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Spring 2006 · Vol. 35 No. 1 · pp. 134–53 

Response to J. Denny Weaver’s “Parsing Anabaptist Theology”

Response to “Parsing Anabaptist Theology” by J. Denny Weaver 34/2 (2005): 241–63.

Thomas N. Finger

When an author’s book is finally published, three kinds of response to it are possible: positive response, negative response, and no response. Of these, the last is least desirable by far. It leaves no idea how the work is being received; no interaction with passages written over and over and over to express important points. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the first kind of response (positive) is not always most desirable. Reviews bursting with accolades are good for the ego and for sales. But they’re not much help if they lack significant interaction. That is why a largely negative response, if it exhibits careful reading of and dialogue with the author, can be most helpful.

My book asks whether some Anabaptist theologians are reducing not only theology to social ethics, but also the church to an ethical society.

J. Denny Weaver’s review of my A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology is mostly of this kind. 1 I am pleased that he takes my arguments so seriously, which helps me see how they can be read. I realize that this scrutiny arises partly because, in his view, I commit errors important enough to warrant detailed refutation. Yet I doubt that he would find them important if we did not share some of the same goals and were not, to some extent, allies. In any case, the last two sentences could express my view of Weaver’s work in general, and this review in particular. If my rejoinders sometimes sound negative, I hope readers will recognize this positive intention behind them.


Let me begin with a point where I think Weaver and I basically agree, though he apparently does not. The Jesus narrative, for Weaver, is a “particular story” which, for Christians, is also “a universal story with universal meaning” (W 245). Though Weaver writes that I miss this point, I agree entirely with it. According to Weaver, I also deny that universal truths can be affirmed from a postmodern standpoint (W 245). I discuss this issue most fully under the missionary message on pp. 280-83 and also on pp. 97-98 and 230-32. Having reread these passages carefully, I cannot find any such denial. To be sure, I often say that postmodernity challenges the possibility of making universal claims—makes people think carefully and critically about what they involve—but never that all postmodernists deny them. My outlook perhaps appears most succinctly in an excursus to chapter 1: “Postmodernity raises the question of epistemological relativism, though many postmodernists do not affirm it” (F 15).

Weaver rightly notices that the primary universal Christian claim, in my view, is that true Lordship belongs to the Servant who humbled himself to death on a cross (Phil. 2:4-11; F 286-89; W 245). To affirm this kind of universal Lordship is to unmask and depotentiate all false, oppressive claims to universality or absoluteness. As Weaver recognizes, I insist that this affirmation be expressed “humbly, and with sensitivity and respect for other cultural and religious claims. . . .” (W 245; cf. F 287-89).

Still, Weaver thinks that he differs in “the way that we testify to the truth of those claims.” He recommends that we not search for some “universally accessible norm,” as I do, but demonstrate “belief in the ultimacy or universality of a claim . . . by living by it. . . .” (W 246).

For me, however, universal Christian claims, of which the Servant’s Lordship is chief, are not “universally accessible” (say, through experience or reasoning). They are available only through revelation. Neither do I maintain, more generally, that people can “assert some version of universal truth in terms of generally accessible human experience,” as Weaver understands me (W 245). I argue not that all humans possess any kind(s) of universal truth as content(s); but rather, that for conversations about truth which value all participants equally to occur, humans must possess the capacity to formulate universal affirmations—though in provisional and revisable ways. In other words, the attempt, and hence the capacity, to formulate universal affirmations (not the possession of assured truth-contents) is necessary for, or the condition of the possibility of, such conversations occurring in the first place. 2

I do maintain, however, that all people possess some awareness of God. At the same time, though, I indicate that this awareness takes widely diverse forms in different places. Consequently, specific contents, including truth-claims, common to everyone cannot be extracted from it (F 283-85). But perhaps I do not articulate this last point as clearly as desirable. I say, more obliquely, that “it is difficult to extract specific contents” from this awareness [F 284]. 3

Let us return to Weaver’s point that “one demonstrates belief in the ultimacy . . . of a claim . . . by living by it. . . .” (W 246). Citing John Howard Yoder, he suggests that “a lived witness” which acknowledges the “intractability of competing truth-claims” might be better than asserting a “universal claim gently” (W 246) as I recommend. Yet I also treat communication of universal beliefs in the context of mission, drawing often on Yoder (F 272, 285, 286, 289). In mission settings, I maintain, the dynamism of Jesus’ Servant-Lordship operates not mainly through statements, but “through communities who live and work there, along lines of contact and dialogue with other ordinary folks in ordinary activities” (F 287). Mission, I suggest, should normally not begin with universal affirmations (F 286). In daily church life and mission, I accent living the faith more than verbalizing it—even though my book, as a theology, deals mostly with verbalization.

Does this really differ from Weaver’s “lived witness”? Here again, I find no important disagreement between us. That is fine with me. I enjoy agreeing with Denny!


