Confessions of faith have played an ambiguous, often-contested role throughout the sweep of Anabaptist-Mennonite history. On the one hand, strong voices within the tradition have consistently raised doubts about the value of confessional statements, albeit for very different reasons. The spiritualist impulses evident in the Dutch Collegiant movement, German Pietism and American evangelicalism have led some Mennonites to reject confessional statements as human-made formulations that inevitably lead to unnecessary and abstruse theological debate. Another, more prominent, voice in the tradition has downplayed doctrinal formulations in favor of an emphasis on the ethical practices of Christian discipleship and the visible form of the Christian community. According to the oft-repeated formula: Mennonites prefer orthopraxis over orthodoxy.
Yet these generalizations can easily overlook the fact that most groups within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition have had a long and rich history of articulating their convictions in carefully-phrased theological statements. Initially, such statements emerged ad hoc, often in response to demands from authorities to defend themselves against charges of heresy. Soon, however, confessions of faith also become a means of self-differentiation-and often outright divisiveness-among various groups within the Anabaptist-Mennonite fold. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, confessions of faith increasingly served as instruments of unification, providing a theological framework for bringing together Anabaptist groups of disparate geographical or historical origin. The Dordrecht Confession of 1632, to cite one prominent example, initially united Frisian and Flemish Mennonite congregations in the Netherlands; but in 1660, Swiss Brethren ministers in the Alsace formally embraced it as well, albeit with some revisions. When Mennonites of the Franconia and Lancaster conferences in Pennsylvania adopted the confession in 1725, and Amish and conservative groups incorporated it into their catechetical instruction, the Dordrecht Confession became a powerful unifying symbol of a trans-Atlantic Mennonite fellowship.
Still, in contrast to the authoritative role that confessions often serve in other traditions--the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530, for example, whose text has remained unaltered for nearly five centuries--Mennonites have almost never regarded their confessional writings as timeless statements of truth, on par with Scripture. So it is appropriate that the most recent North American Mennonite confession of faith, affirmed in 1995 by the two groups who formed the Mennonite Church USA, bears the title A Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
In June of 2006, the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary sponsored a churchwide conference for conversation on the origins of the 1995 confession, its theological and biblical substance, its role in identity-formation, and its application and reception in congregations and conferences. The essays collected in this issue of MQR offer a glimpse into the rich exchange that unfolded at that gathering.
Theologian Thomas Finger opens the issue with a broadly-cast review of the various ways that confessional language has functioned within the history of the Christian church, and a plea for Mennonites to embrace their own confessions as "living letters." Gordon Zerbe and Jo‚l Schmidt follow with two essays focusing more narrowly on the content of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Zerbe provides a detailed and insightful analysis of the role of Scripture in the Confession, while Schmidt offers a fascinating microhistory of the deliberations behind the article on the Lord's Supper that resulted in the hyphenated term "re-presents" to describe what happens at communion.
Susan Biesecker-Mast opens a series of essays responding more critically to the Confession by tracing a "genealogy" of the document's role in the negotiations that led to the creation of the Mennonite Church USA in 1999. That process elevated the authority of the Confession to a new status as the church's "teaching position"-language she suggests was never intended by the drafting committee or by the Confession itself. Steven Siebert challenges the very notion that Christian faith or the church's communal identity can be expressed in abstract confessional language, especially if it is disconnected from the rich, specific and embodied details of the biblical narrative. From his context among emerging congregations in the ethnically-diverse region of Southern California Jeff Wright offers something of a mediating critique. Although the Confession has clearly helped to shape a common Anabaptist-Mennonite identity-particularly as a point of conversation among leaders who are new to the Mennonite Church-Wright worries that the Confession's function as the church's "teaching position" will make it more difficult to incorporate the distinctive theological insights these immigrant congregations may have to offer the broader church.
A final essay by Helmut Harder, himself an active participant in the formulation of the 1995 confession, traces the document's reception at a national level among Mennonites in Canada. In contrast to the concerns noted by other contributors in this issue, Harder concludes that Canadian Mennonite congregations have generally responded quite positively to the Confession. May the conversation continue!
- John D. Roth, editor