Parsing Anabaptist Theology: A Review Essay of Thomas N. Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology
Response by Thomas N. Finger 35/1 (2006): 134–53.
Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. 603 pages.
The volume in hand is impressive for more than its size. Thomas N. Finger, scholar and writer currently based in Chicago and formerly professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, has put enormous effort into this book. In scope it covers the entire spectrum of sixteenth-century Anabaptists along with virtually every contemporary Anabaptist who has written theology. It is an impressive effort, containing a great deal of informative material whether or not one reads the volume from cover to cover. If one wants to know what sixteenth-century or contemporary Anabaptists have said in the areas of the standard theological categories, the value of this volume exceeds any other by far. No similar book exists in the world of Anabaptist and Mennonite theology.
The validity of any Christian theology should be measured by the extent to which it grows out of and reflects and gives meaning to the narrative of Jesus.
One of the important contributions of the book is its focus on Anabaptist theology, with emphasis on both terms. In a tradition usually assumed not to have done much formal theology (12, 325) this book focuses on theology for Anabaptists and on what Anabaptists have said about theology.
The effort that went into this book along with its encyclopedic character pose two potential challenges for a reviewer. The great effort expended might make one somewhat hesitant to challenge it. How can one criticize so much sweat of the author’s brow? Further, given that the names of virtually all contemporary Anabaptist writers of theology appear in this volume, an Anabaptist reviewer will inevitably at some point be evaluating Finger’s analysis of the reviewer’s own work. To avoid that seeming conflict of interest would limit reviewers to Anabaptist theologians very early in their careers or to nontheologians or to people not identified as Anabaptists. With due awareness of these issues, I proceed to engage this work in conversation.
APPROACHES TO ANABAPTIST THEOLOGY
In his concluding summary Finger said, “I consider my theology one among other valid contemporary Anabaptist approaches” (562). I agree with that assessment. Considering Finger’s approach to Anabaptist theology in the context of several other contemporary approaches reveals the validity of his acknowledgment that his approach is one among several valid approaches. I submit a very brief, stylized list of distinct approaches to Anabaptist theology to set a context for consideration of Finger’s approach.
One approach is characterized by A. James Reimer, who is well-known for his argument that Anabaptist theology should accept standard Nicene orthodoxy as a foundation, and then build on it with Anabaptist distinctives. Variations on this same format might include Ron Sider’s suggestion that a full-orbed theology would combine the orthodoxy of Evangelical Anabaptism with Anabaptist social concerns, and C. Arnold Snyder’s claim that sixteenth-century Anabaptist theology has the classic creeds of Christendom at its core. An earlier version of this same approach would be J. C. Wenger’s two lists: of doctrines Mennonites held in common with other Christians and of doctrines specific to Mennonites. This approach affirms the received, standard theological tradition, except that the practitioners do not agree among themselves on the identity of the supposed standard core or tradition that Anabaptists should build on.
A second approach is to construct theology that is supposedly shaped by and a reflection of the specific narrative of Jesus, which makes Jesus’ rejection of the sword a shaping or defining element of theology. This approach clearly uses the biblical narrative, but is willing to critique biblical violence and to abandon aspects of the received tradition, such as standard atonement theories, that encapsulate and depend on divinely sanctioned violence. My own theological work as well as that of Ted Grimsrud fall into this category.
A third approach is to construct Anabaptist theology from the ground up, so to speak, using contemporary tools and criteria that make sense in the modern world, all the while preserving Anabaptist principles such as nonviolence and commitment to social responsibility. Practitioners of this methodology are free to observe ways in which the received standard theological tradition is outdated and needs to be revised or abandoned. The most visible practitioners of this approach are Gordon Kaufman and Daniel Liechty.
As a theoretical possibility, a fourth approach to an Anabaptist theology is to construct theology entirely of material written by Anabaptists. No major theologian uses this constructive methodology today. However, it bears some resemblance to theological work in the early era of Harold S. Bender, when systematic theology was suspect for Mennonite intellectuals, and much theology was done by quoting sixteenth-century Anabaptists on a subject of the moment.
FINGER’S DISTINCTIVE APPROACH
The subtitle of Finger’s book notes that his theology is “biblical, historical, constructive.” Despite these terms that may seem to reflect the first three approaches just mentioned, and the main title’s claim that the book presents Anabaptist theology, Finger’s methodology differs significantly from all the above. His is a unique genre.
A description of Tom’s methodology is relatively simple. He surveys what sixteenth-century Anabaptists said on the topic of a section, he surveys the comments of some contemporary Anabaptists on the topic, he sometimes introduces comments from non-Anabaptist theologians on the topic, and then constructs his own view in conversation with all these voices. These conversations include redefinitions of standard categories in areas such as Christology and Trinity and new terminology for traditional Anabaptist categories. Finger’s primary methodology of theological construction is then synthesis—synthesis of the (sometimes redefined) standard terminology with the new terminology for traditional Anabaptist ideas. To the extent that Anabaptist elements are visible in the redefinitions and synthesis, it is an Anabaptist theology.
Finger’s methodology involves a great deal more, however, than simply surveying other writers and then constructing his own position. He expended considerable effort in laying out the presuppositions that guide his construction. To grasp the nature of Finger’s version of Anabaptist theology, it is also necessary to deal with his assumptions—both those stated explicitly as well as several unstated presuppositions that decisively impact both the structure of his theology and his characterization of its importance.
