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Ethics as improvisation: anabaptist communal discernment as method.

Abstract: Drawing on both historical and contemporary Anabaptist sources, this essay offers a nuanced exploration of a central feature of the Anabaptist tradition, broadly construed: the practice of communal discernment. After carefully distinguishing what this practice does and does not entail, the essay argues that the application of this communal, contextual, and non-relativistic method of moral reasoning is art invaluable gift that the Anabaptist tradition has to offer the church at large in an emerging postmodern milieu. By exploring the process by which some of the more well-known Anabaptist convictions were formulated, the essay further suggests that faithfully inheriting the Anabaptist tradition involves creatively reasoning in a like manner, rather than simply parroting every belief held by our sixteenth-century predecessors. The article concludes by addressing an important concern commonly raised about communal discernment, namely the live possibility of communities erring in their judgment.

Even a cursory reading through the history of the early Anabaptist movement makes clear that its adherents had an abiding commitment to practical Christian discipleship. Equally evident is their strong emphasis on the role of Scripture, with the New Testament taking precedence over the Old, along with the profound courage of the Anabaptist martyrs, whose stories inspired many others to similar acts of faithful, nonviolent resistance. Less noticeable, however, is the way this emerging, dynamic community of disciples embodied a method of moral discernment that is especially suited for today's postmodern context. And yet, as I will argue, this way of reasoning was central to the historic Anabaptist vision and remains an important gift that the Anabaptist witness has to offer the Western church as it continues to emerge from the throes of Christendom.

This essay will explore the nature of moral discernment by drawing on the rich resources of the Anabaptist tradition. In seeking to live lives of faithful discipleship, sixteenth-century Anabaptists implicitly employed a communal and contextual method of moral reasoning that nonetheless eschewed relativism. This Anabaptist model of communal discernment is an invaluable witness to contemporary Christians who are working out, in some instances for the first time, what it looks like to live a faithful Christian life without the explicit or tacit support of the governing authorities. Although this method of communal discernment may appear vulnerable to moral relativism, since it could be claimed by communities who allegedly receive direction from God for any number of ethically problematic positions, I will argue that these potential problems can be recognized and avoided by attending to the grammar of basic Christian theological convictions. That is, the ongoing practice of proclaiming "Jesus is Lord" in each new cultural situation can enable the church to discern the difference between faithful versus unfaithful ethical performance.

  Master Huldrych! You have no authority to place the decision in
  Milords' hands, for the decision is already made: the Spirit of God
  decides. If therefore Milords were to discern and decide anything
  that is contrary to God's decision, I will ask Christ for his Spirit
  and will teach and act against it.(1)

Simon Stumpf's bold rejoinder to Ulrich Zwingli in a disputation before the Zurich City Council in October 1523 represents one of the earliest articulations of the Anabaptist moral vision. Whether or not it marks the precise beginning of Anabaptism itself, (2) the exchange encapsulates the deep difference between two "world-pictures" that were emerging from the medieval Catholic Church.(3) While Martin Luther, Zwingli, and the Anabaptists all echoed the Reformation slogan of sola scriptura as the basis for Christian morality, each used this language in a significantly different way. Luther, for example, emphasized Scripture's power to free the individual conscience for dutiful servanthood to all(4). Zwingli, and Heinrich Bullirtger after him, emphasized Scripture's role in forming the holy commonwealth on earth, which included all citizens in a given region.(5) The Anabaptists were unique in their radically Christocentric interpretation of Scripture, whose meaning was always to be discerned in the context of the local community, distinct from the auspices of the governing authorities. In order to better understand their implicit method of moral reasoning, which emphasized communal discernment of the dynamic will of God, I will organize this section along the lines of Acts 15:28-29, and thus show the extent to which this hermeneutical approach shaped many of the more well-known features of Anabaptist theology and ethics.

On a very basic level, the dispute between Stumpf and Zwingli reflected a deep difference in prioritization: the Swiss Brethren believed that a decision reached by the local community of disciples trumped any other authority, including that of the Zurich city council. To be sure, Stumpf's claim that Zwingli had "no authority to place the decision in Milords' hands" because "the Spirit of God decides" could be challenged by asking, "And how do you know that the Spirit of God has so decided?" The answer would not come from an immediate, idiosyncratic revelation of the Holy Spirit, nor from an isolated appeal to Scripture by the solitary individual, though everyone at the disputation, including the Anabaptists, would agree that Scripture was the final authority. Although the debate did center on what Scripture dearly taught, the issue between Stumpf and Zwingli was not Scripture per se.(6) Rather, the debate focused on how one discerned the Word (or Spirit) of God, and who got the final say in making this decision.

Although the 1523 exchange unfolded just before a colorful variety of Anabaptist congregations began to spring up in Switzerland, southwest Germany, and Moravia, one feature that would unite these radical congregations was already implicit in Stumpf's answer: namely, their readiness to disobey the secular authorities when they conflicted with what the congregation understood to be taught in Scripture. Indeed, this helps explain why both Conrad Grebel(7) and Zwingli(8) looked back on these Zurich disputations as revealing a much deeper rupture between the two groups, long before anyone had been "re-baptized" or made any pronouncements concerning the sword.

