The Pre-eminence of the Bible in Mennonite History
The Pre-Eminence of the Bible in Mennonite History
That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us. (1 Timothy 1:14)
→115# The Mennonite Encyclopedia classifies itself as a “compendium of references with regard to the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement.” In this subtitle Harold Bender interpreted his vision about the unity of the various Mennonite churches and some that are similar which have been scattered over the earth from the beginning of the sixteenth century. This vision is becoming more and more predominant among the Mennonites of all parts of the world, who began to gather together beginning with 1925 in world conferences of Mennonites.
In this discourse I shall try to show that the understanding of the Bible was fundamental for the formation, for the survival, and, perhaps, for the rebirth of this movement which is to keep an indispensable trust for humanity.
I am aware that this discourse will not be so much the mature fruit of my research, but rather a stimulation for study by others. I believe that in the theological atmosphere of our time it should be so. The heritage of my generation will be more than anything a mandate for the future. May my thesis be understood in this way!
The key for understanding the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement is found in its special form of biblicism. →116
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.
It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?
Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?
But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. Deuteronomy 30:11-14
This first proposition seems almost unquestionable and irrefutable. But if we do not understand well the peculiarity of this special kind of biblicism, my proposition will not prove anything.
There are many forms of biblicism. All biblicists will declare that the basis of their concept is a personal encounter with the biblical message and, as a fruit of this, an inward experience of illumination by God. But it is not certain that they really understand the same message and have similar experiences. Although two persons may use the same spiritual words, it may be, nevertheless, that they are not speaking about the same thing. Even when they cite the same biblical texts (and in an identical version) one may find a fundamental difference. And, on the other hand, differences that seem fundamental may be of minimum importance.
History itself may be very revealing as to whether a difference was important or whether it was only insignificant. Nevertheless the interpretation of the story is never given without arbitrariness. Therefore, it will always be questionable and refutable.
However, it seems possible to me to affirm that in the Anabaptist- Mennonite movement of the sixteenth century—in spite of all the diversity—there was an essential agreement as to the manner of understanding the Bible. They were individualists but they recognized each other as brothers in the faith. Their biblicism possessed →117 a candor and a simplicity that, according to them, was normal. Nevertheless, this was not common among the Christians of that generation nor of any other generation since the apostolic age.
To them their understanding of the Bible seemed plain and clear. They blamed the difficulties and the lack of understanding on the church theologians. The gospel in itself, according to the Anabaptists, is quite clear in its revelation of the will of God. And this will of God was manifested in Jesus with a call to all men. To answer this call with the whole of his life—that was, in their opinion, the essence of the Christian faith. And in that way they would read the Bible. They would also read the Old Testament, including the books of the Apocrypha, but interpreting them according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Also the Epistles of the New Testament were interpreted according to this gospel. The apostles were the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Anabaptists considered themselves as fellow-creatures of the disciples of Jesus at the time of his life on earth and they considered themselves similar to the prophets of Israel. As to “the book” which Ezekiel and John of Patmos had to eat (Ezek. 3:1-3; Rev. 10:9-10), they too swallowed it!
The fundamental difference with Catholicism and the Reformation was shown primarily in their concept of the Church.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,
That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27.
I do not deny the importance that spiritual movements before the Anabaptist movement may have had for the Anabaptists. But I adopt the view of our historians in regard to the administration of the new baptism by Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock at the end of 1525 in Zürich as the point of departure.
This event confirmed the rupture between Grebel and his partisans on the one hand, and Zwingli on the other. The differences between them had been aggravated during the two previous years. This rupture was tragic because they loved each other respectively as disciples and teacher in biblical studies. But the conflict was not →118 a result of an error nor of occasional incidents. Also the supposition that the Anabaptists had “acted ahead of their time” seems to me to be inaccurate. At least even in our century and in the foreseeable future the Anabaptist vision of the church is and will be unacceptable to the great majority of Catholics and Protestants.
For the Anabaptists the church was not only a congregation of believers as it was for various movements of the centuries after the Reformation. For them it was nothing less than the renewal of the church of the New Testament. The new baptism expressed clearly their conviction that neither the papal church nor the church of the canton of Zurich was the continuation of the original church. Both were, in their view, not simply imperfect, but false churches.
This was in accord with their understanding of the New Testament. For them the discipleship of Jesus constituted the church. Baptism could only be a sign of the unity between Master and disciple. Therefore, baptism of persons not conscious of its meaning for them was not a baptism, but a blasphemy.
For those of us who are heirs of the Anabaptist tradition it might be desirable to criticize our own Mennonite churches today. These have often departed far from the original Mennonite vision. Especially at a time when the ecumenical movement is of prime importance, may the Mennonites pursue the ideal of the true church. The messianic body of the New Testament was in the center of the Anabaptist concept. They were convinced that this body had been lost, at least after the third century. And I think they were right.
→119 Many think it sufficient to join a group of believers in order to establish “a” church. Such a church, nevertheless, cannot represent the unique church in the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3), the community of all the disciples of Christ Jesus, without being linked closely in the faith with all the chosen of God throughout human history.
That difference was related to another experience of faith and it had to result in another kind of theology.
As for you, O house of Israel, thus saith the Lord God; Go ye, serve ye everyone his idols, and hereafter also, if ye will not hearken unto me: but pollute ye my holy name no more with your gifts, and with your idols.
For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord God, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things. Ezekiel 20:39-40
John A. Mackay, when he visited Uruguay in 1964, said that at present the church is too much studied and Jesus Christ is not studied enough. It is certain that an excessive attention paid to the church may prejudice its own end. The church must serve Christ, since in itself it has no value. Nevertheless, the ecclesiastical actions and opinions demonstrate a great deal about the faith of its members.
