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If by philosophy we mean the tradition of critical reflection with roots in the Greek classical tradition and its development in Western civilization of which such philosophers as Aquinas, Kant, Descartes, Hegel, and Dewey are representatives, it may be observed that Mennonite participation has been at best marginal.

Mennonite participation has been marginal in part for historical reasons. For most of their history, Mennonites, a persecuted minority, have had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to reflect upon universal themes. Rather, they have concentrated upon practical necessities of life intent upon survival within a hostile world.

Furthermore Mennonites have neglected philosophy for theological reasons. Insofar as philosophy seeks to understand the meaning of life based upon human experience, Mennonites have been distrustful, since the world is thought to be sinful and corrupt. Philosophy has been considered a diversion from the single and undivided task of preaching the gospel and of promoting the kingdom of God and the church. Also while believing in creation, Mennonites have seldom been convinced that creation is a source of meaning, at least to the extent of developing a natural theology. Mennonites have had no interest in ontology, the study of what "is." Rather they have concentrated upon what is "to be" in the future (apocalypticism) or what ought to be (ethics) as revealed in a particular Person and history. Hence Mennonites have cut off philosophy in principle, not simply by accident.

Such considerations may account for the fact that at most Mennonite colleges, philosophy commands only a minor place in curricula. Teachers of philosophy are frequently theologians by training. Many have led professional lives of short duration (Wiens, 1987). They have no clear relationship as philosophers to the reflective councils of the Mennonite Church. There are no Mennonite associations from which to gain a sense of identity. While Mennonites build historical libraries and collect theological volumes by the thousands, few shelves are devoted to philosophical literature.

Furthermore, Mennonite theology, besides neglecting nature and human experience as sources of meaning, has discouraged systematic formulations. The tendency of theology to move beyond biblical studies is suspect since to order Christian thought " systematically" is to introduce principles of organization and presuppostions (prolegomena) that are philosophical in nature. Hence even "post-sectarian" or acculturated Mennonites have done little in systematic theology and philosophical theology is held at bay. In this respect one may note the powerful influences of Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann upon Mennonite theologians after World War II. In effect, Karl Barth encouraged Mennonites to remain within the "theological circle" and Oscar Cullmann would have Mennonites confine their thoughts to "Heilsgeschichte" (salvation history) and to "de-Platonized" conceptions of God, "Christ" and "Time." Furthermore Mennonite scholars have had a tendency to de-emphasize the influence of Hellenistic thought in the New Testament.

Nevertheless, Mennonites have been influenced by philosophy however indirectly. After all, no person or group within the stream of western society can escape its influence completely. For one thing the language of theology is to a considerable extent philosophical in origin. Furthermore orthodox theology , in its classic as well as fundamentalist forms is rooted in philosophical speculation. Such orthodox doctrines as God, Christ, Holy Spirit, sin, and creation contain elements derived in part from universal human experience and were formulated by such philosopher theologians as Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Aquinas and others. Until recent years philosophy has been, for the most part, a support to theology by making it understandable and therefore believable for successive generations. Indeed even the Bible reflects philosophical thought, not to speak of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament that shows direct borrowing.

It should be noted also that while the Mennonites have been relatively successful in their rejection of traditional philosophy, when philosophy generally provided support for theology, they have been surprisingly open to its 19th and 20th century positivist ("secular" or "scientific") offspring. That is to say, while rejecting that great philosophical stream of thought rooted in idealism, Mennonites have opened their arms to empirically grounded sociology, psychology, historical criticism, and even language analysis as if these disciplines were less speculative and less threatening to faith. Somehow to speak about God "in history" and of the Christ as a "historical being," of the church as a "visible" reality, of communion as memorial, of sin as misused freedom, however true and necessary, but without the supporting glue of an idealistic vision of reality, cannot but expose Christian faith to the rocks and shoals of secular positivism. For it is one thing to come to the Bible and the Christian community naively as unsophisticated people do and another thing to come to the Bible and the community with relativistic tools of criticism sharpened by empirical presuppositions devoid of philosophically perceived views of transcendence, mystery, soul, sacrament, and spiritual reality.

