Month: July 2008

Roman House Churches for Today

I’ve only just come across this book.  It was published last year and is written by Reta Finger, a Mennonite theologian who also wrote a significant book on common meals in the early church. I’m looking forward to reading this; here’s the publisher’s description as found on Koorong’s site:

Placing the biblical book of Romans in its historical and cultural context, Reta Halteman Finger here creates a simulation of the Roman house churches that first heard Paul’s Romans letter and its call for inclusiveness among the people of God.

Finger guides readers in small groups to re-create house churches as in first-century Rome. Based on the text of Romans, participants play various roles and converse, even debate, with other characters from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. This experiential approach makes Romans come alive in new, concrete ways and applies Romans theology to current issues that often still divide groups of Christians.

Roman House Churches for Today includes aids and suggestions for simulation leaders, sample character sketches, and website links with resources for further, deeper study. Not only small groups but also individuals will profit from this unique Bible study.

Anabaptism for Baptists: a historical legacy and a theological challenge

This is a talk I gave to a Baptist denominational distinctives class yesterday.


We could look at Anabaptism in two ways.

Firstly, as a historical movement in the sixteenth century – the radical reformers. That history is a helpful counterpoint for Baptists as Anabaptists are as important to the Baptist heritage as Luther or Calvin, and yet you could grow up in a Baptist church like I did without ever hearing them mentioned.

But I didn’t become an Anabaptist for historical reasons. I became an Anabaptist when I encountered a theological framework which made me excited about following Jesus and excited about what the church is meant to be. That’s the second option for looking at Anabaptism – as a theological framework drawing on the key insights of the sixteenth century radical reformers but not captive to their particular historical and cultural concerns.

In this talk, I will give you an historical sketch of Anabaptism to orientate you. I will then discuss two key aspects of an Anabaptist framework – the Constantinian shift and the view of the church.

Anabaptist history

The Anabaptists originate as the third group in the Reformation. The Protestant Reformers broke with the Catholic Church over the place of the Bible, the doctrine of grace and the abuse of the priestly office. The Reformers sought to make their reforms through the magistrates and councils which ruled the city-states. The Anabaptists went further than the Reformers. They understood the church in a fundamentally different way, rejecting the alliance between church and state. For Anabaptists, being a Christian meant following in the footsteps of Christ. They refused to compromise, and like Jesus this brought them into confrontation with the authorities and led many of them to the cross – martyrdom.

In 1517, Martin Luther set off the reformation. Two years later, a priest named Ulrich Zwingli heads to the Swiss city-state of Zurich. He is convinced that the church needs to return to the Bible. He begins preaching from Matthew 1 and starts working his way through the Bible. He believes the church needs reforming. But he’s also a pragmatic man, and he wants to be effective. He has a disputation with scholars and church people to make recommendations for reform. He then implements the program of reform in consultation with the council.

Zwingli also has a small study group with some enthusiastic young disciples. Among them are Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock. He studies the Greek New Testament with them and they talk about the reform of the church. At first, Zwingli says his final authority will be the Bible. But increasingly, he becomes more pragmatic. Tensions rise with his radical disciples who don’t want him to compromise with the powers.

The radicals break with Zwingli at the end of 1523. A disputation calls for the abolition of the mass. Zwingli brings the idea to the Council, but says he will submit to whatever the Council decides. The radicals are furious that he is compromising on something they feel the Bible is clearly saying. Their disagreement with him over how the reformation of the church should proceed shows the Anabaptist idea of the Constantinian shift, a theme I’ll return to.

The radicals continue meeting without Zwingli. After further study, they come to the conclusion that infants shouldn’t be baptised. They refuse to give their infants up for baptism. The Council issues an order that all infants are to be baptised immediately. On January 21, 1525, the radicals meet to discuss what to do. They decide that if baptism without faith is invalid, none of them have been baptised yet. So George Blaurock asks for Conrad Grebel to baptise him. Next Blaurock baptises Grebel, and then they baptise the rest of the gathering.

The term ‘anabaptists’ soon came to be applied to the group, meaning ‘rebaptisers’. The Anabaptists, of course, did not believe the first baptism was valid, and the term was one of derision, having connotations of treachery and heresy.

The group spread rapidly through Europe and were persecuted wherever they went. Two main streams of Anabaptism survived – the Mennonites and the Hutterites. The Mennonites named themselves after Menno Simons, a second generation Dutch Anabaptist who re-orientated the movement after a disastrous event at Munster, where Anabaptists tried to take over a whole city. In the end, most of them were killed. This uprising gave Anabaptism a bad name and made it an easy target for critics who saw the movement simply as political rebels. Such an interpretation was common until the middle of the twentieth century.

The stream of Anabaptism that contemporary Anabaptists trace themselves back to had three central principles, laid out in Harold Bender’s important idea of the Anabaptist Vision:

1) Christianity as discipleship

2) Church as brotherhood

3) Christian ethic as love and non-resistance.

All of these themes will emerge in the theological framework later.

Many Mennonites fled persecution by migrating east until they ended up in Russia. From there they were persecuted again by Stalin in the twentieth century and many of these rejoined the large Mennonite population in the USA and Canada. Today, a lot of Mennonites resemble evangelicals in most of their beliefs and even practices. However, there is also a strong movement within Mennonites reclaiming their radical roots. Pacifism is something Mennonites have rarely compromised on and Mennonite agencies are involved in peacemaking throughout the world.

The Hutterites have continued their practice of communal living and have communal farms in different parts of the world. (more…)

Everything I ever thought I knew about Thomas C. Oden

Despite knowing better, I do tend to divide theologians into those I like and those I don’t. Those I listen to, those I don’t. Alas, I even apply this to theologians I don’t really know, the ones I only know by association. I only really know Thomas Oden by association. A friend of Richard Foster’s, right? A good guy, right? Evangelicals need to be a bit more catholic, need to listen more to the early church fathers!

Then on the way to work on Tuesday listening to ABC Radio National’s Religion Report, Stephen Crittenden (who I like for non-theological reasons) tells me that Oden is the former chairman of the apparently sinister and ultraconservative Institute for Religion and Democracy. Set up, Crittenden said, to support Reagan’s foreign policy agenda in Central America. (I can’t think of many things more evil than Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America, from the little I know.)

Crittenden replayed a snippet of an interview with Oden, and Oden sounded warm, articulate and intelligent as he explained his use of the term ‘confessing’. But I am in some turmoil about the man now. Do you know anything about what Oden’s doing in the IRD?

‘Two lists’ theology

I’ve been re-reading some of Tom Finger’s Contemporary Anabaptist Theology ahead of a talk I’m giving on Anabaptism, and I was struck by his discussion of the ‘two-lists’ approach to Anabaptist theology.

In the two lists approach, Anabaptists share the standard distinctives of evangelicalism you might find for any evangelical organisation (like the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students for example), usually one starting with the infallibility of Scripture and going on to the trinity, the divinity of Christ, substitutionary atonement and ending with the second coming.

We then have a second list of Anabaptist distinctives – usually confined to ‘social ethics’ (peace) and ‘ecclesiology’ (the disciplined church).

I don’t like this approach (and neither does Finger, really). The vision of the church found in Anabaptist thought and the radical understanding of Jesus should infect every part of our theology. I don’t want to be an evangelical with extras.

I see the same issue even in the Vineyard, where we’re careful to establish our evangelical credentials with a ‘first list’, and then offer our distinctives in the ‘second list’, centring on the kingdom and the Spirit. Same again with Baptists in WA.

I think there’s a good impulse behind this – the unity that the evangelical movement hopes to achieve as an umbrella above all these particular expressions of ‘orthodox’ (very small o) Christianity.