→120 It is said, and with reason, that Luther’s interior struggle to find the grace of God was related to his education in the medieval church. Samuel Cramer, in his introduction to the history of the Anabaptist martyrs, shows that these were so far from that church that they had no personal relation with it in their experiences. For Luther, to whom Zwingli looked for an ecclesiastical union, it was, for that reason, a matter of the reform of the existent church. But for the Anabaptists, this church was merely one of the forms of the world and one had to find God and his Christ outside it.
The first Swiss Anabaptists died before they could develop their theological concepts. Nevertheless, Menno Simons was able to do it, although only in substance and in controversial form. It is worth remembering that Menno put a great emphasis on his ideas about the Incarnation. And in spite of the fact that these opinions were related to the false medical and biological concepts of that time, Menno’s theological purpose is of highest importance. His efforts do not principally tend to assure God’s pardon but rather to clarify the possibility of the new creation. Jesus was the second and the new Adam, the renewed man. His church was the true ekklesia to which God called man to separate from the present world as a sign of the world to come.
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people: that ye should shew forth the praises of →121 him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).
The Anabaptist concept of the church had preponderant importance because of its criticism of the corpus christianum.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. Romans 12:1-2
The corpus christianum is a biblical concept. The Epistle to the Ephesians, especially, deals with it as the union which, through the work of Christ Jesus, can be brought about among Jews and Gentiles.
After the fourth century, when Christianity became the state religion and the state received religious sanction, the idea of the corpus christianum changed. From then on, European society as such was identified with the corpus christianum. At present, it is increasingly recognized that this identification is false. Also today the conviction is spread everywhere that this fusion of the world of then with the gospel is no longer tenable. But in the sixteenth century the situation was different. Zwingli, like Luther, retained the corpus christianum concept, asking for harmony between the church and the state. The church therefore had importance for the inner life, and only in an indirect way for practical daily life. On this point the Anabaptists distinguished themselves from Zwingli and from the other Reformers. For them the life of the believer changes in such a way that its relation with the neighbor also takes other forms. For Conrad Grebel and his friends the community of believers had primordial importance even before their church was established by the new baptism.
→122 Where the grace of God unites men as brothers in the faith, there truly is revealed the body of Christ. Then it becomes manifest that the common society is not the corpus christianum. To use this name or to think only in that direction is hypocrisy. The corpus christianum ought to point to the new world, the world established in its rightful form.
The church is the place where the love of God reigns. She must transform the world. The world in its present state loses its only hope when it is identified with the corpus christianum. Only when it has in its midst a community with another structure—with the structure of the new creation—can the world itself be transformed. The Anabaptists, nevertheless, criticized the world because of love and not out of scorn. They understood that God loved the world (John 3:17).
As a consequence of this criticism the Anabaptists understood the deep wants of the needy of their time.
Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his works;
That saith, I will build me a wide house and large chambers, and cutteth him out windows; and it is cieled with cedar, and painted with vermillion.
Shalt thou reign, because thou closest thyself in cedar? did not thy father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice, and then it was well with him?
He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him; was not this to know me? saith the Lord.
But thine eyes and thine heart are not but for thy covetousness, and for to shed innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it. Jeremiah 22:13-17
The relation between the Anabaptist movement and the social and political agitations of the sixteenth century is a very controversial subject. It is understandable that our Mennonite historians wanted to deny any responsibility of [the Anabaptist] biblical-religious movement with its peaceful tolerance for these revolutionary agitations. The records and events are quite clearly in their favor. The accusations of the government and Catholic and Protestant scholars against our forefathers were completely false. Some of the accusers knew that they were slandering the Anabaptists and others may also have known it.
→123 But each change in the ecclesiastical structure had to influence social and political affairs. And a criticism as basic as that of the Anabaptists with regard to the sanctity of the politico-social order was, in the nature of the case, unacceptable to the regents of the church and the state. At the same time it is good to realize that our movement was able to begin and to maintain itself in a society which in that century was profoundly changing. It may be said that these very circumstances made the movement possible and at the same time dangerous.
Thomas Müntzer was not an Anabaptist. And Conrad Grebel and his friends had rejected beforehand all of Müntzer’s proposals for the approval of violent methods. But the fathers of the Anabaptist movement were able to understand the great religious and biblical zeal of the uprising of the peasants that Müntzer favored. The tone of the very notable letter which Grebel and his friends wrote to Müntzer in September 1524 (when the revolutionary disturbances of south Germany had already begun) seems to me convincing proof of that understanding. The fact that two of Müntzer’s intimate friends, Hans Hut and Martin Rinck, were later among the leaders of the Anabaptist movement seems to me even more suggestive.
The court trial (1527) against Michael Sattler (one of the first martyrs of our movement), who preferred the Turks to the papists, shows a complete rupture with the political foundations of existent society. He also rejected all violence, but declared that if he had →124 been permitted to use violence he would have used it more happily in favor of the Turks than in favor of the papists. Anyone who talks like that can understand the profound disgust of the needy of his time. Personally, Sattler—as almost all the Anabaptist leaders—did not come from the lower classes, but was with them, as was the whole Anabaptist movement, against those who were oppressing them. The Anabaptist fathers recognized that the Son of David, who would judge the afflictions of the people, would save the sons of the needy and destroy the oppressor (Psalms 72:4).
The Anabaptists themselves were threatened by total eradication. Therefore they understood, better than others, the misery of all the oppressed.
The Mennonites who escaped annihilation tried to remain with the Bible and survive as part of the people of God.
