Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Relevance of Marpeck for the Contemporary Church

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

The Relevance of Marpeck for the Contemporary Church

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay is less a historical study of Pilgram Marpeck than a reflection on the relevance of Marpeck's theology to the context of secular urban Europe and the global church. Marpeck's incarnational Christology and ecclcsiology provides an important basis for reflecting on the church's presence and mission in the world. First, while maintaining a "classical" Anabaptist understanding of discipleship, Marpeck's theology casts Christian life in terms of being "sent" into the world rather than being "separate."' Second, Marpeck's efforts at careful theologizing show that "how we think about what we do" is an important task for the church. Third, the sixteenth-century practice of Anabaptist networking across political and cultural borders can help us to see the importance of the growing global church. Finally, a Trinitarian theology such as Marpeck's underlines the importance of the spiritual "staying power" that is necessary to maintain a life of nonviolent collective discipleship.


Pilgram Marpeck's relevance for the contemporary church is intimately connected with the larger question of how one understands the relationship between history and theology. Studying sixteenth-century documents to analyze Pilgram Marpeck's life and thought is one thing; suggesting possible meanings of those texts for a very different historical context from the perspective of a 500-year-old theological and ecclesial tradition is quite another. Historian James Stayer has recently argued that Mennonite scholars have been engaged in a persistent quest to find a "church father" to replace Menno Simons. "This accounts," he argues, "for the greater concentration on Conrad Grebel and Michael Sattler in the early twentieth century and on Pilgram Marpeck in the late twentieth century." (1)

It might be argued that contemporary Mennonites are likely attracted to Marpeck's theological moderation and his affirmation of civic engagement, just as they were attracted to Grebel and Sattler's radicalism in previous years. But in speaking of the relevance of Marpeck today, I am not intending to enter into an historical debate about who were the best or truest Anabaptists of the sixteenth century or to imply that Marpeck should be regarded as more important than Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel or Michael Sattler. Analysis of the various strands of sixteenth-century Anabaptism is first of all a task of careful historical description. Moving from historical description to relevance is a theological question, which must, of course, rely on historical analysis, but does not ultimately depend on it. The following essay represents a theological reading of history--reflections on what Marpeck's experience and writings might mean for the church today.


Marpeck's ecclesiology provides a basis for understanding the Christian presence in the world that is different from other sixteenth-century Anabaptist understandings of the church. This difference, rooted in his incarnational understanding, is best described in missiological terms as the church "being sent" into the world.

Marpeck's theology was one of several competing versions of the Christian narrative that shared the rejection of the medieval Catholic understanding of the faith. For him, the church is the "humanity of Christ"--that is, a visible and sacramental prolongation of the Incarnation. Nevertheless, Marpeck's specifically Anabaptist understanding claimed that Christ's visible presence is found not only in preaching and sacraments (the Protestant version), but also in the everyday lives of Christians who follow Jesus by forgiving one another, loving one another, loving their neighbor, loving their enemies, refusing violence, feeding the hungry, sharing their possessions, opposing evil and injustice, and, through attitudes and acts of humility and service, challenging one another to consistency and faithfulness in Christian life. …

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