Category: biography

Menno Simons and the influence of biography on theology


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.


Justin Welby biography

Archbishop Justin Welby: The Road to Canterbury / Andrew Atherstone (DLT, 2013)

A group of us at church are meeting to discuss this short biography of the recently installed Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby comes across as a leader with the ability to turn things around, and reconcile people in the most difficult circumstances – from African conflicts to diocesan spats about the sale of paintings. Welby wrote in 2012, “Division, dislike and even hatred are the quickest ways to kill churches. The first to leave is the Spirit of God. Reconciliation and modeling difference without enmity to a world in desperate need of it is both healing spirituality and effective testimony to Christ.”

Ten – or even five – years ago, I would have been antithetical to reading this book, because I was anti-hierarchical and anti-leadership, and because the Anglican Church is, in origin at least, so thoroughly Constantinian. And because I didn’t read biographies. Against my house church days, I’ve come to cautiously accept the value of good leadership in churches – I should blog on this one day. I now attend an Anglican church – again, worthy of a post to explain myself. And my main area of literary interest is currently biography. (Would my old self like this 2013 self? Not sure; he might be very disappointed.)

It is a decent biography for a quickly written one. Yet it feels too banal at times; perhaps this is because Atherstone is writing about the living. Or perhaps it is because Welby’s life has been quite ordinary between the exciting parts. But I think it’s also because it relies heavily on sermons and weekly columns written by Welby, and so despite not being authorised, it comes across very much as a sanitised, public biography. Am I saying Atherstone should have tried to dig up more dirt and highlight antagonism? Well, probably not, but these are some of our expectations of biography. Perhaps he should have at least found a still seething parishoner from the time Welby removed the pews from his parish church in the 1990s and replaced them with chairs.