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Spring 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 1 · pp. 7–18 

The “Word” in Deed: Mennonite Brethren Attitudes Toward Faith and Learning

Gay Lynn Voth

Mennonite Brethren attitudes about Christian faith have been deeply shaped by the primary desire to follow Jesus Christ in active discipleship. We have therefore tended to be pragmatic about learning, connecting it to our conviction that the church community serves as the most important locus for praxis and education. The question of how to relate “faith” and “learning” then becomes the question of what the church needs to know to accomplish her God-given work. Integrating faith and learning is thus a matter of knowing who we are as Christians, what we are called to do, and how we are to prepare ourselves to fulfill our vocation.

Can we Mennonite Brethren affirm with faithful confidence that God is the One God of the whole world, and not just “our god” or the “God of the church”? That is, are we able to believe that our learning can cross disciplines because we can imagine that “all truth is God’s truth”?

Before elaborating these ideas, we do well to analyze the historical roots of Anabaptist/Mennonite attitudes toward learning. This will involve examining anticlericalism, pragmatism, and pluralism, each of which is a deep-seated, if unrecognized, Mennonite predisposition. Each has its strengths, but each suffers weaknesses that potentially limit the scope of the learning from which Christians as disciples of Christ can benefit.


While anticlericalism of various strains has existed through much of Christian history, it was a major force in the Reformation period. Anabaptists and Mennonites were certainly not unique in harboring a deep antipathy toward the established churches and the clerics who led them, which is hardly surprising considering the persecution they suffered at their hands. Gerald Strauss describes early modern anticlericalism as “a bundle of unorganized perceptions on the part of ordinary people, perceptions expressed in attitudes and externalized as a certain kind of behavior, but never asserted as principled opposition to sacerdotal presence in the community.” 1 Robert Scribner further suggests that anticlericalism involved “a perception of and reaction to the power wielded by the clergy in a distinctive social group, power which expressed itself in the economic, political, legal, social, sexual, and sacred spheres of daily life.” 2 These two descriptions underscore the idea that anticlericalism was based on lay perceptions of the clergy. These perceptions led to attitudes, behaviors, and reactions that still influence us today.

Not least among these persistent attitudes is the suspicion that academic training is of dubious value. Anabaptists gave voice to this distrust by insisting that biblical scholarship and “worldly learning” were unable to discover truth without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This hermeneutical principle meant that a simple and illiterate peasant who had yielded to the Spirit of God would be able to discern the true meaning of Scripture while an educated priest who lacked the Spirit would probably find in it nothing but “untruth and a dead letter.” 3 This opinion expressed both an optimistic egalitarianism and a hostile distrust of Catholic and Protestant theologians, teachers, and clergy whom sixteenth-century Anabaptists believed were “intellectualizing the faith” while avoiding obedience to the simple message of the gospel.

For early Anabaptists, truth was a matter of Christ-like living, not abstract reasoning. Unlike their Protestant neighbors, they did not accept a single or an exclusive mode of comprehending true knowledge, such as “scripture alone” or “faith alone.” Truth, they argued, was revealed through a three-fold operation involving the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the church. This view took the place of the Catholic one, which stressed the central roles of scripture, tradition, and the magisterium in the process of ascertaining truth. Anabaptists thus substituted an emphasis on the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit within the individual for the historical tradition of church scholarship, and they replaced the authoritative teaching and interpretative office of papal magistrates with the gathering of believers as the “true church.”

The Anabaptist counter-claims that truth is found through pious discipleship rather than cold rationality, that the Spirit resides in the local as well as the universal church, that the scriptures reveal their truth to the unlearned more easily than to the learned, posed serious challenges to established churches. They also left both a positive and a negative legacy. Renewed awareness of the Spirit’s active work in all believers transfigured congregations into vibrant spiritual communities. Today the spiritual giftedness of all members and the importance of shared leadership are routinely assumed. Moreover, most of our institutions of higher learning encourage integrative cross-disciplinary studies in ethics, psychology, issues of peace and justice because of the close link between spirituality and the ethical life in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition. Nevertheless, anticlerical attitudes meant that most Anabaptists found it natural to doubt the value of the long tradition of biblical commentary and Christian scholarship that had developed in the centuries prior to the sixteenth. This loss of faith in what the medieval church had called “learning” led to a significant break with centuries of Christian study by men and women of profound faith and deep spiritual understanding, a loss which continues to impoverish Protestant theological thought today.


Truth, for many Mennonites, is “learned” as it is “practiced” within the community. The community, as the “body of Christ,” serves as a living, incarnational witness of God to the world. 4 This understanding of “practiced truth” is pragmatic in a philosophical sense. While pragmatism rejects the assumption that all knowledge must be based on indubitable beliefs that support it (foundationalism), neither does it embrace the idea that knowledge can dispense with basic beliefs altogether (anti-foundationalism). Instead, as Sandra Rosenthal argues, pragmatism emphasizes experience, understood as

a rich, ongoing, interactional, or transactional unity between organism and environment . . . Such a transactional unity is more than a postulate of abstract thought for it has experiential dimensions . . . [This is] a dynamic reality through habits of action as living meanings . . . and provides the vital, living link between signs and the universe. 5

For pragmatists like C.I. Lewis, independent factuality “does not need to be assumed nor to be proved, but only to be acknowledged.” 6

In turning away from abstract reason as the indispensable instrument for Christian theologizing, early Anabaptists argued that practice and feeling must be part of “knowing.” In contemporary terms, Sara Wenger Shenk has succinctly expressed this idea as: “Doing is a kind of knowing, and knowing is a kind of doing.” Shenk’s discussion of biblical interpretation illustrates how this dynamic relationship between understanding and practice works. She argues that when the Bible’s authority is explicated in terms of a doctrine of inerrancy, obedience to biblical imperatives can be postponed until the certainty of the truth of the scriptures can be established. What is needed, Shenk claims, is

a new paradigm of biblical authority, one that is rooted in practicing the gospel rather than in establishing an inerrant text; “in performing the Scriptures” where the proper interpretation of Scripture is not found primarily in a commentary or a theological text but in Christian discipleship. 7

Practices, Shenk goes on to state, are sites of learning that join ethical and epistemologi­cal dimensions.

Nancey Murphy elaborates, explaining that human knowing involves an intricate set of connections that run in many directions at once. From this point of view, human beings receive knowledge not as a set of indubitable beliefs but instinctively and always holistically. We do not believe a given truth about the world because it is self-evident; rather, we believe claims about the world because they fit into the total network of other related ideas that we and our communities also hold to be true. Our beliefs are developed and refined on the basis of how well they can be correlated with the broader patterns of belief and practice that characterize our community. 8

This complex network forms the basis for a community hermeneutic. J. B. Toews has argued that the principle of community hermeneutic guided the process by which early Mennonite Brethren made decisions, especially those relating to ethics. Toews observes that

Conference minutes over the years reflected dependence on the wider fellowship to discern how Scripture applied to life and practice. This understanding of biblical teaching was considered normative for the walk of the local congregations and the individual. This community hermeneutic also governed their understanding of New Testament ethics related to human relationships, the state and peace positions. 9

A community hermeneutic aids understanding and enables the integration of new information, as well as restricting new insights.

An example drawn from recent Mennonite Brethren history illustrates how a community hermeneutic works. During the 1960s, rising numbers of Mennonite Brethren chose to attend university to prepare themselves for new vocations and professions. At that time, the university saw its task as transmitting a body of knowledge that would “help discipline the mind and . . . ‘knock windows in the soul.’ ” 10 Students were to understand that their social responsibilities were moral duties, and that they were to equip themselves to exercise those responsibilities intelligently. The hope was that openness, understanding, civic duty, and social responsibility would refine and shape the increased technological training and edify the professional graduate. 11

Some Mennonite Brethren, like J. B. Toews, were convinced that a university education could also serve to enrich a Mennonite Brethren student’s life—if allowed to do so. In 1966 Toews complained:

There are, sad to say, many Christian students whose faith remains unaffected by the new dimensions of university life. For them, it is not a question of “losing” or “not losing” (their faith) but of obtaining the courses necessary for a degree or a job. A challenging encounter with God is simply not reckoned with, or expected. . . . They will eventually become religious schizophrenics, incapable of integrating their faith with their working situation. There is nothing sadder on campus that the maladjusted Christian who refuses to identify himself with any aspect of campus life, and whose self-righteousness and aloofness contributes nothing toward making Christ known. 12

Toews believed it was necessary that Mennonite Brethren young people break away from the “holy huddle” to continue learning, even if their university experience would create more questions “relative to the faith” than answers. 13

Many in the Mennonite Brethren community, however, disagreed. They found the openness Toews encouraged threatening and unsettling. His critics accentuated the dangers of the secular academic world—its cynicism, agnosticism, and relativism. But these dissenting voices were met with arguments based on the Great Commission that disciples must “go into all the world.” John Wall, for example, argued:

It is claimed that in recent decades the fund of available knowledge has doubled every ten years. If this is true, we must agree that the challenge of today with respect to new frontiers is to be found in the academic world. Thrust into the frontiers of today’s world, students might well become the ears of the church, detecting the needs of men, spelling out the questions they ask, so that the message of the church might be brought to bear on contemporary life as it was in the time of the prophets or the time of the apostles . . . Students need to recognize their unique opportunity to witness to Jesus Christ where the action is and where leaders of society and the world are being molded. 14

Through the process of a community hermeneutic, Mennonite Brethren were able to articulate a need for university education in relational and vocational terms—terms that fit the purpose of the church.

But a community hermeneutic and the (less philosophical) pragmatism that supports it always risk degenerating into naïve realism and parochialism, sometimes resulting in less than wise judgments. A hermeneutical community must be prepared to consider that it might benefit from enlarging its conversation by including voices from outside its borders and even from among the long dead. This need is especially acute for a community already leaning toward sectarianism, where both humility and members with broader knowledge might be in short supply. In such circumstances the notion of “community hermeneutic” can easily serve to confirm prejudice and narrow-mindedness rather than to bring them under scrutiny. The lingering suspicion of MB colleges and universities among many MBs also witnesses to a mindset comfortable with ignorance of wide expanses of human learning and knowledge. Contentment with knowing “what works” (vulgar pragmatism) is frequently impatient with the strenuous discipline of scholarship. The pragmatic often can’t be persuaded that higher learning is worth the trouble.


Pluralism, in its simplest terms, is “the state of being plural,” that is, “consisting of, or pertaining to more than one.” 15 Early Anabaptists were pluralists in at least two ways. Understood as a polygenetic movement, Anabaptism began as a plurality sociologically. In the sixteenth century (and still today), Anabaptist communities internalized certain values and correlated external expressions to community ideals. The emphasis on the local, visible church privileged “particularity” over “universality.” Any theology supporting the view of a universal, “invisible church” was generally overshadowed by theologies insisting that the church is a community of believers seeking to live out their faith visibly in active discipleship. The universal church may be greater than the sum of all the particular churches that make it up, but neither can it be less than the aggregate of genuine communities of Christian disciples the world over.

Anabaptists were also pluralists in a religious and political sense. The idea that the church should exist independent of a civic identity seemed revolutionary to Catholics and Protestants alike. The foundation of medieval life was the belief that European society was a Christian society—a geographical as well as religious unity encapsulated in the term, corpus Christianum. All major reformers retained some form of this medieval idea of the oneness of society. True, both Zwingli and Luther began with radical ideas but they rejected them for fear that society would become de-Christianized if the unity of church and state were dissolved. 16 Anabaptists did not share these anxieties and went so far as to call for religious liberty for all, not just for dissenting Christian groups. The call for religious freedom for “Turk,” “Jew,” and “heathen” was rooted in the conviction that the Christian church should not seek to eliminate its enemies. Rather, it should express love and aid as Christ did. To do otherwise would be heretical. 17

The legacy of these two kinds of pluralism for Anabaptist/Mennonite attitudes toward learning is mixed. Emphasis on the sociological particularity of the church fosters a sense of the immediacy of God’s presence in the Spirit and lends spiritual weight to local church activities and decisions. At the same time, Mennonites, like so many other Christian sects, have been prone to spiritual myopia, often unable to imagine that believers of other denominations might also be the recipients of God’s graciousness and wisdom. An indifference to Christian unity has often attended this condition. The benefits of studying other Christian traditions, let alone studying alongside Christians of other denominations, have not been obvious to those of such a mindset.

Mennonite/Anabaptist rejection of the corpus Christianum idea and the call for religious freedom anticipated the commitment to religious tolerance of modern secular states. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Anabaptists were therefore more willing to take the viewpoints of Turks, Jews, or the heathen seriously. To love one’s enemies might mean showing them mercy and kindness but it did not mean acknowledging that their religious views might have some truth in them. There is no evidence that behind their urging of states to extend religious freedom to all, Anabaptists held to some kind of proto-pluralistic vision of truth.

Their denunciation of the idea of Christendom, moreover, had the effect of cutting Anabaptists off from the long political philosophical discussion that rationalized it. No doubt they saw in late medieval scholasticism good reasons to share Luther’s suspicion of reason. But by dismissing Plato and Aristotle and their heirs, Anabaptists severed themselves from thinkers who attempted to address some of humanity’s most profound questions. It could be argued that in so doing, Anabaptists also removed themselves from the company of the greatest Christian thinkers, who cut their theological teeth on the ancient Greek and Latin philosophers. St. Augustine and St. Thomas are but two of these. The flirtation of some later Anabaptists with anti-Trinitarian theology illustrates the consequences to which this isolation can lead.


One way to move beyond the limited attitudes toward learning informed by anti-clericalism, pragmatism, and pluralism is to ask the question, What is education for? One purpose of education can be to equip people for the life they imagine living. As Scott Holland, has argued, “In the end, we only live what we imagine.” 18 If this is true, we need to ask: “What are we imagining?”

I remember my first year university biology class where we students were immediately confronted with the question: “Why are you here?” I appreciated the straightforwardness of the professor, who went on to discuss our possible motivations. Perhaps, as Mennonite Brethren, we need to begin our conversation about “faith and learning” with simple questions: Why are we here? What life do we imagine living? What do we need to know to be equipped to live this kind of life?

As Christians, we begin by imagining a close relationship with God. Some of our non-Christian friends and colleagues find it difficult to imagine either God or a relationship with God. I consider that a crucial failure of imagination. I often pray that I will be a faithful “image of God” and stir my friends to imagine a relationship with God. We Mennonite Brethren believe that words alone can never adequately describe our relationship to God; we more fully “describe” this relationship by our behavior. Both words and deeds are needed to express our faith. In some cases, neither words nor deeds will seem “reasonable”; they will be motivated by “faith.” To love our enemies by turning the other cheek out of obedience to Christ will seem counterintuitive, if not dangerously naïve, to those who believe that exacting retribution is more appropriate.


Some theological ideas can be rationally defended, while others require the hopeful perseverance of faith. What is meant by “faith”? The definition I use with my theology students is: Faith is knowledge (an idea), to which we have added the intellectual assent that “Yes, this is true” to such an extent that we are willing to act on that knowledge. Sometimes faith is implicit rather than explicit. To sit down on a chair, for example, requires faith that the object before us is for sitting on and that it will support us if we do so. We have the idea, the knowledge that a chair is made to be sat on and is well-built, to which we give assent that “Yes, this is true,” and therefore we feel secure in seating ourselves on it. But seldom if ever do we make explicit the faith that grounds such a mundane activity.

It can be the case, however, that upon looking at what is presented to us as a chair, we question whether or not it has been truly designed for sitting on. We judge it to be inadequate for the task (regardless of how it is presented to us), refuse to give our intellectual assent, and therefore do not sit down. It can also be the case that we see a chair, give intellectual assent that it is designed for sitting on, and yet choose not to sit down, for such sundry reasons as: 1) we don’t need to sit; 2) the seat is reserved for someone else; and 3) sitting down will keep us from something we want to do instead.

This simple analogy is intended to demonstrate the complexity of faith as an act of knowledge, intellectual verification, and practice. Understanding how faith “works” may help us to see the purpose of learning in a new light. Not everything presented to us as knowledge, as an idea, needs our intellectual assent. Sometimes we will accept an idea as intellectually true yet still decide not to use it. Only what we take on faith requires that we apply what we intellectually affirm as the truth. Faith is a commitment to act according to what we hold to be true.

The question of “faith and learning” can become a question of what the church needs to know to perform its God-given purposes as an integral part of this cosmos. The Christian church, whether considered to be “universal” or “particular,” necessarily chooses to be identified by the two primary purposes laid out by Christ: 1) to worship God, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of the whole world, with love; and 2) to love those around us in a holistic way. The issue of learning arises when we ask ourselves, what do we need to know in order to carry out these two primary purposes?


Can we Mennonite Brethren affirm with faithful confidence that God is the One God of the whole world, and not just “our God” or the “God of the church”? That is, are we able to believe that our learning can cross disciplines because we can imagine that “all truth is God’s truth”? From scripture we know that “at the beginning” God the Creator brought the world into being, not the church which now resides in it. We affirm that God the Redeemer did not come to offer salvation to only some, but in love seeks to redeem the whole world. Are we following Christ, with love, out into the “whole world”? The promises of God assure us that God the Sustainer carefully upholds not only the church but the cosmos in which we find ourselves. Are we willing to risk leaving the safety of our churches to go into classrooms where learning about the complexity of the cosmos will truly overwhelm us? Where studying history might unsettle some of our most cherished beliefs about the past? Where studying logic might undercut a favorite argument for a dearly held religious idea?

In simple theological terms, as we learn and teach, can we imagine that:

  1. Wherever we go, God is already there, being God? If we truly believe that God is “omnipresent,” we can potentially “see” God in various academic disciplines, in any classroom, throughout all time.
  2. Wherever we go, we go as Jesus went? We need to study Christ’s example and teachings carefully to do this well.
  3. Wherever we go, God’s Spirit indwells us? This means that no matter the intensity of the intellectual forces working against our convictions, we have the uniquely divine presence of God with us as a constant source of internal guidance and strength.

Perhaps our own imaginations need re-invigorating. To imagine God as exclusively “our God,” or as the God of our church alone (as church language often leads us to think), limits God, in fact, misrepresents him as less than he is and thus actually presents him as an idol, incapable of moving, speaking, and acting within the full expanse of the created universe. It also removes a vast host of past and present voices from the deep conversation that education, at its best, can be. (Why bother to read works by non-Mennonites, non-evangelicals, non-Christians, and so on, if God is absent from them?) The hope of the universal Church is a universal God—the One God who brought the universe and everyone in it into being.


Historically, Mennonites generally and Mennonite Brethren specifically have understood it to be the role of education to facilitate and support community visions of identity and calling. Our desire to follow Christ faithfully means that we have no option but to walk the path set by two orientations: love of God and love of neighbor. Our love of God cannot be so private and personal that it exempts us from a responsibility to love the world as Christ loved the world. As in the past, it requires serving the world as Christ served. Education can therefore be viewed as the opportunity to become equipped to do this well. Faith and learning, from a Mennonite Brethren perspective, can continue to be motivated by the “Word” practiced in deed, regardless of where, or how, it takes place.


  1. Gerald Strauss, “Local Anticlericalism in Reformation Germany,” in Anticlericalism in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Peter A. Dykema and Heiko A. Oberman (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 626-27.
  2. Robert Scribner, “Anticlericalism and the Cities,” in Dykema and Oberman, 147.
  3. Arnold Snyder, “Beyond Polygenesis: Recovering the Unity and Diversity of Anabaptist Theology,” in Essays in Anabaptist Theology, ed. H. Wayne Pipkin (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1994), 21.
  4. Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 89.
  5. Sandra B. Rosenthal, “The Pragmatic Reconstruction of Realism: A Pathway for the Future,” in Pragmatic Naturalism and Realism, ed. John R. Shook (NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), 44.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Sara Wenger Shenk, “Practicing Truth as a Global Christian Community,” in Practicing Truth: Confident Witness in Our Pluralistic World, ed. David W. Shenk and Linford Stutzman (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999), 226.
  8. Jacobsen, 56–57.
  9. J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church 1860-1990 (Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1993), 23–24.
  10. N.A.M. MacKenzie. “The Work of the Universities,” in Canadian Education Today: A Symposium, ed. Joseph Katz (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1956), 180.
  11. Ibid., 179–80.
  12. John B. Toews, “Towards a Christian University Experience,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 7 October 1966, 4.
  13. Ibid., 5.
  14. John Wall, “The Church and its Students,” MB Herald, 7 October 1966, 6.
  15. Canadian Dictionary, rev. and exp. (Gage Educational Publishing Co., 1997). For more about pluralism as related to Mennonite identity, see James N. Pankratz, “Mennonite Identity and Religious Pluralism,” in The Church as Theological Community, ed. Harry Huebner (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1990), 301–13.
  16. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Waterloo: Conrad Press, 1973), 48.
  17. Balthasar Hubmaier, “On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them,” in Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), 59–66.
  18. Scott Holland, “Einbildungskraft: 1. Imagination 2. The Power to Form into One,” in Mennonite Theology in Face of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman, ed. Alain Epp Weaver (North Newton: Bethel College, 1996), 254.
Gay Lynn Voth teaches at Columbia Bible College in the areas of theology, ethics and world religions. Her MA thesis at UBC was a social historical survey of Canadian Mennonite attitudes toward to higher education during the 1960s. Currently she is completing her PhD dissertation in contemporary theology at the University of Wales, Bangor.

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