And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Joshua 24:15
To divide history into periods is always arbitrary. The clearest example of such arbitrariness is seen in the non-Jewish historians who do not recognize in Judaism of postbiblical times the direct succession of the people of Moses and the prophets. But in our case, speaking of Anabaptist-Mennonite history, it seems to me that a division between the time of the martyrs and the later time can be justified. Nevertheless, this later period has not lacked intimate relations with the time of the martyrs.
This second period of our history may be called the “Mennonite” period, differentiating from the “Anabaptist” period. But even →125 so, we ought not to forget that Menno Simons himself belongs completely to the “Anabaptist” period. The “Mennonite” period shows the same characteristics as the “Anabaptist” period, but in different proportions. The heroism of the Mennonite families who emigrated as far as eastern Siberia and western Canada and the center of Latin America was different from the heroism of the martyrs. But it was the same biblical spirit of perseverance that encouraged both.
Just like their Anabaptist fathers, the Mennonites were nonconformists. Their influence on other groups has been very great. We ought to remember that the Baptists had their origin in the same spiritual atmosphere of the Mennonites, in Amsterdam. Besides, one can say—with the exception of the Waldensians—all the free churches followed the Anabaptist-Mennonite example. This is related not only to their independence from the state but also to their ideal of living “in” the world but not “as” the world.
Repeatedly they approached very closely the atmosphere which surrounded them, especially in Holland where the Mennonites had been the first important group of the Reformation. The influences of various spiritual currents in the religious life of their nation (it bears a Calvinist stamp and has a humanist tendency) were deep. Nevertheless, the biblicism of Galenus Abrahamsz, their chief theologian at the end of the seventeenth century, was very typical of the Mennonite tradition. In contrast with the “Friends” (Quakers) he →126 emphasized the need of a biblical foundation for every form of spiritualism worthy of being accepted by Christians. 
From the beginning of the eighteenth century the influence of pietism was profoundly felt in the Mennonite churches in several regions of Europe. In the middle of the eighteenth century a mob broke the windows of the home of the Mennonite pastor Deknatel, in Amsterdam, because in his preaching he insisted too strongly on conversion. A century later the pietistic Dutch pastor Jan de Liefde left the Mennonite church of Holland because he felt that the church was too weak and insipid. Nevertheless, the same de Liefde—who had done a great evangelizing work in Holland, Germany, and England—continued in the Anabaptist-Mennonite line. Also the modernists among the Mennonites wanted, in general, to be faithful to the Bible.
The pietistic influence within the Mennonite churches in Germany, in Russia, and in North America has probably been even deeper than in Holland. The most memorable result of this influence was that it split several Mennonite churches. For example, in Russia, after 1860 one finds the “Mennonite Brethren” beside the Mennonite “Church.” However, the “Mennonite Brethren” maintained themselves as Mennonites and that not only for economic reasons.
Mennonite perseverance in its will to survive as a group cannot be understood in any other way than as an imitation of the people of God, of the Old Testament. For more than four centuries of their history, the Mennonites experienced a call to survive which has no parallel except in the Jews. Therefore others asked themselves, “Are Mennonites truly ‘Christians’?” I answer: On the contrary—their history as a tribe of the people of the God of the Bible made it easier for them to understand Jesus and his apostles.
Today we Mennonites must renew our biblicism especially as a testimony to universal peace. →127
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2:13-14
The most important event for the Mennonites of our century has been without doubt the confrontation with Russian communism. Since then has developed the International work of MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) and without this confrontation the World Conference of Mennonites never would have become more than the gathering of a big family. Bolshevism was the great call; in the first place for Mennonites of Russia, and together with them, for the Mennonites of Europe and America and by means of these also for the churches which were born as a result of the work of missions.
In our century the social problems of the world have confronted all the Christian churches. The great majority discovered late in our century that the Constantinian era has come to an end. We Mennonites forgot that we proclaimed this end more than four centuries ago. In our view, the corpus christianum never has been true. Therefore our Anabaptist message, proved by Mennonite history—in spite of all our repeated apostasies!—is today, in the midst of the history of mankind, more important than ever.
Our message is nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental historical biblicism. We are not antidogmatic nor adogmatic in the sense of not being able to accept dogmas because they may not be adequate to our philosophical and ideological concepts. No; but we want the dogmas to undergo proof from the Bible; and this →128 not with some isolated texts but with the while of the biblical message.
Three points seem to me of vital importance. In the first place: We have to remove the mask from the economic, political and cultural powers of society. In the second place: We have to affirm the positive value of human life, without deifying it. In the third place: We should translate the biblical testimony of peace at the center of the world situation of our century.
The third point includes the first two. We are not principally called to keep the equilibrium, always in danger, among the existing powers. In Christ Jesus there is no place for powers that want to be autonomous, for powers of a political or economic character, nor for powers of race or culture. All must be subordinated to the God of the Bible and—for his love—to one another. To give the testimony of peace seriously is to open the road for encounter, conversation and, sometimes, for collaboration not only with Christians of other denominations but also with idealists outside the church.
Turn thou us unto thee, 0 Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old. Lamentations 5:21
The Anabaptist-Mennonite movement may be characterized as a grouping of laymen. All its members are priests and prophets, and it may also be said that all are ministers. But it seems better to me to give emphasis to the lay character. It is not true that the Gospel has a theological sense which must be interpreted afterward into common life. Especially my compatriot, the theologian and missionary →129 Hendrik Kraemer (died in 1965), showed me that by his entire life. The whole Bible must speak in the midst of the total of human life. Above all, the preaching of the “Word made flesh” excludes all secrecy.