Thus, when these same Swiss radicals, amid increasing political pressure from the Zurich council, decided to write a letter to Thomas Muntzer less than a year later, it is not surprising to find it framed in the first-person plural. After listing various ways Christians in the past have neglected the witness of Jesus, for example, Grebel wrote,
  We too have been in this total error. ...But after we also took up
  Scripture and examined it on a great many issues, we became better
  informed, and we discovered the pastors' great and damaging defici-
  encies, and ours as well. We discovered that we do not ask God every
  day, seriously and with constant signs, to lead us from the
  destruction of every godly way and out of human abominations, and to
  the true faith and practices of God.9

It is evident from this letter that the Anabaptist movement, still very early in the process of formation, took for granted a high view of Scripture, and already prioritized the New Testament over the Old in correcting Miintzer's use of the sword.(10) But equally important is the clear context that led the Brethren to these convictions: the taking up of Scripture together, as a community of committed disciples. These men and women arrived at their convictions regarding baptism and the nature of Christian discipleship by meeting, praying, and studying Scripture together in one another's homes; and they agreed that their conclusions could not faithfully be foisted upon the unknowing or unwilling.(11) It was a process of communal discernment that prompted the Brethren's decision to disobey the Zurich council's decree to baptize their children, and also provided the courage necessary to disobey such an order. "And it happened they were together. After fear lay greatly upon them, they called upon God in heaven, that he should show mercy to them. Then Jorg [Blaurock] arose and asked Conrad for God's sake to baptize him; and this he did. After that, he baptized the others also."(12) Two years later, early in 1527, a similar setting of communal gathering and prayer led to the articles recorded by Michael Sattler as the "Brotherly Union" (better known today as the Schleitheim Confession), which represented "the coming-of-age of a distinct, visible fellowship taking long-range responsibility for its order and its faith."(13)

Communal discernment, expressed in different ways and with different emphases, continued to mark the Anabaptist movement as it took root in other contexts. Consider, for example, the writings of Pilgram Marpeck. For all his hesitancy concerning "the ban" and his strong emphasis on the unity that comes only through the Spirit of God, Marpeck still assumed that the Spirit of God is accessible to the individual primarily in the gathered community. "The true saints of God and children of Christ," he wrote, "are those whose ruler is the Holy Spirit in the Word of truth. Where two or three are gathered in His name, He is among them. ... I pray God my heavenly Father that He will not allow me to be separated from such a gathering and fellowship of the Holy Spirit."(14) Marpeck assumed that discernment would be communal; his primary concern was simply that it be done in the right manner and the right spirit--i.e., with patience, and without immediate threat of the ban.(15) Among contemporary Anabaptist thinkers, John Howard Yoder and James Wm. McClendon Jr. have articulately emphasized the role of the local community as the appropriate locus of ethical discernment.(16) Although Yoder is frequently identified solely as an unusually articulate defender of Christian pacifism, (17) a major (and arguably more central) strain in his work is this ecclesiological emphasis, which helped situate the rest of his theological and ethical convictions. (18) For Yoder, the "original revolution" that God has always been working to make manifest from the beginning is "the creation of a distinct community with its own deviant set of values and its coherent way of incarnating them. Today it might be called an underground movement, or a political party, or an infiltration team, or a cell movement. The sociologists would call it an intentional community."(19) The resources present in this eschatological community--so described because it bears witness to the meaning of history and for whose sake history continues--allow Christians to reason within whatever cultural situation they find themselves. (20) For Yoder, this picture of the church is quite different from what it has so long been in Europe and the United States--"an administrative division of civil government which arranges to have preachers in pulpits," or "one more service club which, even though it has many members registered, still needs to compete with other loyalties for their time and attention." (21)

Even more to the point, McClendon argued that the "baptist vision" of Christian life is fundamentally marked by a basic hermeneutical principle which he described as: "this is that," (22) by which he meant an implicit pattern of ethical reasoning driven by a
  shared awareness of the present Christian community as the primitive
  community and the eschatological community. In a motto, the church
  now is the primitive church and the church on judgment day; the
  obedience and liberty of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth is our
  liberty, our obedience, till time's end.(23)

The central focus of "this is that" is not on Scripture per se, but on the local community of disciples, for whom the Bible functions as the central text.(24) McClendon's ecclesial vision is "baptist" in its emphasis on the local, flesh and blood gathering; but it is also catholic in that each local congregation, when gathered in the name of the Risen Lord, is the center of the Rule of God.(25) "In each 'local' church (the expression is a redundancy) the wonder of community formation in Christ has occurred."(26)

Dynamic communal discernment, then, is the way Anabaptists reason, and is so basic that it can go unnoticed. To borrow an image from Ludwig Wittgenstein, it is the scaffolding of Anabaptist language--an analogy that helps make sense of the intense antipathy Anabaptists historically have suffered from their neighbors, in light of Wittgenstein's observation that people "come to blows" not over the following of a rule, but over "the scaffolding from which our language operates."(27) The scaffolding analogy also helps to explain why Anabaptists have always regarded communal discernment, theology, and politics as inextricably interrelated: just as scaffolding cannot be separated from the task the workers are seeking to accomplish, so too groups in the Anabaptist tradition have shown little interest in abstract, isolated theological speculation. Rather, the primary theological question of this tradition is, "What must the church teach if it is really to be the church?"(28) That contemporary Anabaptist ethicists such as Yoder and McClendon work to reclaim the importance of communal discernment, ethics, and "politics" is not meant to reduce theology to these themes, but instead, as they have argued, to reemphasize a holism that mainstream Christian ethicists should never have forgotten.(29)

Concomitant with this emphasis on communal discernment is a recognition that every judgment by the local gathered community should be held with a degree of humility. Though Anabaptist groups have generally not hesitated to make moral pronouncements to each other and to the world, they nevertheless are aware that what has been communally discerned is always potentially open to correction, and thus to cease communication with one another would be to cut off any means of correcting (or being corrected by) the sister or brother in Christ.

