Mennonite Theology


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.

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, non-resistance, 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:  one the kingdom of Christ, the other the kingdom of this world.

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 Saviour 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 non-resistance, and separation from the world (non-conformity) 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:

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 centres 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 be 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.