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essay was Robert Friedmann's first-draft attempt at defining
what should go into the Mennonite Encyclopedia under "Theology,
Anabaptist." The editors did not see fit to use this approach,
but the essay was published in the Mennonite Historical Bulletin,
April 1990. One reason for this may well have been the fact that
Friedmann's analysis was based more on the Swiss and Hutterian
traditions, with less emphasis upon Dutch Anabaptism. Even so,
the essay is of great importance. Its significance lies in part
in its early date, 1958, but also in unique formulations. For
here is none other than Friedmann's encapsulation of what later
would appear as his Theology of Anabaptism (Herald Press,
1973). Friedmann's interpretation may prove useful, currently,
in the light of present interests in the question of Mennonite
merger, and in a conjoint Mennonite confession of faith. (Leonard
Gross, Editor, Mennonite Historical Bulletin)
ever wrote a book or tract approximating systematic theology,
comparable to what the Reformers of the sixteenth century have
done. Therefore, a discussion here can point only to an implied,
not to an explicit system of theology or theological thought,
underlying all other activities of the brethren. No Christian
group can exist without such an implied set of ideas, whereas
their detailed expounding depends rather on actual occasions
of polemics or defense.
which is foremost in the present endeavor of formulating this
"implied" theology of the Anabaptists is whether or
not Anabaptists accepted by and large the theology of the Protestant
Reformers (Luther or Zwingli, hardly Calvin), adding in addition
only those aspects otherwise neglected. In other words, should
Anabaptism be regarded as a sort of Protestantism, with simply
a greater emphasis on practical works and conduct, otherwise
in line with the Reformers? The older outlook (such as that of
John Horsch) was inclined to accept this viewpoint while at present
it is felt that Anabaptist theology, as it gradually becomes
better known, was in many ways as deeply different from Protestantism
as the latter was different from Catholicism. Otherwise the violent
opposition and persecution of the brethren would be hard to understand.
According to this more recent viewpoint, Anabaptism was more
than merely a radicalized Lutheranism or Zwinglianism, even though
elements of both are found in Anabaptist thought.
While the great
Reformers were in one sense or another Augustinians, Anabaptists
were unaware of--or at least were uninterested in--the teachings
of that great church father. As for the emphasis in biblical
studies, the stress is shifted from Pauline doctrines, developed
above all in the great Epistle to the Romans, to the basic instructions
and teachings of Christ himself as found in the Synoptic gospels.
The idea of discipleship therefore becomes foremost. In a rather
general sense one could formulate this situation somewhat as
follows: While for the Reformers the question of personal, individual
salvation (from the taint of original sin and punishment for
it) stood in the foreground, a question usually answered by the
so-called "solafide" theology, the Anabaptists were
primarily interested in the idea of Nachfolge (following Christ)
which is based on an implied "theology of the kingdom of
Of course, the
Anabaptists too were sure that this idea means, in the last analysis,
"salvation" (from the powers of darkness), but salvation
as taught by Luther was certainly not their primary concern.
Their concern was rather obedience to the Word of God which excluded
from the outset too much thinking concerning one's own fate.
Only by obedience can one become a "disciple" and thus
be active towards the promotion of the kingdom of God. Original
sin exists, of course, but must not necessarily prevent man from
such a way of Nachfolge, if man only fights in his own depth
all the opposing forces.
Here we see immediately
the great difference between them and the Reformers: there is
no inescapable pessimism concerning man's capacity to obey God's
commandments (including those of the Sermon on the Mount). The
reason for this is that Anabaptism begins with the very idea
of inner rebirth and a new and dedicated life, while Protestantism
in general is inclined to despair of such an ability in man.
Popularly, one might formulate the difference as an "emphasis
on sanctification" versus an "emphasis on justification";
such a formulation, however, is too simple to satisfy, and the
finer differences will become clearer only as we study the issue,
point by point.
In reading Anabaptist
tracts of a quasi-theological nature (usually provoked by polemics)
one discovers quickly the absence of certain key words so familiar
to everyone from the writings of Luther or Zwingli:
1) There is first
and foremost the almost complete absence of the term "original
sin"--or, if it appears, it shows but marginal significance.
All the classical loci quoted by Luther are absent (e.g., in
Friedemann, see Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1952, 210ff.),
and their answer that "the sons do not inherit the guilt
of the fathers" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) is utterly un-Lutheran.
In other words, total depravity is unthinkable for men who have
dedicated their lives to Nachfolge and discipleship. The reborn
person knows ways and means to fight the "old Adam"
in us, primarily by a life of nonconformity.
