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The Holy Spirit and Ecumenism:
Promptings from an Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspective
Helmut Harder
A. Introduction
This paper begins by discussing aspects of an Anabaptist-Mennonite theology of the
Holy Spirit, and then identifying some implications for ecumenical discussion. The term
“Anabaptist-Mennonite” may require some explanation. Those 16th century reformers
who re-baptized adults formerly baptized as infants, were eventually called “Anabaptists”
by their critics. The Anabaptist movement constituted the major part of what Roland
Bainton calls the Left Wing of the Reformation (1941),1 and George H. Williams names
the Radical Reformation.2 The movement spawned various church groups, sometimes
referred to as the Free Churches or the Believers Churches. The Mennonite church has
the distinction of being linked most directly to the 16th century Anabaptists, and of
retaining significant features of the movement.3 Along with other denominations - such
as the Baptists, the Church of the Brethren, the Brethren in Christ, and the Disciples of
Christ – the Mennonite church is part of what church historians refer to as the “Free
Church Tradition” or the “Believers Churches.” A focus on Anabaptist-Mennonite
theology allows us to select from among those voices in the Anabaptist movement that
formed a background to the emergence of the Mennonite church. The weight of emphasis
in this study will be on Anabaptist thought, while Mennonite theologians and
Confessions of Faith will receive only enough mention to indicate whether and how,
subsequent to the Anabaptist period, Mennonites have taken up the Anabaptist emphases.
It can be asked whether it is even possible to identify a common theology of the Holy
Spirit in Anabaptist and Mennonite writings. It is the tendency of current scholarship to
emphasize the polygenesis of the Anabaptist movement over against the earlier
assumption that Anabaptism had a singular origin and spoke with one unified voice.4 Yet
Anabaptist researchers tell us that there appears to be general agreement on the main
points concerning the Holy Spirit.5 This gives us encouragement to proceed with our
Roland H. Bainton, “The Left Wing of the Reformation,” Journal of Religion, XXI (1941), 124-134.
George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962).
In the 20th century there has been increasing recognition that Christianity is no longer easily divided into
Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. There are significant elements that claim to be neither Protestant nor
Catholic. Nor are they satisfied with being considered “sects.” This includes Mennonites, but also Baptists,
Pentecostals, Baptists, and others. Cf. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant
(Waterloo, Ontario: Conrad Press, 1973); James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology: Doctrine
(Nashville: Abindgon Press, 1994), pp.332-345. This claim has important implications for ecumenical
Stayer, James M., Packull, Werner O., Deppermann, Klaus, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The
Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review [henceforth MQR], LIX
(April, 1975), 83-121.
Walter Klaassen, “Some Anabaptist Views on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, MQR, XXXV (April,
1961), 130.
B. The Holy Spirit in Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology
Trinitarian Orthodoxy
The first and basic point on which there appears to have been agreement is that
virtually all Anabaptist statements on the doctrine of God are orthodox. Historian
William Estep notes that from Conrad Grebel to Menno Simons, the Anabaptists ascribe
to the creedal affirmation of the triune God, which includes belief in the Holy Spirit as
the third person of the Trinity.6 In 1550, Menno wrote concerning the Trinity:
“And so we believe and confess before God … and before all the world, that … the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost (which the fathers called three persons, by which they
meant the three, true, divine beings), are one incomprehensible, indescribable, Almighty,
holy, only, eternal, and sovereign God.”7
Concerning Menno Simons’ theology of the Holy Spirit, one church historian makes the
statement that “[n]owhere among the figures of the sixteenth century Reformation or
Restitution do we find a richer doctrine of the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy
Spirit, than in Menno Simons.”8 Besides the repetition of the standard Trinitarian
formula, there are occasional elaborations of Anabaptist trinitarian belief, such as we find
in Peter Riedemanns, “Hutterite Confession of Faith” of 1542:
“The power, essence, and nature of the Godhead are illustrated in Creation and recognized
by us as the work of God’s hand. For example, when a word is spoken, a breath is exhaled.
From both the speaker and the spoken word, a living breath or wind blows, and the sound of
a voice goes forth. In the same way the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son, or
from the Truth and the Word. Just as the Son or the Word proceeds from the Father and yet
remains in him, so the Holy Spirit proceeds from both and remains in both for ever and
To be sure, Anabaptist writers bring particular emphases to their views on aspects of the
Godhead. But this has more to do with their understanding of the function or work of
each aspect of the Trinity than with the trinitarian formula as such. Historian William
Estep states: “From Conrad Grebel to Menno Simons there is an abundance of evidence
which suggests that the Anabaptists found the Triune God an inescapable reality.”10
Theologian Walter Klaassen concludes, “the Anabaptists never questioned the orthodox
Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and for the most part made no abstract statements
about it.”11
The Anabaptists were not particularly interested in abstract statements about the
Holy Spirit. Given their zeal for the faith, they were much more interested in
appropriating the Holy Spirit experientially. One need only read leaf through the account
of their experiences and testimonies in Thieleman J. van Braght’s Martyrs Mirror of the
William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Ltd.,
1963, 1975), p.134. See also Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale and Kitchener:
Herald Press, 1973), pp.53ff.
Menno Simons’ essay of 1550, “A Solemn Confession of the Triune, Eternal, and True God, Father, Son,
and Holy Ghost,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simons ( Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), p.491.
Franklin H. Littell, A Tribute to Menno Simons (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1961), p.20.
John J. Friesen, translator and editor, Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (Waterloo and
Scottdale: Herald Press, 1999), p.75. This is a translation of the 1563 German Edition of Confession of Our
Religion, Teaching, and Faith By the Brothers Who Are Known as the Hutterites.
Estep, op.cit., p.134.
Klaassen, “Some Anabaptist Views on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” op.cit., 130.
Defenseless Christians to get a taste of the energy that was present in the lives of these
radically transformed believers. For the most part they were simple folk who testified
with confidence and persistence of their new-found faith, even in the face of drastic
measures used by the authorities to quell their witness. They were convinced that the
power of the Holy Spirit was driving them to debate, to evangelize, to baptize, to debate,
and then to suffer.12 Balthasar Hubmaier’s passionate comment following his brief
affirmation of the Trinity illustrates the point:
“In him [the Holy Spirit] I place all my trust that he will teach me all truth, increase my faith,
and kindle the fire of love in my heart by his holy inspiration, that my heart may burn with
true, unfeigned and Christian love toward God and my neighbour. This I beg of you with all
my soul, my God, my Lord, my Comforter.”13
Hubmaier appeals to the Holy Spirit not for spiritual sustenance for his radical orientation
to faith, but also for support in the debates in which he engaged. One line in a challenge
to his old teacher, Dr. John Eck, is somewhat revealing: “In this conflict, every one must
teach equipped with the armour of the Holy Spirit.”14 The issue centred on the
interpretation of Scripture. However, with few exceptions, the Spirit-driven zeal of the
Anabaptists did not take away from their trinitarian doctrine.
