Theology, Mennonite

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1958 Article


An old and almost universal tradition among Mennonites views "theology" with much distrust. It is well expressed in the following statement by N. van der Zijpp regarding the Dutch Mennonites: "From the very rise of Anabaptism Dutch Mennonites were often very averse to theology, fearing that systematic theology might be a hindrance or even a danger to real Christian piety. This is not only found among many of the martyrs, but for instance also in Galenus Abrahamsz and in general among those Mennonites who were influenced by Collegiant opinions. The fear that simple pious love for Christ might be depraved and sterilized by theological speculation is still a common phenomenon in present-day Dutch Mennonitism."

This fear of theology had its origin in part in the bitter experience of the Anabaptists (and later Mennonites) that it was the theologians who were their worst enemies, whether Lutheran, Reformed, or Catholic, and who were often responsible for prodding the rulers into harsher measures of persecution; Melanchthon and Bullinger are good examples of this. Anabaptists frequently referred to the theologians as "Schriftgelehrten," i.e., "scribes" (with the New Testament overtone of condemnation as enemies of Christ). Later on in the 17th-19th centuries it was the theologically trained pastors who were the harshest critics of the Mennonites and who attempted, often without success, to prevail upon the princes to refuse to admit Mennonites to their territories, or to expel them after admission, or to forbid their public worship. The princes for their part often favored the Mennonites because of the economic advantage they brought, and were therefore on the whole more tolerant than the "theologians." Theological literature contained much bitter invective and harsh condemnation of the Mennonites.

Harold Bender, author of this "normative" 1950s Mennonite theology

Another root of the fear of theology was undoubtedly the experience that theological speculation and disputation was often remote from life, a type of rationalistic intellectualizing with little fruit in piety and ethics, whereas the Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis was on newness of life, holy living, and discipleship. Some scholars hold that the Anabaptists deliberately chose not to write "theology" in the usual sense because of their basic understanding of Christianity in dynamic life terms rather than as a set of intellectual propositions to be integrated into a logically coherent whole. Anabaptist doctrine was, of course, based on a set of implied, though not always explicit, theological assumptions. And in spite of the repression of publication, and other interference with the free expression of their teachings, the writings of men like Pilgram Marpeck, Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Peter Riedemann, and Peter Walpot are couched in coherent theological terms. Nevertheless, the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement has had little philosophical or systematic theology of the type represented by an Aquinas, Melanchthon, Calvin, or Hodge; a major exception was the great Dutch 19th-century liberal theologian Sytse Hoekstra. But it has had doctrinal expression, in major and minor topical writings, as well as in comprehensive works attempting to cover the entire field of doctrine in systematic form; these expressions have been, however, largely expositions of "Bible doctrine" and not consciously theology in the classical sense. For the Anabaptists doctrinal expression was more often than not occasional, i.e., written to meet specific needs, and therefore usually apologetic or polemic. Sometimes it was in response to attacks by the outside enemy -- e.g., Menno Simons against Marten Micronius or Gellius Faber, Balthasar Hubmaier on Baptism, Pilgram Marpeck against Schwenckfeld; sometimes it was to combat emerging error within the brotherhood -- the Schleitheim Confession, Menno Simons against David Joris or Adam Pastor, Pilgram Marpeck against Johannes Bünderlin and the Spiritualists; sometimes it took the form of testimonies before the magistrates or to accusers in general -- the Rechenschaft of Peter Riedemann, the Confession of Thomas von Imbroich, the letters and testimonies of the martyrs in theMartyrs' Mirror; sometimes it was simply to strengthen the faith of the brotherhood, such as many of the writings of Menno Simons and the Hutterite writers, and certain early tracts on attitude toward the state, such as Clemens Adler's, and the Aufdeckung der Babylmischen Hürn und Antichrists.

What the Anabaptist theological production might have been if the earlier educated leaders of Switzerland and South Germany had not been almost totally wiped out remains a matter of speculation, particularly in view of what a Marpeck, Scharnschlager, Riedemann and Walpot did achieve.

