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Fall 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 2 · pp. 169–183 

The Theological Poverty of the Mennonite Brethren Vision

Brian Cooper


North American Mennonite Brethren face a challenge that is perhaps more pressing now than ever before in the history of the movement. Diversity of all kinds is opening new opportunities for mission in different ways and locations, but diverse representations of theological identity and purpose are hampering efforts to identify, prioritize, and act upon those opportunities. Although there are levels of agreement about many theological commitments and missional endeavors that have enabled much fruitful ministry, Mennonite Brethren have long lacked a common theological platform from which to implement actions in line with a shared missional vision. More than one historian has noted that “Mennonite Brethren have never had a solid theological rudder to steer their theological ship.” 2

Failure to speak explicitly about how to do theology together will, if allowed to continue, cause severe damage to the life of the denomination.

As a result, longstanding denominational approaches to strategic work are in danger of collapsing under the weight of regionalisms and theological fragmentation. Even national conference polity and governance are being re-evaluated in light of changing patterns of participation and decreasing levels of support for large-scale denominational cooperation. While the {170} large-scale changes among North American Mennonite Brethren ought not be cause for alarm, the underlying theological issue is significant enough to warrant care and attention.

The genesis of the challenge that confronts Mennonite Brethren lies in the impetus that compelled eighteen leaders to draft articles of secession from the Mennonite church in 1860. It is not that the Mennonite Brethren lacked a collective vision. On the contrary, the movement was motivated by a clear emphasis on personal spiritual renewal leading to visible discipleship. The problem is that once expressed, the theological foundation for this vision focused on discipleship was assumed to be self-evidently clear instead of being developed explicitly and grounded in a clearly defined theological method.

It has frequently been said that Mennonite Brethren are “people of the book,” meaning that the Bible serves as the basis for confessional theological identity. 3 Mennonite Brethren biblicism, although it has served the movement well in many respects over time, has never been the primary unifying force among Mennonite Brethren, and is insufficient on its own to orient and unify the movement. Consequently, Mennonite Brethren theological development has been ad hoc and has always struggled to assert itself in the face of outside theological influences. Today, Mennonite Brethren are at a theological crossroads that will dictate whether Mennonite Brethren can discern a common identity or fragment under the weight of theological pragmatism. Appeals to the teaching and authority of Scripture are too varied and disparate to be helpful.

This article will briefly outline the significance of theological hermeneutics as a tool for creating theological unity. It will then trace the development of Mennonite Brethren theological priorities before identifying important theological elements for consideration and making a modest proposal regarding a way forward. I propose a renewed emphasis on theological hermeneutics as a way to clarify the nature and intent of theological work at a denominational level.


What I recognized only inchoately as a seminary student, but which has been articulated well and often, 4 is that evangelicals who do exegetical and theological work based on a “high” view of Scripture—the Bible as uniquely authoritative, inspired by God, infallible in its theological influence—often find themselves at epistemological cross-purposes . . . with themselves. (I have found this to be true of myself as well.) The theological principle they adhere to is that Scripture’s authoritative teaching provides us with substantive direction for how to live as Christians. But their foundation for upholding biblical authority, as well as for the task of mining its riches, is based not on theological arguments but instead {171} on the methods of modern textual and historical criticism as practiced by biblical and literary scholars. These methods are seen as essential for the development of an intellectually credible system of biblical interpretation.

Arguments from Christian apologists notwithstanding, the suitability of such methods for bolstering theological commitments to Scripture is debatable, and it would appear that the best thing this type of scholarship can contribute to theological commitments is a framework of plausibility, that is, an outline of the parameters of a credible interpretation. Intellectual certainty is not an end in view, and theological conviction is knowledge of a very different kind.

Questions of what constitutes valid interpretation (i.e., hermeneutics) and the role of Scripture as a theological resource are vitally important to theological conversations, and any attempt at consensus-building will have to come to grips with the diversity of perspectives that shape biblical interpretation in congregations and denominations. But large-scale consensus-building as a major goal of Bible study seems both organizationally impossible and theologically problematic. Sooner or later it will demand that we impose a universal cultural and epistemological grid on the biblical texts. For in order to arrive at a desired uniform set of answers from the Bible, Christians need to be asking a uniform set of questions. And given the different cultures represented in the Mennonite Brethren denomination (and sometimes even in individual churches), a set of questions of this kind will always elude us.