Confessional statements of the Mennonite churches reveal that the orthodox doctrine
of the Trinity, and the place of the Holy Spirit within the Trinitarian formulation,
persisted throughout the length and breadth of Mennonite doctrine. One confessional
statement after another carries the doctrine of the trinitarian formulation forward. Two
examples will suffice. The widely used Ris Confession of Faith (1766) states that “the
Holy Spirit belongs, as a divine entity, to the essence of God.”15 The recent “Confession
of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” (1995) reiterates: “We worship the one holy and
loving God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally.”16 What we observe in
Mennonite confessional history is confirmed in Mennonite theological discourse. A.
James Reimer, a contemporary Mennonite theologian, notes on the basis of his study that
“God as Triune” in the classic orthodox sense is basic to the Anabaptist and Mennonite
understanding of God.17
2. The Holy Spirit and Christology
Generally, Anabaptist writings reflect a rather high Christology, that is, a strong emphasis
on the divinity of the Son, even in his human form. This consequently lends importance
to the work of the Holy Spirit. A quote from Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith
illustrates the point:
Van Braght, Thieleman J., The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Mennonites, 5th
edition (Scottdale and Kitchener, Herald Press, 1950), pp.353-1100.
Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline (Kitchener and Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), p.74.
Friedmann, op.cit., p.134.
Howard John Loewen, One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of
Faith (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985), p.87.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald Press, 1995), p.10. This
Confession is the current statement adopted in 1995 by the Mennonite Church, the General Conference
Mennonite Church, and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. In 1999 these three churches reorganized
into Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.
A. James Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics
(Kitchener: Pandora Press, 2001), pp. 392ff.
“[The] Spirit of Christ, promised and given to all believers, makes them free from the law or
power of sin and grafts them into Christ. He [the Holy Spirit] makes them one with him in
mind, in his very character and nature, so that they become one plant and organism with
him….Thus we are one substance and essence with him, truly one bread and body. He is the
head, and we are all members, belonging one to another.”18
It is significant that Riedemann begins this statement with reference to the Spirit.
Through the pervasive work of the Holy Spirit, who mediates Christ the Word, the eternal
Christ in his earthly manifestation addresses the human condition by effecting a radical
change from earthly-mindedness to heavenly nature. Menno Simons also places emphasis
on the divinity of Christ, even in Christ’s human form It is not, as one might have
expected, that an emphasis on following the earthly Jesus distracts from a high
Christology, and focuses again on human works. On the contrary, it is in identifying with
Jesus that the regenerated person encounters the divine Christ. Christ, as the first-born of
creation, reveals his likeness in his followers and endows them with divine nature.
Students of Anabaptism will know that Menno Simons held to a unique view of the
incarnation, a view that supported his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit and
his high estimation of the divine significance of the earthly way of Christ. Following
Melchior Hofmann, Menno departs from the prevailing view that Jesus received human
flesh from Mary.19 This would have meant that he was one with the sinful human race.
Rather, Menno holds that Jesus human flesh was of heavenly origin. Mary was only the
receptacle for Jesus’ conception and birth; she received heavenly flesh into her body.20
This view reflects Menno’s understanding of the logical sequence implied in John 1:14,
which he often quotes: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us; and we beheld
his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
In this way Menno avoids the implication that the Holy Spirit somehow took the
place of the male component in conception. More importantly, Menno is able to
emphasize Jesus Christ as the New Man, the second Adam, through whom true believers
share in the divine nature. In two small but important writings, The New Creation (De
nieuwe Creatuur) and The Spiritual Resurrection (De geestelijke Verrijzenisse), he
proclaims to his readers the possibilities of the new birth through the Holy Spirit as a new
creation in Christ.21 Menno relates this view to 2 Cor. 5:17, “So if anyone is in Christ,
there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become
new!” This change iss not understood to involve a mere improvement in moral conduct.
Rather, it entails a radical renewal of eschatological proportion; a change brought about
Friesen, ed., Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, op.cit., p.97.
Cf. ibid., pp. 190ff.
William R. Estep reflects on Menno’s unique view as follows: “The orthodox position has always had
problems with the relation of Mary to the Holy Spirit. Was this a celestial marriage? Also, the Augustinian
concept of original sin and the inescapable Adamic nature of all mankind raises the problem of how a sinful
woman could give birth to a sinless man. All sorts of bizarre explanations have been attempted, such as the
perpetual virginity of Mary which, of course, implies that Adamic sin is inherent in sexual intercourse. The
dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary is simply another attempt to solve the problem of sinlessness
not only for Christ but also for the ‘ever virgin Mother of God.’ Menno cuts through these problems with
his doctrine of the incarnation. He views Christ as the ‘first-born of a new creation.’ Mary, as did all
mankind, belongs to the old fallen creation. But in Mary, God, through the Holy Spirit, begins his new
creation.” (Estep, op.cit., pp.138f.)
J.A. Oosterbaan, “The Theology of Menno Simons,” MQR, XXXV (July, 1961), p.194.
through the work of the Holy Spirit as persons of faith laid claim to Christ, the New
The correlation between Christ and the Holy Spirit comes to expression in yet
another way in Pilgram Marpeck’s discussion of the relation between the “service of
Christ” and the work of the Holy Spirit.23 Marpeck begins with the point that all external
service, understood as apostolic witness in response to the commands and teachings of
Christ, is a preparation for the work of the Holy Spirit. This includes teaching and
preaching, administering the ordinances, and discipline. Only when service is done in
humility can the Holy Spirit function through it. Even then, the Spirit is not limited to
man’s external service, but moves freely at will, although not apart from the apostolic
service of the church.
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995), written some 450 years
later, agrees with Marpeck’s basic thrust. Addressing the question of how one recognizes
“the work of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ,” the Confession states that:
“the work of the Holy Spirit since Christ’s exaltation always conforms to Jesus Christ. So
Christ is the standard for discerning which spirit is of God (1 Cor. 12:3; John 14:26; 1 John
4:2-3). Only that Spirit which conforms to Jesus Christ, as we know him through the
Scriptures, can reliably guide our faith and life.”24
In Mennonite doctrine, Christology and pneumatology continue their vital relationship to
the present day. While Mennonite theology has not carried forward the particular
explanation of the incarnation offered by Menno Simons, the intent of his interpretation,
namely to present the human Jesus as the one in whom his followers are “made new unto
godliness” is in harmony with current Mennonite belief.
The Holy Spirit and Scripture
As with the Protestant Reformation in general, Anabaptist leaders agreed that the
Scriptures constitute the final rule for faith and practice. They appealed to its authority in
the name of the Spirit of God. This brought them into conflict with the more conservative
Reformers, who sometimes deferred to the political authorities in determining what was
to be done about newly discovered biblical truth. One crucial instance of this occurred in
Zürich in the early months of Anabaptist origins.25 When in the Fall of 1523 the
reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, allowed ‘Milords,’ (the city council) of Zürich to determine
when and to what extent church reforms should be introduced, Simon Stumpf, one of
Zwingli’s radical disciples, challenged his pastor: “Master Ulrich, you have no authority
to place the decision in the hands of Milords, for the decision is already made; the Spirit
of God decides.”26 Stumpf’s challenge, “the Spirit of God decides,” was indicative of the
Anabaptists’ answer to the question of authority. Their appeal was to the Holy Spirit as
Oosterbaan, ibid., pp.196f. Oosterbaan suggests that in the view of the work of the Holy Spirit, as
represented by Menno Simons, we see the beginnings of a new understanding of the Holy Spirit as the
mediating power of God in relation to the Word of God.