On the surface, it may appear that such epistemological humility was altogether lacking in the Stumpf and Zwingli dispute. After all, Stumpf was quite bold to say that the Spirit of God has decided over the matter of the Lord's Supper. And yet Stumpf and the rest of the Swiss Brethren were still there, arguing their case before the city council and before a man who was gradually becoming more enemy than friend. The fact that these soon-to-be-labeled Anabaptists continued to make their case in Zurich, even after they were banned from doing so, (30) suggests both a strong missional zeal as well as a desire to continue the conversation, almost always framed with a desire for correction if it was based on Scripture.

Similarly, the proto-Anabaptists who wrote to Thomas Muntzer were not only exhorting him to adopt their position on the liturgy and the sword; they were also reaching out to a potential brother. To be sure, they do not mince words about what they had communally discerned; but they also clearly asked for correction if it could be shown that they were in error: "if we are not right about it, then teach us what is better."(31) They were not simply admonishing Muntzer: they were also asking--or better, seeking--to "create a Christian community with the help of Christ and his rule."(32) It had seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to them that the sword was antithetical to Christian discipleship; if they were to be convinced otherwise, these young reformers knew that this would be discerned in the context of continued communal discernment. Even the Schleitheim "Confession" has this character of humble conviction, as suggested by its formal title, "A Brotherly Union of Some Children of God about Seven Articles."(33) This humility cannot be equated with an easy modern trust in discussion qua discussion or "ballot-box deinocracy,"(34) but arises specifically out of a deep theological conviction that "the 'Spirit would be granted to those who assembled in the name of Christ' (Mt. 18:20). The dialogue that [the sixteenth-century Anabaptists] demanded was not called a discussion, but rather, a community."(35) Indeed, the Anabaptists sincerely believed, following the early Zwingli, that the Spirit would lead the community to unanimity in crucial matters of discernment, and that if such agreement had not been reached, it was because they had not yet "heard" one another. Thus, if the will of God was to be discerned at all, it was crucial to continue talking, (36) not because dialogue itself was salvific, but because it was by way of this practice that
  issues of moment for the ongoing life of God's people [were]
  addressed in meeting, brought under mutual study in the light of all
  the Scripture and all experience, committed to ultimate authority in
  earnest prayer, and at last brought to the judgement of thoserightly
  concerned. (37)

This combination of communal discernment and epistemological humility not only accounts for why sixteenth-century Anabaptists were so persistent in their communication with their leaders, their neighbors, and each other in ways that could not help but annoy the authorities (38) (and at times one another (39)), but it also helps explain the diversity that marked Anabaptism as it took root outside of Switzerland. Anabaptists vehemently disagreed with each other on all manner of issues, especially as the movement spread to new contexts. In the first forty years after 1525, for example, Anabaptists engaged in many internal debates concerning the use of coercive violence. Most congregations were convinced that it was wrong to take up the sword at any time, which eventually became the near-unanimous opinion of all Anabaptists and one of its major distinguishing features. But this was not the initial consensus.(40) Balthasar Hubmaier advocated a position on the sword that closely resembled Zwingli's "real politic" position, according to which a Christian could legitimately serve in government and, in that capacity, use coercive violence. (41) Hans Hut, echoing Muntzer, argued that the sword could be used by the godly to help usher in the eschatological kingdom of God, (42) but only after the apocalypse had been initiated by God through the invasion of the Turks. (43) In the Netherlands, Melchior Hoffman was ultimately opposed to the Christian use of the sword, but he welcomed its use by the authorities and crafted violent eschatological visions that made fertile ground for revolutionaries such as the followers of Jan van Leyden at Munster and the later Batenbergers. (44) And in 1568 the Waterlanders, who split off from the more conservative Mennonites, even provided financial support for the war effort of the Prince of Orange. (45) At no time is an Anabaptist recorded as saying that these disagreements ought to be forsaken for the sake of "unity." Rather, Christians clarify their ethical convictions by way of inter- and intra-communal discernment, and in this process a diversity of opinion is necessarily "allowed" to persist as a community works out the ethical implications of the Gospel over time.

Such an approach makes sense if one regards tradition not as some uniform monolith but rather, in the language of Alasdair Maclntyre, as an "ongoing argument extended through time," with its own set of core convictions and authoritative texts that structure the argument. (46) Indeed, for MacIntyre, any fundamental agreements within a community will necessarily be defined and redefined through conflict with those inside and outside of one's tradition. Or as McClendon put it, "Theology is the very means by which those in one context encounter those of others for mutual witness and critical correction." (47) So especially for a tradition marked by communal discernment, some level of diversity is to be expected as core convictions are hammered out by each generation and within shifting cultural contexts. That the nonviolent position of Schleitheim was not immediately articulated in 1525, nor accepted by all Anabaptists until around 1565, (48) is but the natural consequence of a radical commitment to communal discernment. (49)

