Two Mennonite Theological Trumps

Christian theology is an enormous subject, in which a great number of clearly contradictory claims are made. Christian communities have therefore decided that certain principles, ecclesial bodies and processes, or doctrines play a crucial role in determining the admissibility, faithfulness, or orthodoxy of a broader set of theological claims. For instance, Roman Catholicism places its Magisterium in a gate-keeping theological role, while many Protestant traditions under the influence of sola scriptura will give particular weight to certain doctrines derived from the Bible. For example, Lutheran thought gives primacy to the importance of faith, while Reformed types give a similar governing authority to doctrines of God’s sovereignty.

As a Mennonite, I believe that we, too, have historically developed a set of “theological trumps.” This post is an effort to outline what I understand these trumps to be.

The Anabaptist movement was labelled the “Radical Reformation” at least in part because of its particularly close embrace of the sola scriptura doctrine, and thus the Mennonite trumps bear little resemblance to the magisterial authority of Catholicism. However, that particularly close hewing to the Biblical text precluded the development of doctrinal trumps as sophisticated as those used by the early continental reformers, either. Rather than determine a central set of doctrines or a guiding body, the Mennonites have developed two central principles around which their theology is built: The centrality of Jesus, and the elevation of plain readings of Biblical texts.

The centrality of Jesus has considerable currency outside the Mennonite world. One particularly conspicuous example of this sort of Christocentrism as a theological trump can be found in Tony Campolo’s book Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics. The actual content of the book is not so important to this argument as the label itself. It is a reference to those printed editions of the Bible in which the words of Jesus are printed in red. Campolo’s label, then, says that Jesus is the most important part of Christianity. Obvious as this may sound, there are real differences present in the Christian faith. Martin Luther, for instance, is said to have favoured the epistles of Paul over the synoptic Gospels as being of greater importance for Christians, on account of the more “theological” text contained therein. (What this really says is that Luther, an academic by training, wasn’t comfortable with finding meaning or significance in narrative texts. The same can be said for many other scholarly Christians, including Calvin.) What this means in practice is that if two competing beliefs or practices are being considered, and one can be justified by Bible texts closer to Jesus, than that option is the preferred one, all other things being equal. This notion of proximity creates a hierarchy of authority within the Bible, or as it is sometimes said, a “canon within the canon.” While materials from the Gospels are arguably the most important, it also justifies elevating the New Testament above the Old in importance, since the New Testament was written in the light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

The second trump, that of giving precedence to plain readings of the Bible, is perhaps less common in the broader Christian community. Probably the most prominent contemporary group espousing similar principles might be various forms of Christianity labelled Fundamentalist, expressed in the slogan “God said it – I believe it – That settles it.” Again, the particular beliefs of contemporary Fundamentalists are not important to understanding this principle. (In fact, the common Fundamentalist conceit that they hold a “flat reading of scripture,” privileging no part above another, is egregiously false. It serves to hide the Fundamentalists’ own theological trumps from themselves.) This principle might be illustrated as follows.

Suppose that the Bible contains the statement in passage Q, “Do not do X.” Suppose a theological argument is made in which passages A, F, R, and W, which do not explicitly mention X, can be synthesized to provide a justification for doing X, after which passage Q is argued to be irrelevant, or conditional, or an adaptation to a particular (and by implication, past) time. According to this second Mennonite theological trump, the explicit message of passage Q is more important than the “Rube Goldberg theology” constructed from passages A, F, R, and W, and that it is therefore wrong for Christians to do X.

To put it another way, Mennonite theology is suspicious of theological arguments that are equivalent to a Rube Goldberg machine, using a great number of complex arguments, sources, and readings, when a simpler option is available. Instead, Mennonites take Occam’s Razor to theology, preferring the simplest possible readings and arguments that will adequately account for the relevant witness of scripture.

To illustrate, the peace position of Mennonites is obviously preferable to Christian just-war theory on the basis of both of these theological trumps. Whereas the just-war theory relies on heavy weighting of Old Testament conquest and warfare narratives and certain statements of Paul in particular regarding the appropriate Christian relationship with the state, the peace position can appeal directly to the words of Jesus contained in the Sermon on the Mount and other places in the Gospels. The peace position’s key texts can therefore be placed closer to Jesus than those of the just-war theory.