The problem is that biblical texts are not merely a source of answers to questions that Christians ask. Rather, as a composite collection of texts they provide insight into the narrative of God’s unfolding work in the world, and they serve to reveal the questions that believing communities need to ask in the course of pursuing faithful discipleship. Consequently, if biblical texts are expected to have a formative influence in our Christian communities, this must happen at least as much on their terms as on ours. Christians need, not to plug the right set of Bible answers into their narratives, but to find themselves (both where they are and where they are called to be) in the narrative of the world provided in Scripture.

The emphasis on biblical theology in the Mennonite Brethren world has perpetuated the notion that Bible teaching—usually this means using the sort of plain and direct interpretation that has long prevailed at a grassroots level—provides all the theological resourcing necessary for a diverse denominational constituency. The turn in the 1960s from the literalism of a predominantly fundamentalist approach to Scripture to one that attempts to allow biblical language and categories to shape a theological system 5 has allowed for a more integrated theological {172} approach by Mennonite Brethren, but it has not actually created a theological system to do that integrative work.

A major lacuna exists in Mennonite Brethren scholarship. While biblical commentaries abound, there remains no theological text written by or for Mennonite Brethren readers. As a result, theological identity is lacking. Solid biblical interpretation and the teaching it facilitates are necessary but not sufficient components in the life of the community. Mennonite Brethren habitually go to the Bible to try to answer pressing theological questions. Recent study conferences on atonement theology and human sexuality have revealed that there is significant common ground among Mennonite Brethren leaders, but the differences that emerged reveal that there is not consensus on these matters. A major factor underlying this lack of consensus is that while biblical study is an essential step in the process of theological discernment, it cannot create unity unless we are unified in our understanding of how Scripture serves theological processes in relation to other theological sources, and how different biblical passages ought to be interpreted in relation to one another. In the absence of this important process step, even the most well-intentioned attempts at collective Bible study will merely perpetuate problems rather than resolve them.


Theological hermeneutics differs from biblical hermeneutics in that it deliberately weighs textual meaning in light of larger theological commitments, considering not only what individual biblical texts mean, but also which texts ought to be prioritized in different scenarios to facilitate faithful theological reflection. Theological hermeneutics also goes beyond basic doctrinal affirmations such as the primacy of scriptural authority to address how Scripture interacts as a collection of diverse texts to form a theological unity, how it interacts theologically with other Christian theological texts, with the social and natural sciences, and even with other world religions.

The approach to theology proposed in this paper is deliberately nonfoundationalist in its epistemology—that is, it assumes that we can have genuine knowledge of a thing even if we cannot show that it rests on the foundation of some unassailable principle or truth. In contrast to much of the traditional systematic theology that has influenced Christian theology since the Enlightenment, it works from starting premises that are provisional, derived from and in the spirit of the approach suggested more than a generation ago by Mennonite Brethren scholars, 6 premises intentionally rooted in the conceptual language of the biblical texts. This paper will suggest a theological approach that lets biblical language and {173} metaphors shape the conceptual framework of theological work, as well as guide the construction of the main theological questions that need to be answered by the believing community.

Theological hermeneutics offers a way for Christian disciples, working in the interest of Christian mission, to connect the theological horizons of the past with the changing realities of the present, sensitive to diversities on both fronts. Theology is often bifurcated into being and doing; this has the unfortunate effect of creating a dichotomy between doctrine and ethics. Worse, it creates the perception that theology is concerned only with doctrine, leaving ethics to finds its own way. Theology done faithfully, however, is always a deliberate attempt to root faithful praxis in faithful reflection, both historically and existentially. Theological hermeneutics gives voice to the ongoing work of discernment and interpretation that allows this to occur. The goal is to help Christians see biblical interpretation and theological construction as two moments in a continuous process intended to perpetuate God’s incarnated presence in the world.

Over time, Mennonite Brethren theology has been eclectic, drinking from various wells and creating a theological diversity than has proven both enriching and challenging. Biblicism has long been a core value among Mennonite Brethren, but it has become a contested category, mainly because its definition varies widely. Mennonite Brethren have imbibed theological content and method from Pietists and various evangelical streams, including Baptist, dispensationalist, charismatic, and fundamentalist. In recent years, different publications have featured content exploring what Mennonite Brethren identity might mean today, if such a thing still exists, or ever did.