The statement of explicit assumptions is very helpful even as it also sets up problematic aspects of the book. From Finger’s list of eighteen statements and assumptions that he brings to the theological task (95-101), I single out four for particular comment. Number 6 deals with the assumption that postmodernity rejects the idea of universal truth claims, instead seeing all truth claims as local and culturally conditioned and thus not valid in another culture. In a response developed at several junctures throughout the book, Finger asserts that an Anabaptist theology must make some kind of universal claims valid across cultures.
Number 12 states that we can identify that “significant connections exist between our thought world and previous ones.” Thus Christianity’s true meanings “are in continuity with its authentic past meanings.” Number 18 builds on this continuity by stressing that all traditions contain significant insights, which theology should appropriate, even as all traditions are also subject to critique, and theology should be aware of both commonalities and differences among traditions (99, 101). Such statements depict the entire history of doctrine as a source for constructing theology today. Number 15 makes the “Bible as canon” the “ultimate norm” of theology, rather than some abstracted version of the narrative “from creation to consummation” that provides the Bible’s unity (100).
From another list (101-2), point 3 from the four points governing the approach to historic Anabaptism states that the presentation will be organized around the general theme of “the coming of the new creation in three inseparable dimensions: personal, communal, and missional” although neither these nor any other features are presented as “Anabaptism’s definitive characteristics or essence” (102; also 106). Each of these comments of presuppositions or methodology foreshadows problematic or frustrating dimensions of the book’s construction of an Anabaptist theology. Following sections of this essay deal with these statements in turn.
THE QUESTION OF UNIVERSAL TRUTH
It appears Finger assumes that from a stance of postmodernity one can acknowledge only local, particular reality, whereas Christianity needs to assert the possibility of universally accessible universal or absolute truths. Finger understands their potential universal accessibility in terms of the common aspirations and strivings of all people, including a common awareness of and striving for God (280-83). Finger softens his assertion of universal Christian truths in two ways. First is the assertion that the full realization of these truths is eschatological, their realization is a future goal, which means that our assertion of them must always be modest, with the realization that “they are open to fuller, future clarification, confirmation or disconfirmation” (282-83). Secondly, the universal truth so asserted focuses on Jesus understood in terms of kenotic Christology. Even though proclaiming Jesus is the assertion of absolute or universal truth, the humble, servant Jesus of kenotic Christology is a message that “cannot be imposed on top of cultures by leaders” (287). Rather, the universal message of this Jesus is asserted gently, humbly, and with sensitivity and respect for other cultures and religious claims, which is how one avoids the offensive imperialism of previous Christian mission work (288-89).
While I can agree with Finger’s claim that universal truth is fully knowable only eschatologically, I am much less convinced than Finger that there is nonetheless a way for us to assert some version of universal truth in terms of universally accessible human experience. But further, I also disagree with Finger that the condition called postmodernity necessarily challenges the idea of universal truth. Finger misses the fact that the story of Jesus is itself a particular story of a particular man who lived two millennia ago. The Christian religion is the religion that claims that particular story as a universal story with universal meaning. Christianity makes universal truth claims about—professes the universal truth of—that particular story. Other religions also make universal claims about particular stories and from particular locations.
What the condition called postmodernity has brought us to see is that there is no higher, universally accessible authority with which to adjudicate these competing universal truth claims about the particular story of Jesus vis-à-vis universal claims made about its particular story by Islam or another religion. In fact, if that higher authority existed, it would transcend Jesus and the other authorities in question, and these claims—whether about Jesus or the other religious appeal points—would no longer be ultimate claims.
At this point I follow the lead of John Howard Yoder, who said awareness of this condition now called postmodernity does not eliminate the idea of universal truths. Rather it changes the way that we testify to the truth of those claims. Rather than searching for some kind of universally accessible norm, one demonstrates belief in the ultimacy or universality of a claim by living by it when it is not required and even when it may be costly. 1 This approach recognizes the possibility of universal truth claims, as does Finger, but it treats them differently. This approach recognizes the intractability of the confrontation of universal claims with other universal claims. Whereas Finger’s solution asserts the universal claim gently, might it not be better to acknowledge the intractability of competing claims with a lived witness while awaiting a future breakthrough currently beyond human imagination?
RELATIONSHIPS AMONG CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL TRADITIONS
Finger proposes that constructive theology should draw on the entire scope of Christian tradition. That gleaning is possible because “significant connections exist between our thought world and previous ones,” so that theology’s meanings for us today “are in continuity with its authentic past meanings” (99). Added to those statements is the fact that “all traditions contain significant insights into the kerygma, which theology should appropriate if possible,” and the fact that all traditions have points that distinguish them from others as well as commonalities with other traditions. A contemporary constructive theology should include awareness of both these differences and commonalities (101). These observations indicate that a primary characteristic of Finger’s methodology is synthesis, and that the entire history of doctrine provides elements that he synthesizes into his own, contemporary Anabaptist theology.
This approach built on synthesis has a worthy intent—to show possible interconnections and relationships between and among traditions, which in turn has two goals. In the case of Anabaptist theology, the focus of the volume in hand, the intent is to show how elements from the “marginalized” Anabaptist tradition have the potential to contribute to both Catholic and Protestant theological concerns and how Anabaptism’s stress on biblical authority and mission as well as its social and ethical concerns have the potential to contribute to both sides of the Evangelical-Liberal divide (11). At the level of the book’s explicit agenda, these goals are met. Finger does make a number of suggestions from Anabaptist theology that he believes can strengthen and “enrich” (a term which seems to occur with some frequency in this context) various elements of the mainstream traditions, as well as how some themes from elsewhere can enrich Anabaptist theology. Finger’s synthesis certainly displays potential connections.