Similarly, the just-war theory generalizes from particular war stories in the Old Testament that war may be something God calls his people to in the present, and extrapolates from Paul’s and Jesus’s none-too-specific directives to give due respect to the government that Christians have an obligation to obey their governments. Meanwhile, the peace position claims that Jesus’ commands to abstain from violence and Jesus’s and Paul’s commands to renounce vengeance mean rather simply to not exercise violence or vengeance upon other people, a position which precludes being a soldier.

Clearly, some theological questions are more difficult to resolve using these hermeneutical principles as theological trumps. Questions regarding the roles of women, for instance, may square certain plain misogynist Biblical commands against Biblical narratives in which women are plainly treated as equals with men, or perhaps even treated with special privilege. It also may well serve to de-emphasize certain questions of Christian theology. Arguments regarding the Trinity and Jesus’ human and divine nature, for instance, are without exception extraordinarily complex and inferential. On that basis, they might be treated as being of relatively little importance by Mennonites, except perhaps as a sort of inherited shibboleth. I’m hoping to explore some of these thornier questions in future posts.

I’d also like to hear from people who would argue that Mennonites don’t actually think as I’ve described here, as well as from people who think that this set of theological trumps is inappropriate or problematic.


17 comments on “Two Mennonite Theological Trumps

  1. Nick says:


    You told me to post here in regards to the difficulty the Mennonite position has in regards to harmonizing “the main things are the plain things” with Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy.

    It’s a historical fact that those groups who were most Arian in nature were those who didn’t see the Trinity or Christology taught “plainly enough” in Scripture.

    From the Catholic point of view, what hurts me most at the end of the day is the incongruity in which many Protestants want to ‘have their cake and eat it to’ – at least as far as affirming two opposing principles, while looking down on the Catholic position for claiming Scripture & Tradition which causes no opposing principles.

    I’m not Mennonite, and I could be wrong, but I’ve been under the **impression** they have virtually no regard for history or tradition – in step with the Baptists – for either the fact they cannot point to any point in Christian history where a pure Gospel was being preached, or for the matter of general historical ignorance and little care nor desire for a higher education.

    • Theophilus says:

      As a student at a church-supported Mennonite liberal arts university, I believe I am qualified to say that your last claim is quite absurd and ignorant.

      A good number of Mennonites would actually argue that since matters of Trinity and Christology are not the “plain things,” then they actually are not the “main things.” Rather, the life of Christian discipleship, which is spelled out far more plainly than Jesus’ relationship to the Father, has a far stronger claim to being the “main thing.” To phrase it differently, the Mennonite hermeneutical trumps provide justification for weighting orthopraxis more heavily than orthodoxy, relative to the historic views of many other Christians.

      You could paraphrase the parable of the good Samaritan as the parable of the good Arian to illustrate this. Even though the Arian, like the Samaritan, believes wrongly, his actions indicate that he is closer to God’s will than the unhelpful priest or Levite (or Catholic or Orthodox or…)

      Your assessment that Mennonites have little regard for history or tradition is more or less historically correct, so long as you exclude the traditions and history of the Mennonites themselves since the 16th century. The same could probably be said of the whole Free Church tradition, including Baptists, Churches of Christ, Pentecostals, etc. You may also be pleased to hear that since the second half of the 20th century many Mennonites (particularly modernized ones) have shown a new interest in reconnecting with older Christian traditions. A similar movement has been happening in many evangelical traditions.

  2. Emerson Fast says:

    Two thoughts,

    First, Luther does not prefer “theological” or doctrinal texts to narrative ones. His most voluminous commentary series is on the book of Genesis (a total of eight hefty volumes) whereas Galatians only gets two. This says something important about Luther’s taste. He was always fond of things that could be expressed in narrative form (Aesop’s Fables being one of his favorite books)and despised the dry doctrinal systems of the fathers and the later Sententia. Melanchthon would be your man in this respect.

