I would like to thank my respondents for the acute attention they have given my essay and the matters it addresses. Their observations, arguments, and criticisms have sharpened my thinking and, in places, corrected it. I hope our exchange will lead to further discussion among, and beyond, the readers of this journal, whose editors I thank for granting me the opportunity of a reply. Reading again my own essay, especially in light of these responses to it, I am compelled (if by my own free will) to acknowledge places where I could have and should have expressed myself differently and more clearly. In what follows I hope to correct some misimpressions—or to deny certain claims and assumptions attributed to me—whether these are due to my own failure to write clearly or to something else. However, only explaining and defending myself would make this a vain exercise. As do my interlocutors, I believe that matters of signal importance are at stake.
B. Royale Dewey and I share substantial agreement on the matters he addresses in his response, and I will echo him frequently below. Dewey reminds us that the bishops who convened in Nicea (325) were pastors, and thus also teachers, whose wide-spread and diverse congregations had formulated professions of faith for their own liturgical use. Two points are salient here. First, the “rule of faith” (regula fidei or, in Irenaeus’s Greek, the “rule of truth”), which took diverse, local forms, and which the bishops at Nicea (and at Constantinople, in 381) wrote as a creed, derived from the worship of Christian congregations. Second, then, as one reader, not among the respondents, reminded me, orthodoxy refers (also) to “right praise.” The theologian George Hendry once wrote, if memory serves, that dogmatic theology exists to guard the faithfulness of the hymns we sing, perhaps explaining why the Ausbund sings the creed in its second hymn. Melanchthon said roughly the same about prayer.(1) By hymns and prayers our faith is formed, and in them it is expressed—not only by them, and not only in them, but also there, and profoundly. We would do well to hold together Christian confession, faith, worship, praise, theology, and our common life before God.
J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast are my severest critics. Yet we do share areas of agreement. For example, I agree entirely with Biesecker-Mast’s claim, in his title, that “creedal orthodoxy is not enough.” I cannot imagine anyone suggesting otherwise, or what form such a suggestion might take. Similarly, I agree and insist with Weaver, “it ought to be self-evident that the Bible has more authority than the creeds.”(2) It remains a mystery why Biesecker-Mast would understand his claim, and Weaver his insistence, as correcting anything I wrote.
In other places as well, for reasons that escape me, Weaver and Biesecker-Mast mount criticisms against something I did not write, that I do not believe, and that does not follow as a consequence from either my essay or such assumptions as may be implicit in it. Biesecker-Mast charges that, contrary to “Anabaptists like Menno,” I claim that the creeds provide “criteria for the proper interpretation of Scripture.” My essay did not so much as mention the subject, which I addressed at some length more than a dozen years ago.(3)
In his essay, Biesecker-Mast echoes and expands on Weaver’s insinuation (which refers to Biesecker-Mast for support) of a sinister Platonism in my essay, to which Biesecker-Mast adds charges of both Neo-Platonism and Augustinianism. I do not object to an occasional association with Augustine, but once again, the specific reasons Biesecker-Mast cites, or Weaver does, for associating me with Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine, have no basis in anything I have ever written, perhaps apart from my 1974 college essay (unpublished!), in a course on Plato, regarding the notorious problem of the “third man” and infinite regress in Plato’s idealism.(4) Specifically, and contrary to Biesecker-Mast’s charge, it is neither basic to nor an assumption even remotely implicit in (it cannot plausibly have arisen from) my argument—and I deny—“that behind every apparent earthly practice one can locate a more abstract true form on which the earthly practice is imperfectly based.” As he notes, Biesecker-Mast relies on Abraham Friesen’s interpretation of Erasmus, and Friesen’s convincing account of Erasmus’s influence on the Anabaptists by way of his translation of and comments on the Great Commission (Matthew 28), in relation to, e. g., Acts 8. I have no truck with Neo-Platonism, despite its odd promotion in some contemporary intellectual circles,(5) and I agree with Abraham Friesen:
Anabaptists insisted that Christian ethics, Christ’s injunction in Matthew 28:20 to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you,” could only be fulfilled by persons who believed the article in the Apostles’ Creed regarding Christ, who responded to it in repentance and underwent a “conversion,” who had died to sin and been raised to ”newness of life” in Christ and had this symbolized in the waters of baptism. Without faith in the risen Christ and the transformation of life through the power of the Holy Spirit, obeying the commands of Christ was impossible.(6)
In a similar vein, J. Denny Weaver may know of a person who “wants to establish a theological core that escapes human particularity,” but I am not such a person, and nothing I have written, ever, could give rise to such a suggestion. I agree entirely, and I insist, as does Weaver, that “every statement of theology has a social context and a particular history.” Ignoring, as does Weaver, important distinctions between a “statement of theology” and other kinds of utterance (“The Trinity is a community of self-giving love,” “We believe in God the Father almighty,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Love your enemies,”), Weaver is exactly right: no “statement” escapes multiple conditions of particularity. However, those conditions and that multiform particularity do not determine truth or adequacy.(7) Just so, and for all time, under all conditions, “one Lord Jesus Christ… was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate” is true.(8) So also with “Hear O Israel, Yhwh our God, Yhwh alone.” Weaver would be better prepared than I to describe the social context in which, and the particular history out of which, the bishops convened in Nicea, in 325, and in Constantinople a half-century later, confessed the first statement; and I am prepared to do the same regarding Deuteronomy’s confession of—its insistence on—the second, a millennium before. Our boundless ability to explain “statements,” including by appeal to social and historical particularities—or human particularity and peccability—does not rule one way or another on their “truth.” Arguments ad hominem remain invalid.
Weaver’s worries seem focused on the matter of a core, an “orthodox” core, around which other subjects, themselves necessarily of less or incidental or merely denominational importance, arrange themselves. The term “core” appears, by my count, sixty-three times in his essay but only once in mine, and that within a quote from Biesecker-Mast. I regret my one, quoted use of the term, which gives occasion to a misleading image or metaphor—as if the distinctive character of any robustly Christian theology or tradition consists in, or developed from, or justifies itself as, a regional and specific elaboration on a narrow and common core. It remains the case, and the principal case I hoped to make, that the Anabaptists I cited did argue from and, in Menno’s instance, argued vigorously (against Adam Pastor) for, a trinitarian confession shared by Christians with whom they variously disagreed. Those several, material, and even definitive disagreements are not rendered negligible by—to the contrary, they gain part of their rhetorical, suasive, and non-lethal force from—an acknowledged and authentic agreement that the parties in disagreement were speaking of the same God, the One Triune God attested in Scripture. As does the creed, and so does any and every proffered Christian argument or confession or theology, so Riedemann returns us ineluctably to Scripture.(9) Riedemann’s trinitarian and biblical argument is powerful. If, or since, all of us obviously disagree with him about the community of goods, the onus rests on us to show how he (and not just Luther or Calvin or Zwingli and their heirs) misread Scripture and, by Riedemann’s light, misunderstand—or deny—the triune identity of God. Riedemann most certainly did not consider community of goods to be a regional, merely Hutterite, optional and eccentric addition to a basic Anabaptist “core.” He rooted it in the very life of God and, so, located it at the heart of the gospel. We regard him mistaken. On what grounds?
Biesecker-Mast and Duane Friesen challenge me on points relating to what Friesen names “ethics and the atonement.” Biesecker-Mast claims that the Anabaptists “typically avoided worrying about such fine distinctions as the difference between claiming that good works are necessary for salvation and claiming that works are the necessary fruit of salvation.” Perhaps they did avoid such worry and such fine distinctions, but Paul the Apostle did not—he neither worried nor considered the distinction “fine.” On the question whether works of the law (so “good works”) were necessary for salvation, Paul was adamant, clear, and definitive. Biesecker-Mast cites Hubmaier’s bald declaration that “Mere faith alone is not sufficient for salvation.” Faith, mere faith, sufficiency, and salvation (“true salvation,” as Biesecker-Mast writes) beg for definition, not least in light of Rom 3:21-28; 5:1-11; 10:2-10.
