Book review by Mike Atnip
In recent past issues, we at The Heartbeat of the Remnant have taken the offensive against the invasion of Protestant theology into Anabaptist and other kingdom churches. As expected, this has raised the ire of some of our readers, but has also raised the hopes of others. Some are canceling subscriptions while others are excitedly climbing aboard with a Hallelujah! and an Amen!
We would be fools to let either cancellations or subscriptions determine what we publish. It is truth we seek, and truth we desire to publish. For this reason, we push ahead with articles contrasting the distinction between Anabaptism and Evangelicalism or Protestantism.
Rest assured; those terms are used in general to summarize a theological viewpoint. They are not a total condemnation to everyone and everything that may fall under the umbrella of Evangelical (with a capital E), and certainly not a total approval of all things or people that may be tagged Anabaptist. They are terms we use to represent two distinct views of what it means to be a Christian. We do not worship Anabaptists nor Anabaptism, and recognize other movements in church history (Bohemian Brethren, Waldensian, German Baptist Brethren, etc.) as valid expressions of genuine Christianity. We use Anabaptism as a reference point since it was, arguably, the best example of a return (in spite of its imperfections) to the true Christian faith in the history of the church of Jesus Christ.
In that frame of mind, we are reviewing Robert Friedmanns book The Theology of Anabaptism. While we certainly would not call it a perfect book, Friedmann does a good job of laying out some of the fundamental distinctions between Anabaptism and Protestantism.
The Theology of Anabaptism is not for everyone. Admittedly, it is not a devotional type book that your typical 16-year-old daughter will read and reread 15 times in the next decade. But it is a book that you, as a pastor, missionary, or father concerned about the future of your congregation, should make an effort to locate and read. If nothing else, you will at least begin to understand, perhaps, our passion here at The Heartbeat of the Remnant for standing in the gap against an onslaught of false theology that threatens to overwhelm Gods remnant here in North America.
About the author
Robert Friedmann (1891-1970) was a typical Austrian liberal Jew, studying history and philosophy in Vienna as a young man when a life-changing decision occurred. He decided to studyfor whatever whim it was that hit himthe smaller groups of the 16th-century Reformation. Little did he know that this decision would alter his life course so radically!
For source materials, a professor loaned him three early Hutterite codices. Friedmann would never be the same, saying that what he found in those writingsdespite not even looking for anything extraordinarygripped [him] profoundly. He found people who actually lived out the teachings of Jesus, people whose life had been radically changed by the Gospel!
From that point on, the study of Anabaptism would be one of his greatest interests. When he was arrested and jailed in 1939 along with other Jews, friends procured his release and urged him to emigrate, which he did. He ended up in the USA, joining a Mennonite church in Goshen, Indiana. During the last four decades of his life, he would write over 100 articles and books on his findings, uncovering documents that had long been lost, and perusing those that were already known.
Friedmanns favorite term for what he found was existential Christianity. In other words, a Christianity that had some existence, or some reality, to it. It was more than some creed or performance or tradition. It was real! Life-altering!
My reason for telling Friedmanns story is that I have to wonder how my writings will affect some university student four centuries from now. Would what I write about Christ and His teachings cause an unbeliever in 2400 A.D. to become a believer? Would he sense existential Christianity if he read my books, or books about me, to the extent of turning to Christ? Certainly a challenge!
Finding a nonexistent theology
The Anabaptists didnt write any theology. To talk about the theology of Anabaptism seems like talking about squaring the circle. Thus run the typical comments of researchers looking for a theological treatise among Anabaptist writings. But Robert Friedmann counters that argument, and rightfully so. He explains that theology deals by and large with mans ideas about God and relationship to man, or with mans grasp of his relationship with God. He asks how it could be that a movement as vigorous as Anabaptism could be lacking in some basic theological ideas? The answer is simple: Although they did not publish explicit theological treatises, they did have an implied theology, just like we all do. So to find this supposedly nonexistent theology, you need only read between the lines of their writings.
Is the Gospel to be understood through Paul, or is Paul to be understood through the Gospel?
