Contents of Volume LXXIV
October 2000 Number Four

           

 

Anabaptism and Radical Christianity

CHRISTOPHER ROWLAND*

     In writing this contribution for the Mennonite Quarterly Review I find myself returning to a task several of us in the United Kingdom engaged in a couple of years ago.[1]  We were asked to discuss what attracted us to the Anabaptist tradition. We did so in order to offer a narrative approach to the theological task rightly underlined by Jim McClendon in his systematic theology.

     My story goes back to 1987, when in the middle of doing the preparatory reading for a book on radical Christianity,[2]  I journeyed to the London Mennonite Centre and met twentieth-century Anabaptists. I discovered there that Anabaptism was not a phenomenon confined to the pages of church history books but a real living Christian practice. That year I began a friendship with Alan and Eleanor Kreider. They have sustained me and guided me and helped me see that the pattern of Christian discipleship-which for such a long time I, a life-long Anglican, had thought no one shared with me-was in fact shared by thousands of others around the world. I realized that my inchoate commitment to pacifism and an egalitarian church structure, and my approach to biblical wisdom, were also part of other Christians' vision of discipleship then and now. I found people who thought that the sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount were meant to inform and influence life in the contemporary world and were a central constituent of practical discipleship; who were not only committed to peace but to finding the means whereby it could be implemented; who had a healthy suspicion of the state and its ideology; and who gave a high priority to practical discipleship as the necessary context for understanding Christian faith. Theologically and spiritually, I had found a "home" in the twentieth century. I no longer had to be a spiritual exile who could only look back to the ideas of the Diggers (Christian radicals of the English Civil War period after the execution of Charles I in 1649) or the Anabaptists of yesteryear. I could find them today, informing theology and contemporary commitments to justice and peace. I have learned much from friends in the Anabaptist tradition like Alan and Eleanor Kreider, both of whom I consider my guides and mentors as well as close friends. But I have also gained wisdom and insight from Jim McClendon, whom I have come to know in recent years, whose original approach to systematic theology I applaud and from whose insight, wisdom, and encouragement I have derived great benefit.[3] 

     My growing interest in Anabaptism coincided with my conversion to liberation theology.[4]  Since that confluence may not be typical for all those who have been influenced by Anabaptism, I should explain the connections. Two things struck me forcibly about my initial experience of the Christian practice of the Basic Ecclesial Communities (CEB) in Brazil twenty years ago. First I recognized the inescapably narrative foundation of Christian theology as the stories of Scripture, especially that of Jesus Christ, interacted with and informed contemporary stories. That tradition of testimonies of discipleship is an important part of Anabaptist theologizing; contemporary life-experiences are part of that ongoing activity of the spirit of Jesus and a guide to understanding the ancient testimonies of those who were disciples. This element is evident every time one participates in a grassroots community study in Latin America and hears it stressed that there are two texts: the text of "life" and the text of the Bible.[5]  Understanding the way of Christ comes by active discipleship and prayerful reflection. One mark of the Anabaptist hermeneutics that I have been learning is that commitment to the way of Christ in service to the poor and vulnerable is the necessary context for theology. In this regard the insights of Anabaptism and liberation theology come together. The narrative dimension of interpretation, which unleashes the wisdom of contemporary insight from the Spirit who is at work in the world informing and breathing life into the pages of Scripture, has been a potent force in my exegesis. Since my first visit to Brazil, I have discovered a wealth of radical traditions in Christianity-including Anabaptism-where the priority of narrative and biography is acknowledged and the dialectic between present and past, spirit and letter is given its proper place.

     Second, in Brazil's CEBs I was struck by ordinary people taking seriously the saying of Jesus that the "babes" understood the ways of God better than the wise and intelligent.[6]  I have often recalled my dear friend Alan Kreider pointing out to me to a passage in The Martyrs' Mirror that perfectly exemplified so much of what I had experienced in Brazil and that has continued to challenge the interpretative patterns of my lifetime. In Flanders, in the middle of the sixteenth century, a chandler named Jacob was detained for his Anabaptist activities and subsequently questioned by a friar in a local court. During the discussion Jacob quoted the book of Revelation in support of his views, provoking a heated response from his interrogator:

     "What do you understand about St. John's Apocalypse?" the friar asked the chandler. "At what university did you study? At the loom, I suppose? For I understand that you were nothing but a poor weaver and chandler before you went around preaching and rebaptizing. . . . I have attended the university of Louvain, and for long studied divinity, and yet I do not understand anything at all about St John's Apocalypse. This is a fact." To which Jacob answered: "Therefore Christ thanked his heavenly Father that he had revealed and made it known to babes and hid it from the wise of this world, as it is written in Matt. 11:25." "Exactly!" the friar replied, "God has revealed it to the weavers at the loom, to the cobblers on the bench, and to bellow-menders, lantern tinkers, scissors grinders, brass makers, thatchers and all sorts of riff-raff, and poor, filthy and lousy beggars. And to us ecclesiastics who have studied from our youth, night and day, God has concealed it."[7] 

     I used this passage in my inaugural lecture as professor in Oxford [8]  as a way of indicating the challenge of the study "from below." At the time of the lecture, however, I did not fully recognize the implications of this for my own scholarship and teaching. Now I can understand better that the "top down" model of theology, which has dominated through the centuries and against which Anabaptists and many others have rightly protested, has to be complemented and, better still, subordinated to a more participative theological enterprise encompassing the Spirit's activity among all God's people. This is stressed in the testimony offered by the early Anabaptists as they appeal to the more participative ethos of 1 Corinthians 14 for their model of ecclesial activity.[9]  The opening up of Anabaptist history has reminded us (and we need such reminders on a regular basis) that there is another fascinating side to the Reformation that is not always heard in university courses in theology but that is brim full of vitality and relevance to contemporary debates.[10] 

     In my theological environment Anabaptism has more negative than positive connotations. To be sure, today there is more thoroughgoing commitment to a gospel of non-violence and a healthy skepticism of the closeness of the church's relationship to the state. Consequently the contribution of the Anabaptist tradition has offered many a way of conceiving Christian discipleship which rings true to the call of Jesus in the gospels. In one very important respect, however, the idea that one should be an Anabaptist sympathizer leaves people uncomfortable, probably because at the heart of what one is affirming lie misgivings about the mainstream theology of baptism. The nickname Anabaptism rightly suggests sympathy for a more sectarian option and its more costly discipleship. That must be frankly admitted. One consequence has been a tangle of doctrinal and practical predicaments for my wife and me over the years, particularly with regard to the baptism of our own, and others', children.[11] 

     Taking baptism seriously means needing to recognize and see the best in the "sectarian" inheritance of earliest Christianity, nowhere better exemplified than in the baptismal liturgies of catholic Christianity. I want to affirm and learn from this inheritance as we seek to be faithful to the Christian gospel in an open yet challenging way. The sectarian character of Christian identity is something we all too often quietly ignore, forgetting that emerging Christianity until the time of Constantine was characterized by such a sectarian spirit. The catechumenate was long and thorough, putting to shame our lack of rigor in baptismal preparation.[12]  At the heart of the whole baptismal experience is the clear message of a transfer from one dominion to another, involving the acceptance of Jesus Christ as king of kings and lord of lords. The rites of Christian initiation have kept alive that sectarian spirit, which is of the essence of Christianity. What is so striking about the New Testament texts is that they were written by people who had little or no political power. They nevertheless evince a vision of the world at odds with the prevailing ideology, and their writers dared to offer their common life as the pattern for all humanity.[13] 

     The temptation to self-righteousness is always strong among those influenced by apocalypticism or sectarianism, and it is not difficult to find examples of self-righteousness in the stories of Anabaptist men and women, especially in seeing the church or the world "out there" as in some sense corrupt and contrasting with the pool of light which marks the faithful Christian group. The apocalyptic texts of Judaism and Christianity, which I have spent so much of my working life studying, rarely allow readers the luxury of bathing in certainty. Instead they present a stark challenge to endure, and (particularly in the book of Revelation) to join in the prophetic critique of an unjust and overbearing empire.[14]  The New Testament is full of dualistic language, and we may be pardoned for supposing that the first Christians thought that God was present with the community of believers and that the community was therefore in some sense perfect and devoid of sin. Yet the Christian community cannot maintain a superior position with regard to the activity the Spirit of God; the Spirit is not the church's possession, for the church too is under the judgment of God and in need of divine mercy. The coming of the Spirit involves conviction of the world of sin, of justice and judgment. The community of believers, however, does not have a monopoly of righteousness even though their inheritance of the story of God means that they may be best equipped to understand. That is a necessary counterbalance to the sense of superiority and coziness which religious groups can so easily be tempted to cultivate. Part of the wisdom of catholic Christianity has been to foster that sense of suspicion of a church of perfect people this side of the Kingdom of God on earth. Augustine's City of God may not be the last word on Christian polity, but it does foster a healthy suspicion of self-righteousness and the propensity of groups to delude themselves. Humility before the mystery of salvation is a fundamental Christian virtue. That humility prized by the Mennonite tradition, is a salutary reminder to all of us about how we should approach our task as theologians in an age where stardom beckons even Christian theologians.