Pilgram Marpeck, “Concerning the Lowliness of Christ,” (1547), in Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline,
op.cit., pp.78-81.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, op.cit., p.19.
Fritz Blanke, Brüder in Christo (Zürich: Zwingli-Verlag, 1955).
Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 3rd edition (Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald
Press, 1993). p.137.
final authority for interpreting Scripture and for determining matters of faith and life.
Menno Simons points out:
“Where the Spirit of God constrains to preach, there the Word will be taught unsullied by the
power of the Spirit, and genuine children of the Spirit will be begotten thereby. But where
flesh and blood constrains, there a carnal doctrine is taught, and carnal disciples are
The Holy Spirit and Scripture authenticate one another in practice and in outcomes.
The claim to scriptural authority begs the question of hermeneutics. What were the
Anabaptists’ principles of interpretation that led them to make faith claims? Two answers
are important for our discussion. The first centres on the relationship between “the Spirit”
and “the letter.” The second concerns the role of the hermeneutical community. The
“letter and Spirit” terminology stems from the Apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians
3:6: “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The relation of the letter to the Spirit, a
subject of debate ever since the early part of the 5th century when Augustine wrote his De
Spiritu et littera against the Pelagians, became an issue again during the Reformation.28
In Strasbourg, between 1528 and 1532, Anabaptist theologian Pilgram Marpeck had
vigorous encounters with the so-called Spiritualists over the issue of “letter and spirit.”29
The Spiritualists promoted the separation of “letter and Spirit.” Now that we live in the
age of the Spirit, there should be no need of the outer ceremony of baptism, no need for
Bible reading, for church attendance, or for the Lord’s Supper. God who is Spirit is not
found in the externals of earthly life. Faith had everything to do with the spiritual realm,
not with earthly elements of water, bread and wine. In part Marpeck agreed with their
critique of sacramental practice.30 There was much that amounted to meaningless
ceremony and tradition. But he had no patience with the separation of the spiritual from
the earthly. Such a view did not take seriously the teachings of Jesus or apostolic
practices. Besides, obviously God used earthly forms for the divine-human encounter.
Marpeck argued that something spiritually real and tangible happens in the rite of
baptism and in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The baptismal ceremony is a
concrete witness31 to the body and blood of Christ broken and shed on our behalf. In the
debate, Marpeck also held to the indispensable place of the Bible as God’s personal
spoken and written “letter” to humankind. In short, material elements are essential to the
life of faith. The view represented by Marpeck has been of considerable influence in the
formation and development of the subsequent Mennonite church. Mennonite theology
and church practice retain the notion that Christian faith incorporates “letter and spirit”
within its frame of reference.32 The letter can kill, but rightly related to the Spirit, it need
not do so.
The second answer to the question of scriptural authority concerns the role of the
community. As we have shown, the Anabaptists saw the role of the Holy Spirit as
Richard B. Gardner, “Menno Simons: A Study in Anabaptist Theological Self-Understanding and
Methodology,” MQR, XLI (April, 1965), 108.
William Klassen, “Anabaptist Hermeneutics: The Letter and the Spirit,” MQR, XL (April, 1966), 85ff.
Cf. ibid., 88f.
Cf. ibid., .88. Klassen names Anabaptists Jakob Kautz, Hans Bünderlin and Hans Denck, as well as
Anabaptist sympathizer Caspar Schwenckfeld.
Marpeck used the term Mitzeugen (co-witness) rather than Zeichen (sign, symbol) as Zwingli had done.
For pursuit of this point, see Theron F. Schlabach, Gospel versus Gospel (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1980),
pp. 148-194.
essential for understanding Scripture. The Holy Spirit was not an addition to the process
of interpretation, but was an essential element from the beginning. That is, “as the true
author of the scripture the Holy Spirit is also the true interpreter.”33 This did not mean,
however, that interpretation could be left to any individual’s internal impulse or dogged
insistence. The congregation was the context for “testing the spirits” to discern the one
voice of the Spirit. Menno Simons’ guidelines for discerning the truth of Scripture
include instruction “both by the Spirit and by the brethren.”34
The Spirit and the Church
The Anabaptists saw themselves as responsible recipients of an outpouring of the
Holy Spirit heralding a new age of the Spirit. God was at work in their very midst,
restoring the ‘true Church’ of the New Testament. In 1926, Strasbourg reformer Melchior
Hoffman wrote:
“God is now again present with his Spirit and angel, and intercedes for his children and
chosen ones. He is again cleansing his holy temple, which the angels of God are now
rebuilding and erecting again in a time of struggle. But however much the enemy of God’s
people with all his angels and false teachers seeks to prevent this rebuilding of God’s temple,
he will not succeed. It will be rebuilt.”35
In 1539 Menno Simons wrote as follows:
“Therefore I and my brethren in the Lord desire nothing…than that we may to the honor of
God so labor…, that we may rebuild that which is demolished, repair that which is damaged,
and free those who are captives with the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. And
we would bring it back to its earlier estate, that is, in the freedom of the Spirit to the
doctrine, sacraments, ceremonies, love and life of Christ Jesus and his holy apostles.”36
Underlying the notion that God was restoring the true church in their time was the
Anabaptists’ biblical understanding of covenant. A letter of September 1924 from Conrad
Grebel to Thomas Müntzer already gave expression to this covenant theology.37 Grebel
made a distinction between the covenant of the Old Testament, written in stone, and the
covenant of the New Testament inaugurated by Jesus Christ. The possession of the Holy
Spirit was the chief sign of the new covenant. Grebel’s contrast of the old obedience of
the law with the new obedience of the Spirit was not a value judgment. It had to do with
what was appropriate to each age. The watershed event dividing the two ages was the
first Pentecost, when the disciples and new believers were endowed with divine insight
into the nature of Christ’s mission, imbued them with the new law of love, and gave
spiritual gifts to each true believer. Now in their time, this endowment was being
renewed in their midst. This had little to do with arrogance, and had much to do with
humility and responsibility. Included was the inevitable call to communion with the
‘bitter Christ’ who asks the faithful to drink the cup of suffering with him.38
While the Anabaptists had a deep sense of being addressed individually by the Holy
Spirit, they were not individualists. The weight of emphasis falls upon the church as
Adolf Ens, “Theology of the Hermeneutical Community in Anabaptist-Mennonite Thought,” in Harry
Huebner, ed., The Church as Theological Community (Winnipeg: CMBC Publ., 1990), p.75.
Henry Poettcker, “Menno Simons’ Encounter with the Bible,” MQR, XL (April, 1966), 115.
Klaassen, ibid., p.326.
Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline ,op.cit., p.341.
Klaassen, “Some Anabaptist Views of the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” op.cit., 132.
