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Anabaptism originated in a revolt against tradition because Anabaptists, more than other Protestant Reformers, were convinced that many "human traditions" had been illegitimately added to the Scriptures since the time of the apostles. These corruptions of the pure church included infant baptism; priesthood; false, exaggerated, externalized sacraments; religious coercion; and military participation. Often the distinction between legitimate tradition and false tradition was blurred. Defenders of tradition as legitimate in principle would point out that even the Bible in its present form is the product of tradition, of "handing down" from Christ to the apostles to the rest of the church, since Christ himself, instead of writing Scriptures, entrusted his message to his disciples. Ironically the legitimacy of extra-scriptural tradition in worship and church life was pointed out by none other than Tertullian, the rigorist North African church leader [fl. ca. 200], in the same tract that is frequently used to support Mennonite and Anabaptist opposition to military service, namely, On the chaplet, also known as On the soldier's crown (ch. 3-4.) All Protestants attacked Catholic traditionalism, but the Anabaptists were among the most extreme. In the process tradition itself frequently was declared illegitimate, that is, all tradition was branded false tradition and Scripture and tradition were viewed as mutually exclusive. The goal of radical reformers, and, to a certain degree, of all Protestants, was to restore the pristine church, uncorrupted by tradition (restitutionism).

Yet Mennonites have often been very traditional. Modern sociologists have confirmed an ancient theological and philosophical insight: tradition is an essential aspect of human existence (Shils). As children are born to men and women in a religious or political movement, the parents naturally seek structures and institutions by which to pass on their beliefs and convictions. The Latin word tradere, from which tradition is derived, simply means "handing to," "passing on." Tradition as an authority for Mennonite life emerged very quickly (Dyck). The most traditional members of the Mennonite family in the 20th century are the Amish, Hutterites, Old Order Mennonites, Sommerfeld Mennonites, and Old Colony Mennonites. In these groups it is accepted that children grow up within the Christian community and embrace the handed-down faith, making it authentically their own when they decide to be baptized and "join the church." Some tension remains where it is apparent that some have joined with less inner conviction than might be hoped for, but a minimal degree of inner conviction is evident simply by being willing to obey the practices and customs of the group. In this way all those who remain Amish, Hutterite, Old Order Mennonite, Sommerfelder, or Old Colony in their daily life are continually saying yes with inner conviction to the faith they have accepted. It is a verbally unarticulated but genuine assent to faith -- a faith transmitted through tradition. This pattern was also characteristic of the Kirchen-Gemeinden Mennonites of 19th-century Russia.

At various points, the more acculturated, progressive, and revivalist Mennonites have become uneasy about the degree to which custom and tradition had become authoritative. Like the early Anabaptists, they feared that the faith being passed on was not authentic, was "merely traditional," and therefore was false faith. In these groups genuine, authentic faith was equated with articulated, expressive conversion to and acceptance of baptism, church membership, and discipleship. In place of a theology of tradition, leaders in these groups affirm the principle that the church must be reestablished in every generation ("the Believers Church is always only one generation away from extinction"). In movements advocating revivalism, Pietism, higher education, missions, social activism, feminism, and charismatic experience, various Mennonite groups have carried out renewed revolts against Mennonite tradition in a manner parallel to the original Anabaptist revolt against Catholic tradition. These groups include the Kleine Gemeinde, Mennonite Brethren, Church of God in Christ Mennonite (Holdeman), Mennonite Church (MC), General Conference Mennonite Church, Brethren in Christ, the group led by Eberhard and Emmy Arnold (eastern Hutterian Brethren). Within the larger Mennonite groups since World War II, the Concern movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the house church movement, the charismatic movement, and other developments represent similar reactions against a perceived empty and illegitimate traditionalism.

Each of these new movements or denominations, if they are to survive very long, in turn must face the need to establish institutions and structures to pass on their vision for special gifts of the Holy Spirit, decentralized authority, small-group dynamics, women's equality, mission work, or revivalism. Some have succeeded (e.g. the Church of God in Christ Mennonite [Holdeman] and the Arnold portion of the Hutterian Brethren since the early 1970s). Those who either have tried and failed or, out of principle, not even tried to establish second-generation structures, have disappeared (e.g., revivalism, Pietism, classic missionary enthusiasm -- replaced by relief and service work and social activism) or will eventually disappear unless they find a way to become traditionalists in the future. This would be viewed differently by members of the restitutionist groups -- what is here described as "disappearing" would be described by advocates of Believers Church renewal as "continuation" by way of rebirth in every generation. Traditionalists and restitutionists thus would disagree over the nature of "continuity" itself. Much of the Mennonite confusion in regard to sectarianism and cultural involvement can be traced to confused intuitions about the positive and negative aspects of tradition.

Contrary to the popular perception, traditionalism is not static. A theology of tradition is a theology of change, but it is a theology of change that is deliberately slowed down and controlled. Traditionalists seek to be faithful to tradition, and innovations are always measured against the authority of tradition. Students of Amish or Hutterite society see clearly how these groups have slowly changed over the decades. What traditionalist groups do not permit is revolutionary or radical change, change that would entirely overthrow existing structures and institutions. The same observations can be made of non-Protestant traditionalist Christians, namely Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Change does occur in these groups (after all, it was the supposed corrupting changes made by these groups that so angered Anabaptists and Protestants in the first place) but it occurs through existing structures and institutions. Traditionalism as a theology says that institutions and structures are legitimate ways the Holy Spirit works in the church, basing this principle in God's choice to become incarnate in Christ. Thus the canon of Scripture, the office of bishop, the liturgy and sacraments of the church are all institutionalized through divine leading. Anti-traditionalists (restitutionists), whether the Concern movement or leaders of the Mennonite Renaissance of the late 19th century, call for rapid, immediate change to eliminate tradition-induced corruptions, yet, because their goal is a pristine, pure, and uncorrupted church, they are ill-prepared to cope with change in the second generation. As described above, the best "renewal within every generation" would be the one that "corrupts" the original ideal as little as possible. If complete faithfulness to the original ideal were actually achieved, there would be no change at all. In practice, "renewal within each generation" never corresponds precisely to the original ideal and thus, the anti-traditional theology is in fact a form of tradition that remains in unresolved tension with its principle of avoiding changes in the original ideal. Ironically, it seems that the more one achieves a pure, uncorrupted, restored church, the less one is prepared to admit that it can and must change and develop as it is handed on to the next generation, i.e., that some "corruption" is in fact legitimate development and that the goal is to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate change.


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On tradition outside Mennonite circles, see

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Yoder, John H. "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.

Yoder, John H. "The Authority of the Canon," in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. W. M. Swartley. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984: 265-90. Yoder, John H. Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame U. Press, 1984: ch. 3, 6.

Author(s) Dennis D Martin
Date Published 1989

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Martin, Dennis D. "Tradition." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 Sep 2023.

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Martin, Dennis D. (1989). Tradition. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 889-891. All rights reserved.

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