1.1 Anabaptist theology: ordinary and academic
Although a few early Anabaptist leaders had formal theological training, academic theology is a relatively recent development in the tradition’s history. Persecution and theologies of separation from ‘the world’ combined to ensure that Anabaptists rarely had access (or took advantage of access) to higher education prior to the twentieth century. The notable exception to this pattern is Mennonites in the Netherlands who were mostly tolerated from the late sixteenth century and founded a seminary in 1735. By the 1800s, this group was engaging in academic theology largely along then-dominant liberal Protestant lines. North American Mennonites began to create institutions of higher education from the late nineteenth century, typically as theologically conservative Bible schools. It was only in the decades after the Second World War that Anabaptist theologians began to be recognized as significant contributors to academic discussions. Today there are also Anabaptist colleges and other educational centres in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Even so, the vast majority of Anabaptist communities – even ones with higher education institutions – remain isolated from mainstream academic theology.
The relatively late blossoming of Anabaptist academic theology, and the fact that most Anabaptists have had little to do with it, creates a methodological conundrum for any attempt to survey ‘Anabaptist theology’. Most Anabaptist theology occurs in ordinary faith communities in the form of sermons, Bible studies, and conversations among believers. In terms of written theological materials, there is a wealth of historic devotional and catechetical manuals, hymnals, confessions, and short treatises. The Martyrs Mirror, a seventeenth-century collection of Anabaptist and other Christian martyr stories, has served alongside the Bible as the basic theological text for many Anabaptists. Representing ‘Anabaptist theology’ through a synthesis of key texts by early leaders and modern academics offers only an approximation at best.
There is, however, no easy way to draw together all the disparate sources that comprise the dataset of Anabaptist theology. The most common approach remains that of focusing on canonical sixteenth- and twentieth-century writings. While there are questionable historiographic assumptions underlying this approach, this brief encyclopaedia article is not the place to redress the neglect of Anabaptist theologies developed between, for instance, Menno Simon’s death in 1561 and the publication of Harold Bender’s ‘The Anabaptist Vision’ in 1944. Nor is it the place to resolve completely the predominant influence that the latter text – a product of a distinctly US-based, Swiss-German Mennonite perspective – has had in defining Anabaptist theology (though more on this topic below), or to produce a fully revised portrait of the subject that does justice to the contributions of women and people of colour. Scholars will lack an adequate portrait of Anabaptist theology until these topics are addressed thoroughly. While this introductory text attempts to incorporate a diversity of Anabaptist voices and to honour the ‘ordinary’ (non-academic) character of most Anabaptist theology, at this point it remains reliant on existing scholarship and all its limitations.
1.2 Locating Anabaptist theology in time and place
The dominant picture of Anabaptism that has persisted since the sixteenth century in Catholic and Protestant polemic portrays Anabaptists as dangerous radicals seeking to overthrow the social order. The term ‘Anabaptist’, meaning ‘re-baptizer’, was applied to the sixteenth-century believers’ baptizing movements in order to label their participants as heretical criminals. (Catholic authorities invoked the prohibition of rebaptism contained in the sixth-century Justinian Code, which identified the act as a violation of the Church’s doctrine punishable by death.) Over the course of the sixteenth century, this legal designation morphed into a religious category that was at times accepted by those to whom it was applied (Monge 2008), even if they often used other terms for themselves (Brethren, the Baptism-Minded, etc.). For many Catholic and Protestant authorities, the theological and political character of Anabaptism was most clearly disclosed in Thomas Müntzer’s revolutionary preaching during the German Peasants’ War of the early 1520s, which they saw as bearing fruit in the disastrous Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster (1534–1535), where prophetic leaders violently enforced polygamy and economic sharing.