    Secondly, “faith” and “Christ” for Lutheran teaching are inseperable. Luther’s exultation was in the cross of Jesus Christ extra nos..the resurrection of the same for our justification. Unlike his descendant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he did not inculcate any human work that a person had to do to receive the benefits of this salvation. Read nearly anything by Luther and you will see that Christ is the theme of his song.

    Anabaptists, on the other hand, had Christ only insomuch as they had the Sermon on the Mount. This was their primal text (according to the interpretation of Delbert Plett, Mennonite historian). They exalted just as much in their obedience to these precepts as they did in the work of Christ. You will find this very clearly stated in the writings of Hans Denck, Hans Hut, Hutter, Conrad Grebel, Hubmaier and so on and so forth. Works righteousness was not really an issue for them, it was even encouraged.

    • Theophilus says:

      I’ll grant that Melanchthon may fit my critique better than Luther. But, as I noted, Luther expressed a preference for the Pauline epistles over the synoptic Gospels. If that isn’t a preference for doctrine over narrative, I don’t know what is. Luther may not be the most extreme example of aversity to narrative out there, but relative to the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, he certainly counts. (His habit of spiritualizing narratives doesn’t help his case here, either.)

      Of course, you are correct to assert that the Anabaptist tradition is much more concerned with works than the Lutheran one. That’s grounded in the fact that Jesus and the apostles taught rather a lot about works that the both Roman Catholicism and the magisterial reformers had ignored or marginalized or set aside, in the view of the Anabaptists.

      In the 16th century, denying the importance of Christ for salvation was really not a live issue. The question was how closely that was associated with sacramental practices (Catholic) or righteous living (Anabaptists). Since nowadays the importance of Christ for salvation is not assumed as it was then, the unspoken Anabaptist assumption of the importance of Christ’s sacrifice may put its successor traditions at heightened risk of effectively forgetting it. I see signs of this happening in some, though certainly not all, Mennonite circles.

      • Emerson Fast says:

        Spiritualizing narratives is not always a bad thing. In vogue with the modern practice of finding extensive and elaborate “aetiologies” in the toledots of Genesis, I’d say a “spiritual” hermeneutic is vastly surmounting an historical one. In this way of interpretation you may note how Paul, the Petrine tradition, Jude and Revelation all deal with the patriarchal stories.

        The distinction between Paul and the Synoptics + John is a bigger issue for Mennonites than it is for Luther. You see, he actually believed that the words of Paul were just as much “of Christ” as the words of the gospels. It’s the same Christ who speaks through both. There is no “boasting” in one writer over the other. They are all mere men discharging their task of procaiming the risen Christ.

        Whether or not Luther favored Paul over the other writers is a point of indifference to me. We all have our pet scriptures, Mennonites included (as your article shows). Although I should say that when it came time to preach, Luther seemed to care little whether the text was from Matthew or from Corinthians, so long as the gospel and repentance were preached.

        To be sure, works are dealt with extensively in the NT documents. Nor does Luther overlook or fail to exegete and teach these (as you may see by taking a cursory scan over the Larger Catechism, or his Sermon on the Mount). But to judge the quantity of a subject in the scripture does not automatically lead to priority. That is, again, flat-footed hermeneutical thinking and a profound anthropomorphising of God. Recall that in both the gospels and Paul, whole swaths of inspired history are overlooked in favor of a few tiny scriptural phrases, from which whole doctrinal programs are subsequently developed. It is the work of man to consider the outward appearances, the greatness of the temple of the Lord or the extravagence of such and such. But Christ seems radically free from this type of exegesis.

        Anyways, even if it is true that greater theological weight has been given to Paul than to the synoptics in Lutheran tradition, this does not logically lead to the fact that such a priority is false. Is not Paul the last and least of all the apostles? And keeping in mind what Christ says about the last, is it not the kingdom logic that possibly…..just possibly this blasphemous wretch should lead whole nations to the gospel of the One true God…that he should be heard first? I’m not sure….I’m really not. My pet scripture isn’t even found in the New Testament so I’m looking at all of this with foreign eyes.