2) The term "atonement"
is found nearly nowhere, and Anabaptists often express their
opposition to the idea that inasmuch as Christ had ransomed us
from the bondage of sin, we cannot do anything more but rely
on this cosmic event and accept it as a free gift (cf. "Sweet
or Bitter Christ," Mennonite Encyclopedia, IV, 688-9).
Man is not saved through Christ in his sin, but from his sin.
The only known Anabaptist tract on this topic, from about 1530,
Von der Genugtuung Christi ["On the Satisfaction of Christ,"
in: John Howard Yoder, Ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler,
1973, 108ff.] does not really deal with the doctrine itself but
only with the question: who may receive this divine grace? Only
the disciple who dedicates himself altogether to a life of obedience
is worth to receive this grace. Justification is Gerechtmachung,
not only Gerechterklärung.
by faith alone: This formulation leads easily to confusion because
the opposite formulation, "salvation by works," contains
so much ambiguity that the issues become easily blurred. A passage
by Riedemann may easily illustrate this situation. He violently
opposes the accusation "as if we would seek to be good [fromm
werden, the Anabaptist term for salvation] through our own works....
To this we say 'no,' for we know that all our work, insofar as
it is our work, is naught but sin and unrighteousness; but insofar
as it is of Christ and done by Christ in us, so far is it truth--just
and good...." (Riedemann, Account of our Religion, 1950,
4) The term "sacrament"
is of course totally absent in Anabaptist writings, but the subject
itself -- baptism and the Lord's Supper--was much discussed,
more or less in a Zwinglian way (symbolism). That baptism means
a "sealing up of the new birth" is of course specific
with all groups favoring adult baptism. Often the Anabaptists
call it with Titus 3:5 a "bath of rebirth"; to them
it means a vow to walk the way of discipleship; till the end
of life. Thus we might say that discipleship is more than mere
"sanctification of life," rather it is sanctification
after having experienced God's grace of actual (existential)
justification (Gerechtmachung). Work under such condition is
not a "marital act" (as with Catholicism) but the evidencing
of faith in life-obedience to God's commandments. Peter's word,
You are a royal people (1 Peter 2:9), is more central to Anabaptists
than Paul's cry of despondency in Romans 7.
to this way the Anabaptist no longer worries about personal salvation.
His way is not "salvation by works" (as opponents used
to say and still say so now and then) but the Anabaptist knows
that no salvation is thinkable without works which show the reality
of one's conversion. The term "by faith alone" is too
indefinite as to be well usable for such a vision.
theology is subdivided into several topics such as christology,
soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. Naturally, Anabaptist
writings are unaware of this classification, but in broad outlines
we may find some salient points to each topic in these writings:
It has to be stressed that the Anabaptists were thoroughly "orthodox"
in their faith, i.e., they accepted without any reservation the
Apostolic Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity. That holds true
for all groups without distinction. Christ is the second person
of the Trinity, the Son of God, fully man and fully God, who
redeemed mankind by his death -- that is, by opening a new way
to fight the powers of Satan, and also by opening God's immeasurable
grace to all who will follow him in true sonship. The Anabaptists
accepted the orthodox "old-evangelical" teachings --
prior and up to the time of the Nicene Creed. With Zwingli they
eliminated all magical ideas, so often connected with the person
of Christ. We should stress here also that the Anabaptists were
soberly scriptural, that is, all kinds of fanaticism, enthusiasm
and false spiritualism were foreign to them.
That humans are born in sin, is of course readily admitted; but
this birth does not mean a sort of fate which cannot be overcome
or escaped. The basic presupposition of Anabaptist thought is
the existential fact of inner rebirth, the total change of mind.
Only individuals of this type could (and would) ever join the
Anabaptist brotherhoods; those who passively despaired of any
essential change of life could never understand the Anabaptists
both in their everyday life and in their stand at trials. Faith
meant to them more than merely a "creedal assent,"
it meant rather an experience leading to decision and commitment.
an attitude will unavoidably lead to conflicts with the "world"
(which lives in a mixture of powers derived both from light and
darkness), and with it, to persecution. The Anabaptist, however,
is prepared to accept it, what was aptly called the "theology
of martyrdom," meaning the expectation of the cross for
the disciple -- "cross," not as a marital event, but
as a sign of one's own stand, challenging the world which will
always contradict the path of Christ and his disciples. (Note:
theology of martyrdom, i.e., the "church under the cross,"
is to be distinguished from a "theology of the cross,"
so well-known from later Pietism, but also from the writings
of Thomas Müntzer and other writers of the sixteenth century.)
