Reviews - What do customers think about The Theology of Anabaptism?
Review of The Theology of Anabaptism Dec 6, 2004
This monograph by Robert Friedmannn (1891-1970) was published posthumously as a "memorial" to one of Anabaptism's foremost experts and ardent adherents. Friedmann was born in Austria but spent much of his scholarly life in the United States, where he taught at the Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the University of Western Michigan. In the Editor's Foreword, J. C. Wenger describes the work as an "earnest attempt, written con amore, to distill the reading and meditation of a lifetime into a readable and winsome interpretation." Indeed, Wenger is correct to point out the highly personal, and almost apologetic, nature of the work. Friedmann begins with a question: is there an Anabaptist theology? "Apparently there is none" (17). He critiques assessments that identify discipleship, martyrdom, or Biblicism as the central theological element; these elements, he concludes, are only "mere derivatives from theology" (20). Instead, Friedmann proposes that Anabaptism's "existential theology" distinguished the movement from normative Protestantism and explains the lack of any explicit theology. The results of this type of theology are two-fold: 1) It is an implicit and "uncompromising ontological dualism in which Christian values are held in sharp contrast to the values of the `world' in its corrupt state" (38), and 2) It is an implicit hope for the kingdom of God where discipleship and eschatology are inextricably bound. These foci, Friedmann continues, constitute the "vital center of Anabaptist thought" (49). Finally, in an attempt to compare Anabaptism to Protestantism, Friedmann analyzes Anabaptist theology within the framework of several traditional theological categories: Theology (i.e., Doctrine of God), Anthropology, Soteriology, Eschatology, and Ecclesiology. Affirmation of the Trinity and Jesus' divinity are among the points of contact highlighted. However, Friedmann is quick to point out that Anabaptism in general was slow to delve into such extra-biblical, hermeneutical questions. Friedmann seems content to locate Anabaptist views of the Trinity and Christology squarely within the bounds of mainstream sixteenth-century theology. On the other hand, in the areas of Anthropology and Ecclesiology Anabaptism stood in stark contrast to the pervading theological milieu. Hubmaier's insistence on the freedom of the will greatly influenced Anabaptism's picture of humanity. Friedmann identifies this "hopeful aspect" of their Anthropology as the essence of discipleship: "If God commands His way, man must be able to obey such commandments after experiencing rebirth and the restoration of man's freedom in God's image" (60). However hopeful they may have been, Anabaptists took every biblical step to ensure proper Christian living. Believer's baptism and the ban were employed by the church, as they understood it, "to maintain its inner purity" (152). In the end, it is the "Anabaptist repudiation of the `world' and its values, and the establishment of small nuclei - realms of peace and brotherly love" (160) which Friedmann identifies as the core of Anabaptist theology. In this respect, Friedmann's claim that Anabaptist theology was essentially existential is quite helpful. He is correct to stress their insistence on a faith well-lived, as opposed to a faith well-spoken. Anabaptist theology avoids the existentialism of Kierkegaard where anxiety, despair, and loneliness are the existential questions of choice, and instead unifies faith and life in such a way that despair and anxiety disappear, even in the face of death (31). While Friedmann is justified in characterizing Anabaptist theology as existential, he may not succeed in delineating it. He is clearly aware of the problem when he writes that "a theological system cannot be existential, and existential Christianity cannot be pressed into a theological system" (31), nevertheless he attempts to do just that in his assessment. It seems that Friedmann is forcing traditional categories onto an existential grid, instead of exploring new territory with his "Existential Anabaptist Theology." Eventually, his Anabaptist theology bears a striking resemblance to the Protestant theology he so desperately works to avoid. Friedmann's (too) brief discussion of Tradition's role in Anabaptism is one of the work's most fascinating contributions. He finds in Riedemann's Rechenschaft, Schiemer's "Twelve Articles of Our Christian Faith," and the anonymous "Confession of Faith" a "more or less elaborate confirmation of the traditional Apostle's Creed" (53). Anabaptist dependence on something other than Scripture is also evidenced by the popularity of the parable of the kernels and grapes found first in the Didache (140-141). Friedmann cursorily refers to the influence of the pseudo-epigraphical Fourth Book of Esdras on Anabaptism's understanding of original sin. These unexpected influences offer much-needed balance to Anabaptism's otherwise skeptical approach to Tradition. Unfortunately, Friedmann does not pursue this connection in any depth. Ultimately, one must ask whether an adequate summary of Anabaptist theology can be achieved within Friedmann's limited scope. Friedmann limits the term "Anabaptists" primarily to the Swiss Brethren, South and Central German Anabaptists, and Austrian Hutterites. No justification is given for the inclusion of these groups, or his exclusion of others. Furthermore, even if the limited scope of inquiry is maintained, a homogeneous theology of incipient Anabaptism certainly cannot. There was significant theological overlap among the individual groups, but the level of theological continuity suggested by Friedmann's tendentious citation seems implausible. Criticisms aside, The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation deserves to be read by any serious student of Anabaptist history. Robert Friedmann's work was pioneering and suggestive of the future directions of Anabaptist scholarship. Friedmann reminds us that the implications of Anabaptism's "existential theology" are still worthy of attention, even in the twenty-first century.