Previous | Next

Spring 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 1 · pp. 104–26 

Barth, Yoder, and J. B. Toews: My Personal Search for Systematics in Biblical Theology

Alfred Neufeld

In the 1960s to 1980s, Mennonite biblical seminaries took pride, or at least were eager to point out, that they were not offering systematic theology but biblical theology. As a high school (and teacher training) student in Filadelfia, Paraguayan Chaco, my instructors still had been trained by the dispensational systematic of Hans Legiehn and Erich Sauer. At the Free Evangelical School of Theology in Basel, where I started my theological education, they specialized in church history, biblical languages and exegesis, as well as in apologetics against the more “liberal and philosophical” European state university theology. But they easily fell into glorification of the older, more conservative approaches to systematics.

I wanted to produce a biblical theology that would be historic, systematic, and contextualized with an overall Anabaptist perspective.


So when Wilma and I came to Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, in March 1981, it was challenging for us to learn that Anabaptists and Mennonite Brethren (MB) tried to disengage completely from the project of systematic theology. Our fatherly mentor and friend, Prof. J. B. Toews, did not hesitate to share with us his preference for the Robert Friedmann approach: Anabaptism has no explicit but only an implicit theology. This is an existential theology of being called by the grace of God and being enabled to respond to that call.

Since then the idea of “existential theology” has been with me. More so, because J. B. Toews provided for us students a model of living out his approach existentially. His love for the mystics of John, his dependence on the transcendent God, and the special care he gave to us students from overseas during and after the study years have been immensely meaningful for us. I still cherish one of his personal letters written with his old typewriter, shortly before he died, encouraging us in Asunción, Paraguay, to continue to battle “the good battle of faith.”

But in the early 80s in Fresno there was not just J. B. Toews. With President Elmer Martens we had a Mennonite church man profoundly committed to Old Testament theology. And his book, God’s Design, definitely had a systematic approach: The fourfold design and motive—deliverance, knowledge of God, covenant, and land—was a kind of systematic theology in its way, applied also to the New Testament. And it was very much in line with basic Anabaptist convictions. Waldemar Janzen from Winnipeg once shared that as a Mennonite Old Testament scholar, he always had to convince his colleagues that Mennonites were not “Marcionites.” Elmer, with his systematic approach, convinced us definitely that this was not the case.

And then there was Howard Loewen. He had done his doctorate on the inspiration theory of Karl Barth and was supposed to teach us systematic theology, which would not be systematic theology. So we called it “creeds of the church.” Howard did a good job of convincing us that a church needs some confessional statements and outlines to be faithful in its identity and mission. And the legendary “field trips” with Henry Schmidt helped us to check our own confessional statements with some very different churches in the Bay Area of California.

But also from New Testament exegesis not everything was “unsystematic.” Dean John E. Toews had at that time already done considerable work on the book of Romans. We were expected to understand and to be able to explain the important “paradigm shift” that he was proposing for an overall new interpretation to that book. Well, paradigm was a new word to express systematic, but it sounded better, and it was new. At the end of the course, some in the student group ceremoniously gave John a small box with two dimes, which shifted when the box was moved. They assured him that they had understood, at least so far, his idea of “pair o’ dime” shift.


My personal journey begins with a love for the social sciences, education, and cultural anthropology. Hans Kasdorf and Paul Hiebert became very instrumental in pushing me toward missiology. Culture as “design for living” and as “mental roadmap,” as well as communication theories through codification and the relativity of all “ethno-logics,” were topics I pursued in my master’s and doctoral work. But apart from working on contextual theologies, I soon realized that all theology is contextual theology and ethno-theology. And the good training in church history and the minor in history of theology convinced me even more that the history of systematic theology is actually the accumulation of different ways of contextualizing the Christian message to the culture of its time. So my journey went from missions to contextual theology, from there to historical theology, and from there to systematics. Today I would claim that all systematic theology is contextual theology in specific historical settings.

Furthermore, when my colleague Hans Pankratz retired from teaching Christian dogmatics in our theological school in Asunción, I could not find any replacement and had to teach it myself. Out of those experiences grew my sabbatical project of writing a Spanish text book, Introduction to Theology from an Anabaptist Perspective. I still have a problem to clearly identify myself, because I am not a classic mission theologian at this moment. So when people ask what I teach, I respond, “historic, systematic, and contextual theology.”

In my personal journey, three theologians have had a profound impact on my thinking: Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, and J. B. Toews.


The Influence of Basel

The Basel of Karl Barth is also the Basel of Harold S. Bender, Paul Peachy, John Howard Yoder, Cornelius Wall, Samuel Gerber, Paul Hofer, and Bernhard Ott. And of course, Erasmus von Rotterdam, the Christian humanist, is buried there. It is the Basel of two historically important Mennonite churches: (1) the Schaenzli Gemeinde, where the two MB trained pastors, Helmut Doerksen and Paul Hofer, had a very strong impact and ministry; and (2) the Holee Gemeinde, belonging to the Old Mennonites, where Daniel Wenger, John Howard Yoder, and H. H. Janzen used to preach. During my first time there as a student, I was a member at Schaenzli for three years. During my doctoral work, I was copastor at Holee for three years. Furthermore in Basel in 1952, J. B. Toews gave one of the key addresses for the Mennonite World Conference about the dynamics of faith.