While Biesecker-Mast’s concern is for the integration of faith and obedience—my way of putting it to be sure (and so a concern with which I agree)—on behalf which he cites Hubmaier, Duane Friesen worries, and not without reason, about human freedom and responsibility, if faith itself is God’s work within us; and he suggests that I drive “a wedge between ethics and the atonement,” thereby reinforcing evangelical orthodoxy’s tendency “to detach a doctrine of grace from following Jesus.”
Friesen’s reflections, and his criticisms, are incisive and helpful. The matter of freedom and responsibility, which he raises, has occupied Anabaptists from the beginning, and occupied other Christians long before. Pilgram Marpeck issued a timely warning against attributing “all power and ability to man’s free will,” at least “before redemption by Christ,”(10) but our tradition has always had difficulty knowing how to heed that warning. Already in 1527, Balthasar Hubmaier devoted two booklets to the subject, trying to negotiate his way between the will’s bondage since the fall and its freedom necessary for obedience.(11) His solution was to say that Christ has restored the spark of our freedom, which is ignited by the Word. “If we are now again to become free in the spirit and healthy in the soul . . . , then this must take place through a rebirth. . . . But now God has given birth to us of his own will.”(12) Here Hubmaier gives priority to God’s will, while reminding us elsewhere that our will has the God-ordained power to constrain even God’s: “Therefore God is captured, bound, and overcome with his own Word by the believers. . . . In the Scriptures that is called ‘God being in our midst.’”(13)
Hubmaier’s remarks suggest the difficulty we Anabaptists and Mennonites have encountered in holding together two convictions: (1) that the church comprises those who have freely responded to Christ’s call, freely renounced their sins, and freely committed themselves to Christ; and (2) that redemption is God’s work, not our own. Holding the first conviction seems to require that the second be modified in such a way that God’s work and ours are cooperative. Holding the second seems to require that the first be modified in such a way that free will depends on, instead of being the condition of, our redemption. Biesecker-Mast’s essay reflects this difficulty and the ambiguity.
Finally, I return to Duane Friesen’s concern that I drive a wedge between ethics and the atonement, thereby detaching a doctrine of grace from following Jesus.(14) I do indeed want to distinguish ethics and the atonement, if by “ethics” we should intend to qualify in some way the absolute priority, the prevenience, and the absolute uniqueness, of God’s initiative in and gift of our—the world’s—redemption in Jesus Christ and his cross. My intention is not at all to detach a doctrine of grace from following Jesus. I want to affirm instead that we are enjoined, and this as a gift, to follow Jesus, to bear our cross, not by any means his cross, and that our capacity to do so, even to will to do so—that faith—is itself a gift of the Spirit and, thus, God’s work of grace, “even while we were dead.” (Eph 2:5, 6-10). The dead may enjoy a certain freedom, but not one they can exercise. This notion, and this paradox, did not dawn on Paul or his epigones some time after Jesus, or on Augustine, Luther, and Calvin even later. It is richly instantiated, put fully into theological play, in the Old Testament that was Jesus’ Bible.(15) I would want nothing so much as reunion between a doctrine of grace and following Jesus, embodied among us. The atonement remains the triune God’s good work, which makes our own both possible and necessary.(16)
Limitations of time, space, and ability prevent me from replying, let alone adequately, to each of the questions and criticisms my respondents have registered. Duane Friesen is right: already before Constantine, Christian teaching, so far as we know of it, paid decreasing attention to the life and words of Jesus. My colleague Alan Kreider has observed that the number of Christians grew from between seven and eight thousand in the year 100, to perhaps one hundred thousand eighty years later, and then to more than six million by the year 300.(17) Early on in those years, the church faced the morally appealing, ethically rigorous, pacifist, nominally egalitarian, but anti-Jewish and canonically reductionist challenge of Marcion; and later, the theological challenge of Arius, among others. In response, the catholic church promoted an inclusive and diverse canon, with four unharmonious Gospels instead of one, sanitized Jesus narrative; and, at the same time, over much time (from 180 through 451 at least), addressed and defined matters of—issues threatening—Christian faith. If we would criticize the church’s teachers of the third and fourth, and the fifth, centuries for neglecting the life and teaching of Jesus that the four Gospels present us, we must in the same breath thank them for preserving, promoting, and canonizing, even under Constantine, the very narrative(s) on which our criticism depends.(18)