There have been times, of course, when Mennonites have sought to understand themselves philosophically. In 1943 R. C. Kauffman wrote an article entitled, "The philosophical aspects of Mennonitism" in which he claimed that "There is a certain antithesis between being philosophical and being Mennonite." However, he went on to say that Mennonite authority implies the use of reason as it appeals to sources beyond itself. Critical analysis tends to expose implicit and possibly unconscious principles that are philosophical in nature.

On another level Robert Friedmann attempted to interpret Anabaptism as a kind of "existentialism, " since Anabaptists resisted "system building" and focused on voluntary rather than "ontic" reality. His extensive manuscript "Design for living" (1954), a rather reflective overview of life and values, was never published.

On still another level, Mennonites like any other self-conscious community have reflected upon human life in general on the basis of their experience. Such reflection takes the form of persistent themes in their literature, their interpretation of history and their folklore. Certainly the Martyrs Mirror is more than a chronicle of persecution. It speaks by implication about the life of God's people as heroic suffering. Suffering functions as a philosophical principle when it is universalized in the renowned hymn of the Martyr George Grünwald, "Kommt her zu mir, Spricht Gottes Sohn" (Come to me, says the Son of God). "

Alle Creatur bezeugen das

Was lebt in Wasser, luft und Gras,

Durch Leiden muss es enden." 

(All creatures testify that all that lives in water, air, and grass must end by suffering.)

Speak to any convinced Hutterite about "community of goods" and the apology will be philosophical in nature. Thus it may be claimed that Mennonites, while having resisted formal philosophy, have in fact upheld values, made choices, maintained chronicles, interpreted histories, and perpetuated life-styles which, when reflected upon against a universal background, constitute implicitly a philosophy. In many communities, including Israel, such common thought would be named "wisdom."

Wisdom is rarely made explicit, however, except when challenged from the outside. Historically the challenge in Western culture took the form of metaphysics. Today with the virtual death of metaphysics the challenge is positivism. (Positivism rejects transcendent, "spiritual," or "trans-physical" [metaphysical] explanations of reality, concentrating instead on "scientifically" observable, experimental explanations.) Mennonites may ponder whether, having participated in the demise of metaphysics by rejecting medieval culture at foundational levels, during the Reformation they may have contributed unwittingly to the rise of modern positivism with its insidious power to destroy what it claims only to explain (modernity).

That Mennonites have failed to identify with the philosophical tradition is of course due not only to the internal dynamics of Mennonite life and thought. It is also due to the misfortunes of philosophy itself. As stated earlier, classical philosophy came upon hard times during the first half of the 20th century as metaphysics surrendered to logical positivism with its emphasis upon language analysis. Concurrently philosophy lost ground within academic communities as university departments of philosophy declined in numbers and influence in deference to science and technology. Hence the pressure on small denominational colleges to offer courses in philosophy diminished. Also philosophy simply could not offer its practitioners a way to earn a living.

Nevertheless a case for philosophy could be made, since philosophy, both in its classical and analytical forms, could function within the Mennonite community as a source of clarification and meaning. For it is through critical analysis that the meaning of theological language, particularly biblical language, may be translated into the modern idiom and it is by comparison with classical thought that the significance of theological language may be discerned.


Wiens, Delbert. "Philosophy and Mennonite Understanding." Unpublished, 1987.

Kauffman, Ralph C. "The Philosophical Aspects of Mennonitism," in The Curricula of Mennonite Colleges: Proceedings of the Second Conference on Mennonite Cultural Problems, Goshen, Ind., July 22-23, 1942, ed. P. S. Goertz. N.p.: Council of Mennonite and Affiliated Colleges, 1943: 113-26.

Author(s) J. Lawrence Burkholder
Date Published 1989

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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "Philosophy." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 16 Feb 2019.

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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. (1989). Philosophy. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 February 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 701-702. All rights reserved.

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