Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition
Abstract: Mennonites are neither a creedal church nor a confessional one in the sense of adhering to a single authoritative confession. They are confessional, however, in the sense of having authored numerous confessions that at times have played important roles in church life. This article first asks whether tendencies congruent with this kind of confessionalism appeared in historic Anabaptism (1525-1575). It then overviews the confessional tradition, from 1577 in the Netherlands down to 1995, that has influenced the new Mennonite Church USA. Although mainly a survey, the article proposes that a spirit/letter tension, evident in historic Anabaptism, continues through the confessional tradition; and that whereas Mennonites have often divided over behavioral issues, confessions have generally helped unite them.
A common impression of Mennonites is that they are very practical, mainly concerned about ethics and lifestyle, with very little interest in theology or confessions. This characterization undoubtedly fits many Mennonites, today and yesterday. Generally, however, it is more accurate to say that, for Mennonites, ethics and lifestyle comprise the touchstone, or main fruit, or most important evidence of authentic Christian existence (or, to use an ecumenical term, apostolicity). Mennonites usually do not consider other aspects of Christian life unimportant. Nonetheless, when a person’s or group’s behavior does not seem truly Christian, Mennonites are inclined to regard whatever else they say or do as insignificant, if not hypocritical. While various Christian communions consider theology, worship, polity, mission, historic succession, or some combination of these as apostolicity’s main criterion, Mennonites tend to opt for Christian practice, marked especially by values like community, simplicity and peace, as taught and exemplified by Jesus. In a very broad sense, this behavioral emphasis would likely constitute their primary contribution to ecumenical Christianity. This means that confession, for Mennonites, means, above all, the statement made by an overall way of life. But how do Mennonites connect this life with formal church confessions?
CREEDS AND CONFESSIONS
Mennonites are not a creedal church, at least in terms of three features often attributed to creeds. First, creeds often refers to brief declarations from the early church, above all the Nicene Creed of 381. While Mennonites are familiar with the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene is not even included in their most recent hymnal (though it was in the previous edition). Since most Mennonites are ignorant of this creed’s historic liturgical function, it usually strikes them as an abstract doctrinal statement-even though their favorite hymn repeatedly lauds the triune, transcendent God. While current Mennonite theologians do debate the creeds’ significance, and some affirm their importance, Mennonites are not creedal in the sense of revering, or even really knowing, the early tradition.
Second, creeds are often understood to prescribe legally sanctioned boundaries of church membership. Mennonites have never developed any such statements enforceable by secular authorities. Neither have Mennonite confessions functioned legally within churches-with perhaps a few exceptions which I will mention. Finally, creeds often denote efforts at expressing truth so universally that their precise wording is considered sacrosanct. Mennonites have felt far more free to reword their expressions of faith.
Confessions, in contrast to creeds, are often defined as those more comprehensive affirmations of faith which originated with the Reformation and acknowledged their own subordination to scripture. Confessions are often much longer than creeds. Some denominations adhere to a collection of them, which often includes several creeds (such as the Lutheran Book of Concord). Protestant confessions usually possess some degree of ecclesiastical authority. Many of them were initially affirmed and upheld by governments. Mennonites are not creedal or confessional in this sense either.
Confession, however, is often extended to cover a variety of somewhat comprehensive (though not always lengthy) statements of faith drawn up by church conferences and agencies, by congregations and even individuals. Such confessions are usually more localized in space and time, often self-consciously so. In this sense of confessional, Mennonites, as a communion in which significant attempts of this sort have often been made, qualify as a confessional church.
Still, Mennonites have frequently differed over how such intellectual efforts relate to Christian behavior, and how authoritative they ought to be. To place Mennonite confessions in their life-contexts, it will be helpful to explore Mennonite attitudes-including those of current intellectuals-toward faith’s cognitive dimension, for such attitudes greatly influence how confessional history is read.
APPROACHES TO ANABAPTIST-MENNONITE HISTORY AND THEOLOGY
Intensive study of Anabaptism’s origins and sophisticated discussion of its contemporary significance commenced only around the 1940s. Approaches to these topics are still influenced by “The Anabaptist Vision,” Harold Bender’s presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1942. Bender’s Vision involved three focal points: discipleship as “the essence of Christianity”; the Church as a brotherhood; and “the ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships.” For later Anabaptist historiography and self-understanding it was highly significant that all three of these could be understood largely in social-ethical terms. Bender did not intend that, however, for Christianity’s spiritual and theological dimensions were quite important for him.
However, until the 1970s scholars tended to explain Anabaptism largely in terms of its leading ideas, even if these were social-ethical rather than strictly theological. But then historians began emphasizing the roles of economics and politics. This often, though not always, involved a further minimizing of the theological dimension. It also led some Anabaptist intellectuals to imply, by analogy, that Mennonite discipleship was mainly economic and political.
In the early 1980s, though, interest arose in doing theology itself from an Anabaptist perspective. This was connected with the broader emergence of various believers’ church theologies, not to mention other theologies of particularity, such as Black, Latin American liberationist, etc. It was also linked with a broader quest for Mennonite identity. Earlier in the century this identity was often determined not simply by behavior in the broad sense, but by specific behaviors, sometimes involving ethnic factors and dress. However, as Mennonites began mixing with society, absorbing people from other ethnicities, and finding foundations like pacifism and biblical authority challenged through higher education, many found that any continuing identity would have to be partly theological. To hold together and pursue a common mission, Mennonites would need to affirm some common beliefs, articulated with some intellectual sophistication.
The neophyte Mennonite theologians often felt that the social-ethical, and then economic-political, approaches to Anabaptist-Mennonite history underestimated or largely ignored its theological dimension. Not that they undervalued such factors; they still debate their relative significance among themselves. Nonetheless, these theologians insist that while Anabaptist-Mennonites did not often construct scholarly, explicit theologies, they could never have endured had not an implicit theology shaped their existence. Otherwise said, while Anabaptist-Mennonites perhaps did not often prioritize articulated beliefs, their lives were nonetheless indelibly shaped by persistent convictions. Further, theologians often add, Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs indeed were, and are, occasionally explicated. One major avenue for doing so was a large number of confessions.
Still, other scholars ask: Was this confessional impulse consistent with historic Anabaptism? or a deviation from it? To place the confessional history in this broader perspective, let us first consider the question of continuity.