Mennonite Brethren emphasis on Scripture for theology has often been associated with the Protestant Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. This claim is partly true, but only partly. However, sola Scriptura has been co-opted repeatedly as a way to validate a particular theological agenda (such as Reformed theology) and has been associated with authentic Mennonite Brethren theology. 7 This principle, often used to ground the legitimacy of theological arguments, is seldom defined adequately. Consequently, its present use often flies in the face of the intentions of its earliest advocates. Donald Bloesch reminds readers that when “the Reformers insisted on sola Scriptura, they meant that Scripture must be interpreted in its own light instead of by an extrabiblical criterion, such as the teaching authority of the church. Scripture can be understood only in terms of itself.” 8 Reformers such as Luther and Zwingli had in mind to refute the claims to theological authority made by the {174} magisterium of the Roman Catholic church. Their appeal to the principle of sola Scriptura was intended to convey that theological truth claims needed to rest not only on isolated proof texts supported by ecclesiastical claims to theological authority but also on the credible testimony of the unified witness of Scripture. This approach is actually closer to a biblical theological approach than to a systematic approach.

Later, the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith clarified the principle further, laying out what has become a widely accepted principle of biblical interpretation: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture it-self: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” 9

In evangelical Protestant theology today, sola Scriptura is a theological principle that appeals not only to the authority of Scripture but to the authority of an unnamed and unacknowledged interpretation of Scripture, most often tied to modern ideas about authorial intent and historical-grammatical exegesis. It also presupposes modern Western ideals as the basis for understanding truth and deriving meaning from biblical texts. These are not unhelpful elements of the Christian tradition, but they are not intrinsically unassailable means of faithful biblical interpretation.

The most important point to be made about the principle of sola Scriptura is that it does not obviate the need for careful and discerning biblical interpretation. Put simply, the Bible is not self-evidently clear, even where there is overwhelming consensus about its meaning. Not only Mennonite Brethren theological ambiguity but also Protestant theological history makes this lesson clear. The question of hermeneutics vexed Protestant attempts at unity more than was the case among Roman Catholics, and the Protestant Reformation quickly fragmented into a multitude of groups because there was no agreement about what the Bible taught.

Compounding the problem was the intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment and the problem of discerning how to interpret the Bible and Christian theology in light of new developments in philosophy and the natural sciences. Major effects of the Enlightenment included the tendency to collapse truth into factuality or historicity rather than authority, and the association of theological reliability with precision rather than humility. These trends have shifted the emphasis from believing the Bible to believing “truths” about the Bible. Mennonite Brethren theologians have identified these problems at times, but they have persisted.

David Ewert identified the problem of making a precise definition of what is inherent in a faithful understanding of the authority of Scripture. Writing in 1977 in response to the release of Harold Lindsell’s book The {175} Battle for the Bible, Ewert noted that “the reader can easily be deceived into thinking that if only he has the right definition of inerrancy, he is already a true and faithful follower of Jesus, the Lord of the Scriptures.” 10 Steven Miller, writing for Direction in 1983, highlights the problems associated with truncated definitions of sola Scriptura—inordinate dependence on scholarly leaders for correct biblical interpretation, selective readings of the text, and hermeneutics affected inappropriately by ideologies that have crept into the church community, often unnoticed. 11 Both expose the problem of thinking that a particular attitude about the Bible, coupled with unacknowledged influences on biblical interpretation, can cause substantial problems for theological work in a Christian community.


In order to fruitfully frame theological hermeneutics, it is helpful to remember Anselm’s ancient motto, “faith seeking understanding,” which has long served as a simple definition that is more important than is often recognized. My purpose is not to survey the problems with biblical and theological hermeneutics but rather to briefly sketch a way forward. My goals as a seminary educator are to impart an incarnational understanding of theological reflection that individuals desire to see lived out in real life, not merely articulated in a theoretical way, and to create an appreciation for theological hermeneutics as the core of the Christian theological enterprise. The proposal I make is intended to be the beginning of a theological conversation rather than a definitive theological statement.

