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Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 263–266 

Book Review

Participating Witness: An Anabaptist Theology of Baptism and the Sacramental Character of the Church

Anthony G. Siegrist. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013. 198 pages.

Reviewed by John D. Rempel

Few Believers Church theologians have written book-length treatises on baptism. Siegrist’s monograph is a welcome and needed contribution to the field. But, in fact, his work is really a prolegomena to a theology {264} of baptism. Its primary concern is the church as the agent of Christ and the Spirit. Central to Siegrist’s argument is that Mennonite thought and practice must always be framed by that of the long Christian tradition. He makes his case not as a general argument for church unity but on the foundation of the Holy Spirit, who is never absent from the body of Christ.

Beginning with chapter 2, “In Favor of Ecclesial Mediation” and throughout the book, the author argues that Anabaptism had an undeveloped and sometimes inconsistent understanding of the church as the mediator of God’s grace. He faults the current confessions of faith of the Mennonite Brethren Church and Mennonite Church USA/Canada for lacking an understanding of the Spirit’s work through the church. This lack, according to Siegrist, leads inevitably to an individualism that bypasses the church (30–38). To overcome this problem he turns to Karl Barth. At first glance this is a surprise choice because of Barth’s teaching that believer’s baptism is a human response to God’s preceding action (42ff). The gist of Siegrist’s reading of Barth is that all human responses are contingent and dependent. This demonstrates that they are not firstly acts of the human will but flow wholly from God’s initiative. This is a fruitful train of thought, especially for churches that place such weight on human decisions.

In the following chapter, “On the Ecclesial Character of Divine Presence,” Siegrist presents themes from the sixteenth-century Anabaptist, Pilgram Marpeck, and the twentieth-century Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as outstanding resources for the role of the church and its sacraments as mediators of God’s presence in the world (62ff). Here Siegrist seems to be challenging Anabaptism and its descendent movements: they have had a “sacramental” place for the church as God’s agency in the world but have been reluctant to extend that role to its practices. Why this inconsistency? The author uses Marpeck to show that it is possible to extend a mediating role to ceremonies from a consistently Anabaptist position (81–90). He faults Marpeck at a crucial point: in his scheme the Spirit remains the inner agent of God’s presence in the church and Christ remains the outer agent. Siegrist argues that in a Trinitarian confession of God you cannot have the church as mediator unless the Holy Spirit is also the agent of its outer life (93). Only then is a sacramental understanding of baptism possible.

At this point Siegrist affirms the historic Protestant (and Mennonite) fear that such thinking can lead to the collapse of Christology and pneumatology into ecclesiology (99), without, however, relinquishing his assertion that Anabaptism is “pneumatologically underdeveloped” (106). His argument begins with the Martyrs Mirror, the foundational record of the faithful, martyr church from the early church to the sixteenth century. Siegrist finds its account “theologically rash” (115, 135) because it judged the state {265} church solely by its failings rather than also by the promise that the Spirit would always inhabit the church.

I like Siegrist’s consistency of thought and willingness to address difficult issues. But on this issue I think he is confusing devotional with systematic writings and, consequently, asking the impossible, that of a persecuted minority affirming the presence of the Spirit in its persecutors. When he goes on to chastise twentieth-century Old Mennonite theologians like J. C. Wenger and Norman Kraus for the marginal place of the Spirit in their understanding of the church he is at least engaging fellow theologians (116–123).

Siegrist then lays out a theology of the Holy Spirit in three categories: conversion, unity, and promise. Here I was disappointed that he did not make reference to the larger Mennonite tradition. On the matter of “conversion” the Mennonite Brethren and their fusion of Anabaptism and Pietism have much to offer. The author’s next category, unity, invokes a notion from Ephraim Radner, arguing that God has withdrawn a measure of his presence as a judgment upon a divided church, but equally importantly, that God has not abandoned the church. In other words, Mennonites might rightly disagree with the historical evolution of infant baptism but they would be wrong in concluding that the churches that practice it have any less of the Holy Spirit than Mennonites do (esp. 146–152).

On the basis of this developed pneumatology Siegrist returns to baptism. He makes a great deal of the three actors in baptism (God, the church, the believer) but without any reference to places in Mennonite thought and practice where this is clearly affirmed. The crucial concept in Siegrist’s theology of baptism is “participation.” With typical nuance he writes, “Baptism is an event of the grace of God, not in the water and the oil themselves, but inasmuch as these elements together participate in the work of the body of Christ” (161). He makes clear that in the matter of sacraments the church’s work is God’s work. As regards models for the baptismal theology he has presented, Siegrist turns to the pre-Nicene church, especially the first century Didache, separating the case for sacraments from the form taken by the Constantinian church. In this section Siegrist reflects on belief and behavior in preparing candidates for baptism, something that was dear to the post-apostolic church and to Anabaptism alike. However, Siegrist seems not to be aware that some of the practices he advocates have a long history in the wider Mennonite world. Similarly, in his advocacy of baptism as most appropriate on Easter or Pentecost he does not acknowledge that for General Conference Mennonites baptism only on Pentecost is a practice that goes back at least to the eighteenth century. Similarly, it is a longstanding custom among Mennonite Brethren to have a prayer for the {266} Holy Spirit and for perseverance with laying on of hands immediately following baptism.

Matters of detail aside, Siegrist has plowed new ground for Believers Churches. He has shown that a biblically based reconsideration of the one-sidedness of Anabaptist and Mennonite baptismal practice can come about only with an adequate pneumatology and its relationship to ecclesiology. He has crafted fresh terms that function as a meeting point between liturgical and free churches. Siegrist has given us the materials we need for the task ahead of us.

John D. Rempel, PhD
Director
Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre, Toronto, Ontario

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