Some of the marginal Anabaptist figures, such as Melchior Hoffman, wrote speculative eschatological treatises, and others like Christian Entfelder and Johannes Bünderlin wrote spiritualist tracts. But the main Anabaptist line eschewed these areas and emphases.

A significant amount of theological expression is to be found in the records of the Anabaptist disputations, such as Zofingen 1532, Bern 1538, Frankenthal 1571, Emden 1578, Leeuwarden 1597, at which the Anabaptist participants were compelled to respond to the challenges of the Reformed or Lutheran theologians on various points of theology. John H. Yoder reports over 40 such theological encounters in the first 20 years of Anabaptist history. It is his judgment that the transition from the more practical questions to "systematic theology" occurred at the Frankenthal debate.

In general, the "theology" of the Anabaptists was a deliberate attempt to understand and express the message of the Bible, particularly of the New Testament as it applies to life. Repeatedly appeals to opponents expressed a willingness to be taught of the Bible, and demanded in turn of the opponents that they teach from the Bible and promise obedience to the Bible. Although Anabaptist Biblicism at times turned into a simplistic and somewhat overly literalistic or even legalistic handling of the Scriptures, this was by no means general or typical of the movement. The clear distinction, characteristic of Anabaptism, made between the Old and New Testaments and the insistence upon a progressive revelation, with Christ as the norm of all Scriptural truth, is evidence of this.

In the central classic theological points of historic Christian faith the Anabaptists were in basic agreement with the major Protestant bodies. Ulrich Zwingli described the early Zürich Anabaptists as differing from him "only in some minor points." Some modern writers have sought to stamp the early Anabaptists as partly anti-Trinitarian. But the Italian and Polish anti-Trinitarians and Socinians were not a part of the Anabaptist movement, as recent research (e.g., DeWind) has shown, even though they favored adult baptism. It has likewise been shown that the charge of unitarianism against Hans Denck, the South German Anabaptist leader, was without basis in fact. Adam Pastor, who became a unitarian, was expelled by Menno and his co-elders. There was a tinge of universalism in Hans Denck. The Christology of Menno Simons and Dirk Philips (derived apparently from Melchior Hoffman) and after them of many of the Dutch Mennonites and their descendants in West Prussia and Russia, manifested an aberration from classic Christology, similar to that of Valentinus, in that it taught that the flesh of Christ was created de novo in Mary's womb, and was not of Mary's flesh. Their concern was to secure in this way a sinless Christ, free from the taint of original sin.

Although it is true that the Anabaptists held the basic Reformation emphases of the sole authority of the Bible in matters of faith and life, and justification by faith, the interpretation of Anabaptism by some modern Mennonite historians as basically only Reformation Protestantism with a few added points such as adult baptism, the free church, and ethical earnestness, is an inadequate view. Rather, as more intense research in the documentary sources has shown, Anabaptism is theologically a major type of Protestantism with a theological focus of its own alongside of Lutheranism and Calvinism. It is related to both the latter positions, but through its emphasis on the lordship of Christ, obedient discipleship, and the visible church, it is more closely related to Calvinism.

While most Anabaptists who expressed themselves on the subject of original sin, did not hold the typical Catholic and Reformation doctrine, they did teach the sinfulness of man, his dependence upon the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ for forgiveness and redemption, and his need for justification by faith, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, guidance, and strengthening. None of the above topics was the subject of conflict between the Anabaptists and the other Protestants.

In their conception of communion and baptism as symbols, the Anabaptists were Zwinglians, except for Hubmaier who was Lutheran. In their rejection of infant baptism they were not original (most Reformation thinkers at first questioned pedobaptism, often several years before 1525, often as a logical consequence of the emphasis upon justification by faith), but the Anabaptists alone in Reformation times, except for the anti-Trinitarians, adopted believers' baptism as the full consequence of the concept of responsible faith in and obedience to Christ. Baptism was for them rather the symbol of commitment to discipleship and sanctification than of cleansing from past sin.