In light of this argument that communal discernment and epistemological humility were central characteristics of the Anabaptist movement, it might appear as if another persistent Anabaptist motif--an understanding of church discipline that could include the exclusion of individuals from fellowship--would be the very antithesis of these qualities. This, however, is not necessarily the case--if "the ban" is considered within the preceding framework. First, despite its abuses, the practice of the ban is consistent with a humble posture of communal discernment in the fact that expressions of disagreement never warrant a person's physical torture or death, "simply the warning and the command to sin no more."(50) While this may not seem to be a particularly progressive point in today's context, authorities in sixteenth-century Europe, as the Anabaptists knew all too well, were quite willing to use violence as a form of discipline. Indeed, any refusal of coercive forms of discipline implied that ultimate judgment belongs to God, who alone can sort the wheat from the tares--a position few sixteenth-century political or ecclesial authorities were willing to accept. (51) Second, Anabaptists who wrote on the subject were adamant that the ban was not meant to be administered merely for disagreements, but for "persistent and unrepentant disobedience." (52) Third, the ban always had a redemptive intention--to name and correct a divide that, descriptively speaking, had already occurred. That is, rightly understood, the ban was to be exercised only when a person or group was no longer willing to submit to the process of communal discernment. We all, of course, "may err," as Hubmaier confessed, (53) but if we cease "asking constantly for instruction" from a common authority--in this case, the community of disciples--we at that point have functionally separated from each another, as "true conversation exists only where there is movement toward agreement, motivated by appeal to an authority recognized by both parties." (54) None of this is to deny that the ban can be and has been misused; (55) it is, after all, a practice, and "[p]ractices are arenas of human excellence. They are as well foci of demonic and destructive energy. They can nurture our best, but they necessarily risk our worst." (56) Nevertheless, at no point did Marpeck or other Anabaptists who warned against the potential misuse of the ban argue against it per se, but only against its harsh, ungraceful abuse.(57)

Finally, an emphasis on communal discernment in the Anabaptist tradition carries with it a recognition that moral knowledge is necessarily culturally apprehended and situated, and thus requires continual reassessment by a community that is, to some degree, separate from the world. Closely related to a conception of revelation as historical, this "Anabaptist contextualism" has been mostly implicit throughout its history, but is evident in Anabaptist sources once one begins to look for it.

Since the very origins of the movement, Anabaptists have had a strained relationship with "culture," so much so that James Stayer concluded, "if the Anabaptists were anything, they were [culturally] illegitimate."(58) Indeed, the Anabaptist understanding of separation from the world, found explicitly in the fourth article of the Schleitheim Confession, (59) is as old as the movement itself since it is implicit in the very act of rebaptism. Undergoing that ritual not only marked oneself as distinct from society at large, but was also a provocative judgment about the church and the civil authorities as they were constituted. However, despite their categorical claims about separation, in practice Anabaptists have more frequently sought cultural transformation than withdrawal. The meaning of their words becomes apparent by their actions--and even though some Anabaptist subgroups became truly sectarian, most Anabaptist congregations qualified separation to the extent necessary to be formed into Christ-likeness and thus faithfully proclaim the Gospel to the world. The goal, as Schleitheim proclaimed, was to avoid "fellowship" with evi1.(60) Although it is understandable that such stark rhetoric could lead to confusion, (61) Anabaptists frequently insisted that they did not believe in a "sinless church."(62)

Instead, providing an answer to the question "To what extent should we be separate?" was itself a matter of communal discernment with the answer necessarily changing from generation to generation and culture to culture, depending on what the authorities were asking of their subjects.(63) Thus, for example, Hans Denck argued that a Christian is not automatically precluded from serving in governmental leadership; at the same time, Denck's commitment to a form of Christian nonviolence also led him to say that it was probably impossible to be simultaneously a faithful disciple and not be removed from office fairly quickly.(64) In a context slightly different from that of Sattler--who, we must remember, experienced the full weight of the civitatis diaboli (65)--Denck showed that the answer to some moral questions could change without necessarily being a manifestation of incoherence.

McClendon echoed this contextualism much later when he wrote, "Christian theology is always the theology of a community addressing the gospel in a particular place and time"; as such, there is a God-given and God-desired pluralism in moral discernment. (66) This, of course, is not to say that Anabaptists only speak to the world in hushed tones, or proclaim the Gospel with a disclaimer. It is the harder work of Gospel contextualism, of striving to be a faithful church without running away from the world. In order to do this work, Christian communities must be aware of the cultural concepts available to work with, in order to say in each new context that "Jesus is Lord" over these cultural ideologies without simply denouncing them as wrong through and through.(67) Put differently, Christian communities should seek to express the "grammar" inherent within the confession "Jesus is Lord" with whatever vocabulary is available to them. (68)

Anabaptists have a strong tradition of doing this culturally aware, subversive work. In the same way that both Jesus and Paul clearly draw on given cultural categories so as to subordinate them to the inaugurated kingdom of God, (69) Anabaptists were not afraid to engage the thought and debates of their day, pointing out where they saw disagreements that represented a larger break in worldview. Thus, for example, while the debate between Stumpf and Zwingli appeared to be over the Lord's Supper, Zwingli's unwillingness to disobey the city council in order to alter its observance "to conform to the Scriptures" revealed a deeper fissure between these two groups. The young Anabaptists sensed that at this moment in time, the debate was about more than just the Lord's Supper. Similarly, advocacy for adult baptism--the conviction which Anabaptists became most closely identified and "charged" with a result of the distinctive Anabaptist ecclesiology that presupposed the church to be constituted by committed believers who consciously submitted to the rule of Christ, rather than all people born within a certain territory.(70) In that time and place, to compromise on baptism was to compromise everything, a conviction that helps to explain the viciousness with which Anabaptists were killed.(71)