  3. Theophilus says:

    That bit about Luther regarding Paul’s words as being no less “of Christ” than the Gospel accounts is why I wrote the post Canon and Apostolic Succession. I think the viewpoint of that post justifies the Mennonite theological trumps in a way that a flatter conception of the Bible, such as Luther’s, does not. I simply disagree with Luther, and you, on this one; I see more hierarchy in the canon.

    And say what you will about how “Luther/Calvin/Person X still cares about ethics and works,” but the point isn’t that they don’t care about works. It’s that they care about works less than Mennonites, a point which you affirmed yourself earlier in this thread.

  4. Emerson Fast says:

    To hold the New Testament documents in equality is not a uniquely “Lutheran” position. Ben Witherington III develops this position very remarkably in his Indelible Image. Again, I don’t know what to make of all this. I don’t have an informed opinion from which I can boast a veritable system of “ordering” the New Testament. That people boast of Paul over Cephas or Cephas over Paul, or even those who snidely try to avoid the apostles altogether and say,” I follow Christ” (1 Cor.1:12)…they think in vain that they stand above a flat-footed hermeneutical system. Paul calls this worldliness…Jesus calls this a rejection of him (Lk 10:16). The fact of the matter is: if Paul is an apostle of Christ, then his message is not his own but of God. It is not “less of God” than Matthew’s or Peters, as if God dices up his word into different shapes and sizes.

    Moreover, there is no immediate access to the teachings of Jesus anyways. All of us stand under the apostolic authority and have no way of getting beyond it without stepping into subjectivity and speculation. This becomes even more complicated when one realizes the possibility of Pauline traditions and concepts being used in at least one of the Synoptics (Luke) and the fact that some of our oldest available Christian traditions comes from Paul’s letters rather than the later Gospels. Again, I don’t say this to impose a hierarchy….the idea to me is nothing but drivel.

    As for Luther being “less concerned with works” than Mennonites….if you mean this in the realm of soteriology then I can accept your judgment. I also think that judgment is made to the shame of the Mennonites. It is nothing to be proud of, insomuch as it renounces the gospel of God.

    In the realm of ethics your case will become less clear. Luther pounded home the necessity of doing good works in all of his writings (even and possibly most distinctly in his treatise on Christian liberty). His catechetical instructions on the ten comandments were required reading for all Christian households. He denounced the violence of both Zwingli at Kappel and the Anabaptists involved in the Peasant’s revolt as being damnable and a rejection of the commandment of God. He inculcated charity, visiting the sick, obeying your parents, church attendance, practising forgiveness etc… and went out of his way to oppose antinomian interpretations of the gospel.

  5. Emerson Fast says:


    It is necessary to add here that a quick distinction between the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the Pauline writings is a wrong move.

    The teaching against divorce and remarriage in Mt.5:31-32 can also be found in 1 Cor.7:10-11 and Rom.7:2-3. The teaching against personal revenge in Mt.5:39 is equally there in Rom.12:14,17-21 (this text also very clearly implies love of enemies as a normative rule).

    Or Christ’s stern admonition that entrance into the kingdom of heaven requires a righteousness greater than the Pharisees is modelled by Paul in 1 Cor.6:9-10 and Gal.5:19-21.

    Or the declaration of Christ that the kingdom of heaven is given to the poor in spirit (or simply the poor) can be found in 1 Cor.1:26-29.

    And so on and so forth….

    • Theophilus says:

      This post explains quite nicely how the Mennonite hermeneutical principles I’ve described can work. It is precisely because the epistle writers are faithful to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ that their writings are canonical. I don’t disagree with you that we only receive the Scriptures through tradition. That was the whole point of my Canon and Apostolic Succession post. The Scriptures are a faithful witness to the earliest apostolic tradition. However, since they are subject to misinterpretation (2 Peter 3:16), it is only sensible to read the apostles as though they were being faithful to what they received from Christ, rather than adding their own contrary materials. We have received in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life an excellent way of checking our readings of the other scriptures to ensure that our reading of them is as faithful to Jesus as was the author’s original intent. (See what I did there?)

