son to the Father.
What the Father does, as Spirit and God, the Son immediately does likewise, but He does it as an external man who performs outward works. So also with those
born anew in Christ, according to the inner working of the Holy Spirit… baptized with fire and aglow with love—they are, we are, co-witnesses in the Holy Spirit with the Son to the Father… and through external, outer acts of praise, witnesses to, on behalf of, and over against
Marpeck’s argument on this point is thoroughly trinitarian. And it preserves the coherence of the inner and outer word by taking seriously both the incarnation and Pentecost. To deny either the inner or the outer word, or to deny their coherence, Marpeck claimed, is to deny God.
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In their reflections and admonitions on matters ecclesiological and soteriological, Dirk, Menno, and Marpeck not only accepted but depended on the Christian church’s confession of God as Triune. I have not mentioned their insistence that followers of Jesus Christ and children of God, of course, must not kill—must claim the cross of Christ and refuse
carnal weapons. But here as well, in this insistence on what we have come mistakenly to call pacifism, they were in harmony with the trinitarian and Christological confession of the creeds. Indeed, in his The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder claimed that
the view of Jesus he there proposed was
more radically Nicene and Chalcedonian than other views, and he urged that
what the church has always said about Jesus as the word of the Father, as true God and true Man, be taken more seriously… than ever before.18
To this J. Denny Weaver objected. He objected, that is, to the normative status accorded the creeds and their definitions. While admitting that the Anabaptists did accept and acknowledge the creeds—acknowledged Christian orthodoxy, in that sense—Weaver argued, in effect, that they had little choice and no real options in the matter; that they would have proceeded differently had they known what we know now. And what we now know is that the creeds and their orthodoxy cannot underwrite a peace-church theology; they are the product of a Constantinian church that ignored Jesus’ life and teaching and failed to exclude violence.19
Weaver has a point: indications are that the Anabaptists did aim to exhibit their authentically Christian credentials, in scriptural and in confessional terms shared with other Christians. But it seems to me even more evident that the evangelical Anabaptists shared these terms, and embraced orthodox creedal—trinitarian—confession because they deeply believed this confession to be true… true of God and true to God. After all, the trinitarian arguments of Menno and Marpeck, as examples, were directed, not to Catholic or Reformed or Lutheran opponents, much less to the church at large or in general, but to fellow Anabaptists!
Weaver’s principal claim against the creeds—here he thinks particularly of the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds—is their provenance in a Constantinian church and their lack of reference to Jesus’ life and teaching. Weaver believes that the lack is closely related to the creeds’ imperial context and the church’s abandonment of consistent non-violence. However, Luke Timothy Johnson, among others, has demonstrated the organic relationship between the creedal definitions and the New Testament itself, as well as their development from early Christians’ experience of Jesus.20 The creeds did not spring into existence in 325, or 381, or 451, but expanded on, or made more precise, Christian confessional statements beginning with 1 Cor 15:3b-8 and continuing, for example, through Irenaeus in the second century and Tertullian and Hippolytus in the third.21 Paul’s confessional recital in 1 Corinthians, by the way, makes no reference to Jesus’ life, to his teaching, or to the issue of violence. It addresses a specific controversy, namely, the resurrection. 1 John 2 and 4 address, more briefly, controversy regarding Jesus’ messiahship and his humanity. The Apostles Creed counters Gnostic denials of God’s good creation, while the Nicene Creed affirms, against the Arians, the Son’s divine and human natures in one person, the same in being or essence or substance with the Father. Both creeds are trinitarian—not for philosophical or political reasons, but because they derive from and direct us back to Scripture.22 As Gordon Fee has put it,
the work of the Trinity in salvation is foundational to Paul’s understanding of the gospel.23 Menno, Dirk, and Marpeck were right to recognize that a peace church theology must be Christian theology, and their insistence on an apostolic and trinitarian understanding of the gospel was both right and exemplary.
Peter Riedemann: My third example of orthodox and Anabaptist trinitarian confession, after Menno and Marpeck, is Peter Riedemann, successor to Jakob Hutter as spiritual leader of the Hutterite community. Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, first published between 1543 and 1545, is structured, in its first of three parts, around the Apostles Creed, of which it offers an exposition. The exposition is doctrinally orthodox in its trinitarian comments, following the western formulation of the Spirit’s procession from the Father and from the Son.24 But integral to Riedemann’s exposition of the creed is its Anabaptist, and specifically Hutterite, communitarian character. Thus, according to Riedemann, the Trinity is a self-giving community in which the Father and the Son have nothing for themselves, but what each has He has with the other—
and with all who have fellowship with the Son.25 In other words, as Riedemann spelled out, a genuine community will be one that has fellowship with the Triune God and shares all things, spiritual and material, in common.
