History, Theology of

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Discussion of Anabaptist theologies of history typically focus on the themes of " primitivism" or "restitutionism"--the quest to restore, or reinstitute, the primitive purity of the church. Restitutionism, however, is only one element in much broader Anabaptist understandings of history and as such must be placed into context. Post-Anabaptist Mennonites, in contrast to the Anabaptists, tended to value historical continuity and tradition rather than novelty. However, periodically renewal movements arose to reemphasize restitutionism (temporarily) in support of their cause. The Brüdergemeinde (Mennonite Brethren) in Russia and the "recovery of the Anabaptist vision" school in America were two such examples. Especially but not exclusively, for this latter school, certain moments in history became theologically so important, that theology and history became almost indistinguishable. The degree to which this theology of history accordingly distorted the history of theology continues to be debated.

Central to many Anabaptist and most Mennonite understandings of history is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (Christology). (1) The incarnation confirmed unequivocally the Old Testament truism that God acts within space and time to effect his will. (2) God's agenda from creation to consummation is uniquely revealed in the incarnation--in the composite of Jesus' teachings, life, death, and resurrection. (3) Jesus Christ in his life and teaching, his love and suffering, is the norm for all human activity within the present dispensation. Adult human beings are free moral agents, who (4) can and must decide as individuals how they will respond to the incarnational revelation. Those who respond in obedience to God's grace through faith are not only saved from sin but also are empowered by the resurrection of Christ through the Holy Spirit to become disciples of Christ within history. (5) The primary mediating agency of God's grace and incarnational expression of Christ's presence in history is the church--the voluntary and disciplined community of believers. And lastly, the full realization of the kingdom of God on earth, when good triumphs over evil and the faithful remnant vanquishes the principalities and powers, awaits God's divine intervention in a second coming of Christ. History is thus an eschatological drama beginning and ending with God, given definitive direction in Jesus the incarnate Christ, yet shaped in its detail by human beings and their institutions the accountable actors on stage of history.

Within this larger drama, restitutionism is a response to the perceived failure of the church to be the church and a quest to reverse the processes of history. Three historical stages are critical to this reading. First is the normative stage, that Edenic era of the primitive church which defined the church's identity for all times and places. Accepting the assumption that the stream flows purest at its source, normativity is defined by the charismatic origins, not by the routinization over time.

The fall of the church follows as the second stage. At some historical moment or with some historical movement the normative church is compromised to the degree that the essence is a least grossly obscured if not completely vitiated. The precise location of the fall varied somewhat among Anabaptists, as it does among all restitutionists, depending on the details of the normative essence deemed lost. Most commonly Anabaptists located the fall in the Constantinian-Theodosian revolution (A.D. 312-95) when the church shifted from being an exclusive, intentional community defined by personal decision, ethical rigor, and consequent persecution to becoming an inclusive, compulsory imperial organization With the resultant ethical and ecclesiastical compromises necessary to be the official and only tolerated religion of the Roman empire.

The restitution of the normative church of converted and disciplined believers follows as stage three. As indicated, for those Anabaptists whom Mennonites consider exemplary, the incarnation and the early church provided the restitution norm in both beliefs and practice. Voluntarism and adult baptism, ethical rigor including nonresistant love, church discipline and the ban, suffering from persecution were identified as marks of the true church. The more apocalyptically-oriented Anabaptists, such as those at Münster, pushed the normative era back into the Old Testament and sought the restoration of the kingdom of David, while the more spiritualist-oriented, such as Sebastian Franck, de-emphasized the institutional dimensions of restoration in favor of a spiritual essence beyond the historical.

Differentiation of the mainline or magisterial from the sectarian or radical reformation movements in the 16th century in terms of their contrasting views of history--reformation versus restitution respectively--has been championed especially by Franklin H. Littell. Before him Roland Bainton followed several European scholars in noting the contrast and after him Frank Wray devoted a dissertation to the distinction. But Hans Hillerbrand responded that all reformers considered themselves restitutionists and H. W. Meihuizen demonstrated that not nearly all Anabaptists referred to themselves as restitutionists and when they did varied considerably in their usage. John Howard Yoder, in defense of Littell, argued for the utility of the differentiation of reformation and restitution if each is viewed ideal-typically.

Yoder, however, disagreed with Littell and others who considered the restitutionist perspective as essentially ahistorical. The attempt to radically reverse the course of history by erasing centuries of fallen church history to recapture a lost innocence can be viewed as "historyless," or as naive with regard to the shaping influence on their own understanding of the history they rejected. Yet Yoder argued the opposite. The restitutionists were profoundly historical, said Yoder, in that they did not simply accept the judgment of history but rather judged history according to a historical norm (the Incarnation), analyzed what went wrong in history, and set about to rectify the situation on the premise of human freedom rather than historical determinism. Drawing similar conclusions, C. J. Dyck maintained that Anabaptist restitution was not so much a rejection of history as a restoration in the present by the power of the Spirit, of the faithfulness of the first Christians. This was possible, they believed, through personal conversion, biblical literalism and church discipline.

