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Fall 2021 · Vol. 50 No. 2 · pp. 226–228 

Book Review

Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method

ed. Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron A. Penner. London, UK: T & T Clark, 2020. 189 pages.

Reviewed by Fred W. Martin

The title of the book is intriguing as it appears that in the editors’ minds there is a traumatic event from which Anabaptists need to recover. The introduction outlines Harold S. Bender’s twentieth-century work of rediscovering and making relevant the vision of the sixteenth-century radicals called Anabaptists. Perhaps seventy years of drinking from this cask has created dependencies and shorthand definitions of Anabaptism that are not sufficiently nuanced for twenty-first century academics.

What is also made clear in this book is that recovery from John Howard Yoder’s theology is required, as he created inspirational ethics bifurcated from his personal behavior. Paul Martens’s opening chapter is helpful because he lays bare the impact and pain caused by John Howard Yoder’s sexual abuse and asks the questions of Anabaptist identity today in the global context.

The essays in this book show that an understanding and reworking of the Anabaptist vision are critical for missiology, education, catechism, and ecumenical dialogue. For example, in his chapter, “The Ecumenical Vocation of Anabaptist Theology,” Jeremy Bergen reminds us that Anabaptism was a reforming movement within Christianity. However, he challenges holding too tightly to these reforms: “To engage Anabaptism as {227} a tradition of reform in relation to the church catholic calls on theologians to tread lightly around the question of ‘distinctives,’ let alone ‘essences’ ” (112).

Karl Koop reminds readers of Anabaptist essentials and documents a list of distinctives that he refers to as “tones.” These include believers’ baptism, communion focused on memory, fellowship, accountability, discipleship, simplicity, mutual aid, non-resistance, peace building and service. While he recognizes some aspects are found in other Christian traditions, he observes the uniqueness to Anabaptism, because these characteristics are persistent and repetitive between different regions and eras, “. . . and it may be in the combination of the features that we recognize a definable tradition” (23).

What is this “definable tradition” in our era? Laura Schmidt Roberts in her chapter, “Refiguration, Configuration Tradition, Text, and Narrative Identity,” reminds us of the fluidity of tradition, describing it as a verb. Tradition is not static, and she maintains, “a list of ‘distinctives’ is inadequate to describe a living tradition whose story continues to unfold and be reconfigured in the present” (52). Further, Carol Penner reflects on the richness women bring to theological reflection and shows how the tradition has been reconfigured with feminist voices as she examines twenty-five years of “Mennonite Women doing Theology” conferences.

This collection of essays is enhanced by the voices of younger scholars examining twenty-first century issues. In “Queering Anabaptist Theology; An Endeavor in Breaking Binaries as Hermeneutical Community,” Stephanie Chandler Burns articulates a position that illustrates how a traditional “peace theology” is appealing for those on the margins. She notes the general stance of suspicion that Anabaptists have toward main-line traditions and subsequently queer folk have toward the Mennonite church. The Queer voice is important as it opens us to realities that are ever more granular and pushes for a plurality of understanding and acceptance.

In “On the Need for Critical-Contextual and Trauma-Informed Methods in Mennonite Theology,” Melanie Kampen challenges the patriarchy of Bender and Yoder by saying we cannot simply let those with power make the invitations into an existing circle. Her essay issues a call to “attend to various forms of privilege, violence, and oppression within Mennonite communities and institutions” (94).

But if the Anabaptist tradition is dynamic, reconfigured, contextual, or non-binary, what makes it recognizable as a vision? This visionary challenge comes into focus in the lens of missiology. R. Bruce Yoder examines the experience of Mennonite missionaries in West Africa and India, quoting a letter to MBM missionaries from head office that said, “They were to plant the church of Jesus Christ and not the church of their {228} homeland” (135). In shifting to the twenty-first century, Yoder suggests a “dialogical approach” is required for a global Anabaptist community that welcomes new voices.

This dialogue is also restless. In “Restlessness as Theological Method,” Paul Doerksen provides a benediction to the collection of essays by reflecting on the humble and open posture we take in doing theology and highlights the importance of connecting the academy to the church in this task.

In these days of distrust, violence, and oppression, our world needs an Anabaptist vision that articulates a focus on following Jesus. Bender’s articulation was groundbreaking, rediscovering ingredients of our faith that were critical at the time and inspirational for a generation of Mennonite leaders. This collection of essays creatively re-engages a fresh examination of this vision.

Fred W. Martin
Director of Advancement
Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario

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