It was in the doctrines of the church and discipleship that the Anabaptists diverged most emphatically from official Protestant theology, although their stands on certain other points, such as rejection of the oath, refusal to hold governmental office, complete rejection of participation in warfare, insistence upon separation of church and state, and advocacy of freedom of conscience, were also striking divergences which cost them heavily in opposition and persecution. They understood Christianity in terms of discipleship to Christ and acceptance of His full lordship with consequent absolute obedience, rather than chiefly enjoyment of forgiveness and peace with God through justification, although insisting on the latter. They understood salvation not primarily as the attainment of a right status but rather as the production of a right life. They did not teach sinless perfection, but did hold that the Christian can and must live a life of victory over sin, and that it is possible for the church to make measurable progress toward Christ's ideal for her as a body "without spot or wrinkle." The practice of real church discipline as universally demanded among them is evidence both of the absence of perfectionism and of the serious endeavor to attain the highest standards. That this very endeavor has led at times to harshness and schism, as well as tended toward legalism, cannot, on the other hand, be denied.

It was in the doctrine of the church that the divergence from the rest of Christendom, both Catholic and Protestant, was most complete. The Anabaptists broke completely with the medieval concept of the Christian social order (church-state relations) as expressed in the term "corpus christianum," substituting the "corpus Christianorum." They were the first to insist upon a free church, separate from the state, separated from the world, composed only of committed disciples, who had through personal conversion and dedication accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. This believers' church they conceived of as a brotherhood, with leaders but without a hierarchy, with responsibility of all the members for the total life and ministry of the church, a disciplined body, a church of order. By their doctrine of the two kingdoms (not the two-kingdom doctrine of Luther), the one the kingdom of Christ, the other the kingdom of this world ruled by Satan, they drew a clear line between the church and the general social order. Since the state was in this general social order "outside the perfection of Christ," although instituted by God and responsible to God, the church could have no part in it nor be subject to it in matters of faith, etc. Finally, the church was understood as a suffering church, bound to suffer in its conflict with the kingdom, of this world, as it sought to create the holy community of love within its brotherhood circle, but through victorious steadfastness in suffering demonstrating that it was the body of Christ and would ultimately conquer.

In addition to its distinction from standard Protestantism the Anabaptist theological position must also be distinguished from Spiritualism. It was Alfred Hegler of Tübingen who first (c1890) clearly distinguished Spiritualism as a distinct theological position in the Reformation period, and demarcated it from Anabaptism. The Spiritualists were individualists, sometimes bordering on mysticism, yet also rather rationalistic, who minimized external religious forms and ceremonies, in effect denied the necessity for church organization, emphasized the "inner word" of Scripture over against the "outer word," and professed to live from the special presence of the Spirit of God within. Sebastian Franck was the outstanding radical Spiritualist of the Reformation period; Caspar Schwenckfeld was one of a somewhat different type. Among the early Anabaptists there were a number of spiritualistically inclined persons (all of whom soon left the movement), such as Bünderlin, Endtfelder, Jakob Kautz and Obbe Philips. Obbe's individualistic spiritualism stood in contrast to the disciplined church concept of Menno and Dirk Philips, and was a major factor in his withdrawal in 1540. (See his Bekentenisse.)

The struggle with the Spiritualists was the chief theological conflict in the history of early 16th-century Anabaptism, and resulted in the purging of this element. William Klassen has pointed out that this separation took place as early as 1531 in Strasbourg, as is shown by the two Marpeck booklets published there in that year, the Clare Verantwurtung, and Ain klarer vast nützlicher unterricht, the former directed against Bünderlin, the latter against Schwenckfeld. The battle with Schwenckfeld continued for another twenty years and resulted in the outstanding theological writings of the South German Anabaptists, the Vermanung (1544), the Testamenterleütterung (1544), and the Verantwortung (1545-50), all by Marpeck and his associates, particularly Scharnschlager.

A central idea in Marpeck's theology was that of the covenant; according to Klassen it was more significant than the idea of discipleship. The Vermanung was called the "testimony to the covenant," the Testamenterleütterung "the explanation of the covenant." As a regulative theological concept the covenant idea holds together the divine act and man's response, God's proffered grace and man's obedience. This blending of God's part and man's part in redemption and life is a major aspect of the Anabaptist genius, transcending as it does the limitations of the sola fide doctrine, and on the other hand avoiding a pure moralism. "Covenant" is basically an Hebraic idea, and as Jan Kiwiet has pointed out the Anabaptists were much nearer to the Hebraic world view than to that of the Greeks.