      I am fully aware that a “flat” hermeneutic isn’t peculiar to Lutherans. It appears to me to be the dominant Christian approach to Scripture, at least on paper. In practice everyone holds certain pet scriptures to be more important than others. The Mennonites and other Red Letter Christians are simply more upfront and intentional about this.

      And as far as Mennonites’ association of works with salvation goes, if I might cite that “strawy epistle,” the Mennonite says to the Lutheran, “Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” If a faith without works is dead, then works are clearly importantly related to faith. Luther’s efforts to remove James from the canon, and his low regard on this book’s check on his theological project, are to his debit.

  6. Emerson Fast says:

    In other words, through performing the human activity of “being faithful to the example and teachings” of Jesus ones writing can be deemed apostolic? Or is this yet another example of your neutral human flesh cooperating with the grace of God to merit apostolicity?

    The scriptures that we read (yes, that includes the gospels) recognize nothing other than the call and commandment of God to certain individuals for apostolic work (Jn 15:16, Gal.2:8, Acts 1:8, Lk 10:16). If their apostolicity was conferred due to their own faithfulness to Jesus, then Peter would have never been re-instated.

    It is interesting that you load your words with ire as you refer to Luther’s denigration of James, right after having denigrated the works of Paul in the face of “red letters” (as if the writings of Paul are somehow less faithful to Christ than the sayings mediated through the much later gospels). Unless otherwise noted, the whole of the apostolic message is apostolic (ie. red letter). That Christ had ascended into heaven does not thereby preclude his ability to speak the undiluted Word through his appointed men. It is not partly their words and partly his..but fully his word according to 1 Thes. 2:13.

    Thank you for referring to your other post, but I have already examined it and fail to see how it contributes something new to this discussion.

    And btw, the dictum “I by my works will show you my faith” was taken up very clearly as the Word of God in the Apology for Augsburg, Christian liberty, Theses on Faith and law (1935) and other sermons from Luther and M. Very clearly. This is not some verse especially favored by Mennonites and rejected by Lutherans. Moreover, perhaps we should place this scripture on the bottom rung of our hierarchy insomuch as it is not one of your red letters? Perhaps it is the chaff of the apostles that needs to be separated from the wheat of the pure word of Jesus? I’ll leave that to your idle speculations to work through.

    And the removal of James from the canon is not “to the debit” of Luther, since it was not recognized by the church as canonical until the 4th and 5th centuries. Shall we add the apostolic fathers and the pre-nicene writers to your blacklist of damnation?

    In conclusion, the Gospel accounts were written by apostles in the decades following the ministry of Paul. They do not stand above the rest as some objective talisman by which the rest can be judged. Indeed, this fleshly exaltation of one writing over the other helps to explain why the gospels are the source of so much higher critical ire. You cannot boast of the temple of the Lord for long before He takes the temple away from you.

    • Theophilus says:

      Why do you claim that being faithful to the example and teachings of Jesus is a “human activity”? This is not what I nor other Mennonites believe. Mennonites have always taught that these things are only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. By labelling them “human activity” you distort what I’m saying, forming a straw man to knock down rather than engaging my actual ideas.

      I am sorry to see that you are so protective of your theological hero of the day, Luther. But someone who cries “sola scriptura” then presumes to alter a canon that had been settled for more than 1000 years clearly has some serious issues going on. By the grace of God Luther’s error in canonicity was stopped, without destoying all of his other work.

  7. Emerson Fast says:

    Luther is far from my theological hero,

    Some days he pisses me off more than anything. But I will defend him on the divers counts that our historically and theologically illiterate society mis-represents him.

    Sola scriptura and a “settled” canon are not logically intertwined. The topic of canonical criticism is ever open (as may be noted by the present disagreements on scripture between the three largest Christian traditions). In regards to a quantitative move in the realm of disturbing a “settled canon” you really ought to direct your guns to Tridentine catholicism, which added way more books than Luther subtracted.