THEOLOGY IN HISTORIC ANABAPTISM (1525-1575)
According to the Bender school, Anabaptism had one primary source and quasi-normative form, originating in Switzerland in conflict with Zwingli. Since the mid-1970s, scholars have usually distinguished several relatively independent origins: most commonly, South Germany/Austria and the Netherlands in addition to Switzerland. I will assume this polygenesis.
Several early Anabaptist leaders in Zurich were scholarly disciples of Zwingli. However, after the first baptisms (probably January 21, 1525) they perished so soon that they left few writings. By February 24, 1527, however, the main Swiss Anabaptist groups gathered and agreed on a brief confession, probably put into writing by the former Dominican prior, Michael Sattler (martyred horribly soon after). This “Schleitheim Confession” covered seven practical issues: baptism, the ban, the Lord’s Supper, separation from the world, election of ministers (by congregations), the sword and the oath. This practical orientation is sometimes enlisted as evidence of Anabaptism’s predominantly ethical character. Others point out that people gathering under threat of imminent arrest would focus only on controversial issues and not bother with theological convictions held in common.
The broader Swiss perspective was articulated by someone who was there only briefly, but championed the Anabaptists as they broke with Zwingli. Balthasar Hubmaier earned a doctorate in theology, under John Eck. Hubmaier often summarized his major convictions in orderly fashion. As he prepared to protestantize Waldshut, just over the Rhine from Switzerland, he authored 18 succinct “Theses Concerning the Christian Life.” Before he left Waldshut Hubmaier had composed 26 brief theses against Eck (1989: 51-57) and a short “Summa of the Entire Christian Life” (83-89). On his way to Nikolsburg, Moravia, Hubmaier outlined his faith around the Apostles’ Creed (235-40). To instruct converts in Nikolsburg, he worked out “A Christian Catechism” (340-65). Hardly a year later, while awaiting execution, Hubmaier composed a 27-article “Apologia” for Ferdinand of Austria (525-62). Hubmaier’s penchant for organized exposition also appeared as he articulated the novel Anabaptist understandings of baptism (95-149, 170-233, 246-95), the Lord’s Supper (315-38, 393-408, cf. 73-77), freedom of the will (427-491) and other topics.
As Anabaptism spread in Switzerland and South Germany/Austria, its audience was mostly peasant-artisan, and largely illiterate. To communicate Anabaptist ideas, evangelists often organized them around something these people knew by heart: the ten commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and quite often the Apostles’ Creed. Further, the Anabaptists’ favorite baptismal text, Matthew 28:19-20, included the triune name. Their baptisms, accordingly, often included a triune confession-either the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed or a personal statement on the same pattern-and sometimes catechetical instruction with the same outline (Hubmaier 1989: 387-88). In both evangelism and baptism, then, the ancient creed(s) played an important role. Moreover, when Anabaptists were put on trial, they were often accused of denying the creed(s), but usually professed belief in them and defended themselves against this charge as much as they were able.
The earliest South German/Austrian leaders wrote little, for their lives ended quickly, as did the early Swiss leaders. However, between 1540-1542 Peter Riedemann authored a Confession of Faith (Rechenschaft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens) while imprisoned. It was published between 1543 and 1545, while Riedemann was assistant Vorsteher (elder) of the Hutterites. In 1565 it was revised and published again, some nine years after he died in 1556, after completing seven years as chief or co-Vorsteher. Riedemann first outlined his theology around the Apostles’ Creed (27 pp. [1999 translation]) and then elaborated on many of the same themes (148 pp.). This systematic theological presentation, modeled on the ancient creed and confessional in intent, guided the well-organized Hutterites during his leadership and long afterwards. I have seldom found it considered by historians of Anabaptism, even when discussing confessions.
Another great South German/Austrian leader, Pilgram Marpeck, formulated a lengthy personal Confession (Rechenschaft seines Glaubens; 50 pp. in English) when banished from Strasbourg in 1531. This confession, however, covered points of disagreement with the authorities, not the whole range of belief. Marpeck was well educated, though not in theology. While his style was sometimes rambling and his terminology confusing, Marpeck sought, more than any other Anabaptist, to express his insights in dialogue with traditional theological categories.
Finally, in the Netherlands, Menno Simons sought to outline some basic Anabaptist beliefs early on in his “Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” covering repentance and faith, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the ministry and relations to government. Menno often requested public debate on standard theological issues (e.g., 1956: 539) and briefly defended the Trinity (487-98). He argued other theological points at tedious length, most notably (and perhaps most embarrassingly for Mennonites today) his heavenly-flesh Christology. Menno’s colleague Dirk Philips organized his thought somewhat more systematically in an “Enchiridion” (1992: 51-440), covering God, creation, soteriology, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and ecclesiology (especially ministry and the ban).
It seems clear, then, that succinct expression of theological convictions was more important among historic Anabaptists than social-ethical or economic-political approaches often suggest. Yet little appeared that might be called a confession. Among the Swiss we spot the brief “Schleitheim Confession,” a resolution of differences on several pressing issues. Among South German/Austrians we find Riedemann’s Confession, shaped largely by the Apostles’ Creed, but really a mini-theology. Confessions proper began developing mostly among the Dutch shortly after these first 50 years. How consistent, or inconsistent, were they with these earlier theological impluses?
THE DEVELOPMENT OF MENNONITE CONFESSIONS
A quite plausible reading of historic Anabaptism finds at its center a tension between the spirit and the letter. Many earlier Anabaptists, especially those who made apocalyptic predictions, believed that God’s Spirit guided them directly, sometimes with little reference to the biblical text, or letter. But when some of these went off the deep end, many Anabaptists sought to regulate everything strictly by the letter.
This tension was perhaps most acute among the Dutch. Melchior Hoffmann and the prophets who led people to Muenster not only claimed direct revelations, but expected converts to experience thorough, rapid spiritual transformation. After the Mnster debacle of 1535, Menno and Dirk sought to rein in these excesses through strict biblical literalism and heavy use of the ban. Banning accelerated to the point where banned persons were to be shunned even by their spouses. This occasioned a major split in 1557, with the exit of a group who could not go this far and came to be called Waterlanders.
At this time Swiss Anabaptists were heading northward down the Rhine, even as the Dutch were spreading southward. Though one might think these groups would unite, the Swiss found the Dutch severity appalling. But when they raised the issue, the Dutch banned them, too, formally separating most of the Dutch from most of the Swiss in 1559. As if this were not enough, multitudes of persecuted Flemish Anabaptists began pouring into Friesland, in the northern Netherlands. The Flemish and Frisians differed greatly in culture, and by the 1560s were banning each other. Before long, these divided groups also began splitting internally.