Basel is also the location of the Europaeisch Mennonitische Bibelschule, Bienenberg, where C. F. Klassen and Cornelius Wall were instrumental and very influential in establishing a biblical training center for post-World War II European Mennonite churches. Waldemar Janzen, Tim Geddert, and I are adjunct faculty at the Bienenberg Theological Seminary, which offers a master’s program in pastoral studies in cooperation with the University of Wales. Fresno graduate Bernhard Ott is the efficient, dynamic, and visionary president of the seminary.

Karl Barth spent an afternoon during 1968 at Bienenberg just weeks before he died (Schmidt). At the end of that afternoon, he said,

Ich bin ein alter Mann and danke Gott für jeden Tag, den er mir noch zusetzt. Es kommt darauf an, diese Zeit gut zu nützen. Heute nachmittags habe ich sie gut genützt.

When I came to Basel as a young student in 1977, Mennonites still remembered this visit and would tell with sparkling eyes that he recommended his nurse to study the Bible with the Mennonites at Bienenberg, which she did.

Most of my professors in Basel were not fans of Karl Barth, however, although they had known him personally. Prof. Dr. Huntemann remembered the enthusiasm with which Barth had presented his lectures, so the first three rows of students actually had need for some umbrellas. And the very critical Prof. Kuelling had confronted him once about a need to stress more the importance of personal conversion. Barth had answered that there was a danger of too much “pietistic introspection.” But the very broad and sober Prof. Dr. Grossmann always encouraged us, saying that “with Barth you will find very sound, very balanced biblical theology.” Of course his views on inspiration and his leaning towards universalism were suspicious, as was his mysterious relationship to his efficient secretary.

The Appeal of Barth

Some of the very nice anecdotes and sayings of Barth impressed me: his periodic statements of “how I changed my mind”; his answer to a news reporter on the America trip about his greatest theological insight: “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so”; the brilliant exchange of letters with Bultmann; his love for Mozart, and the statement: “Agape relates to Eros as does Mozart to Beethoven.” And of course it intrigued me that he could talk about theology as “the most beautiful of all sciences” and at the same time refuse to be part of the theological legitimization of the Cold War.

It was the liberal Heinz Zahrnt with his controversial book, Die Sache mit Gott, who first introduced me to the transcendental importance of Karl Barth’s theology of the twentieth century. So the Barmer Erklaerung had a very profound impact in all my thinking about further political theology. It fascinated me to see how, by being a theologian without political ambitions and opportunisms, you can have such a radical impact on politics. For exams I had to study carefully all the details of Karl Barth’s Die protestantische Theologie des 19. Jahrhunderts, especially his break with the philosophical metaphysics of Kant and his breakaway with the pietistic liberal project of Schleiermacher.

So Karl Barth appealed to me first of all not through his dogmatics, but through his work on the history of theology. By chance I got his big book on the theology of Calvin, written in 1922. It fascinated me. It triggered the desire of bringing Menno Simons and Calvin closer together. And then there was this beautiful double audio CD produced by Swiss radio with more than two hours of life talk by Karl Barth, especially his speech on Kirkegaard, on Calvin, and on the question of “liberalism.”

Two rather nostalgic events also took place. In our school library in Asunción I found a first edition of Karl Barth’s Der Römerbrief. It had belonged to Artur Metler, a Swiss theologian and member of the Eberhard Arnold Hutterites who had taken refuge in Paraguay for twenty years. This very rare book by Karl Barth that had ended up in the east Paraguayan jungle, Metler had worked through, underlined, and filled with quotes and observations from cover to cover. And then there was a visit to the Karl Barth archives in August 2004 at the Bruderholz Allee, where the curator Dr. Drewes introduced us to a lot of autobiographical details of Karl Barth’s theological work.

At least five aspects of Karl Barth’s theology have helped me in my personal struggle towards an adequate and coherent biblical-systematic theology.

Barth: A Theology That Listens and Obeys

In his Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Barth insists that Lessing is right when he claims, “ ‘The best theology’ would have the following distinction: It would prove itself—and in this regard Lessing was altogether right—by the demonstration of the Spirit and its power” (Barth, Evangelical, 5). So he claims that the place for theology is where the Word, the witnesses, the community, and the Spirit are operating (ibid., 15-62). Theological existence not only suffers solitude, doubt, and temptation, but requires commitment and faith (ibid., 63-144). And theological work consists of prayer, study, service, and love (ibid., 159-204).

To listen to God’s Word and to be in favor of humankind is part of the approach he calls “Theo-Anthropology.” In listening and in obeying, “evangelical theology responds to this gracious ‘Yes,’ to God’s self-proclamation, made in his friendliness toward man” (ibid., 11).

Barth’s Theology: From the Pastorate, Aimed at the Pastorate

There was always system and architecture, symmetry and coherence in Barth’s theological work. Reason even figures as a “subordinate presupposition” for

the capacity for perception, judgment, and language, common to believers as well as to all men. It is this capacity that makes it technically possible for them to participate actively in the theological pursuit of knowledge. (ibid., 7-8)

But Barth does not excuse himself at all for putting theological work completely in the service of the church and the pastorate. In one of the last radio interviews shortly before his death he says, explaining why he never achieved a doctorate,

I was not aiming at an academic career. I wanted to be a pastor. I was this for twelve years, first in Geneva, then in Safenwil. My whole theology, you see, is fundamentally a theology for pastors. It grew out of my own situation when I had to teach and preach and counsel a little. And I found that what I had learned at the university was of little help in this. So I had to make a fresh start, and I tried to do this. (Barth, Final Testimonies, 23)