The problem is that most people think of theologians as those who specifically study and write about deep doctrinal questions. In that sense, it is true, early Anabaptism didnt have any theologians. Friedmann calls such men discursive thinkers on religious questions instead of doers of divine commandments.
As an example of this, Friedmann mentions Martin Luthers theological idea of simul justus as peccatur: man is simultaneously righteous and sinner. It takes some pretty fancy theological dancing to come up with such a formula. 1 John 3:7-8 tells us that he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil
Is it possible to be both a sinner and righteous man? To see how Luther does his fancy footwork to come up with the idea of simul justus as peccatur, you need to read his sophisticated theological treatises.
To see the Anabaptist view of such questions, you can read the third article of the Schleitheim Confession. This simple document is not a theological treatise as such, but rather an overview of some of the points that a group of brethren came to an agreement on. The third article reads:
we cannot be partakers at the same time of the table of the Lord and the table of devils. Nor can we at the same time partake and drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils. That is: all those who have fellowship with the dead works of darkness have no part in the light. Thus all those who follow the devil and the world, have no part with those who have been called out of the world unto God. All those who lie in evil have no part in the good.
The fourth article says:
Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are [come] out of the world, Gods temple and idols. Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other.
So what was the implied theology of the Anabaptists concerning the idea of a Christian being simul justus as peccatur? Their response to that theology could probably be summed up in one word: Nonsense! Yet you will not find any explicit Anabaptist theology that speaks directly about simul justus as peccatur. You have to read between the lines to find the implied theology.
Two opposing world orders
Friedmann enters Part 2 of his book with what he calls the heart of the implicit theology of Anabaptism: the doctrine of the two worlds. Again, one cannot find a 10-volume set of Menno Simons Systematic Theology nor even a 1-volume tome by Pilgram Marpeck on The Meaning of Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification.
But by reading their pastoral letters and admonitions, one can come to see the underlying perceptions that the Anabaptists held concerning their walk with God. Everywhere you read, you find them warning against the temptations of the world. Nachfolge (discipleship, or more literally, following after [Christ]) is the constant theme in their devotions and hymns.
Which formula is correct?
1. Faith vs. good works
2. Faith and good works
3. Faith works.
Answer: 3. Faith works. Where there are no good works coming forth, there is no faith. James 2:18
This dualistic view of either following Christ or following the passions of this world can be contrasted with typical Protestant theology that puts the Christian battle to be one of grace in confrontation with law. To the Protestant, Christian warfare was not so much about fighting against the flesh and its temptations, but law warring against grace. The big question for the Protestant was not, How is your battle against the flesh going, brother? but rather, How is your trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross doing?
Anabaptists did not pit law against grace. The law was the reminder from God that things were not going well with man, and man needed to be changed to match Gods character. Grace was the power, given undeservedly, to fulfill the commands, not to eliminate them. Law and grace were not opposed to each other, just like faith and works were not opposed. Faith worked. As Balthasar Hubmaier put it, Such a faith does not like to stay idle but must break out in thanksgiving toward God and in all kinds of works of brotherly love toward man. Menno Simons said the same thing in other words: True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.
A faith that didnt work was a dead, useless faith.
Gemeinde: an attempt to translate the kingdom idea into practical forms of everyday living.
In conjunction with the doctrine of the two worlds, the Anabaptists held to another concept almost unknown in Protestantism: the Gemeinde, the brotherhood/community. This brotherhood was a gathering in of the reborn, an attempt to translate the kingdom idea into practical forms of everyday living
This Gemeinde was for the edification of the body of Christ, and the admonition and discipline should one member fail. The disciple of Jesus gave up his own agenda and threw all his efforts in the promotion of the good of the Gemeinde, not the good of the individual.
Come and see!
Friedmann then moves into Part Three, concerning how the Anabaptists dealt with traditional theological questions that both Catholics and Protestants threw at them in their court trials. When confronted with such questions (like, for example, What do you believe about the atonement?), Friedmann is sure that the Anabaptists would have much preferred to say, Come and live with us, then you will know.
