We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds. The principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.
----Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History
Menno Simmons was not the founder but a key unifier of the 16th century Anabaptist movement. He had as his motto 1 Corinthians 3:11: No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. This biblical text was repeated throughout his writings. Christ-centeredness was the fundamental element in his own personal faith and the faith of the Anabaptist movement. It’s interesting to note that the Meserete Cristos Church of Ethiopia, an Anabaptist fellowship, did not want to take up the name of Menno for their church, so they chose instead a name that means “Christ is the Foundation."
Menno would probably have been pleased with that, since he detested the name Mennists or Mennonites. Menno did not set out to build another foundation for the church on himself, his theology, or even the foundation of Anabaptism. The church already had a firm foundation in Jesus Christ.
The centrality of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian Faith. This is the core conviction that Anabaptist-Mennonites share with all other Christians. It is a foundational truth grounded in the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth concerning his work as a master builder in establishing the church. He described his work as being “foundational” by the grace of God. He must have meant that his preaching of Jesus Christ is what made his work foundational. Then, Paul clarified the true foundation of our faith: For no one can lay any foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
Others share in the superstructure of the continuing work of the church that is built on that foundation. This could mean the church’s organizational development, scriptural and doctrinal understanding, and leadership in witness and service. The pillars and their ornate decorations include the church’s variety of historical traditions, the church’s many practices over the centuries, and the leaders of movements and local congregations and their work of mission and ministry. These all must stand the test of time and the purifying fires of God’s final judgment.
These could be considered as pillars, but not the foundation. Anabaptism is not the foundation of our faith, any more than Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Catholicism are the foundation. There is only one foundation, Jesus Christ. The centrality of Jesus Christ for our faith is a core conviction that we share with wider church.
And let’s also make a clear but subtle distinction here; even the Bible, which the various church traditions hold dear and is an essential document of our faith as the primary witness to Jesus Christ, is also not the foundation of our faith. Jesus Christ alone is that foundation. No other foundation can be laid, even the foundation of the Bible, as important as it is. This truth will shape our Anabaptist approach to the scriptures.
At the same time that we hold this conviction in Christ-centeredness in common with other church traditions, this belief was also uniquely shaped by our Anabaptist tradition. Paul and Apollos at Corinth, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, the Anabaptists, and all those who have shaped the church and the world have built on the one foundation of Jesus Christ. But, unlike the uniform columns of a Roman building, these pillars have had different shapes. They have been formed by different historical and cultural contexts, as well as different lens through which they read the Bible.
And we do not want to say that we alone are the true pillars of the church or that we are the gold that guilds the building, while other church traditions are rough stone at best. Fire will test our worth. Rather, we want to understand our own identity, what it is in our beliefs and practices that make our pillar particular, what makes our church tradition distinct, even as we recognize our commonalities with others as pillars built upon the one foundation.
So, let’s begin with our Anabaptist tradition’s understanding of what it means for our faith to be Christ or Jesus-centered. For Anabaptists a Jesus-centered faith shapes the whole of our theology.
Jesus is the lens through which we view God. 16th century Anabaptists confessed the Trinitarian godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with the rest of the Reformers and Catholicism. But, while the rest of Christendom emphasized God’s transcendence and human sinfulness, reinforcing the gulf between God and humanity, Anabaptists were less inclined to emphasize the unbridgeable separation between God and humanity. And rather than engage in endless theological and philosophical speculation on the trinity and transcendence, the Anabaptists were more down to earth, more incarnational, and more practical. They tended to emphasize ethics or living the Christian life over theological or philosophical reflection. And even though the Anabaptists confessed the full divinity and humanity of Christ, along with other Christian traditions, they tended to focus on the concrete life and teachings of Jesus Christ as the lens through which they viewed God.
Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God’s very nature. God may be experienced in the wonder of nature, in the depth of human relationships, in the illumination of the Bible, within the recesses of the human heart. But, God is most fully revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Simply put, if you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus Christ. Or as the Jesus of the gospel of John put it, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” This incarnational approach to understanding God has a profound effect on how we understand the nature and revelation of God.
In a Christ-centered view of God, if human experience, church tradition, theology, or the Scriptures themselves seem to reveal a God contrary to the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, then something is amiss. Jesus Christ, as revealed in the New Testament, is the arbiter of all conceptions of what God is like. This Jesus-centered view of God has a profound impact on all our Anabaptist theology.
Jesus-centered faith shapes our understanding of biblical authority and interpretation. Another significant way that our Jesus-centeredness impacts our faith is in our approach to biblical authority and interpretation. First, if Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God, then the Bible isn’t. You heard me right. If Jesus is the supreme revelation of God, then the Bible isn’t. Evangelical Fundamentalism has tended to place the Bible as the Christian’s supreme authority. This can very easily turn into “bibliolatry,” that is, the worship of the Bible. This Fundamentalist view of the Bible even attributes the divine characteristics of infallibility and inerrancy to the ancient biblical texts themselves. And since all we have are errant copies of the biblical texts, Fundamentalists have to modify the doctrine of inerrancy to apply only to the original biblical manuscripts, which do not exist. In other words, a doctrine had to be created in order to jibe with their belief about the Bible, which is not evident in examining the Bible itself. Thus, the Bible begins to take on a godlike authority and dethrones Jesus Christ as the supreme revelation and divine interpreter of scripture.
Anabaptist Hans Umlauft put it this way: We give Scripture the honour due and allow it to be a lantern and a sheath of the word, knowing that something more belongs to it, namely a sword in the sheath and a light in the lantern, if they are to shine and cut. When we say this some say it is a despising of scripture, and that one cannot know it too much. It is like the matter of honouring Mary. If Mary is given the honour due only to God, that is making an idol of scripture, as of Mary.
Second, Jesus Christ becomes the interpretive lens through which we read scripture. Many Christians hold a “flat view” of the Bible. Or at least they claim that they do. That is, they tend to interpret every scripture text on the same level as having equal authority for Christian faith and practice. This view would, in its pure form, give equal authoritative weight to the Old Testament and the New Testament, to the story of Jephthah and his daughter and Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. But, in all practicality, most Christians do not give equal weight to every biblical text, even though they may confess that “every scripture text is inspired by God.” The prohibition in Leviticus against eating shrimp does not hold equal weight with Jesus words in John, “For God so loved the world…”
Anabaptists have a Christocentric or Jesus-centered practice of biblical interpretation. This view acknowledges up front that not every biblical text bears equal weight of authority for the Christian community. Jesus is the interpretive lens through which we read the Bible. The command to slaughter the Canaanites, attributed to God in the OT, does not have equal authority with Christ’s command to love your enemies. With a Jesus-centered view of biblical interpretation if there is a disagreement between any text in the Bible and Jesus Christ, Jesus wins out. Jesus is the trump card in any conflict of interpretations regarding biblical texts. This Jesus-centered interpretation is given expression by the author of Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, who he appointed heir.” (Hebrews 1:1-2) This Anabaptist or Jesus-centered view of biblical interpretation is distinctive, and has a profound impact on our approach to the Bible.
Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection form our understanding of salvation. Going back to the 16th century, Anabaptists have had problems with purely judicial and confessional understandings of salvation in Christ Jesus. By that I mean, first, that they have reacted to salvation understood only as something that one believes in the heart and confesses with the mouth. Secondly, for Anabaptists salvation is more than something God mysteriously enacts like a legal pronouncement of “not guilty” upon the believer without our active participation. Anabaptists would reject a salvation devoid of ethics or following in the way of Christ. Jesus is not only Savior, but also Lord. So, salvation in Christ leads to the transformation of our personal, social, spiritual, and economic lives.
A Jesus-centered view of salvation is inextricably linked to the person of Jesus Christ. Article 8 in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective begins: We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers salvation from sin and a new way of life to all people. Jesus is at the center of our salvation, and not some saving formula or theory of atonement. This statement may sound controversial, but we are not saved by the cross, but by Jesus Christ. Salvation is the forgiveness, healing, deliverance, wholeness, new life that is offered to us in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, in all that he was and continues to be, is the center of our salvation.
Jesus’ life is the key element in our discipleship and ethics. Anabaptist Hans Denck once said, “No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life.” What did he mean by that? Denck was convinced that knowledge of Christ means little if we do not follow in the way of Christ in our everyday life. Confession is tied to procession, how we make our way through life.
I grew up in a church tradition that emphasized believing and confessing Jesus Christ. This resulted in a strong urge to verbally share the gospel, to witness to others about the “plan of salvation.” Now, we Mennonites, might learn from those who focus on sharing the gospel with others. As I grew in my faith I felt the strong need to practice the faith, to follow in the way of Christ, and not to simply confess my faith or verbally witness to others about my faith. I found within the Anabaptist tradition this strong emphasis upon living the faith by following in the way of Christ.
A Jesus-centered faith takes discipleship or following in the way of Christ seriously. Embodying the way of Christ, as Jesus embodied the way of God, is essential to the Christian life. If Jesus is the center of our faith, then our primary allegiance is to Christ. When our government names a political enemy, goes to war, sends our young men and women into battle, and rallies the nation around the flag and country, is our allegiance to Caesar or to Christ, who said “love your enemies”? Is Jesus the center of our faith or other worldly allegiances? In a world that says more is better, get all the toys you can before you die, success is how much power you grasp, forget the poor and weak, and status is measured by how busy you are, what does it mean to live a Jesus-centered life? Living a Jesus-centered life is the heart of our Christian faith.
Alan and Eleanor Kreider, friends of mine who I worked with in the former US Ministries department at Mennonite Mission Network, were missionary educators in England, beginning in 1974 and staying for 30 years. They were at the forefront of the Anabaptist Network that grew out of the mission work of the Kreiders, who were directors of the London Mennonite Center. The Kreiders taught the way of radical discipleship and the essentials of Anabaptism to thousands of people in the British Isles who were outside the Mennonite tradition. They were not there to plant Mennonite churches, but to spread the seeds of Anabaptist faith. The Anabaptist Network sought to network with those who became Anabaptists by choice.
I find hope in the project of the Kreiders as a missionary witness to an Anabaptism free of its ethnic, cultural, and genealogical trappings and its ability to draw people into the way of Jesus and radical discipleship from many different backgrounds.
One of the persons the Krieders connected with in England was Stuart Murray Williams, an Anabaptist church planter and educator from London, who eventually became director of the Anabaptist Network. In his book The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith Murray lists 7 Anabaptist core convictions, which is the Anabaptist Network’s attempt to distill the essence of Anabaptism for their own context in the British Isles. Their first two convictions coincide with what I have listed as my first Anabaptist core conviction:
1. Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord. He is the source of our life, the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle, for our understanding of the church, and our engagement with society. We are committed to following Jesus as well as worshipping him.
2. Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centered approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
This is the heart of Anabaptism that we share together here at Zion. This is the heart of our Christian faith.
The key conviction of Anabaptism is this: Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. It is a conviction we share with other Christians, but which has been distinctively shaped by our Anabaptist tradition. It is a core conviction that shapes all of our theology and practice. So, as the author of Hebrews admonishes us: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Hebrews 12:2