Barth Freed Theology from the Dominance of Philosophy and System

It is well-known that Barth broke with the importance of philosophy for theological labor. That was evident in his break with Schleiermacher, Harnack, Bultmann, and even Kirkegaard. And it was most evident in his break with Thomas Aquinas and his dependence on the logic of Aristotle. He claimed that theology needs to stand “on its own feet,” that is, on the Word of God and within the church. Only in that way will it be able to be a serious dialogue partner with the other sciences. Over against Bultmann he claims that a theologian can make himself very well understandable without depending on philosophy:

Es ist ferner so, dass ich einen tiefen Abscheu in mich aufgenommen habe angesichts des Schauspiels, wie die Theologie es immer wieder vor allem der Philosophie ihrer Zeit recht machen wollte, und daneben ihr eigenes Thema vernachlässigte. (Barth and Bultmann, 84-85)

So the systematics of Karl Barth take more the shape of a dynamic network. His American translator, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, states,

Barth does not simply deal with an individual doctrine in its proper sequence and then move on to the next. For him, God himself, not the doctrines, constitutes the theme of theology. Hence all the doctrines are closely interwoven. The individual teachings are constantly seen in new contexts and from different angles as the series continues. (Bromiley, x).

Because of this “interweaving of themes” it is impossible to “group Barth’s theology under some master concepts.” Because “Barth does not systematize,” no single doctrine dominates the whole (ibid., x, xi).

The astonishing reality is that Barth’s concentration on theology and the Word of God made him a very dynamic dialogue partner for politicians, musicians, journalists, as well as a broad ecumenical spectrum of theologians, especially Roman Catholics.

I was in Amsterdam in 1948 when the World Council of Churches was established. I even gave the first address there on the theme, “The Confusion of the World and God’s Plan of Salvation.” The line I took was that the theme ought to be reversed. We should deal with God’s plan first and then with the world’s confusion. This is why I went to Rome, visited Paul VI, and engaged in discussions with the Jesuits and Dominicans. It was all very stimulating and worthwhile. On occasion I have done a few other things too. Here on the Bruderholz we have good relations between the Reformed and Roman Catholic communions. And so I do a little here and there. (Barth, Final Testimonies, 27).

Grünewald’s Long Finger of John the Baptist Toward Christ

It was impressive for me to visit the Barth archives and look at his working desk. There is a copy of the Grünewald altar, with John the Baptist pointing to Jesus. In one of his last interviews he talks about the meaning of Jesus Christ for himself:

I am empowered, commissioned, and liberated with heart and hand and voice to bear witness to him as this Word of the love of God. And he has made himself responsible for me before God. I, too, am destined for an active response to the Word of God which is directed to all. This is what Jesus Christ is for me—for me too. (ibid., 14-15)

And in relation with Mozart he states that grace is not an abstract theological concept:

The last word that I have to say as a theologian or politician is not a concept like grace but a name: Jesus Christ. He is grace and he is the ultimate one beyond world and church and even theology. We cannot lay hold of him. But we have to do with him. And my own concern in my long life has been increasingly to emphasize this name and to say: “ ‘In him.’ There is no salvation but in this name. In him is grace. (ibid., 29-30)

Aesthetics, Architecture, Play, Contextuality

Looking at the overall structure of the Church Dogmatics, it is evident that there is architecture and aesthetics in this magnificent construction. Of course, it is incomplete, like the Strassburger Münster with just one tower completed and the second one not. There is no eschatology developed, even though the whole approach is eschatological. Not the dominance of the system, but the dynamics of play (Mozart) and architecture are at work.

Even the different church traditions and denominations somehow are all present in this construction, although Barth continues to consider himself a Swiss Reformed. In his private library there are the complete works of Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas, and even Ziegelschmidt’s Älteste Chronik der hutterischen Brüder. He seems to go through all these different denominational rooms, making himself familiar there, but does not limit himself to one.

With his strong concentration on the theology of the Word, Barth might very well be considered the father of theological contextualization. It is known that he requires of a good theologian to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But precisely from living in biblical revelation and looking from there to the world, he was able to do dynamic contextualization. Some words of his introduction to his lectures in North America are illustrative:

How shall we make the jump from Moses to Mozart, from Mesopotamia (!) to East Germany, from obedience toward Caesar to defiance of Hitler? . . . And by the way, I also understand the Church Dogmatics . . . not as the conclusion, but as the initiation of a new exchange of views about the question of proper theology, the established knowledge of God, and the obedient service of God among and for men. What we need on this and the other side of the Atlantic is not Thomism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, orthodoxy, religionism, existentialism, nor is it a return to Harnack and Troeltsch (and least of all is it “Barthianism”!), but a “theology of freedom” that looks ahead and strives forward. (Barth, 1963, xi-xii)


As for J. B. and Yoder also, Karl Barth was basically a dialogical theologian. Proof of it is the immense amount of theological letters he was exchanging with friends and opponents. Proof of it is also his idea of “group” and of the “we” when he talks about the beginnings of his theological journey or the Barmen declaration. And most of all his dialogical theology was nurtured by his students, so that work on his Kirchliche Dogmatik did not move anywhere once he stopped lecturing and interacting with students.


