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In the contemporary western context, philosophy is an academic discipline most often pursued by scholars in the university under the banner of the humanities, and sometimes the social sciences. Mennonite engagement with philosophy, like the discipline itself, has a long and complex history. Much of this history has been understood as a series of encounters between Christian theology and supposedly “secular” or “worldly” ideas. However, as many scholars in the fields of political theology and the philosophy of religion have noted, philosophers and philosophical ways of thinking are rarely without religious influence. At the same time, religious and theological traditions have long been entangled with philosophical thinking. This is also true of both the history of the Mennonites and Mennonite theology.

J. Lawrence Burkholder’s article on philosophy for the 1989 expansion volume of the Mennonite Encyclopedia [below] outlined the basic nature of the relationship between Mennonites and philosophy; but the relationship is far more complex than that entry suggested, and Mennonite engagement with philosophers and philosophies has increased significantly since the late 1980s. Indeed, it now constitutes a lively sub-discourse in Mennonite Studies.

In the 17th-century Dutch Republic, Mennonites entered a period of creative philosophical ferment as the Doopsgezinden were exposed to the more liberal ideas of the Collegiant groups (who themselves were influenced by the philosophies of René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza). During the early Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Mennonite seminary in Amsterdam made philosophy and the natural sciences a part of its curriculum, and many church leaders identified significant compatibilities between philosophy and theology in the Spiritualism and Rationalism of their day (for example, Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan).

This complementary attitude toward philosophical and theological ideas, has continued in the Dutch Mennonite context. In the 1960s Johannes Arnoldus Oosterbaan (1910-1998) taught courses on philosophical theology at the Mennonite Seminary (by then a part of the University of Amsterdam). Oosterbaan’s dissertation, Hegels Phænomenologie des Geistes en de theologische kenleer, represents one major Mennonite engagement with a classical philosophical figure. In his dissertation Oosterbaan argued, with reference to both Karl Barth and Menno Simons, that Hegel’s philosophy was fundamentally a Christology.

Strands of philosophical thinking were also present in the 19th-century Russian Mennonite context, most notably in the writings of Kleine Gemeinde minister Heinrich Balzer (1800-1846). In his tract Verstand und Vernunft (Understanding and Reason), Balzer rejected “worldly knowledge,” while using philosophical terms to distinguish between the worldly and intellectual domain of natural reason, and the understanding of God’s word according to the reasons of the heart. A translation of this text by Robert Friedmann appeared in the Mennonite Quarterly Review in 1949, and was later analyzed in detail by James Urry in 1983.

North American Mennonite engagement with philosophy increased dramatically in the 20th century when major figures like Robert Friedmann and J. Lawrence Burkholder used philosophers and philosophical concepts to aid both their theological and pedagogical work. For example, based on a philosophy course that he taught at Western Michigan University in the 1950s, Friedmann’s manuscript Design for Living made use of philosophical figures and concepts in the service of the Anabaptist values of regard, concern, service, and love (including substantial references to philosophical and literary figures such as Nietzsche and Tolstoy). Burkholder not only defended the importance of philosophy for Christian theology in his entry in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, but he also made philosophy a part of the curriculum during his time as president of Goshen College, arguing that “Philosophy makes theology become alive.”

Another major Mennonite figure whose influence extended well beyond the denomination was Gordon D. Kaufman. Kaufman’s philosophical approach to Christian Theology is evident from his early works—such as Relativism, Knowledge, and Faith (1960), where he attended to metaphysical questions—as well as in his later works, like In Face of Mystery (1993), in which he engaged with Kant and Hegel.

During the second half of the 20th century, dominant Mennonite theological voices like John Howard Yoder and A. James Reimer articulated a tension with the discipline of philosophy. While Yoder disparaged Kantian and Platonic philosophies and rarely engaged with the wider philosophical tradition, Reimer was much more comfortable using metaphysical and ontological language and resourcing philosophers in the pursuit of his dogmatically founded Christian ethics and Anabaptist political theology.

In his 1989 entry on philosophy, Burkholder contended that Mennonite suspicion of philosophy and the related discourse on natural theology were based upon a suspicion of secular and worldly influence. Rather than being concerned with “what is” (ontology), Burkholder noted that Mennonites prefer to consider “what is to be” (eschatologically, apocalyptically) and “what ought to be” (ethically). However, it is questionable whether this preference for ethical and eschatological thinking over ontological and philosophical thinking is true of Mennonites in general, especially given the substantial Dutch Mennonite engagement with natural philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries and the contemporary discourse on Mennonites and metaphysics.