It should be clear from the above analysis that Anabaptist ethics begins and ends with dynamic communal discernment of the will of God so that the community of disciples may together proclaim to each other and to the world what it means to "walk in the resurrection."(72) This basic principle, once recognized, helps to illuminate and explain the more well-known aspects of the Anabaptist movement since the sixteenth century, including separation from the world, adult baptism, the ban, and teaching on the sword.(73) This unique combination of communal discernment, intellectual humility, awareness of context, and boldness in proclamation is nicely summarized in the cover letter of the Schleitheim Confession: "Now that you have abundantly understood the will of God as revealed through us at this time, you must fulfill this will, now known, persistently and unswervingly."(74) Faithfully appropriating this tradition today clearly does not entail adopting every position held by sixteenth-century Anabaptists--a move that would be impossible in any case given the diversity of opinion among Anabaptists themselves on all manner of issues. Instead, rightly inheriting the Anabaptist vision means employing a similar approach to theological and ethical reasoning in the variety of contexts in which we find ourselves. Such a rationality assumes that the Jesus witnessed to in the Gospels is normative for all areas of life, and that the community of committed disciples has the final say in discerning the normativity of theological or ethical claims, regardless of what the governing authorities or cultural customs may say to the contrary.(75) To faithfully inherit the Anabaptist tradition, then, is but to begin the hard work of scriptural hermeneutics, a task that cannot be done by the exegete or the ethicist sitting alone in an office.

However, at least one serious concern still remains to be addressed. Given what we have seen about the nature of Anabaptist communal discernment, how is one to know whether or not an entire community has gone astray? Do not whole communities of discernment, including those labeled Anabaptist, sometimes err in their understanding of God's will? And if this is true, what is to prevent our recognition of this fact from leading to moral subiectivism?

One response to this concern is to baldly acknowledge the live possibility of error. Yes, as Christian history amply testifies, communities can "discern" their way into justifying all sorts of ethically problematic stances.(76) Indeed, Anabaptists have had a very keen awareness that the church cart go wrong, sometimes fantastically so--hence their critique of the failure of the medieval institutional church, which they usually traced to the beginning of the reign of Constantine (77) In this sense, Reinhold Niebuhr is correct to acknowledge the penchant of groups for self-deception and the difficulty they have in acting morally.(78)

And yet he is only partially correct. Not all communities are equal, nor are they all necessarily abandoned to their own devices. Although communal discernment can go awry, Anabaptist moral reasoning has the resources within itself to acknowledge and address this fact. Indeed, communal discernment necessarily presupposes the possibility of going wrong; but it also posits (contra Niebuhr) that this is the way Christian communities can "get it right," if we can get it right at all.

In negotiating our way between the Scylla of total subjectivism and the Charybdis of absolute moral certainty Yoder offered the helpful image of a river. According to Yoder, many people think of theology as a process of learning a given and set revelation, valid once and for all, and then translating this revelation with as little change as possible into the present. The picture that accompanies this approach to theology is a series of boxes along a chain, all of which are basically the same. Against this tendency, Yoder argues that it is better to think of the nature of theology--and, by extension, moral discernment--as a river into which the interpretive community enters. The community inevitably looks back at what has come before, and then speaks in ways that affect the stream's path down current. While it is true that "it is more difficult to find security on this model," it also "is more representative of the experience of the church."(79)

This river analogy, strikingly similar to an image employed by Wittgenstein, (80) helps articulate one way of determining whether or not communal discernment has gone off-track. If the community suddenly discerns something to be morally good which is not adequately connected to what has come before, it is, at the very least, suspect. While the community does enter into the river in order to say a new word in the present, if what is said has no connection whatsoever to previous witnesses, it is likely not a faithful interpretation of what has come before, but is, descriptively speaking, the beginning of a new tradition, a new argument. (81) Thus, Anabaptist communal discernment can be open to new revelation without deeming all development necessarily good.(82) As Yoder puts it in reference to communities in general, "the interdependence of all is structured according to an already given plan, flexible and able to grow, but neither chaotic nor infinitely negotiable." (83) The image is further helpful in demonstrating that moral reasoning probably does not go wrong all at once. Rather, under normal circumstances the "river bed" erodes slowly and gradually by not attending to the sorts of practices that enable actual discernment in the first place: namely, corporate prayer, the ban, Bible study, and the willingness to be truthful with one another as laid out in "the Rule of Christ" in Matthew 18. Thus, the error of Constantinianism, for example, was not first manifest with the historical events surrounding the man Constantine at the turn of the fourth century, but had been building for at least two centuries in the church, and, allowed to grow, eventually blossomed in the church-state fusion that continues in various forms today.(84)

