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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 208–212 

A. James Reimer: Mennonite Theologian of the Public Good

Anthony G. Siegrist

I picked up the package containing A. James (Jim) Reimer’s most recent book from a parcel delivery agent located in a coffee shop on Main Street. From the front door, on the clearest of winter days, you could see the tops of the mountains, well past the train tracks and the pump jacks, just above the horizon. As I walked home daylight was already fading even though the morning frost hadn’t yet melted from the trees. Slipping and sliding on the partly cleared sidewalk, I thought of the last time I had seen Jim. It must have been sometime during the 2008–2009 academic year. That would have been shortly after he was named Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo. In 2010 Jim passed away. A volume of essays, intended to be the second in a three-volume set was left unfinished.

Reimer’s work reminds us that even prophetic speech requires a legal framework of accountability.

Thankfully these essays have now been collected and published by Paul Doerksen as Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology: Law, Order, and Civil Society. 1 Reimer intended the essays as groundwork for the second volume in his three-volume project. The first is his “black book”—Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics. 2 Both volumes represent the breadth of Reimer’s interests—Mennonite theology, the history of Christian ethics and the contemporary challenge of pluralism to public policy. Both volumes demonstrate Reimer’s commitment to the doctrine of the Trinity and to {209} the Thomistic natural law tradition. This second volume is the partly-completed result of what Reimer described as a “long-term study of a theology of law and civil institutions from the perspective of [the] Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage” (155). His goal was to treat these universal questions though the particularity of his own community.

Given this framework of the universal and the particular, it is not surprising that Reimer returns again and again in these essays to the doctrine of the Trinity. As Doerksen says in the introduction, “to misunderstand or underestimate Reimer on the weight of this point would be to distort his entire project” (xv). Reimer’s project here is to develop a positive view of law and civil institutions from the perspective of a tradition often squeamish about both. Another way to get a sense of Reimer’s project is through his self-conscious distinction from Mennonite intellectuals like John Howard Yoder and Harry Huebner. Reimer frames his assessment of civil institutions outside the church more positively than they, stressing that “the state when functioning properly is there to restrain evil and promote and further the good” (1). In the second essay of the book he charges Mennonite theology with ignoring the theological significance of “ ‘God-ordained’ institutions throughout human history, by which God preserves the world from total chaos and disintegration.” To make amends Reimer suggests “we need a more honest theology of law and civil institutions and their function in helping shape and preserve human and nonhuman life in a fallen world, as mandated in the Christian doctrines of creation, redemption, and reconciliation” (20–21).

It is this vision, framed through a Trinitarian hermeneutic, that allows him to link together logos and nomos. Yet just as the doctrine of the Trinity describes unity, it also describes distinction. Reimer points to the transcendence of the Father as grounds for a warmer embrace of the Old Testament and of divine judgment than is comfortable for many contemporary Mennonites. Reimer believes laws are not only contingently necessary, but law itself is good with or without the fall (9, 50).

The Anabaptist tradition has come to be held as an example of how social change can happen through non-institutional networks and relationships. Reimer’s work, however, reminds us that even prophetic speech requires a legal framework of accountability. Reimer draws on several historical figures to illustrate his way of taking institutions more seriously. Two of the most significant are Lactantius and Pilgrim Marpeck. The former was a court theologian of the fourth century, whose life spanned both the systematic persecution of Christians and their full toleration under Constantine. The latter was a sixteenth-century Anabaptist leader who worked as a civil engineer for several cities and was involved in serious ecumenical exchanges. {210}

Reimer points out that Lactantius’s work is indicative of a phase in Christian theologizing in which it was asked to “shape the very legal and political structure of surrounding culture” (71). This is just the sort of work Reimer thinks Christian citizens should do, and for this he finds Lactantius’s policy of forbearance instructive. Forbearance, he writes, “allows for the coexistence of different groups but with hopes of converting the other and even the state as such. . . . The critical point, however, was that the Christian state should be achieved by persuasion, not by force” (72). Forbearance is the responsibility of those establishing the inevitable (!) public orthodoxy. In Reimer’s construal, Lactantius exemplifies not just good Christian governance but management of pluralist realities in general.

Pilgrim Marpeck serves as an example from Reimer’s Anabaptist tradition of public engagement from a less privileged position. Reimer refers to Marpeck and his circle as “perhaps the most fruitful theological and ethical way into the future” (116). Marpeck is worthy of imitation because, even though he was not in a position to weigh in on what was considered publically orthodox, his energetic participation in ecumenical debates, his collaborative approach to biblical interpretation, and his active involvement in civil affairs kept him involved in life beyond his family and church. What makes Marpeck particularly important for Reimer is the way he kept these various commitments provisional, in that they could always be trumped by interventions of conscience or the Spirit (125).