I am glad that Weaver devotes much space to methodology. I wrote the book partly because I sensed that Anabaptist theology had reached a point where its authors might be better understood, by others and each other, if they clarified their assumptions, procedures and norms. To encourage this, as Weaver notices, I sought to render my own methodology as transparent as possible.

Canon and Narrative

I identify “Scripture” as my sole norm. Though I often use it in the singular, which might connote an undifferentiated, flat book, Weaver notes that I mean Scripture “as canon” (W 244). Canon means just the opposite: a rich multiplicity of quite diverse writings. But this variety is not amorphous. The canon itself orders these writings in a way which indicates the role of each.

This internal ordering is provided by “a narrative stretching from creation to consummation, centered on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection” (F 100). This narrative shows that earlier endorsements of, say, warfare or polygamy, do not permit Jesus’ followers to practice these. At the same time, the canonicity of these texts means that passages and books containing them need neither be discarded nor demoted to inferior or unenlightened status. These all still play a crucial role in the narrative’s development. All biblical writings should be considered seriously, even as authoritative, in this role: in their contribution to the overall story and its meaning. Reading them in light of their specific roles, or contributions, is the key to discerning what meanings they have and do not have for the present.

Weaver correctly indicates, though, that my theology’s norm is not “some abstracted version of the narrative” (W 244). My norm is the Bible as a canon whose structure is provided by the narrative. This distinction may sound merely academic, but its consequences can be quite significant.

If the narrative alone, by itself, were normative, narrative language would be very highly privileged. Biblical expressions in other kinds of language might be devalued or disqualified. Further, theological statements in other language-forms might also be considered invalid, simply due to their linguistic structure. But if the canon is normative, and the narrative only structures it, then other language-forms are clearly fit vehicles for biblical meaning. In fact, the very notion of canon entails that its meaning must be expressed in diverse linguistic forms. If the canon, rather than the narrative, is normative, Christian convictions can be articulated in a greater variety of ways—and actually must be—for the narrative’s universal meaning to unfold and reach all nations.

This means, among other things, that “the creeds” cannot be critiqued simply for including language that carries some “ontological” reference. The meaning of the synoptic Gospels’ narrative had long ago been expressed by John, Paul and others in language-forms with such a reference. The truth of biblical and theological affirmations depends not on their form, on whether they are narrative, but on whether they adequately express the meaning(s) of the biblical narrative. Given the vast multiplicity of linguistic forms and cultural contexts around the world, Christian convictions, indeed, are sometimes better expressed in language other than narrative. I will return to this issue shortly.

Source, Content, and Norm

Let me first point out that while Scripture (as canon) provides theology’s sole norm, it is not, for me, the only source from which it draws its content (F 100-1 [#17]). Those sources, which supply the subject matter about which theologians think and speak, are countless: congregational, family, and personal experiences; work in and witness to society; hymns, prayers, and sermons; devotional, historical, popular, and other theological writings; even science, politics, literature, art, and countless cultural processes and experiences.

Of course, theology also reflects on Scripture—more, in my work, than on any one other source. For this reason, I call the Bible (as canon) theology’s primary source. But my main points, for now, are that (1) theology draws on many other sources; and (2) Scripture plays another role which none of them do: it is also theology’s sole norm. The Bible alone provides criteria for determining the truth or falsity of statements drawn from all sources. Further, since some statements from various sources can be true, when tested by biblical criteria, theology’s content—what it directly affirms—need not always be expressed in words from the Bible. Indeed, in many cultural contexts, theological affirmations are sometimes better expressed in language originating from other sources.

Denny Weaver, however, finds it incongruous that my theology claims “the Bible as chief source and sole norm” and yet employs some “nonbiblical terminology” (W 248). But if the Bible is not the only source of theological statements, but the standard for their truthfulness, these statements can be phrased in other concepts. Weaver, like every other theologian, sometimes does this. “Narrative Christus Victor” is not found in the Bible. The question is not whether this formulation or any other literally appears in Scripture, but whether it adequately expresses what Scripture expresses. This should hardly be surprising, since biblical writers themselves often translated meanings found in one biblical language-form into others, e.g., John’s and Paul’s expressions of narrative meanings in language with some ontological reference. Theology continues this translation process. Thereby it provides one necessary vehicle for communicating biblical truth to all peoples, unfolding its universal meaning.

The Primary Misunderstanding?

As I see it, Weaver seems to misunderstand me most at this point: that the Bible does not always provide the linguistic form of my affirmations, but provides the criteria, the reasons why I affirm them. Weaver notices that I support certain classical doctrines, like the Trinity. But I do not find him recognizing why I do. He often complains that I select doctrines, or aspects of them, arbitrarily and combine them, like a “painter with a palette,” in my own subjective way (W 247-48). In other places, though, Weaver claims that “standard terminology” of classical doctrines provides my “functional norms” (W 253; I will discuss this second criticism in detail below.)

Every one of my doctrinal constructions, however, is built up from biblical data (under “An Anabaptist Response,” which falls under “Contemporary Appropriations” in the present work). I would not know how to exhibit this methodological step more clearly. What are my criteria, my reasons, for affirming the Trinity? Because the Cappadocian fathers or other “ecumenical” theologians did? Look instead at my biblical argument on pp. 454-58.

I do find intriguing suggestions and concepts in the Cappadocians and others. These provide sources, and sometimes even linguistic or conceptual content, for my theology. But if I endorse them simply because they are traditional, what reason could I have for not endorsing Augustine’s just war and infant baptism? I affirm some classical expressions, rather, only because they adequately express the meaning I find in Scripture (as canon), which in turn expresses biblical narrative’s meaning. I suspect that Weaver misses this crucial methodological point because he has never, as far as I recall, addressed this all-important biblical move at any length. That means, from my perspective, that he has never really addressed my basic reasons for affirming any important construction.

It is possible, of course, that my biblical rationale for some doctrine is weak, and that I really presuppose it. But to challenge the method and reasoning that I actually use, any such critique must evaluate this biblical support.


Weaver’s strongest objections, as I read him, concern my handling of classical doctrines. To put this issue in perspective, it will be helpful to see why, from the standpoint of ordinary church life, he finds it so important. Sixteenth-century Anabaptism, in Weaver’s view and mine, rediscovered the sharp biblical contrast between the authentic church and the rest of society, including government. One major contrast—the one Weaver stresses most often by far—separated the church’s way of peace from government’s use of violence. Though Anabaptists were severely persecuted at first, and often socially isolated afterwards, they have borne witness to these important contrasts for nearly a half-millennium. But as Anabaptists migrate into the social mainstream, this crucial church-world distinction is blurring for some. Weaver rightly worries that it might soon blur, or disappear, for many more. How should theology in Anabaptist perspective counter this?

Weaver believes, as I do, that most ecclesial bodies, through most of church history, have compromised the church’s distinctness and blended it too far into the world. Anabaptists challenged this but were severely persecuted for it. Weaver believes that these practices of these ecclesial bodies are very closely linked to their major doctrines, especially the creeds and substitutionary atonement. The more that Anabaptist churches favor these doctrines, the greater the danger that they too will compromise important church-world distinctions. My book, however, often refers to such doctrines and generally agrees with some.

Weaver, accordingly, charges that my approach “leaves no possibility of considering whether the ecclesiological challenge that Anabaptists posed to the established church might produce new theological developments.” My theology “does not permit asking whether” Anabaptism’s “new ecclesiology . . . might produce an appropriate renovation in theology” (W 248).

Weaver’s Ecclesiology

Let me respond first that A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology contains a far more detailed ecclesiology than any I have found in Weaver. One major trend which my book challenges is the reduction of theology to social ethics. But when I arrived at ecclesiology (“The Communal Dimension,” F 157-254). I was amazed to find that few current Anabaptist theologians discuss any of the four ecclesial practices common to all early Anabaptists: baptism, Lord’s Supper, discipline (or discipling), and economic sharing. I encountered similar silence on other basic ecclesial issues, like worship and church structure (cf. F 157-60; I omitted these for lack of space.)

What, then, do most Anabaptist theologians today mean by “church”? In their writings, the church, for the most part, is a community, or social organization, living by standards quite different from society in general and tracing most of these back to Jesus. These are surely important features of any Anabaptist church. But where is the body that exults in worship? Where is prayer—and awe in the presence of the Holy One who transforms inward sensitivities and desires as well as (or inseparably along with) outward behavior? My book, consequently, asks whether some Anabaptist theologians are reducing not only theology to social ethics, but also the church to an ethical society.

Worship and church structure, as well as early Anabaptism’s four common practices, are as absent from Weaver’s theology as any. Let me raise several questions, then, not to be mean, but to address one of his primary stated intentions: to what extent (1) is Weaver really drawing on the full ecclesiology of early Anabaptism? (2) is early Anabaptist ecclesiology, rather than a few features abstracted from it, motivating his theological developments? and (3) is Weaver developing a true ecclesiology—not simply sketching a kind of social organization?

Finger’s Ecclesiology

My ecclesiology interacts with some theologians whose churches have opposed Anabaptism—mostly Roman Catholic. Has this left me “no possibility of considering” whether the Anabaptist challenge might engender new developments? (W 248).

I cover the four practices common to all early Anabaptists: baptism, Lord’s Supper, discipling, and economic sharing. Only two of these (baptism and Lord’s Supper) are widely practiced by other churches. Discipling and economic sharing, while not wholly unknown elsewhere, are pretty much “Anabaptist distinctives.” I show that early Anabaptists interconnected these practices in quite novel ways, and how this greatly affected the significance of each. For many Anabaptists, sharing the body and blood that Jesus gave for them (or the symbols thereof) in the Lord’s Supper meant that they were willing to share their life and goods with, and if need be to give their body and blood for, their fellow communicants. Many Anabaptist congregations practiced discipling immediately prior to the Lord’s Supper, and distribution of goods afterwards.

I cannot see how dialogue with contemporary Catholic theologians must blur such distinctive Anabaptist perspectives on these practices, or on their interconnections. Early Anabaptists often compared their theologies of the first two, and sometimes of the second two, with those of other churches. To do so today is hardly to enclose Anabaptists in some foreign framework.

Let us consider economic sharing more closely. I write that the more that churches practice it, “the further they will ‘migrate to the periphery and share in the powerlessness of the poor, at the feet of the crucified God.’ The more churches advocate the poor’s genuine causes, the more likely will they experience persecution, powerlessness, and poverty.” 4 This implication of economic sharing poses at least as radical a challenge for churches as anything from Weaver I have read. He continually—and rightly—stresses the Anabaptist attitude towards violence. Yet a theology can argue, as some early Anabaptists did, that violence is rooted in economic inequalities and the possessive grasping for control of earthly goods which underlies them (F 236-39; cf. James 4:1-3).

Economic sharing is at least as essential to Anabaptist ecclesiology as nonviolence. It can lead middle-class Anabaptists to far greater social and economic dislocation than protesting war. Why, then, does Weaver hardly mention it? I applaud his general church-world distinction and emphasis on nonviolence. But I wonder whether this is another consequence of an ecclesiological focus which overlooks many crucial practices.


I have sought to show how important the church-world contrast is for J. Denny Weaver. Although C. Norman Kraus and Duane Friesen draw a somewhat softer dividing line, my recent book does not trace it, but sketches a broader distinction closer, I believe, to Weaver’s (F 310-23). Weaver and I, then, wish to clearly differentiate the church from the world and to develop theologies deeply informed by this Anabaptist distinction. At the same time I, and presumably Weaver, want these to be read by, and to challenge, at least some other varieties of Christians.

These two goals, as I see it, can be pursued by at least two different routes or strategies. The first begins from and stresses “points where Anabaptists differ from other traditions” (W 257)—Weaver often highlights “ecclesiology and rejection of the sword” (W 255)—and lets them shape or impact “other elements of the theological outline” (W 255). Good reasons exist for adopting this strategy—even though Weaver supposes that, because I proceed differently, I acknowledge “no such possibility” (W 253).

My concerns connect more with the second goal, communicating the Anabaptist perspective to others. Anabaptists, in my view, have done so little theology over the centuries that we are almost entirely ignorant of this field and illiterate of its vocabulary. How can we explicate our implicit theology for others unless we at least learn their vocabularies? How can we communicate our perspective without asking how it lines up with their categories? I want not only to articulate this perspective for ourselves, but also to introduce it to a much larger ecclesial and scholarly world. I find it obvious that comparing our outlook with others can reveal differences, sometimes great differences, as well as similarities.

In my view, several strategies besides these two also exist. But for Weaver, there seem to be only two. Weaver often theologizes in either-or fashion. To some degree, of course, this is necessary from an Anabaptist perspective. Historic Anabaptists certainly emphasized some either-ors. It is important, as Weaver contends, that the church not blur into the world. An adequate theology must insist, for instance, that occasional participation in violence is incompatible with peace; that no one can serve both God and mammon.

But when it comes to linguistic forms and theological methods, I find that many more than two options exist. While theology in Anabaptist perspective must articulate several crucial either-ors, it will miss too much of value in Scripture and other traditions, and too much of God’s activity in the world today, if it extends this grid too far.

Narrative and Ontological Language Again

To illustrate this point, let us turn back briefly to “the creeds” and recall Weaver’s dichotomy between narrative and ontological language. Though Scripture contains numerous linguistic forms, including some with ontological reference, for Weaver only one—narrative—can adequately convey its real meaning. Although “the creeds’ ” basic structure is narrative, they include several terms with ontological reference. Weaver concludes that they must be ontological.

Weaver thinks that I pay little attention to development of doctrine and follow a “flat approach” which neglects “the shift from narrative to ontological categories” between the Gospels and “the creeds” (W 247). In my view, Weaver’s dichotomy exhibits a far less accurate and nuanced appreciation of how language and doctrine develop. 5 A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology traces the transition from the New Testament to Chalcedon in far greater detail than I have found in Weaver (F 408-14). It shows how ontological terms from Greek philosophy were transformed to express biblical, narrative meanings. Yet Weaver dismisses this historical exploration as redefining standard terminology with my own material “in order to please both those who” find it adequate and those who find it inadequate (W 248).

Moreover, despite my analysis of how pre-Constantinian Christians altered the meaning of these terms, Weaver “nowhere” finds me recognizing that the forms they took at Nicea and Chalcedon “are themselves human constructs that speak to questions raised by New Testament writers” (W 253). What else on earth could they possibly be?

Anabaptist Distinctives and “Standard Theology”

Apparently, only two approaches to contemporary Anabaptist theology likewise exist for Weaver: beginning from Anabaptist distinctives or from “standard theology.” 6 One difficulty I experience in dialogue with Weaver is that if I fail to fit the first as he defines it, I must, in his view, inevitably inhabit the second.

In addition to placing me there, however, Weaver complains about my combining colors on my palette confusingly, about creating “a continually moving entity whose handle is quite elusive” and “the no-and-yes appearance of the foundational elements of the theology. . . .” (W 252). If I fit Weaver’s second category as straightforwardly as he often says, why does he frequently find my work confusing and elusive? I suspect it is because, quite often, it fits neither compartment, but he has no others.

I need to add that Weaver does call my book “a valid approach to Anabaptist theology” (W 261). He compliments it in several respects (W 241-44). But as I will shortly show, this second of his two permissible orientations turns out to be far worse than the first. Before that, let me mention two broad problems I find with Weaver’s polarization of “Anabaptist distinctives” against “standard theology.”

First, a “guilty until proven innocent” orientation to other theologies seems to underlie it. It tends to treat whatever any “standard” theologian teaches as immediately suspect. If theological tradition has largely agreed on anything, this almost certainly conflicts with authentic Anabaptism. Beginning from Anabaptist distinctives and opening traditional formulations to question is certainly a valid procedure, or strategy. But can one disparage “standard theology” as often as Weaver does without tacitly assuming that others must nearly always be wrong?

Second, the notion of “standard theology” can help in spotting certain general trends. Yet it is so broad and vague that I wonder whether it really identifies anything definable—any actual group of theologies. Nevertheless, Weaver treats “standard theology” as fixed and static. He seems to leave little likelihood that any theologian from a traditional church could really move away from it. But is it possible that some such theologians today might be breaking decisively with the past? If I value certain contemporary Catholic formulations—such as Sobrino’s “church of the poor” (F 244-52), Elizabeth Johnson’s trinitarianism (F 451-64), or transignification in the Lord’s Supper (F 199-200, 205-8), am I simply capitulating to “standard theology”? Or am I, along with them, articulating some points compatible with “Anabaptist distinctives”? Might they be expressing these better than Anabaptists have?


Denny Weaver concedes that theologizing in his second possible way—through traditional doctrines—can be a valid Anabaptist procedure. But if another theologian followed it and operated as Weaver claims I do, I would probably withhold this designation.

No theologian approaches any topic with a blank mind. Every theologian is more interested in some aspects of the topic than others and searching for answers to certain questions. To render my method as transparent as possible, I identify my main questions as I approach my twelve theological topics. In seven cases—slightly over half—I employ traditional theological concepts as “lenses” to help me discover early Anabaptist views. 7 In approaching the New Creation’s personal dimension, for instance (chapter 5), I first ask, In what ways did Anabaptist expressions resemble, or differ from, sixteenth-century Protestant and Catholic concepts of justification?

The danger in this method, which Weaver is not slow to mention, is that if I search for Anabaptist statements resembling Protestant or Catholic ones, I might only recognize those that bear these resemblances, and miss others which do not. I might conclude that Anabaptist views resembled one or both more than they actually did.

Justification and Divinization

I repeatedly call my “lenses” provisional and indicate that they might not match the contours of Anabaptist thought. But I add that they can help us discover what does not fit them as well as what does. Let me briefly sketch my use of justification concepts in chapter 5, partly because Weaver refers to this and draws a critical conclusion.

According to Weaver, I acknowledge “that historic Anabaptists did not use the specific language of being justified by faith” (W 250). However, I say and show that they often did. This was one reason for choosing justification as a lens. Since it was one early Anabaptist language, it helped me discover expressions which fit it—but also others which did not. This prompted me to look closely at the latter and ask whether Anabaptists often used other languages too (F 109-10). Following this path, my chapter gradually shows that “divinization” language better describes their notion of personal transformation (F 113-32). Divinization is not a foreign concept. Historic Anabaptists often used the term, 8 though Eastern Orthodoxy does as well.

Proceeding from historical investigation to construction, I first sketch current Catholic-Lutheran and Catholic-Evangelical dialogues on justification (F 133-36). Then I develop, and adopt, a quite different biblical notion (F 137-48). Next I ask whether divinization is found in Scripture and show that a theme which can be so named is there (F 150-51). Finally, I outline my overall construction, often by indicating how it resembles and differs from Catholic and Protestant justification and Eastern Orthodox divinization (F 151-56).

Weaver correctly notices that in stating my constructive positions, I often compare and contrast them with various traditional concepts. He helps me see how others might suppose that “the most important aspect of Anabaptist theology” in my view “is how it lines up with standard theology” (W 254).

For me, however, these comparisons comprise a strategic move: a way of bringing Anabaptist perspectives into contact with various traditional and contemporary perspectives—relating one map to other maps, as it were. But Weaver thinks they represent far more. Traditional concepts, he claims, form “the functional norms” of my theology. They operate as “unquestioned givens.” I never discuss their role—except, he acknowledges, the role of showing where Anabaptists stood in relation to tradition (W 253).

In my perspective, a theology whose norms were traditional doctrines could hardly be Anabaptist—or biblical. Though Weaver is a bit more charitable, why does he make this criticism (his most serious, in my view)? Largely because, he avers, by the time I summarize my investigation of a topic (say, “The Personal Dimension”) through exploratory lenses (say, justification), “the notion of ‘exploratory’ has fallen away.” Instead, Anabaptist elements are “reshaped” to “line up with Evangelical, Protestant, and Catholic emphases” (W 250). My summaries, according to Weaver, “exhibit no inkling that the results are provisional” (W 251).

Exploratory Lenses and Norms

But how do I really operate? Take my summary of chapter 5’s historical section. It briefly retraces my investigation to the “point where the faith-works question, raised within the justification framework, led beyond it to Anabaptism’s primary soteriological notion: divinization” (F 131). But even though this concept was genuinely Anabaptist, it also appears in Orthodox and other traditions. For this reason, I then refine it in several ways, such as adding Christomorphic to emphasize that divinization, for Anabaptists, is shaped by the pattern of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. In conclusion, I mention commonalities with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox views, but stress that in Anabaptism these all appear “in configurations distinct from the general orientation of any” (F 132).

How can Weaver possibly assert that such a summary “gives no inkling” that I employed justification concepts in exploratory ways, and that my descriptions of early Anabaptist views simply “line up” with them? Though I greatly appreciate his careful reading of my book, I truly wonder whether it has lapsed here. The only response I can think of is, Read my seven relevant summaries again, 9 and you will find that each one discusses how my exploratory lenses have fit or not fit the data.

Although I discover much material which does not fit the shape of my lenses, as well as some which does, Weaver writes as if I spot mostly similarities. Only if this were true could he claim that my lenses function as norms. Moreover, since Weaver thinks that my (traditional) framework remains largely intact, he supposes that any Anabaptist themes I find can only “enrich” (not my word) standard theology (e.g., W 253).

Suppose that I were investigating a bag of M&Ms. Suppose I began by searching for brown and red ones. Weaver writes as if I would really be searching only for them; if I spotted a few blue candies, they would only “enrich” my results. But I am open to the possibility of finding few browns or reds—perhaps none. My search for brown and red M&Ms could lead to the discovery of many green and blue ones, and the conclusion that the bag’s contents were quite, or perhaps wholly, unlike any red-brown mixture.

Weaver’s most serious critique, stated otherwise, seems to be that I start from traditional concepts, in the sense that they provide my norms. But such a reading again mistakes my distinction among sources, contents, and norms. Classical concepts belong to my theology’s sources, in the sense of being realities on which I reflect. A few such concepts belong to my content, as vehicles to help express my own views. But the reason why some concepts play the second role is not because they are classical, but because I find them to be valid conceptualizations of things taught in Scripture (as canon), which serves as my norm.

Chronological and Logical Order

Let me rephrase this in terms from my chapter 4: chronological and logical order (F 94-95). The first is the order in which someone presents or discusses subjects, running from the first mentioned to the last. The second is the reasoning process by which someone arrives at conclusions. Its steps need not appear in any particular chronological order. Here major premises come first; specific conclusions, which are drawn from them, the data, and other arguments, come last. My historical investigations often “start from” traditional concepts (like justification) in the chronological sense—since I introduce them first. They often guide the ensuing investigation in part, by providing lenses. They sometimes help in stating the investigation’s conclusion. But these conclusions are historical—not theological.

The logical order of my theological construction begins with the biblical data found in my contemporary appropriations. Very generally speaking, these function as premises. Some biblical texts and themes guide my thought chronologically at times, in the sense of often being compared with other texts and various theological concepts. Some classical concepts function in this process as hypotheses: they are tentatively proposed to see whether or not they fit the data. If some such concept—like Trinity—is retained, it is gradually shaped by the data in various, often many, ways.

The logical order of thought ends with a conclusion about which concept(s) best express the biblical data. If a classical concept, significantly revised, appears here, it is at the end, as the result or conclusion, of the logical process. Logically speaking, I end with, not start from, all such concepts.

Of course, it is possible that a classical concept might not really function as a revisable hypotheses in my reasoning process, but as a premise. If so, the way to show this is by examining this constructive process; not by noting that it appears in the chronological process, or order of presentation (say, as an exploratory lens), or the language of my concluding affirmations.

Riedemann on Trinity and Community

Since Weaver appears to recognize only two important types of theology—those starting from Anabaptist distinctives and from “standard theology—I sometimes wonder whether he would consign all doctrinal affirmations which include a classical concept, no matter how fully revised, to the second category, and call it an “enrichment” at best. Could a theology containing a classical concept win Weaver’s approval? Fortunately, his review mentions one.

In developing his view of God, Peter Riedemann wrote that the Father and the Son keep nothing for themselves, but give everything to each other, so that whatever each one has, he has it only in the other. Weaver appreciates this idea and calls it trinitarian. From this mutual sharing in the Godhead, Riedemann concludes that Christians should share all they have with each other, that is, should practice total community of goods. 10

Weaver notices that I discuss this passage and cites the pages (F 238-39, 430-33). But he remarks, critically, that I do “not identify that as a trinitarian comment” (W 256). Here is what I say. I paraphrase the Riedemann passage and how it calls us to share a similar oneness. Then I write, “this was possible because the Holy Spirit, who had established the original community of goods, gathered the church and made it of one mind like Christ. 11 Community, in other words, was rooted in the Trinity” (F 431). Evidently I mentioned the Trinity in a way Weaver approves, even though it escaped his notice. Apparently it is possible, in his view, to include a few classical terms in a theology that starts from Anabaptist distinctives.

Riedemann poses some problems for those who sharply distinguish early Anabaptist from classical theology. Other Anabaptist leaders, however, used the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, mostly in teaching. 12 Riedemann closely followed the Apostles’ through the first twenty-six pages of his Confession of Faith. The next seventy-three pages were clearly influenced by that creed’s content and structure, while the final seventy-two were not. Weaver, nonetheless, is quite positive about this Confession, because Riedemann made “many revisions and additions to the Apostles’ Creed” according to his colleague, Gerald Biesecker-Mast. 13

Weaver avers, however, that I miss “such additions, revisions, and corrections” because I focus on “agreement with the standard grid” (W 256). I would be glad for readers to examine my many passages on Riedemann and see whether this appraisal is any more accurate than the claim that I miss Riedemann’s connection between the Trinity and community of goods.

Though Riedemann indeed expounded the Apostles’ Creed creatively, Weaver contrasts this with earlier, standard readings in a stereotyped, largely inaccurate way. Earlier theology, Weaver claims, stressed “that simply concurring with or rejecting the creed is a very important expression of faith” because it contains “a core of beliefs held to by all Christians.” But by emphasizing obedience to God’s commands, Riedemann rendered the creed “hardly recognizable” (W 256; Weaver quotes Biesecker-Mast [p. 145], but I can only deal with Weaver’s use of his work, not what he may have intended.)

Weaver leaves the impression that whenever “standard” theology addressed this creed, for about twelve hundred years, it was concerned not with how people lived, but only to insist that verbal acknowledgment of the creed was sufficient. Apparently no theologian for over a millennium had expounded the creed in a way which highlighted obedience to God, or included other profound insights like Riedemann’s.

Since this is obviously incorrect, I wonder whether Riedemann’s insights should be called “revisions or additions to the Apostles’ Creed” (W 256). Or is the creed a brief framework which, by its very nature, not only allows, but also invites, creative discussion and exposition of its points? Might other classical teachings—like Nicea and Chalcedon—provide the same possibilities? If so, all “standard theology” need not be viewed as fixed and static, positioned over against “Anabaptist distinctives.” Some of its basic expressions might be open to further exposition and clarification by Anabaptist insights. In my view, of course, Anabaptist theologians should not simply accept, or start from, any such expression. Only if they conclude, through testing by their norm(s), that some of these, in some formulation, are acceptable and helpful should they accept them as a positive framework for creative exposition.

Finally, “creative exposition” hardly means to merely “enrich” a closed, “standard” framework. To be sure, certain broad tendencies opposed to Anabaptism have long characterized many theologies. But not every doctrine claimed by such theologies really belongs to them. Some call for exposition in opposed directions. To interact creatively with these, for me, is to explore paths suggested not only by Anabaptist tradition, but also by other theologies breaking through the negative constraints of former traditions. I do not envision Anabaptist distinctives isolated over against one large, insulated, static block. I envision them flowing forth from Anabaptist tradition to mingle and sometimes join with impulses from other traditions to form quite new configurations—not simply to “enrich” older, fixed complexes.


J. Denny Weaver’s careful, critical review probes major issues in my theology more helpfully than some positive appraisals. I think that we generally agree on many points, such as universal affirmations, church-world distinctions, and peace witness. These commonalities may be obscured by our differences over how to express them. Denny rightly stresses the importance of certain Anabaptist distinctives, and of sharply contrasting them with some major theological trends, past and present.

Although his either-or perspective helps to identify some core features of my theology, Weaver often extends it too far: to Scripture, where it separates narrative from a multitude of unexamined linguistic forms; to creedal development where it polarizes narrative against ontological language; and to theology as a whole, dividing Anabaptist distinctives from “standard theology.”

Weaver rightly focuses on my theology’s use of tradition as perhaps its most significant feature. But while he calls it a valid Anabaptist procedure, he lumps it for the most part with “standard theology.” Viewed in this way, traditional doctrines must function as norms, as starting-points in its logical order.