The idea of a
suffering church is not really a "theology" in the
strict sense of the word, just as the idea of "discipleship"
is not theology proper (though part of it). Discipleship (Nachfolge)
is often called "obedience" in Anabaptist tracts. Neither
this disciple-ship nor martyrdom as such has in itself any "saving"
The central concepts
of Anabaptist theology therefore have to be sought on a still
deeper level. It was recently called the "theology of the
two worlds," or kingdom-of-God theology (Robert Friedmann,
"The Doctrine of the Two Worlds," in: The Recovery
of the Anabaptist Vision, 1957, 105-18). Its basic idea is
the primitive Christian dualism of God and Satan, the kingdom
of God and the kingdom of Satan, light and darkness, Spirit and
flesh, and the like. Facing this prime situation of all existence,
each person has to decide for himself which one of the two sides
he is ready to join. All the well-known radicalism of the Anabaptist
such as martyrdom, community of goods, innerworldly asceticism,
etc., has its roots in this basic theological vision or outlook.
To this "kingdom-theology"
might be added as a supplementary thought the idea of "covenant"
(Bund). The Anabaptists have made their covenant with God (1
Peter 3:21) when accepting baptism, but more correctly God made
his covenant with all those who are ready to be his children.
Thus Anabaptists are "covenant people," having committed
themselves to unceasing enmity to whatever belongs to the prince
of the world (such as violence, adultery, greed, hatred, etc.)
(Note: One author
prefers to speak of two aeons rather than two worlds, but it
appears that the aeon-theology belongs in a different context.)
Except for marginal figures such as Melchior Hofmann and his
like, eschatology has nowhere been treated in detail by Anabaptists.
And yet, they draw courage and good cheer from an unelaborated-upon
hope and confidence that "these are the last and most dangerous
days." In other words, they believe that the kingdom of
God has drawn near and will come at any moment. That gives them
calmness in tribulation -- they are sure that God will not delay
for long his coming. Again, Anabaptists were reading Peter ("new
heavens and a new earth," 2 Peter 3:13) with more understanding
in this regard than any one of the other epistles of the New
Testament. But one should stress the point that Anabaptists were
never adventists or millenarians of any kind. When, in 1527 at
the famous Martyr's Synod in Augsburg, this question came up,
Hans Hut was expressly instructed to keep back his own ideas
concerning the near end of this world, and he kept his promise.
Anabaptists were loath to indulge in speculations of this kind.
Only as an undercurrent would they allow remarks of this kind.
After all, the kingdom of God was not only coming, it was already
The Corpus Christi is here stressed over against the Corpus Christianorum.
In other words, the brotherhood of dedicated Christians stands
here against the body of all baptized Christians, saints and
sinners. The Catholics as well as the Reformers accepted the
Corpus Christianorum, the concept of a Christian society at large,
hence their opposition to the idea of an exclusive Corpus Christi[anum].
The church (Gemeinde,
also Gemein, Gemeinschaft) and the brotherhood are with the Anabaptists
one and the same, both a sacred and a secular body without separation
of these two functions. No one can ever reach God except together
with his brother. The Anabaptist church was once well-called
the "fellowship of committed disciples," and the Lord's
Supper among them is the external symbol of this fellowship (occasionally
called the "fellowship at the Lord's Table"). Brotherhood
is more than a concern for the other's salvation, it is Gemeinschaft,
community, both in things spiritual and worldly. It is essentially
a love-relation (hence it implies more than merely an "ethic"
At the same time
this church is a disciplined church, a church which insists on
supervision by the bishop or Vorsteher, and naturally insists
on the ban. More than once it was called a "church of order"
(cf. Mennonite Encyclopedia, I, 595-a), the term itself occurring
time and again in Anabaptist tracts. Of course, the world of
the children of God must be a world of order, and not one of
confusion or arbitrariness. Whether Grebel or Riedemann, Marpeck
or Menno Simons or Dirk Philips, they all stressed this element
of order and discipline as part of the true church of God. It
belongs as a second element to the first one of brotherly love
and cooperation and sharing.
These then are
the salient elements of Anabaptist theology. Its core appears
to be the doctrine of the two worlds, with its corresponding
idea that the Anabaptists' task is to attempt to realize the
kingdom of God in the here and now, at least in part, and in
weakness. The disciple knows the temptation of sin, but he has
arrived at the decision where he will fight it and will try to
follow the Master. This is possible only if he separates from
the "world," but in a different way from that of medieval
Protestantism with its so profoundly different genius could not
understand this vision and was bent to eliminate it altogether
is regrettable but understandable. Only a period of slackening
of this theology, and at the same time a converging towards a
"general Protestant pattern" (around 1700, see Gerhard
Roosen as an example) could radically change outlook and persecution.