Friedmann, op.cit., pp.115ff.
people, the “people of God,” a community of the faithful. A text from Peter Riedemann’s
Confession of Faith emphasizes the role of the Spirit in the Anabaptist community:
“The children of God, however, become his children through the unifying Spirit. Thus it is
evident that the church is gathered through the Holy Spirit; the church has its being and
continues to exist through the Spirit. There are no churches apart from those which the Holy
Spirit gathers and builds.”39
Here, as in Anabaptist theology generally, the Holy Spirit is understood to gain entrance
into the heart by the authentication of the Word of Christ received in the process of
mutual discernment in the congregation and evidenced in ethical walk.
Today Mennonite churches reiterate some aspects of the stance of the original
movement. While they do not claim to be the true Church, there is a renewed sense that
the Mennonite churches carry the responsibility of offering their perspective in interchurch dialogue, even as they learn from others. The emphasis overall is on the work of
the Holy Spirit in mission and in drawing people of all nations together.40 The article on
“The Church of Jesus Jesus Christ” in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
(1995) states,
“We acknowledge the church as the society of believers from many nations, anointed for
witness by the Holy Spirit. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, divisions between nations,
races, classes, and genders are being healed as persons from every human grouping are
reconciled and united in the church. In times of suffering as well as tranquility, the church
depends on the Spirit’s presence and power, rather than on the power or benevolence of
government, for its preservation and mission.”41
The crucial role of the Holy Spirit is evident in this statement.
Baptism and the Holy Spirit
In Anabaptist-Mennonite theology, the Holy Spirit was linked in a particular way
with baptism. Believers were inducted into the church through the rite of baptism upon
confession of faith. In the “Baptismal Order” (1527) as outlined by Balthasar Hubmaier,
the Holy Spirit had a decided place. When the bishop of the congregation presented the
baptismal candidate to the church, he was to invite the congregation to kneel, and to pray
that God may grant the candidate “the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and that he
will bring to pass that which he has begun in him through his Holy Spirit and divine
Word.”42 In the opening words of the baptismal rite, the bishop invoked the Holy Spirit
and said: “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy believers and enkindle in them the fire
of thy love; thou who hast assembled the people of many tongues in the unity of faith.”43
The questions posed to the candidate followed the Trinitarian outline. Thus the third
question was: “Do you believe also in the Holy Spirit; and do you believe in one Holy
Universal Christian church, one communion of saints ….”44
Friesen, ed., Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, op.cit., p.77.
Helmut Harder, Understanding the Faith from a Mennonite Perspective (Winnipeg and Newton: CMBC
Publications and Faith and Life Publications, 1997), pp.50f.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, op.cit., p.39.
Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, op.cit, p.122.
The second paragraph of the article on Baptism of the recently adopted Confession of
Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995), reflects the current understanding among
Mennonites of the relationship between baptism and the Holy Spirit:
“Baptism is a testimony to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit and the continuing work of the Spirit
in the lives of believers. Through the Spirit we repent and turn toward God in faith. The
baptism of the Holy Spirit enables believers to walk in newness of life, to live in community
with Christ and the church, to offer Christ’s healing and forgiveness to those in need, to
witness boldly to the good news of Christ, and to hope in the sharing of Christ’s future
In this statement, water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit are closely connected,
although not synonymous. Believers receive the Holy Spirit before, with, and/or after the
rite of water baptism. That is, the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of believers
and of the church is integral to the meaning and effect of baptism. The Anabaptists and
their Mennonite ‘children’ agree that baptism with water and the baptism of the Holy
Spirit are mutually inter-related experiences.
The Spirit and Freedom
Inspired by what was claimed to be a Spirit-led discernment of the implications of
Scriptural texts for church practices, Zwingli and his circle of young adults in Zürich,
proceeded to inaugurate innovations to traditional Catholic practices. When Zwingli
became cautious, not wanting to move ahead of public opinion or political authorities, his
associates pushed for radical reform. When Zwingli arranged for a several public debates
where all could express themselves freely on religious issues, it became evident that the
radicals were prepared to move beyond what he himself could endorse. Their model was
the New Testament church which, on the basis of personal volition and deep-seated
religious conviction, was formed into a voluntary band of worshippers. To make the
point, and also to follow up on conclusions drawn from their study of the New
Testament, the radical reformers proceeded to baptized one another upon personal
confession of faith, thus discounting infant baptism. With this, the movement signified its
independence from political authority, since infant baptism was a sign not only of
membership in the church but also of state citizenship. For the radical group, followers of
Christ were to be free of domination by the state. Implied in this stance was freedom of
religion and respect for personal conscience.
This initial impetus of Anabaptism, born in the context of a spirit of freedom, relates
integrally to the radical reformers’ understanding of the Holy Spirit. Walter Klaassen
makes the connection in the following way:
“When we speak about the Holy Spirit in Anabaptist thought we deal with something
that was at the very heart of their theology. Without their strong belief in the reality of the
Holy Spirit and His work their whole position would have been a lifeless legalism and their
claim to be a restitution [of] New Testament Christianity would have lacked its main
justification….All this was not to imply that the Anabaptists were the only ones to make
much of the Spirit. So did Luther, and especially Zwingli and his fellow Reformers. But
because of their adherence to the institutional church very much in its traditional form, these
Reformers were forced to quench the Spirit. They were bound by the shackles of
ecclesiasticism, and did not really have freedom to act.”46
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, op.cit., p.46.
Klaassen, “Some Anabaptist Views on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” op.cit., 130.
Klaassen sees “adherence to the institutional church…in its traditional form” on the part
of the mainline Reformers as a formidable deterrent to the “freedom to act.”
Understandably, these views and actions posed a threat to society. State and church
officials feared anarchy, and there were instances in which their fears were well-founded.
However, the pacifist stance of the majority of the Anabaptists, together with their
widespread disinterest in political and worldly involvements, held the guarantee that they
would not threaten the prevailing secular powers.47
The theme of free will resounds through the centuries of Mennonite confessional
documents. The following quote from a Mennonite Confession of Faith adopted by
Canadian Mennonites in 1930, and rooted in a Mennonite confessional tradition carried
forward from the Netherlands to Prussia to Russia to Canada, is indicative of the
prevailing stance:
“Of free will we believe and confess, that man has a free will to choose good or
evil, death or life (Deuteronomy 30:19). The work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is not
effected in man through force, but only insofar as man yields his will to God for conversion,
so that the power to desire to fulfill the good can be given to him. The omnipotent God
forces no one, predestines no one unconditionally, but gives us a free will. God the Lord
constantly comes to us in his grace, woos and draws us to conversion, but does not force us.
He gives us the freedom to stay with him or to leave him.”48
This statement is significant in the way it relates the work of the Holy Spirit to free will
in relation to nonviolence.
