Reflections on Anabaptist Mennonite Systematic Theology


After reading the second section of A. James Reimer’s Mennonites and Classical Theology for a class this past term, and after discussing the theme of Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology, I feel compelled to reflect on the topic in more detail. My intent in the following is to critically engage with the idea of an Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology (particularly Reimer) in such a way that may raise more questions than it answers. In this way it is more of a general reflection than an in-depth scholarly essay, although I hope to use the themes and directions present in it in the future.

Anabaptist Mennonite Systematic Theology

The defining features of systematic theology appear to be a mix of comprehensiveness and organization, as Reimer notes throughout his work.[1] For Reimer, qualifying criteria for systematic theology include “a passion for illuminating all dimensions of human existence from a particular theological vantage point or key category”.[2]  It would be difficult to name a piece of theological writing ‘systematic theology’ if the work avoided certain theological topics (such as Trinity or Eschatology), or if it was presented in a disorganized, fragmented, or occasional manner (not that all of these non-systematic ways of writing are the same). Examples of general systematic theologies that come to mind include those written by Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Robert Jenson, and (in the area of Anabaptist Mennonite thought) Thomas Finger, Daniel Kaufmann, and perhaps C. Norman Kraus.

In Anabaptist Mennonite theology there are also those who see systematic theology and its will-to-comprehensiveness as a detriment to the Christian faith – Robert Friedmann’s Theology of Anabaptism comes to mind. Against scholarly or intellectual comprehensiveness, or more systematic constructions, Friedmann affirms the inherent subjectivity of the early Anabaptist attitude, especially in its attempt to unify theory and practice. Certitude, lack of doubt, and the subsequent willingness to be martyred, are each reasons offered by Friedmann in his argument that the early Anabaptists had no systematic theology, and this descriptive claim makes sense. However, Friedmann’s implicit jump from being historically descriptive to being prescriptive in the contemporary sense is troubling. I see no reason to think that being faithful to the attitudes of early Anabaptists entails a wholesale rejection of systematic thinking, for this would be to fall into one-sidedness and the reduction of the value of systematic thinking.

Friedmann’s distinction between implicit and explicit theology is helpful, however, in that it draws attention to the fact that behind every practical and lived theology (what Friedmann calls ‘existential’ theology) there is an underlying way of thinking. While Friedmann draws this distinction in order to show the legitimacy of lived theologies in which no doctrine is formulated, I find that the distinction shows us that there is no escaping the presence of theology. And so, rather than glorifying un-articulated theologies of practice, it seems to me that it is always a good idea to draw out and make explicit the always-underlying metaphysical and ontological assumptions present in all theological understandings.

Even in Friedmann’s presentation of his thought there is a measure of systematic thinking, even a metaphysics. He writes, “Existential certainty is then the direct opposite of speculative thought. Since the latter presents itself usually in the form of a ‘system,’ Kierkegaard comes to the profoundly convincing conclusion that an existential system is impossible“.[3] Speaking to Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s system, Friedmann argues that because “a theological system cannot be existential” then “existential Christianity cannot be pressed into a theological system”.[4] Here I find a contradiction between the comprehensiveness of systems (praised by Reimer), and the reductive nature of systems (pointed out by Friedmann). While Friedmann offers a critique of systems because of their reductive nature, Reimer praises systems as being non-reductive. In response to this contradiction I wonder if it could be rephrased in the following way: If Kierkegaardian subjectivity opposes the violence of totalization in which the whole is reduced to a system, then perhaps Hegelian objectivity opposes the violence of fragmentation in which the whole loses cohesion and falls into alienated and piecemeal particularity. In this way, both subjectivism and objectivism can oppose separate violences.

On this note of violence, and in addition to comprehensiveness, Reimer attributes a certain ‘totalitarian’ motivation to systematic theology, which bears itself out in the desire to order and control the sum of human experience. Here we can see a certain discrepancy between the methodology of systematic theology and the tenets of peace theology. My question here is, is it possible for a systematic theology to be all-encompassing in a totalizing way, without violating the sacred identity of the whole of reality? Or, how could a theological understanding of totality proceed without ontological violence? This is a question I hope to address here and elsewhere.

Reimer understands systematic theology to be an insulating force against “fanaticism, one-sidedness, and theological reductionism”[5]. At the same time, Reimer notes that systematic theology runs the risk of “losing the dangerous memory of the historical and prophetic Christ”,[6] and perhaps here there is a slight affinity with Friedmann. This sliver of insight into Reimer’s understanding of systematic theology – especially its conditions – shows us his measure of theology. Systematic theology avoids the fanatical one-sided reduction of theology to a certain principle at the expense of another, presumably valuable, principle. In this way it is the work of theology, and of thought in general, to complicate the singularization of thinking or of discourses. However, a question that comes to mind here is whether the singular focus on Christ exemplifies a kind of one-sidedness and reduction of a greater reality, or a more radical opening of reality. On one hand the incarnation strikes me as being effectively singular and unique, lending itself to a narrow Christocentrism. On the other hand, perhaps an understanding of Christ in the context of the Trinity may serve to counteract any reductive tendencies which a radical Christocentrism might exhibit.