FINGER AS PAINTER WITH PALETTE
Beyond the explicit claims, however, this methodology and the assumptions behind it pose several problems. The assumption that all of the history of doctrine is a source for contemporary theological construction makes that history into what I call, for want of a better term, a “flat” source of data, even as Finger professes awareness of differences among theological traditions and sometimes redefines the standard categories he synthesizes. In terms of how Finger appears to use tradition as a source for constructing theology, perhaps an apt image is to think of this history of doctrine as a giant painter’s palette from which the artist-theologian chooses colors at will and applies them to his own painting at any of several appropriate places, sometimes also mixing the colors to produce new but related hues.
This flat approach means that the theology of a historic writer rarely appears as a complete entity with its own purpose, particular focus, and raison d’être, and awareness of the particular factors that produced it. Finger assesses each writer in terms of the particular point of concern of the moment in his grid. Thus what the reader frequently finds is pieces of other writers, or the reader learns of the other writers’ particular position on a particular question. However, given the fact that Finger’s is the only comprehensive synthesis that the reader sees, other writers appear piecemeal, in terms of the particular pieces that can possibly fit into Finger’s larger and more comprehensive grid. It is almost as though every theology has been incomplete until Finger arrived on the scene to fill out and complete it.
Stated another way, this flat approach to the history of doctrine means that Finger gives little if any recognition to issues in the development of doctrine. One such neglected development is the shift from narrative to ontological categories for Christology between the appearance of the Gospels and the formal statement of the council of Nicea in 325 C.E. Given the flat approach, Finger accepts the Nicene categories as givens. This treatment of Christology gives only passing reference to the Constantinian synthesis and its potential impact on Christology. Finger thinks to avoid that question by claiming that Nicene terminology actually developed before 325, which can be accepted as true, but does not acknowledge the fact that it was nonetheless a change from biblical categories. Further, it fully neglects the recent scholarship that indicates that depicting Nicea as the definitive rejection of Arianism was actually a later development read back into the history.
This latter point makes even more acute than Finger’s methodology will admit that the character of the church that finally adopted Nicene Christology as normative is a factor in the nature of the norm accepted. In the sixteenth century, this flat approach means that Anabaptist writings in the areas of Finger’s theological grid are always evaluated in terms of the standard theological story, which leaves no possibility of considering whether the ecclesiological challenge that Anabaptists posed to the established church might produce new theological developments. This methodology does not permit asking whether the new ecclesiology that resulted when Anabaptists rejected the state church might produce an appropriate renovation in theology. Anabaptist theologizing is left to appear as pale, less informed versions of the older, standard story for questions of Christology, atonement, and Trinity.
On the other hand, Finger gives tacit acknowledgment of the shift in categories and the problematic ethical absences from the fourth century christological terminology by claiming that it is flexible or “fluid” (409). Thus the meaning of the flexible standard terminology can be filled out as needed with biblical motifs (413) shaped by Anabaptist emphases (418). The aim of retaining standard terminology, while redefining it with his own material, is to please both those who hold to standard, classic terminology and those who point to its inadequacy.
I will return to the implications of this methodology below.
SCRIPTURE AS NORM
Although Finger’s synthesis contains elements from a variety of sources, he states that the Bible is his “chief source and sole norm” for theology (175, 355, and elsewhere). He makes a point of saying that this authority means the whole of the canonical Scripture rather than the narrative abstracted from it. Of course, Finger’s theology can fairly be called biblical. However, I will point out the seeming incongruity of a theology that has the Bible as “chief source and sole norm” but defines the process of salvation as “ontological transformation” (116, 137, and elsewhere), which results in “divinization” (121-22, and elsewhere) that is “Christomorphic” (131, 417, and elsewhere). This transformation occurs through “divine energy” (358).
This theology also maintains the nonbiblical terminology for Christology of “humanity,” “deity,” “person,” “nature,” and “substance.” It maintains both “immanent” and “economic” Trinity with the concept of “perichoresis” from Eastern Orthodoxy to strengthen a motif from historic Anabaptism (455). Finger’s contemporary Anabaptist theology thus displays an effort to link the Bible to terminology from the standard history of doctrine for the areas in question.
NEW TERMINOLOGY FOR ANABAPTIST THEMES
If Finger uses terminology not found in the Bible to outline a theology with the Bible as “sole norm,” his treatment of Anabaptism employs terminology not usually associated with that movement to identify its commonly perceived elements. Well-known is Harold S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” in which Bender provided the three-orbed definition of Anabaptism in terms of discipleship, a communal ecclesiology, and nonresistance. Bender’s statement and the three-fold definition of Anabaptism have shaped much of Anabaptist scholarship—whether it followed or challenged Bender’s argument—since “Anabaptist Vision” was first published in 1944. 2 It certainly provides the backdrop for Finger’s statement of how he will present historic Anabaptism: around the general theme of “the coming of the new creation in three inseparable dimensions: personal, communal, and missional,” although neither these nor any other features are presented as “Anabaptism’s definitive characteristics or essence” (102, also 106).
This formula of “new creation” with “personal, communal, and missional” dimensions takes the place of Bender’s discipleship, which according to Finger can lead to too much focus on the individual and the social-ethical to the neglect of the transcendent dimension, which Bender assumed but did not make explicit (106, 132). In contrast, the coming of the new creation interweaves personal and transcendent dimensions, under the categories of personal, social, and missional. Thus Finger presents new terminology as a new form of the traditional Anabaptist theme of discipleship. And true to his overall intent, the discussion of these themes finds links to Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.