The Spirit and Pacifism
The Anabaptists’ reading of Scripture led them to the conclusion that they should
obey God rather than man. This meant, originally, that the state’s interpretation of
Scripture should not dominate, but that the Lordship of Christ should prevail. This
conviction first became clear when the demands of the city council in Zurich contradicted
their insights concerning the liturgy of the mass. Somewhat later, Pilgram Marpeck urged
that believers should distance themselves from allegiance to human authority, and should
rather submit themselves to the Holy Spirit. He wrote:
“In the church, the Holy Spirit alone is Lord and Ruler without any human assistance. Where
human authority such as government is allowed to dictate in and for the church, Christ’s
Word and Spirit are weakened. Indeed, it is blasphemy to allow external authority to rule in
the kingdom of Christ.”49
This meant, among other things, that the Christian should not participate in war and its
resultant violence. The radical reformers could not reconcile the command of the Old
Testament, “Thou shalt not kill,” and Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” with the
demands of the state. The Anabaptists made a generally applicable distinction between
life in the Spirit and life in the world. The Spirit of Christ was their persistent example, as
seen in this from an Anabaptist confessional statement of 1539:
Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, op.cit., pp.339f. Cf. also Marlin Miller who points out that the
eschatological perspective of the Anabaptists led them to the daring opinion that God would sooner bring
judgment upon unfaithful Roman Catholics and Protestants for their warring ways than upon the
unbelieving Turks who did not know better. [Marlin Miller, “The Church in the World as the Community
of the Kingdom,” unpublished paper presented at the First and Radical Reformation Consultation II,
Prague, Czechoslovakia, (June 1987), 6f.]
Articles of Faith of the Mennonites in Canada (1930), unpublished document, p.115.
Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, op.cit., pp.251ff.
“The power of the world is according to the flesh but the Christian’s power is according to
the Spirit. The citizenship of the world is in this world, but the Christian’s citizenship is in
heaven. Their battles are carnal and used against the flesh; the Christian’s weapons are
spiritual and used against the fortress of the devil. The worldly are armed with armour alone
against the flesh, but the Christians are armed with the armour of God that is truth,
righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the word of God. In short, whatever Christ our
head desires of us the members of his body must do, fulfill and think.”50
Menno Simons contrasted the sword of Caesar with the sword of the Spirit. He said of
true believers:
“They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their
spears into pruning hooks, and know war no more. They give to Caesar the things that are
Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Their sword is the sword of the Spirit, which
they wield in a good conscience through the Holy Ghost.”51
These quotations reveal a close link between the work of the Holy Spirit and the stance of
peace and nonresistance.
In the course of their history, the Mennonite churches have encountered various
challenges to their pacifist stance. In some contexts there has been a weakening of the
peace witness. In other contexts severe tests and new insights have honed their stance.
Yet with only few exceptions, Mennonite Confessions of Faith include statements that
indicate the Mennonite church is a peace church with a pacifist stance. The recent
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) is typical:
“As followers of Jesus Christ we participate in his ministry of peace and justice. He
has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice. We do so in a spirit of
gentleness, willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. As disciples of Christ, we do not
prepare for war, or participate in war or military service. The same Spirit that empowered
Jesus also empowers us to love enemies, to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to practice
right relationships, to rely on the community to settle disputes, and to resist evil without
violence. Led by the Spirit, and beginning in the church, we witness to all people that
violence is not the will of God.”52
The Anabaptist-Mennonite position on peace and nonviolence witnesses to the church’s
effort to accept the ‘whole Christ’ (all dimensions of the teachings and example of Jesus)
and to receive the Spirit in fullness (applicable to all dimensions of the life of the church).
The Spirit’s Sustenance in Suffering
Anabaptist reformers characterized their age as an era in which faithful Christians
should expect to endure suffering and persecution, and even martyrdom. For their part,
the faithful should persist “with meekness, with great patience in righteousness and truth,
in godly love and with strong faith and confidence.”53 Anabaptist theology emphasizes
the role of the Holy Spirit as comforter and sustainer in the midst of suffering. This
comes to light in the earliest known Anabaptist affirmation of faith, the Schleitheim
Confession of 1527. The opening paragraph elaborates on the role of the Spirit:
“May joy, peace, mercy from our Father, through the atonement of the blood of Christ Jesus,
together with the gift of the Spirit – who is sent by the Father to all believers to give strength
and consolation and constance in all tribulation until the end, Amen, be with all who love
Ibid., p.255.
Menno Simons, “The New Birth,” in Klaassen, ibid,, p.109.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, op.cit., pp.82f.
Klaassen, Anabaptism in Outline, op.cit., p.325.
God and all children of light, who are scattered everywhere, wherever they might have been
placed by God our Father, wherever they might gather in unity of spirit in one God and
Father of us all: grace and peace of heart be with you all. Amen.”54
In this statement the role of the Holy Spirit is “to give strength and consolation and
constance in all tribulation until the end.” In the following decade, Menno Simons spoke
much about the way of “lydsaemkeit,” the willingness to suffer, as an expectation for all
who follow the cross of Christ.55 In this vulnerable situation, trust in the Holy Spirit was
absolutely essential.
In later confessional development, when believers in this movement no longer
suffered persecution, the emphasis upon the Spirit’s sustenance in tribulation was often
replaced by a focus on the work of the Holy Spirit in less threatening ways. This included
convicting persons of sin, working regeneration in the hearts, sanctifying believers,
motivating for Christian service, and sealing the faithful until Christ returns.56 The notion
of radical suffering in the name of Christ is an occasional topic in Mennonite churches
10. Summary
A brief summary of findings concerning the Holy Spirit in Anabaptist-Mennonite
theology includes the following points: 1) Anabaptist-Mennonite theology of the Holy
Spirit falls doctrinally within the orthodox frame of reference as expressed in the
Scriptures and in the creeds of early Christianity. 2) The Holy Spirit in union with Jesus
Christ frees believers from the power of sin and grafts them into the very being of Christ.
3) Reliance on the Holy Spirit is indispensable for discerning the truth of Scripture for
faith and life. 4) Spirit and letter are inseparable in the work of the Gospel. 5) The
mission of the church is to exemplify and witness to the new age of the Spirit. 6) The
Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is entrusted to the believer and to the church in, with and
through believers baptism. 7) The Holy Spirit works as the Spirit of freedom, motivating
and sustaining Christ’s followers in radical discipleship. 8) The Holy Spirit encourages
and sustains the radical peace witness of the church. 9) The Holy Spirit sustains and
comforts the faithful in the face of suffering and death. With this we turn to a discussion
of some implications for the ecumenical agenda of the Christian churches.
C. Thoughts on Ecumenism
An Ambitious Ecumenical Agenda
The radical reformers had their ecumenical agenda of sorts. There was the
widespread conviction among them that they were called to restore true Christianity. The
envisioned restitution was not driven by a wistful longing for a distant past or by an
eschatological dream of a heavenly future ushered in at the end of history. Their Godgiven task was to lay the foundation for the true church as originally intended. There
were some, counted among the Anabaptists, who leaned toward a revolutionary style of
implementation. Others took a peaceful missionary approach, guided by the nonresistant
Loewen, op.cit., p.79.
Miller, “The Church in the World…,” op.cit., 7.
For example, see the General Conference Mennonite Confession of 1933, in Loewen, op.cit., p.107.
way of Jesus.57 Proponents of the peaceable way saw the local Christian community as
the primary place where restoration would begin and from which it would spread.58 They
claimed the work of the Holy Spirit first and foremost in local settings, even while their
concept of the Church included the entire realm in which Christ was destined to be Lord.