Personal Journey with Yoder

I first saw John Howard Yoder in 1972 when I was seventeen years old. After the Curitiba Mennonite World Conference, the Peace Commission visited the Chaco and had a symposium at our Filadelfia high school. Our teachers, many of them also Mennonite preachers, did not like him or the critical position of the Peace Commission toward our Paraguayan military government at all. They succeeded in convincing us that Yoder was a dangerous person, as he actually was.

The first night in Basel, October 1977, I spent at Paul and Heidi Hofer’s place before beginning the study of theology. Paul had studied with J. A. Toews, F. C. Peters, and David Ewert at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and was a beloved pastor of the Schaenzli Mennonite Church in Basel. So the next morning, taking me to the student dorm, he gave me three things: his old bicycle, the booklet of J. A. Toews, “Wehrlos durch Christus,” and a booklet by John Howard Yoder, “Nachfolge Christi als Gestalt politischer Verantwortung,” recently translated by Tim Geddert and published by Herald Press. Well, Paul’s bicycle I do not use anymore. But the booklet by Yoder I have reread and underlined several times. And recently it was helpful for us in Paraguay to formulate the tension between faithfulness to Christ and responsible service in political challenges.

At the Free Evangelical Theological School at Basel there was more appreciation for Luther and Calvin than for Yoder’s Politics of Jesus. When friend Paul Warkentin at the Ethics Seminar presented a paper on Yoder’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, Professor Huntemann had just one comment: “Herr Warkentin, Sie haben einen andern Christus,” which probably was right.

When the reputation of Yoder in the 80s was somehow shadowed by personal failure, many Mennonite theological friends were almost rejoicing, convinced that by now they definitely could dismiss his theology as useless. I was not so sure about that and more so when Marcus Schmucker from Elkhart, Indiana, shared with me details of how Yoder, with the elders of his church, had worked through the pending issues. At least in my Spanish classes on Anabaptist theology I made extensive use of his wonderful work about “Textos Escogidos de la Reforma Radical” and the theological summary introductions he made to every text.

Unforgettable for me was the more extensive meeting with Yoder in Quito, Ecuador, 1990. The Fraternidad Teologica Latinoamericana celebrated twenty years of existence and struggle for a holistic, balanced, and contextual Latin American theology and missiology. Yoder was one of the honored guests together with Miguez Bonino, Sidney Rooy, and other venerated leaders of Protestant theology in Latin America. By that time he had already had his accident and was walking with crutches. But when he gave his brilliant address in fluent Spanish, it was evident that he had powerful things to say concerning faithfulness and politics of the cross in Latin America. I still cherish a personal note, his address, and the invitation to write him in my songbook. In the Fraternidad many of us remember till today his historic debate with Miguez Bonino on nonviolence over against Bonino’s more reformed view of the legitimate use of power. Actually, in the Fraternidad we are working on something like a synthesis of Barth and Yoder in this respect.

During doctoral work I was copastor in the Holee Mennonite Church in Basel. That was a place Yoder had frequented during his Basler time, so church members still knew many anecdotes, also about his important work in France with the orphanages. Our deacon Erich Dobler had spent one year with him in the States at his paternal “greenhouse” and had some stories of Yoder’s early years matching the description of “a mind patient and untamed.” What had impressed most was his radical option for a simple lifestyle and his denial to any kind of luxury.

Very impressive for me was the participation at the Yoder symposium in Bienenberg, shortly after his death. His wife, Anne, and one daughter were present, giving testimony to the mutual loyalty that remained in that marriage and family. Through the work of Mark Thiessen Nation and European Reformed theologians, by now I realized how far-reaching the theological impact of Yoder’s Christology and ecclesiology had become.

After reading Albert Keim’s wonderful biography of Harold S. Bender and his tensions with his younger students, I remember that special long night in Asunción when Calvin Redekopp told me insider stories of the “Concern Group” and of the “Cooking of the Anabaptist Goose” (1952).

In my classes on theology and culture, Yoder’s debate with Richard Niebuhr became increasingly meaningful, more so once I was able to get a copy of his book Body Politics (2001) and his spiritual as well as social interpretation of church practices and sacraments as a new social culture and reality. When I recently read through Stanley Hauerwas’s Gifford lectures (With the Grain of the Universe, 2001), in which he identifies Yoder and Pope John Paul II as probably the most influential theologians at the end of the twentieth century, I could not help but agree with Hauerwas.

There are at least five major dimensions in John Howard Yoder’s theology that have impacted me.

Systematics and Faithfulness to Christ as Center and Focus of Christian theology

Yoder not only studied with Karl Barth, but definitely did his work in continuity with Karl Barth. In his book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War (1970), he states:

American Protestants, to whom the thought of Karl Barth was transmitted usually half a generation late and often through the filter of American controversies he did not mean to speak to, can hardly sense how simply fitting and how widely true is the statement that a generation of pastors were compelled by his work to rethink their faith, and to preach it, in the light of the overwhelming difference it makes that God has really spoken. (Yoder, Karl Barth, 7)

He continues with a statement of typical Yoder independence:

This study is then most properly understood if it is seen as a grateful tribute to the stature of a teacher who was above the need to want those who learned from him to become his disciples. (ibid., 7-8)

The recent analyses by Stanley Hauerwas and Craig A. Carter show how Yoder’s theology is a continuation and refocus of Karl Barth’s theological work (Hauerwas; Carter).

