Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Historical and Theological Context for Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

A Historical and Theological Context for Mennonite-Lutheran Dialogue

Article excerpt

Abstract: Lutherans and Anabaptists first encountered each other in the tumultuous events of the sixteenth-century Reformation. In their struggle to defend their nascent reform movement against threats from within as well as without, the cohort of leaders around Martin Luther agreed that the state had the right to execute Anabaptists for their sedition, if not for their heresy. By the middle of the century, the theological boundaries separating Lutherans from Anabaptists/Mennonites had hardened, reinforced by the Lutheran condemnations enunciated in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and by the emerging martyr identity within Anabaptist circles. This essay suggests that the theological differences separating the two groups were indeed significant, touching on issues ranging from epistemology and hermeneutics to sotefiology, ecclesiology and ethics. Contemporary ecumenical conversations need not be bound by these theological tensions, but neither should they casually minimize them.


In the spring of 1536 Landgrave Philip of Hesse--founder of the University of Marburg and champion of the Protestant Reformation--requested the counsel of several leading German theologians as to whether or not Anabaptists captured in his territories should be subjected to the death penalty. Of the various replies he received, none were as concise and resolute as that written by the highly regarded professor of theology at Wittenberg, Philip Melancthon. "Since Holy Scripture clearly teaches that the noted articles of the Anabaptist are wrong and devilish, and since it is clear and obvious that they are direct destroyers of civil government," Melancthon wrote, "it follows without a doubt that the magistracy is obligated to counter such false and seditious teachings ... and to apply punishment, mild or severe, as it sees fit." The punishment he favored was quickly made apparent. "Whoever blasphemes God," Melancthon insisted, quoting from the book of Leviticus, "is to be killed." (1)

In the broader history of the Reformation, Philip Melancthon is almost always described as an irenic person--a moderating influence on the more impassioned and impulsive rhetoric of his co-worker Martin Luther. (2) Yet in the struggle to consolidate the Reformation against the distractions of radical dissent, Melancthon's counsel found widespread assent. Indeed, one of the very few points where Protestants and Catholics found themselves in agreement during the course of the sixteenth century was their mutual antagonism to the Anabaptist movement. Their shared concern for political stability and religious orthodoxy led to the deaths of several thousand dissenters.

This short essay, which offers a brief summary of Lutheran-Anabaptist relations during the first half of the sixteenth century, attempts to put within a broader historical and political context the theological polemics that divided the two groups. The differences that separated Lutherans and Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation were significant, not easily bridged by the rhetoric of theological debate or by general appeals to good will. With the passing of time, the polemical tone of the sixteenth century hardened into a set of simplistic and dismissive formulations, preserved in theological treatises and the emerging historiography of the Reformation, that defined Anabaptists and their descendants at best as sectarian eccentrics of little consequence to the main currents of church history and, at worst, as a cancerous source of doctrinal heresy and political insurrection.

By the early nineteenth century, however, signs of a new ecumenical spirit are evident, at least among some Mennonites in southwest Germany. Tired of second-class citizenship and eager to claim a new identity within a tolerant political climate, Mennonites living west of the Rhine began to jettison their distinctive religious practices and to reformulate their theology in terms amenable to Protestant assumptions. …

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