Anabaptist theology has been held by some scholars to be based largely on the Gospels, with special emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount. The evidence of the documents does not support this conclusion. Rather the Anabaptists drew their views from the entire New Testament, using the Pauline epistles and especially First Peter as well. This was particularly true of Marpeck and his associates, but also of Menno Simons. -- Harold S. Bender


The early Dutch Anabaptists and Mennonites, lacking theological education, were not able to draw up an adequate scholarly theology. Neither Menno Simons, nor Dirk Philips, nor the other older leaders were real theologians; Adam Pastor was an exception. Neither were most Mennonite doctrinal writers of the 17th and 18th centuries scholarly theologians, even when they produced "theological" books. Among Dutch Mennonite authors whose books are theologically important are A. van Eeghem, Galenus Abrahamsz, J. Rijsdijk, G. deWind, J. Stinstra, Cornelis Ris, Allard Hulshoff, and W. de Vos. The Dutch Mennonite confessions of faith are not to be considered as theological writings in a strict sense. Until the 18th century Mennonites usually occupied themselves with only such theological problems as they felt necessary for combating the views of their Catholic and particularly their Calvinist opponents. In this way, for instance, Jacob Pieters van der Meulen wrote about the apostolic succession, and many authors wrote on believers' baptism. Thus 17th-century Mennonite theology generally was apologetic in character, being mostly engaged in defending the creed. This changed little even after the founding of the Amsterdam Mennonite Seminary in 1735, in which philosophy, science, and the New Testament (especially for the practice of the ministry) were taught rather than systematic theology. About 1700 a few Dutch Mennonite ministers like Douwe Feddriks and Jacobus Rijsdijk, who studied theology, not for the defense of Mennonite doctrines, but for its own sake, were largely influenced by Calvinism, so that their theological systems can hardly be considered Mennonite.

Eighteenth-century Mennonite theology, such as that of J. Stinstra, took its starting point from the conviction that the human mind as such, and human religious experience, can be the source of knowledge concerning God. These views were developed still more consistently in the modern liberal theology of the 19th century as in the system of S. Hoekstra Bzn and his disciples. For Hoekstra, for example, "the piety of the heart" was basic, rather than revelation in the Scriptures; the Bible had no foundational, only illustrative, value. The truth of the Bible is what the human mind (heart) has thought out (experienced) as truth. This liberal theology did not really expound in the strict sense a doctrine concerning God but rather a doctrine of the human understanding of God. It should therefore be called anthropology rather than theology. This type of theology tended strongly toward a psychological understanding of human religious experience and finally resulted in a philosophy of ethics, as is seen in the theological works of I. J. le Cosquino de Bussy.

Though liberal theology is still very common in Dutch Mennonitism, much has changed in recent decades. Recent theological studies such as those by J. E. van Brakel, Christelijk Geloof (1934), W. Leendertz, Dogma (1917), Dogma en Existentie (1933), Rangorde van Geestelijke Waarden (1940), and Gods woord in mensenhanden (1953), and F. Kuiper, Leven uit de Hoop (1958) breathe a different spirit. Among the very few Dutch Mennonite theologians of the 19th century who did not follow Liberalism was Samuel Muller, who taught at the Amsterdam seminary (1827-56), but who had little influence; his pupils sided largely with Modernism. -- Nanne van der Zijpp

Germany, France, and Switzerland

The chief and really only theological writers of the Mennonites of these countries were Georg Hansen of Danzig (d. 1703) and Gerrit Roosen of Hamburg (1612-1711), the former writing in the old Anabaptist spirit, the latter already tinged by Pietism. Pietism exerted a significant influence in the 18th century in Hamburg, Krefeld, and the Palatinate (Peter Weber) and in the 19th and 20th centuries in Switzerland, France, South Germany, and West Prussia. Modern religious liberalism made its inroads into Krefeld and Emden, parallel to that in the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Elbing and Danzig.


