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Fall 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 2 · pp. 39–46 

J. B.: The Theologian as Historian

Abraham Friesen

Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s young Reformation partner, imbued with the emerging historical awareness of the Renaissance, proclaimed, in his inaugural address at the University of Wittenberg in 1518: “History is the key to all of the sciences, not least of all theology.” J. B. Toews, imbued with the renewal fervor of the early Mennonite Brethren Church (MB), has repeatedly asserted: “A people that ignores (or forgets) its past has no future.” Or: “A church without a past will soon be a church without a future.” The first position—an attack on the Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages—argues that all theological formulations are conditioned by historical forces. The second position is less radical; it argues essentially that renewal movements, such as the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century and the MB renewal of the nineteenth, had good beginnings. But those good beginnings were not sustained over time because people forgot about them and therefore lost the spiritual power that had initiated them.

J. B., first and foremost a theologian, has not escaped the inherent problems of doing church history.


Few theologians would have any problem with the first part of Melanchthon’s dictum; the second part, however, would meet with considerable resistance if not outright rejection—unless it were directed, as it was in Melanchthon’s case, toward someone else’s contradictory theology. {40} J. B.’s dictum is less threatening to theologians, for it speaks, not of the relativity of all theological formulations, but to the seamless weave of history by means of which the past influences the present and these together determine the future.

Furthermore, it is not directed against a competing theology, but to one’s own church. Knowing one’s own past enables one to build upon it—or reform it—in an informed manner; ignorance of it places one at the mercy of historical forces not understood. And because they are not understood, they cannot intelligently be grappled with. Though Melanchthon could place the development of Catholic theology into an historical context in which external forces had determined its formulations, when Reformation radicals turned the tables on him and accused the Magisterial Reformers of allowing their theology to be influenced by similar forces in the sixteenth century, he responded in a manner not unlike the one used by the Catholic Church against the would-be reformers: he attacked them, declared them heretical, and advocated their eradication.

J. B. the theologian does not place the same emphasis upon propositional theological truths or “correct” creedal formulations. Nor is his historical criticism directed against others. Indeed, he argues that the genius of Anabaptist and MB theology lies in the fact that it places all creedal formulations under the authority of the Bible, making them provisional in character. Instead, he elevates the subjective experience of the new birth to a nearly normative position.


These two strands—history and theology—come together in the discipline of church history. And how they are integrated in the life and work of J. B. should interest all of us. But before we address that subject as our central concern, we must touch briefly on J. B.’s public historical activity.

J. B. tells us in his autobiography 1 that he grew up in an extended family environment where questions about the past were asked, where historical continuities were sought, and which spawned a number of historians. But his own education and personal experiences led him into theology, teaching in Bible schools and seminaries, and the ministry. Only much later did he turn to history, as many people do when they reach a certain maturity and begin to look back to discover the meaning of life. Hence the phrase, “History is wasted on the young.”

In the early stages of this development, J. B. wrote his history of MB missions in Zaire 2 and initiated the translation of P. M. Friesen’s history. {41} 3 The first he wrote after ten years of experience as Executive Secretary of MB Missions; the second he undertook because it had long been regarded as the major source for MB and wider Mennonite history in Russia. Since its translation in 1978, its significance—at least for the professional historian—has been at least partially eclipsed by the opening of historical archives in the former Soviet Union. And Mennonite historians have been relatively quick to take advantage of the opportunities thus offered.

In Canada and the United States, however, it was due to J. B.’s initiative that the same materials of the MB Church in North America were themselves gathered in archives. Under the auspices of the Historical Commission, J. B. not only recommended such a collection of source materials, he personally set about gathering them. He encouraged the creation of regional archival depositories—in Fresno, Hillsboro, and Winnipeg—and then proceeded to establish an endowment fund for the research and writing of MB history.

Perhaps most importantly, however, he persuaded a largely disinterested MB constituency to establish the Historical Commission as a permanent body to support his vision and the work of research and writing. This work, hopefully, will be J. B.’s most enduring legacy. J. B.’s own written historical work lies in the realm of church history. Yet it is not academic church history; rather, it is part autobiography, part theology, part history, and part chastisement and correction. It is not the dispassionate analysis of the “objective” historian; it is the passionate expression of a man who has given his life to and for the church and desires to call it back to its first love.


The first church history, Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, was written in the early fourth century from the triumphalist perspective of the victorious “great church” under Emperor Constantine. When Rufinus translated Eusebius into Latin a century later, however, he felt compelled to replace the triumphalism of Eusebius’s last chapter with two of his own which chronicled the problems created in the church by the arrival of peace and the Arian heresy. The “peace of the church,” so longed for by those who suffered persecution prior to Constantine, was now portrayed as the cause and context of dissension and corruption—both personal and corporate. A different point in the church’s development had led to a different interpretation of its history.