At first glance the choice of linking terminology and building of bridges seems to satisfy all sides. As was already noted, the book attempts to forge a number of such links from the Bible to the various elements of the history of doctrine to the marginalized Anabaptists. In light of that ecumenical goodwill, raising critical questions might have the feel of dumping rain clouds and an ant colony on the picnic of a congenial family reunion. Nonetheless, because Finger’s methodology has a profound impact on both the analysis of historic Anabaptism and on the shape of his contemporary Anabaptist theology, there are important questions and challenges to raise concerning this approach.
USE OF STANDARD THEOLOGICAL CATEGORIES
Consider, for example, the follow-up to the proposal to use “new creation” but without defining it as the essence of Anabaptism. The implications touch both the analysis of historic Anabaptism and the contemporary construction of an Anabaptist theology. With awareness that Anabaptists did not use the specific language of being justified by faith (109), Finger suggests using “justification language as an exploratory framework” for his analysis of the coming of the new creation. He chose this “exploratory framework” both because it is a commonly shared framework and because Anabaptists may be able to contribute to contemporary discussion of justification among Evangelicals, Lutherans, other Protestants, and Catholics. And by the time he constructs his own soteriology, he announces, it will be clear that “Anabaptist understandings of personal salvation involve . . . divinization” (110). Then following Finger’s introductory comments, one reads summaries of many sixteenth-century Anabaptists, summaries containing more data on how the theology of these Anabaptists lines up under justification categories than in any other piece of secondary literature.
The import of this procedure is that what defines “Anabaptism” is unclear at both the historic and contemporary ends of the discussion. On the historic end of the analysis, the description of what constitutes Anabaptist theology employs a new definition of discipleship, namely “coming of the new creation”—which is said not to be intended as a statement of the essence of Anabaptism—and provides analysis by a framework from outside Anabaptism that is called “exploratory.” One is simply left to wonder to what extent the results of an exploratory framework—whose results are not claimed to be the essence of Anabaptism—are a true picture, and what an analysis might look like which did probe for the defining characteristics of the movement and that used categories that were not exploratory.
On the other hand, the contemporary construction makes references to Anabaptist elements, but these are reshaped in ways that line up with Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic emphases as well. Further, by this point the notion of “exploratory” has fallen away, and the results of the historical analysis function as a clear description of Anabaptist theologizing. For someone who might want to challenge either end of this analysis and construction, the location of the handle to grasp is very elusive.
This pattern of both no-and-yes—or nonessence treated as foundational essence—occurs at another important juncture in this volume as well. Part II of the book deals with the impulse to Christian living that comes from the new creation in personal, communal, and missional contexts. This section of the book reflects the emphasis on ethics and social issues for which Anabaptism became known. Part III then moves to discuss “convictions,” what traditionally has been called theology. Finger notes that although historic Anabaptists “were mostly concerned with the new reality’s vivid inbreaking and immediate, concrete responses” (325, also 12), they nonetheless had “convictions about who Jesus is and what he did and does,” and these convictions “were essential to this movement” (326). Finger states, however, that Anabaptists were inclined to the practical, they did “relatively little” articulation of formal theology (325), and it is largely an “implicit theology that has guided Anabaptists” (12). 3 Part III deals with these important convictions in the areas of Christology, atonement, Trinity, anthropology, and eschatology.
The grid or framework for analyzing historic Anabaptist convictions in these areas comes from the categories of the standard history of doctrine. These include the three standard atonement theories; the Nicene and Chalcedonian christological categories of humanity, deity, and nature, and the emphases from Alexandria and Antioch; the trinitarian terminology of person, nature, essence, substance, perichoresis, immanent, and economic; whether Anabaptists were Augustinian, semi-Augustinian, Pelagian, or semi-Pelagian; and pre-, post-, and amillennialism. Finger acknowledges that these categories did not serve historic Anabaptists in a central way. He suggests, however, that use of these categories for analysis is “exploratory” (365) or “provisional” (371, 466), and that it is useful to know where Anabaptists stood on these traditional questions.
PROVISIONAL STATUS OF STANDARD GRID DISAPPEARS
The sections of the book that analyze historic Anabaptism according to the grid of these standard criteria are among the most useful parts of the book. No other work has as much material on how sixteenth-century Anabaptists aligned with the standard theological questions. And from this analysis, one learns that it certainly is possible to understand Anabaptism and Anabaptists in terms of the standard theological grid.
Once the analysis begins, however, the fact that this grid is “provisional” or “exploratory” disappears from view. The results are treated as though they defined Anabaptism, and Anabaptists are evaluated and categorized according to how they line up with Alexandria or Antioch, where they fall with the standard atonement theories, and how they line up with standard trinitarian doctrine. The summaries exhibit no inkling that the results are provisional; also absent from view is the “flexibility” of the terminology so that it can be redefined according to Finger’s needs. We are now seeing the Anabaptist views of these standard questions.
Furthermore, when Finger moves to his own reconstruction, there is no mention at all of “provisional” findings. The standard christological, atonement, and trinitarian framework becomes the framework for his Anabaptist theology. From “provisional” analysis of Anabaptists who, according to Finger, did relatively little with the standard categories, one now sees an Anabaptist theology that is thoroughly framed by and steeped in the standard theological categories despite the earlier redefinitions. The conclusion to the chapter on Christology contains all these elements—the shaping by and continuity with standard theology along with some enhancement of it via Anabaptist additives.
