DENNY WEAVER, GERALD J. MAST, AND TREVOR BECHTEL, EDS. Anabaptist Political Theology Afterarpeck. Cascadia Publishing House, 2022. Pp. 262. $25.00 (US)
Of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists I know about, if there was one I would like to sit down with for an extended conversation, it would be Pilgram Marpeck. For one thing, he had an unmatched history of close proximity with various important expressions of Anabaptism, going back to living in western Austria near the origins of the movement only a couple years after Zurich 1525. Then came his time in Strasbourg for several years before being banned in 1532—years that included highly significant dialogues with Reformed leaders Martin Bucer and Wolfgang Capito. After Strasbourg, Marpeck was in Switzerland for a number of years before his final move to Augsburg, where he had a peaceful death at the (relatively) ripe old age of 61 (or so) in 1556. So, Marpeck’s career—extraordinarily lengthy for the sixteenth century—ran from the revolutionary turmoil of the original Swiss Brethren through decades of intense and deadly persecution down to beginnings of the era of Mennonites as “quiet in the land.” The stories he could tell, and the theological reflections he could share!
Anabaptist Political Theology After Marpeck collects eleven papers from a June 2009 conference at Bluffton University. Written in an accessible manner, mainly by Mennonite academic theologians, these papers reflect on various elements of Marpeck’s unique place in the thought world of the first generation of Anabaptism. There is actually not a lot of “political theology” in this volume, but we do find stimulating engagement with some of the important theological tensions in the sixteenth century that resonate now in the twenty-first. Marpeck is presented here as a creative and peaceable thinker who worked to hold together points of intense debate and tension. His theology is shown to be a resource for socially and ecumenically engaged faith in the context of clear commitments to Anabaptism’s core convictions concerning the centrality of the story of Jesus for Christian faith and practice and an unwavering commitment to pacifism.
In the book’s first section, Denny Weaver and Javan Lapp consider Marpeck’s Christology and Matt Eaton and Trevor Bechtel his creation theology. Weaver argues that while it is accurate and important to note Marpeck’s commitment to trinitarian convictions, he must be seen as doing so only in service to his emphasis on Jesus and rejection of warfare. Lapp’s emphasis is on Marpeck’s quest to hold together both the inner and outer aspects of Jesus’s mission—which for him means rejecting both the disembodied Spiritualist orientation and the doctrinal emphases of the magisterial Reformation and Catholicism. Like Lapp, Eaton focuses on what he calls Marpeck’s “incarnational theology.” For Eaton, this theology includes an affirmation of God’s presence in all of creation. Bechtel places Marpeck in conversation with recent theologians Nancey Murphy and Kathryn Tanner in order to highlight Marpeck’s “non-contrastive” view of the relation between God and nature (that is, the view that Marpeck thought not of a material/spiritual dualism but of an ethical dualism, oriented either toward Jesus or against Jesus).
The second section, “Ecclesiology,” focuses on Marpeck’s views of the church. Anthony Siegrist shares concerns with recent Mennonite theologians who have argued for Marpeck’s importance for ecumenical relations with Catholic and magisterial Protestant traditions. He brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Robert Jenson into conversation with Marpeck on the theme of God’s presence in the church’s sacramental practices, suggesting that Marpeck should be valued as an Anabaptist who offers a preferred more wholistic path between the poles of rationalism and spiritualism. In contrast to Siegrist, Leonard Gross presents us with a Marpeck in strong continuity with the early Swiss Brethren, centered on a shared commitment to “nonresistant congregational theology,” a commitment central to the sustenance of Anabaptist/Mennonite pacifism in the generations since the sixteenth century. Gerald Mast also challenges attempts to pit Marpeck over against the Schleitheim Confession and, instead, suggests that Marpeck offers a more sophisticated version of Schleitheim’s key insights about separation. In light of Marpeck’s theological insights, Mast suggests, we may seek a social witness that actively engages worldly powers in ways that are fully consistent with the path of Jesus. Joanna Shenk seeks to bring Marpeck into conversation with late sixteenth century Dutch Mennonite leader Hans de Ries. She suggests that the new interest in Marpeck may be extended to include more attention being paid to de Ries as well—the two combine to offer helpful insights on how “love and dialogue [might serve] as the primary agents of Christian transformation” (177).
The third section includes three essays on “Political Engagement and Public Theology.” Duane Friesen offers the book’s most extensive engagement with the theme of an “Anabaptist political theology” in his creation of an imaginative, impressionistic conversation with Marpeck about social engagement. Friesen presents us with a Marpeck who attractively combines a strong commitment to nonviolence with a sense of responsibility to participate in the world of public policy, including a conviction that the state need not use violence. Scott Holland, likewise, enlists Marpeck as a model Anabaptist who sought to combine the radical message of Jesus with a commitment to be responsible in the “public square.” Phil Stoltzfus completes the volume by bringing Marpeck into conversation with contemporary Mennonite peacebuilding theorist John Paul Lederach in service of witnessing “to a political theology that is at once thoroughly Anabaptist, thoroughly nonviolent, and thoroughly engaged at all levels of society” ( 232).
If we don’t have any record of a sixteenth-century Studs Terkel who transcribed Pilgram Marpeck’s stories and theological reflections, we do at least have these various attempts to capture some of this important sixteenth-century Anabaptist’s insights and provocations. The need for creative Anabaptist political theology has never been greater.