We may be a church that is renewing itself. The history of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement for 440 years in practically all parts of the world and among all human races offers the opportunity of a living tradition. The “new members,” that is to say, those who have not had a Mennonite upbringing, perhaps understand better the value of tradition. But the “sons of Mennonites” have the duty, together with them, of renewing the connections with our origin.
With the Bible we have to see this origin as linked with the beginning of human life. If in Abel we see the first martyr of biblical faith, we should also see as our brothers those who are prone to follow the example of Cain. We are living within human history. We ought to live in solidarity with all other human beings imitating Jesus who gave himself for all. We ought to take seriously our life in history, so much the more because we know that not only our individual life, but also all human life may come to an end. Let us be ready for a possibly short time until fulfillment as well as for a possible continuation for many years or centuries.
→130 Today is for me the hour of putting an end to my teaching of biblical interpretation in this seminary and to all my regular ministry in our community. May the students and teachers of this school continue in the way of the truth of the biblical Gospel.
The Church and Peoples of the World
“I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints” (Psalm 85:8). Between the twin crags of nationalism and internationalism, ecumenical Christendom calls upon her Lord to ask his guidance. Nationalism and internationalism have to do with political necessities and possibilities. The ecumenical church, however, does not concern itself with these things, but with the commandments of God, and regardless of consequences it transmits these commandments to the world.
Our tasks as theologians, accordingly, consist only in accepting this commandment as a binding one, not as a question open to discussion. Peace on earth is not a problem, but a commandment given at Christ’s coming. There are two ways of reacting to this command from God: the unconditional, blind obedience of action, or the hypocritical question of the Serpent, “Yea, hath God said... ? This question is the mortal enemy of obedience, and therefore the mortal enemy of all real peace. Hath God not said? Has God not understood human nature well enough to know that wars must occur in this world, like laws of nature? Must God not really have meant that we should talk about peace, to be sure, but that it is not to be literally translated into action? Must God not really have said that we should work for peace, of course, but also make ready tanks and poison gas for security?” And then perhaps the most serious question: “Did God say ‘You should not protect your own people? Did God say you should leave your own a prey to the enemy?’”
No, God did not say all that. What he has said, is that there shall be peace among men—that we shall obey him without further question, that is what he means. He who questions the commandment of God before obeying has already denied him.
*This discourse was given November 19, 1965, after two years of teaching as visiting professor of Biblical Interpretation in the Mennonite Seminary in Montevideo. The footnotes and the appendices were added later, but were conceived beforehand as documentation and explanation of the propositions. The Spanish text of the address has been edited by Ernesto Suarez Vilela, and published as Pamphlet No. 2 by the Mennonite Seminary in Montevideo in 1966. It is presented here with the permission of the seminary.
§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 115-130. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.
# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.
- The Mennonite Encyclopedia I: (hereafter cited as ME).
- Harold Bender (1897–1962) was director of studies and professor of Church History in the Goshen College Biblical Seminary. He was president of the Society of Reformation Studies and of the American Association of Church History. Besides being author of Conrad Grebel and The Anabaptist Vision, he was editor of the Mennonite Encyclopedia and of the MQR.
- The first Mennonite World Conference was called in 1925 in Christian Neff, of Weierhof, Germany, in the cities of Basel and Zürich, Switzerland. Its intention was to commemorate the 4th centenary of the birth of Anabaptism (1525). The second conference took place in 1930, in Danzig; the third in 1936 in Holand. After the Second World War the Mennonite World Conference met more regularly: 1948 (U.S.); 1952 (Switzerland); 1957 (Germany); 1962 (Canada). The Eighth Conference is called for 1967 (Holland) and the ninth is planned around 1972 (Latin America). See C. J. Dyck’s article in this issue of the MQR, “The Mennonite World Conference: A Brief Introduction.”
- As I shall discuss in detail in the following theses, I am considering January 1525 as the date of the beginning of this movement, when the first “congregation” was founded by the renewed baptism. In German (as in Dutch) often it is emphatically called “congregation” (Gemeinde) as opposed to “church” (Kirche). When we use—following Bender—the word “movement” often in this writing we are conscious of the danger that it may not be clear enough that this “movement” tried to do nothing less than to reestablish the original church in its correct form.
- I take the following notes from Dr. W. J. Kühler, Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in die zestiende Eeuw (Haarlem, 1932, I); idem, Geschiedenes van de Doopsgezinden in Nederland, Vol. II (1600–1735), Part 1 (Haarlem, 1940: II, I). “[In the reading of the Bible] all human wisdom was a hindrance, an annoyance” (I: 3).
“The Bible is their book with which they familiarized themselves word for word. Would that they had devoured the whole Bible.” This was a disdainful allusion of one of their fiercest opponents (the Calvinist, Guido de Brez)” (I: 26). “(The martyrs) would read the Bible like children; they studied deeply not only in the Gospels and in the Sermon on the Mount, but also in the Apocalypse with its prophecies of the final judgment and of the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven. They would discuss these things point by point in their secret meetings” (I: 50).
“They bowed in humble faith before the revelation of God In the Bible. They would not admit any human authority to be interposed between this revelation and the free conscience of the sons of God. They would reject what others wanted to impose upon them as saving doctrine. They kept exclusively to the Word of God. For an interpretation of the Word they would not attribute obligatory authority to anyone. They had to follow their own judgment’ (II: 71).
I owe these citations to H. W. Meihuizen, Kühler’s second successor in the chair of Mennonite History in our Seminary at Amsterdam. In a personal letter of June 10, 1965, Meihuizen wrote me that, in his opinion, Küthler sometimes forgot that there was something called “Mennonite spectacles” for investigating the Bible, because there was a kind of communis opinio anabaptistica. With this I am in complete agreement.
