Anabaptism, as a lay movement, inherited and passed on to its descendants suspicion of scholarship common to lay people in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, scholarship has been part of the Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition, culminating in intense scholarly attention given to its own history in the 20th century.
A number of early Anabaptist leaders had university and para-university (humanist) education and were acquainted with the methods of scholarship. Menno Simons specifically said that he understood the value of "learnedness and the languages." The writings of Hubmaier, Denck, Dirk Philips and others were average works of scholarship in their time.
But Menno Simons and the other educated leaders rejected scholarly devices such as syllogisms (logic) and synecdoche (literature, hermeneutics) since they saw them as contrivances to blunt the clear, literal meaning and demands of Scripture. Scholarship was increasingly rejected as lay leaders replaced the early (educated) leadership. Lay leaders tended to regard scholarship as a mark of pride and social preferment. Perhaps equally important was the fact that those who interrogated Anabaptists during persecution, and on whose testimony they suffered penalties including death, were trained theologians and Scripture scholars. The belief that theological and Scripture scholarship led to pride, unbelief, and unprincipled compromise for the sake of financial gain, thus destroying the simplicity of faith, became the dominant view in all the Mennonite communities.
However, since the late 16th century there is visible among the followers of Menno a gradual acculturation, which also produced changing attitudes toward scholarship. Beginning in The Netherlands in the 17th century, Mennonites have seen the economic advantages as well as the service opportunities in scholarship which was part of professional training. Studies leading to medicine, teaching, engineering, (water technology), and commerce (business), for example, could be reconciled without much difficulty with a simple faith. That view has survived despite the tensions that developed between Christian faith and science in the last two centuries. Simple faith could remain unassailed inasmuch as, at least in recent decades, all disciplines are taught without recourse to religious categories.
With the notable exception of the Mennonite seminary in Amsterdam (established in 1735), Mennonites in Europe have received their scholarly education in the universities. In North America they have established their own schools beginning late in the 19th century, staffed with Mennonite graduates from the secular universities and the seminaries of the major denominations. These colleges aligned themselves consciously with the American tradition of liberal arts education, including its critical approach to every subject, not excluding the Bible and Christian belief. Growing numbers of educated Mennonite church members demanded an educated clergy who, in their own schools, had to come to terms with the post-Enlightenment historical and literary criticism of the Bible.
Formal studies in theology and church history were from their beginnings in the 18th and 19th centuries put into the service of doctrinal orthodoxy and apologetics. Traditionally the study of Christian doctrine and the view of human history as history of salvation was thought to be of one piece with faith oriented upon the Bible. When doctrine began to be studied developmentally, however, and historical study assumed relativity also in the study of Anabaptism and even Scripture, it became more difficult to maintain the simplicity of faith. Mennonites, as also many other Christians, responded by exempting at least the Bible from the accepted criteria for scholarly study. Gradually, however, this exemption too was surrendered on the grounds of consistency. And so, in addition to their trained professionals, theologians and historians, Mennonites also produced Scripture scholars.
It is at this point that the tensions remain high among Mennonites, the Doopsgezinde (Dutch Mennonites) and some German Mennonites excepted. Scholarship in all disciplines is not a fact of Mennonite life. As it has always done before, scholarship tends to separate academies and trained clergy from lay people, and Scripture scholars and theologians become professional experts. The suspicion remains that scholarship will cause the loss of simple belief in God and undermine resort to the Bible as the lodestone of faith which can be effectively used by the simplest Christian.
See James C. Juhnke, Dialogue with a Heritage: Cornelius H. Wedel and the Beginnings of Bethel College. North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1987.
Cite This Article
Klaassen, Walter. "Scholarship." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Mar 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Scholarship&oldid=77590.
Klaassen, Walter. (1989). Scholarship. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 March 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Scholarship&oldid=77590.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 798-799. All rights reserved.
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