April 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 1 · pp. 191–92 

Book Review

The Theology of Anabaptism

Robert Friedman. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1973. 184 pages.

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

John Oyer, in the ‘Introduction’, points out that Friedmann could be “tenacious in his viewpoint, even when in error” (p 12), a comment well illustrated in this volume. Friedmann’s basic thesis is that Anabaptism is existential, but it is not always clear whether this is derived inductively or brought to his study deductively, although this reviewer would have strong suspicions that the latter is the case. For Friedmann, “Anabaptism is the only example in church history of an ‘existential Christianity’ where there existed no basic split between faith and life” (p 27); “existential orientation excludes the tendency to systematize” (p 158).

The scope of Friedmann’s study is limited to “the Swiss Brethren, the South and Central German Anabaptists, and the Austrian Hutterites” (p 25). There is no attempt to justify the decision to exclude the north German and Dutch Anabaptists, and the ignoring of Menno Simons’ Complete Writings and Dirk Philips’ Hand Book (there are exactly twice as many references to, and citations of, Thomas Muentzer as of Simons) displays an historiographical bias that seriously precludes the possibility of terming the study an “anabaptist” theology.

In this attempt to prove a point, even in the face of a lack of supporting evidence, Friedmann makes some strange claims. “Anabaptist writers show an obvious preference for Petrine ideas, namely, for quotations from the epistles of Peter” (p 37). He then cites (in a footnote on p 47) a study which places Peter at the end of a citation list. Statistics, however, he says, “are misleading. One has to weigh the references as to their significance. . .But weighing defies tabulation.” So he manages to hold to his opinion still, despite lack of supporting evidence. (See, for example, the table of scriptural citations in The Legacy of Michael Sattler where the Petrines have fewer citations than the Prison Epistles.)

Similarly, his claim that “they quoted amply from. . .their beloved Apochrypha” (p 38) is simply not supported by tabulation. (Sattler has five citations from the Apocrypha, out of total of over 320 scriptural citations.) Friedmann makes frequent reference to the Essenic community’s document, “The War Between (sic) the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness”, but his hint at organic continuity (p 40, p 47 n 11, p 162, n 6) with Anabaptism is in the nature of the case so improbable—and in fact irrelevant—as to require no further comment. (The document’s title is fairly consistently translated as “The War of the Children of Light with the Children of Darkness—so Cross, Gaster, Allegro, Burrows.) Further, Friedmann’s assertion that Carlstadt’s “influence upon Hubmaier is beyond doubt” (p 40) is simply not that obvious; genetic similarities do not constitute common parentage. He also makes a claim as to Hubmaier’s “ongoing influence” on the Hutterian brethren (p 58) without advancing substantiating data, other than a reference to Bergsten’s work which in itself is not unambiguous. These are but a few examples of Freidmann’s arbitrary claims and/or rejections, and examples of an inadequate historiographical methodology.

Friedmann also assumes that mythical split between Paul and Jesus. One gets tired of hearing this charge trotted out, especially when in his own statistics in terms of cited references (p 47, n 3), the preference for Jesus over Paul is not substantiated. The mythical dualism of Paul and Christ is difficult to substantiate and Friedmann’s categories (that Paul {192} uses “flesh” and “spirit” while Jesus uses “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of darkness”—p 159) ignores the relatively simple theological fact that these word pairs represent identical categories, and that only the terms are different.

In brief, Friedmann comes to the texts convinced so deeply of certain things (i.e. “free will”, so that he can even stretch Paul on that Procrustean bed—p 75 n 17), that the study of Anabaptist Theology becomes an exercise in exploring Freidmann’s ideas rather than the writings inductively.

In addition to a totally unsatisfactory historiographical approach by Friedmann, the general editing and particularly the printing of the book are shoddy and entirely unlike Herald Press’ usually high standards. E.g. the same writing is referred to once as a book and later as a pamphlet, and its title changed in the process (p 47 n 11, p 162 n 6). Horizontal and vertical black lines abound on many pages, resulting from careless make-up and paste-up (esp. p 64, 65, 76). Four blank pages, while not detracting that much from the editorial content of the book, didn’t do much to enhance the printing image.

In short, Friedmann’s study (sic) is not on a par with the fine tradition of careful analysis and thought already set by former Institute of Mennonite Studies publications (cf. Armour’s Anabaptist Baptism or Toews’ Lost Fatherland).

Vern Ratzlaff,
MB Bible College