But restitutionism has its detractors even among Mennonites. Recently Dennis Martin countered Yoder and Dyck by both reiterating the view that restitutionism is ahistorical and critiquing Anabaptist and Mennonite restitutionism from a reformist perspective. Martin's critique is basically twofold. For one, that Mennonites are both creators and victims of modernity and its limitations, insofar as the modern ethos is premised on the rejection of continuity in history as implied by restitutionism. Secondly says Martin, restitutionists do not take the second generation seriously and hence are ill at ease with the inevitable institutionalization that develops because institutionalization seems to compromise their perfectionist vision.

That tradition is inevitable for the second generation Dyck acknowledged. While Dyck found this reality discomforting in that the Spirit was thereby limited, for Martin it confirmed the wisdom of the reformist approach to history. In fact the reformist emphasis on continuity and tradition became the dominant Mennonite paradigm early on. At least from theMartyrs' Mirror to the 20th-century renaissance of Mennonite historiography, Mennonites defined their identity primarily through a recitation of their sectarian history. indeed for the most traditional--the Old Orders and Old Colony--continuity with the past became the primary mark of faithfulness. For some continuity need go back only to the 16th century founders and then leap over the fallen centuries to the primitive church. For others, some influenced by the 19th-century. Münster archivist Ludwig Keller, continuity was also sought in the "old evangelical brotherhoods," such as the Waldenses, down through the Middle Ages to the time of Christ.

History as the story of the sectarian tradition had many uses. It not only provided the necessary collective memory for a minority movement, frequently challenged by a hostile environment, it also legitimated conservatism and traditionalism and even religious lethargy, But the counterpoint of restitutionism also remained readily available in the cause of revitalization. Repeatedly a restitutionist mode was invoked to leap across decades and even millennia to the 16th and 1st centuries in the cause of church reform. Thus, for example, the Mennonite Brethren in Russia (1860s) rejected the established Mennonite community in the name of Menno Simons and the New Testament and called upon the faithful to restitute the true church. Similarly in mid-20th-century America "the Anabaptist Vision" movement sought at least a recovery of the vision if not a restitution of its ecclesiology. Indeed, the younger visionaries writing in a series of Concern pamphlets (1954-71) challenged Harold S. Bender, the father of the movement, to go beyond recovery to restitution. John H. Yoder's "Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite reality" is perhaps the most sustained historical explication of these younger restitutionists. Mennonite history is thus critiqued from the vantage of a normative Anabaptism.

The question recent historiography has asked is: how close is this Anabaptist vision to Anabaptist reality? Undoubtedly the Mennonite theology of history has contributed significantly to the extensive study and renewed appreciation, especially in this century, of the previously much maligned Anabaptists. But the study thus encouraged is a two-edged sword. While it can define a vision of "evangelical Anabaptism" particularly relevant as a norm for 20th-century Mennonites, it can also question the historical reality of that vision. If historical scholarship successfully questions the historicity of significant elements of the Anabaptist vision, the role of Anabaptism will need to be redefined in Mennonite restitutionism. Restitutionism per se may require redefinition, in turn. Whatever redefinitions are necessary, the larger theology of history will remain as a centerpiece in Mennonite theology.


Dyck, Cornelius J. "The Place of Tradition in Dutch Anabaptism." Church History 43 (1974): 34-49.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "History and Theology: a Major Problem of Anabaptist Research Today." Mennonite Quarterly Review 53 (1979): 177-88, plus six responses to Goertz in the same issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Littell, Franklin H. The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism: a Study of the Anabaptist View of the Church. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964; originally published as The Anabaptist View of the Church, 1952.

Martin, Dennis D. "Nothing New Under the Sun?: Mennonites and History." Conrad Grebel Review 5 (1987): 127, responses 147-53, 260-62.

Meihuizen, H. W. "The Concept of Restitution in the Anabaptism of Northwestern Europe." Mennonite Quarterly Review 44 (1970): 141-58.

Sawatsky, Rodney J. "History and Ideology: American Mennonite Identity Definition Through History. Ph.D. diss., Princeton U., 1977.

Wray, Frank J. "The Anabaptist Doctrine of the Restitution." Mennonite Quarterly Review 28 (1954): 186-96.

Yoder, John Howard. "Anabaptism and History" in Umstrittenes Täufertum (1975): 244-58; reprinted in Yoder, Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame U. Press, 1984): 123-34.

Yoder, John Howard. "Anabaptist Vision and Mennonite Reality," in Consultation on Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology, ed. A. J. Klassen. Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary for Council of Mennonite Seminaries, 1970: 1-46.

Author(s) Rodney J Sawatsky
Date Published 1989

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MLA style

Sawatsky, Rodney J. "History, Theology of." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 10 Aug 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=History,_Theology_of&oldid=162868.

APA style

Sawatsky, Rodney J. (1989). History, Theology of. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 August 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=History,_Theology_of&oldid=162868.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 382-384. All rights reserved.

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