Another way of expressing this is to say that communal discernment is checked by examining the learned grammar inherent within the theo-political confession "Jesus is Lord"--the central kerygma to which Anabaptist communities continually circle back in whatever situation they find themselves.(85) Faithfully discerning implications of this confession, then, requires a "guide to learning," (86) the practice of "catachresis" (the metaphorical extension of terms), (87) and attention to the logic inherent to the proclamation in its original setting. Discerning together whether something is morally permissible will finally come down to answering a question: Does this interpretation lead to behavior that conforms to the "grammatically paradigmatic human being," Jesus Christ? (88) If not, then "Scripture has not been understood." (89) Determining whether this is the case, however, will have the character of an argument regarding the quality of a jazz solo, as opposed to a written musical score; (90) some notes may definitely be off key, others right on key; but learning to tell the difference between skillful and unskillful performance requires a familiarity with the intention of the music being played, the nature of the instrument, and a recollection of past performances that were particularly skillful. (91) This is not relativistic--a song can be played poorly. Nor is it rigidly absolutist, as the playing of a good jazz song has seemingly endless room for variation, and is always open to a surprising level of interpretation. Rather, as Samuel Wells has put it, ethical "performance" is the creative, organic reaction of the entire community "schooled in a tradition so thoroughly that they learn to act from habit in ways appropriate to the circumstance." (92) In this way, Anabaptist moral discernment is both truthful and exploratory, "by nature adventure, daily discovered, daily risked. ... Disciples must find words, a vocabulary and syntax, in which to proclaim the revolution." (93) In reading McClendon's words, one cannot help but think of Friedrich Nietzsche's complaint that talk of good and evil is so frequently boring: "I see nobody in Europe who has (let alone, promotes) any awareness that thinking about morality could become dangerous, captious, seductive--that there might be any calamity involved." (94) Anabaptists--who know all too well how dangerous Christian morality can be--should be one group that recognizes what Nietzsche is talking about.

Employing the Anabaptist mode of communal discernment must not be read as a means to avoid ambiguity or to achieve moral certainty amid a hostile and confusing world. Rather, it is a powerful practice that takes Jesus to be ethically normative and relevant to every sphere of existence, and that presumes the community of committed disciples to have the final say in all matters of Christian faith and life. Such communal discernment is dynamic in that it is constantly adapting to speak into new cultural contexts. It is also risky, in that communal discernment can go wrong. And while there is no absolute safeguard against fallibility, one way of discerning (at least retrospectively) when the church has erred is by attending to the grammar embedded within the claim that "Jesus is Lord," and by continuing to talk with one another in the midst of disagreements.

Outside of this, coming to any sort of moral discernment is but a faint hope amid the cacophonous soundscape that so marks the emerging postmodern world. Anabaptists should be the first to admit that the church is a human community that can and does go wrong, but should simultaneously avoid being "buffaloed into despair at the church's flaws or tempted into cynicism about their remedies." (95) Ultimately, such despair is avoided only through a robust faith in "the gospel unveiled in human history," (96) whose Lord enables his followers, by way of communal discernment, to hear and harmonize with a song not of their making.




(1.) "The Second Zurich Disputation," in The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, ed. Leland Harder (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985), 242. See also William Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, [1975] 1996), 16-17.

(2.) See Harold Bender, Conrad Grebel: The Founder of the Swiss Brethren, Sometimes Called Anabaptists (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1950), 98ff.

(3.) For a helpful theological explanation of Wittgensteinian picture theory, see James Wm. McClendon Jr., Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 76-77.

(4.) Martin Luther, "Concerning Christian Liberty," in Readings in Christian Ethics, eds. J. Philip Wogarnart and Douglas M. Strong (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 123128. Luther clearly distinguished between the public and private person, and argued that scriptural imperatives applied mainly to the latter realm. See James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, rev. ed. (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 1976), 41-44.

(5.) See Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Commonwealth (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1996), 147-179.

(6.) William Estep, who argues that the Bible was by far the most important source for Anabaptist thought, nevertheless barely mentions the communal hermeneutic with which it was read. For example, see Estep, Anabaptist Story, 22, 28, 190-196.

(7.) "Grebel to Vadian, Zurich, December 18, 1523," in Harder, Sources, 275-276.

(8.) Harder, Sources, 475. Harder notes that Zwingli was slow to realize the deep difference that was represented in his dispute with Grebel over re-baptism, which could help explain his initial ambivalence concerning the role of the city council in the public disputations.--See "Second Zurich Disputation," 242.

(9.) Emphasis added. Conrad Grebel, Letter to Thomas Muntzer, in Michael G. Baylor, ed. The Radical Reformation (New York: Cambridge, 1991), 37.

(10.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 41-42. This prioritization would become a common feature of Anabaptist theology. See ibid., 126; 193-196; Pi1gram Marpeck, "The Admonition of 1542," in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, trans. and ed. William Klassen and Walter Klassen (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1978), 225.

(11.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 19. Such was Balthasar Hubmaier's argument against baptism and the use of violent coercion in matters of faith. See Hubmaier, "On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them," in Balthasar Hubmaier, trans. and ed. H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), articles 16, 22.

(12.) "The First Believer's Baptism in Switzerland, Zurich, January 21, 1525," in Harder, Sources, 342.

(13.) John Howard Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 29. Note that Yoder claims this as the coming-of-age of a community that had been in the process of formation since 1523. As such, Estep's mild correction of Yoder is off the mark; see Estep, Anabaptist Story, 65.

(14.) Pilgram Marpeck, "Judgment and Decision," in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, 331332. Emphasis added.

(15.) See ibid., 333. For a brief but elucidatory comparison of Marpeck's Anabaptist method of moral discernment with that of Ignatius of Loyola and Jonathan Edwards, see Nancey Murphy, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 148-150.