A Latent Ecumenical Attitude
At the time, the Anabaptist critique of the state of the church and their agenda for
rebuilding it, beginning with the very foundation, constituted a radical (even
preposterous) positioning of themselves at the center of the universal church. In the
beginning the vision and the initial rapid missionary activity gave cause for such
optimism. In time opposition and increasingly severe persecution dampened any thoughts
of a full-scale conversion to the Anabaptist point-of-view. Consequently, Anabaptist-type
congregations withdrew (either by outer force or inner necessity) into the hinterlands, and
become die Stillen im Lande (the quiet in the land). Any confidence they might have had
was replaced by a deep-seated fear and mistrust of Catholic and Protestant churches.
Today the mood and the aspirations have changed considerably. The Mennonite churches
are satisfied with being one voice of witness among many. Since those early decades,
Mennonite churches have tended to stay to themselves, and have not engaged to any
extent in inter-church relations.
Despite their lack of involvement in ecumenical pursuits, the recognition that the
Church of Jesus Christ is one has not been lost to view. The Confession of Faith of the
Mennonite Brethren Church (1902) is but one sample of the prevailing view of the
Mennonite church as part of this large universal family:
“Although the members of [the Church of Jesus Christ] belong to all nations and ranks
scattered here and there throughout the world and are divided in denominations, yet they all
are one and among one another brethren and members and exist as one body in Christ their
head, who is the Lord, Chief, Shepherd, Prophet, Priest and King of the church.”59
The Confession of Faith of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (1930), based on
earlier confessions brought from Prussia to Russia and then to Canada, states in a similar
vein that “[a]lthough the church is scattered through the whole world, all are part of the
one body of which Christ is the head.”60
Only in the last half of the twentieth century have Mennonite theologians and church
leaders begun seriously to consider inter-church opportunities and responsibilities. As
Mennonites engage in ecumenical conversation, there will be lessons to learn from the
wider Christian community, and there will be perspectives to offer to the church at large.
Within the Orthodox Circle
The fact that Mennonite theology falls within the circle of orthodox doctrine of the
Holy Spirit should provide encouragement on all sides for Mennonite involvement in
inter-church discussion. In light of the great importance that some denominations attach
to the trinitarian formula, this means in effect that the Mennonite churches have passed a
Franklin Hamlin Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church (Beacon Hill, Boston: Starr King Press, 2nd
edition, 1958), p.135.
Cf. Miller, “The Church in the World…,” op.cit., 10.
Loewen, op.cit., p.166.
Articles of Faith of the Mennonites in Canada, op. cit., p.119.
primary test of orthodoxy. As for discussion of issues concerning the Trinity, one will not
find a keen interest among Mennonite theologians or Mennonite churches for debate. For
most, it is enough to read and heed the Biblical texts which commission the church to
baptize “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and which suggest
appropriate trinitarian formulae for Christian worship. At a recent local MennoniteCatholic dialogue in Winnipeg it was drawn to our attention that the Catholic
Archdiocese of Winnipeg has the Mennonites on its list of churches whose baptism is
considered appropriate and adequate in cases where a person desires to transfer
membership from a Mennonite church to the Catholic Church. The rationale given is that
the Mennonite churches fulfill the requirements of baptizing in the name of the Trinity
and with water.
Pushing the Edges of Orthodoxy
When we turn from Trinity to Christology, ecumenical discussion with those in the
Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition becomes more challenging. Three related points come to
mind. First, rather than focus on the differentiation between Jesus Christ as human and as
divine as do the early creeds, Anabaptist-Mennonite theology blurs the distinction. Jesus
is the Word of God made flesh. As such, Jesus is intended to be believed and obeyed
fully by all who claim him in faith. Second, places following Jesus (discipleship) on a par
with appropriation of the atoning grace of Christ, rather than making grace primary and
works secondary. New birth in Christ, which makes the believer a “new creature” is
formed and sustained through the holistic experience of being reconciled to God and
doing the work of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21; Eph.2:10).61 The Sermon on the Mount
(Matthew 5-7) is no less essential to the requirements of the Gospel as is John 3:16.
Their orientation led the Anabaptists to ask why, in the light of the Sermon on the Mount,
people who claimed Christian faith, conceived it legitimate to persecute not only their
enemies, but even their neighbours. Third, rather than give equal status to the Scriptures
and to Tradition, Anabaptist-Mennonite theology returns to Jesus himself, taking its cue
for faith and life from the revelation of him in Scripture as discerned through the work of
the Holy Spirit in the faithful congregation.62
These differences suggest vital issues for ecumenical dialogue around the question:
Who is Jesus Christ? How do people of faith access God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?
John Howard Yoder, a “Free Church” theologian, has urged that ecumenical discussion
would do well to return in radical fashion to the implications of our desire and claim to
unity in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord of the church, taking in stride all the
implications for doctrine, for ethics, and for administration that come in that process.
Dutch theologian, J.A. Oosterbaan points in the same direction.63 In the context of
his effort to define the place occupied by the Anabaptists in the spectrum of the
ecumenical church, Oosterbaan concludes that the initial and actual break with the
The theme of “new creation” or “new nature” suggests a host of related issues that merit extended
discussion, issues that relate to the work of the Holy Spirit. For a helpful Mennonite-oriented approach to
these issues, see Thomas N. Finger, Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach (Nashville: Thomas
Nelson Publishers, 1985, vol. I, pp.353f. and vol II., pp.132-137, 282-289.
Cf. John Howard Yoder, “The Nature of the Unity We Seek,” in John Howard Yoder, The Royal
Priesthood (Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald Press, 1998), p.225.
J.A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR,
LI (July, 1977), 171-195.
mainline reformers in Zürich is explainable finally as a new vision of Jesus Christ. The
final break came about not for theological or sociological reasons, but was caused by
“the working of the Spirit when for the one group the faith began to differ somewhat from
that of the other group; when for the one group the Jesus Christ of the Gospels as the ‘new
man’ came to them in person in the immediacy of their faith and called them to discipleship
with an invitation that was impossible to refuse, whereas he was for the others the
presentation of the exalted, risen figure with whom one could associate only in a spiritual
way. The actual break occurred when the contrasting views arose; later it was bound also to
express itself in practice.”64
Oosterbaan explains the Anabaptists’ initial and prevailing understanding of Jesus Christ
as a radical inbreak of the Holy Spirit into their historical situation, affecting both the
form and the content of their faith. Did the Anabaptist movement signify and initiate a
“reformation of the Reformation,” as Oosterbaan contends?
Free Church Catholicity
In 1964, Leo Laurense, then a Mennonite pastor in the Netherlands, published a
paper entitled, “The Catholicity of the Anabaptists.”65 He focuses on the Anabaptists’
perception of their own universality as a church, and holds that the Anabaptist concept of
the church was conceivable to them only as it was infused by the fullness of the Holy
Spirit.66 Because of the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the church, the church
receives its “catholic character.” Laurense writes,
“If catholicity is synonymous with fullness, it may be said that the Anabaptists have
expressly viewed themselves as catholic, and have seen the guarantee of their catholicity in
the working of the Spirit, and not primarily in the office, the order, or the confession.”67
Laurense contends, like Oosterbaan, that the church discovers its identity not by externam
means, but radically through the ever-renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Does the
direction suggested by Oosterbaan and Laurense point the way to catholicity? If so, the
Christian churches should revisit their Christologies together, as suggested above.