- See in ME and ML for the articles on these two men. The description that impressed me most was that of Fritz Blanke of Zürich in his Brüder in Christo.
- This conflict has been very well understood by John Howard Yoder. See for example, these citations of his article on Zwingli in ME: “Zwingli reports [June 1525, in the Municipal Council of Zürich] that the Anabaptists are self-called and claim a private possession of the Holy Spirit mediated neither by Scripture nor by the church” (p. 1053). Who is right? Zwingli or the Anabaptists who accuse Zwingli of betraying the cause? The answer “depends on the significance attributed to the ‘turning point’ in mid-December 1523, when Zwingli took a position which he had said a week earlier would make him ‘guilty of lying before the Word of God’” (p. 1054).
- See the article “Discipleship,” by Bender (ME 4:1076): “The two Reformation movements, Lutheranism and Anabaptism, with their differing ideological foci, were consciously in opposition to each other… The two positions, purified of their extremes and misunderstandings, are not in necessary conflict, but should be complementary parts of a full New Testament Christianity.”
In my opinion, the Lutheran emphasis could have and ought to have been accepted as a “complementary part” in the Anabaptist theology without, therefore, tearing it from its foundations. But a “complementary” Anabaptist part in a Lutheran theology would be incompatible and irreconcilable, at least with the Lutheran concept of the two kingdoms. And this concept is closely linked to the Lutheran vision of the “hidden God” that cannot be understood by the revelation of his love. I think that it would turn out much more difficult for the Lutheran theologians than for their Calvinist colleagues to extricate themselves completely from their national and political traditions. At least, a theology like that of the Calvinist Karl Barth, who drew nearer and nearer to the central ideas of the Anabaptists, is not easily found in the Lutheran atmosphere. On Dietrich Bonhöffer, see my notes 14, 46 and 47.
- Note the title of the book by H. W. Meihuizen: Menno Simons ijveraar voor het herstel van de nieuwtestamentische gemeente (Menno Simons, Zealous to Restore the New Testament Church) (Haarlem, 1961). It may be that Menno Simons was more conscious of the trend of the work, but the Swiss Anabaptists went in the same direction.
- Mennonites generally vacillate in face of ecumenical movement. The “Doopsgezinden” in Holland affiliated from the beginning, but give emphasis to their objections to the confessional character which could be attributed to the basic formula of the World Council of Churches. Nevertheless they discovered their collaboration in the movement as a Christian duty.
- See in Rincón Teológico, a magazine of the Evangelical Mennonite Theological Seminary, No. 7 (July–August 1964), my observations on my meeting with John A. Mackay. I cite from this article: “His Christology, which I look upon as the key to all his ideas, insisted on four points: (1) God was incarnated in humanity. That is why the wise men acknowledged that “our kingdom has ended,” and the shepherds “our kingdom is to begin.” (2) Jesus was a true man, tried by the tempter in the desert. He was not the “practical” man nor the “popular” man nor the “politician” that the world is looking for. (3) He accepted being a “servant” even among his own; the “apostolic succession,” For example, was not important. Jesus was rejected and crucified as the Great Solitaire. He died to create a new humanity (here Mackay underscored the danger that in Spanish Christianity there is a lack of representing the risen Christ). (4) Where the resurrection of Christ is not understood, there the church runs the danger of falling into self-sufficiency. In Spain the church often took the place of God. In South America there was the same danger. But today, according to Mackay, there is tn this part of the world a Roman ecclesiastical movement which points to a new course. The great Spanish mystia had longed for something more than the eucharist to satisfy the church. In the first place, Christ Jesus is God incarnate. The word “God” is used, even after more than 2000 years, in the translation of the Bible. God is the God of Moses and of the prophets, the God and Father of Jesus and his apostles. But also God is a designation for all the religious concepts of man. Not only the ancient and primitive gentiles have their gods; many modern currents also form ideas of God for themselves. And it is not proper to consider Jesus as the incarnation of these vague and indefinite ideas, that is to say, without sufficient knowledge of the Old Testament one cannot understand the message of Christ Jesus as God incarnate. In the second place: The true man is not the popular type of today. Of course, Jesus will have no probability of being elected president, or acclaimed as a leader. Jesus must be, however, accepted again in our times as the guide of our life. Mackay said that in the church of Christ there is room for many denominations, just as in the Roman Church one finds hundreds of religious orders. But are contradictory concepts permitted? In our time one finds in the church, among other things, these two convictions: (a) Jesus is the sovereign of the free world and its commander in the fight against communist slavery. (b) Jesus is the Prince of Peace and the Reconciler of all national and international parties. Can both concepts be just at the same time? I think the church cannot be loyal to its Lord without choosing.
- See Het Offer des Heeren edited by S. Cramer (‘s Gravenhage, 1904; Bibliotheka Reformatoria Neerlandica II, cited as BRN II).
Cramer, predecessor of Kühler in the chair of Mennonite History in Amsterdam, discusses the great difference in temperament, character and culture of the Anabaptist martyrs. Afterwards he says, “But all are correligionists, with the other, totally and completely.” Because of love in their hearts they changed their lives, they carried the cross of the Lord, they searched intently for his kingdom. On the question of the teachings and consolations of all with the Roman church and its doctrines they have nothing to do. That for them remained far in the past. That is “the world’ that pursues them. They, nevertheless, “are transplanted in the new life without choice”. . . . Yes, the title was justified: They themselves were the Sacrifice of the Lord (i.e., Christ) in their time!