(16.) McClendon was raised a Baptist and never renounced that part of his identity, and thus his status as an "Anabaptist thinker" is sometimes questioned. While I recognize this as a legitimate point of contention, it is also true that McClendon by his own account experienced a "conversion" to radical Christianity in the early 1970s, considered himself an 'Anabaptist' Baptist," and explicitly wrote his three-volume systematic theology for "the heirs of Radical Reform." Thus, while one must be careful here, I do not think it illegitimate to characterize McClendon as an "Anabaptist thinker"--although he did not prefer the term. See James Wm. McClendon Jr., "The Radical Road One Baptist Took," in The Mennonite Quarterly Review (Oct. 2000), 507-508.

(17.) For example, see Philip Wogaman, Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 233-235.

(18.) In any case, Mark Thiessen Nation is certainly correct in reminding us that while Yoder was undoubtedly invested in the subject of peace and violence, one has certainly not "read" Yoder if one has only attended to his (brilliant) argument in The Politics of Jesus. See Nation, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), 27.

(19.) John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003), 28.

(20.) John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, [1972] 1994), 149-153; John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life, 1964), 13.

(21.) Yoder, Original Revolution, 108-109.

(22.) James Wm. McClendon Jr. Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, [1986] 2002), 27.

(23.) Ibid., 30.

(24.) Ibid., 31.

(25.) McClendon, Doctrine, 362.

(26.) Ibid., 366.

(27.) See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, [1953] 2009), [section]240.

(28.) McClendon, Doctrine, 23. For authors making a similar point regarding the inherent relationship between ethics and metaphysics (or theology), see Nancey Murphy and George F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). Or as McClendon puts it, theology and ethics are separable only for the limited purposes of analysis.--McClendon, Doctrine, 276. See also Estep, Anabaptist Story, 178-179.

(29.) This pace Thomas Finger's claim that Yoder "downplayed" or "bracketed out" the transcendent from his thought, and Paul Martens's sustained argument that Yoder problematically constrains theology to the language of politics. See Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004), 62-63; and Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2012), esp. 85-86, 143-146.

(30.) "Council Decree Against the Anabaptists, Zurich, January 21, 1525," in Harder, Sources, 338. This letter betrays the interesting fact that the Swiss Brethren did not initially "separate themselves," but were separated from--the initial split was made not by the "sectarian" Anabaptists, but the magisterial reformers!

(31.) Grebel, Letter to Thomas Miintzer, 40.

(32.) Ibid., 42. This interpretation is contrary to that of Estep, Anabaptist Story, 41.

(33.) See Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 119.

(34.) James Wm. McClendon Jr., "The Concept of Authority: A Baptist View," Perspectives on Religious Studies 16 (Summer 1989), 106.

(35.) John Howard Yoder, Anabaptism and Reformation in Switzerland: An Historical and Theological Analysis of the Dialogues Between Anabaptists and Reformers (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora, 2004), 223. Similarly, Romand Coles has argued that for Yoder the church necessarily is open to vulnerable dialogue with those outside the community, not because of a commitment to difference qua difference, but because it is a sociality whose very existence is owed to the One who was radically open to and loving toward the other, even to the point of death. See Romand Coles, "The Wild Patience of John Howard Yoder: 'Outsiders' and the 'Otherness of the Church," in The New Yoder, ed. Peter Dula and Chris K. Huebner (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2010), 216-252.

(36.) Yoder, Anabaptism and Reformation, 222-223.

(37.) McClendon, "Concept of Authority," 106. See also John Howard Yoder, "The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists," MQR 41 (Oct. 1967), 291-308.

(38.) Such annoyance did not end even with death; as the Count of Alzey allegedly remarked, "What shall I do? The more I execute, the more they increase!"--Estep, Anabaptist Story, 75.

(39.) For instance, Pilgram Marpeck famously entered into sustained dialogue with the Hutterites, but was rebuffed and embittered by their "stubborn" commitment to the community of goods and the ban. See ibid., 123.

(40.) Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 335.

(41.) Hubmaier, "On Heretics," article 22, and "On the Sword," in Pipkin and Yoder, Balthasar, 492-523. Estep, Anabaptist Story, 99-100. Despite Hubmaier's stature as an apologist, his truly appears to be an anomalous position, unique among anyone claiming the label "Anabaptist." See Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 336-337.

(42.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 98, 118-119.

(43.) Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 190. Before this eschatological unsheathing, Christians were to be nonviolent. Some have speculated that the Schleitheim Confession was written partly to correct such legitimation of violence; see Yoder, Michael Sattler, 31, and Estep, Anabaptist Story, 113.

(44.) Ibid., 154-156. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 205.

(45.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 176. This position may have been in accord with Menno Simon's earlier views--Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 326.

(46.) Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1988), 12.

(47.) McClendon, Ethics, 35.

(48.) Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 117.

(49.) For more on this Lakatosian-Madntyrean epistemological paradigm, see Murphy and Ellis, On the Moral Nature, 10-15. This is not to argue that the Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence is wholly explicable in terms of nontheological, socio-political pressures; in fact, the conception of communal discernment argued for here could aid in conversations about the origins of Anabaptist nonviolence, allowing one to acknowledge the emergence of this conviction (it did not drop from the sky, after all) while also recognizing its robustly theological and normative character. In this I am in agreement with Gerald Biesecker-Mast's response to Arnold Snyder in MQR (Oct. 2006), 651-657. See that entire issue of MQR for more on this debate.

(50.) "Schleitheim Confession," in Yoder, Michael Sattler, 39.