Had J. B. written his history of the MB Church shortly after the cleansing purge of the Communist Revolution and its persecutory aftermath, he too would no doubt have written a different history. But alas, {42} like Rufinus, he writes at a time when the church has grown morally soft and theologically diffuse, a time of peace and plenty. Church historians usually possess theological perspectives. Some of Eusebius’s contemporaries, at least, suspected him of Arian sympathies. Rufinus therefore felt compelled to remove any trace of these from Eusebius’s history.


J. B. too has a theological perspective. We shall, however, unlike Rufinus, not seek to remove its traces. But we should like, in the course of this essay, to point to some of them. Theology—and theologians—seek to arrive at ultimate, even absolute, truth; history—and historians—see the interplay between such a search and the all too fallible human nature caught in the flux of events and ideas. How can two such apparently contradictory disciplines be combined in one person? Must not the one or the other dominate?

J. B. came to the practice of history as a theologian and he has remained, first and foremost, a theologian throughout. His history of the MB Church in Zaire, his history of the MB Church from 1860 to 1960, and his autobiography all pursue theological ends; all are teleological.

He is, like the historian, interested in studying the past in order to understand the present. But he is also interested in much more. From his study of the past, he seeks to derive direction for the future and calls on his readers to embrace his vision. The fundamental purpose of his study is to discern the hand of God—or its absence—in the history of the church as well as in his own history. One can see these theological objectives clearly operative in J. B.’s last two books, 4 less so in his history of Zairian missions.

In the latter study, J. B. not only traces the history of MB missions in Zaire; he is at pains to place the missionary activity into the larger, especially colonial, context of the times. He also wishes to evaluate the effectiveness of this missions program—and others more generally—from a cross-cultural perspective. Nowhere does he question the profound Christian motives of the first MB missionaries in Zaire; indeed, he describes in vivid terms their dedication and great faith amidst nearly impossible odds. And yet, he does criticize these early missionaries and their successors for adopting the methods pioneered by missionaries from colonizing countries. He regrets that they erected self-sufficient and isolated compounds from which to spread the Gospel. They should rather have moved into the villages and associated with the natives as equals in order to create indigenous churches run by trained converts.

A relationship of superiority and dependence was thus created which {43} the missionaries were loath to sacrifice once the official missions policy of the conference had changed. In spite of this criticism, however—in this book as well as in his Pilgrimage of Faith relating the history of the MB Church—J. B. speaks in glowing terms of the MB Church as a “missionary church,” motivated to reach out to the unsaved peoples of the world because of their own profound conversion experiences.


What one does not get in this story, however, is the positive aspect of the Melanchthonian position: that is, the awareness that we are all—to a greater or lesser degree—limited by the assumptions and practices of our age unless we consciously break out of them. At what point, for example, did the MB Church become aware that it had accommodated its missionary methods to those of missionaries from colonizing nations? When did she become aware of the implications of anthropological and cross-cultural studies for missions? In this regard, to what extent were MB missionaries simply the victims of their training?

Perhaps, as J. B. seems to suggest, Christ calls his followers to treat everyone as equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ, and missionaries should therefore have proceeded differently. And yet the very cross-cultural studies used to argue that the missionary should meet the native on his turf as equal, also tell us of the extent to which all humans remain a “part of all that they have met.” Witness the truly Mennonite assumption, so current in Canadian Mennonite immigrant communities from Russia, that the loss of the German language would also entail the loss of our Anabaptist faith. And it may have!

J. B.’s 1993 book, A Pilgrimage of Faith, poses the problem of theologian as historian much more acutely than his first. As we have said, unlike Eusebius, who could speak of the triumph of the church in his time, J. B.—at the time of his writing—was driven to chastise the MB Church for being in the process of losing its first love. The whole is a tour de force calling us to return to our spiritual roots: the fervor of the early MB Church and the theological and ethical vision of the first Anabaptists. He wishes to establish the degree to which his church has lived up to the ideals enunciated in the New Testament and embodied in the earliest Church; these he finds portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles and recovered in the Anabaptist and MB beginnings.

But what kind of an interpretation of the Anabaptist movement—and the MB Church’s relationship to it—does he appeal to? What follows is not meant as a criticism of J. B.; it is simply intended to point to the fact {44} that even theologians, when acting as historians, are limited by the interpretations of the past they have inherited.


As we worked on the translation of P. M. Friesen’s history and discussed Mennonite- and Anabaptist-related matters, I often wondered where the Russian Mennonites in general—and P. M. Friesen in particular—had derived their interpretation of Anabaptist history. It is an interpretation that J. B. appears to have imbibed as well.