John Howard Yoder takes up the notion of catholicity in his discussion of the
significance of the Free Church legacy. In an essay first published in the Spring of 1960,
entitled, “The Otherness of the Church,”68 Yoder notes that the breakdown of the
Christendom model of church in modern times has given opportunity for exploring anew
“the pathway for the church in our time.” He makes the radical proposal that the church
would do well to begin anew by reconstituting itself universally, albeit in a particular
way. It should gather together “from every tribe and language and people and nation”
those who are “zealous for good works.”69 This is to suggest, in effect, that “the true
church is the free church,”70 or at least that the free church indicates a way into the future
of ecumenicity. Such a new beginning is conceivable and possible, says Yoder, “if with
Ibid., 194.
Leo Laurense, “The Catholicity of the Anabaptists,” MQR , XXXVIII (July, 1964), 266-279.
The author points out that in the Calvinist and Lutheran order, the doctrine of the work, or life of the
Spirit, forms an appendage to the salvific significance of the church, and is not integral. Cf. ibid., 267.
Laurense, ibid.
John Howard Yoder, “The Otherness of the Church,” in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, op.cit., pp.54-64.
Originally a lecture delivered at Drew University in the winter of 1959-60.
Ibid., p.61.
Ibid., p.64.
the apostles we confess the Holy Spirit and the church.”71 Yoder names three historic
examples of significant new directions: the free church movement in the late Middle
Ages, the moral renewal of England during the Wesleyan revival, and the Brüderschaften
of the Barmen Confession.72
A central feature of the free church, says Yoder, is its unfinished character. The
church relies on the Holy Spirit to assure faithfulness to its Scriptural past and to open the
way to its eschatological future. As James McClendon says in conclusion to his
affirmative discussion of Yoder’s views: “Christian ecclesiology is provisional
ecclesiology; it looks toward a fulfillment not yet achieved.”73 For the church to place
herself between her biblical past and her biblical future in radical openness to the work of
the Holy Spirit, is to lay claim to her legacy as the free church. Is Yoder’s proposal
within the realm of ecumenical consideration?
An Alternate Ecumenical Style
Predictably, Yoder rejects the “merger” approach to Christian unity in favour of
“another style” and “another spirit.” His views come to expression in “The Free Church
Ecumenical Style,”74 first published in the summer of 1968. Over against the “merger”
style, which envisions a merged or unified church government and doctrine, the style of
church unity envisioned from a free church perspective is based on the centrality of the
congregation.75 The binding authority of the church is the local congregation, including
enlarged circles of local meetings of numerous congregations. The primary purpose of
such local meetings is “a unity that is personal.”76 A reconciliation of polities and
governments and traditions and doctrines is secondary at best. The focus is on persons
meeting persons in a reconciling spirit in the context of the worship of God and
obedience to Christ.77 The free church style and spirit relies on the promise of the Lord to
be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name. Believers should not have to
wait until all problematic relationships of church governments have been resolved before
they can enter into full spiritual communion.
In a subsequent lecture given in 1990, entitled, “Catholicity in Search of Location,”78
Yoder outlines a vision of and for the church that is “at one and the same time, radically
reformed and radically catholic.”79 For Yoder, “radical reform” signifies the open quest
for right structures for ecumenical dialogue, while “radical catholicity” signifies the need
to discern our common calling as individuals and congregations who profess Christian
faith. In this discerning quest it is not important to know when we have found the unity
we are looking for, but to define the location toward which the vision of unity ought to be
Ibid., p.62.
Ibid., p.63.
McClendon, op.cit., p.344.
This essay appeared most recently in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, op.cit., pp.232-241. It was first
published as part of a symposium in 1968 in Quaker Religious Thought.
Cf. ibid, pp.235f.
Cf. ibid. pp.240f.
Yoder’s proposal is quite different, for example, from the program outlined by Avery Dulles, S.J., in
“Pathways to Doctrinal Agreement: Ten Theses,” Theological Studies, 47 (1968), 32-47. Dulles assumes
that ecumenical dialogue focuses on convergences, divergences, and differences with respect to doctrine.
John Howard Yoder, “Catholicity in Search of Location,” in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, op.cit., pp.
Ibid., p.301.
moving.80 It is a matter of engaging in the process appropriately. A radical reliance upon
the Holy Spirit would be necessary for such a quest, as it would require renunciation of
all other “tools of privilege and power” when defining the authentic work of the Holy
Spirit.81 The realms of church and state must be separated, so that nothing “qualifies the
universal authority of the risen Lord and short-circuits the dialogical freedom whereby
God the Spirit brings her people to unity.”82 As well, current church hierarchies would
need to release all assumptions of administrative dominance.
The Challenge of Pacifism
A discussion of the Holy Spirit and ecumenism from an Anabaptist-Mennonite
perspective must of necessity include the question of pacifism. For the Mennonite
churches, historically and today, commitment to pacifism was and is a confessional
matter. Virtually all Mennonite confessions since the Reformation subscribe to nonviolence, non-participation in warfare, and non-resistance. The Mennonite churches hold
that pacifism – a radical peace stance - is an essential component of the Gospel. In that
sense, peace is a radical element of Christian faith.
Radical peace is a gift offered and received from God. It does not originate or sustain
itself through human endeavour. In Biblical thought, the peace of God breaks into the life
of individuals and communities from above and from God’s future. This breaking in is
signified by the epiphany of the incarnation as well as by the future promise that the birth
of Christ brings with it (Luke 1:79; 2:14). The peace of God is existential and it is
eschatological.83 The prophet Isaiah announces a future eschatological time when all
nations come to mount Zion where they will beat their weapons of war into instruments
suitable for creative purposes (see Isaiah 2:1-4). He then invites people of faith to walk
now in the light of the eschatological future prepared by the Lord (2:5). This is no simple
matter, but calls us to the way of suffering and self-sacrifice, as seen supremely in the
passion of our Lord, but also in the succession of faithful witnesses (see Hebrews 12:113). We cannot find our way except we are sustained by the Holy Spirit. (John 14:15-31).
In the judgment of the handful of Historic Peace Churches among the Christian
denominations – the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers – the New
Testament message is unequivocal and clear: We are called to love our enemies. This
precludes killing them, and calls for a life of nonviolence. What is good for the church in
this regard is also good for society. The Historic Peace Churches regard it as a Christian
obligation to implore persons and institutions everywhere to seek nonviolent ways of
resolving conflict.84 Should it not be normative for all Christian churches to incorporate a
radical peace witness into their understanding of faith and to commend it as the way of
life for humanity? The emphasis on peace is one of the charisms that the Mennonite
churches offer as a gift to the whole church, and commends to the whole church. The
Ibid., p.302.
Ibid., p.314.