Obviously, that answer would never do for a theologian. But to the Anabaptist who had been saved from a life of immorality and drunkenness, his now sober and virtuous life would have sufficed to say everything he needed to say about being atoned to God!
Christ lives in them!
Just as the righteousness of Christ is of no avail to anyone unless he makes it part of his own being through faith, so also Adams sin does not impair anybody except the one who makes it a part of his own being, and brings forth fruits of this sin. For as foreign righteousness does not save anybody, so will foreign sin not condemn anybody either. On the other hand, if Adams sin condemns all men at once by its inherent nature, it necessarily follows that Christs righteousness would save all men at once. But if Christs righteousness saves only believers who by faith have become transformed into Christ, that is, who no longer live in themselves but Christ lives in them, then it follows clearly that Adams sin likewise condemns only nonbelievers who became Adamnot by the mere fact of having been born, but by their particular faith, or rather unfaithand by the fact that they bring forth fruits of this kind of faith. In other words, that they are rooted and planted in him and he in them.
Sebastion Franck, describing the Anabaptist view of original sin
For the lack of a better scheme, Friedmann then turns to typical theological categories to define the theology of Anabaptism. Concerning the trinity and Christology (terms many Anabaptists would not have even ever written about), the Anabaptist position on the trinity could be summed up with a quote from Hans Schaffler in A Letter to a Weak Brother. Hans simply says, God is neither this nor that. The implied theology was that Anabaptists didnt get much involved in deciding whether God was three-in-one or one-in-three. The important thing was to obey Him!
Moving into anthropology (the study of man and his nature), the Anabaptists again wrote no declarative theological statements. Yet they, like all of us, do believe something about man and his natural state. To the Protestant mind, man was depraved from day one of his life. So depraved that he could never make any move toward God on his own, neither could he be much more than a forgiven sinner all his days, at best.
The Anabaptists generally didnt take such a low view of man. Sure, he was corrupted, but as Hubmaier put it, The image of God is not altogether erased in us.
But perhaps more important than mans original state is the state that grace puts man into. Again, the Protestants generally held that man was saved by being declared righteous by a legal act of God. This was in contrast to the Anabaptist view that man was actually restored to a righteous character by means of a rebirth of his spirit; to the condition of being able to fulfill the commands of God.
On the theological idea called Original Sin, Ulrich Stadler summed up the Anabaptist thought quite well:
The word Erbsünde (hereditary sin) has no foundation anywhere in the Holy Scriptures, in fact has not been written in it at all.
This little fact threw a wrench into typical Catholic and Protestant theology, since their view of Original Sin was the foundation for infant baptism. Because if little Johnny didnt need to be baptized as a baby to be saved from Original Sin, why baptize him at all? In Anabaptist thought, little Johnny was born with a self-centered nature, to be sure. But he was in no way responsible for Adams sin. When Johnny matured to the point of understanding his self-centered condition and wanted to be redeemed from it, his heart could be changed by a new birth [an infusion of divine love into his heart], but until then, little Johnny was not held accountable for his sin, much less Adams.
Redeemed how I love to proclaim it!
Friedmann then moves into soteriology, the study of salvation. To the Anabaptists, finding a gracious God, as Luther termed it, was not a major concern. Yes, Anabaptists did believe in redemption. But redemption did not mean merely having ones sins forgiven. It meant the genuine restoration of Gods image in man. The assurance of salvation, for an Anabaptist, did not come from any feelings he experienced. Rather his assurance came from the fact that he was enabled to live out Christs commands. If he had power to obey Christ, then he was certain that Christ lived within. This power over sin, self, and the flesh was his assurance of salvation. As Conrad Grebel put it:
Faith must have fruits, otherwise it is a false or hypocritical faith. If one separates oneself from sin, one may be sure of salvation.
Such a one shall certainly be saved, if, according to this idea, through inner baptism he lives his faith.