The century and a half of Mennonite life in Russia produced no significant theological literature, and brought forth no great changes in Mennonite piety except through the entrance of Pietism through the Mennonite Brethren movement and the introduction of millenarian doctrine in the early 20th century, largely in the Mennonite Brethren group.

North America

Pietistic influence has been moderately strong in most North American Mennonite groups from the beginning in Colonial Pennsylvania, and millenarian doctrine was imported in the first quarter of the 20th century into considerable sections of all Mennonite groups in both the United States and Canada. The most conservative groups show neither influence. Only a slight touch of modern liberalistic influence was felt in the United States in one or two major groups, now largely overcome. A vigorous revival of interest in the Anabaptist theological heritage marked the 1950s, and there were signs of the emergence of a theology rooted in the distinctive Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage but thoroughly Biblical. A scrutiny of the theological literature produced by the 1950s by North American Mennonites of all branches reveals that apart from short pamphlets and a few brief specialized treatises, only two volumes of any significance have appeared, both by writers in the Mennonite Church (MC) -- Bible doctrine (1914) by Daniel Kauffman (1865-1944) and others, on a simple popular level, and Introduction to theology (1954) by J. C. Wenger (1910- ), on a more advanced level.

The latter volume is the only substantial offering of a comprehensive systematic theology by any Mennonite writer outside of Holland.  -- Harold S. Bender

1989 Update

In classical Greek theology meant the knowledge of God or teaching about God and divine matters (theo, God; logos, word or study). The New Testament does not use the concept "theology." But the Bible knows and teaches about the one God who has created the world, called Israel and the Church, and seeks to redeem humankind through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures therefore contain theology understood as a distinctive knowledge and language about God, about God's speaking and acting in relation to humankind and the world, and about human responses to God's acting and speaking.

For definitional reasons, it is useful to distinguish theology from doctrine. Doctrines are teachings regarding Christian beliefs and practices, which are considered normative for the Christian church, such as the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Judgments on which teachings should be normative for the Christian church, however, frequently differ among various groups and communities. Mennonites, for example, consider believers baptism and the rejection of violence as well as salvation through Jesus Christ normative doctrines. Such doctrines are normally correlated with theology, but are not identical with it. Theology usually seeks to interpret, justify, correct, and defend commonly held doctrines, their assumptions, and their potential implications. Theologies also frequently try to deal with everything which is desirable to teach as well as that which is essential. They may therefore range more widely and vary more greatly than would normally be the case for doctrines. For example, the doctrine of believers baptism may be interpreted and defended primarily in terms of the nature of the church or of the reality of faith or of following Jesus' example. And it may be related to and explained in terms of a general theory of ordinances or symbols or sacraments.

Both theology and doctrine may be explicitly stated and formulated in spoken or written forms. Or they may be implicit and operative in worship, church traditions and practices, patterns of personal and group piety, or standards of Christian conduct. Implicit and operative doctrines frequently, and perhaps even normally, become explicit and official through disagreements and disputes about what should be acknowledged as authoritative or normative. For example, controversy about the baptism of infants during the Protestant Reformation contributed to the development of explicit doctrines of believers baptism (by Anabaptists and Mennonites) and of infant baptism (by Lutherans and the Reformed) and their accompanying theologies. Or, controversy about the Incarnation contributed to the "heavenly flesh" doctrine, which was in turn later disputed and modified among the Dutch Mennonites.

In its explicit forms, theology can be understood as disciplined, discriminating, and comprehensive reflection on and articulation of normative Christian teachings and practices in a particular time and place. Christian theology arises and is carried out primarily within the community of faith in the attempt to articulate the presuppositions, content, and consequences of faith in Jesus Christ for the doctrine, practices, and spirituality of the Church and of individual believers.