Theological hermeneutics is not static, but dynamic and cyclical, and its movement gives rise to important moments in the life of the community. True catholicity, understood as the ubiquitous teaching based on the Scriptures, is best understood in relation to the community-based reflection of Christian communities, congregations, and other diverse gatherings of believers, rather than interdenominational gatherings of experts, as is often typical of theological conversations in practice. Theological hermeneutics entails the construction of a message that both edifies the members of the community and bears witness to the good news of Jesus Christ for those beyond it.

The inspiration for this proposal is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as used by Howard Stone and James Duke. 12 Reflection on the four points of the quadrilateral—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience—left me with some nagging doubts. First, reason as a source of theology did not sit well with me; reason is a method of doing theology rather than a source of theological content. 13 Second, the ordering of the four sources did not adequately indicate in which order they ought to be considered. I found that some students assumed the four were like four barrels of theological {176} content that could be mined according to their preferences, and I was chagrined to learn when I talked about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in my theology classes, that some students felt free to order their theological content à la carte. Third, I wanted to convey that theological work is a dynamic enterprise, done in an ever-changing environment; that it is done in community, not by spiritual hermits or educated elites. Finally, I wanted students to know that theological hermeneutics is concerned with integrating seemingly disparate elements into a coherent whole that is (1) the foundation for Christian discipleship, (2) rooted in the biblical texts, and (3) predicated on a personal, relational connection with Jesus. Conversations with students have indicated that the relationships among the sources is insufficiently clear.

The proposed alternative to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is Cooper’s Theological Circle (see Figure 1 below). The metaphor is a graphic image rather than a mental one. I think this is pedagogically more effective, especially considering what I consistently hear from students and read in the assignments they write for my classes. Abstract mental images do not effectively communicate theological concepts for a great many students.

Figure 1


The two axes of the diagram correspond to the traditional relationship between methods of theological reflection and sources. There is a polarity between the traditional side, which is more historical, communal, and canonical, and the experiential side, which is personal {177} and existential. They are connected by Scripture, which is the location for connecting personal stories with the stories of God’s interaction with his people in history—the fusion of hermeneutic horizons where meanings of the biblical texts are found in communities of faith. 14

On the horizontal axis, the polarity represented is between the rational side, describing the world as it is, and the eschatologically conditional imaginative side, representing the world as it should and will be. This represents an underdeveloped element of evangelical theology. It is inspired by a small book called The Dogmatic Imagination: The Dynamics of Christian Belief, by A. James Reimer. 15 Notwithstanding calls for Christians to model Kingdom virtues, a good portion of evangelical theological reflection has positioned itself as a dogmatic restatement of rationalistic dogmatic principles, and theologians who have articulated a robust social and ethical agenda are frequently pilloried for being legalistic or overly political. The call within this model for theological hermeneutics is for Christians to open their eyes to the biblical texts that describe the social and ethical dimension of discipleship and re-engage the task of discerning an imaginative theological agenda for contemporary contexts.

The terms in the four corners of the diagram represent what I see as four moments in the life of the Christian community that arise from the theological work that the community does together. Narration is the telling of the story that shapes the community; it is connected to the life of the community arising from Scripture, but it is not the same story as Scripture tells—it is necessarily derivative of it. Interpretation is the necessary accompaniment to narration that connects the history of the Christian community to its present experience, informing the identities of its members, individually and collectively. On the other side, Witness is the outworking of the theology of the group as it embraces its role in the missio Dei. It is the contextual message that members of the community bring in, not only identifying themselves as followers of Jesus Christ but inviting others to follow as well. Discernment is the ongoing work of seeking guidance and implementing the direction that comes from theological decision-making. It sets and adjusts priorities, and prioritizes options in light of changing contexts and theological convictions.

The work of the Spirit is integrated in the picture as a reminder that it is the Spirit who facilitates movement from different modes of reflection to others, and to and from biblical interpretation. The Spirit keeps reflection rooted in Scripture, preventing it from becoming disconnected and an idol in and of itself.