I have tried to show how a theology in Anabaptist perspective can emerge somewhat “above” [theological forms suggested by “today’s modern-postmodern, historicist outlook”] in a way significantly related to classical teachings important to ecumenical churches, namely, (1) Christus Victor, (2) a broadly Chalcedonian, somewhat Alexandrian Christology, and (3) a Trinity of three equal persons united perichoretically, transcending the cosmos ontologically. . . . At the same time these constructions can retain and enhance distinctively Anabaptist contributions important to many marginalized churches: (1) Jesus’ sharp opposition to and triumph over the “world” and its powers, (2) his servantlike kenosis, and (3) mutually interactive community. (464)
But similar to discussion about the defining characteristics of historic Anabaptism, the true driving or defining characteristics of this theology are elusive. If one were to challenge Finger on whether his contemporary construction is truly Anabaptist, the answer most certainly would be that it is shaped by Anabaptist themes. However, recalling the analysis of historic Anabaptists, one notes that the analysis uses criteria “provisionally” because Anabaptists did not frequently work within the framework used for analysis. And once again, the reader confronts the situation where that which was called provisional is, functionally, acting like the essence. Thus whether it concerns historic or contemporary Anabaptists, the reader confronts a continually moving entity whose handle is quite elusive.
These observations about the provisional grid and the no-and-yes appearance of the foundational elements of the theology are more than comments about elusive dimensions of methodology. They point to and reveal the implicit but very basic assumptions that shape Finger’s Anabaptist theology. Although he provides a list of eighteen assumptions that shape his theology, and more than once professes to proceed transparently, there is no discussion of the assumptions that make the standard terminology of Christology, atonement, Trinity, and eschatology into the functional norms of his theology, other than that they are traditional, and it is good to know where Anabaptists stood according to these norms. Otherwise, these traditional norms simply function as unquestioned givens.
These unquestioned givens then become the avenue through which Anabaptist themes are entered into the comprehensive Anabaptist theology. Writing about the Nicene creed, for example, Finger suggests that the distinctive contributions of Anabaptism, namely “Jesus’ peaceful, servantlike way, . . . and his followers’ participation, already, in the kingdom,” can be “appropriately inserted” into Nicea’s broad outline (418). Similar suggestions are made for Chalcedonian terminology (413-14). In practice, this standard terminology becomes part of—at least it functions as though it were part of—the universal truths that Finger wishes to preserve, even as he expands it with some supposed Anabaptist enrichment.
Nowhere does Finger recognize that these forms from Nicea and Chalcedon are themselves human constructs that speak to questions raised by New Testament writers. That this terminology consists of human constructs is perforce true since terms such as christomorphic divinization, ontological transformation, human nature, divine nature, Trinity, and perichoresis are not biblical terms. It is of course true that these terms deal with biblical materials and provide true answers to biblical questions. However, these terms are not in and of themselves biblical terms, and they reflect a particular social location and particular worldview. Thus it is quite thinkable that there are also other humanly constructed terms that answer the biblical questions in other truthful ways. Finger’s use of terminology from the standard grid acknowledges no such possibility. Implicitly he acknowledges the problem, however, by wanting to fill in the classic unquestioned structure with biblical and Anabaptist content.
STANDARD CATEGORIES REVEALED AS INADEQUATE
When an Anabaptist emphasis, such as rejection of violence, is that which fills out the meaning of the classic terminology, that filling out becomes a tacit, implicit acknowledgment that the presumed standard categories are actually not adequate. The need to fill them out demonstrates their humanly constructed character and reflects the orientation of the church that adopted them as normative. This demonstration raises an obvious question, namely, whether there might be better terminology or concepts that make explicit the rejection of violence that is intrinsic to the story of Jesus.
Further unquestioned assumptions also shape Finger’s work. Without acknowledging the fact, his approach to historic Anabaptism is making a clear statement about the character of historic Anabaptism. It is a statement that the most important aspect of Anabaptist theology is how it lines up with standard theology. And from Finger’s analysis, one learns that one can line up sixteenth-century Anabaptists with standard theology on the issues of concern to Finger, namely Christology, atonement, Trinity, and eschatology.
However, there are then several things that one does not thereby learn about historic Anabaptism. Finger states that they did “relatively little” formal theology. But what did they write about when they were not doing formal theology? And how did what they focused on when they were not doing “formal theology” relate to their identity? When looked at for themselves, are Anabaptists more truly identified by examining what they did talk about and how it was oriented, or by knowing how they lined up with someone else’s grid, namely the grid of inherited, standard theology? Such questions are not addressed by Finger. Posing the questions here, however, reveals once again that Finger has made a choice—where other choices were possible—in the way he presented a contemporary Anabaptist theology.
ANABAPTISTS THEOLOGICALLY UNIMPORTANT?
This choice leads to discovering yet another of the unacknowledged, implicit assumptions behind Finger’s construction of an Anabaptist theology. The approach chosen by Finger makes Anabaptists inherently marginal and unimportant theologically. If Anabaptists do “relatively little” formal theology, but that relatively little is accepted as the most important element of their thinking to discuss, then historic Anabaptists cannot be other than marginal and theologically uninteresting. Finger says as much in the concluding summary of the book, which states that Anabaptists are recognized, “if at all,” for their ethics but form only a “rivulet in the stream of Christian tradition” (562).
How can Anabaptists be other than marginal and unimportant theologically—they are being evaluated on the basis of a grid that was not their own and in areas where Finger acknowledges that they did relatively little work? The way Finger chose to analyze and construct Anabaptist theology leaves him no choice but to see Anabaptists as a barely visible rivulet. That Anabaptists are not necessarily marginal and uninteresting theologically becomes evident when we observe another set of questions that Finger’s methodology does not treat.
