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Spring 1999 · Vol. 28 No. 1 · pp. 130–32 

Book Review

Only the Sword of the Spirit

Jacob A. Loewen and Wesley J. Prieb. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1997. 346 pages.

Reviewed by Peter Penner

The message of Only the Sword of the Spirit found its formulation after Jacob Loewen’s son asked him in 1984 why he had not given him the most essential foundation in Anabaptist/Mennonite peace principles. The son had left the Mennonite Brethren (MB) church because his pastor stated that the majority view on this question made it impossible to take a firm stand on Christian pacifism. The author realized late in life {131} that his failure to teach his son the Anabaptist/Mennonite way of peace for all areas of life was part of the much wider departure from those teachings in the church of his youth.

Strongly supported by his close friend, the late Wesley Prieb, who contributed to the beginning and end of this book, Loewen pleads with his own Mennonite Brethren to return to their spiritual and theological roots in the New Testament and the sixteenth-century writings of Menno Simons. A former MB missionary, Professor of Anthropology at Tabor College, longtime consultant to the United Bible Societies, Loewen (now severely handicapped) shares his rediscovery of Menno Simons’ application of the “Sword of the Spirit.” For those who have never read Menno Simons, Loewen’s section on the “significance of Menno’s stance” will be very helpful. Though Loewen was a conscientious objector as a young Christian growing up in Yarrow, BC, he found more support for his renewed conviction in the life of Mahatma Gandhi than among the MBs of the 1980s. In Mennonite history the peace principles have too often been used merely as a convenient crutch when war threatened. In this book Loewen leaves us with his “studied position on Gewaltverzicht (abstaining from all forms of coercion)” in all areas of life (260).

One of the most fascinating sections of this book focuses on Loewen’s “twelve Anabaptist values” and his readers’ responses to them. What happened to these values when Mennonites adjusted their worldview to “become two-kingdom citizens,” adopted coercion in Selbstschutz (self-defense), or went from stewardship to dependence on wealth and a “social class-based society?” Without giving only those answers that pleased him, Loewen nevertheless shows how Mennonites have adjusted their view of the canon of Scripture. The guiding principles of Jesus’ teachings have been weakened by adopting the “flat” Bible, where the Old Testament is appealed to when convenient.

One of the most significant features of this book is the sixty-page bibliography which one can hardly find elsewhere. This provides the background to the essential theology of this volume, as well as to an exploration of how the “Northern Stream” of Mennonites in Europe, have departed first in Russia and then in North America from the congregation as an “exegetical community” and have lost its “focussed view of the canon” through the adoption of Fundamentalism and Dispensationalism from non-Anabaptist sources.

This is part history and part theology, based on wide reading and a multitude of experiences as anthropologist and consultant, as well as personal reflections about his church. This volume is published in the {132} Perspectives in Mennonite Life and Thought series, edited by Paul Toews of the Historical Commission of the MB Conference.

Peter Penner
Professor Emeritus of History
Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick

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