The center of the picture is not Scripture, but rather Jesus Christ, to whom we have access via Scripture and the Spirit’s agency. Christ is the center of gravity of theological reflection. Christ’s centrality in the picture reminds theologians that the goal of theological reflection is to {178} facilitate nearness—faithfulness, intimacy, Nachfolge—to Christ, in all the theological breadth of the word. The representation of the relationship of Christ and Scripture is a visual reminder of the need, at some point, to root all theological reflection that seeks Christlikeness as its goal in biblical concepts and reflection. The orientation of tradition, reason, experience, and imagination around the center is a reminder that influences arising from these areas—for instance, the influence of culture and the ideological pressures arising from personal experience or from traditional ideologies—must continually be re-evaluated in light of the teaching and example of Christ.

The pressing question to be asked is whether the ethical implications of the influences under consideration are consistent with the example and teachings of Jesus, whether understood directly or inferred contextually. For example, although some theologies of leadership current in churches incline leaders to adopt a directive style and concentrate authority in a person or small circle of leaders in order to create organizational efficiency, the criterion for Christian leadership is neither efficiency nor some measure representing results but rather fidelity to the principle Jesus articulated: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44 NIV).

These forces must be subjected to the authority of Christ as seen not simply in the selection of the biblical witness that aligns with the preferences of interpreters in light of their systematic theological commitments, but in the full sweep of biblical teaching as understood consistently within the life of the church. Theological commitments that cannot account for all of the interpretive biblical data ought to be considered suspect. Conformity to the example of Christ is the goal, which takes priority over all others. For example, notwithstanding the human survival instinct on an individual and corporate level, the mandate to follow the example of Christ in embracing suffering and being obedient “even unto death” (Phil 2) must not be set aside. The goal is not to suffer but to imitate Christ, for the same reasons that Christ embodied.

The outer circle in my diagram signifies the limitations of finite human reflection on the incomprehensible grandeur of God (cf. Rom 11:33). The precise location of that limit in finite human understanding is sometimes uncertain and ambiguous. It represents a formal distinction—and a necessary one—more than a material one. Judgments about the limits of faithfulness are necessarily provisional, and while words are helpful evidence of faith, it is deeds—the fruit of the Spirit—that are a more reliable indication of discipleship. {179}


This article is not an attempt to trivialize difficult theological questions or to suggest an implied mode of biblical interpretation. But on at least two points from the Mennonite Brethren Confession, it can be shown that external influences have already begun to reorder Mennonite Brethren theological priorities. In the absence of tools sourced from a theological hermeneutic, it is difficult to respond to challenges or to build a theological consensus. The failure of Mennonite Brethren to identify the Confession of Faith as the product of a preferred theological hermeneutic has perpetuated questions about how it functions as a theological resource for Mennonite Brethren—whether it is descriptive or prescriptive, whether some articles are essential while others are not, and whether or not individuals and groups can openly be at odds with its theological commitments.

The first example concerns Mennonite Brethren practice regarding baptism and membership. This is a conviction that is explicit in the Confession of Faith. Mennonite Brethren believe that Jesus clearly taught his disciples to make disciples and baptize them (Matt 28:19). The early church understood this to mean that baptism was the sign indicating entry into the church (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:14), the commitment now known as membership. This is the basis for the confessional connection of baptism and membership. The fact that there are churches that have separated baptism and membership indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role the Confession of Faith is intended to play among Mennonite Brethren. Additionally, the press of other nontheological implications of membership—cultural, legal, and social considerations—has inclined churches to change their practice and has hindered development of a unified theology of the church community.

In another direction, the Mennonite Brethren commitment to peacemaking has been poorly articulated and badly understood, but it is also true that the high calling of being peacemakers has been seen as idealistic and impractical, leading pastors and other leaders to elevate non-theological traditional and experiential concerns above what Mennonite Brethren long acknowledged to be explicit biblical teaching. As deeply felt as the instincts toward self-preservation and protection of loved ones are, they are not calls that come from the lips of Jesus. But the call to do good to those that hate you does come from Jesus (Luke 6:27) and is supplemented by Paul’s admonition to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21). Living out the mandate to be agents of Christ’s reconciling work amidst the complexities of life is difficult, to be sure, but the implications of embracing not only conflict, but violence, as a necessary part of living in the world is foreign to the teaching of Jesus. A well-developed theological hermeneutic is necessary to help Christian {180} communities discern how to live. Richard Hays provides a helpful reminder that biblical interpretation and preaching for the transformation of lives ought to be held together and embraced by Christian communities. “Exegesis gives us critical distance from the text; preaching thrusts the text’s word directly into our faces. The word is near us, and it demands a response.” 16


Theology is frequently seen as the doctrinal deposit that is the reference point for those who articulate faith. It is what must be believed in order to incarnate real faith. Historically, the Christian tradition has referred to this as fides quae creditur—the faith which is believed. But it is also true that theological reflection, while aware and usually respectful of reason and tradition as theological tools, must pay heed to the other side of the theological circle.