What happens if Anabaptism or Anabaptisms—as many separate Anabaptisms as one wants to define—are treated as complete entities in and of themselves? Rather than evaluating them according to the theological grid of the traditions that oppressed them, it is possible to assess Anabaptists according to their own agenda and their own norms.
For example, one can follow the historians who understand Anabaptism as a movement that rejected the established, state church. Then, instead of simply asking how Anabaptists aligned with the traditional theological categories—as though theology functioned independent of ecclesiological concerns—the theological question to pose is whether Anabaptists’ adoption of or development of a new ecclesiology would be reflected by changes in the way they responded to the received theology. Or with reference to the sword, another issue that came eventually to distinguish Anabaptism, would the fact that Anabaptists had an approach to ethics that differed from the established church, particularly with reference to the sword, have an impact on how these Anabaptists thought about the theology inherited from the churches that they rejected and that rejected them? 4
AN ALTERNATIVE STARTING POINT
Evaluating and parsing historic Anabaptist theology on the basis of these questions is to analyze Anabaptists on questions that emerge from their own understanding rather than on the basis of a grid from the traditions that they rejected. Potentially, the results are strikingly different from Finger’s. Deviation from the norm of the standard grid provides evidence of Anabaptist theologizing. If the ecclesiology of Anabaptists, who rejected the state church, is more true than the ecclesiology of the state church—an assumption with which Finger would most surely agree—then extension of that ecclesiology to critique the received standard theology would be evidence of the development of a new theological orientation within the stream of Christian tradition.
That development would make Anabaptism quite interesting theologically: they become a case study in how ecclesiology and rejection of the sword impacts other elements of the theological outline. In contrast, with Finger’s methodology, deviation from the standard grid is problematic and renders Anabaptists theologically uninteresting or perhaps questionable, although in some instances they have the potential to enhance the broader and more comprehensive standard theological story. In this latter case, they become a “rivulet in the stream of Christian tradition.”
The theological questions that start with Anabaptists’ own agenda change markedly what one looks for in historic Anabaptism and how one evaluates what is found. For example, what does one make of sixteenth-century Anabaptist references to the classic creeds of Christendom and use of trinitarian terminology? I note only one of many possible points of entré to this question, namely Peter Riedemann’s Rechenschaft or Account of Our Religion, which is an extended exposition of the Apostles’ Creed. Finger’s approach points out that Riedemann used a traditional creed, and emphasizes his orientation within traditional trinitarian terminology. He notes Riedemann’s linking of community of goods to the relationship of God the Father to the Son, but does not identify that as a trinitarian comment (238-39; 430-33).
Gerald Biesecker-Mast in his new book, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion, uses primarily the other approach, asking how Riedemann’s ecclesiology and rejection of the sword are used and reflected in his Rechenschaft. Biesecker-Mast observes, as does Finger, that Riedemann used orthodox categories, at least in part, to gain credibility with opponents. However, Biesecker-Mast also analyzes thoroughly Riedemann’s many revisions and additions to the Apostles’ Creed. He concludes,
By the time Riedemann is done with the Apostles’ Creed, it is hardly recognizable anymore. Having parsed each phrase and elaborated on its meaning for the life of the church, Riedemann has challenged the orthodox assumption that simply concurring with or rejecting the creed is a very important expression of faith. When, for example, he makes the Trinity definitive of Christian communism or insists that confession of God as Father is necessarily to also live a life of obedience to God’s commands, Riedemann has also rendered untenable the idea that the Creed represents a core of Christian beliefs held to by all Christians. 5
Finger’s approach, which focuses on agreement with the standard grid, misses such additions, revisions, and corrections, and emphasizes only the extent to which Riedemann fits standard categories.
Identifying these two different starting points indicates in yet another way that Finger has made a choice of approach to Anabaptist theology. In this case there is a rationale given for the choice. Finger’s stated intent is ecumenical, and his intent is to construct an Anabaptist theology that can forge links with theology from Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. To accomplish that intent, he has opted for a methodology that seeks points of connection and commonalities, and minimizes points of difference between Anabaptism and other Christian traditions.
EXPRESSING THE UNIQUE CHARACTER OF ANABAPTISM
Seeing the two starting points, however, raises yet another question concerning the two methodologies. Which starting point most clearly brings out the character of Anabaptism and would produce a theology that truly reflected the unique character of Anabaptism? Does one know more about Anabaptism through seeking points of commonality with other traditions? If so, one might develop a specifically Anabaptist theology by building on those commonalities, so that the principal contribution of Anabaptist theology is to enrich and enhance the categories from the broader, standard Christian tradition.
Or does one learn most clearly the character of Anabaptism by locating those points where Anabaptism differs from other traditions? If so, a specifically Anabaptist theology could be developed by asking how those points of differences can and should be expressed in, and have a shaping impact on, other aspects of theology.
In my view, Finger’s effort in this book clearly follows the former methodology—seeking points of commonality, and developing theology around those points of commonality. The result is a theology that follows and aligns itself with the broad tradition of western, trinitarian thought, with some enrichment contributions that result from adding elements of Anabaptism to the standard theological tradition.
In a posthumously published article, John Howard Yoder wrote of the difference between ecumenical conversation “from above,” which is conversation that starts with points of commonality, and ecumenical conversation “from below,” which begins with points of difference. Yoder wrote that starting from above had certain things in its favor, including the ability to see progress by actually identifying points of agreement. It also posed a problem, he wrote. Starting with points of agreement favors the agenda of the larger, dominant group in the conversation. To begin with points of agreement or by seeking points of agreement means from the start of the conversation to move to the periphery those points that distinguish or are unique to the smaller party in the conversation.