In Western Christianity, theology as a discipline of study and teaching has frequently been further differentiated at least into systematic or dogmatic theology, apologetic or foundational theology, and practical theology. Systematic theology is primarily concerned with faithfulness to normative beliefs and practices. Apologetic theology seeks primarily to defend and explain Christian beliefs and practices in terms which can be intelligible to those who have not (yet) come to faith. Practical theology focuses on the application of normative beliefs and practices in the life of the Church and the believer.

In its concern for faithfulness, theology draws from specific sources and renders itself accountable to specific criteria. These usually include the Bible, learnings from tradition, contemporary experiences and insights of the faith community, and disciplined thought. Theologies differ considerably, depending on the relative weight granted to these sources and criteria.

Theologies also differ significantly in the degree to which they seek to be comprehensive (summarizing normative beliefs and practices as a whole) or occasional (focusing on specific issues). With the exception of the Dutch Mennonites in the 19th century and some contemporary North American Mennonites, most theological reflection and articulation among Mennonites has been occasional rather than comprehensive and has claimed to be rigorously biblical rather than also drawing significantly upon the resources of tradition, experience, and logic as appropriate.

Mennonites have frequently viewed "theology" with suspicion and distrust. Their emphasis on the importance of discipleship and ethics most likely contributed significantly to Anabaptist and Mennonite suspicions of theology since the 16th century as they found it in the Roman Catholic tradition and the emerging Protestant groups. To some degree their distrust of theology was also conditioned by their experience of persecution and theological justification of persecution by both Protestants and Catholics. To a minor degree, their suspicions may have reflected an anti-intellectual stance. But in spite of these suspicions, one should not overlook the fact that early Anabaptist and Mennonite teachers were in conversation, through their writings and debate, with leading theological voices of their time.

The major reason for their suspicions of the dominant theologies was based on the ways they saw theological interpretation used to detract from the hard sayings of Scripture (for example, in relation to baptism or the rejection of violence), or to justify doctrines which appeared to make no demands (faith apart from discipleship), or to perpetuate a form of legalism by putting all doctrines on the same level. They also decried what seemed to be a lack of careful controls for interpreting the sense of Scriptures and the reservation of theology for the experts only. For them the true test of a theological statement was its compatibility with the life and doctrine of Jesus Christ and the apostles. The measure of true theological understanding depended not primarily upon the level of intellectual ability but upon the openness and abandonment to God's will as revealed in Jesus Christ and the teaching and example of the apostles. Throughout their subsequent history, Mennonites have frequently dogmatized this critique and expanded it into a general anti-theological stance rather than discriminating between good and bad theology.

Contemporary scholarship has characterized the theological orientation of 16th-century Anabaptism in several ways. These models represent attempts to understand 16th-century Anabaptist theology better and to articulate a distinctively Mennonite theological perspective in theology in the 20th century.

According to one view, Anabaptism represents a radicalized version of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists pushed biblical authority to more consistent conclusions than did the Protestant reformers on matters such as baptism, nonresistance, and the authority of the congregation (rather than the civil authorities or the church hierarchy) to decide normative doctrine. Harold S. Bender adopted a variation of this view and held that Anabaptist theology basically agrees with such major orthodox Christian doctrines as the Trinity, Christ, Scripture, justification by faith, and original sin. But it also constitutes a major theological type alongside Calvinist and Lutheran theologies with a distinctive focus in ecclesiology and discipleship.

Another variation of this view was proposed by Robert Friedmann. Anabaptists adopted an implicit and "existential theology" with a focus on the two kingdoms. This focus had implications for many traditional doctrines. Thus, the Anabaptists remained orthodox in their understandings of the Trinity and Christology, with the addition of seeing Christ not only as savior but also as the model for Christian life. But they differed radically from the Protestant orientation in their theological anthropology, soteriology, quiet eschatology, and ecclesiology.