     On page after page of The Martyrs' Mirror one finds stories of brave men and women of the Anabaptist tradition who glimpsed something important in Scripture that made resisting and bearing witness worthwhile. This treasure indicates an approach to theology where narrative and story are central, not some optional extra after reason and argument have taken their place of pre-eminence. Anabaptist theology is different, as Jim McClendon reminds us.[15]  It is inclusive, in that it empowers all to share their stories and to learn to find in them signs of God's hand at work. Of course, Anabaptists are not the only ones to understand the importance of such narrative theology. Over the last two decades I have come across scores of people, in historical textbooks and in communities in different parts of the world, doing the same kind of thing. One of the most important things I can do as a Christian theologian is to engage in an act of mediation: to find ways of putting people who are searching for lives of radical discipleship in touch with each other and with their ancestors in the faith. There is something of fundamental importance for the church and the world in the Anabaptist experience of God. It is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ and can, if we attend to it, instruct the world at the start of a new millennium and fructify a theology which is in danger of cutting itself adrift from the understanding that comes from practical discipleship and from those who may best be able to understand and interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ.


[*] Christopher Rowland is Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford and a priest in the Church of England. 1. Cf. Alan Kreider and Stuart Murray, Coming Home: Stories of Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000). Return to Text

[2] . C. Rowland, Radical Christianity (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988). Return to Text

[3] . James W. McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology, vol. 1: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986); vol. 2: Doctrine (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994). Return to Text

[4] . C. Rowland, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press 1999), 1. Return to Text

[5] . From C. Boff, Theology and Praxis discussed in Rowland and Corner, Liberating Exegesis (London: SPCK, 1990), 55. See also Tim Gorringe, "Political Readings of Scripture," in J. Barton, ed., Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1998), 67-80; Gerald West, "The Bible and the Poor: A New Way of Doing Theology," in Rowland, Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, 129-52 and most recently G. West The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999). Return to Text

[6] . "Apocalyptic, the Poor and the Gospel of Matthew," Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1994), 504-18. Return to Text

[7] . Thieleman J. van Braght, Martyr's Mirror (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1950), 774-75. Return to Text

[8] . "'Open thy Mouth for the Dumb': A Task for the Exegete of Holy Scripture" (Inaugural Lecture as Dean Ireland's Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture, May 11, 1992), Biblical Interpretation 1 (1993), 228-41. Return to Text

[9] . Shem Peachey and Paul Peachey, eds., "The Answer of Some Who are Called Anabaptists - Why They Do Not Attend the Churches: A Swiss Brethren Tract," MQR 45 (Jan. 1971), 5-32; on the wider hermeneutical implications, see Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000). Return to Text

[10] . See Peter Matheson, The Imaginative World of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000) and C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier U. Press, 1996). Return to Text

[11] . "Response: Anglican Reflections," in P. Fiddes, ed., Reflections on the Waters. Understanding God and the World through the Baptism of Believers (Oxford: Regent's Park College, 1996), 117-34. Return to Text

[12] . See Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg: Trinity, 1999), Ch. 3. Return to Text

[13] . See Alan Kreider, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1995) and Tim Gorringe, The Sign of Love: Reflections on the Eucharist (London: SPCK, 1997). Return to Text

[14] . The Book of Revelation, New Interpreter's Bible, vol. 12 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998). Return to Text

[15] . McClendon, Ethics. 554 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 555 Anabaptism and Radical Christianity 549