I just returned from a 3-week trip to Europe studying Anabaptist/Mennonite history, led by Goshen College professor John D. Roth. We started in the Alsace region of Eastern France, and traveled through Switzerland, Southern Germany, Northern Germany, Friesland in the Netherlands, and then finished in and near Amsterdam. We visited current Mennonite (or historically Mennonite) congregations as well as historic sites in Anabaptist and Mennonite history.
These are thoughts which arose during that trip, but were most recently inspired by Edward Christian’s post on Radical Anabaptism and Radical Biblical Exegesis, as well as Nate Myers’ comments on FolkNotion’s post Is it really a sin?, but I thought they deserved their own post. I’ve done my best to keep up with YAR, but I’m sure these things have been said earlier by others (and probably in better ways), so I apologize for that.
As I read the Schleitheim Confession, I realized — as many modern Mennonites have realized before me — that I didn’t (and don’t) like it. At all. This admission led to a basic question that probably arises from any study of the early Anabaptists: “What am I supposed to do with this? How should I respond to (bad) Anabaptist theology?” And as I say it, I realize that I’ve been taught to think of the latter question as a form of heresy.
Today, even though we historiographically reject the notion that all Anabaptists were like-minded pacifist Michael Sattlers, we (or maybe just “I” — prove me wrong) still don’t make a practice of questioning the theology of those few “true Anabaptists” (or “evangelical Anabaptists, as Harold Bender said) with whom we strongly identify. The Anabaptist movement and Mennonite church has based itself largely on a simple time line of turning from God and subsequent renewal: the early church had things right, the Catholics screwed things up, and then the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptist movement returned the church to an earlier, more pure form. As such, we (theoretically) look to the early Anabaptists and the early church as our models for what the Church should be today, and examples of a less “compromised” faith. This is one aspect of what the Concern Group was pushing for 50 years ago. I was brought up Mennonite, but I feel like I was always looking to the Amish as an example of a more faithful lifestyle, or a more biblical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.
Which is cool. I can dig it…to a certain extent. This theology was largely shaped in reaction to a Catholic theology of culture that tended to reinforce the status quo and accepted what the Anabaptists saw as too many cultural compromises. But again, what happens when we come across bad Anabaptist theology? I don’t believe Menno’s strict enforcement of the ban and excommunication is anywhere close to God’s will for the Church, nor do I believe that Jesus entered the world through Mary “like water through a tube.” And I’m sick of talking about theological “compromise with culture” as if it’s an inherently negative thing, or as if we should feel secretive and guilty about believing that women should talk in church (and even be ordained) no matter what Paul (or his students) wrote.
So let me say loud and clear: our theology has progressed over time, and that’s a good thing. I don’t mean this to be a blanket “everything is God and God is everything” statement, which can lead to a free license to continually defend the status quo. But the Anabaptists wrote in a specific culture — I don’t need to contextualize their writings or do an in-depth cultural analysis to realize that some writings strike me as harmful and contrary to the will of God. Theology and biblical interpretation should be willing to change over time, as culture changes.
Obviously my argument has many holes. What is our framework for recognizing theological and ethical progression vs. regression? How do we maintain a distinctive witness against the negative powers of our world? Hopefully there can be a healthy balance between a theology of culture and the traditional Anabaptist/Mennonite suspicion of change. Perhaps we can use the tools of our tradition (Anabaptist values, theology and ethics) in a constant communal reinterpretation of our sacred texts (the Bible, Anabaptist writings, etc.) through the lens of both our tradition and our cultural values and beliefs. And maybe that’s what YAR is all about.
Or maybe I didn’t actually say much new. It’s a push to reject the Bible (or any fixed text) as our one and only source of the Divine authority, and it’s a defense of what I think is good about reading my own “perspective” and “ideological agenda” back into Scripture (see Nate’s comments, referred to earlier). We’ve improved on Menno Simmons, we’ve improved on Michael Sattler, and (dare I even say it?) we’ve improved on Paul.
How’s that for Mennonite humility?