When I last spoke to Jim we talked about the prospect of Anabaptist theology. If I could talk to him again I would push him to explain in more depth how he is different from Yoder when it comes to engaging civil society. Reimer would admit his affection for Yoder’s concept of middle axioms, and he would probably point out that he is more transparent about his support for the use of force in policing. But I still wonder if on the level of practice they really are so very different. I would also ask Reimer to explain how, on the level of method, his approach can be distinguished from the just war tradition. More critically, I would push Reimer to explain the possible sources of a public orthodoxy under which forbearance might be enacted. It seems to me that even in the benevolent Lactantian version the content of such an orthodoxy cannot be separated from the mode of its enforcement. We cannot prescribe that it be enforced nonviolently without demanding something of its very constitution. As he does in Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology, Reimer would probably point me to the witness of the conscience and {211} to the larger concept of natural law. This is especially clear in the essay “Law, Freedom of Conscience, and Civil Responsibility.” Here he affirms that general revelation and universal reason form the foundation for common political life.

As natural as such an appeal might seem, it is controversial precisely because it is difficult to say what nature is. “Nature” and “natural” are cultural constructions. If we don’t agree on what these things are, the notion of building civil society on natural law becomes difficult to advance. Reimer does not think this challenge is insurmountable. This is why he insists the Yoderian distinction between “is” (the order of the cosmos) and “ought” (moral order) is too sharp. For Reimer, we can get at something of what we ought to do by observing what is, or more specifically, “we get to the universal through the particular” (176). That is true, he thinks, as long as we don’t fixate on the particular but work through dialogue to discern the universal. Together we can see what we hold in common, what is written in nature.

Reimer not only believed this but practiced it within the university setting and in formal dialogues with adherents of other religions. This is where he was at his best. Gracious and thoughtful, he went beyond simply referring to heroes from his tradition and took the time to investigate others. This is one of the reasons that his regular reference to his own work is surprising. The auto-citation, “as I have argued elsewhere,” gives his work a greater sense of comprehensiveness than the interrelated essays probably warrant. I think it is also this dialogic basis that allows some of his essays to leave off where it appears the real work is about to begin. In the final paragraph of “Constantine: From Religious Pluralism to Christian Hegemony,” Reimer asks whether the “Lactantian vision” is still possible or desirable (76). Given the fact that he viewed laws as necessarily timely and provisional, this question is crucial. However, it goes unanswered. These criticisms are matters of annoyance, though, more than substance.

If I were to go beyond asking Reimer questions and noting these annoyances, I would suggest that pragmatism offers a better way forward for public life than does the appeal to natural law. My hunch is that public arguments from natural law are really either bland conservativism or simple appeals to emotion. I am unconvinced that the convergences that become apparent in dialogue can serve as the grounds for public life—modern society is far too fragmented for that. Reimer expresses some misgivings on this point: “Whether these convergences that are arrived at through the encounter of different religions and worldviews could be said to be rooted in some more fundamental, universal, natural principles, only time will tell” (186). I think time has already told us {212} that we can’t agree on the answer to that very question or the metaphysics that the question assumes. What is left for Christians to do through the channels of civil society is to argue for the sorts of goods relevant to public policy we hold to be important in one situation or another. We argue for these in ways comprehensible to others. At the same time we hope sufficient examples of Christian community exist to show new possibilities and to lend our arguments additional credibility. The more central conversations—for example, the ones where we seek to explain the triune character of God or the way in which the cosmic and moral orders are knit together—will take place elsewhere.


I have no doubt Jim would disagree earnestly with my claims, but he would do so with the patience of one used to public disagreements. I read his book in the spring while traveling east. The roads were in good repair and traffic-safety laws were enforced. These things, I would admit to Jim, are necessary and good. What Christianity can add to how these things are carried out, of that I am unsure. That is not to say that “Christian” institutions are dispensable. They are not. Furthermore, I hope that Jim’s constructive vision for Christian participation in public life is carried on through the relationships and the institutions in which he was a participant. Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology will further that agenda.


  1. A. James Reimer, Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology: Law, Order, and Civil Society, edited by Paul G. Doerksen (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).
  2. A. James Reimer, The Dogmatic Imagination: The Dynamics of Christian Belief (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2003).
Anthony G. Siegrist, ThD, is Lead Minister at Ottawa Mennonite Church in Ottawa, Canada.

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