- On the theology of Menno Simons, J. A. Oosterbaan gave a notable address at a commemoration of the anniversary of Menno’s death (1561) in Amsterdam, January 29, 1961. This discourse was published in Nederlands Theologisch Tydschrift, and in an English translation in MQR 35:187–96.
Oosterbaan compares the theology of Menno with that of Karl Barth and examines its very special significance. According to Oosterbaan, Menno’s theology was superior to that of Luther and that of Calvin (p. 190). Bender, in his editorial which precedes it (p. 186), said: “Menno has genuine stature among sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers even though he cannot be classed among the greatest.” Why such an undervaluation? Personally, in general I am in agreement with Oosterbaan, but not with his affirmation that the pneumatocentric tendency could provide a foundation of equal value for a completely biblical Anabaptist theology. For such a theology, in my opinion, the Holy Spirit has to be subordinated to the Father and to the Son, whereas he possesses equal value and dignity.
- On Menno’s theology see also the article by William Keeney in A Legacy of Faith: the Heritage of Menno Simons by C. J. Dyck et al. (Newton, 19ö2), 55–68.
- The notable and extensive letter which Dietrich Bonhöffer wrote on April 30, 1944, published in Widerstand und Ergebung (München, 1952: cited as WE), seems to me to express very modern ideas which have a spiritual affinity with those of the Anabaptists. For example, these words manifest an Anabaptist idea: “Christ, then, no longer is the object of religion, but totally something else. Truly he is the master of the world (WE, p. 180). (See the end of my footnote 8 and also footnotes 46 and 47.)
- Hans Keescooper, a Dutch martyr, wrote a letter to his brethren in 1550 before being burned at the stake. In it, referring to the trial, he said, “It was told to the Court that all their learned churchmen should appear in court. Then it would be demonstrated that they are all false prophets and that for almost 1300 years they deceived the world with their falsification” (BRN, II: 122). In a note S. Cramer says that these “almost 1300 years” indicate the time since Constantine. But when the martyr made his declaration only 1237 years had passed since the decree of Constantine, which made Christianity a permitted religion (AD 313). Thus, according to Keescooper, the learned churchmen began “their falsifications” more than two generations before the beginning of the Constantinian era. May he have been right?
- Zwingli in his Commentary on the True Religion and the False Religion (March, 1525), in the paragraph on government says: “Because the Spirit of Christ possesses what the state greatly lacks, there can be nothing more fortunate for the state than such love as the gospel furnishes, and thus it is clear that the state will be founded and firmly consecrated when good hearts unite with good laws.” Cited from Huldrich Zwingli, Auswahl seiner Schriftenn, ed. E. Künzli (Zürich and Stuttgart, 1962) p. 238 (cited as Auswahl).
- Cornelius Krahn, of the Bethel College Historical Library, sent me a photocopy of the text of this very notable letter as it is printed in H. Boehmer/P. Kirn: Thomas Müntzers Briefwechsel (Leipzig, 1931), 92–101. In Appendix A of the Spanish edition we reproduced five citations from this letter.
- See Calvin Contra los Anabaptistas, Opera VII, p. 103. There Calvin wrongly accuses the Anabaptists of having an affinity with Marlon (cited by J. A. Oosterbaan in his discourse mentioned in note 13).
- See, for example, Zwingli’s book of 1552, Against the Cunning of the Anabaptists. In Appendix C, Spanish edition, we give some citations. We have the impression that Zwingli was convinced that he had to slander in this way.
- Not only Marxist historians have seen a relation between the social change of the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Reformation. There is a correlation between all factors of natural and spiritual life in the history of humanity. Listening to the message of the Bible, we Christians ought to search for the understanding of history in its consecutive epochs. Even today this task has not been undertaken with sufficient vigor.
- On Müntzer, see the articles in ME and ML and our Appendices A and B in the Spanish edition. Let us cite the end of the article by Christian Hege in ML:
Sebastian Franck in 1531, says of the Anabaptists in his Chronica: “They are unanimous in their doctrines. They obey the authorities in everything that is not contrary to God’s law. Not only do they pay interest and taxes but also they hand over the coat and the cloak and even of what they may not have wanted to deprive themselves. They say that they are ready to suffer violence and even to obey tyrants. All those with whom I have spoken have answered that they are willing to suffer patiently In the name of Jesus and not to fight impatiently. Because the Gospel teaches us not to use physical force, as the peasants wanted to do, but to be strengthened and protected by means of suffering and death.
Oosterbaan indicates that there is a relation between Müntzer’s and Menno’s theological thought (MQR 35:191).
J. L. Hromadka, in his book Das Evangelium auf dem Wege zum Menschen (Berlin, 1960), proclaims his solidarity with the Anabaptists in the eschatological expectation (p. 272). This information my friend and Mennonite brother A. J. Koejemans, who was formerly editor of the Communist paper of Amsterdam, gave me. Probably Hromadka is referring to Müntzer and other radical reformers among the Anabaptists. It would be better to count the Anabaptists among the radical reformers, since they were among them, rather than the reverse, since Müntzer and his partisans do not belong to the Anabaptist group.
- See on this insurrection the citations of contemporary sources published by W. Wibbeling in 1925, Martin Luther und der Bauernkrieg (Neuwerkverlag Schlüchtern/Habertshof) in Appendix B (Spanish edition).
- The citations from the letter to Müntzer are found in Appendix A, Spanish edition. Concerning Hans Hut and Martin Rinck, see the articles in ML and ME.
- In 1562 ff. the Dutch Anabaptists included the account of the martyrdom of Mtchael Settler in their martyr books, placing it immediately after the martyrdom of Stephen and before that of the Anabaptist martyrs of the Low Countries after 1527 (BRN, II: 17).