A second view holds that the theological orientation of the earliest South German Anabaptism amounted to a radicalization of Catholic mysticism in a Reformation context. Werner Packull contends that the legacy of late medieval mysticism rather than the radicalization of the Reformation explains the early synergism and the later moralism of the Anabaptists, and their differences with Luther on anthropology, christology, and the outer Word. This orientation was modified in the Hutterites and the groups around Marpeck. According to Packull the Hutterites gave community priority over theology and remained theologically confused. Marpeck sought to clarify, purify, and systematize the theological convictions of the movement rather than choosing communitarian conformity or Swiss parochialism. He was thereby driven to accept a more or less Protestantized position on many theological issues, including the doctrines of justification and the Word of God. Blough has challenged this interpretation of Marpeck and argues that Marpeck was influenced by Luther in his anti-spiritualist emphasis on the humanity of Christ, but not in his understanding of justification.

A third interpretation of the Anabaptist theological orientation holds that it represents a position in its own right which is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but combines some of the strengths of both. Walter Klaassen notes that the Anabaptists brought faith and works together. They incorporated the concerns of Catholic monastic movement while leaving aside its emphases on celibacy and restricted Christian vocation. They emphasized with the Protestants that the church rather than the hierarchy or the scholars alone interprets Scripture.

A fourth view has been proposed by Hans-Jürgen Goertz. He rejects the attempt to characterize the essence of Anabaptist theology in normative confessional terms and describes the various Anabaptists as "in, with, and under" the Reformation context. They represented a diversity of positions because they took up varying impulses in the context of the Reformation. The Anabaptist theological positions arose out of quite different attempts to implement the vision of an alternative Christianity. The concrete shape of this vision frequently was first developed in practice. Goertz further characterizes the life context of these Anabaptist movements as the milieu of anticlericalism in the Radical Reformation.

A variation on this view may be Durnbaugh's "believers church" thesis. Believers churches understand the Christian church to be a covenanted and disciplined community of those walking in the way of Jesus. Such groups, including Anabaptists and Mennonites, have articulated a variable set of common convictions on ecclesiology, eschatology, and following Jesus (discipleship) in somewhat diverse theological ways which are dependent to a significant degree on the particular context and the nature of the renewal they project.

Less scholarly attention has been devoted to theological developments among Mennonites since the 16th century. In contrast to the explicit elaboration of Protestant theology into comprehensive summaries of Orthodox beliefs, Mennonite theologies have traditionally been more implicit, operational, and occasional than explicit, formal, and systematic. With the exception of the Dutch Mennonites since the 18th century and North American Mennonites in the 20th century, theological statements have frequently taken the form of confessional summaries, inspirational tracts, narrative accounts of history for internal use, or occasional essays rather than either extensive or comprehensive accounts of normative teaching.

The implicit theology of many North American Mennonites includes elements of traditional orthodoxy, pieces of Fundamentalist and Evangelical tenets, and selected practices of their 16th-century forebears. According to Kauffman's and Harder's survey (Anabaptists Four Centuries Later [1975]), American Mennonites scored higher in general orthodoxy (beliefs in the personal existence of God, the Incarnation, the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, two kingdoms, the return of Christ, life after death, heaven and hell) than the national average for Protestants and Roman Catholics. Mennonites have also frequently affirmed key Fundamentalist and Evangelical doctrines (biblical inerrancy, the Virgin Birth, a six-day creation, etc.). They also support their forebears' teachings on discipleship, suffering for the Gospel, baptism of believers, congregational discipline, rejection of the oath, practicing nonresistance, and separation from the world (nonconformity) to varying degrees.

The search for a theological perspective rooted in the renewal of the Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage among North American Mennonites in the 20th century has thus been conditioned by a varied mix of doctrinal and ethical currents and undercurrents. The general lack of adherence to a specific doctrinal structure and the fragmentation of what seemed to be an implicit theological consensus has produced increasing theological diversity among Mennonites all well as proposals for Mennonites to formulate an explicit theology or at least a distinctive theological perspective.

One such proposal finds a common theological core in the Mennonite confessional tradition (Loewen). This proposal is based on the assumption that Mennonite confessional statements revolve around the three-fold axis of christology, the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology), and the doctrine of "last things" (eschatology), with Christ as the foundation for each. Accordingly, christology and soteriology focus on redemption and regeneration; ecclesiology and mission emphasize the life of the church, its mission, and the life of discipleship; and eschatology centers on judgment and resurrection hope.

