Scot McKnight on Anabaptism, Bender, Confusion and How People See It

One of the most respectful popular writers on Anabaptistica is Scot McKnight. Just this morning he reposted a revised blog post on Anabaptism. In it, he had some very interesting words that lean heavily towards one of the things I have been trying to communicate for some time now, not just here but in other places as well.

The article is simply titled “The Anabaptists”. There he addresses what many call the Bender School of Anabaptist thought. The Bender in question is Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) a prominent Mennonite voice that assisted in the resurgence of interest in Anabaptistica thanks to his monumental essay he wrote in 1944 called “The Anabaptist Vision”. He inspired many towards a sincere and beneficial study of 16th century Anabaptism. In addition to how it is beneficial for contemporary service to God. Bender was the one that influenced arguably the father of Neo-Anabaptism John Howard Yoder and the Concern group to begin their life-long study of Anabaptistica.

McKnight writes regarding Bender’s views:

 In Bender’s view, there are three major dimensions of the Reformation: Luther and the Lutherans in Germany, Calvin and the Reformed in Switzerland, and Zwingli-generated and then finished later by others Anabaptism. Anabaptism spread through Switzerland, South Germany, Moravia and then into the Netherlands. An alternative view is that Anabaptism emerged in different places in different ways and that it can’t all be traced back to Zwingli and then the early Swiss Anabaptists.

Here McKnight briefly touches on the Monogenetic vs Polygenetic view of Anabaptist origins. While Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” has a slant, the same could be said of those that champion the polygenetic view. Scholars such as Gerald J. Mast (aka Gerald Biesecker-Mast) have for the most part demonstrated that the polygenetic origin position does not disqualify Bender’s Anabaptist Vision as being valid.[1]

Returning to McKnight’s sketch of Bender’s vision he provides three areas that one could argue defines The Anabaptist Vision, they are:

1. The essence of Christianity, or the Christian life, is discipleship — a committed following of Christ in all areas of life. The word on the street in the 16th Century, and this word repeated often enough by bitter enemies of the Anabaptists, was that they were consistent and devout Christians. If Luther’s word was “faith,” the word for the Anabaptists was “follow.” The inner conversion was to lead to external transformation.

2. A new conception of the church as a brotherhood of fellowship. The ruling image of a church among the Catholics and Reformers was more national and institutional and sacramental, while the ruling image for the Anabaptists was fellowship or family. Joining was voluntary; the requirement was conversion; the commitment was to holy living and fellowship with one another. Thus, the Anabaptist separated from the “world” to form a society of the faithful. This view of the church led to economic availability and liability for one another.

3. A new ethic of love and peaceful nonresistance. Apart from rare exceptions like Balthasar Hubmaier and the nutcases around Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone.

Thus, for Bender, the focus was on discipleship not sacraments or the inner enjoyment of justification. The church was not an institution or a place for Word-proclamation in emphasis but instead a brotherhood of love. In addition, against Catholics and Calvinists who believed in social reform, like the Lutherans the Anabaptists were less optimistic about social transformation. But, unlike the Lutherans who split life into the secular and sacred, the Anabaptists wanted a radical commitment that meant the creation of an alternative Christian society.

Confusion and Anabaptism

However, the area of most interest to me is his initial words found in the article. There McKnight articulates:

I am often asked “What is an Anabaptist?” and “Who are the Anabaptists?” If one listened to everyone who claimed an anabaptist connection, it would be easy to be confused. For many today a progressive politics is Anabaptist; for others it means being either Yoderian (John Howard Yoder) or Hauerwasian (Stanley Hauerwas); for others it refers to more conservative living and believing communitarian sorts!

The rise of Anabaptist thinking in contemporary evangelicalism — like David Fitch and Greg Boyd and others — needs to be set into context of Anabaptism itself.

There are a number of things to take note of in the above quote from McKnight. (1) People are in search for an authentic definition of Anabaptism. (2) They want to know who qualifies as Anabaptists. (3) Confusion can come from everyone claiming to be Anabaptist. (4) Progressives are generally held to be Anabaptists at this time, and it is wise of McKnight to qualify their theology by the term “politics” because at the end of the day Progressive theology is actually “political theology”. (5) Originally 20th and 21st century expressions of some form of Anabaptism stem from the original Neo-Anabaptists such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. As a side note, this is somewhat ironic because contemporary Progressive Neo-anabaptists have serious difficulties with the key players of the Neo-Anabaptist Movement. (6) Many define Anabaptism within the context of Mennonites and associated groups and finally (7) Anabaptism is being defined by the actions and teachings of Christian celebrities such as Greg Boyd.

I am happy that there is someone that sees the issues I have with this ill defining of Anabaptism. While many choose to ignore me or think, I am off base maybe Scott McKnight will fare better than I have.


[1] See: Gerald J. Mast, “The Anabaptist Vision and Polygenesis Historiography,” in The C. Henry Smith Series, vol. v. 6, Separation and the Sword in Anabaptist Persuasion: Radical Confessional Rhetoric from Schleitheim to Dordrecht (Telford, PA: Cascadia Pub. House, 2006), 35-67.

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One thought on “Scot McKnight on Anabaptism, Bender, Confusion and How People See It

  1. An interesting read, I have felt discomfort with many who are claiming the mantle of “Anabaptist”. (Technically, being of a brethren origin my claim is shaky). I also think that many anabaptists are uncritically welcoming (I was for a while), possibly due to excitement about someone recognizing us and “guilt” over a history of being too closed off.
    I have trouble drawing the line, but one aspect seems clear to me. Those who have hope in this world’s systems to bring in Kingdom values seem to be outside of Anabaptism. They are part of Christendom, just with different politics.
    It is not that the liberal politics are incompatible with Anabaptism, but that the politics are.
    In this light I think Boyd is closer that many of the others in that he appears to very the government system with real skepticism.
    Do you have a constructive take? That is, where do you think the lines should be drawn? (Not that inclusion or exclusion is important for anything other than understanding)

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