- After 1568 the Dutch insurgents, in their fight against the government of Philip II of Spain, used the motto “Liever Turks dart Peeps!” (“Rather Turkish than Popish!”). Already in 1560 a pamphlet on Michael Settler was translated into Dutch.
- On the attitude of the peaceful Anabaptists in face of the revolutionaries, see also the writing of Menno Simons against Jan van Leyden published at the end of his complete works (Amsterdam, 1681, and translations in German and English). Menno vigorously rejects the violent methods of Jan van Leyden and his adoption of the title “King of Zion.” But the tone is completely different from that of Luther against Thomas Müntzer.
Heinhold Fast, of Emden, published a book in detail on the left wing of the Reformation, Der linke Flügel der Reformation (Bremen, 1962). It seems to me that Fast, like several other Mennonite historians before, made too great a difference between Melchior Hofmann—through whom the movement came to the Low Countries—and the first Anabaptists of Switzerland and South Germany. But I did not have the opportunity to study Fast’s book carefully.
- This arbitrariness I found, for example, in the writings of the very well-known historian A. J. Toynbee. The fact that some Jewish groups accept also such a view only proves that they do not understand the biblical message, neither of the Old nor of the New Testament.
- E. G. Leonard, in his General History of Protestantism (Histoire Generale du protestantisme; Paris; I, 1961 II, 1961; Ill,?) speaks of Menno Simons (who died in 1561) only in his Volume II where he discusses the establishment of the Reformation during the years 1564–1700. Nevertheless, Calvin—who was born more than ten years after Menno—is discussed in Volume I. Not only in the Low Countries but in all of Europe the Anabaptist movement precedes Calvinism.
- John Smyth, an English Protestant fugitive, given refuge in Holland, baptized himself in Amsterdam at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Afterward he tried to affiliate, with those he had baptized, with one of the Mennonite churches of Amsterdam. This affiliation was not brought about until after much negotiation and after Smyth’s death. Meanwhile, a group of his followers returned to England. There his church changed the form of baptism from sprinkling and to immersion. Thus began the English Baptist movement in the mid-seventeenth century. This movement has grown to become one of the largest church groups in the world. In 1948 representatives of various Baptist denominations of many races and cultures gathered in the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam to commemorate the initial steps taken there by John Smyth.
- Mennonite historians have tried at various times to discover historical relations with the Waldensians, but they were not successful. When I was preparing this discourse, our student Roberto Maria Elmassian told me that several historians of his Armenian Church affirm that the Waldensians as well as the Anabaptists and other Reformation movements received a strong stimulus from the descendants of Armenian fugitives, “the Paulists.” during the seventh to the twelfth centuries.
- The theologian, philosopher, and historian Ernst Troeltsch, in his great book on the social doctrines of the Christian churches, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (Leipzig, 1913), showed the importance of the social attitude of groups like the Anabaptists and Mennonites. Troeltsch and the sociologist Max Weber use the formula “asceticism within the world” (innerweltiche Askese), different from the monks who practice asceticism outside the world. Weber, in his studies on the sociology of the religions of the world, showed that in Holland in the nineteenth century conservative Calvinist groups imitated the Mennonite way of living in the time of the Reformation. (See Gesammelte Aufsälze zur Religionssoziologie, Leipzig, 1920.)
- H. W. Meihuizen (see notes 5 and 9) published an interesting book on Galenus Abrahamsz, as a contender in favor of absolute tolerance and defender of Anabaptist spiritualism (Galenus Abrahamsz 1622–1706; Haarlem, 1955). In my opinion, in tolerance as well as in spiritualism, Galenus was more of a biblicist than Meihuizen has shown.
- This incident in the life of Johannes Deknatel was recorded in the diary of a contemporary Jew who knew nothing about the conflict among the evangelical Christians of Amsterdam. L. Fuks published parts of this diary in one of the last yearbooks of the historical Association Amstelodamun.
- Concerning Jan de Llefde and his conflict with the Dutch Mennonites of the nineteenth century, I wrote an essay, The Discordant Voice of Jan de Liefde, which forms part of the book A Legacy of Faith (pp. 158–68) mentioned in note 13. On the same matter a year earlier I published Twee dienaars van een Heer (Amsterdam. 1961). De Liefde may be considered a precursor of W. Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.
- The “Mennonite Brethren” asked and received from the Russian government the same rights and seocial privileges as the others. But when they emigrated in various groups to different parts of the Americas, they held tenaciously to the name of Mennonites.
- When, last May, I talked about our history with the director of the conservative Jewish Seminary in Buenos Aires, he was much impressed by the similarities between the history of the Mennonites and that of various Jewish groups.
- Fritz Lieb wrote on Russian communism the most basic essays from the Protestant point of view. Benjamin Unruh (see MEd) pointed Lieb out to me already in 1928. Several of the best studies by Lieb are found in his book Sophia und Historia (Zürich, 1962).
- The MCC began its work after the Bolshevik Revolution to help the Russian Mennonites. These (according to the “Red Dean” of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson) suffered more than any other group of Christians in the Soviet Union. When the international situation made the continuation of its work impossible, the MCC gradually assumed more and more responsibilities to express in a practical way the Mennonite conviction of the Christian testimony.
- My compatriot, Arend Th. Van Leeuwen, published a very important book on the part which Christianity played in universal history (Christianity in World History, London, 1964). I feel that I am more and more in agreement with his conclusions.
- The World Council of Churches organized at the same time in various parts of the world a study on the “finality of Jesus Christ in the epoch of world history.” I had the privilege of participating occasionally in discussions on this subject in the center of an ecumenical study group in the Rio Plata region.