A. James Reimer and John Howard Yoder

Unfortunately none of the voices mentioned above as a part of Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology (Finger, Kaufmann, and Kraus) appear to speak for the Mennonite denomination in a way that is comparable to the voice of John Howard Yoder, who himself has become the strongest (and most controversial) voice in the broader theological world on behalf of Mennonites. I believe that the work of Reimer can offer a corrective to this trend, especially as a contrasting voice to Yoder’s occasional style.

For Reimer, an Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology would serve to: “preserve the integrity of the Mennonite communion in the face of the pluralism of modern culture, to become the basis upon which to become self-critical and move beyond a ‘sectarian’ stance into the wider public ecumenical arena of discussion and debate, and to make a positive contribution theologically to the universal Christian church”.[7] This can be contrasted with Yoder’s critique, present in his most systematic work Preface to Theology, in which he states (following G.E. Wright) that Biblical ways of thinking are not systematic but narrative. Rather than thinking systematically, which Yoder notes is a product of the Middle Ages and times “when Christians had compromised with the Hellenistic world”, Yoder would have us oppose the logical violence of systematic thinking.[8] This point and counterpoint between Reimer and Yoder serves to illustrate the double-edged sword of thinking comprehensively. On one hand there is the violence of compartmentalized and organized theologies, and on the other hand there may even be the isolation of sectarianism – which Reimer notes in several essays in the second section of Mennonites and Classical Theology.

Interestingly, both Yoder and Reimer write a-systematically, but they do so in remarkably different ways. Yoder explicitly opposes systematic ways of doing theology, and he presents his work in accordance with a task or assignment laid out in advance of writing, as is often noted. On the other hand, Reimer praises systematic theology, and yet never wrote anything resembling a systematic theology. Even his most comprehensive works (Mennonites and Classical Theology, and The Emmanuel Hirsch and Paul Tillich Debate) do not conform to the features of systematic theology – given that the former is a retrospective essay collection and the latter is a focused study on two thinkers in the area of political theology.

And so, both Yoder and Reimer exemplify what Gerald Schlabach terms an “anthology in lieu of a system” despite the fact that Reimer praises systematic theology and Yoder opposes it.[9] It seems that while Reimer supported the idea of Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology (or theologies),[10] his true topic of choice in the second section of Mennonites and Classical Theology was methodology, or meta-methodology.[11]

From Ethics to Ontology

Given that Reimer’s critique of Yoder was that Yoder politicizes the gospels,[12] and reduces the metaphysical significance of Christ, I wonder if more work needs to be done on the relationship between ethics and ontology. If the grounding principle of Anabaptist Mennonite theology (systematic or otherwise) is “a Christocentric commitment to nonviolent love”,[13] then I wonder how this unique denominational identity can condition the methodology of both systematic and occasional Anabaptist Mennonite theologies. It is obvious, given Yoder’s work, how peace theology (pacifism and nonviolence) are organizing principles of an ethical and political theology, but what is less obvious (and more important, in my view) is how peace and nonviolence inform the methodology of Anabaptist Mennonite systematic theology – both as it has been done (Finger, Kaufmann, etc.) and as it has yet to be done.

Philosophy and Theology

Of further interest is the use of the words ‘metaphysical’ and ‘ontological’ in Reimer’s work.[14] These seem to be positive terms, referring to the transcendental and cosmic proportions of theology, and yet there is also a key resonance across disciplines between theology and philosophy. Before any link between the discourse (logos) on God (theos) in theology, and love (philia) of wisdom (sophia) in philosophy, there is a more basic connection between the two disciplines: the fact that both make claims about the transcendent and immanent nature of reality, the world, and the relationship between human beings and the world. The concern for the meaning and structure of essences and identities is shared by philosophy and theology, and in order to be comprehensive both disciplines must take this sort of fundamental ontology seriously.

My hope is that, in taking both nonviolence and fundamental ontology seriously, those doing Anabaptist Mennonite theology would develop the latent possibilities of a nonviolent ontology in which identities and essences are treated with sacred dignity, and in which the definition of violence could be expanded to encompass the symbolic and ontological realms. Reduction could be treated as violence, insofar as the reality of the whole is transgressed by the placing of limits where there should be none. Anachronism could be treated as violence, insofar as the sacred territory of the identity in question is trespassed upon in the forgetting of things past. One-sidedness could be treated as violence, given that one-sidedness or fanaticism does no justice or grace to the ‘other side’ in question. If we are serious about our peace theology, then I hope that we can practice nonviolence all the way down,  from ontology flowing out into ethics, rather than acting non-violently in the ethical sphere and ignoring the implicit violence of our metaphysics or our methodology.

See Also:


[1] A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics. (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2001), 187, 193.

[2] Ibid, 187.

[3] Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973), 31.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 187.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 183.

[8] John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2002), 377.

[9] Gerald Schlabach, “Anthology in Lieu of System: John H. Yoder’s Ecumenical Conversations as Systematic Theology” MQR Vol. LXXI, No. 2. April 1997.

[10] “I argue that there should be no one [Anabaptist Mennonite] systematic theology but a plurality of systematic theologies, in fidelity to the polygenetic nature of our origins…” Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 182.

[11] Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, 192.

[12] Ibid, 168 and 183.

[13] Ibid, 182.

[14] Ibid, 168.


One comment on “Reflections on Anabaptist Mennonite Systematic Theology

  1. […] • A reflection on Anabaptist Mennonite Systematic Theology. […]

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