Sabbatical Report #9: Book Report

 

John D. Roth, Editor: Engaging Anabaptism


In this fine book John Roth, an American Mennonite scholar, author, and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, has invited thirteen scholars who have been influenced by Anabaptism to share their reflections on the Anabaptist tradition. Most of the essays include autobiography and tribute; some of them also offer friendly criticism. The authors include names that were familiar to me (Stanley Hauerwas, Glen Stassen, Samuel Escobar, Christopher Rowland, Stuart Murray, Richard Hays, Rodney Clapp) and others with whom I was not familiar (James McClendon Jr., Christopher Marshall, Nancey Murphy, Eoin de Bhaldraithe, Richard Mouw, Michael Cartwright).

 


I will point out right from the start that this is a book written by scholars, and so it cannot help but have a scholarly flavour to it. The editor acknowledges from the beginning that this is problematic: ‘Does the growing impulse to frame Anabaptist-Mennonite theology in the systematic, highly self-conscious language of the academy inevitably attenuate a faith that is best expressed in daily discipleship and the living experience of the community?’ (p.13). Anabaptism has a theological tradition, but at heart it is a way if living; I suspect that most of the authors represented in this volume would acknowledge that fact (Hauerwas is particularly eloquent on the issue!)..

 


What has drawn these thirteen scholars (none of whom are Mennonites and very few of whom belong to Anabaptist denominations) toward Anabaptism? One name appears over and over again in the pages of this book: the late John Howard Yoder. Perhaps the greatest of all twentieth century Mennonite theologians (and not one with whom all Mennonites are happy, I might add!), his magisterial 1972 volume The Politics of Jesus is mentioned in almost every essay in this book as having had an enormous impact on the thinking of these scholars. Some of them (Hauerwas, Escobar, Cartwright) knew Yoder personally; most knew him only through his writings. Yoder’s ideas about the call of the Church, about Constantinianism and its corrupting influences, about pacifism as integral to the gospel, and (above all) about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, have obviously been formational for these scholars.

 


What attracts them about the Anabaptist way? Christopher Marshall’s essay is perhaps one of the clearest on this question; he talks about the impact of Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and, delightfully, The More With Less Cookbook, and writes about how both books emphasized ‘the same fundamental Anabaptist conviction: that to be a Christian means following Jesus; that following Jesus means taking Jesus’ ethical teaching seriously; and that taking Jesus seriously means a lifestyle of simplicity, service, and peacemaking’ (p.41). Listing the things he has gained from Anabaptism, he mentions first ‘its integrative Christocentrism. From Anabaptism I have learned that the essential mark of Christian identity is not simply a correct theological evaluation of the person and work of Christ but a conformity to the way of life taught and demonstrated by Jesus in the gospel records’. On this subject he mentions an issue that I have also seen highlighted by other Anabaptist writers:

 

‘…in the mainstream traditions, doctrinal Christocentrism has tended to eclipse ethical Christocentrism. In other words, what one believes about Christ has been more important than whether one actually obeys him in action…Tellingly, the church’s historic creeds are all but silent on ethics in general and the strenuous demands of Jesus in particular. This has allowed the church historically to bear the name of Christ but to do the work of the devil at the same time. In the interests of doctrinal orthodoxy the church has raised armies and waged war, tortured heretics and burned witches, persecuted dissenters and compelled conversions’.

 


Marshall goes on to mention how the ethical Christocentrism of Anabaptism has furnished him with a framework for interpreting the scriptures: the three principles he lists are (1) that the proper setting for the interpretation of the scriptures is the gathered community of believers, not the academic ivory tower, (2) that whatever in scripture agrees with Jesus’ teaching and example conveys God’s word for today, and whatever contradicts the way of Jesus is no longer God’s intention for the new covenant community, and (3) that in order to understand correctly what is written about Christ in scripture and what is consistent with his life and teaching, one must also walk with Christ the path of costly obedience. I suspect that all the contributors to this book would echo Marshall’s words here.

 


Stanley Hauerwas lists some of the things he has learned from the Anabaptism tradition.

 

  • The obligation of Christians to tell one another the truth requires us to develop skilful modes of speech in order to say no more than needs to be said.
  • Lack of money can be a resource that enriches a community as it makes cooperation and agreements necessary for survival.
  • Theology is not a thought that can be abstracted from the practices of a people. Theology has to be understood as just one more practice of a people who have learned that their lives depend on learning how to share their lives.

 

Other authors add to the list.