By the early 21st century, the North American Mennonite suspicion of philosophy had largely faded, and Mennonite philosophical theologians began to interpret the work of Yoder and others with the help of philosophers, while largely retaining the ethical orientation that Burkholder described (using, for example, the term “pacifist epistemology” to characterize Yoder’s work). This philosophical turn in Mennonite theology is most evident in the collection The New Yoder (Cascade, 2010) in which Yoder is read together with the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Paul Virilio. Mennonite engagement with philosophers continued in another edited volume, The Gift of Difference (Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2013), which focused more specifically on ontological matters in dialogue with Radical Orthodoxy and John Milbank’s “ontology of peace.”

At stake in this postmodern turn toward philosophical thinkers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Levinas, Derrida, Bourdieu, and philosophically influenced concepts (e.g., pacifist epistemology, ontological peace) is the question: how is violence related to our ways of thinking about the world and the metaphysical structure of the world? Indeed, contemporary Mennonite theologians are asking philosophically informed questions about the place of violence in the world in an unprecedented way.

For example, the fourth chapter of Justin Heinzekehr’s 2019 book The Absent Christ: An Anabaptist Theology of the Empty Tomb makes a case for the metaphysical significance of the empty tomb. Using the works of philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Jean-Francois Lyotard, Heinzekehr argues that there is potential for violence in both metaphysical and systematic thinking, and in narrative and contextual thinking as well.

Perhaps the greatest philosophical challenge to Mennonite thinking has come from those who have left the tradition or who stand in much more complex relation to the established church. Philosophical ideas and thinkers continue to be used as resources beyond the fold of Mennonite theology and ecclesiology. For example, philosophical ideas permeate recent literary criticism about Mennonite writers (e.g., Daniel Shank Cruz, Robert Zacharias, and Grace Kehler), and assist in conceptualizing the relationship between religion and politics in recent Mennonite-related political theology (e.g., P. Travis Kroeker, Kyle Gingerich Hiebert). One exemplary ex-Mennonite whose work has influenced the broader discourse on the philosophy of religion is Grace M. Jantzen (1948-2006). Jantzen grew up in a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Saskatchewan before eventually becoming a Quaker. Her late work in Death and the Displacement of Beauty (3 vols.) addresses themes that Mennonites still consider to be important, especially the notion that the history of western thought has inherited violent ways of thinking from the Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian traditions.

From the philosophical affirmations of Friedmann and Burkholder, to the contrast between Reimer and Yoder’s engagements with philosophy, to the recent discourses on pacifist epistemology and ontological peace, the history of Mennonites and philosophy has been characterized not by clear distinctions between philosophical and theological positions and approaches, but by a series of entanglements and intersections. These entanglements persist today in the work of Mennonite and Mennonite-related scholars, like those mentioned above, who challenge the notion that disciplinary divisions between philosophy and theology should decide the bounds of Mennonite identity or determine how faithfulness to that identity should be expressed.

Select Bibliography

Major works in the recent history of Mennonite philosophical thinking. The entries are arranged in chronological order and briefly annotated.

Oosterbaan, J. A. Hegels Phænomenologie des Geistes en de theologische kenleer. Haarlem, H.D. Tjeenk Willink & Zoon N.V., 1953. [The fourth proposition listed on the dissertation summary sheet expresses one key argument: “The historicity of Jesus is an essential moment in Hegel’s Christology.”]

Friedmann, Robert. Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017. Original 1954. [In these edited lecture notes for a philosophy course, Friedmann articulates an ethical system that is broadly ‘humanistic’ and ‘secular,’ but at the same time Anabaptist and influenced by Mennonite theology.]

Kaufman, Maynard. “Anabaptism as an Existentialist Philosophy of Religion: The Quest for an Anabaptist Theology” Mennonite Life (July 1957): 139-141, 143.; “Anabaptism As an Existentialist Philosophy of Religion II Toward an Anabaptist Epistemology” Mennonite Life (January 1958): 35-38.; “Anabaptism as an Existentialist Philosophy of Religion III: Ontological Dimension of Anabaptism” Mennonite Life (April 1958): 79-82. [These articles make early connections between epistemology, ontology, and Anabaptist Mennonite theology, drawing on the works of Friedmann, Kaufman, Paul Tillich, and Rudolph Bultmann.]

Toews, Abraham P. The Problem of Mennonite Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963. [See especially his treatments of Stoicism in Chapter 4 and Humanism in Chapter 5.]

Metzler, Edgar. Let’s Talk About Extremism. Focal Pamphlet No. 12. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968. [This text is one of the earliest North American examples of the application of Mennonite pacifism to ways of thinking and knowing (epistemology).]

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. “The Generosity of Love” in The Compassionate Community. Ed. H. Ralph Hernley Scottdale, PA: Association of Mennonite Aid Societies, 1970: 53-61. [This essay contrasts Aristotelian and Christian visions of love in the context of mutual aid.]

