By Vic Thiessen
The last decade has produced a number of attempts to discuss or articulate an Anabaptist theology for the 21st century. Most recently we have Tom Yoder Neufeld’s Recovering Jesus: The Witness of the New Testament, which, while not discussing Anabaptist theology as such, nevertheless speaks to a central feature of the debate (see below). Before that we had Tom Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive, James Reimer’s Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics and J. Denny Weaver’s Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity. On the fringes, one might also include Gordon Kaufman’s two-volume work: In the Beginning…Creativity and Jesus and Creativity. And Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World has a place here as well. The number of these books (and the many contributions to collections of essays) shows an increasing interest among Anabaptist theologians to express our voice in the Christian theological world, which often still views John Howard Yoder as the only serious spokesperson for Anabaptist theology.
But the books listed above by no means agree on what an Anabaptist theology in the 21st century should look like. A key feature of the debate among Anabaptist theologians is the relationship between Anabaptist theology and creedal orthodox Christianity. Ted Grimsrud’s new book, Embodying the Way of Jesus: Anabaptist Convictions for the Twenty-First Century speaks directly to this question, arguing that Tom Finger and James Reimer have not done justice to the uniqueness and contemporary relevance of Anabaptist theology. Specifically, Grimsrud challenges what he sees as an attempt to minimise ethics in theology by seeing ethics as an add-on to a theology which has its foundation in the creeds of the fourth century. Grimsrud suggests that Anabaptist theology, from its beginnings in the 16th century, has been a practice-oriented theology centred on privileging and following the life and teachings of Jesus. Such a practice-oriented theology, focusing on practice instead of doctrine, and placing ethics at the centre, is well-placed in our society to engage with the issues which now face us, issues like global poverty, war and the environmental crisis.
Rather than aligning ourselves with the mainstream denominations (as Grimsrud sees Finger and Reimer doing), Grimsrud says we should be challenging them to be witnesses of God’s reign in a society ruled by violence and the Domination System. Just as the 16th century Anabaptists (following the early church) provided alternatives to the state-church relationship of its time, to participation in war and to common understandings of power and economics, so we Anabaptists today remain in tension with the Empire Story of our time. The core Anabaptist convictions – the church as free from state control, the refusal to fight in wars, the affirmation of upside-down social power and the commitment to an alternative economics - are as needed today as ever.
After an introductory section, the bulk of Grimsrud’s book is divided into four parts, representing the four theological sources Grimsrud identifies as key to articulating Anabaptist convictions for this century: Bible, Tradition, Experience and Vision. In the Bible section, Grimsrud argues that the Bible’s central message is God’s healing love. It is the story of a people struggling to live faithfully in everyday life and we need to relate it to everyday life today. His next two sections look at the central themes in Anabaptist theology and practice and how these have evolved (e.g. living as an isolated migrating people caused Anabaptists to lose their emphasis on adult believers’ baptism and focus on ethnic identity; in this process, they became less like the world while becoming more like each other). The section on vision provides us with Grimsrud’s summary of the theological basics of a contemporary Anabaptist theology.
While Grimsrud’s book is more a collection of essays and sermons (that he wrote over the last twenty years) than a carefully structured theological work, it nevertheless articulates a very clear vision for what Grimsrud thinks Anabaptist theology should look like (and how it should be used) in the 21st century. Along the way, he presents fascinating essays on subjects like the neo-Mennonites (the essay suggests there are many Mennonites who are far more comfortable with Gordon Kaufman’s theology than with that of Tom Finger or James Reimer).
Grimsrud’s book is a very welcome, helpful easy-to-read addition to current discussions on Anabaptist theology. By focusing on practice-oriented theology, he has shown how vital Anabaptist theology is in a world torn by war and struggling with poverty and environmental disaster. Only a theology which engages with these contemporary issues will have the integrity people are looking for today as they try to understand God’s relationship to this struggling world.
Not that the book is perfect. While Grimsrud has done an admirable job of editing his essays and sermons into a cohesive structured book, it doesn’t always work – it remains a collection of essays, with the repetition one might expect and the occasional feeling that two different people are writing these essays (so great, I suppose, are the differences in style depending on the subject and the originally intended audience). The book could also have benefited from a more careful proof-reading.
I was also concerned about Grimsrud’s rather harsh criticism of Finger and Reimer, especially with regard to the way they approach ethics as an add-on. I am not convinced that either of these authors would agree with Grimsrud’s assessment of their books. There is certainly a different understanding in those books (as in Yoder Neufeld’s recent book) of how Anabaptist theology and ethics relate to the wider church, but I know Finger and Reimer (and Yoder Neufeld) also stress ethics in their works.
Nevertheless, I appreciated Grimsrud’s book very much (and sympathised with much of his critique of other theologians). By not spending hundreds of pages debating with, or relating to, church history as a whole, Grimsrud was free to concentrate on what, for me, is the bigger picture of how Anabaptist theology and tradition relate to the needs of contemporary society. This, as I have said, is key to developing a Christianity with integrity which will appeal to the people in that society, especially here in the UK. So despite the fact that it contains essays aimed at an American audience, Embodying the Way of Jesus is essential reading for all who are interested in Anabaptist theology (regardless of where they live).