Friedmann then comments on Grebels words:
In other words, salvation is not simply the certitude of being saved from damnation (which is only a reassuring idea of feeling), but a walking in newness of life; or in another formulation, the transformation into a new creature in whom Christ is increasingly being formed.
Moving on to the doctrine of the cross, the author explains the Anabaptist view, which meant one is saved by the cross when he takes it up and follows Jesus. This is compared to the Protestant doctrine of the cross which basically says, Trust in the work Jesus did for you on the cross, and you will be saved.
Continuing, Friedmann touches on justification and cheap grace. He mentions Luthers advice to Melanchthon to sin boldly
but believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still. Friedmann then mentions how that the Anabaptist view of justification was not merely an acquittal in court but an actual change in mans nature. In other words, to the Anabaptist, justify meant to make a man live justly, not merely to declare a man innocent.
Grace produces a restoration of mans original nature, renewing his lost faculties and virtues.
And then there is grace
In short, the Anabaptist never looked at grace like the Protestants or Catholics did. While to the Catholics grace was almost a sort of substance that the Church dispensed through the Sacraments, the Protestants held that grace was the well-disposed favor of God toward the understanding sinner.
To the Anabaptists, grace was almost a synonym of creative love. When God pours grace into a man, He pours love, a love that empowers a man to live holy and righteous, and changes his character into the character of Christ. According to Pilgram Marpeck, grace is the act whereby God renews the divine image in man and thus makes a believer a participant in the divine nature. Grace produces a restoration of mans original nature, renewing his lost faculties and virtues.
The last times
Moving on, the author spends a few pages looking at Anabaptist eschatology. The topic was quite fore and center in the early days of Anabaptism, with many of them looking for an imminent return of Christ to bring in the fullness of His kingdom. This of course only put more fuel on the fire of their evangelistic outreaches, since there were expectations that God was about to do something big, and soon.
To be sure, there were some pretty fancy speculations in the early days of Anabaptism, and even some false prophecies or predictions that got mixed into the fervency of the times. Some who would be better classed as Spiritualists also rebaptized and were therefore technically Anabaptists. As time moved on and Anabaptism crystallized into a more steady and sure movement, these more radical elements of eschatological prophecy faded from the scene.
Early Anabaptism represented a strange paradox. With the exception of Moravia and a few other individual locations, it was pretty strictly forbidden that they meet and form congregations. Yet, Friedmann notes that the idea of church [brotherhood] represents the very center of Anabaptist theology and thinking. In other words, the focus was not, as in Protestantism, on the idea of a personal salvation experience [which Anabaptists did not totally deny], but rather on the restoring of brotherhood among men, or the restoring of the heart of man to such a condition that he dwelt in harmony with his brother. For this reason, the Anabaptists tended to use the term Kirke (church) for Catholics and Protestants, but for themselves and others who actually followed and obeyed Jesus, they used the term Gemeinde (community). It was almost unthinkable to an early Anabaptist that a disciple of Jesus would be a loner, an individualist. How can you love your brother if you go hide in the woods somewhere by yourself?
To the Anabaptist, the Gemeinde was the nucleus of Gods kingdom on earth, or at least its attempted realization. In other words, God had given the call for the saints to be an example on earth of what heaven will be like. If people cannot get along here on earth, how will they get along in heaven? Peter Riedemann summed it up by saying:
The church is a lantern of righteousness in which the light of grace is borne and held before the whole world.
The grace of God eliminated mine and thine and restored mans horizontal relationships as well as his vertical relationship.
Connected with the idea of the Gemeinde being an establishment of Christs reign on earth is the idea of sharing material goods. While the Hutterian brethren adopted a common purse, the Swiss Brethren held to each family having its own purse. But a common idea lay behind both: the grace of God (remember
saved by grace equals being filled with divine love!) eliminated mine and thine and restored mans horizontal relationships as well as his vertical relationship. And the Gemeinde was simply an outward expression of those restored relationships, a working model of the kingdom of God on earth.
Friedmann then looks at other aspects of the Gemeinde, including the covenantal aspect, and discipline and order in Gods community. And not to be ignored is the aspect of the church under the cross, or the role of suffering in the brotherhood.