During these dismal times confessions began appearing. One of their major purposes was to overcome such disunity. But had Anabaptism changed so much, as some scholars maintain, that these confessional efforts would diverge greatly from earlier Anabaptism, with its spiritual and ethical vitality’ In particular, since the confession as a literary form had Protestant origins, did not its appearance among Anabaptists indicate increasing assimilation to the surrounding culture? As we consider the Mennonite confessional tradition, let us remember these issues of continuity/discontinuity and spirit/letter with historic Anabaptism. However, my main aim will be to survey that history, not to definitively resolve any such matter.
WATERLANDER CONFESSIONS (1577-1610)
The first confessions appear among this “liberal” group that split off during Menno’s lifetime, largely in reaction against the severe banning. Their first confession was drawn up in 1577 by five pastors as an expression of their unity in faith. The second was composed in prison in 1578 by one of these pastors, Hans de Ries, to explain his convictions to the officials who tried him. The third confession I will consider, which also owes much to de Ries, was designed to unite a group of English separatists with the Waterlanders, and hopefully other Dutch and German Mennonites, in 1610. The Waterlander trajectory clearly aimed towards unity among Anabaptists and likeminded groups. Yet it also differentiated the Anabaptist outlook decidedly from the Reformed, which was dominating Dutch society.
Waterlander confessions affirmed a traditional and trinitarian understanding of God, whom they also described as “a fountain of life, from whom all good gifts come” (1577: Article #5; cf. 1578: #1-2. 1610: #1, 6). This meant that God wills everyone’s salvation, and that only what is “good, holy, righteousness and light” comes from God (1577: 6, cf. 1588: 2, 1610: 7). The Waterlanders intended to deny the Reformed doctrine of predestination, which in their view rendered God the author of sin and evil.
Waterlanders also sought to affirm the seriousness of Adam’s fall: he brought “upon himself and his posterity temporal and eternal death. Yet, having lost the image of God . . . [he] lost God himself” (1577: 11). Nonetheless, humans did not completely lose this image, for “God left a trace of light in fallen man. . . . Through this he is still able to achieve some virtues and avoid some sins, and can, through sensitivity [to this light] and the grace of God, come to a closer walk [with God]” (1577: 11, cf. 1578: 4, 1610: 5). By acknowledging some degree of goodness and freedom in humans, God’s goodness could further be upheld. For if humans are free, then sin is their own fault, and God punishes them justly for it, not because God predestined them to Hell (1577: 6, 1610: 7). This meant, of course, that election, in Scripture, had to be interpreted as foreknowledge: God predestines in the sense that, being above time, God foresees who will accept and reject grace (1577: 7, 1610: 7). This of course raises the Arminian problem: whether those human choices become the basis of salvation and damnation.
Probably in reaction against Menno and Dirk’s strictness, Waterlanders did not stress that the Church is a visibly distinct body, as Anabaptists generally did. Rather, it included everyone everywhere who was renewed in “the inner man by grace, in whom the true likeness and mind of Christ dwells, and who are truly obedient to God” (1577: 12, cf. 1578: 8). Waterlanders could concede that “many hypocrites” exist in local congregations (1610: 24). Yet these “weeds” should not be uprooted before the Last Judgment (1578: 15).
This was intertwined with a strong spiritualist emphasis, recalling earlier Dutch Anabaptism, and expressed definitively by de Ries. It was not enough to know Christ only “according to the flesh . . . according to historical knowledge . . . . Rather we must rise higher and confess Christ also according to the Spirit, in his exaltation and glory. . . .” The risen Christ must “feed us with heavenly food and drink, making us partakers of the divine nature” (1610: 19). This Article from 1610, “To Know Christ According to the Spirit,” and another on “The New Birth” (1610: 22), absent from earlier confessions, expressed de Ries’s perspective. The 1610 confession also supplemented Article 31, “External Baptism,” with Article 32, “The Inner Significance of Baptism”; and Article 32, “The Lord’s Supper,” with Article 33, “The Inner Significance of the Lord’s Supper.”
Waterlander confessions also sought moderation on issues dividing Anabaptists. Their Christology could allow either a heavenly flesh or Chalcedonian understanding. For de Ries, correct “knowledge of the origin of the flesh of Christ” was not required for salvation; over this he had never “been willing to disrupt brotherly relations. . . ” (1578: 6).
Under Discipline, or The Ban, emphasis fell on seeking reconciliation and not judging anyone unless they had “previously been judged by the Word of God” (1578: 35). While excommunication of “the obstinate and deliberate sinner” was permitted, there is no evidence that de Ries ever banned anyone. Waterlanders did agree with other Mennonites, verbally, on avoiding banned persons, “neither eating nor drinking with them”-but excepted situations of need, and “when the apostate, through such eating and drinking, might be converted and won again” (1577: 20). In any case, “married persons may not be separated” (1610: 36). The issue of marriage outside the Church, a cause for banning among other Mennonites, was not raised.
Swearing of oaths, forbidden by the Schleitheim Confession, was allowed in some cases in 1577 and 1578, though again rejected in 1610. Church members should not fill secular offices. “Nothing is further from” following “in the footsteps of the master . . . than to rule this world with the sword” (1610: 37). However, not only did Waterlanders affirm, with all Anabaptists, that government was ordained by God. They also thanked God “for good and Christian government” (1610: 37) and assured “authorities who rule well” that they would receive “a golden reward” from God (1578: 11).
These Waterlander confessions, like later Mennonite efforts in general, devoted greater attention to behavioral issues within the specific historical context than did most Protestant confessions. Their formulators felt free, as would their successors, to rephrase beliefs in different circumstances, and as they understood them better. The Waterlanders also maintained that Scripture contains “all that is necessary” for faith. Why, then, bother with confessions? To “testify to the unity of our teaching with each other and ministers of old, against those who accuse us of teaching falsely” against “the tradition of the church” and also to provide “a short summary” of their beliefs “in distinction from others who also find their answers in the Scripture.” According to C .J. Dyck, Waterlander confessions were written “to achieve, rather than enforce consensus. . . .” They aimed, however, not at “a tolerant reductionism in the name of unity” but “a fusion of vital interests.”