Stated another way, starting with points of agreement or by seeking points of agreement pushes to the margin precisely those elements that give the smaller group its unique identity. On the other hand, starting the conversation by identifying points of difference brings the unique characteristics of the small group—those characteristics that distinguish the small group from the larger—to the center of the conversation, where they receive equal focus with whatever it is that characterizes the larger group in the conversation. This path to ecumenical convergence is longer and more difficult, Yoder wrote, but ultimately it is the way that honors both parties of the conversation. 6
In my view, Finger’s book is a 600-page illustration of what Yoder called “starting from above.” While it constitutes a valid effort to give visibility to Anabaptist themes, the shaping framework of Finger’s Anabaptist theology comes from the standard theological tradition. And his view of Anabaptist theology reflects the way Anabaptists are perceived in the standard theological tradition—Anabaptists may have something to say about ethics, but have little that is original or significant to contribute to mainstream theological discussions.
IMPORTANT QUESTIONS SET ASIDE
Finger’s approach to Anabaptist theology pushes to the side or eliminates a number of important questions. We have already observed that it does not investigate the extent to which distinctive Anabaptist characteristics produced revisions of or additions to the framework of standard theology. In fact, to push such questions would hinder the stated goal of his theology, which is to picture Anabaptist theology in such a way as to contribute to and enrich standard theology, and would certainly call into question his assumption that the entire history of doctrine is a resource—a “palette”—from which to draw material for a contemporary theology.
In fact, Finger’s methodology is one that does not prize novelty or innovation. Theology constructed for the present is composed of pieces—if sometimes redefined—of the past. Innovation and novelty do occur—in the redefinitions of historic themes and in the creative way the contemporary synthesis is assembled. However, it is not a methodology that seeks or recognizes genuine novelty that would indicate new theological directions.
The Issue of Violence
Several questions around the theme of violence and theology illustrate the contrast between Finger’s theology constructed of past tradition and theology that charts a new direction. Provoked by experiences of spousal violence and violence against women that occurred under patriarchal theology and images of divine violence in standard atonement images, several recent feminist theologians have rejected standard atonement imagery and have called for new atonement imagery or for understandings of the work of God in Christ that do not image divine violence. 7 The idea that a new question concerning the propriety of divine violence or divinely necessitated violence in atonement would cause rejection of traditional atonement images and construction of a new image is foreign to Finger’s approach. He chooses Christus Victor as the best of the traditional images, but his overall effort is to blunt the problematic dimensions of the standard images and then show how elements of them, such as substitution, can be retained (362-63).
The Character of God
The effort to develop atonement theology that does not depend on divine violence can lead one to think again about the character of God. It seems to me that if God is fully revealed in Jesus, which is Christian profession, and if the narrative of Jesus shows that he rejected violence, which is recognized by virtually all biblical scholars and theologians, then the God who is revealed in Jesus cannot be a God who depends on violence or who countenances violence to work the divine will. This observation then leads to the necessity of considerable rethinking of inherited, traditional theology about God. Although Finger hints at this discussion, once again analysis from a specifically nonviolent perspective would mean rejection of some elements of the history of doctrine and the development of new formulations in a different direction. In contrast, Finger’s approach is to mitigate the violent elements and to look for ways and redefinitions to preserve the standard formulas.
The Book of Revelation
Similar comments arise when considering the book of Revelation. The usual approach interprets it as a book of divine judgment, picturing a violent end of the world. That general scenario fits pre-, post- and amillennial eschatologies. In spite of their mutually exclusive differences, what these views have in common is the assumption that the imagery of Revelation constitutes predictions that are coming true in the time of the contemporary reader, whether the specific calender of events projected by dispensationalists, or the more vague predictions of amillennialists. The pages of history are littered with the stories of these failed predictions. Finger’s consideration of Revelation and eschatology in terms of pre-, post- and amillennial eschatological preserves, if somewhat softening, the traditional understanding of Revelation.
I fully agree with Finger’s desire to articulate both continuity and discontinuity in both spiritual and material realms between the present age and God’s future consummation of history. However, I believe that rather than trying to satisfy both pre- and amillennial readings of Revelation, with the assumption of a violent endtime and images of Revelation depicting fulfillment potentially occurring in our present time, both kinds of continuity and discontinuity would actually be easier to articulate with a preterist reading of Revelation. This reading rejects entirely the millennial readings and shows fully that Revelation is a book about the joy of living in the resurrection in the face of first-century Rome, depicted as the dragon—a message which also speaks to Christians in the twenty-first century. 8
AN ECUMENICAL BUT NOT DEFINITIVE WORK
Finger’s methodology assumes a kind of historical determinism or normativity. His approach is a de facto universalization of the broad stream of the received history of Christian doctrine. His driving impulse is to construct a contemporary Anabaptist theology that is somehow linked to doctrine previously articulated. Thus he focuses on agreements and links through redefinitions between his understanding of Anabaptism and contemporary Evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. In terms of the history of doctrine, Anabaptism is a rivulet beside these great traditions from which Finger’s theological framework is chosen. For those mainstream folks willing to listen, Anabaptism has the potential to add a smallish, element of “enrichment” to mainstream formulations, but Anabaptism provides no fundamental challenge to the broad theological tradition.
Thomas Finger has not written the definitive Anabaptist theology. Neither has anyone else. Although it is a different question than he realized, Finger’s theology nonetheless poses an important question for anyone who writes theology for Anabaptists. Finger brings us to consider whether the distinctive elements of Anabaptism—such as rejection of the sword, and an ecclesiology that rejects the state church and rejects identification of the church with the social order—are intrinsic to the theological task and intrinsic to Christian theology.
