Harold S. Bender’s now famous “Anabaptist Vision” address at the American Academy of religion in 1943 was the first modern attempt to synthesize and summarize the theological ideals of 16th century Anabaptism. Although many have criticized it as merely a product of its time, I believe it has stood the test of time as numerous others have come to similar conclusions when attempting their own independent summary of the theological themes of 16th century Anabaptism [e.g. Weaver, 170-179 as well as Palmer Becker’s widely circulated article on the three cords of Anabaptism. See also my posted article “New Perspectives.”] Bender summarized Anabaptist theology with three themes.
1. DISCIPLESHIP: The way of Jesus
The great word for the Anabaptists was not “faith” but “following” (Nachfolge Christi). All of the Anabaptists committed themselves to the normativeness of Jesus for their lives in some form. Menno’s motto verse was 1 Corinthians 3:11: “Jesus is the only foundation for our lives.” Hans Denck is often quoted in this regard, “No one can know Christ except they follow him in life.”
Baptism became a counter-cultural witness, a statement of allegiance to the kingdom of Christ rather than the kingdoms of the world. In this sense, believers baptism is really not the best designation of what the 16th century Anabaptists died for. In fact, Arnold Snyder calls it “far too anemic a phrase” to describe the Anabaptist view of baptism. Baptism was not so much about belief or mental ascent to a doctrine or creed, but rather it was the sign of a transformed life by a new birth of the Spirit and the commitment to following Jesus in all of life.
2. COMMUNITY: The way of Love
Baptism incorporates people into the body of Christ, the church. This brings us to the second theological theme of 16th century Anabaptism that most specifically and directly addresses the problem of individualism in our western society- the voluntary commitment to community or Gellasenheit. This meant not only yieldedness to Christ but also to the community of believers. The person gives themselves freely to love and be loved, to admonish, and be admonished-even disciplined.
3. PACIFISM: The way of Peace
The third theological theme completes the previous two. Although not all of the first generation of Anabaptists were pacifist, it is a logical outgrowth of the previous commitment to the way of Christ.
It was perhaps the most violent incident involving 16th century Anabaptists that motivated and solidified an Anabaptist peace theology [see previous post]. After Munster, pacifism became one of the central distinguishing marks of future generations of what came to be nicknamed Mennonites. Even though the violent and polygamous Munster Anabaptists had most things very wrong, they did agree with the peaceable Anabaptists on one thing: They believed that the kingdom of God was to be enacted in historical time in historical place.
“The Anabaptist vision was not a detailed blueprint for the reconstruction of human society, but the Brethren did believe that Jesus intended that the kingdom of God should be set up in the midst of the earth, here and now, and this they proposed to do forthwith.” [Bender, 54] But this kingdom does not come about by coercion, which would be contradictory, but comes about as people of faith yield themselves to the way of Christ and to each other in community.