THE PATH TO DORDRECHT (1632)
The 1610 confession was intended, most specifically, to unite the Amsterdam Waterlander congregation with some English separatists under John Smyth. By this time, however, Waterlanders had attained a degree of consensus with some Frisians and Swiss-German Anabaptists. Accordingly, Amsterdam leaders hoped that this confession might unite Waterlanders, Frisians and Swiss. Instead, it prompted the latter groups to draw back. Frisians in particular were unhappy with this confession’s rejection of marital shunning, permission of marriage outside the congregation and strong spiritualist slant.
Unity among Frisians, Flemish and Swiss-German Anabaptists developed along another route. In 1591 some Dutch and Swiss Anabaptists met and agreed to “The Concept of Cologne.” This confession was briefer than the Waterlanders’, especially on traditional doctrines. It did affirm the Trinity and a Christology capable of heavenly flesh and Chalcedonian readings (Articles #1-2).
Discipline, however, received greatest attention. The Swiss emphasis on repentance and reconciliation appeared, but also the Dutch insistence on shunning, including avoiding meals with the excommunicated. Yet the Concept admitted possible “misuse of marital avoidance” and stressed “much more . . . to act with love in working with those being disciplined. . . .” It acknowledged that such issues are “understood by some in a more complex manner, and by others in a simpler manner. . . .” Still, it committed signatories “until further indication from God” to be “at all times reconciled with one another in love, listening to each other’s views in the spirit of love, without strife and quarreling” (1591: #7).
The Concept disallowed marriage outside the church, yet permitted readmission of those so joined if they evidenced “worthy fruits of regret and repentance” (1591: 8). It also critiqued “fashions of dress” which resembled “the ways of the world,” and merchants who desired more than “modest profit” but were “insatiable, forever wanting more and more” (1591: 14). The Concept urged adherents to “remain pure, and escape from the corruption of the disobedient,” and yet admitted that “it is not easy to set exact standards in this regard. . . ” (#14).
Unlike Waterlanders, these Frisians and Swiss-Germans were more prone to stress the biblical letter and tone down spiritual transformation. They gradually drew closer together into the 1620s, when the Flemish also began desiring relations with them. Flemish leaders asked their own congregations what they considered “the basic marks of a Christian church” and whether these could be found among other Anabaptists. These leaders eventually produced their own answers in a 1627 “Olive Branch Confession,” which was much discussed among Flemish, Frisians and others but did not attain consensus. Around this time, however, some Frisians and Swiss-Germans produced the similar “Jan Cents Confession.” In 1630 they presented it to the Flemish, who found it largely consonant with their “Olive Branch.”
It was a fairly short step from there to the Dordrecht Confession of 1632, which facilitated union among all but the Waterlanders in 1639. With this confession, the early period of Mennonite confessional formation reached a climax. Dordrecht impacted many generations of Mennonites, not only in the Netherlands but in North America as well. Dordrecht was briefer than the 1630 confession, probably because it was designed for formal endorsement.
The 1630 confession, like the Waterlanders, called God “a fountain of life, and the source of all good,” though this phrase was absent from Dordrecht. In contrast to a somewhat complex trinitarian affirmation in 1630, Dordrecht simply confessed “one eternal, almighty, and incomprehensible God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. . . ” (1632: Article #1). The fairly optimistic Waterlander anthropology was missing, with postlapsarian free will mentioned only briefly in 1630 (34b) and not at all in Dordrecht. Instead, both confessions stressed that fallen humans “had no power to help themselves” (1632: #3, cf. 1630: 34a).
The 1630 declaration introduced the notion that God’s justice “required” that sin “should not go unpunished” (1630: 34a-b); a largely substitutionary approach to atonement followed there and in Dordrecht (1632: #4). Both confessions stressed Jesus’ “obedience,” apparently in substitutionary fashion, as the Waterlanders earlier had. The 1630 confession treated Jesus’ work under the functions of prophet, priest and king, incorporating Jesus’ nonviolent way into the latter. Both the 1630 and Dordrecht acknowledged that the incarnation was much debated, and affirmed Jesus’ virginal conception, but without taking a heavenly flesh or Chalcedonian stance.
While free will was not explicitly mentioned in Dordrecht, human participation in salvation was stressed (though not in 1630). People must “‘bring forth fruits meet for repentance,’ amend their lives . . . ‘depart from evil and do good'” (1632: 6). Dordrecht equated the gospel with “the law of Christ,” affirming that if people “are obedient, through faith, follow, fulfill and live according to the precepts of the same,” they are God’s “children and rightful heirs. . . .” Some measure of free will was likely presupposed here and in the subsequent insistence that none are excluded from salvation except those who “by their own actions incur guilt by refusing the same. . . ” (1632: 5).
The 1630 confession mentioned a heavenly Church comprising all the saints and even angels, and, like the Waterlanders, referred to a “general,” apparently universal Church. Yet it also stressed the purity of local congregations, for the earthly church “bears the figure of the true Church in heaven” (1630: 36a). Dordrecht, however, confessed only “a visible Church,” to be “known by her evangelical faith, doctrine, love and godly conversation . . . pure walk and practice. . . ” (1632: 8).
In 1630 the Lord’s Supper included a dimension of “internal, spiritual thanksgiving,” as in Waterlander confessions (36a). This aspect was absent from Dordrecht, which depicted the Lord’s Supper as a memorial, but also as a communal experience “whereby we are earnestly exhorted to love one another” and “maintain and keep alive” union with each other. Both later confessions forbade marriage outside the church (1630: 36b, 37a-b; 1632: #12). Their views on banning and shunning were noticeably stronger that the Waterlanders’, though they hoped that such actions would ultimately be redemptive.
Unlike the Waterlanders, these two confessions flatly prohibited all oath-swearing (1630: 37a, 1632: #25). The 1630 confession rejected participation in government as inconsistent with Jesus’ “defenseless life and cross-bearing footsteps, prohibiting all revenge . . .” (36b). Like the Waterlanders, both documents expressed respect for government and willingness to pay taxes. Dordrecht also prayed that God “would recompense them (our rulers), here and in eternity, for all the benefits, liberties, and favors which we enjoy under their laudable administration” (1632: 13).
1632 culminated a lengthy discussion process among Mennonite leaders and congregations of often conflicting persuasions. Waterlanders, however, were mostly left aside, and the process, at the end, subdued their more spiritual tone under the Frisian, Swiss-German “letter.” When the confession was finalized at Dordrecht, some 51 persons signed. Other congregations soon adopted it, though a few small, conservative groups never did.
