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Spring 1991 · Vol. 20 No. 1 · pp. 64–66 

Response to Delbert L. Wiens

Response to “Mennonite Brethren” by Delbert L. Wiens 20/1 (1991): 38–63.

Gerald Ediger

“We modern Mennonites have worked hard to discover the life and thoughts and spirit of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. It is now essential to put equal effort into understanding our Mennoniteness,” asserts Delbert Wiens. Just as H. S. Bender helped crystallize the need to recover “The Anabaptist Vision” in 1943, Wiens now aims to persuade Mennonites, or at least Mennonite Brethren that, in order to be faithful, they must recover their God-given heritage of “concrete community.”

What does “concrete” mean to an urban Mennonite?

Wiens’ critique and program deserves and demands careful reading and consideration. However, some will need to overcome a few obstacles before they can give Wiens a fair hearing. To whom is Wiens speaking? Mennonite Brethren? Mennonites in general? The response below assumes that Wiens is first of all addressing Mennonite Brethren and then the wider Mennonite community. Does Wiens really mean that Mennonite Brethren who align themselves with Evangelicals are heretics? Is he seriously suggesting that the rural, pre-modern societal network of family, clan, and tribe is ordained of God as the preferred means of bringing in the Kingdom? Can he {65} really still be hoping that significant numbers of so-called ethnic Mennonite Brethren in North America, not to mention the growing numbers of “non-ethnic” (who are equally Mennonite Brethren!) still share his yearning for the life of the Mennonite village? Will they understand and heed his call to translate traditional Mennonite community life into urban forms like condominium villages? What about the majority of Mennonite Brethren who do not live in North America and are not Russian-German in background? How do they escape the abstractions of modernity? Are they barred from the truly Mennonite spirituality only to found, it seems, in the memory of “concrete” rural communities in southern Russia and the plains of North America? And what does “concrete” mean to an urban Mennonite living in an apartment block and driving fifty kilometers a day on paved throughway?

Setting such questions aside for the moment, Wiens must be thanked for again drawing the attention of Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren to the profound ambiguity of their religious experience and spiritual life. This article is his third attempt to do so and he must be heard. This time, he says, he will be explicit. According to Wiens, Mennonites believe that they have but two alternatives in contending with the challenge of modernity stemming back to the intellectual, scientific, and industrial revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They think they must become either Liberals or Evangelicals. However, both fail to correct the greatest danger of modern thought and life. Both are equally guilty, together with modernity, of separating spiritual nurture and growth from its intended setting in family, clan, community, and tribe, leaving people without an integrating centre of identity to their lives. Furthermore, both Liberals and Evangelicals have fallen victim to abstract theology. They have taken the seamless fabric of God’s redemptive self-revelation, the Story and Truth of the Bible, a garment within which God’s people live, and shredded it into separate fibers and strands. These systematic, individual dogmas, and doctrines and truths are unable to clothe the Christian community with a unified spirit, humbly understanding and cooperating with God and his ways.

The means by which Wiens develops this critique might be characterized as a sociology of piety, a genre not easily followed by most ordinary readers. However, when assessing {66} Wiens, one must listen to other voices also expressing similar concerns. Justo L. Gonzlez, writing history, outlines the inability of Liberalism and Fundamentalism to meet the theological contemporary challenge. Happily, Gonzlez is not bound to the modern period, nor to a particular ethnos, nor even to the tradition of Western Civilization for his analysis. Clark Pinnock, writing theology, in Tracking the Maze: Finding Our Way Through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective (Harper & Row, 1990) also lays bare the fallacies to which both Progressives and Conservatives are subject, and proposes a third way. At the same time he undercuts the blanket condemnation of Evangelicalism to which Wiens falls prey. Nevertheless, Wiens does well to draw the attention of Mennonite Brethren to the dangers of uncritically adopting the social and theological forms of their contemporary environment.

Wiens’ work is also helpful in another way. Mennonite Brethren urgently need to centre their identity in a common consensus built on a bond of covenant community. If Wiens’ radical proposal for such a community attracts the debate it deserves, alternate convictions and positions will be further clarified. Wiens insists that Mennonitism, and Mennonite Brethrenism is not Liberal and especially not Evangelical. Authentic Mennonitism is older than both and worth recapturing.

The biggest task Wiens will have is convincing modern Mennonite Brethren who are Evangelical that they are also heretics, and that to be truly Mennonite means to recreate the spirit of rural, pre-modern, village Christian faith in a modern urban context. Some contemporary Mennonite Brethren will find this argument, in itself, sufficient grounds to confirm them in their desire to leave their Mennonite past behind.

Gerald Ediger is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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