In his Preface to Theology (2002), as elsewhere, especially in The Politics of Jesus (1972, 1994), his main concern is faithfulness to Christ. Actually his whole “systematic treatment” centers on “Christological themes” (Yoder, Preface, 227-405). Yoder laments the negative present use of dogma and systematics: “ ‘Dogma’ in modern language is almost a swear word, or at least a smear word. You call somebody names who disagrees with you, or whose style you dislike, by saying that he or she is dogmatic” (ibid., 231).

Then he states that for teaching and even thinking, systematics is somehow indispensable. One can think randomly,

but if you really use your mind on the material you are learning, you begin to notice patterns. You begin to establish inter-relations. You will find general themes and subordinate themes. You will identify issues that do not really exist or are not really important. This is the origin of what we now call systematic theology. It is a process in which teaching includes attention to coherence, system, and organization; to distinction between major and minor themes; and to distinction between what you ought to say first and what you ought to say last in order to be thinking straight.” (ibid., 230)

Of course there is a danger in scholastics, the Middle Ages, and Thomas Aquinas, where “theologizing became the business of people who had nothing else to do” (ibid., 232). And because of the unity of Christian culture and theology and its geographical understanding of Christianity, “Christian thinking was systematized without any reference to unbelief or mission” (ibid., 232).

But then Yoder goes forth, using the classical christological system of the three offices of Christ: king—eschatology; priest—atonement; prophet—revelation. That system does not guarantee truth, but it “serves as a criterion of balance, completeness, and coherence more than of truth. It helps to ask ‘Have we forgotten anything?’ rather than ‘What shall we say?’ ” (ibid., 237).

The Church as Embodiment and Message of Christ and His Gospel to the World

It is well-known that Yoder with the Anabaptists links closely together Christology and ecclesiology. This is a very powerful use of the church as being the body of Christ in the world, the medium and the message simultaneously. The church for Yoder is a new cultural alternative, a culture called the body of Christ. This is his main argument over against Niebuhr in the debate about Christ and culture. In his book Body Politics (2001), he links Christ-centeredness and church-centeredness together in favor of public ethics. It might be one of the best pieces for showing how systematics, Christ-centeredness, and ecclesiology can be linked together by exegesis.

The Political Relevance of the Church Without Constantinianism

It is known that Yoder puts a basic hermeneutical emphasis on reading the Bible without the backing of Constantinian state power. This actually frees him from falling into the pressure of a system. As long as the “Corpus Christianum” was believed in, theological work was in danger of becoming static and unrealistic, because there was no confrontation with the world and with unbelief:

Theology is the point at which all thought coheres. The debating, then, is not between belief and unbelief, but it is the clash of schools, options, and systems within Christendom. “Christendom” is the word for Europe. It is a geographic expression. The theological process is one of organizing everything, ultimately, beginning with the most basic way of putting together a total worldview, which is expected to be coherent and speak to every issue with authority because there is but one body of truth. There is one Christian culture, and theology exposits it; theologians explain its unity. (Yoder, Preface, 233)

Yoder’s Exegetical and Bible-Centered Way of Doing Theology

Even much more than Karl Barth, most of Yoder’s systematic writings are strongly exegetical. That is valid for The Politics of Jesus, for The Original Revolution, and also for Body Politics. He is doing “biblical theology” with a “canonical approach” in a highly intellectual way.

It is often forgotten that the historic school of “biblical theology” with Gabler and Bauer precisely aimed at liberating theology from any definite commitment to faith positions (Neufeld, “Fatalismus,” 68-69). They wanted to do biblical theology precisely as “genere historico” without any dogmatic commitment to inspiration. But Yoder’s way of doing exegesis in a theologically systematic way is a good model of bringing those two disciplines together. Hauerwas and Sider call it “biblical realism”; one of Yoder’s own publications calls it “The Message of the Bible on Its Own Terms” (Yoder, Preface, 23-24).

Yoder himself tends definitely toward “biblical theology,” even though he is aware of the temptation “to be ahistorical” and the danger of “crypto-systematic theology” (ibid., 389). Good theology has a function of

(1) the catechetical task of teaching new believers what Christians know, and (2) testing the tradition that is passed on for coherence. Theology is therefore a process the church cannot live without, if for no other reason than that one of the primary functions of theology is to be suspicious of theology. (ibid., 10)

Yoder never considered himself to be a theologian but more of a historian. But Bender wrote to him,

The trouble is that you are one anyway. . . . The only question is what kind of theologian you want to be. You do not have to be a theologian of the type of any particular school of thought.

And Yoder announced to Bender,

What has happened to me is that in the process of growing up, I have put together an interest in Anabaptism, which you gave me, an MCC experience to which you were instrumental in assigning me, and theological study to which you directed me, to come out with what is a more logical fruition of your own convictions than you yourself realize. (ibid., 13)

Yoder’s Ecumenical Theology Faithful to Anabaptist “Sectarianism”

The enormous renaissance and popularity Yoder’s writings are enjoying to the present day show how “sectarianism” and “ecumenicity” do not exclude each other at all. Not unsimilar to Karl Barth, Yoder’s theological “stubbornness” has made him a very attractive dialogue partner for Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Latin American Liberation Theology representatives.

Yoder has modeled a new way of ecumenical dialogue, bringing to the table very strong convictions and strong identity. Rather than unlimited tolerance or giving up denominational confessional identity, Yoder served ecumenical dialogue in the midst of his strong convictions. Of course Yoder was a very good listener. The few opportunities I had to observe him interacting with theologians from different traditions confirmed and did honor to the title, A Mind Patient and Untamed (Ollenburger and Gerber Koontz).