Although this older view of Anabaptists as fanatics can still be found in the work of some contemporary Catholic and Protestant theologians (Härle 2015: 434–435), within the academic field of Christian theology and ethics the image has largely been reversed thanks to Harold S. Bender and his student John Howard Yoder, and to their many ‘neo-Anabaptist’ followers. Bender’s influential ‘The Anabaptist Vision’ draws a ‘clear line of demarcation’ (1944: 11) between the sixteenth-century apocalyptic, revolutionary movements and the purportedly sober, pacifistic humanists who broke from Ulrich Zwingli’s reformation of Zurich in 1525 to remain faithful to their reading of the Bible. Bender, an entrepreneurial leader of US Mennonites, saw his Swiss-German ancestors as the true founders of Anabaptism and articulated their vision in terms of voluntary discipleship, disciplined community, and an ethic of nonresistant love. Yoder accepted Bender’s theological and historical claims, but rejected what he regarded as his teacher’s tacit equation between them and a nascent Mennonite institutional infrastructure. Rather, Yoder pushed for more radical adherence to ‘the politics of Jesus’ recovered by the original Anabaptists (1970). Through Yoder and his disciples – above all Stanley Hauerwas – the ‘The Anabaptist Vision’ version of Anabaptism began to replace the older understanding within the ecumenical academy. The resulting tendency to take Yoder’s thought as representative of Anabaptist theology has never been entirely accepted by other Anabaptist theologians (Friesen 2000: 64–88; Reimer 2001), and has come under increasing scrutiny in light of a 2015 publication detailing Yoder’s repeated acts of sexual violence over the course of his career (Goossen 2015; Schmidt Roberts, Martens, and Penner 2020; Soto and Stephens 2020).
Around the same time that Yoder’s popular The Politics of Jesus (1972) was published, social historians were challenging the historiography assumed by both the anti-Anabaptist polemicists and Mennonite apologists like Bender. The 1975 article ‘From Monogenesis to Polygenesis’ decisively shifted the historiographical terrain towards the recognition of a multiplicity of baptizing groups with distinct, if interconnected, origins and theological commitments (Stayer, Packull, and Deppermann 1975). While the historians who advanced the ‘polygenesis’ thesis subsequently revised their findings to highlight commonalities among the different Anabaptist movements, there was no going back to a ‘monogenetic’ account that denied, for example, the entanglement of Anabaptism in the German Peasants’ War or in the events at Münster.
These historiographic developments have opened Anabaptist theology somewhat to accounts that find a normative centre not in Zurich but in the Netherlands or the later Russian colonies or the present-day global church. Among other things, these accounts may construe as Anabaptist a significant level of political engagement (Reimer 2014); charismatic renewal (Byrd 2019); contextually sensitive, ecumenical mission (Sawatsky 2017); or the inherently hybrid or ‘hyphenated’ character of Anabaptism (Villegas 2014).
Broadening Anabaptist theology beyond neo-Anabaptism has also encouraged greater attention to theologians such as Grace Jantzen or Gordon Kaufman, who had biographical connections to Mennonite communities but were not theologically Anabaptist according to the Benderian model. Interest in the lessons Anabaptist theologians can learn from such revisionist figures (see Friesen 2000; Kennel 2023) has overlapped with a turn by many neo-Anabaptists towards dialogue with liberation theologies (e.g. Schipani 2019; González 2005; Neufeld Harder 2018; Weaver 2011). If these developments have strained the ecumenical orthodoxy that Bender, at least, took for granted, some theologians have called for a ‘return’ to orthodoxy (Koop 2020; Reimer 2001) while others suggest that Anabaptist convictions are at odds with orthodoxy (Weaver 2000; Weaver 2020), or may even be better construed as a secular philosophy (Kennel 2022).
This review indicates the contested character of the term ‘Anabaptism’, and so of Anabaptist theology. An added complexity comes with the recognition that ‘Anabaptism’ today is often used as an umbrella term for several Christian traditions or denominations including the Amish, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Hutterian Brethren, Mennonites, and Mennonite Brethren. Following Bender, some Mennonites began describing themselves as Anabaptist-Mennonites to signal their theological allegiance to ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, and this term, plus the fame of some Mennonite advocates of Anabaptist identity, have sometimes led to a terminological conflation. On the other hand, Christians from a wide variety of traditions over the centuries have claimed to be at least semi-Anabaptist theologically, so there can be no simple identification of Anabaptism with a set of historic denominations – the phrase ‘neo-Anabaptist’ signals just the latest of these developments. The term ‘Mennonite’ has an equally convoluted history (Bender and Sawatsky 1989). The present entry attempts to learn from this history by drawing on a wide range of Anabaptist sources, even if for reasons of institutional location and theological training it is shaped by the influential ‘Anabaptist Mennonite’ school.