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Fall 2019 · Vol. 48 No. 2 · pp. 196–199 

Book Review

Faith and Toleration: A Reformation Debate Revisited

C. Arnold Snyder. Winnipeg, MB: CMU Press, 2018. 106 pages.

Reviewed by Mark Jantzen

How does one keep the faith and honor its truth? Does admitting that other faith options might be tolerable weaken or dishonor one’s own {197} faith and endanger truth by opening the door to relativism or indifference? Is there a particular Christian or Anabaptist understanding of these issues? Examining these questions is the task C. Arnold Snyder undertakes in this short book based on the J. J. Thiessen Lectures and John and Margaret Friesen Lectures presented at Canadian Mennonite University on October 30 and 31, 2017. The talks were timed to commemorate the five-hundred-year anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, an event often seen as the start of the Reformation. As such, the book looks primarily at Lutheran and Swiss/South German Anabaptist responses to these questions. Unfortunately, it does not include an index to help readers or researchers make connections across these perspectives.

In the introduction Snyder notes the situational nature of toleration, namely that what is defined as proper and what is defined as undesirable but tolerable is never static. Even more important is the relational aspect. Toleration is about power. Who has the power to eliminate something that cannot be tolerated and whose power reaches only far enough to ask for or to seek out spaces of toleration? Thus, connections between truth, faith, toleration, and power are at core of this book.

Snyder shows that Luther’s approach to the truth of faith seemed to open the door to toleration. Luther’s work soon split western Christendom, raising the issue to its largest scale since the decline of the Roman Empire. Moreover, he came to truth by faith and Bible alone, highlighting the role of radical individual freedom of conscience. (25) Early Luther, before the Peasants’ Wars in the mid-1520s, wrote at some length about the importance of conscience, which could only operate with a lack of coercion. His desire for distance from the uses to which peasants put his teaching, demanding the right to appoint their own preachers and abolish serfdom, however, led to a change of course for Luther, to what Snyder calls a fork in the road between toleration and blind obedience to political authority. (34) After 1525 Luther called for state power to prevent toleration of errors in belief, including those he saw in Anabaptists. Access to power, fear of disorder, and certitude about where truth was to be found ended Luther’s toleration of others.

The Lutheran theologian Urbanus Rhegius expanded this approach with his 1536 Justification for the Prosecution of Anabaptists (49). Rhegius quickly linked his argument concerning the need for the state to maintain order against rebellion to the destruction of the Anabaptist Kingdom in Münster, making the link between Anabaptist heresy and revolt seem obvious. Thus, heresy was not an inward sin but an outward crime requiring power to oppose it.

Reformed theologians in Switzerland ended up at the same place but arrived there via their strong emphasis on covenant theology, again after {198} an early flirtation with toleration. Since everyone in the territory was to be part of the covenant, Reformed authorities set up moral codes that required church attendance, infant baptism, and everyone to report suspected Anabaptists. Especially Reformed pastors were expected to function as the police force of this code, again linking state and religious power.

According to Snyder, Anabaptist opposition to these lines of interpretation and these acts of coercion was widespread and tenacious. They loved to quote the early reformers against their later selves. Pilgram Marpeck’s Expose of the Babylonian Whore (early 1530s) cited Luther’s earlier plea to embrace Scripture against his post-Peasants’ War embrace of state power to attack Bible-quoting peasants.

Swiss Brethren’s pious lives that conformed to the moral codes of Reformed pastors on individual morals but not on obedience to the state church won the admiration of and protection by their neighbors. In addition, they argued both in writing and in their deeds for toleration and non-coercion of those who believed differently, demonstrating that toleration could be a lived social reality in response to God’s demands. As Marpeck wrote, it was a matter of leaving vengeance to God and abandoning the desire for fleshly control (39).

Snyder documents how later in the sixteenth century Anabaptist toleration of their Reformed neighbors secured their incorporation into local networks of Freundschaft (friendship) that protected them from centralized intolerance. Repeated written orders issued from urban centers to arrest specific, named Anabaptists were ignored in the villages as Reformed officials there shielded their friends. Thus, the need for central authorities to hire outsiders as Anabaptist hunters, locals could not be trusted to be intolerant enough. The persistence of Anabaptist toleration against centralized Reformed intolerance prompts Snyder to see them as forerunners of the type of individual rejection of intolerant, hegemonic demands advocated for by Gene Sharp, the nonviolent social change advocate, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Change. Thus, Anabaptists are recast here as a much different type of social forerunner than Harold Bender had in mind in his Anabaptist Vision, but still refashioned to be modern and praiseworthy (98).

The case of Servetus in 1553, a Spanish physician executed in Geneva for denying the Trinity, sparked the first wider calls for religious toleration, which only came to fruition as states became dual confessional in the territory realignments of the seventeenth century and as Enlightenment indifference or hostility to religion took hold. Snyder, however, concludes with a different suggestion, namely that Christians should return to the fork in the road between toleration as a Christian virtue and coercion as Christian necessity and this time take the other route. Toleration, he argues, {199} is not a necessary evil but the “Gospel bedrock of Christ’s command that we love our neighbours and even our enemies” (100). Going down this path requires an embrace of humility and a rejection of indifference, two emphases that would keep modern Anabaptists firmly countercultural in North America.

This volume is a thought-provoking review of the sixteenth-century debates on toleration, especially in Swiss/South German contexts. It also has a keen eye for contemporary pressures to be intolerant of non-Christians out of fear and a desire for political control, impulses as new as the headlines and at least as old as the sixteenth century.

Mark Jantzen
Professor of History
Bethel College, North Newton, KS

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