Encountering J. B.

I first met J. B. Toews in a church service in Asunción in the late 70s. We had been singing some revival songs and sure enough, he opened his sermon by asking us why we were singing things not relevant at all to our present Christian life. So I was impressed that an old pious preacher quite vigorously questioned common sense Evangelical revival theology.

Then there was his passion for the “history of the brotherhood.” He collected everything and wanted to get the sermon outlines of all our older preachers, such as my wife Wilma’s grandfather, Nikolai Siemens, and Victor Wall’s grandfather, Jakob Wall. He was eager to analyze what kind of theology they had been preaching.

When some of us felt attracted to certain European Evangelical schools of apologetic theology, where you begin the first two years with Greek and Hebrew, he was not so sure that was a good idea. Quoting a wise preacher from Coaldale, Alberta, he stated: “The Bible does not need to be defended by us. Like a lion, she knows how to defend herself.” And of course, he was sure, young candidates first should get a lot of church experience and mentorship before bothering too much with Greek and Hebrew.

As foreign students at the MB Seminary, Fresno, California, in the early 80s, we all experienced J. B. Toews as mentor, spiritual father, challenging dialogue partner, and pretty good listener. It was evident that his theology was existential in so far as most of his key convictions were backed up by some portion of his personal biography. If it came to nonresistance, there was his experience with the South Russian Selbstschutz. If it came to contextual missiology, he talked about Africa: how he had learned to eat ape meat; how he had to repent of his very dogmatic approach to marriage, seeing the new African Christians dismiss their older wives and staying with the youngest; how he had searched for the social and economic implications of the gospel while observing that the gospel his missionaries were preaching did not bring about social and economic change.

And then there was his book on the theology of the Mennonite Brethren Church, on which he was always working and which had such a hard time seeing the light of the day. Since J. B. Toews himself was very much in love with the theology of the apostle John, he did not want to be systematic but rather “existential.” The mystical-existential “I-thou-relationship” with God of Martin Buber that he loved so much was characteristic of him, even though it did not lead him to individualism—as long as strong leadership is not considered to be individualistic. Furthermore he had had such a hard time opposing the alienating power of different systems, such as dispensationalism, Rauschenbusch’s and Troelsch’s social gospel, and the Evangelical debates about inerrancy and so on.

For me, coming from Europe, it was fascinating to see J. B. Toews trying to do “biblical theology” instead of systematic theology. But he never seemed to be bothered by the fact that precisely the “biblical theology” of Gabler and Strauss, to Schleiermacher and Bultmann had opened the door to higher Bible criticism. He simply practiced what later on in Mennonite circles has been called the “canonical approach” to the Bible.

A first look at J. B. Toews regarding Mennonite Brethern theological identity shows that he clearly was a systematic theologian, even though he tried not to fall into the pressures of the system. It is remarkable that he would not develop a trinitarian theology nor a “Heilsgeschichte,” but started right away with a “christological method,” that is, redemption and the church.

J. B. Toews and His “People of a Bibliocentric Faith”

Even though with a completely different temperament and in his personal piety much more inclined to pietism, there are amazing similarities between the J. B. Toews I learned to know and some major theological approaches and methods of Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder. He shared with them an interest in history, the church, mission, contextuality, and the centrality of Jesus Christ.

J. B. Toews usually downplayed the importance of creedal expressions for the Mennonite Brethren:

They emphasized the ethical standards, governing the character and walk of the redeemed community. Only in 1902 did they find an expedient to prepare a confession of faith. . . . The 1902 confession, to which Mennonite Brethren have since subscribed in principle, was more a descriptive statement of scriptural understanding than a definite theological statement. . . . ‘What does the Bible say?’ was a major concern. (Toews, 18-19)

Toews points out that a confession of faith did not have real importance for the early Mennonite Brethren. Quoting the 1902 adoption, “Unser Glaubensbekenntnis stellt sich nicht neben, sondern unter die Schrift.” Referring to A. E. Janzen, he talks about their “fear that theological formulations would dilute their dependence on Scripture as the primary source through which the Holy Spirit would give them understanding of truth for the changing circumstances of life” (ibid., 20).

Now I would like to argue that J. B. Toews was wrong on this point for three reasons:

  1. Right from the beginning in 1860 the early brethren were very eager to affirm their wholehearted coincidence with Menno Simons and the existing Mennonite confession of faith. That, by the way, was very important to get state recognition.
  2. Looking at the “Zur Erläuterung” of the “Glaubensbekenntnis der vereinigten christlichen taufgesinnten mennonitischen Brüdergemeinden in Russland” (Epp, 2003), as well as the long “Schluss” with a very approving and signing process in all the churches, one gets the impression that that event was very fundamental, at least for the Russian Mennonite Brethren church (ibid., 155-161. 205-221).
  3. The pure “Biblicism” as “a distinctive of the Mennonite Brethren” (Toews, 20) has brought as many problems as it has solved. Even the “community hermeneutics” have not prevented profound crises over the question of nationalism, military service, dispensationalism, and lately the ministry of women in the church. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that J. B. Toews was profoundly shaped by the 1900 confession of faith (written and approved by the churches in 1900, printed in Halbstadt 1902). And I would agree with historian Abram Friesen (personal conversation) that it is the best confession we ever had.

