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Fall 1992 · Vol. 21 No. 2 · pp. 77–79 

Book Review

Menno Simons: A Reappraisal

ed. Gerald R. Brunk. Harrisonburg, VA: Eastern Mennonite College, 1992. 215 pages.

Reviewed by Linda Matties

This book, Menno Simons: A Reappraisal, was designed to serve two distinct functions. On the one hand, it is a compilation of papers presented at a conference on Menno Simons held at Eastern Mennonite College and Seminary in March of 1990. On the other hand, the book was published as a Festschrift in honor of Irvin B. Horst.

As a result of this dual function, the book begins with a biographical sketch of Horst’s contribution to Anabaptist/Mennonite historiography. It continues with a series of essays on various aspects of the life, work {78}, writings, and teachings of Menno Simons. It also contains an essay reflecting Horst’s views on Menno Simons’ significance for today.

Walter Klaassen opens the discussion on Menno Simons by saying that Menno was definitely relevant to the Mennonites of the past and that his relevance to Mennonites of the present depends upon their willingness to listen to a man from the Middle Ages, discerning in his teaching the wisdom that transcends cultural and religious eras.

Sjouke Voolstra walks us through three themes in the Fundamentboek of 1540. He points out that Menno’s theology is in process. In the early stages he is concerned with pointing out the abuses and evils within the established church and calling people to live by the gospels. Concern for ecclesiological order develops later. He concludes that “the framework in which we interpret Menno determines to a great extent what we hear in his early theology” and asks whether the academic lecture hall is the best venue for such a task (pg. 52).

Helmut Isaak looks at what Menno has to say about the Kingdom of God. First, we are told that Menno uses the language of the new Jerusalem when speaking of the kingdom. Entry into the life of the kingdom begins with repentance, regeneration, and then baptism. While it was theoretically possible to Menno for the new Jerusalem to come within the framework of the Catholic church, he later realized that a new church was necessary.

Peter Visser gives us an overview of the history of the publication of Menno Simon’s writings. In the book’s last chapter, Walter Klaassen summarizes and evaluates the research and writings about Menno’s life and teachings.

Marjan Blok also walks us through Dat Fundament searching for Menno’s teachings on discipleship. Blok identifies a correlation between the Catholic and Anabaptist views on discipleship. While salvation comes through the work of Christ alone, there is a distinct emphasis on the fruits of repentance.

Abraham Friesen deals with the relationship between Menno and the Muensterites. He engages in a lengthy argument as to whether or not Menno wrote a tract called The Blasphemy. Unfortunately, Friesen does not break up his chapter into subheadings as other contributors to this book do. This makes it difficult for the reader to follow the different parts of the argument. Friesen concludes that Menno did write the tract, coming to his conclusions independently of other prevailing opinions.

In chapter eight, Irvin Horst analyzes the importance placed on Menno Simons by North Americans who stand in the Mennonite tradition. In looking at the past, he finds his evidence in the history of the publication of Menno’s works. In looking at the present, he examines Menno’s {79} teachings on discipleship, given the discontinuity between the persecution in the 16th century and the materialism and prosperity in 20th century North America.

This book contains a wealth of information about Menno Simons. The reader can, with careful reading, learn much about his teachings, his personal spiritual pilgrimage, and what historians through the ages have thought of him. It will undoubtedly hold a significant place in the libraries catering to historians and theologians. Students will likely use and quote it. However, it is unlikely that such a scholarly work will find its way to the shelves of the average church library, nor is the average church library user likely to borrow it.

Although the specific essays in the book are quite distinct from one another, one wonders at the arrangement of the chapters. It would have been interesting to place Pieter Visser’s and Walter Klaassen’s bibliographic overviews back to back. It would also have been interesting to read Klaassen’s and Horst’s comments on relevance together. The chapters of Voolstra, Isaak, Blok and Friesen would have made a useful quartet.

It has been enlightening to learn what the current cadre of established historians have to say about Menno Simons. One wonders if the generation of historians that has just begun its work or has yet to be discerned from the ranks would come to the same conclusions or even focus on the same issues. Perhaps those of us who have come to historical consciousness closer to the end than the middle of the twentieth century would find ourselves reading through another set of lenses.

Linda Matties
Clearbrook, B.C.

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