Other proposals emphasize distinctive perspectives in christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and ethics. These perspectives would be informed by an understanding of Christian faith which includes following Christ in life, a concept of the church as a disciplined and missionary community of believers, the belief that the rule of God has already begun but is yet to he consummated, and the concern to incorporate normative Christian practices as well as beliefs into theological reflection and formulation. In spite of these proposals and the current discussions they represent, most contemporary Mennonite theological literature has remained occasional and thematic rather than systematic and comprehensive.

Nevertheless, at least three efforts to elaborate more comprehensive and systematic accounts of theology which are fundamentally informed by an Anabaptist perspective or take it into account were underway in the 1980s. C. Norman Kraus' Jesus Christ our Lord is meant to be the introductory volume of a full systematic theology. Thomas N. Finger's Christian theology draws on Anabaptist-Mennonite perspectives. The Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr.'s volume on Systematic theology: ethics was to he followed by a volume on doctrine and one on apologetics. -- Marlin E. Miller

See also: Peace Theology


Bender, H. S. Conrad Grebel. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1950.

Blough, Neal. Christologie Anabaptiste: Pilgram Marpeck et l'humanité du Christ. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1984.

Durnbaugh, Donald F. The Believers Church: the History and Character of Radical Protestantism. New York: Macmillan, 1969; Scottdale, 1985.

Dyck, C. J. "The Christology of Dirk Philips." Mennonite Quarterly Review 31 (1957): 147-155.

Fast, Heinold. "The Dependence of the First Anabaptists on Luther, Erasmus, and Zwingli." Mennonite Quarterly Review 30 (1956): 104-19.

Finger, Thomas N. Christian Theology, an Eschatological Approach. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985; Scottdale, 1985ff.

Friedmann, Robert. The Theology of Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973.

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. Die Täufer: Geschichte und Deutung. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1980: 161ff.

Handiges, E. Die Lehre der Mennoniten in Geschichte und Gegenwart, nach den Quellen dargestellt. Kaiserslautern, 1921.

Heyer, Fritz. Der Kirchenbegriff der Schwärmer. Leipzig, 1939.

Hoekstra Bzn, S. Beginselen en leer der code Doopsgezinden, vergeleken met die van de overige Protestanten. Amsterdam, 1863.

Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 101-17.

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Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (January 1950) contains a series of articles on Anabaptist theology reporting the papers of the Anabaptist Theological Seminar held at Goshen College in 1949, including Robert Friedmann's "Anabaptism and Protestantism" and H. S. Bender's "Anabaptist Theology of Discipleship."

Mennonitisches Lexikon IV: 305-311.

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The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1957 contains several essays bearing on Anabaptist theology: H. S. Bender, "The Anabaptist Vision" (first published in 1944); Fritz Blanke, "Anabaptism and the Reformation"; J. H. Yoder, "The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists"; Robert Friedmann, "The Doctrine of the Two Worlds"; F. H. Littell, "The Anabaptist Concept of the Church"; J. L. Burkholder, "The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship"; Robert Kreider, "The Anabaptists and the State"; and John Oyer "The Reformers Oppose the Anabaptist Theology,"

Reimer, James. "The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology." Conrad Grebel Review 1, no. 1 (Winter 1983): 33-55.

Smucker, D. E. "Theological Triumph of the Early Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 19 (1945): 5-26.

Swartley, Willard M. Explorations of Systematic Theology from Mennonite Perspectives, Occasional Papers No. 7. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984.

Toews, John E., Abram B. Konrad, Alvin Dueck. Mennonite Brethren Membership Profile, 1972-1982 in Direction 14, no. 2 (1985).

Wenger, J. C. The Doctrine of the Mennonites. Scottdale, PA, 1950.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
Marlin E. Miller
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Marlin E. Miller. "Theology, Mennonite." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 28 Sep 2022.,_Mennonite&oldid=173812.

APA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Marlin E. Miller. (1989). Theology, Mennonite. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 September 2022, from,_Mennonite&oldid=173812.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 704-708; v. 5, pp. 881-884. All rights reserved.

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