In view of the effort involved to reach it, Dordrecht functioned somewhat more authoritatively than the Waterlander confessions had. In fact, for a period after 1650, elders of many churches were required to abide by the 1630 and 1632 declarations, which then acquired “a level of authority that one would expect . . . in the Magisterial Reformation churches.” Eventually, however, disagreement about the status of confessions divided Dutch Mennonites again. All such groups, including the Waterlanders, did not finally unite until 1811.
THE RIS CONFESSION (1766)
Though Dordrecht was widely used among European Mennonites, it perhaps had greater influence in North America. It was translated into English in 1725, not long after the first wave of Mennonite immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Dordrecht became the main confession of these Old Mennonites, many of whom moved on to Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.
However, a second wave immigrated during the latter half of the nineteenth century, largely into the Great Plains territories such as Kansas, South Dakota and Manitoba, but also into midwestern states already populated by Old Mennonites. This General Conference Mennonite Church, established in 1860, was much more congregational in polity (Old Mennonites often had bishops) and adopted no confession, save for adding a paragraph to its constitution in 1896. Local General Conference congregations, however, produced numerous confessions. Moreover, an affirmation noticeably different from Dordrecht, the Ris Confession of 1766, wielded significant influence within the General Conference, though it was never formally adopted. In July 2001 the Old Mennonites (officially, The Mennonite Church) and the General Conference merged into a new Mennonite Church USA.
The Ris Confession is conspicuously more sophisticated and longer than other Mennonite productions (some 17,000 words to Dordrecht’s 5000). It sought to combine Dordrecht’s emphasis, from which it lifted some phrases verbatim, with the more spiritual and liberal Waterlander strain. Virtually alone among Mennonite confessions, the Ris confession inferred God’s existence chiefly from nature’s harmony, humankind’s constitution and “the concurring testimony of all thinking people in all ages. . .” (1766, Article #1). Though Ris affirmed Scripture as “the only infallible and sufficient guide of faith and conduct,” it buttressed this by five general arguments (1766: #2) Later points were supported not only by Scripture, but occasionally also by “experience” (1766: 9, 11, etc.).
Like Waterlander confessions, the Ris confession insisted that humanity’s fall did not wholly extinguish the light of reason, conscience or free will (1766: 11). Here again, a major aim was to indict humans for evil, rather than God, “the fountainhead of all life… and doer only of those things that are good….” (1766: 9). Yet Ris pondered the relation between divine grace and human response at length. It ascribed freedom to accept or reject Christ to “prevenient grace,” for without this “it is entirely impossible for our corrupt nature to seek, choose and apprehend the good. . . .” (1766: 11, cf. 17-18). Here again, divine election could only be interpreted as foreknowledge (1766: 9). Unlike previous Mennonite confessions, Ris related foreknowledge in detail to “Justification and Faith” (1766: 20; but cf. 1610: 21).
Like the 1610 Waterlander Confession, the Ris devoted an article to the New Birth (1766: 19, cf. 20). Again as in 1610, Ris found “simply historical knowledge” of Jesus inadequate. And like previous confessions in general, it conceived Jesus’ earthly atoning work chiefly as substitution (1766: 15).
Even more than Waterlanders, the Ris confession stressed the Church’s universality. It even implored Christians not to withdraw from local congregations marked by imperfections (1766: 23). Ris did admit the possibility of eventual excommunication; yet it broke the disciplinary process into stages, encouraged great caution, forbade marital shunning and advocated penitents’ full restoration (1766: 28). Ris argued, on one hand, that the Lord’s Supper was only for true believers; but, on the other hand, it disallowed anyone’s exclusion, save those formally under discipline. The Supper, as among Waterlanders, was not only a memorial, but also spiritual participation in Christ and “the knitting together of believers” (1766: 26).
Like the 1630 and Dordrecht confessions but unlike the Waterlanders, the Ris forbade all oaths whatsoever (1766: 30). Along with all confessions mentioned, it denied any Christian participation in government. Yet like so many, Ris expressed gratitude for being able to “live in peace and quiet under the protection of such a benign government” which granted “great privileges and exemptions,” especially from oaths and military service (1766: 18).
In the Ris confession the Anabaptist dialectic between spirit and letter, subdued by the latter at Dordrecht, once again became visible. Yet so did a rational, Enlightenment influence. This would express itself in America when General Conference Mennonites entered higher education and developed a more cosmopolitan theological outlook, earlier than Old Mennonites.
TWENTIETH CENTURY CONFESSIONS
While the General Conference never adopted a confession (save a paragraph added to its constitution in 1896), the Old Mennonites, amidst the liberal-fundamentalist controversy, authorized a brief “Christian Fundamentals.” This was a “restatement” of Dordrecht “in the light of present religious contentions and teachings” (1921: Preamble). A somewhat more Reformed orientation was visible: e.g., subsequent to Adam’s “one act,” people are sinful in “nature, spiritually dead,” unable to save themselves– period (1921: Article #4). The “Fundamentals” insisted on “modest apparel” while rejecting “secret orders,” “life insurance” (1921: 13), and “all movements which seek the reformation of society independent of” Jesus’ saving work (1921: 10). These fundamentals reflected an atmosphere, as in the Netherlands around 1650, in which doctrine was at least as important as behavior.
THE “MENNONITE CONFESSION OF FAITH” (1963)
By the 1960s the Old Mennonites, now much more involved in higher education and society, and stimulated by Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” felt the need for an elaborate restatement of Dordrecht and the 1921 Fundamentals. This was drafted largely by Bender’s colleague, J. C. Wenger. A graduate of the conservative Presbyterian Westminster Seminary, Wenger published in 1954 probably the first Anabaptist systematics since Peter Riedemann’s Confession. The 1963 confession proclaimed the Bible “the infallible guide” (1963: Article #2), affirming its “full authority” (1963: Preamble)-though not, as in 1921, its “plenary and verbal inspiration” (1921: #1). From the Fall’s damage it exempted only our continuing “power of self-determination,” in order, in turn, to exempt God from being sin’s author. As in Reformed theology, the 1963 affirmed “assurance of salvation.” Yet, like earlier Mennonites confessions, it described people so assured only as “foreknown” (1963: 6). Like its predecessors, the 1963 described atonement as substitutionary but, unlike them, also used Christus Victor imagery (1963: 5, cf. 1). Christ’s “full deity and full humanity” were affirmed without hints of the heavenly flesh controversy, long since vanished (1963: 1).