J. B. Toews and the Spirit of the 1902 MB Confession

Even though it seems to be a quite simple “more descriptive statement of scriptural understanding than a definitive theological statement . . . not as a norm for the exposition of truth” (Toews, 18-20), I would claim that there is much more to the 1902 confession.

  1. First of all, in their introduction, the authors claim to give “wesentliche Glaubens- und Lehrsätze, welche diese Gemeinde mit den anderen christlichen Kirchen einigt oder sie von denselben scheidet” (Epp, 2003, 155).
  2. Furthermore, they claim that the old friesisch and flämisch Rudnerweide 1853 confession is completely recognized as an integral part of these “Bekenntnisaussprüche.” They are even eager to add “welches Bekenntnis von der Brüdergemeinde von Anfang als das ihre bezeichnet worden ist” (ibid., 156).
  3. They claim to have consulted (sorgfältig zu Rate gezogen) the old ecumenical creeds—Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—as well as the Ris confession of 1773, the Mennonite Catechism, and the “Glaubensbekenntnis der Mennoniten in Preussen und Russland” (flämisch) of 1874 (ibid., 156-157).
  4. In a note they add that the “Referent” (probably P. M. Friesen) also consulted the confessions of the Baptists, Elberfelder, Herrnhuter, Methodists, Reformed, and Lutheran church as well as the Greek Orthodox (ibid., 156). So there was evidence that this confession of faith was the result of very large theological consultation.
  5. They are eager to point out that they are in full confessional communion with the rest of the Mennonite church. Their protest in 1860 did not concern confession but praxis.
  6. It is amazing that they insist that a fusion with the Mennonite church is difficult at that moment because of teaching about military service: “Und Lehrunterschiede, besonders bezüglich des Kriegsdienstes, sind es, welche die Mennonitische Brüdergemeinde abhalten von einer Verschmelzung mit den andern evangelisch-taufgesinnten Gemeinden, trotz deren bekenntnismässig apostolisch kirchlicher Praxis und Taufe und unseres herzlichen Verkehrs mit denselben” (ibid., 157).
  7. The confession of 1902 is marked by large biblical text portions. They do not want to do “proof texting,” but put the Bible words in the text: “Diese Schriftstellen stehen im Text, nicht unter dem Text.” And in a note they add that the biblical texts are the confession by themselves: “Die Schriftstellen” gelten nicht nur als begründende, erläuternde und zurechtstellende Zitate, sondern als direkte Bekenntnisaussprüche. Es ist vorausgesetzt, dass das Bekenntnis nur gelesen und verstanden werden könne im Zusammenhange mit der Heiligen Schrift, aus welcher es entsprungen ist und in welche es hineinführen soll” (ibid., 159).
  8. There is an impressive process of church acceptance: “Vorstehendes Glaubensbekenntnis der vereinigten christlichen taufgesinnten mennonitischen Brüdergemeinden in Russland haben die unten genannten Gemeinden angenommen in ihren regelmässigen Bruderberatungen, an den bezeichneten Tagen und Orten, was im Auftrag der Gemeinden mit Namensunterschrift und Beidrückung der Kirchensiegel von den unten genannten Dienern und Mitgliedern bestätigt wird” (ibid., 210).
  9. The idea of the “Bundesgemeinde” as one church is very prominent. There is a dynamic relationship between “Bundesgemeinde” and “Einzelgemeinde”: “Die Beschlüsse der jährlichen Bundesgemeindesitzungen werden für die Einzelgemeinden rechtskräftig durch Zustimmung in ihrer regelmässigen Gemeindeversammlung” (ibid., 185). Here is J. B. Toews’ idea of a mixed Presbyterian Episcopal congregational system of the Mennonite Brethren churches.

All these characteristics show a theological method which J. B. Toews lived with and lived in.

A Dynamic Relationship Between Individuality and Collectivity

As in Barth and in Yoder, there is a very dynamic relationship between the individual and the collective dimensions in the theology of J. B. Toews. Salvation is existential and personal, but it is impossible without church and community. There is a strong emphasis on a commitment to Christ, but that commitment translates into ethics, good works, community building, and social transformation. The individual is important, but so is the coming of the kingdom, God’s move in history, the “not yet” but even more the “already” of the kingdom of God. There is a profound understanding of “truth being found in tension,” as his chapter on “faith in tension” shows. And the two closing chapters of his book express this tension and dynamic clearly: “A call to commitment” and “The race that is set before us” (Toews, 299-328).

Is commitment and mission enough?

There is much merit to the fact that J. B. Toews was hesitant to develop a big doctrine about God, about the Trinity, and about the historical creeds. He focused more on the redeeming intervention of God in history and humanity. But precisely this somehow “pragmatic and existential approach” is in danger of becoming shallow in the next generations. Soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology, and even bibliology have to emerge out of a grasp of who God is and what he is up to.


It might be accurate to identify the following similarities and commonalities between the three theologians under consideration:

  1. They were rooted in historical theology.
  2. They did exegetical theology.
  3. They contextualized their theology, being critical to both their own church tradition and contemporary culture.
  4. They searched for a balanced theology: the church in the power of the Spirit and in the frame of salvation history; a christological method and a trinitarian horizon.
  5. They rejected philosophical reason, natural law, and natural revelation as sources of authority. That meant no “isms,” no dominant system, and a dialogical theology.