During the pre-Constantine years of phenomenal growth, Christians did not much engage in evangelism but, to the contrary, carefully guarded admission to their worship and their “mysteries,” among them the creed, finally revealed to catechumens as they approached the baptismal waters.(19) Should our corporate life, perhaps even the way we discuss theology, evince a compelling grace, we may find others attracted to Jesus Christ. And we may discover that the creed, like the bread and the wine, the body and blood, and the Book—as also the communion of saints, the congregation of clay of which we are a part, the body of Christ—not unlike Jesus and our salvation, comes to us as a gift.
1. Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine: Loci communes 1555 (ed. Clyde L. Manshreck; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1965), 5, 36
2. Ben C. Ollenburger, “Sola Scriptura/No Other Foundation, and Other Authoritative Sources?” in Without Spot or Wrinkle: Reflecting Theologically on the Nature of the Church (ed. Karl Koop and Mary H. Schertz; Occasional Papers 21; Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2000) 65-92.
3. “Mennonite Theology: A Conversation Around the Creeds,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 66 (1992), 57-89.
4. Gregory Vlastos, “Plato's ‘Third Man’ Argument (Parmenides 132A1-B2),” in Platonic Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).
5. R. P. Whaite, “World Without End? Alain Badiou and the Possibility of Theological Cosmoplastics,” CSSR Bulletin 34 (2005) 18-22.
6. Abraham Friesen, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 128.
7. On the adequacy, status, and availability of the creeds, see my “Mennonite Theology.”
8. In this creedal instance, “we believe in” at the beginning governs “is true:” “religious believing is not an epistemic state” (Michael P. Hodges, “Faith: Themes from Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche,” in Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion, ed. Robert L. Arrington and Mark Addis (London: Routledge, 2001), 68).
9. As I argued in “Biblical and Systematic Theology: Constructing a Relation,” in So Wide a Sea: Essays on Biblical and Systematic Theology (Ben C. Ollenburger, ed.; Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1991), 111-45.
10. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck (ed. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen; Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978), 79. The context is Marpeck’s “A Clear and Useful Instruction,” apparently from 1531 (cf. p. 69).
11. Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism (ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder; Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), 426-91.
12. Ibid., pp. 360-61. The quotations are from Hubmaier’s “Christian Catechism.”
13. Ibid., p. 474.
14. This differs from Weaver’s charge, in his footnote 11, that I violate “the standard trinitarian affirmation” that “what pertains to one Person must pertain to all.” But I affirm that orthodox affirmation, which acknowledges each Person of the Trinity as a “particular personal agent”—personal, but not individual (Colin Gunton, Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 142-44).
15. I explored the matter in an unpublished paper, “Initiative and Response (-ability), Divine and Human: The Old Testament.” Christian Theology and the Bible Group, AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, Toronto, November 24, 2002.
16. Ben C. Ollenburger and Amy L. Barker, “The Passion and God’s Atonement,” Mennonite Life 59:2 (2004).
17. Alan Kreider, unpublished lecture, AMBS, 2004; cf. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1997).
18. J. Alexander Sider, “Constantinianism Before and After Nicea: Issues in Restitutionist Historiography,” in A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz (Telford, PA: Cascadia; Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004), 126-144, esp. p. 136.
19. Alan Kreider, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1995); Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999); Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Collected Works, 1; Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1972), 87-88.
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