Theology is also necessarily experiential—that is, formed by faithful reflection on lived spirituality. In this context, theology is associated with fides qua creditur—the act of believing. This priority is also identifiable by a disinclination to reduce faithfulness to maintaining traditional forms and doctrines. Experientially formed theology carries in it the conviction that traditional theological formulas, however longstanding and helpful, are nevertheless time-bound products of imperfect human reflection. As such, they cannot adequately express the fullness of God’s self-revelation, nor can they encompass the needs of every unique context. As a result, the theological task is marked by a commitment to an ongoing process of theological conversation, discernment, and decision-making. This process yields context-specific theological content that must be reviewed continually as it is incarnated to ensure both its existential coherence and faithfulness.

This community exhibits forms of worship, relationship, polity, and priority that are both quantitatively and qualitatively different from what human social networks embody elsewhere. Conditioned not only by the way the world around it works but also by the way it is intended to be when God’s kingdom finally comes in its fullness, the church community is a model of the presence of the kingdom, an imaginative example that itself is a form of witness. This is the ethical shape of being salt and light in the world (Matt 5:13–16). More than simply voicing a theological message that can be understood in a particular context, advocates of this model invite relationships with the larger community so that people outside the congregation can observe and reflect on the qualitatively different culture—the incarnation of the kingdom of God in the present—that the congregation embodies. The ethical dimension of Christian discipleship— {181} the fruit of the Spirit—is seen as the sine qua non of theological fidelity, taking seriously the admonition to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22 KJV). While doctrinal content may play a significant role in Christian formation, it is personal conduct that is emphasized as marking members of the community.

A church community formed by an imaginative model for Christian theology will place a high priority on modeling the transformation that characterizes the Kingdom of God. Without sacrificing the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, it will actively involve itself in the affairs of the larger community, making acts of charity, proclamation, and advocacy for justice elements of its missional focus, especially on behalf of the marginalized (cf. Matthew 25:40). While comprehensible, this work will also at times be controversial. Managing the tension between adaptation to context on the one hand, and boldly and controversially modeling something better on the other is an essential task of the Christian community.

Two considerations emerge immediately from the descriptions of these competing visions. Historical developments (in the history of Mennonite Brethren, for example, the influence of twentieth-century Christian fundamentalism) incline people reflecting on this polarity to associate the two ends of the axis, the traditional and the experiential, with the polarities connected with the long divide between theological conservatives and liberals. In this dichotomy, tradition is associated with theological orthodoxy, and liberalism is attributed to experiential subjectivism that compromises traditional orthodoxy. In the context of this comparison, such an association is inaccurate and unhelpful. The conservative/liberal polarity is a different one from that identified here. Liberal Christian traditionalism exists alongside conservative; it simply prizes a different set of traditional ideological virtues and doctrines. Similarly, Christian communities that are theologically (and socially) conservative can embody a very imaginative and experiential form of Christianity. Communal forms of Christianity—for example, Old Order Mennonites and Amish, to name two groups within the Anabaptist tradition—often devote fewer resources to developing a theological framework than they do to creating a culture in which discipleship is cultivated experientially. Outward expressions of faith are valued more than theoretical foundations for faith, and these outward, often highly visible, expressions are important identifiers of the community.

Mennonite Brethren have traditionally maintained a spirituality that is well-rounded and connected to both “sides”—traditional and experiential—although they have not often expressed theologically why it was important to do so. It is for this reason that the denominational mission agency was called Mennonite Brethren Missions/Services International {182} for many years. Mennonite Brethren have been involved in various forms of holistic mission through the Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates, among other agencies. The theological integrity of all of those serving through these agencies may be debated, but the theological hermeneutic of the denominational community should be robust enough for people to understand how participation in various kinds of ministries are compatible with the example of Jesus Christ.