Here are some final considerations concerning systematics and theology:

  1. If culture is a “mental road map” (L. Lutzbetag) or a “mental design for living,” every human culture is to a certain extent an “integrated system” (Paul Hiebert).
  2. So our theology needs to somehow be made accessible to the systematics of specific cultures and languages.
  3. René Padilla is right when he claims that all theology is “ethno-theology.” I am just able to get an idea of who God is and what he is up to through the glasses of my “ethno-logic.”
  4. In scholastic theology, Greek logic was considered to be, to a certain extent, objective truth. Therefore philosophy became the main language provider for Christian theology. This very circumstantial contextualization toward Greek intellectuals puts some heavy limitations on the biblical message.
  5. Kant was right in his “Streit der Fakultäten” to ask the question whether philosophical systematics will be the maid who shows the way to “queen theology” or who just carries the veil.
  6. Barth, Yoder, and J. B. Toews rightfully rejected reason and philosophy as the structuring tools for doing theology.
  7. It might be wise to consider philosophical language just one of many metaphors we should use in doing theology, as the Bible does itself. Most of the biblical metaphors come from the agricultural experience, the family and social structures, or from the medical sciences. The old medieval university just had three schools: law, medicine, and theology. It might be wise to draw more heavily on medicine and law to provide language for biblical truth.


During student days my great passion was historical theology as well as contextual mission theology. But out of lack for some good textbooks, I supervised draft translations and summaries into Spanish of Elmer Martens’ God’s Design, Harold S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” and J. B. Toews’ Pilgrimage of Faith. Very soon we saw the need in our school curriculum to have an introductory study of the Mennonite Brethren confession of faith. I ended up being the instructor. And when my good colleague Hans Pankratz resigned from teaching dogmatics, I saw myself forced to make peace with this topic in my own way.

The invitation to work on a global International Committee of Mennonite Brethren confession of faith was both challenging and enlightening: how to write a common global confession which would do justice to the very different traditions, languages, and cultures of our global MB church? We have tried to work simultaneously in five languages and we came up with a very simple structure: first, a narrative approach to salvation history, describing the self-revelation of the triune God and his purpose for humanity; second, the response in form of a commitment, the church as covenant partner commits itself in light of God’s initiative.

Now in my sabbatical year, one of my main goals has been to put together a Spanish college textbook as an “Introduction to Biblical Theology.” I wanted to produce a biblical theology that would be historic, systematic, and contextualized with an overall Anabaptist perspective. So I structured it in three parts [see “A Systematic Theology in Outline” in this issue—ed.]:

  • Part 1: History of Salvation
    • Chap. 1: Eschatology: Living from God’s Future
  • Part 2: Trinitarian Theology
    • Chap. 2: Theology: The Creations of the Father
    • Chap. 3: Christology: The Redemptions of the Son
    • Chap. 4: Pneumatology: The Missions of the Holy Spirit
  • Part 3: Christological Method
    • Chap. 5: The Church: The new humanity of the kingdom of faith
    • Chap. 6: Sacraments: The priestly practices of hope
    • Chap. 7: Ethics: The prophetic life of love


  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics (Die kirchliche Dogmatik), Trans. G. T. Thomson. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936-1977.
  • ———. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Trans. Grover Foley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979 <1963>.
  • ———. Final Testimonies. Ed. Eberhard Busch. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977.
  • ———. Die protestantische Theologie des 19. Jahrhunderts. Zürich: Evangelischer, 1947.
  • ———. Der Römerbrief. Bern: Bäschlin, 1919.
  • ______, and Rudolf Bultmann. Briefwechsel 1922-1966. Zürich: Theologischer, 1971.
  • Bender, Harold S. “The Anabaptist Vision.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (April 1944): 67-88.
  • Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979.
  • Carter, Craig A. The Politics of the Cross: The Theology and Social Ethics of John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001.
  • Epp, Johann. Erwecket euren lauteren Sinn. Lage: Logos, 2003.
  • Hauerwas, Stanley. With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001.
  • Keim, Albert A. Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1998.
  • Martens, Elmer A. God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology. 3d ed. N. Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 1998.
  • Neufeld, Alfred. “Fatalismus als missionstheologisches Problem.” Ph.D. diss., Bonn, VKW, 1994.
  • Ollenburger, Ben C., and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds. A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2004.
  • Schmidt, Dietmar. “Gottes fröhlicher Partisan: zum Tod von Karl Barth.” Der Mennonit, 1969.
  • Toews, J. B. A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North America, 1860-1990. Winnipeg, MB, and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 1993.
  • Yoder, John H. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001.
  • ———. “The Cooking of the Anabaptist Goose.” Typescript, Amsterdam, April 26, 1952.
  • ———. Karl Barth and the Problem of War. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1970.
  • ———. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972 (2d ed. 1994).
  • ———. Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2002.
  • Zahrnt, Heinz. Die Sache mit Gott. Munich: Piper, 1966.
  • Ziegelschmidt, A. J. F. Die Älteste Chronik die Hutterischen Brüder: ein Sprachdenkmal aus frühneuhochdeutscher Zeit. Ithaca, NY: Caryuga, 1943.
  • Alfred Neufeld earned the Doctor of Missiology degree from Basel and currently is Dean of the theology faculty of the Universidad Evangélica del Paraguay, a confederation of Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and Baptist Bible seminaries. For seventeen years he was Director of the Instituto Bíblico Asunción (Paraguay) and continues teaching there part-time.

    Previous | Next