Over the years I have encountered that same interpretation in other Russian Mennonite documents, most clearly and most explicitly in the 1915 booklet written in Russian entitled: “Who are the Mennonites?” Written by my great uncle, Peter Braun, director of the Pedagogical Seminar in Halbstadt, it contains—in the first five or so pages—an interpretation of Anabaptism that is vintage Ludwig Keller, with citations enough to remove any doubts whatsoever. 5

Keller’s interpretation was characterized by two salient features: first, Keller—who was himself a mystic and later became a Mason—promoted an “undogmatic” Christianity in all of his writings on the Anabaptists and made Hans Denck, the most mystical of the early Anabaptists, into the hero of the entire movement. Second, he attempted to recreate—even after virtually all Mennonites had abandoned the theory—a kind of “apostolic succession” from the sixteenth-century Anabaptists backwards through the Waldenses and other Medieval heretics to the Apostolic Church itself. This latter theory was used by Baptist historians to bolster their own homegrown theory of apostolic succession. 6

Keller’s other argument of an “undogmatic” Anabaptism has been given credence by contemporary scholars like Robert Friedmann—who described Anabaptist theology as “existential”—and even H. S. Bender, 7 who described it as anti-creedal. J. B., citing Friedmann, accepts this interpretation and adds to it, correctly, the emphasis on conversion.


But Anabaptist theology is not necessarily anti-creedal, though it may appear to be so from a cursory glance at the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. It is rather characterized by the desire to integrate precept and action. 8 This can be seen perhaps most clearly in the case of Menno Simons’ own conversion. Converted around Easter 1535 at the height of the Muensterite crisis, Menno turned to the Scriptures in order to understand what had happened to him. The very first tracts he wrote after that experience were his “The Spiritual Resurrection” of 1536, and {45} his “The New Birth” of 1537. For Menno, the subjective experience of the new birth had to be tested on the basis of Scripture and the theology of conversion carefully worked out. Menno knew only too well that if he placed too much emphasis on the subjective experience and the “existential” nature of Christianity without providing a reasoned theological explanation, it would be very easy to fill the creedal or “propositional truth” vacuum with “every wind of doctrine” that blew in his direction. In the MB case, Pietism, Blankenburg, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, the Vineyard.

A “simple” reading of the Bible is not enough, for we all come to our reading of the Bible with preconceived notions. It is therefore very useful to have a clear understanding of the great and unchanging doctrines of the church. J. B. himself points to this problem in the MB Church in the following passage:

This constricted mentality was reinforced by the appearance of American fundamentalism. Mennonite Brethren caught in the crossfire between fundamentalists and modernists knew they were not modernists. While their alliance with fundamentalism should also have been an uneasy one, they apparently drifted into that orbit with little difficulty. 9

This, I submit, resulted from what they held to be an “existential” or “undogmatic” theology. It derived from the interpretation of Anabaptism absorbed by the Russian Mennonites from Ludwig Keller and was, perhaps, reinforced in J. B. by the Baptists under whose auspices he came to a deeper understanding of the Anabaptist movement. This he says himself in his autobiography. 10


One could say more, but enough has been said to allude to the problems inherent in “doing” church history. And J. B., first and foremost a theologian, has not escaped these problems. But then, neither have any of us escaped them, we who work in the field more self-consciously than has J. B.

To a greater or lesser degree we are all dependent upon the historical research of others. When it comes to the origins of the MB Church, J. B. is less dependent upon the work of others, having experienced in his lifetime much of that church’s history. Yet even here, the influences of Pietism, Anabaptism, and Baptists, not to speak of other influences deriving from theological studies abroad, have never been satisfactorily worked out—despite P. M. Friesen’s heroic attempt to place them, as he put it, together “in an apostolic balance” at the founding of the MB Church. {46}


  1. J. B. Toews, J B: The Autobiography of a Twentieth-Century Mennonite Pilgrim (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1995).
  2. J. B. Toews, The Mennonite Brethren Church in Zaire (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978).
  3. P. M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910) (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978). Trans. and ed. J. B. Toews, Abraham Friesen, Peter J. Klassen, and Harry Loewen.
  4. J. B. Toews, A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North America 1860-1990 (Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993), and J B: The Autobiography of a Twentieth-Century Mennonite Pilgrim.
  5. I already suspected this in my “P. M. Friesen the Historian,” in Abraham Friesen, ed., P. M. Friesen and His History: Understanding Mennonite Brethren Beginnings (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1978), 81-100, but only made the argument explicit in my History and Renewal in the Anabaptist/Mennonite Tradition (North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 1994), 1-5. Peter Braun’s “Who are the Mennonites?” now makes the source of their interpretation of Anabaptism explicit by naming Keller directly and developing his theories. For the details of Keller’s interpretation, see History and Renewal.
  6. See my “Baptist Interpretations of Anabaptist History,” in Paul Toews, ed., Mennonites and Baptists: A Continuing Conversation (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1992).
  7. Bender’s classic essay, “The Anabaptist Vision,” also omits theology from its purview and emphasizes discipleship in its place.
  8. See especially my forthcoming (March 1998) Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
  9. Pilgrimage of Faith, 173.
  10. J B, 108-9.
Abraham Friesen is Professor of Renaissance and Reformation History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has worked closely with J. B. at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Fresno, and on the MB Historical Commission.

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