While this confession mentioned a universal Church, it stressed that it was a “visible body” whose “primary unit . . . is the local assembly. . . ” although it also affirmed the value of “conferences” (1963: 8). It endeavored, like Waterlanders, to portray discipline positively, as intended to “lead each member to the full stature in Christ” and “restore to full fellowship the members who fall . . .” (1963: 8). The 1963 called the Lord’s Supper an “ordinance,” but also a “symbol” of not only Jesus’ death but also, as among Waterlanders, “our spiritual life in Him, and of the spiritual unity and fellowship of the body . . .” (1963: 12).
One novelty, however, was including among ordinances such things as footwashing, the holy kiss, ordination, anointing the sick, marriage and “veiling of Christian women” (1963:8). The last issue received a separate article, which allotted to “man,” by creation, “a primary leadership role, while woman is especially fitted for nurture and service” (1963: 14). We glimpse a particular, largely ethnic group stressing not only “modest, economical, simple and becoming” adornment (1963: 16), but also an important visible marker. The typical Mennonite contextual orientation also appeared in denunciations of tobacco, alcohol (1963: 16) and secret societies (1963: 17, as in 1921: 13). Yet veiling was soon hotly debated, which diminished this confession’s use more swiftly than otherwise probably would have happened.
Harking back to Schleitheim, the 1963 confession affirmed “two opposing kingdoms,” Satan’s and Christ’s (1963: 16). It forbade all oaths (1963: 17). Yet it displayed a more expansive social consciousness than 1921: “The Church should witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice, and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation” (1963: 9). It should “manifest only love toward those of other races, cultures, and economic levels” (1963: 16). Even further, Christians must “aggressively, at the risk of life itself, do whatever we can for the alleviation of human distress and suffering.” Moreover, the 1963 did not forbid all participation in government or society, but only in whatever involved violence (1963: 19). And it found nonviolence applicable not only to interpersonal relations, but also to “situations in which people commonly resort to litigation, to industrial strife, and to international tensions and wars” (1963: 18).
While the “letter” was not engraved so deeply into the 1963 confession as into its 1921 predecessor, or even Dordrecht, it still shared that general emphasis. Though more holistic and flexible in some areas like discipline, it still sought to regulate life in many respects. Yet despite its adoption of Schleitheim’s church-world dualism, the 1963 confession mentioned ministry to a broader range of human problems than had been the case previously.
THE “CONFESSION OF FAITH IN A MENNONITE PERSPECTIVE” (1995)
In the 1980s Old Mennonites and General Conference Mennonites began discussing merger. As often in the past, joint adoption of a new confession was identified as crucial to such a process. A committee of about ten began convening semi-annually in about 1984. It occasionally invited “consultants” (I was so involved once). It sent detailed minutes, which often included draft articles, to those who asked. The committee was open to comments; nearly all that I submitted over the years received some kind of reply. Open discussions were held at several General Assemblies, as well as at hearings in areas with significant Mennonite populations. This joint confession was finally adopted in 1995. Soon after, copies and study guides became available. Congregations were encouraged to discuss it. Perhaps the 1995 received as much church-wide input and was taken as seriously as would be the case in any denomination of comparable size. To be sure, many Mennonites are probably unaware of it. However, opinions on its degree of authority surely vary.
The title phrase, “in a Mennonite Perspective,” evidences an ecumenical awareness that other truly Christian perspectives exist. Moreover, “the historic creeds of the early Christian church . . . are basic to this confession as well” (1995: Introduction). The first 8 articles, covering God, Creation, Sin and Salvation, are described as dealing with “themes common to the faith of the wider Christian church” (1995: Intro). Apparently Articles 9-16, on the Church, and Articles 17-23, on discipleship, are considered more specifically Mennonite. Still, “the universal church” includes “a wider family” with which Mennonites “seek to nurture appropriate relationships . . .” (1995: Article #16, Commentary 3). Overall, the Church is called “a community of believers” existing “in the local congregation, as a community of congregations, and as the worldwide community of faith” (1995: #9). The Lord’s Supper enables us to “recognize our unity with all believers everywhere in all times” (1995: #12). The confession is “commended to all Christian churches and to those of other faiths or no faith . . .” (1995: Intro).
God is described in orthodox fashion, though with some Anabaptist twists. For instance, the discussion of the Trinity forbids playing off some ethic of created orders, derived from the Father, against the more radical ethics of the Son (1995: 1, Comm. 1). Scripture is “the fully reliable and trustworthy standard” for “faith and life,” but holds less prominence than it did in 1921 or 1963. Nonviolence is directly derived from Christology (1995: 2). Atonement is seldom described as substitutionary, as in all previous confessions, but mostly as Christus Victor, for sin brings bondage to “powers of domination, division, destruction and death” (1995: 7).
Traditional Reformed issues scarcely appear. Though humans were created with “ability to choose to obey or disobey the word” (1995: Comm. 3), it is through the Spirit that “we repent and turn towards God . . .” (1995: 11, cf. 8). Genuine freedom is conformity to God’s will (1995: Comm. 3). Neither foreknowledge nor election is mentioned.
Perhaps reacting against a decline in disciplinary practice, the 1995 confession affirms it somewhat more strongly than the 1963 does. “Both the misuse and the neglect of discipline undermine the church’s life and witness” and counter the church’s “important correcting, renewing, and redemptive purposes . . .” (1995: 14, Comm. 1). But the joint confession also reverses its predecessor, calling “the rule of man over woman” a “result of sin,” unacceptable “among the redeemed” (1995: 6).
As in all confessions except the Waterlanders’, oaths are flatly rejected (1995: 20). As in 1963, positive social ministries are encouraged, such as environmental concern (1995: 21) and especially peace and justice (1995: 22). Participation in government and society is allowed, if it does “not violate the love and holiness taught by Christ. . . .” But the chief emphasis falls on the Church itself as a “spiritual, social, and political body,” a “holy nation” modeling corporate behaviors counter to those of ruling powers. As such, the church calls all persons, institutions and nations “to move toward justice, peace, and compassion for all people” (1995: 23).
Finally, a spiritual emphasis runs through the 1995 Confession. The Lord’s Supper, for instance, is not only a memorial, but “re-presents the presence of the risen Christ in the church,” which participates, as a body, “in the life of Jesus Christ . . . ” (1995: 12). Discipleship (Article 17) is followed by Christian Spirituality (Article 18), to avoid the social-ethical reduction of the former term. This recalls Hans de Ries’s insertion of an article on “The New Birth” in the 1610 confession. Overall, the 1995 Confession articulates “the letter” precisely, with the Dordrecht-Old Mennonite tradition. Yet it balances this with the spiritual outlook found in the Waterlander, Ris and General Conference traditions.
