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.