Contents of Volume LXXIV
October 2000 Number Four

           

 

IN THIS ISSUE

     Ten years ago, Christianity Today-an evangelical journal not generally noted for its interest in sectarian or pacifist traditions-featured an essay by Charles Scriven with the eye-catching title "The Reformation Radicals Ride Again." After nearly four-and-a-half centuries of public indifference, misrepresentation or ridicule, Scriven argued, Anabaptist theology was not only gaining a hearing among scholars but actually winning the admiration and respect of many mainstream evangelicals. In the decade since, Scriven's claim seems to have been amply borne out. Today Anabaptist-Mennonite theological themes, like the Old Order Amish, are almost chic-the inspiration for numerous books, scholarly conferences and much high-minded debate.

     This dramatic shift in public attitudes towards the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition did not happen suddenly. The groundwork was laid in the aftermath of World War II by the practical witness of scores of relief and service volunteers, and by an emerging openness among Protestants, especially in war-torn Europe, to engage conversations about Christian social responsibility and pacifism. At the same time, a generation of influential American scholars teaching at prestigious universities-people like Franklin Littell, Roland Bainton and George Hunston Williams-helped to established the "Radical Reformation" as a field of respectable academic inquiry. In the broader culture, the Cold War and ensuing nuclear arms race gave fresh relevance and urgency to Anabaptist concerns for peacemaking and reconciliation; and the secularizing impulses of post-Christian, post-modern Western culture have compelled virtually all Protestant denominations to reconceive themselves as voluntary or believers' churches.

     Against the backdrop of these broader transformations looms the towering intellectual figure of John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian whose 1972 book The Politics of Jesus has established itself as the classic apologetic for Anabaptist ethics and ecclesiology. Until his death in 1997, Yoder worked tirelessly to articulate a believers' church theology of peacemaking, reconciliation and mutuality to an audience beyond the cultural and ethnic boundaries of the Mennonite community. During the last half of the twentieth century he-along with others such as Alan and Eleanor Kreider in England or Joe Leichty in Ireland-patiently nurtured conversations with a growing ecumenical network of church leaders and scholars around the themes of Anabaptist hermeneutics, ethics and ecclesiology.

     This issue of THE MENNONITE QUARTERLY REVIEW offers one attempt to take stock of that conversation in progress. More than a year ago, I invited 16 scholars from a variety of denominational perspectives to reflect on how their theological or ethical understandings have been shaped by an engagement with the Anabaptist tradition. The invitation was cast quite generally, but I encouraged contributors to respond in both autobiographical as well as analytical terms. I also asked each scholar not to flinch from offering a critique of Anabaptist theology, highlighting what they considered to be its weakest aspects. The result of that invitation is the gathering of stories, reflections and critical engagement that follows in this issue.

     Each of the 12 essays included here is framed in a distinctive-often, highly personal-context; yet the mosaic that emerges does have a discernible pattern. Not surprisingly, nearly all the contributors note, usually with gratitude, the significant influence of John Howard Yoder in their initial exposure to Anabaptist theology. Nearly all cite with appreciation the distinctive emphases of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition: a New Testament hermeneutic, the Christocentric approach to ethics, the peace witness, the practice of mutual aid, the non-coercive epistemology, and a view of the church as an alternative, socially-visible community. And nearly all express concern about the legalistic tendencies within the Anabaptist theological and ethical tradition. For many, especially those from more liturgical traditions, the absence of a sacramental theology within Anabaptism leaves its adherents susceptible to a works-righteousness that allows the divine initiative to be overshadowed by human efforts.

     These concerns notwithstanding, readers eager to hear voices of praise for the Anabaptist-Mennonite witness will find plenty to savor in this issue. Yet such praise is clearly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, admiration from quarters that had once relegated Anabaptism to the scrap heap of theological history is a rather heady experience, evoking sentiments ranging from quiet gratitude to a smug self-satisfaction. At the same time, however, the sectarian impulse to self-conscious hand-wringing, especially in the face of encomiums, is never far from the surface. Is such praise really merited? Are the essayists aware of the yawning gap between Anabaptist ecclesiology and the lived reality of many contemporary Mennonite congregations? Or, in a slightly different vein, will the growing public affirmation of the Anabaptist tradition inevitably blunt its radical edge? Can one embrace Anabaptist-Mennonite themes of pacifism without a corporate memory of suffering? Does the growing impulse to frame Anabaptist-Mennonite theology in the systematic, highly self-conscious language of the academy inevitably attenuate a faith that is best expressed in daily discipleship and the lived experience of the community? Such questions, and dozens more, ensure that the conversation will continue.

     I am deeply grateful to each of the contributors to this special issue-all of them busy people-who took time to reflect personally, appreciatively and critically. Clearly, the essays gathered here are only one small contribution to a much larger conversation. Readers eager to pursue that conversation should make good use of the authors' addresses listed on p. 500.

      - John D. Roth, editor


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