To the Point . . .
Review of a Revisionist Anabaptist Theology
J. Denny Weaver, fifty-nine, author of Anabaptist Theology in the Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium, Pandora Press, 2000, is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of History and Religion at Bluffton (OH) College. Weaver, the son-in-law of the late J.C. Wenger, shares with many a concern for the future of the Mennonite Church. He fears that the Mennonite Church will disappear from the radar screen, no longer identifiable as a distinct witness. One of the most obvious distinctives, called social markers, is plain dress. It is virtually gone, never to be recovered. The author might have cited other disappearing markers, such as separation from the world in litigation, oath-swearing, and political activism, or rejection of ostentatious adornment, female ordained pastors, and sports mania. Lacking these, what will prevent the Mennonite church from losing its identity, mission and uniqueness?
Denny's answer is the thesis of the book: the church must recreate its theology and in doing so it must make central its fundamental value, namely nonviolence. No longer must nonviolence remain on the church's outer circle and of secondary importance while in the center is the widely accepted and commonly held core of beliefs, otherwise known to Weaver as "national Protestantism." Such is the present unhappy state of affairs in both Canadian and American Mennonitism, laments Weaver. The continuation of this state spells doom for a unique Mennonite Church.
Accomplishing the centralizing of nonviolence will require a wholesale housecleaning and a radical reorientation. The ecumenical creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries, so fundamental to European Christianity, must be stripped of their normative influence. An alternate explanation of the atonement must be embraced and the venerable Mennonite doctrine of the church must be revalued and greatly enhanced. New alliances must be formed with theologians, primarily those in liberation and feminist studies. Emphasis must be shifted to social action, the defense of the marginalized, support for racial minorities, and concern for the oppressed. These, it is reasoned, are nothing more than the natural and logical results flowing from a theology whose cardinal principle is nonviolence. If the enthronement of nonviolence can be achieved, the Mennonite church, a pigmy among the denominational giants, will be properly recognized for its unique theological contribution. More significantly, the identity of the church, once in jeopardy, will have been preserved.
The cost of Weaver's program is staggering. It surrenders reliance upon holy Scripture. Weaver's thesis objects to self-identification of many that the Mennonite Church is orthodox in theology, reverses centuries of theological direction, cuts long established commonalities with other evangelical and conservative denominations, challenges the corporate judgment of scholars both in and out of the denomination, and directs a return to a historically defunct and rejected works-based ecclesiology that labels conversion as a process and demands that individuals make some contribution to their own salvation. Weaver's theology does away with the blood atonement and any thought of propitiation and puts in contest Harold Bender's famous "Anabaptist Vision" while advocating the formation of social connections alien to Mennonite history and preferences.
On what grounds can Weaver fabricate his proposal? He holds that Mennonite ecclesiology with its emphasis on peoplehood, integrity, and corporate effort is one element. The other element is postmodernity, the latest thinker's fad, and a view with some currency among so-called intellectuals. Postmodernity advocates contend that the settled conclusions formulated by the world's best minds through centuries of intellectual labor are now open to question and challenge. The Zeit Geist (spirit of the times) puts everything up for grabs, so to speak. The creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon are no longer standards of Christian faith but may be rejected with impunity. Reason is no longer the sole arbiter of theological inquiry. In this new intellectual climate, Weaver opines, a door of opportunity is opened to Mennonites to begin anew with a theology that replaces the central cardinal creeds of Christianity with nonviolence and explains the Lord's atonement as a victory over Satan rather than a vicarious bloody sacrifice, presented to an offended holy God as a propitiation for the sins of all humanity.
Seen in Weaver's proposal is what happens when persons cut themselves adrift from inspired Scripture and give heed to seducing spirits. He laments the controlling influence of "national Protestantism" on the mainstream Mennonite groups, both Canadian and American, while apparently ignoring the sad reality that, he too, has succumbed to the Ziet Geist, expressed in the unpredictable and indefinable postmodernity. Can we doubt that his deceased father-in-law would be appalled?
Finally, a caution to anyone contemplating reading the book. Be prepared for a plodding, repetitive, unconvincing development of shadowy historical evidence in defense of an incredible solution to a real problem.
Herman R. Reitz -- Harrisonburg, VA
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