Anabaptist theology, in a Constantinian direction?

by Graham Old

Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive
Thomas N. Finger (Intervarsity Press, 2004) £20

It is not difficult to be enthusiastic about Thomas N. Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology.1 Anabaptists – and anyone interested in contemporary theology from an Anabaptist perspective – will be eagerly referring to this work for some time to come. I know of no other book that so ably discusses the world(s) of sixteenth-century Anabaptism whilst in conversation with such a variety of contemporary theologians, Anabaptist or otherwise.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state at the outset that I have serious doubts about Finger’s methodology and major concerns over some of his conclusions. Yet, that notwithstanding, this is a remarkable work that all of those interested in Anabaptism should read.

Finger’s Methodology

Finger, a former professor of systematic and spiritual theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, is clear about his aims: ‘My main task will be to render explicit the largely implicit theology that has guided Anabaptists in order to address issues facing today’s churches and societies.’2 To that end, he thoroughly examines what early Anabaptists said on particular topics and then sets up a dialogue with them and a number of contemporary theological voices. Out of that broad conversation, Finger constructs his own position.

Although he is careful to articulate that the theology presented is a, rather than the, Anabaptist view, I have misgivings about how the conversation is presented and conducted. While Finger insists that he is looking for an implicit theology from the grass-roots, he generally only deals with leaders and their written works. There is little discussion of hymns, prison letters and prayers, yet is there any theology more implicit than our spirituality? In this sense, though he is seeking to give a voice to the implicit theology of a marginalized fringe, Finger runs the risk of giving priority to the public leaders and scholars and thus perpetuating the silencing of the laity.

Similarly, it is instructive to note who is invited to the conversations. Anabaptist historiography has been as much a discussion of exclusion, as of origins. Just who were the real Anabaptists? Obviously, it would be nice if we could exclude the violent revolutionaries somehow and explain away those with suspect theology, but what would we then do with Menno Simons?! Thus, it is now fairly commonplace to speak of varieties of Anabaptism, even if we might then want to suggest that particular varieties are more central to the genuine core than others. So, Finger admirably casts a wide net and produces a conversation of genuine variety. In fact, the breadth of his historical survey may be the most valuable aspect of this work.

Nevertheless, though Finger includes those that others might wish to silence, particularly the Polish Anabaptists when discussing the trinity, their perceived contribution to an anabaptist perspective appears to be taken less seriously than, for example, the Swiss Brethren. Likewise, when looking at more contemporary views, why is there no mention of the Blumhardts, or Eberhard Arnold, or any discussion with Quaker theologians? The end result is that Finger’s conclusions are often more conservative than even his own evidence warrants. I can not help but wonder, if this is simply the inevitable result of doing theology in a non-anabaptist way.

Ecumenical motivations

Finger is clearly motivated by ecumenical considerations, an aspect of which is his desire to show that Anabaptist theology deserves a place at the table of mainstream theological discussion, both to share and to learn.

The way any tradition expresses its distinctives arose, and arises in part from disagreement with others. On the other hand, any Christian tradition also agrees with others at points. To explicate only a traditions distinctives or commonalities with others yields an incomplete and distorted picture. My theology, then, will dialogue with both the differences and similarities found in other Christian texts, and will seek to dilute neither.3

As Denny Weaver notes, ‘a primary characteristic of Finger’s methodology is synthesis, and that the entire history of doctrine provides elements that he synthesizes into his own, contemporary Anabaptist theology.’4 Though I applaud his charitable and dialogical spirit, I cannot share Finger’s optimistic approach at this point.