    Asides from the fact that “being faithful to the example and teachings of Jesus” is nowhere recognized as the entrance “requirement” (again, note the humanising)in scripture, but rather always the commandment of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8, 26)…. it is always a move in the direction of natural theology, both that human reason can discern who has been faithful to the teaching of Jesus, and that this putative faithfulness GUARENTEES apostolicity. Moreover, it is profoundly self-gratifying to claim the Holy Spirit for these acts, and a form of psychological manipulation. The pentecostals claim the Holy Spirit for everything they do, good or bad, and even claim apostolic authority! How can we ever discern that your judgment was of the Holy Spirit rather than of men? Or does the church possess the Holy Spirit in such a manner that all of its decisions are likely God’s decisions? That is catholicism at best and Eutychianism at worst. It also helps to explain the endless fragmenting and schisms that have plagued the Mennonite church from day one.

    Moreover, that the Holy Spirit overcomes a man, enabling him to keep the commandment to be faithful to Jesus, and thus provoking God to reward him for this fulfillment by granting him apostolicity….well, I don’t even think the catholics go down that road. It takes a very silly view of God to believe that he is compelled to act thus on account of the product of divine and human cooperation, as if we are indeed profitable servants and have gone above and beyond our duty! As if God is now obligated to give His wages to such and such men for perfectly fulfilling faithfulness to Jesus (with the help of God, of course, yes yes Mr. semi-pelagius)

    All of this talk does not come from 1st century Christianity but from 19th century pietism, and is as such a profoundly poor anachronism. Luther or no Luther, the office of the apostle forever remains a gift of God’s sheer mercy and forbearance, rather than a reward that either he or a colective of human spectators (ie. the 1st century church) determine.

  8. Emerson Fast says:

    No I think this discussion has everything to do with your post.

    In fact, in your conclusion you even called for readers to disclose their own interpretation of Mennonite theological trumps (which seems to imply rather forcefully that, even if my polemic is entirely off, it is still fulfilling your request of a differing interpretation). Nor do I believe it is a mis-representation of the facts. The central text for Mennonite hermeneutics is the Sermon on the Mount. This is what they mean when they speak of “the centrality of Jesus”. This has also, historically, seemed to justify a bit of theological snootiness in their relations to Lutheran and Reformed traditions, caricaturing them as people who think such abstract concepts as “faith” or “sovereignty” to be the centrality of the biblical witness. Unfortunately, such a caricature reveals neither a proper reading of Luther or of Calvin, but a reading of one’s own historical and theological ignorance of Luther and Calvin.

    Really, the measure they use will be measured right back to them. If they think that they “have Christ” insomuch as they use the Sermon on the Mount as the measuring stick against what Christ says in Paul or James or even against what Christ has decisively said on the cross (which, according to the Synoptics, is the telos and focus of his ministry) they are no less guilty of losing the centrality of Christ than their cartoon Luther or Calvin is.

    Christ had much more to say to his disciples, more than they could bear so long as He was among them. He promised them that they would profit from his departure. This implies that a simple focus on the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount is not the whole of Christ. It is not making Christ central…it is making a portion of his teaching central (like cartoon Luther on faith and cartoon Calvin on sovereignty).

    • Theophilus says:

      If you’re so opposed to caricatures, why do you distort Mennonite views regarding the centrality of the Sermon of the Mount in precisely the same manner you accuse me of caricaturizing Luther or Calvin? Just as Luther and Calvin do account for the Sermon on the Mount in their teaching, so Mennonites account for the cross. They may see it in a linear relationship with the Sermon on the Mount as the logical conclusion of its precepts and the demonstration of its power, but that is nothing like what you describe whatsoever.

      And if you want to talk trumps, which is the point of the thread, what exactly are yours? Or what do you think Mennonite trumps are?

  9. Emerson Fast says:

    As I said, the measure they use will be measured back to them.

    My trump? “The law came from Moses, Grace and truth through Jesus Christ” to loosely quote John.

  10. phang says:

    TQ both for the heated but learned discussion.

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