Friedmann, Robert. Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973. [Although his historiography has been critiqued by John D. Roth and Astrid von Schlachta, Friedmann makes a philosophical distinction between the ‘existential’ theology of Anabaptism (‘lived’ and ‘implicit’), and the explicit and systematic theology of other traditions.]

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. “The Particular and the Universal” and “The Bible and Philosophy,” in Sum and Substance. Ed. Edward Zuercher. Goshen, IN: Pinchpenny Press, 1986: 31-42. [These two essays, from 1984 and 1983 respectively, articulate Burkholder’s basic understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

Loewen, Harry, ed. Why I am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988. [Few chapters in this important anthology of Mennonite identity-statements have philosophical resonances. Exceptions include the contributions by Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Johannes Harder, and Gordon Kaufman.]

Doerksen, Paul. “For and Against Milbank: A Critical Discussion of John Milbank’s Construal of Ontological Peace.” Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 1 (Winter 2000). [A critical treatment of the relationship between Milbank’s notion of ‘ontological peace’ and Anabaptist thought.]

Reimer, A. James. Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2001. [Reimer’s articulation of dogmatic foundations for Christian ethics also extends a critique of modernity that uses metaphysical and ontological language. Philosophical interlocutors in this collection include George Grant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer.]

Jantzen, Grace M. “Roots of Violence, Seeds of Peace” The Conrad Grebel Review 20, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 4-19. [This article helpful summarizes the main contours of what Jantzen would later develop in her three-volume Death and the Displacement of Beauty project.]

Huebner, Chris. “Globalization, Theory, and Dialogical Vulnerability: John Howard Yoder and the Possibility of a Pacifist Epistemology,” in A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, And Identity. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2006. [A Yoderian articulation and critical extension of pacifist epistemology, also including some engagement with philosophers like Enrique Dussel, Edward Said, and Fredric Jameson.]

Derksen, Kevin. “Milbank and Violence: Against a Derridean Pacifism,” in The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation. Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite University Press, 2010. [Provides a detailed account of the relationship between Anabaptist Mennonite theology, the Radical Orthodoxy of Anglican theologian John Milbank, and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida.]

Early, Christian and Ted Grimsrud, “Editor’s Introduction” and “Afterword,” in John Howard Yoder, A Pacifist Way of Knowing: John Howard Yoder’s Nonviolent Epistemology. Ed. Christian Early & Ted Grimsrud. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2010. [Although Yoder does not use the term, Early and Grimsrud call his argument against ‘methodologism’ a ‘pacifist epistemology.’]

Blum, Peter. “Two Cheers for an Ontology of Violence” in For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2013. [In this essay collection Blum engages with a range of continental philosophers including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger.]

Pitts, Jamie. Powers and Principalities: Revising John Howard Yoder's Sociological Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013. [A revision of Yoder’s theology in dialogue with the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.]

Koyles, John Patrick. The Trace of the Face in the Politics of Jesus: Experimental Comparisons Between the Work of John Howard Yoder and Emmanuel Levinas. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2013. [A comparative and connective reading of Yoder and Levinas.]

Kroeker, P. Travis. Messianic Political Theology and Diaspora Ethics: Essays in Exile. Theopolitical Visions 23. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2017. [An essay collection centred on a messianic political theology that draws on parts of the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition, and engages extensively with Plato, Augustine, Nietzsche, and the Bible.]

Gingerich Hiebert, Kyle. The Architectonics of Hope: Violence, Apocalyptic, and the Transformation of Political Theology. Theopolitical Visions 21. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2017. [A theological and philosophical exploration of Political Theology and violence, drawing on Yoder and critiquing John Milbank, Johann Baptist Metz, and the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt.]

Kennel, Maxwell. “Mennonite Metaphysics? Exploring the Philosophical Aspects of Mennonite Theology from Pacifist Epistemology to Ontological Peace” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91, no. 3 (July 2017): 403-421. [A survey of Mennonite engagement with philosophical and metaphysical questions.]

Heinzekehr, Justin. The Absent Christ: An Anabaptist Theology of the Empty Tomb. C. Henry Smith Series Vol. 12. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2019. [A constructive and critical work of Anabaptist Mennonite theology that focuses on the figure of the empty tomb while using philosophical concepts from Alfred North Whitehead and Jean-Francois Lyotard.]

Original Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By J. Lawrence Burkholder. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 701-702. All rights reserved.

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) Maxwell Kennel
Date Published April 2020

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Kennel, Maxwell. "Philosophy." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. April 2020. Web. 29 May 2022.

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Kennel, Maxwell. (April 2020). Philosophy. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 May 2022, from

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