Reviewed by Stuart Murray Williams
This English translation of the writings of various personalities in (and occasionally beyond) the circle of the German Anabaptist pastoral theologian, Pilgram Marpeck, is a truly enormous accomplishment. Well over 700 pages long, consisting of an eclectic mix of treatises, letters, poems, interludes and sayings, it is the work of no fewer than eleven translators, together with the detailed editorial work of John Rempel.
Rempel’s helpful introduction locates the diverse texts in their historical and social context. It also discusses various literary and theological issues that are apparent from exploring this collection of writings. Why were these particular texts included, given that some of the authors represented very different theological convictions? What was the primary purpose of the collection, and what role did Jörg Maler, as editor, play? In what ways does this collection reflect not only Marpeck’s personal convictions but his capacity to mediate between divergent Anabaptist positions and embrace diversity?
Rempel’s summary (p7) of the Kunstbuch is worth quoting at length: 'The didactic poems, passionate meditations, pastoral letters and searing confessions that are part of the Kunstbuch open a door into the intimate life of a now lost community. Maler’s collection is like an album of photographs taken over a period of thirty years, documenting the life of a family and its friends. In rare detail it records the existence of one kind of Anabaptism, preserving for posterity the personalities and issues, the brilliance and the tragedy that made it what it was.'
The communities associated with the Marpeck circle did not survive. In situations of persecution it seems that often only the more extreme communities do. The efforts of Marpeck and his colleagues to offer a mediating, nuanced and balanced alternative to the legalistic and spiritualistic ends of the Anabaptist movement did not enable those who followed their counsel to persist. But the rediscovery of Marpeck, his colleagues and their extensive literary and theological legacy offers a glimpse of another kind of Anabaptism that many today find appealing. This huge volume fills out for an English readership what is already available of that legacy. We owe to the editor and his team of translators a debt of gratitude.