 

  • Glen Stassen mentions his conviction that Christendom has developed a tradition of evading the way of Jesus. He points out that very few textbooks on Christian ethics actually learn anything constructive from the Sermon on the Mount, and pays tribute to the way that the Anabaptist tradition has made the Sermon central in its understanding of discipleship.
  • Samuel Escobar mentions John Howard Yoder’s influence in Latin America, where marginalized evangelical Christian groups made ready connections with his teaching, coming as it did from the heart of another marginalized tradition, Anabaptism.
  • Chris Rowland, who has written extensively about liberation theology, also draws parallels between the 16th century Anabaptist congregations and the contemporary Latin American Base Ecclesial Communities (Chris, like other British contributors to the book, mentions the influence of Alan and Ellie Kreider in his own journey toward the Anabaptist way).
  • Stuart Murray mentions the clear understanding in Anabaptism of the negative impact of Constantinianism and Christendom on the mission of the church. He also points out that today, in a culture in which ‘fewer and fewer people are looking for a ticket to heaven’ but are more interesting in learning to live authentically, Anabaptism’s emphasis ‘on the person and life of Jesus and on the call to follow him in life (is)…helpful and challenging’ (p.100). Another feature he mentions is Anabaptism’s ‘insistence that spirituality and economics belong together’ (p.101).

 

 

 

It would be easy to go on, but I don’t want to write a lengthy review, and I do want to mention the criticism that comes up most frequently in the pages of the book. As I said, none of the authors come from Anabaptist traditions and most of them do not belong to denominations which identify themselves as Anabaptist. The editor, John Roth, mentions in his preface how, for those authors who belong to more liturgical traditions, ‘the absence of a sacramental theology within Anabaptism leaves its adherents susceptible to a works-righteousness that allows the divine initiative to be overshadowed by human efforts’ (p.13). As Roth says, this is particularly noticeable in those authors coming from more liturgical and sacramental traditions, such as Hauerwas, Cartwright and Hays (Methodists), and Clapp (Anglican).

 

 

 

Stanley Hauerwas admits that the aspect of Mennonite life he finds most problematic is the way Mennonites worship; ‘Zwingli’s rationalistic tendencies have won’. Mennonites, he says, ‘need to consider, in a way faithful to Mennonite life, why Word and Table cannot be separated’. Rodney Clapp testifies that, indebted as he is to Anabaptism, he remains an Episcopalian because of ‘the sacraments and sacramental theology…Zwinglian memorialistic understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper all too readily play into individualistic, subjectivistic tendencies’. He also points out that, in the modern age in which the word is becoming less important than the image, traditions which emphasise the visual as well as the verbal may be better placed to engage in mission. Michael Cartwright, a friend of John Howard Yoder who helped edit one of his collections of essays, also engages with him vigorously on this same point of sacramental theology and practice, offering perhaps the most negative assessment of a point of Anabaptist thought to be found in this collection. Understandably, those authors who come from more Baptist or evangelical traditions do not share this view, and in fact do not mention the issue at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This has been very enjoyable book and has helped me to understand both my attraction to Anabaptism and the weaknesses I see in it, which (for the moment at least) cause me to remain an Anglican. Like the authors of this volume, I love the clear Christocentrism of Anabaptism: its commitment not just to believing in Jesus and worshipping Jesus, but actually practicing the things Jesus taught and demonstrated. I love historic Anabaptism’s emphasis on the ministry of all Christians, its understanding of the church as a gathered community of believers, its connection of baptism with discipleship and church discipline, its unapologetic commitment to peace and nonviolence, to truth-telling, to simplicity of life and mutual aid. I also love and admire the way that its best-known contemporary practitioners, the Mennonites, are so committed to mission and service (Glen Stassen writes of how almost all of the faculty of Goshen College ‘had worked or taught in service or mission projects somewhere abroad’, and how most of the students ‘spend a semester in service among needy people in Latin America or elsewhere’).

 

 

 

But I have to admit that when I worship with Mennonites, I miss the liturgy and the sacraments. I’m not a nitpicky liturgist; my tradition is evangelical, which means I love simplicity and informality. But I also love the way traditional liturgies combine all the essential elements of worship: praise and thanksgiving, reading and exposition of scripture, penitence, thanksgiving, intercession, and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Especially the last one. For better or for worse, the Anglican Church of Canada has moved toward a weekly celebration of the Eucharist, and I have come to really appreciate this. Once every three months just won’t cut it for me.

 

 

 

 

One more thing this book has done for me is to give me a direction for my continuing sabbatical reading. I have already read a couple of Yoder’s books, but am now determined that The Politics of Jesus will be my next sabbatical book (I bought it when I was in London). Also, when I go back to London Mennonite Centre next month I plan to buy some more of his books, and to read as much of his writing as I can lay my hands on. I suspect that coming to grips with Yoder will be one of the best ways of coming to grips with the significance of contemporary Anabaptism.

 

 

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