Recently, Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast has given attention to Riedemann’s confession and its use of
orthodoxy"—as expressed by the Apostles Creed.26 I find much of Biesecker-Mast’s essay instructive and right. Certainly, he is correct in noticing that Riedemann employs the creed in confessing and commending a definitively Hutterian vision of Christian faith and the church. At the same time, I want to take issue with two of Biesecker-Mast’s conclusions—first, that Riedemann’s confession finally left the Creed
hardly recognizable and that it thereby
rendered untenable the idea that the Creed represents a core of Christian belief (p. 12). Second, I demur from Biesecker-Mast’s implication that Riedemann proceeded in some unique fashion and in opposition to an assumption that Biesecker-Mast attributes to orthodoxy—that
right belief is sufficient and perhaps self-sufficient.
Riedemann was hardly unique, even among Anabaptists, in structuring a confession of faith, in whole or in part, around the Creed. The second hymn in the Anabaptist Hymnal of 1540, the Ausbund, is the Creed set to verse. Balthasar Hubmaier wrote a commentary on the Creed in the form of a prayer, in 1526, and the Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer wrote a commentary on the Creed a year or two later.27 Further afield, the four books of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion are organized around the Creed, as are several early Reformed Confessions of Faith.28 Martin Luther’s
Larger Catechism includes extensive commentary on the Creed (and the Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer). Each of these theological interpretations of the Creed incorporates it within a determinate confessional framework. The Creed itself is patient of Anabaptist, Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic readings—also Pietist and Pentecostal ones. In Calvin’s hands, it is Reformed, in Luther’s Lutheran, and in Riedemann’s it is Hutterite. The Creed demands such ventures of interpretive incorporation, because its bound affirmations only adumbrate faith’s content. It does not exhaustively define the content of Christian faith or the vocation of the church. The Creed is not a theology. Rather, it defines certain minimal, necessary conditions by which any particular theology can be identified as Christian and, only in that sense, orthodox. (The Creed does not rule out every heresy, or even many of them, even heretical Christologies, like Menno’s and Dirk’s.)
In none of the Reformation theologies, Anabaptist, Reformed, or Lutheran, did orthodoxy mean the self-sufficiency of right belief. Each tradition spoke of the necessity of what we can collect under the name
good works.29 Internal disagreements on the matter abounded in each of the traditions, Anabaptist included. For this reason and others, it is easy to fall into caricature, as C. Arnold Snyder does in saying that the mainline traditions—Lutheran and Reformed—denied the transforming power of grace.30 The movements differed, within and among themselves, about the locus of that power within the justifying and sanctifying work of God, and they differed about the nature and end of the transformation itself; but all affirmed it.31
If I may weigh in on the matter, here near the close of these remarks, I side with Luther and Calvin and some of the Anabaptists like Riedemann who would locate good works in the third article of the Creed, interpreting them as, and in relation to, the work of the Holy Spirit—whose work includes the inspiration of Scripture and its readers. It remained an Anabaptist and then Mennonite temptation to associate good works with the Creed’s second article and thus to insert
ethics—to insert our work, our human achievement—into the atonement, compromising the gospel.
Here we have broached a serious, specific, and contentious doctrinal issue. So far as I can tell, it is not first an issue regarding the kind of community and the kind of people God calls us to be in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. It is not directly or narrowly an issue of ethics, that is, or of right conduct—of orthopraxis. It has rather to do with orthodoxy, with doctrine… and with the freedom and grace of the Triune God to achieve within us what we cannot achieve for ourselves, including even evangelical faith itself.32 But it has also to do with our freedom as Christians to respond with evangelical and charismatic joy to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who draw us into the infinite circumference of their community of love.
Historic Anabaptism, of which the Schrags’ bequest speaks, or the evangelical Anabaptists of whom Harold Bender wrote, do not offer us settled and systematic answers to all of our theological questions. But if we read them well, they will draw us—perhaps for us moderns, draw us back—to true evangelical faith, to the heart of Christian confession, and, like the Creed, to Scripture and the gospel… to the love of God.
I conclude with words from Menno Simons, in a letter he wrote, in 1556—a letter of
Encouragement to Christian Believers, which is its title.
Little children, fear not, but be comforted in the Lord. For He is… a faithful King.… Not the least of His promises shall fail you. He will be our shield and great reward. Therefore, neither doubt nor waver, for it is but a small matter to endure the heat of the sun, tribulation, fear, oppression, temptation, plunder, persecution, prison, and death for a short time. The messenger is already at the door, who will say to us, Come ye blessed, enter into the glory of thy Lord. Then will our brief mourning be changed to laughter, our momentary pain into endless joy.… We will follow the Lamb, adorned in white garments with palms in our hands and crowns upon our head. Neither ill nor pain nor pangs of death will touch us longer, but we will forever exalt, praise, and thank in inexpressibly great joy and glory the Lamb who sits upon the throne.33