Aside from the questionable approach of placing the ‘implicit’ theology of Anabaptism alongside the explicit Constantinian theology of the Evangelical, Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, it is unclear why the latter groups are given prominence. If Anabaptists did not approach the task of theology on these terms, in what way is it an honest dialogue to force them through such a grid? In doing this, not only does Finger risk ‘diluting’ the anabaptist distinctive, but he comes close to implying that Anabaptists do not deserve a place at the table as their theology will appear little more than a weak imitation of the mainstream positions. 5

It seems to me that a more helpful approach might have been to assess what questions are being addressed in Anabaptism’s implicit theology. I believe that Finger gets closest to this with his fascinating and genuinely helpful discussion of the similarities between Anabaptist ‘Christomorphism’ and Eastern Orthodox divinization. However, he risks presenting Anabaptism as simply tweaked Orthodoxy. In reality, there are significant differences undergirding both approaches, yet these conflicting presuppositions are not addressed at all, in favor of noting certain shared terminology. Is this really sufficient to produce a theology that can claim to express the unique contribution of Anabaptism?

In short, I’m not sure that it is possible to have such a conversation across the traditions without first discussing the issue of Constantinianism. At the very least, surely we must start by laying our assumptions on the table. Or, perhaps, Finger is simply being more conciliatory – more Anabaptist – than I?

What about Discipleship?

Finger proposes ‘The Coming of the New Creation’ as the centre for a theology informed by Anabaptism. He is thankfully clear that this is not being presented as the ‘essence’ of Anabaptism, but simply as a ‘helpful vantage point for exploring the whole’.6 Though this starting-point enables Finger to address ecological concerns, still sorely lacking in contemporary theological discussions, I am not convinced that he demonstrated sufficient reason for rejecting the more common theme of discipleship. At the very least, the latter choice might have more clearly revealed Anabaptism’s historic concerns. 7

Might it not be the case that Anabaptism’s theology is not so implicit after all? Anabaptists spoke and wrote about those issues that mattered and made sense to them. That they did not commonly do so in the manner of, for example, the Magisterial Reformers, in itself makes explicit a different set of questions and an alternative theological method.8 It seems to me that Finger’s ecumenical commitments and his ‘vantage point’ lead him to seek answers from the Anabaptists to questions that they were not asking. Perhaps, more disturbingly, when the answers do not fit they are not given due consideration.

As an example of the latter, Finger ends a discussion on Jesus and the Divine Reality by offering a fairly standard orthodox position, in spite of the large amount of evidence that he has surveyed that demonstrates, to my mind, that Adoptionism and Modalism attracted fairly significant support amongst early Anabaptists. Obviously, Finger is not compelled to accept the prior conclusions of others – and it is often helpful when he refuses to do so – but we should be honest enough to recognize that the Anabaptist position was not always polished enough to be taken as an answer to the theological enquiries of others. The issue is not whether Anabaptists generally held to a classical Trinitarianism, but whether such an approach to the question of who Jesus was is congruent with Anabaptism itself.

There is much about this book to be thankful for. Its scope of historical data is impressive. The variety of conversation partners is enjoyable. Some of the theological challenges brought (e.g. against the perceived anti-sacramentalism of much Anabaptism) are well made and gladly received. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that what we are left with is how Anabaptism can best be portrayed to others if they are unwilling to approach it on its own terms.

The theological approach presented here, whilst perhaps accurately portraying some of the doctrinal positions that Anabaptists might hold, is not one that naturally leads to or springs out of communal and missional discipleship.9 That being the case, though this is clearly not the last word in Anabaptist-ecumenical dialogue, I worry that it sets us off in a less than helpful direction.

1 Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004.

2 Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology. P. 12.

3 P. 101.

4 J. Denny Weaver, "Parsing Anabaptist Theology: A Review Essay of Thomas N. Finger's A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology," Direction 34, no. 2 (Fall 2005), 241-263.

5 How can Anabaptists be other than marginal and unimportant theologically--they are being evaluated on the basis of a grid that was not their own and in areas where Finger acknowledges that they did relatively little work?’ Weaver, "Parsing Anabaptist Theology”.

6 P. 13

7 Finger avoids taking the Anabaptist Vision (discipleship, community, non-violence) as his starting point due to fears that it too readily leads to a solely social-ethical perspective. Cf. pp. 48-50.

8 It may not initially have been intentional, but time has confirmed that an approach to doctrine and a shared set of values took priority over a shared speculative theology.

9 I am reminded of the oft-repeated words of Hans Denck, "No one can truly know Christ except he follow Him in life."