SOME CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS
Although this article has aimed to survey a confessional history rather than analyze it, several recurrent themes stand out:
1. While behavior provides the touchstone, or main fruit, of Christian existence for Mennonites, theological or confessional articulation has shaped their life significantly in various times and places. Their confessional history displays some significant continuities with historic Anabaptism (1525-1275), even though the confessional form itself is not distinctly Anabaptist.
2. One major continuity is the ongoing tension between spirit and letter, perhaps most visible confessionally in statements about personal salvation and church discipline.
3. Though Mennonite confessions include doctrinal issues, greater concern with behavioral matters, and more frequent rephrasings of these in changing contexts, differentiate them from the confessions of most larger Protestant bodies.
4. Ecumenically, Mennonite confessions indicate far more interaction with Reformed issues than any other. In affirming the seriousness of sin and the priority of grace, Mennonites sometimes sound similar to the Reformed, but usually differentiate their views at points they consider crucial.
5. Confessions have usually united Mennonites, who have otherwise often been divisive. This suggests that behavior is more likely to divide when it is the sole norm, but less likely when moderated by theological reflection and articulation.
[*]Thomas Finger is an independent scholar living in Evanston, IL. He completed much of the work on this paper while serving as a Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, Elizabethtown, PA.
1. Technically, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, a revision and supplementation of the creed declared at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. However, the 381 creed is the one formally confessed by creedal churches and is commonly called “The Nicene Creed.”
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. Hymnal: A Worship Book (Scottdale, PA.: Herald, 1992) is the most recent. The prior one, containing the Nicene Creed (Reading #722), was The Mennonite Hymnal (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1969).
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. The creeds are critiqued most often for the connection with Constantinian Christianity, as by J. Denny Weaver, “Christus Victor, Ecclesiology and Christology,” MQR 68 (July 1994), 277-90; and “Some Theological Implications of Christus Victor,” MQR 68 (Oct. 1994), 483-99. For a critique see my “Christus Victor and the Creeds: Some Historical Considerations,” MQR 72 (Jan. 1998), 31-52.
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. Bender presented this Vision as “the culmination of the Reformation, the fulfillment of the original vision of Luther and Zwingli and thus . . . a consistent evangelical Protestantism, seeking to recreate without compromise the original New Testament church. . . .”-The Anabaptist Vision (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald 1944), 13.
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. E.g., the Church can be adequately called the “body of Christ” only in light of more “transcendent” phrases such as “in Christ,” which express “utter dependence and close intimacy between Christ and the Church. . . .”-These Are My People (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1962), 25. Moreover, “‘Lord’ does not refer to the historical Jesus . . . but to the present living Lord, now at the right hand of the majesty… but present on earth in His body, the church, as His dwelling place through the Spirit”-“Who is the Lord'” in C. J. Dyck, ed., The Lordship of Christ (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite World Conference, 1962), 19.
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. e.g., J. Denny Weaver, “Mennonites: Theology, Peace and Identity,” Conrad Grebel Review 6 (Spring 1988), 119-45; with my “Response to J. Denny Weaver,” CGR 6 (Spring 1988), 161-64; and Weaver’s “Response to A. James Reimer and Thomas Finger,” CGR 7 (Winter 1989), 74-79.
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. This distinction comes from Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1973). In my view, Friedmann overdrew it. Only an existential theology, concerned with “evidencing faith in life,” was truly implicit. Explicit theologies came from magisterial Protestantism, emphasized simul justus ac peccator, and were unsuitable for Anabaptists (24).
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. James McClendon, in his “baptist” theology, defines theology as “the understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”-Systematic Theology: Ethics (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 23 [my italics]. Whereas “beliefs” often connotes clearly articulated and consciously affirmed ideas, “convictions” can be largely unconscious orientations towards life which are nevertheless indispensable for any coherent activity.-Cf. my review of McClendon’s three-volume Systematic Theology in MQR 76 (Jan. 2002), esp. 121-23.
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. In Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder, eds., Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1989), 31-34. I treat Hubmaier mainly as representative of Swiss Anabaptism since much of his theology was formulated in dialogue with Zwingli, usually in support of Zwingli’s Anabaptist opponents, in the movement’s earliest phases.
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. Pipkin and Yoder, Balthasar Hubmaier, 117-18, 260, 349, 388, cf. 351, 370-71, 439; John Friesen, trans. and ed., Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1999), 111; William Klassen and Walter Klaassen, trans. and ed., The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1978), 198-99, 226; Cornelius Dyck, William Keeney, Alvin Beachy, trans. and eds. The Writings of Dirk Philips (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1992), 87, 99, 110, cf. 177-78.
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. Complete Writings of Menno Simons, 623-943. Menno, with his colleague Dirk Philips, insisted that Jesus’ human flesh did not come from Mary, but was miraculously created in her. Jesus, then, was born of Mary and, they insisted, was fully human, though his humanity was disconnected from the sinful Adamic line. Since earlier Dutch Anabaptists, notably Melchior Hoffmann, taught that the Word brought a heavenly kind of flesh with him into his incarnation, Dutch Christology is generally called “heavenly flesh,” though that does not exactly describe Menno and Dirk’s view.
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. I will cite all Dutch and German confessions in their English translations. Though relatively little research has been done on these in the original languages, some such work accompanies the translations by Dyck and Gross/Gleysteen below and is found in other related works cited. Karl Koop’s helpful dissertation is the most recent and thorough.-“Early 17th Century Mennonite Confessions of Faith,” Ph.D. Diss, St. Michael’s College, 1999. Christian Neff, J.C. Wenger and Harold Bender, “Confessions of Faith,” ME 1:679-86 is extensive but somewhat dated.
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. The Dutch historian W. J. Kuehler utilized it in the 1930s.-Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 401-02; see also James Stayer, “Was Dr. Kuehler’s conception of Early Dutch Anabaptism Historically Sound'” MQR 60 (July 1986), 262-88; and Hendrick Meihuizen, “Spiritualistic Tendencies and Movements among the Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th Centuries,” MQR 27 (Oct. 1953), 277.