Winding down, the author briefly looks at baptism and the Lords Supper. He also takes a brief peek at the use of the Bann, the office of teaching, and evangelism. Friedmann then ends with a profound question, relevant for anyone, since we are all prone to falling away:
Why did the existential quality of the Anabaptist church fade away even where persecution did not destroy its external situation?
Why did Gemeinde become Kirke?
In other words, why did the reality that the early Anabaptists experiencedthe reality of lives transformed and molded into visible, living models of the kingdom of heaven on earthfade away? To use some German words, why did Gemeinde become Kirke?
I dont think Friedmann is saying that today there is absolutely nothing left of that existential quality in Anabaptism. His question, though, is one I have pondered in the 25 years of my Christian walk. To put it bluntly, why are todays Anabaptists turning Protestant? Why are they turning from a faith that works to a faith that labels obedience and good works as self-righteousness or legalism?
Thy yard sale betrayeth thee
Having lived in both Holmes County, Ohio, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (as well as other smaller Plain communities) my heart has been saddened on more than one occasion by some of the yard sales I have dropped in to browse. Being an ardent reader, the book boxes usually are one of my prime targets at yard sales. As I look through the books that some of todays Anabaptist people have in their yard sales, I go away pondering: D. L. Moody, C. Spurgeon, J. I. Packer, Charles Swindoll, C. Finney, E. M. Bounds, Ray Comfort, Andrew Murray
(Not to mentionGod have mercythe occasional boxes of Amish Romances.)
And not only yard sales, but the book shelves I have seen in the houses
It is the same story. We are turning Protestant in our thinkingand actionsbecause we have been reading Protestant theology for so long that we are actually becoming convinced that it is correct. We have even become convinced that the differences between Anabaptism and the local First Evangelical Church down the street are sort of trivial.
Again I want to state that I use the terms Evangelical and Anabaptist to represent two distinct theologies, and that many people probably do not neatly fit into either category. Also, calling oneself either this or that does not make one this or that. I can call myself the President of the United States of America, but not a single other country in this world would sit down with me and start negotiations for a Free Trade Pact.
The disturbing personal question is what do you believe about God and salvation? About what church consists of? About what it means to be justified? While we do not want to get caught up into splitting ridiculous theological ideas concerning the trinity, we do need to take a look at what we believe about what it means to be saved, to be born again, to be saved by grace, and many other terms that we commonly use. Both an Anabaptist and an Evangelical would claim to be saved by grace through faith, yet they mean something very different by that phrase.
For this reason, The Heartbeat of the Remnant heartily recommends that all leaders of churches and homes read The Theology of Anabaptism.
No, not perfect
While recommending this book, we do not claim it is the perfect book. At a few points, we would have explained things a bit differently. Beyond that, the main defect of the book is perhaps its academic style. Robert Friedmann spent most of his life moving in academic circles, being a researcher and professor. Hence, the style of the book is, naturally, academic. It is my dream to someday put some of the same thoughts that he presents into more idiomatic English. In fact, some of what I have written in this review has been rephrased for easier reading. If you get a copy of the book and go looking for where I quoted from, you will not find everything word for word.
The Theology of Anabaptism is not overbearing. The average adult can understand Friedmanns thoughts with some contemplation. But it is not particularly light reading. The bottom line is that it is a book that could be very helpful in grasping the difference between the gospel of the kingdom and the cheap grace that is peddled today in Evangelicalism.
If Gods remnant in North America is to continue to be salt on the earth, we will need to turn away from the peddlers of cheap grace and return to the existential Christianity that the Anabaptists and other similar groups of Christians have upheld throughout church history. ~
The Theology of Anabaptism is a little hard to come by. It is not a very well-known book, and so very few bookstores carry it. Used copies can often be found online by searches at sites like www.bookfinder.com. A new reprinted edition (I assume the text is the same) can be ordered from Wipf and Stock Pulishers, 199 West 8th Avenue, Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401-2960, or online at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Theology_of_Anabaptism.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon