I had a chance to give a lecture on the Anabaptists to a church history class last week, with the focus on Menno Simons (1496-1561) and his theology. I noticed my current interest in biography affecting the way I read Menno. Where once I would have only taken notice of the final form of his doctrines, this time I was drawn to the developments in his thinking, and the interactions between what we know of his life and what he was writing.
Menno rebuilt Dutch Anabaptism after the Munster tragedy, in which Anabaptists had seized the city and held a brief, bloody and immoral apocalyptic reign. He ministered to a scattered and persecuted people for decades.
Yet he didn’t leap into this role. He spent ten years as a Catholic priest with an uneasy conscience, reading his Bible and developing in conviction. I think of him in that long liminal period, where he was probably trying to tell himself that he could remain in the Catholic church, hoping that he would not be called to something more drastic. His theology began very individualistically, focused on the individual believer, and it was only over time that he was to develop a radical ecclesiology. As Munster raged, he wrote a tract against the Munsterites, but it was never published, only found nearly a century later when his daughter died – its authenticity questioned. I could not find much information on the execution of his brother in relation to Munster, but again – biography must have shaped his theology so strongly.
Reading some of his writings, I had a stronger sense of a man at a particular time and place, in hiding, and his preoccupations shaped so strongly by that historical situation. I was warned against the “biographical fallacy” studying literature at uni, and was steered away from biographical readings, yet what choice do we have, if we want to attempt to understand any writing in sympathy with how it was written? It can be overdone, of course, but its surely helpful.
None of this is startling; my main point is the simple one that looking at Menno with biographical eyes gave me a new appreciation.