For a statement on this theme, published by the Historic Peace Churches and the Fellowship of
Reconciliation, and intended to contribute to ecumenical dialogue, see the essay by Douglas Gwyn, George
Hunsinger, Eugene F. Roop, and John Howard Yoder, A Declaration on Peace: In God’s People the
World’s Renewal Has Begun (Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald Press, 1991).
For a review of Historic Peace Church initiatives in the past century, see John Rempel, “The
Fragmentation of the Church and its Unity in Peacekeeping,” Ecumenical Trends, 29 (June, 2000), 1-9.
words of Mennonite theologian A. James Reimer express an insight which has come
lately to the Mennonite church, when he states, “The Mennonite emphasis on discipleship
and peace (variously named nonresistance, pacifism, nonviolence) is one gift among
many, but it is an essential one for the whole church.”85 In recent decades the Mennonite
church, having emerged from its well-protected cocoon and, having begun to recognize
its ecumenical brothers and sisters in Christ, dares to commend its legacy of peace as a
gift of the Spirit to all. Every church a peace church?86
D. Conclusion
The churches spawned by the Radical Reformation have a two-fold responsibility
when engaging in ecumenical dialogue. First, they need to contribute to the process of
ecumenical discernment by offering their theological insights, their traditional legacy,
their current Christian experience, and their visions for the eschatological future of the
people of God. Second, they need to hear what the Spirit is saying to them through the
experiences and insights of their dialogical partners. In open dialogue characterized by
mutual exchange the churches could build anew together.
To respect the integrity of churches who bring the legacy of the Radical Reformation
to the ecumenical table, would require that at least two initial suggestions be given
serious consideration. First, inter-church dialogue partners might imagine a visible unity
that would occur not only (or perhaps, not at all) in a hierarchy of common government
and doctrinal agreement, but also (or perchance, but rather) at the grassroots level, where
congregation meets congregation in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It may not be a
matter of “either or,” but of “both and.”87 That would be a matter for mutual exploration.
Second, dialogue partners might explore together in radical fashion the potential for
starting and ending the discussion under the theme suggested by 1 Cor. 3:11 – “No other
foundation can anyone lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
E. Biblical Postscript
The Letter to the Ephesians, written about A.D. 60, and sent to the churches probably
by Paul during his imprisonment in Rome, invites the Gentiles of the day to make a
radical ecumenical claim. Though discriminated against because they failed the test of
religious tradition (uncircumcised), the Gentiles should not hesitate to claim their share in
being the church, since the blood (death) of Christ has sealed their inclusion in the
covenants of promise given to Israel (Eph. 2:11-12). Because of the manner of his death,
characterized by non-resistant submission, Jesus has become their “peace”(2:14) too. He
Reimer, Mennonites and Classical Theology, op.cit., p.552.
Inspiration for these prodding suggestions comes in part from John Howard Yoder’s “Peace Without
Eschatology?” in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, op.cit., pp. 144-167. This essay was first presented in
May, 1954, at a study conference in the Netherlands.
See the excellent discussion on this issue by Mennonite theologian A. James Reimer in his essay,
“Mennonites and the Universal Church: Ecumenical Gifts of the Spirit,” in Mennonites and Classical
Theology, op.cit., pp.537-552.
did not take sides in the final conflict, but instead gave his life for all. With this he
removed the divisive hostility between Gentile and Jew. Thus his suffering and death has
set the stage for the creation of “one new humanity in place of the two”(2:15). Now the
Gentiles, long considered “far off” by the Jews, are invited to become one people with
the children of Israel. Miraculously, both Gentiles and Jews “have access in one Spirit to
the Father”(2:18). With this, the new community, “built upon the foundation of the
apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone”(2:20) is being “built
together spiritually into a dwelling place for God”(2:22).
The second chapter of Ephesians proclaims a radical message and outlines a radical
method whereby to claim its fulfillment. The message is that in Jesus Christ God has laid
the foundation for the creation of one new community of peace infused with the one
Spirit. The method whereby this has been and is being accomplished entails the removal
of hostility, reconciliation between factious groups, the proclamation of peace, the
practice of prayer in one Spirit to the Father, and submission to Jesus Christ through
whom the faithful are built together into a dwelling place for God. What would
ecumenical initiatives look like if churches today would risk the pursuit of ecumenical
community in accordance with principles and promises suggested in Ephesians 2? The
letter to the angel of the church in Ephesus, recorded in the Book of Revelation, expands
this invitation: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the
Selected Bibliography
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original as found in Howard John Loewen. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God:
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Bainton, Roland, “The Left Wing of the Reformation,” Journal of Religion, XXI (1941), 124-134.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1995.
Davis, Kenneth. Anabaptism and Asceticism. Scottdale and Kitchener: Herald Press, 1974.
Dulles, Avery, S.J., “Paths to Doctrinal Agreement: Ten Theses,” Theological Studies, 47 (1968), 32-47.
Dyck, Cornelius J. An Introduction to Mennonite History. 3rd Edition. Scottdale and Waterloo: Herald
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Dyck, Cornelius J., “The Life of the Spirit in Anabaptism,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XLVII (October,
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Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963.
Finger, Thomas N. Christian Theology: An Eschatological Approach. 2 volumes. Nashville: Thomas
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Friedman, Robert, “The Encounter of Anabaptists and Mennonites with Anti-Trinitarianism,” Mennonite
Quarterly Review, XXII (July, 1948), 145.
Friedman, Robert. The Theology of Anabaptism. Scottdale and Kitchener: Herald Press, 1973.
Gardner, Richard, “Menno Simons: A Study in Anabaptist Theological Self-Understanding and
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Klassen, William, “Anabaptist Hermeneutics: The Letter and the Spirit,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XL
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1971), 291-311.
Klaassen, Walter, “Some Anabaptist Views on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” Mennonite Quarterly
Review, XXXV (April, 1961), 130-139.
Laurense, Leo, “The Catholicity of the Anabaptists,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXXVIII (July, 1964),
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Loewen, Howard John. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, and One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith.
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McClendon, James Wm., Jr. Systematic Theology: Doctrine. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Miller, Marlin, “The Church in the World as the Community of the Kingdom,” unpublished paper, First
and Radical Reformation Consultation II, Prague, Czechoslovakia, June, 1987.
Oosterbaan, J.A., “The Mennonites and the Ecumenical Movement,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XLI
(July, 1967), 187-199.
Oosterbaan, J.A., “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,”
Mennonite Quarterly Review, LI (July, 1977), 171-195.
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187-196, 237.
Poettcker, Henry, “Menno Simons’ Encounter with the Bible,” MQR, XL (April, 1966). 112-126.
Reimer, A. James. Mennonites and Classical Theology: Dogmatic Foundations for Christian Ethics.
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Williams, George H. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962.
Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching
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Yoder, John Howard. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. Notre Dame: University of Notre
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B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.
Presented by
Helmut Harder, Emeritus Professor of Theology
Canadian Mennonite University
Winnipeg, Canada
At the Conference on “The Holy Spirit and Ecumenism”
Sponsored by the Cardinal Suenens Center
Held at Bose Monastery, Bose, Italy
October 14-20, 2002