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. E.g., Kuehler, who regarded the spiritualism among the Dutch, rather than ethical orientations there or elsewhere, as the fullest expression of “Anabaptism proper.”-Koop, “Early 17th Century Mennonite Confessions of Faith,” 16. Hans-Juergen Goertz finds the writing of confessions largely foreign to the earlier Anabaptist way of living out their confessions.-“Zwischen Zweitracht und Eintracht,” Mennonitische Geschichtesbltter 43/44 (1986/1987), 16-46; cf. Koop, “Early 17th Century Mennonite Confessions of Faith,” 18-19. Snyder suggests that Anabaptists adopted the confessional form from Protestant opponents to answer their critiques, yet still could legitimately express themselves through it.-“The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578,” in Walter Klaassen, ed., Anabaptism Revisited (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1992), 29-49.
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. I will, of course, be guided by certain interests. Since this article originated in bilateral discussions between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the new Mennonite Church USA, I will be tracing these confessions’ influence on the latter body. For the same reason, I will accent themes shaped by interaction with magisterial Protestants, even though these were mostly Reformed, not Lutheran. Some issues important from other perspectives may appear only in passing or not at all.
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. Cited hereafter in the text as 1577. Translated by C. J. Dyck, “The First Waterlander Confession of Faith,” MQR 36 (Jan. 1962), 5-13. For an overview of the subject, see Nanne van der Zijpp, “The Confessions of Faith of the Dutch Mennonites,” MQR 29 (July 1955), 177-87; also Dirk Visser, A Checklist of Dutch Mennonite Confessions of Faith to 1800. Commissie tot de Utgave van Documenta Anabaptistica Neerlandica, Bulletins 6 and 7 (1974-75).
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. Cited hereafter in the text as 1610. Translated by C. J. Dyck, “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries,” MQR 38 (Jan. 1964), 147-54, 161. It also appears, differently translated, in William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson, 1974), 44-65.
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. Dyck, “A Short Confession of Faith,” 6-10; Koop, “Early 17th Century Mennonite Confessions of Faith,” 125-26. Among the Old Frisians, Pieter van Twisck also produced 33 articles of faith, mainly with the Belgic Confession in view.-Koop, “Early 17th Century Mennonite Confessions of Faith,” 120-21.
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. Translated by Leonard Gross and Jan Gleysteen, “The First Mennonite Merger: The Concept of Cologne,” in James Horsch, ed., Mennonite Yearbook 1990-91 (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1991), 8-10. I am omitting a more local “Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578,” edited by Theodor Sippel (in German) in MQR 23 (Jan. 1949), 22-34; and discussed by Snyder, “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578.”
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. Interestingly, the Cologne confession spoke of the Spirit “proceeding from the Father through the Son.”-1591: Article 3. So did the 1630 confession (35a) as it appears in Thieleman van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1950), 33b-38b [translated from the Dutch edition of 1660]). I identify columns on the pages as “a” or “b.” This Eastern Orthodox formulation also appeared in Menno and Dirk, but not in Waterlander confessions.
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. Cited hereafter in the text as 1632. Translated by Irvin Horst, Mennonite Confession of Faith (Lancaster, PA.: Lancaster Historical Society, 1988). The critical edition is edited by J. Bruesewitz and M. A. Kreber with introductions by Irvin Horst and Sjouke Voolstra, Confessie van Dordrecht, Doperse Stemmen 5 (Amsterdam: Doopsgezinde Historische Kring, 1982).
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. While the 1577 confession scarcely mentioned Jesus’ saving work, in 1578 Jesus’ “perfect obedience” and “resurrection . . . fully paid our sins” (Article #6). In 1610 his “obedience” was connected with “satisfaction” (Article #13). Substitutionary notions were not entirely new in 1630.
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. In Howard Loewen, ed., One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God (Elkhart, IN.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985), 106. This volume contains the most extensive collection of Mennonite confessions from Dordrecht and after. Loewen includes an extensive introduction to the subject (23-60), analytical data (242-68) and other appendices.
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. This is the body involved in the formal bilateral dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A third group, the Mennonite Brethren, began arriving mostly in the western United States and Canada around 1900. It had already split off, under evangelical influences, from other Mennonites, mostly in Russia. Mennonite Brethren have maintained an evangelical identity, although historic Mennonite influences were quite visible in their first North American Confession of 1902.-Loewen, One Lord, 162-75. Since this body is not part of the new Mennonite Church USA, I will not refer further to it, nor to the numerous, generally conservative-evangelical Mennonite communions who have also produced their own confessions.-Loewen, One Lord, 179-240. For a look at confessions from a Mennonite Brethren perspective, see Loewen, “What is the Issue'” Directions 15 (Fall 1986), 22-31.
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. Ris 1766: 18; cf. 1610: 19. Ris emphasized Jesus’ present kingly office as ruler of a spiritual kingdom (1766: 16), current priestly office of intercession (1766: 15) and present prophetic office of teaching through his Word (1766: 14).
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. In Loewen, One Lord, 71-2. Cited hereafter in the text as 1921. The General Conference, however, proposed and revised some “Articles of Faith” several times between 1926 and 1933. They were printed, but never officially adopted.-Loewen, One Lord, 107-11. In 1941 a one-page “Statement of Faith” was approved for the General Conference Seminary.-Loewen, One Lord, 112.
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. On this general subject, see Gerald Studer, “What Place Confessions'” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 6 (April 1983), 2-6; and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, “The Place of Confessions in the Mennonite Church (MC),” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 12 (April 1989), 2-6.
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. 1963 Confession: Article #3. In contrast with a Westminster position, however, it added that while “men are sinners by nature of Adam’s fall, they are not guilty of his sin.” And although “children are born with a nature which will manifest itself as sinful,” until they become “accountable . . . their sins are atoned for through the sacrifice of Christ.”-1963: #4. This was the most common historic Anabaptist viewpoint.
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. Confession of Faith in A Mennonite Perspective (Scottdale, PA.: Herald Press, 1995). Cited hereafter in the text as 1995. It includes 24 articles, each a page or two in length, but also commentaries on each of about equal length. The latter reflect greater theological and social awareness than any other Mennonite confession, though the Ris perhaps came somewhat close. The articles are also presented in shorter, summary form of about a paragraph each (93-98).
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. Though I will not develop this thesis at length, I believe that much of the material mentioned supports it. I cannot agree, then, that confessional expression per se was foreign to true Anabaptism (as maintained by Kuehler, Goertz and others). I agree more with Snyder that it provided a valid medium, even if not always the most natural, for explicating Anabaptist convictions.
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Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition