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Spring 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 1 · pp. 29–44 

An Anabaptist-Mennonite Political Theology: Theological Presuppositions

A. James Reimer

Paul Doerksen has suggested that in a monograph on Christian social-political theory that I am currently working on, I seek “to offer an Anabaptist version of [Oliver O’Donovan’s] Desire of the Nations, a theologically conceptualized political theology . . . a theopolitical project that will serve as an alternative Anabaptist vision to that of John Howard Yoder, whose work Reimer has often criticized even while acknowledging its importance.” 1 O’Donovan is a widely-published and influential Anglican ethicist now teaching in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the late John H. Yoder is the most important Mennonite theological ethicist of the twentieth century. Doerksen has characterized my project quite accurately, although I am perhaps slightly more Yoderian than he here acknowledges. I seek not so much to provide an alternative view to that of Yoder, but to think through certain elements in Yoder’s ethics that he hints at but does not systematically develop; namely, that the state when functioning properly is there to restrain evil and promote and further the good. In the following pages I outline as simply as possible the intended goals of my present research and writing on the subject of theology and politics, as it might be understood not only by Mennonites but by Christians living in the so-called “postmodern” situation.

We have not developed a systematic political theory in which the positive role of civil institutions outside the church is elaborated from the perspective of our Historic Peace Church heritage

My current work on political ethics, tentatively entitled Political Theology: Law, Order and Civil Society, 2 might be considered the second volume of a trilogy beginning with Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations of Christian Ethics, 3 in which I seek to identify the basic dogmatic grammar of Christian social ethics, and a third projected volume (were I to live long enough) Theology as Doxology: Spiritual Formation and Ethics, in which I hope to engage Eastern Orthodoxy and the mystical tradition in general to give a more holistic view of the religious life. In the latter I would deal with the liturgical, sacramental and aesthetic resources of ethics, viewing it (ethics) as a form of praise and worship of God (doxology). Although these three projects respectively correspond loosely to the Trinitarian structure of Christian theology (Patrology, Christology, Pneumatology), this parallel should not be drawn too strictly.


The thesis in my Political Theology is that a theologically-derived politics (not a politically-derived theology) for those in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition ought to take seriously the biblical-Trinitarian foundations for all Christian social ethics, but also the importance of engagement by Christians in public-institutional life, including the political realm. Not only is political involvement a mandate for Christians, it is unavoidable. Those who deny the legitimacy of such engagement are being dishonest—their engagement involves every facet of their lives regardless, whether consciously or not. In our daily lives, whether we like it or not, we are all deeply enmeshed in many layers of civil (cultural, economic and political) society. Those who withdraw from public life as we normally understand it are doing so only in a very facile sense. They cannot escape the public sphere altogether, and are being political in their own way, in their own communities and as a negative political witness to larger, dominant society.

Academically, we have justified our Mennonite dissident, peace position biblically, historically, and ethically, but have not developed a systematic political theory in which the positive role of civil institutions outside the church is elaborated from the perspective of our Historic Peace Church heritage. We have elaborated our Christian social ethics from within the womb of the church (moral purity and discipleship), usually as a form of negative witness to the state, but have thought little about the positive role of institutions outside church and para-church agencies, participation in which requires ambiguous choices. It is this larger task, in which I seek to articulate both a critical and a positive-constructive approach to public/political life and institutions, to which I turn my attention in this second volume of my so-called trilogy.

I originally, tentatively, entitled this project “When Law and Civil Institutions are Just: Honesty in Pacifist Thinking.” It was a twist on the 1984 book by Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking. 4 In this remarkable book Yoder, a pacifist, uses the arguments of the just-war tradition to call its adherents to greater honesty and faithfulness to what they espouse, and consequently to join with pacifists in consistently condemning war. I agree with Yoder, but reverse the challenge to think honestly, and apply it to those of us in the pacifist tradition. I urge Mennonites and others in the Historic Peace Church tradition to overcome their frequent dishonest disjunction between abstract theories of pacifism/nonresistance, on the one hand, and the way they actually live within civil society, on the other. I am not recommending the giving up of our venerable proclamation of the gospel of peace and nonviolence, but am encouraging us to be honest: not to use high-sounding theological and moral rhetoric 1) to ideologically disguise the situation in which we actually find ourselves in our family, professional, business, political, civil, and church lives; and 2) to selectively read the Bible and history, undervaluing the positive mandate for institutional life found in the biblical narrative as well as in our own Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage.

I propose that we ought, with some qualifications, to retrieve a modified form of “two kingdom” thinking as a way of appropriating early Anabaptist thinking on social ethics, and of understanding our lives within a highly complex global religious, cultural, social, economic and political system. By “qualifications” I mean the following: 1) the term “kingdom” is an anachronism when applied to the spheres in which we operate and the dimensions of reality within which we participate—they are more like realms or dimensions; 2) the number “two” is a gross oversimplification, even a distortion of the polyvalent spheres of activity and influence within which we find ourselves in contemporary societies. Yet, two is better than one (three is even better), and there is value in retaining a soft and modified version of this “duality” in order to distinguish between our primary home (our basic biblical-confessional set of commitments) and our provisional, secondary home (our larger, relative, and more tenuous abode, and changing set of responsibilities within and for the whole).

My primary home is the Christian one, and within that, the Mennonite room with its allegiance to certain fundamental, biblically-based doctrines (believers’ church community, discipleship, nonviolent love, witness to peace and reconciliation, etc.). My secondary home is our local, national, global and cosmic home in which we live with those of other faiths, other ideologies and cultures. It is the common space within which we all live, not only the “in between” space but the whole space of which we occupy one part. It might be thought of as “the world,” the common good, the created order which is to be preserved and within which life is to flourish, not essentially a common evil (although fallen) from which we need to keep ourselves pure. This public realm is not neutral and value-free, as some liberals would have it, but is always itself defined by some form of “public orthodoxy.” 5 The boundary between our primary Christian home and our secondary “worldly” home is not rigid but porous, and we move in and out as conscience dictates, and as the Christian community discerns. The sixteenth-century Anabaptist thinker Pilgram Marpeck is a good example of how this movement between the two homes, on the basis of conscience, might be conceptualized. 6

The danger for “sectarian” Christians is to remain within, and even to absolutize, the particular, primary home. My focus on “law” as a way of exploring the possibility of developing a more positive theology of public institutional life is an attempt to give greater credence to the notion of the universal (the common good, or “common grace” as some have called it) for Mennonites. Whether we like it or not, we occupy a space in the large world. All of us are citizens and carry passports of one country or another (some carry two), and unapologetically draw on the benefits that such citizenship offers. Let’s be honest about this, and reflect theologically on it without ideological distortion. We call 911 when being burgled. Most of us would support the enactment of laws compatible with Christian understandings of the value of the individual, communal rights and freedoms, and social and economic justice. We support a strong state and police to maintain law and order. In the following pages I consider briefly the theological presuppositions for my argument and how it unfolds.


I consider the Christian doctrine of the Triune God (God as three in one: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or their gender-inclusive equivalents) to be the central teaching of the Christian faith, and pivotal for all Christian social ethics, a claim I have articulated in many of my writings. 7 I refer above to a Trinitarian “hermeneutic” in the sense that, as I contend, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges organically out of the Scriptures, and in turn is a hermeneutical key for interpreting the Bible and all of reality. I consider the Trinity not only as the metaphysical/ontological structure of reality, grounding and shaping our ethics, but as the living reality of God which informs and empowers our ethics. Although I hold strongly to the unity and simplicity of God, I do maintain that the distinctions between the three within God are important, perhaps a bit more along the line of Eastern Orthodoxy, for whom the distinctions are emphasized slightly more than in the Latin West, 8 although neither East nor West sacrifice the unity of God for the distinctions, nor the distinctions for the unity. These distinctions might be seen as “three ways of God’s being,” not in the way the ancient heresy of “modalism” thought of the plurality as three faces (persona) of God, with the real God still not known, but rather as three manifestations of God’s ontological and relational reality, or three “energies” as Eastern theologians have sometimes argued.


God as “Father Almighty” is the unbegotten origin of all things, seen and unseen. God in this first way of being (creator and providential preserver of creation) is the inexhaustible mystery of all that is, and transcends our understanding of good and evil, and thus also our ethical systems, including our views on peace and violence. God in this first sense is wholly free, preceding all legal and ethical systems, and has the prerogative to give and take life, to reward good and punish evil. How human agency figures in this taking of life and punishing of evil remains somewhat of an enigma, although it is clear that in the Hebrew scriptures we have instances of God using humans to punish humans in a fallen world on God’s behalf. The creation and preservation of the world is a free act of divine grace and mercy, contingent on God’s will and not logically necessary, and the preservation of it sometimes requires divinely-approved judgment. God is not a pacifist (as a human category) in the strict sense. The Old Testament especially witnesses to this transcendent dimension (first way of being) of God, one we ought not to domesticate too easily through selective appropriation of certain (pacifistic) texts alone, or forms of supersessionism. This first person of the Trinity tolerates no idolatry, sits in judgment on all human presumption (including ethical and legal presumption), is both “lamb and lion,” and remains mysteriously hidden (Deus absconditus) to us even in its revealedness in Christ. The critical attribute of the first person is transcendent freedom.


God as second person (Logos, Word, Christ) is begotten of the first person, eternally present with the “Father” within the Godhead, manifested (revealed) historically in the person Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. Metaphysically speaking, one might say this second way of God’s eternal being is the formative/structuring principle of creation (divine wisdom). The second person of the Trinity, who cannot be understood apart from the first and third persons (as the first and third cannot be understood apart from the second), might be thought of as the “form-giving” agent of creation, while the first person represents the unfathomable, abyss-like origin of creation, and the third the life-giving power of creation (“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life” as the Nicene Creed has it). The mystery is that these three are one and three at the same time; three ways of being and three ways of relating to each other and to the world. What is said of one must be said of all three without collapsing them one into another. Thus, in the Genesis account of the creation of the first human being, God as “Father” could be said to be the initiating agent who takes dust from the ground to create Adam, God as “Word” gives shape or form to Adam, and God the Spirit breathes life into the first human being.

In my larger project I am interested in exploring the Logos (Christ as Word, Wisdom, Grace, Gospel) and Nomos (Christ as law, form, boundary and structure) character of the second way of God’s being. I argue that Logos (Word) and Nomos (Law) ought not to be separated the way they have been in much Protestant theology, as when Gospel is distinguished from law, or Christ from Torah, but that the two, although not identical, have an intrinsic relation to each other. In fact, Logos and Nomos are inseparable. Logos (Word, grace, love) is the basis and reason for Nomos (law, form, structure). To achieve clarity on this issue, I examine relevant texts in the thought of Karl Barth, most specifically his treatment of the first creation account (Gen. 1:1–2:4a). 9

Throughout his ingenious interpretation of the first Hebraic creation saga, Barth privileges order, form, structure, and boundary over chaos. The powers of the watery waste and void represent evil: the darkness, abyss, formlessness and nonbeing which constantly threaten the created order. Created being is never free from the threat of slipping back into the abyss of nonbeing and nothingness, personified by the devil and his demonic angels. The creation sequence is but an account of how God progressively separates, divides, and creates boundaries (what I call here law) against the threat of the chaotic realm so as to make life possible and to provide the stage on which the theatre of the covenant of grace can take place. The eternal, divine Word which is the source of creation is no more or less than the Word of grace at the heart of the cosmos which comes to its fullest expression in Christ. Because God and God’s grace (Logos) is not a static principle intrinsic to the cosmos but is a living and dynamic reality [Holy Spirit] proceeding from a living, personal God, who is separate from creation, the ordering and structuring of the world (Nomos, law) in the face of chaos and the void is also never static and secure. There are no fixed “orders of creation,” only a contingent “ordering of creation,” dependent moment by moment on the gracious will and goodness of God. This is also the way Barth understands “law.” Law and laws have no fixed and systematic status in Barth’s dogmatics. They are but provisional forms by which divine grace is structured so as to make life and its preservation possible.

God in the second dimension, historical revelation, is the formative principle of creation, redemption, and reconciliation of all things. The historical Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, in his being, life, ministry, teachings, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension is the incarnation of divine love, mercy, forgiveness, grace and reconciliation, including nonresistant and nonviolent love (“pacifism” but much more), all of which reveal the inner heart and purpose of God for creation. As human beings, as Christians, this Jesus is the one we are called to follow in private and public life. However, for following Jesus the Christ (discipleship) to be a possibility, we need an inner spiritual transformation (conversion, regeneration, empowerment by the Holy Spirit). Pacifism as a rigid ideology without this spiritual dimension is a giant with feet of clay. The attribute of God highlighted in the second person is historical form, particularity, incarnation, and redemption.


As we have already suggested above, the third way of God’s being is the dynamic, life-giving power of Holy Spirit, proceeding from the first person through the second. It is that which gives law itself dynamism (the “spirit of the law”). The structuring of life is never rigid, static, and fixed. It has an open quality to it while, at the same time, having a non-relativistic, enduring character. In other words law is not simply situational; it has trans-temporal aspects, as in the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, and the six “laws” of Jesus in Matthew 5. In both cases love (of God and neighbor) is the heart of the law.

God in his third way of being is immanent, personal, transformative, life-giving power. The Holy Spirit of God empowers us to live according to and above the law; a resurrected life of nonviolent love already in this fallen world of sin and violence, but not with ideological fixedness and not without ambiguities. Reinhold Niebuhr was right to say that in this sinful world none of our choices are pure and unambiguous, without irony and tragedy. We live in a world of uncertainty, contingency, ambiguity, and violence. As my friend musician Alan Armstrong has impressed upon me, much of life is like jazz. While there are basic choral structures (law) underneath, the musicians are constantly improvising spontaneously into uncharted territory. Life is like that. Public life is like that. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live boldly in a broken world, and by so doing we will break out of ideological straitjackets and inevitably “sin” in the process. Here the atoning work of Christ on the cross forgives us our sins (even violence?) without ever excusing them.

Here we have a profound Trinitarian “natural” theology, one that even Barth might approve of. Life even in its pre-fallen state is not possible without God’s gracious drawing of boundaries and limits against chaos and the void. The Fall, which is the temporary and highly relative triumph of the waters of chaos and nonbeing, changes the equation significantly, and makes the boundaries of law even more essential for the preservation of life from total annihilation. With the Fall, the new elements of the law, like coercion, become necessary as a rear-guard action. The radical nature of the Fall and the intransigence of sin makes the divinely-instituted coercive enforcement of law imperative. How this might be understood by contemporary Christians, who recognize the need for law and public order but take the ethic of nonviolence seriously today, I have explored in a recent paper published in German in the Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 2004, entitled “Gibt es ‘legitime Gewalt’ ”? 10 In that paper, I answer the question, “Is force sometimes necessary?”, with a qualified “yes” to policing as distinct from war. What is highlighted in the third person of the Trinity is the immanent, personal, transformative, life-giving power of God.


The primary resource for all thinking about Christian social ethics is, of course, the biblical text itself. The reason why I began above with a consideration of the doctrine of the Trinity is because I believe that it emerges out of the biblical text as a whole and that in turn, as in a theological circle, it can be used to interpret that same text. In another context I have argued that the confessional tradition (of which the doctrine of the Trinity is the essential part) ought not to be seen as coming after the biblical tradition but as parallel to it, if not before it. 11 Be that as it may, reliance on the multiplicity, diversity and unity of the biblical canon, I would continue to hold, takes theological precedence over the authority of the dogmatic and creedal developments of the ancient church. In an article I wrote during my 2002 stay at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, “ ‘I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it’: A Positive Theology of Law and Civil Institutions,” 12 I identify some themes of recent biblical studies that have particular relevance for my project. I draw and expand here on some of the observations I made in that article.


First, I suggest that when in Matthew 5:17–20 Jesus says he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, the Jews would have understood him to include in the concept of law not only moral law in the narrow religious sense but also civil law; that is, the way the Jewish community structured itself socially, culturally, and “politically.” Personal, private, moral law and corporate, public, civil law were not separated the way we in the modern West are inclined to do. In this Yoder is right when he talks about the “politics of Jesus,” and when he says: “that the ministry and the claim of Jesus are best understood as presenting to hearer and readers not the avoidance of political options, but one particular social-political-ethical option,” that of nonviolent love in human relations. 13 My problem with Yoder is not that he stresses the political nature of Christ’s message (or for that matter of the Bible as a whole), but that 1) he sees the nature of the political option too narrowly and one-sidedly (the nonviolent, pacifistic Jesus); and 2) he politicizes the biblical-Jesus message at the expense of other dimensions which can better be described in metaphysical, ontological, sacramental, existential, aesthetical and “spiritual” terms. Both the “horizontal” and the “vertical” dimensions are spoken to in the Bible. While they cannot be separated, they are to be distinguished and both are present. Yoder tends to collapse the vertical into the horizontal (and he considers the horizontal-social dimension too narrowly, excluding large areas of public, social, cultural and political life), and thereby compromises the transcendent, supra-historical reality of God. 14


Second, I draw attention to the nature of the political message of the Bible; that is, the content of what might loosely be considered the civil law that Jesus sought not to abolish but to fulfill and transcend. I rely on biblical scholars like Waldemar Janzen, a former teacher of mine and Professor Emeritus of Canadian Mennonite University, who is a strong apologist for the importance of the Old Testament as a resource for our thinking about social ethics. Janzen laments the Marcion-like tendency of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition (including Yoder) to think of the New Testament as having superseded the Old Testament if not outrightly replaced it. He is critical of Mennonites who have disdain for those mainline traditions [Reformed?] which still depend on the Old Testament for their views of law, politics, and war. 15

With great lucidity Janzen rightly points to the consequences of this de-emphasis of the Old Testament: it allows Mennonites to dispense with explicit theological reflection on the world outside the church, and large areas of life that have had importance for Mennonites throughout their history, such as family and land. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament does not give much guidance on some of these ethical issues. Areas of life given virtually no attention theologically due to a supersessionist approach include these: creation (land, place, nature, body, medicine); political society (government, law and justice, human rights and liberation); economic society (business, work, play); and family (children before baptism, children outside the church). 16 The result is that we do our thinking about these areas outside of theology.

Agreeing with my own call for reading the Bible as a whole in the context of the believing community, Janzen pleads for a re-enfranchising of the Old Testament for theological and ethical reflection, such that the whole canon becomes a source of authority for the Christian community without threatening the Anabaptist concern for obedience to the radical call of Jesus. Somewhat critical of my own confessional approach to the reading of Scripture (the Trinitarian schema of creation, fall-redemption, consummation), Janzen proposes a polyphonic rather than a homophonic, a synchronic rather than a diachronic reading of the whole canonical text to gain guidance for ethical questions. 17 What Janzen means by such a synchronic approach is that no part of the canon would have priority over another (gospel over law, Sermon on the Mount, story of Jesus) but rather the biblical exegete would move freely through the whole canon to find texts relevant for the issue at hand. In the pursuit of insight, there would be an ever wider circle of texts in dialogue with each other in the context of communal discernment. Though long and painful, such an approach can lead to closure on a topic, as the universal consensus against slave-holding exemplifies.

Janzen represents a critical minority voice within contemporary Mennonite theology, calling for a much more positive understanding of law and public civic and institutional life than is the case in what might be termed the Yoder school of thought. He continues to have a strong sense of the Christian calling to follow Jesus in living nonviolently, but this vocation is seen to be compatible with a selective participation in public life on many levels, including artistic, cultural, economic, and political. The very essence of the Christian faith (parallel to the Jewish faith) is the holding together of corporate life in all its aspects and belief, and a resistance to an atomization and individualization of that life and faith.


Third, I try to show that in Jesus’ message of love and the kingdom of God, as well as his own death, resurrection and ascension, he stands in considerable continuity with the Old Testament. I do not discount the discontinuities and the novelties in Jesus’ life and teachings in relation to the Hebrew scriptures, but I highlight the way gospel and law are mutually inclusive. There appears to be a virtual consensus within recent biblical scholarship that the traditional Lutheran reading of Paul in terms of the strict law-gospel distinction (law being identified with the Old and gospel with the New) does not do justice to the way gospel (divine benevolence or grace) is at the heart of law in the Hebraic tradition and law is intrinsic to the gospel in the Christian scriptures.

Drawing on Richard B. Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament, I explore particularly the “Matthean Jesus.” 18 The Jesus of Matthew is a Moses-like, authoritative teacher, with the didactic Sermon on the Mount programmatically placed at the beginning of the Gospel. The continuity of Jesus with the Torah is a theme throughout, but “rather than reading the Law’s requirements as rules that fix the normative standards of righteousness, Matthew’s Jesus sees them as pointers to a more radical righteousness of the heart, intensifying the demand of God far beyond the letter of the Law” (95). One of the ways Jesus fulfills the law is by disclosing the “inner intent” of the law. Another way is that in his life he completes numerous Old Testament prophecies. In this way Matthew demonstrates the identification of Jesus with the Torah both in his person and in his teaching, thereby harmonizing Law and Gospel. Hays is careful not to reduce the teachings of Jesus to an inner, subjective, individual “spiritualized” righteousness: Jesus calls people to a new community of disciples who put Jesus’ teachings into practice—an alternative to society at large. Obviously in sympathy with the thought of Stanley Hauerwas, his colleague at Duke University, Hays interprets this alternate community that Jesus represents as one which cultivates communal character rather than individualistic virtue and wisdom. Matthew in effect transforms the Hebraic understanding of law by making the double love command—“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ . . . ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Matt. 22:37–39)—the “hermeneutical filter” that governs the community’s whole understanding of law.

I find Hays’ treatment compelling in its depiction of early Christianity as firmly rooted in the Hebraic story and transforming that story into something new without being supersessionist. However, despite his desire not to spiritualize the message of Jesus, the specifics of moral life and responsibilities in the world are somewhat weakened. For instance, for the majority of Mennonites historically, the “hard sayings” of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount have had very specific, concrete, ethical and political ramifications: the rejection of all participation in warfare. If Jesus’ teachings as found in Matthew are taken to be realistically demanded of the disciplining community (as Hays supposes) how does that translate into historical, economic, and political life? Or, to go the route of Waldemar Janzen above, how are the many relevant “laws” of the Old Testament having to do with our stewardship of creation (e.g., cultural mandates), political society, economic life, family relationships related to the Matthean vision of Jesus as the new Torah?

I do not see Hays addressing these tough issues. I grant that the Mennonite tradition has focused too narrowly on the specific imperatives of Jesus in Matthew 5, having to do with “love of enemy,” using them as “proof texts” to support an ideological pacifism. This is precisely why I am urging us to read the whole canon theologically, and why I am exploring the problem of the rightful place of law and civil institutions for Christians as well as non-Christians while remaining faithful to Jesus’ love commandment.


Fourth, I look at some aspects of Paul’s attitudes toward the Roman government as a resource for my work on a more positive view of law. I have for some time thought that especially those of us in the “pacifist” traditions, who are suspicious of all forms of governmental power and institutions, might fruitfully examine more carefully Paul’s relation to the Jewish and Roman authorities in the Acts of the Apostles. It would give us a helpful counterpoint to the usual New Testament texts cited in relation to church-state and Christian use of force issues. Such an alternative paradigm might help us see with fresh eyes, and more dialectically, the conversion of Cornelius the centurion who was not asked to leave his profession (Acts 10); Jesus’ cleansing of temple with a whip (John 2:15); Jesus’ statements “I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) and “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garments and buy one,” (Luke 22:35–38); Jesus’ saying “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17); subjection to divinely instituted authority which bears the sword for the preservation of the good and the restraining of evil, and the legitimate payment of taxes (Rom. 13:1–7); and of course the “hard sayings” of Jesus (Matt. 5) and the parallel Pauline text on “marks of the true Christian” (Rom. 12:9–21), to name a few.

What we find in Acts is Paul taking advantage of the “police function” of the state for his own protection, and the use of secular courts as a Roman citizen. The Roman authorities, despite their opportunism, are generally portrayed by the author of Luke-Acts as friendlier and more concerned with justice than are the non-believing Jews, who repeatedly charge Paul with betraying the laws of Moses. On numerous occasions Roman militia rescue and protect Paul against mob violence (Acts 21:32, 23:10, 23:23–24). They are described as friendly guardians of Paul on the long trip to Rome, including the ship wreck at Malta (Acts 27–28). Paul at no time refuses this protection and friendship. In fact, he shows every sign of respect to the political authorities. On at least three occasions Paul demands his rights as a Roman citizen, and in the end demands to be heard by the highest court of the land: the Roman Emperor himself (Acts 25:10). Whether he ever did appear before the Emperor is left open at the end of the book.

Robert C. Tannehill, in his book The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation: Volume II: The Acts of the Apostles, does a fine job of giving the reader a detailed and colorful account of Paul’s imprisonment, appearance before the various authorities, including his three defense speeches, and the dramatic last trip to Rome, and I draw heavily on him. 19 For pacifists, and particularly for Mennonites, reading this interpretation of Paul’s relation to Jewish and Roman authorities raises some important questions. 1) Could one not characterize the activities of the Roman “militias” as found in the book of Acts as a form of “police” action that Christians could accept with discretion, as distinguished from “war-making” activities which they ought to reject? 2) What legitimate role does such “policing” have in society locally, regionally, nationally and internationally? 3) Can Christians intentionally benefit from and even participate in such policing? 4) What role do secular courts (and by implication other social, economic and political institutions) play in the Christian scheme of things? Can Christians, like Paul, demand their rights as citizens of a country in the context of secular courts and the public sphere generally? 5) Are there public laws (in the arena of the common good) that play a significant, even “normative” role for the Christian community (e.g., protection against abuse by clergy or the church community)? For most Christians in history since the time of Constantine up to the present the response to these questions has been self-evidently in the affirmative. For some minority groups, like Mennonites, this conclusion has not been at all obvious, and for some good reasons. In my current project I give a qualified “yes” to the complex questions above, without absolving the church of its role as constructive critic toward dominant culture and society.


I have concentrated above largely on the theological (Trinitarian and biblical) resources for a positive reading of public law, institutions and political engagement, dealt with in the first few chapters of my intended monograph. I go on in subsequent chapters of my research project (not considered here) to analyze how these theological resources have been and might be used in various eras of history: 1) the shift from a polytheistic view of law and public life to a monotheistic one in the Constantinian era, and particularly the notion of the fourth century theologian Lactantius (personal advisor to Constantine) that dissident religious groups should be forborne without persecution; 20 2) the development of the doctrines of divine, eternal, natural and civil law in the Medieval period, a modified version of which continues to have positive relevance for our understanding of Christian social ethics; 21 3) the different views of law, church and state during the Reformation period, especially by Luther, Calvin, and Pilgram Marpeck, in which chapter I support a contemporary version of Marpeck’s “dialectical” approach; 22 4) the function of law and religious minority groups in the Modern paradigm, in which I retrieve the Lactantius notion of “forbearance” for dissenting groups within what Jon Levenson calls a “public orthodoxy;” 23 5) how universal moral laws might be conceptualized in current Postmodern times; 24 and, finally, 6) a chapter in which I construct a proposal for an Anabaptist-Mennonite political theology in conversation primarily with three thinkers: John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Oliver O’Donovan. I defend a third position which is somewhere between that of Yoder-Hauerwas, on one side, and O’Donovan, on the other. It is not a middle position between these two approaches but one that fundamentally grows out of the Yoder-Hauerwas orientation to social ethics, but appropriates some of the important insights of O’Donovan.


  1. Paul G. Doerksen, “Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology,” in Creed and Conscience: Essays in Honour of A. James Reimer, ed. Jeremy M. Bergen, Paul G. Doerksen, Karl Koop (Kitchener: Pandora, 2007), 281–301, 282.
  2. I began this second part of the trilogy during a six-month sabbatical at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, at the time tentatively entitled, “When Law and Civil Institutions are Just: Honesty in Pacifist Thinking.” Since then, this working title has undergone various mutations, and may undergo several more.
  3. A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations of Christian Ethics (Kitchener, ON: Pandora; Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2001).
  4. John H. Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
  5. For a discussion of what I mean by “public orthodoxy,” see my “Public Orthodoxy and Civic Forbearance: The Challenge of Modern Law for Religious Minority Groups,” in The Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 3 (2003): 96–111.
  6. For my views on contemporary Mennonite involvement in public life in light of Pilgram Marpeck, see my “Law, Conscience and Civil Responsibilities: Marpeck, Mennonites and Contemporary Social Ethics,” in Commoners and Community: Essays in Honour of Werner O. Packull, ed. C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora; Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2002), 121–43.
  7. Cf. “God as Triune,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 392–405; “Confessions, Doctrines, and Creeds: Symbols and Metaphors of Ultimacy,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 355–71; “God is Love but Not a Pacifist” and “Christians, Policing, and Civil Order,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 486–92, 493–500; “Pacifism, Policing, and Individual Conscience,” The Conrad Grebel Review 26, no. 2 (2008): 129–41, esp. 138–40; “The Trinity: Why God’s Threeness is so Important and How it Might be Imagined Today,” Discipleship (November, 2003): 2–4, 9, a newsletter of Rockway Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ontario; two unpublished articles of mine: “Trinitarian Foundations for Law and Public Order” and “Trinitarian Foundations for Christian Spirituality: Shi’ah Muslim–Mennonite Christian Dialogue III.”
  8. The Latins emphasized the three persons within one God (highlighting the unity), while the Greeks stressed the one God in three persons (highlighting the distinctions). Cf. Michael O’Carroll, Trinitas: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1987), 83.
  9. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1958), 94–228. For a longer treatment of Barth’s interpretation of this Genesis text, see my “Logos, Nomos and Creatio ex Nihilo in the Thought of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich,” in Christus Jesus – Mitte der Geschichte!? Christ Jesus – the Center of History!? ed. Peter Haigis et al. (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2007), 166–84.
  10. “Gibt es ‘legitime Gewalt’?” in Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 2004: Dekade zur Überwindung von Gewalt – 2001 bis 2010, herausgegeben von der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Mennonitischer Gemeinden in Deutschland (K.d.ö.R.), 34–41. English translation of the title would be: “Is Force Sometimes Justified?” See also my “Pacifism, Policing, and Individual Conscience,” The Conrad Grebel Review 26, no. 2 (2008): 129–41.
  11. Cf. “Biblical and Systematic Theology: Two Parallel but Related Activities,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 372–91.
  12. “ ‘I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it’: A Positive Theology of Law and Civil Institutions,” in A Mind Patient and Untamed: Assessing John Howard Yoder’s Contributions to Theology, Ethics, and Peacemaking, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger and Gayle Gerber Koontz (Telford: Cascade Publishing House; co-published with Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2004), 245–73.
  13. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 11.
  14. See my “The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 168–73. See also my, “Mennonites, Christ, and Culture: The Yoder Legacy,” in Mennonites and Classical Theology, 288–99.
  15. Cf. Waldemar Janzen, “A Canonical Rethinking of the Anabaptist-Mennonite New Testament Orientation,” in The Church as Theological Community: Essays in Honour of David Schroeder, ed. Harry Huebner (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1990), 90–112, 92. In personal correspondence, Janzen clarifies that “My position is not that Mennonites should follow mainline denominations in deriving their views of law, politics, and war from the Old Testament (which even mainline denominations do not do exclusively), but that Mennonites should draw Old Testament texts into the discussion of such areas within a canonical inter-textual dialogue. Email Waldemar Janzen to A. James Reimer, May 1, 2002. I agree with Janzen on this point.
  16. Janzen, “A Canonical Rethinking,” 99.
  17. Janzen elaborates, “Yoder and others approach this matter diachronically, i.e., treat the Testaments in historical sequence. I, on the other hand, am calling for a ‘synchronic’ (though not flat) use of the whole canon, both Testaments, as a basis for Christian Ethics.” Email, Janzen to Reimer, May 1, 2002. I show in my essay, “I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it,” that Janzen himself depends on confessional elements in interpreting Scripture.
  18. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). I got to know Hays personally at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey, where we were scholarly colleagues in 2002, and presented the essay “I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it,” with him present.
  19. Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress), 272.
  20. See my “Constantine: From Religious Pluralism to Christian Hegemony,” in The Future of Religion: Toward a Reconciled Society, ed. Michael R. Ott (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 71–90.
  21. Cf. my “Revelation, Law, and Individual Conscience,” in The Conrad Grebel Review 24, no. 1 (2006): 12–31.
  22. For my preliminary reading of this period see “Law, Conscience and Civil Responsibility: Marpeck, Mennonites and Contemporary Social Ethics,” in Commoners and Community, 121–43.
  23. Cf. Reimer, “Public Orthodoxy and Civic Forbearance: The Challenges of Modern Law for Religious Minority Groups,” in The Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 3 (2003): 96–111.
  24. See my unpublished paper “Conceptualizing Universal Moral Principles for Social Ethics: The Pros and Cons of Global Ethics,” presented at a conference on Islamic ethics in Qom, Iran, in April–May of 2007.
A. James Reimer served as professor of theology and religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College until his recent retirement. He has published numerous articles and books, including Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001) and, more recently, Paul Tillich: Theologian of Nature, Culture and Politics (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2004).

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