If the framework that shapes theology comes from the standard, received tradition, then these distinct characteristics given visibility by Anabaptism are not intrinsic to Christian theology as Christian theology. Instead they function as add-ons, as enrichment, to the history of doctrine that is treated as normative and allowed to function as a presumed universal given. In Finger’s Anabaptist theology, rejection of the sword is visible, but visible in the way that rejection of violence has always been visible in western theology—it is there for those individuals who wish to pursue it, but it does not function as a sine qua non—or as a constitutive force—of Christian theology. And in this case, Anabaptism is a rivulet, barely visible within the broad stream of standard theologies.
The alternative is to construct theology that uses these distinct Anabaptist elements as shaping concepts rather than as enrichment add-ons. This approach brings the Anabaptist elements into the heart of the discussion, where they possess the potential to shape the entire enterprise of theology. 9 Anabaptist theology would then function as a challenge and an alternative to those many theologies that acquiesce to and accommodate the sword. In this case, Anabaptism is not a rivulet. It is a river, cutting a new channel. Its intent is to call attention to the extent to which Christian history and tradition has neglected the early church’s rejection of violence. Thus coincidentally it reveals how far the church’s accommodation of the sword in the last eighteen or nineteen hundred years has become a river flowing away from the channel of nonviolence that I believe an Anabaptist theology should attempt to cut.
THE NARRATIVE OF JESUS AS NORMATIVE
As was stated above, even if I challenge the presuppositions of Finger’s approach, this book constitutes a valid approach to an Anabaptist theology. How does one then adjudicate the several approaches to Anabaptist theology, along with theologies from other traditions? I suggest that there is a standard or a norm with which to evaluate these theologies. If we are Christian, if our identity truly comes from the story of Jesus Christ, that norm is the narrative (or narratives) of Jesus that we can read about in the Gospels.
All theology is particular and humanly constructed. The validity of any Christian theology should be measured by the extent to which it grows out of and reflects and gives meaning to the narrative of Jesus. And that focus on the narrative of Jesus is an Anabaptist criterion.
- John Howard Yoder, “ ‘But We Do See Jesus’: The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1984), 61-62.
- Harold S. Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1944).
- These claims about mostly implicit theology and relatively little formal theology may be generally true but disregard some formal theologizing. Martin Bucer’s claim, “Concerning the redemption of Christ Jesus, on which everything rests, we have not found such errors in Michael Sattler as in Denck,” demonstrates that Anabaptists Sattler and Denck discussed atonement theology—the work of Christ—with Martin Bucer. For analysis of the atonement theology of Bucer, Sattler, and Denck see J. Denny Weaver, “The Work of Christ: On the Difficulty of Identifying an Anabaptist Perspective,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (April 1985): 107-29, quote 109. As indicated by no. 5 of Hubmaier’s Nicolsburg articles, Hubmaier and Hut debated atonement theology. See J. Denny Weaver, “Hubmaier Versus Hut on the Work of Christ: The Fifth Nicolsburg Article,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 82 (1991): 171-92. These articles are summarized in J. Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium, The C. Henry Smith Series, vol. 2 (Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., copublished with Herald Press, 2000), ch. 4, which appears in Finger’s bibliography. Finger also wrote that J. C. Wenger’s Introduction to Theology of 1954 was perhaps the first Anabaptist systematic theology since Peter Riedemann (58). Again perhaps generally true, but several other items should be noted. See the three volumes written or edited by Daniel Kauffman, Manual of Bible Doctrines, Setting Forth the General Principles of the Plan of Salvation (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1898); Bible Doctrine: A Treatise on the Great Doctrines of the Bible (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), and Doctrines of the Bible: A Brief Discussion of the Teachings of God’s Word (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1929), as well as Edmund G. Kaufman, Basic Christian Convictions (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1972), and the unpublished manuscript in the archive at Bethel College of C. H. Wedel, Glaubenslehre (North Newton, KS). Wedel’s manuscript is treated at length in J. Denny Weaver, Keeping Salvation Ethical: Mennonite and Amish Atonement Theology in the Late Nineteenth Century, foreword by C. Norman Kraus, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, no. 35 (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1997), which appears in Finger’s bibliography.
- For my take on the story of sixteenth-century Anabaptism from this perspective, see J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 2d ed., foreword by William H. Willimon (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2005).
- Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht, C. Henry Smith Series (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2006), 145.
- John Howard Yoder, “On Christian Unity: The Way from Below,” Pro Ecclesia 9 (spring 2000), 165-83.
- For examples, see Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, eds., Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique (New York: Pilgrim, 1989), esp. 1-30; Rita Nakashima Brock, Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power (New York: Crossroad, 1988); Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2001); Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993).
- For specifics of this interpretation of Revelation, see J. Denny Weaver, “Reading the Past, Present, and Future in Revelation,” in Apocalypticism and Millennialism: Shaping a Believers Church Eschatology for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Loren Johns (Kitchener, ON: Pandora; copublished with Herald, 2000), 97-112; J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 20-33, and “Revelation as Nonviolent Rhetoric,” presentation to the conference Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts, Bluffton University, 28 May 2004.
- For my approach to atonement from this perspective, with some consideration of Christology, see Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement. For suggestions in the interpretation of sixteenth-century Anabaptist theology from this perspective, see Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity, ch. 4, and Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist, ch. 5. The appendix to Becoming Anabaptist contains an “Essay on Interpretation,” which has an analysis and critique of another effort, with significant parallels to Finger’s, to define sixteenth-century Anabaptism and Anabaptist theology in terms of a common core shared with the theology of Christendom.