(51.) See Hubmaier, "On Heretics," articles 9, 13.

(52.) Thiessen Nation, John Howard Yoder, 88. This is clear in article two of the Schleitheim Confession.

(53.) Balthasar Hubmaier, "The Third Appeal to the Honorable Council of Schaffhausen," in Balthasar Hubmaier, 44.

(54.) John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1994), 88.

(55.) Marpeck himself said as much--Pilgram Marpeck, "Judgment and Decision," in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, 309-361.

(56.) McClendon, Doctrine, 33.

(57.) For Marpeck's list of those people, groups, and activities he would avoid, see "Judgment and Decision," 332-333.

(58.) Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 337.

(59.) "Schleitheim Confession," 37-38.

(60.) Ibid., 37.

(61.) For instance, "Now there is nothing else in the world and all creation than good or evil, believing and unbelieving, darkness and light, the world and those who are out of the world, God's temple and idols, Christ and Belial, and none will have part with the other." Ibid., 38. Even one of the cover letters circulated with the confession indicates that confusion had arisen over the "true meaning" of the articles. See "Schleitheim Confession," 42.

(62.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 215, 247.

(63.) Yoder, Christian Witness, 75. This is also the gist of Yoder's argument against H. Richard Niebuhr's typology in Christ and Culture. See Yoder, "How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture," in Authentic Transformation, ed. Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 31-89. On the vital importance of communal discernment in the midst of this process, see Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 154-155.

(64.) Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 149.

(65.) Ibid., 118.

(66.) McClendon, Doctrine, 31, 42-44; McClendon, Ethics, 35.

(67.) John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2002), 258. See also John Howard Yoder, "But We Do See Jesus," in Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1984), 46-62.

(68.) McClendon, Doctrine, 108. A similar argument calling for Mennonites to transformatively inhabit (rather than spurn) "culture" is made by Luke Beck Kreider in "Mennonite Ethics and the Ways of the World: Rethinking Culture for Renewed Witness," MQR (Oct. 2012), 465-492. Kreider's confusion regarding Biesecker-Mast's dual affirmation of cultural transformation and concrete separation from the world could perhaps be assuaged by distinguishing "culture" from "world," the latter of which Yoder carefully defines neither as all nature nor all "culture," but as "structured unbelief, rebellion taking with it a fragment of what should have been the Order of the Kingdom." In this way, one could affirm cultural transformation while simultaneously affirming separation from "world" to the extent possible. See ibid., 472473, and John Howard Yoder, "The Otherness of the Church," in The Royal Priesthood (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994), 62.

(69.) See Yoder's chapters on Jesus' "nonviolent zealotry" and Paul's call for "revolutionary subordination" in Politics of Jesus, 89-92, 162-192.

(70.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 20-21.

(71.) On the potential of one, seemingly insignificant, point representing a much broader, deeper disagreement, see Yoder, Preface to Theology, 98. [consistent with no. 82]

(72.) "Schleitheim Confession," 36.

(73.) On the cross-disciplinary necessity of taking particular data as the starting point and evidence that then may serve as a "key to understanding" the whole, see Murphy and Ellis, On the Moral Nature, 44.

(74.) "Schleitheim Confession," 42-43. Emphasis added.

(75.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 257-263.

(76.) See Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1983).

(77.) Estep, Anabaptist Story, 241-243.

(78.) Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man, Immoral Society (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, [1932] 1960).

(79.) Yoder, Preface to Theology, 382-383.

(80.) See Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe, in Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), [section]97.

(81.) This river analogy is adequate in discussing the way reasoning works under normal circumstances; in order to account for the sorts of epistemological revolutions explored by Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, one would need to show that such revolutions had antecedents that quietly chipped away at the river bed, preparing the way for the eventual radical shift in direction. One is reminded of Martin Luther's less-acclaimed predecessors that made his actions possible, predecessors such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Petr Chelcicky, among others.

(82.) See Yoder, Preface to Theology, 136.

(83.) John Howard Yoder, Body Politics (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1992), ix. Put differently, the boundaries that give shape and identity to the gathered community are neither infinitely flexible nor strictly rigid. Rather, such communities, as McClendon writes of the Matthean community, are marked by "a combination of fluidity (or better, complexity) of structure together with the awareness that Messiah [has] come."--McClendon, Ethics, 231.

(84.) See Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, 105-147.

(85.) Yoder, Preface to Theology, 134-135.

(86.) Ibid., 383.

(87.) McClendon, Doctrine, 106-108.

(88.) David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence (Louisville: Westminster, 2009), 1008.

(89.) McClendon, Doctrine, 473, quoting the sixteenth-century Anabaptist Bernard Rothmann. It is no small irony that Rothmann would eventually be implicated in the Munster debacle, perhaps the best example of discernment gone awry!

(90.) See also Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2004).

(91.) Thus explaining the undeniably crucial role martyrologies had in the shaping and spreading of Anabaptism.

(92.) Wells, Improvisation, 65-66. Wells primarily utilizes the metaphor of dramatic improvisation in order to argue that even if it were desirable, Christian ethics cannot be the rote repetition of a set script, for as soon as a community engages a new context, they are forced to engage questions informed by but not per se addressed by Scripture and tradition.

(93.) McClendon, Doctrine, 106.

(94.) Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966), [section]228.

(95.) McClendon, Doctrine, 362.

(96.) Ibid., 362-363.


* Ryan Newson is a doctoral student in Christian ethics and philosophical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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