Here, I believe, Weaver misunderstands me most, and despite his usual careful reading of my text, makes weighty unsubstantiated charges. I cannot see that he really grasps, or critically analyzes, the normative role that I ascribe to Scripture (as canon). He does, indeed, notice my claim that traditional concepts function as exploratory hypotheses, or lenses, in my thought’s chronological order. But he quickly alleges that they operate instead as norms, though I do not find that he traced any such process carefully.

I also cannot see that Weaver really grasps my distinctions among norms, contents, and sources. Traditional theology comprises one of many sources on which I reflect, but this hardly makes it a norm. Weaver does not analyze my thought’s logical order, which starts from biblical material, not classical doctrines, as its norm. It employs the latter only as hypotheses—as possible ways of expressing that material’s meaning. These can help to express my theology’s content, but only if they prove to do so adequately, at the end of the logical order.

I wonder whether Weaver’s either-or approach, necessary as it is at points, may dim his awareness of many new currents flowing from various sources, some of which arouse his suspicion, but which might mingle with Anabaptist impulses to form novel configurations, not simply to “enrich” traditional monoliths.


  1. This article is a response to J. Denny Weaver, “Parsing Anabaptist Theology: A Review Essay of Thomas N. Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology,” Direction 34 (fall 2005): 241-63. “W” in citations is a reference to Weaver’s article; “F” indicates my A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004).
  2. F 280-83. Since conversations which value all participants equally are prized among postmoderns, my argument that these require attempts to formulate universal claims does not deny that postmodernity can affirm universals, but rather that it must, at least tacitly.
  3. I also “find it valid to assume that salvation is bestowed, at least occasionally, on some people apart from specific confession of Jesus of Nazareth.” I identify this as a “(universal) theological affirmation” (F 285). However, this is a universal which I derive from Scripture, not one accessible to everybody apart from revelation.
  4. F 251, quoting Jon Sobrino, The True Church and the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1984), 98.
  5. Two articles of mine also trace the historical development of the Nicene Creed in much more detail than Weaver has: “The Way to Nicea: Some Reflections from a Mennonite Perspective,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 24 (spring 1987): 212-31; “Christus Victor and the Creeds: Some Historical Considerations,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 72 (January 1998): 31-52.
  6. At the start of his article (W 242-43), Weaver mentions three others. One, represented by Gordon Kaufman, constructs its views by means of contemporary tools and criteria. Perhaps this is a third option for Weaver, but it does not feature in this discussion. The fourth, which has never been attempted, would consist entirely of Anabaptist material, and be a variant of Weaver’s “Anabaptist Distinctives” category. He calls my orientation, his fifth, “unique.” But his article treats its foremost characteristics as a version of “Standard Theology.”
  7. The first parts of my discussions, “Historic Anabaptist Perspectives,” are structured this way and summarize my findings under the new creation’s Personal Dimension (chapter 5), the Lord’s Supper (chapter 6:II), the Work of Christ (8:I), the Person of Christ (8:II), the Trinity (8:III), Human Nature (9), and the Last Things (10). Summaries of the second part of my discussions, “Contemporary Appropriations,” which refer to these “lenses,” are found in 6:II, 8:I, and 8:II.
  8. Vergöttung was a common theme among early South German/Austrian Anabaptists, while expressions like “partakers of the divine nature,” with obvious allusion to 2 Peter 1:4, frequently appeared in later South German/Austrian and Dutch Anabaptist circles (F 117-32). However, since divinization language was uncommon among Swiss Anabaptists, I proposed the broader concept of ontological transformation, of which divinization is a variety, to designate the personal dimension of the coming of the new creation.
  9. See summaries of the topics listed in footnote 8, above.
  10. John J. Friesen, ed., Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1999), 80, 119, 204.
  11. Specific references to Riedemann (121, 77, 122-23) are made here.
  12. The Apostle’s Creed supplied a framework for the missionary message (F 259 and footnote 14). Its structure is evident in Hans Hut’s “Ein Christlich Unterrich” (F 117-18, 425-27, etc.) and Leonhard Schiemer’s “The Apostle’s Creed: An Interpretation,” in Cornelius J. Dyck, ed., Spiritual Life in Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1995), 30-40. Baptism often involved a triune confession, probably following the Nicene and/or Apostle’s Creeds, which had apparently structured the preceding catechetical instruction (reported by Hubmaier [F 424], Riedemann [F 431], Marpeck [F 434] and Philips [F 440]).
  13. W 256; see Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht, C. Henry Smith Series (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2006).
Thomas N. Finger is an independent scholar living in Evanston, Illinois. Formerly, he was Professor of Systematic and Spiritual Theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia. He devotes his time to writing; to inter-Church relations, national and international; and to teaching world religions as an adjunct professor. His books include Self, Earth and Society (InterVarsity, 1997) and Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach, 2 vols. (Herald, 1985, 1989).

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