- This “fundamental historical Mennonite biblicism” is no less positive or severe than any other form of “biblicism” or “fundamentalism.” Nor is it modernist in the sense of wanting to adapt the biblical concepts to the spirit of the twentieth century. On the contrary, we want to see the totality of the personal and social life in the whole world of the past, present, and future in the light of the whole Bible. This Bible we are to study with all the resources at our disposal.
- It is clear that communism also wears such a mask. It may be said that we ought to combat it because it is a false religion rather than because it has no religion.
- Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) will remain for our century an example of a practical interpretation of the Christian message in the contemporary world.
- I think it is our duty as Mennonites to co-operate with the Christian Peace Conference of Prague. Such a co-operation must be made without forgetting our point of biblical departure or the experiences of our history; but both must be introduced in the deliberations.
- During the first World Mennonite Conference (June 13 to 16, 1925), H. J. Krehbiel, who was then the only North American representative, gave a speech, the conclusion of which we insert in Appendix D of the Spanish edition. (See also the address in Bericht über die 400- jährige Jubiläumsfeier der Mennoniten [Karlsruhe, 1925) 62–64. This discourse was not approved by the majority of the Mennonites of western Europe who were present at the conference. Nevertheless, the cause of world peace was put as the order of the day in a new form among the Mennonites.
In the United States the Mennonite, Paul Peachy. Secretary of the Church Peace Mission in Washington, D. C., published the book Biblical Realism Confronts the Nation (1963, distributed by Herald Press, ScottdaIe.
- Bonhöffer gave a pacifist message of great importance on August 28. 1934, in his speech at the Ecumenical Conference of Fanö (Denmark) on the “Church and the Peoples of the World” (Kirche und VöIkerwelt), See appendix.
I do not think that Bonhöffer ever wished to revoke this testimony. It is very significant that in 1935 he had planned to go to India to meet Gandhi.
- On this point Bonhöffer criticized Karl Barth whom, nevertheless, he considered the most important theologian of our century. In his letter of June 8, 1944, he wrote: “. . . in the nonreligious interpretation of theological ideas he did not give concrete orientation” (WE, p. 219).
I believe that no “theologian” can give such a concrete orientation from his studies or from his university lecture room, since he cannot explain what the “lay” believers do. Bonhöffer himself gave his life in the political resistance against the Hitler regime which he considered a diabolical force. He did not lack the sympathy of many believers but indeed he lacked the support of a committed church. Note here the difference with the martyrs of the church of the first century and with the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century.
I am convinced that Bonhöffer’s plan for seeking instruction in the Ashram of Gandhi (see the last part of note 46) was related to this desire for a truly Christian testimony in our century. That Barth did not understand anything of this desire is shown in his letter of October 14, 1936, in which he refers to “the strange information that you proposed to go to India to get—through Gandhi or some other friend of God in India—a special technique. Surely you would expect great things from the application of such a technique here in the west!” (GS, II: 288).
- Richard McKenna, of the Evangelical Theological Faculty of Buenos Aires, presented a very interesting “vision” on the importance of the presence of the Mennonites in Latin America. He expressed his ideas on August 12 and 13, 1965. in a series of four speeches in our Seminary especially for the preachers and workers of the Mennonite churches of Uruguay. As Appendix F (in the Spanish edition) we publish the four theses of his vision. We hope that his ideas may be published in fuller form. McKenna perceived spiritual relationships between the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century and the Pentecostals of our time. I asked myself if the relationship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not even more evident.
- Among the “new” Mennonites the Negro minister, Vincent Harding, whom I met at the Seventh Mennonite World Conference (1962), impressed me especially. He has discovered very clearly the importance of the original position of Anabaptism and he declared to me that never in the years past did he make an appeal for this in our churches without obtaining results. Besides, Harding understands the great development of the movement of the Black Muslims in the United States as a punishment for our Christian churches. He asked me, “Were we not deserving such a thing?” Of another “new” Mennonite, Robert Friedmann, of Jewish origin, I shall speak in the following note.
- My last note should discuss eschatology in our movement. In his article on “Discipleship,” which I cited in note 8, Bender says that the Anabaptists “realized that their stand meant a break with the continuity of the past “Christian” social order, the corpus christianum, and they consciously took this step. They had a strong sense of history and of God at work in it, and hence also of eschatology” (ME 4:1076). In relation to this he mentions that Ethelbert Stauffer spoke of a “theology of martyrdom” but that he (Bender) preferred to speak of a “theology of victory.”
Next to Bender I want to cite his intimate collaborator Robert Friedmann who published a declaration in The Mennonite (Newton, September 21, 1965, pp. 592–93) on the eschatological dimension. He says among other things: “No historical vision is involved in the life of Christians nowadays, and no all to work on God’s Kingdom in the concrete sense of that word.. . . Eschatology means facing the great cataclysmic turn in history—nobody knows its hour but the Father. Yet the disciple has to be on the alert and ready, and must not get sleepy or take it easy. Today, tomorrow, at any time may come that turn (and I am afraid we are always in the midst of it!) and the Christian has to know where his allegiance belongs… In brief, the eschatological dimension enters our mind only as a quality of an existential faith. To gain it, let us not despair and likewise not be complacent, but let us pray Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Creator Spirit!).”
To understand, thus, the eschatological language, without ceasing to think about “all that is true, all that is honest, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovable” (as Paul taught in Philippians 4:8), behold this as the calling of the Mennonite church in our century.
- From Dietrich Bonhöffer, Gesammelte Schriften (Munich, 1958) 216–17.