The traditional/rational emphasis in theology tends to see theological work oriented more toward product—content that is known and unchanging. It is this supracontextual content that can be applied to changing contexts. The primary moments in this theological scheme are narration and interpretation. On the other hand, the primary mode of theological work in the experiential/imaginative stream focuses on the theological process. The important element of theological reflection is not the initial content, or even the final contextualization (although this is essential). Rather, it is the process, the collective activity of the community working toward clarity and resolution in a given matter, that embodies the liberated and empowered fellowship that is the ordering of the Kingdom. The conviction guiding this orientation is that while the outcome of theological work may not be known, the faithful community led by the Holy Spirit will always be led into truth.


Mennonite Brethren are at a theological and institutional crossroads. Failure to speak explicitly about how to do theology together—how to interpret Scripture and other theological sources in a coherent, unifying, and faithful way—will, if allowed to continue, cause severe damage to the life of the denomination. This modest proposal is offered as a visual representation of a theological hermeneutic that can help conceptualize the task before us—to construct, embody, and bear witness to a compelling theological vision for a world in need of reconciliation. It is a vision that derives new, transformational insight from old sources, providing direction and enablement for Christian mission.

It is inevitable that some will disagree with what is written here, and will disagree about other aspects of theology. But if the orientation of Mennonite Brethren is toward Christ as center, then the unity of the Spirit in faithfulness to Christ will bind people together long enough to allow consensus about the substance of our theological convictions to emerge. The likelihood that this will happen depends on how willing we are to surrender personal preferences for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. {183}


  1. Cf. Stephen F. Dintaman, “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision,” The Conrad Grebel Review 10 no. 2 (Spring 1992): 205–8.
  2. Abraham Friesen, “Mennonite Brethren Beginnings: Background and Influences,” in Abe J. Dueck, Bruce L. Guenther, and Doug Heidebrecht, eds., Renewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections after 150 Years (Winnipeg MB: Kindred, 2011), 99.
  3. As noted by Doug Heidebrecht, “People of the Book: The Significance of Mennonite Brethren Biblicism and Hermeneutics,” Direction 40 (Fall 2011): 219–31.
  4. E.g., Joel Green, “Practicing the Gospel in a Post-Critical World: The Promise of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 3 (September 2004): 387–97.
  5. Heidebrecht, “People of the Book,” 226.
  6. Elmer A. Martens, “Realizing the Vision through Biblical Theology,” in The Seminary Story: Twenty Years of Education in Ministry, ed. A. J. Klassen (Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1975), 36.
  7. Cf. John Neufeld, “Ploughing with a Donkey and an Ox: On Being Anabaptist and Reformed,” Direction 42 (Fall 2013): 124–31. See also A. J. Klassen, “The Bible in the Mennonite Brethren Church,” Direction 2, no. 2 (April 1973): 34–55. For a succinct elaboration of what sola Scriptura entails, as well as what it does not, see Tim Geddert, “Sola Scriptura and the Mennonite Brethren,” in Renewing Identity and Mission, 155–64.
  8. Donald G. Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1994), 193.
  9. S. W. Carruthers, ed., “Of the Holy Scripture” (I. ix.), The Confession of Faith of The Assembly of Divines at Westminster from the Original Manuscript Written by Cornelius Burges in 1646 (London: Publishing House of the Presbyterian Church of England, 1946).
  10. David Ewert, review of The Battle for the Bible, by Harold Lindsell, Direction 6 (April 1977), 40.
  11. Steve Miller, “Inerrancy and Authority,” Direction 12 (January 1983): 3–9.
  12. Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013).
  13. James McClendon makes the point (correctly, I suggest) that reason is not an (or the) authority, but rather “a name for the thought processes by which we seek to maintain order in any sphere of conversation” such as theology. See James W. McClendon, Jr., Doctrine, vol. 2 of Systematic Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 458–59.
  14. As outlined in Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992).
  15. A. James Reimer, The Dogmatic Imagination: The Dynamics of Christian Belief (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2003).
  16. Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 184.
Brian Cooper has a PhD in Christian Ethics from the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He is currently Director of Student Development and Assistant Professor of Theology at MB Seminary (ACTS) in Langley, BC, where he has worked since 2008.

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