Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 218–219 

Book Review

Dirk Philips, A Sixteenth-Century Dutch Anabaptist: His Doctrine of the Visible Church and Its Influence on His Theological System

Insung Jeon. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2022. 194 pages.

Reviewed by Jonathan N. Cleland

Dirk Philips, A Sixteenth-Century Dutch Anabaptist is a revised dissertation by Insung Jeon, the senior pastor of Wonju Central Baptist Church in South Korea. The book argues that the heart of Dirk Philips’s theology is his view of the visible church. To make this argument, Jeon first looks at Philips’s view of the visible church and then shows how that doctrine connects to Christology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and anthropology.

Jeon provides a helpful overview of Philips’s place in the sixteenth-century Anabaptist world. Chapter 2 offers insight into the possible theological influences on Philips, and in chapter 3, Jeon shows how Philips’s Christology parallels that of Menno Simons. Specifically, Jeon shows how Philips’s thought on the incarnation is akin to Menno’s, and how both views point back to Melchior Hoffman. Chapter 4 focuses on ecclesiology, while chapter 5 addresses soteriology and the role of the local church in an individual’s sanctification. Finally, in chapter 6 Jeon describes Philips’s anthropology, suggesting that “Dirk’s thought does not contain any elements that could be labeled as Semi-Pelagian, instead he believes that God has the initiative to save human beings, that people play no active part in the process of salvation” (164).

While Jeon provides helpful insights into Philips’s thought, his research raises three issues. First, he engages solely with Philips’s works in English translation. In any advanced historical-theological investigation, it is paramount that all relevant primary documents are read in the language in which they were originally written. Jeon’s apparent inability to read Dutch limits his engagement with Philips’s writings as sixteenth-century Anabaptist texts.

A second issue concerns Jeon’s major argument. He discusses the different areas of Philips’s theology to show that they are all closely connected to his doctrine of the visible church. In his conclusion, Jeon writes, “For Dirk, the purpose of theological writings was for the benefit of the faith of the congregation of God” (179–80). But one must ask, is this new? Has not most theology, if not all, been done for the church? And if not in all traditions, it has been true in the Anabaptist tradition. What Jeon claims as a “new insight” really seems to be the majority view of Anabaptist theologians.

A third issue arises from a statement in Jeon’s introduction concerning the similarity between Philips’s and the Magisterial Reformers’ views of the visible church. In addressing critiques in {219} contemporary scholarship, Jeon suggests that Philips’s ecclesiology is more akin to Augustine’s than to that of the Donatists, and he soon aligns Philips with the Magisterial Reformers on the subject. While there may be agreement between these parties on certain issues of ecclesiology, there is a problem with Jeon’s claim that “Dirk believed that the church of this world is a mixture of wheat and chaff” (7). His claim is a bold one, considering Anabaptism’s believers’ church ecclesiology, for how could a church made up of baptized adult believers be “a mixture of wheat and chaff”? Although Jeon raises this point in the introduction, he never again addresses it. Indeed, throughout the book Jeon clearly recognizes Philips’s desire to have a pure church; his affirmation of believers’ baptism and excommunication are evidence of this. Moreover, Jeon later declares that “it is no exaggeration to say that as a pure faith community, the visible church not only motivates his ecclesiology but also is at the heart of his ecclesiology” (128). This statement and others like it contradict Jeon’s claim in the introduction that Philips’s ecclesiology closely resembles that of the Reformers.

Jeon’s express desire is to contribute to Anabaptist scholarship by “concentrating on the relatively unknown field of research on Dirk Philips” (29). However, it would be more accurate to describe his book as a general introduction to Philips’s theology than as a major contribution to the study of sixteenth-century Anabaptist theology. Still, if readers come to the book aware of its weaknesses, they will learn much, especially if they are just beginning to explore Philips’s theology or early Anabaptism more generally.

Jonathan N. Cleland is a doctoral candidate at Knox College, a member college of the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. He also serves as Pastor of Family Ministries at Glencairn Mennonite Brethren Church in Kitchener, Ontario.