During the last half of the twentieth century, Mennonites in North America have been of two minds regarding ecumenical involvements. At the local level, most Mennonite congregations have long grown accustomed to joining with other denominations in community Thanksgiving or Lenten services; their pastors are frequently active members in local ministerial associations; and only in the rarest of circumstances would they exclude non-Mennonites from participating in the Lord's Supper.
At a more formal level, however, Mennonites in North America continue to be wary about their engagement in the broader ecumenical movement. Although various conference bodies have frequently sent observers to the National Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals, and individual Mennonites have actively participated in the work of the World Council of Churches, the Mennonite Church USA has consciously chosen not to become a member of any of these ecumenical organizations.
In recent decades, a new form of inter-church conversation has begun to emerge. These encounters, generally initiated by other denominational bodies, frequently take as their starting point memories of intense debates and sometimes violent encounters from the Reformation era and seek a framework for conversation premised on a less hostile footing. Is it possible for groups whose histories have been deeply shaped by mutual antagonisms to discover, nearly a half a millennium later, points of theological common ground? Can denominations move beyond the historical impulses of fear and condemnation to a new framework of understanding, trust and insight?
Against the backdrop of various bi-lateral conversations, especially in Europe, between Mennonites and Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics, a small group of Mennonite historians and theologians recently entered into formal dialogue with counterparts from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The group took as its starting point the various condemnations of the Anabaptists in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, a confession of faith that has long been the cornerstone of Lutheran theology.
This issue of MQR opens a small window into the content of this unfolding conversation. In the opening essay I survey Anabaptist-Lutheran encounters in the sixteenth century, highlighting both areas in which the Anabaptists were theological indebted to Luther and the reformers, and a significant number of points where their theological understandings diverged. Tom Finger, a Mennonite theologian who has been active on the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, follows with an overview of the role that confessions of faith have played in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Clearly, ethical concerns-rather than debates over fine points of systematic theology-have shaped the basic contours of that tradition. Yet Finger argues convincingly that confessions have also served an important unifying role in Anabaptist-Mennonite history. Implicit in his survey of these confessions is the point, foreign to the Lutheran context, that confessions of faith are contingent documents, products of particular contexts and therefore open to on-going revisions.
David Truemper, professor of theology at Valparaiso University, offers MQR readers a fresh perspective on the role and authority of the Augsburg Confession for contemporary Lutherans. Drawing on the ecumenical reflections of Carl Piepkorn, Truemper suggests several hermeneutical principles for interpreting the Augsburg Confession in the context of an inter-church dialogue. Among other things, Truemper distinguishes between doctrinal content-which continues to be binding for Lutherans today-and the historical judgments of the Augsburg Confession, particularly the condemnations of the Anabaptists, which are time-bound and fallible.
Philip Melanchthon, Luther's close friend and a chief architect of the Augsburg Confession, brings a sixteenth-century voice to the conversation with his memorandum of 1536 on the question of how princes should treat Anabaptists in their territories. Writing in response to Philip of Hesse's request for counsel, Melanchthon argued that princes should apply physical punishment to all captured Anabaptists-not on account of their false belief (which should be remedied with instruction alone), but because they pose a clear threat to social stability and the political authority of the state. Melanchthon's defense of capital punishment against obdurate Anabaptists served other Protestant princes as sufficient warrant for executing them in their own territories. His treatise, presented here both in the original and in translation, testifies to the urgency of the issues at stake and to the fierce language to which Reformation protagonists-Lutheran and Anabaptist alike-resorted in defending their various positions.
From a very different part of the world, Lucio Alfert provides yet another perspective on inter-church encounters-that of Mennonites and Catholics living alongside each other in the Paraguayan Chaco. His refreshingly frank historical survey, encompasses both positive and negative aspects of the relationship. Alfert is the Apostolic Vicar of the Pilcomayo province in Paraguay.
The essays gathered together in this slender volume capture only a fraction of the broader inter-church conversations currently taking place in many different contexts. Some of these conversations may result in formal statements carefully articulating official positions; others will likely not have an impact beyond the local settings in which they occur. But the fact that such exchanges are taking place is worthy of notice. We hope that this issue of MQR will give readers some sense of that larger dialogue.
- John D. Roth, Editor