Quaker Theology - Issue #4 - Spring 2001

J. Denny Weaver. Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium. Telford, Pa.: Pandora Press U.S., 2000. 223 pp. $22.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Thomas Finger1

Western systematic, or constructive, theology has developed largely within "mainline" communions-- most notably, Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic. Since about 1970, however, a broadly postmodern atmosphere has encouraged explicit theologizing among more particular, often marginalized, groups: blacks, women, Hispanics and many others. And since about 1980, these have been joined by "believers’ churches." One might roughly identify these as Baptists, Anabaptist-Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Black churches, Disciples and Churches of Christ, Holiness communions and Pentecostals.2

Quakers often appear on this list. However, I am not aware of many Quaker contributions to recent believers’ church theologies, nor are Quakers often discussed in the theologies I know. Nevertheless, believers’ churches have different basic notions of what theology is or should be. Perhaps many believers’ church theologians do not yet understand Friends well enough to recognize what they consider theological. From the Quaker perspective, perhaps more is already being contributed than is often supposed.

J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite, has been active in believers’ church theologizing from the beginning. He is now proposing, somewhat programmatically, some directions "in face of" several historic resources and current challenges. But where, exactly, can we locate Weaver’s theology?

Although Anabaptist appears in the book’s title, this is to highlight that Reformation era movement as a major resource (14). All Weaver’s chapter titles use Mennonite. His "primary concern" is whether Mennonites will continue to be a peace church (143). More precisely, Weaver wants Mennonites to develop their distinct historic witness "into a particular theology for the peace church" stressing "nonviolence and believers church ecclesiology. . . ." (26, 27)

Weaver’s speciality, then, seems best called "peace church theology." It would exclude some believers churches, but include more than Mennonites, and Quakers especially. Quakers could advance discussion of Weaver’s "peace church" approach by indicating how well it represents or does not represent their outlook.

The cultural context most relevant for Weaver is shaped by Postmodernity. This outlook’s distrust of universal systems and valuing of particularity can place peace church theology on even footing with those "main line" perspectives that have overshadowed it. Yet Weaver also critiques postmodernity’s inclination towards relativism. He insists that particular assertions and theologies can carry universal intent and significance (17-23). Though Weaver, with most believers’ church theologians, rejects universal foundations, his overarching norm is the Biblical God-narrative, centered on Jesus, which claims to be universal.

Weaver identifies his main opponent as "theology-in-general." This refers to beliefs historically common to most Christian theologies, which he thinks have functioned as universal foundations (50-51). Weaver shows that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mennonite theologies assumed such a base and then added Mennonite "distinctives" (most notably, pacifism) on top, or as a second "list." (51-62) He then argues that many current Mennonite theologians do the same. (I’m happy to receive a rare exemption! [64-65]. It seems to me that Quakers too have generally avoided this approach.) Weaver wants many such distinctives to shape the whole of peace church theology–rightly, in my view.

Weaver’s most often cited and critiqued instance of theology-in-general is "the creeds" (usually, the Nicene Creed [325/381 C.E.] and the Chalcedonian Definition [451 C.E.]) He complains chiefly that they omit Jesus’ life and teachings. This allows churches who affirm them to drop Jesus’ countercultural, nonviolent stance and accommodate government violence. To be sure, this has sometimes happened.

Weaver, however, often presents this link as causal, perhaps almost necessary. Since a creed lacking Jesus’ teaching appeared when the Church began approving violence, the creeds were the "result of a process that allowed ethics to get lost. . . :" (63, my italics) Since they were formulated after Constantine’s accession, they "emerged from the Constantinian Church." (68, my italics) Weaver tends to read theological statements largely as social products. To others who do, his claim that the separation of ethics from theology began at that juncture can seem "self evident." (114)

Weaver does not really examine the creeds’ contents, nor their overall narrative framework.3 He presents few theological reasons for questioning them. Weaver does, however, object that their "abstract categories of `man’ and `God’ obscure Scripture’s narrative, ethically-laden presentation. He also finds their ancient, "Greek" terms invalid today. Nonetheless, Weaver regards the creeds as "entirely valid" for their time (which I find puzzling if they indeed submerge Biblical narrative). Moreover, it is always "important to state that Jesus is of God and also of humanity." (124)

Weaver’s recent volume again critiques theology-(and Christology-)in-general, and articulates his own agenda more thoroughly and programmatically "in face of" several new arenas: postmodernity, current Canadian/American society (33-48), and, innovatively for a Mennonite, Black and Womanist theology (121-146)

Weaver has long perceived many believers’ church theologians adopting theology-in-general as their foundation, blocking them from reconceiving all theology in light of their own "distinctives." He hopes that if they cease being blocked, above all, by a creedal Jesus shorn of life, teachings and example, theology’s true starting-point, the Jesus-narrative where all these come to the fore, will shine out. Then it will become obvious that his followers must adopt his peaceful way as a social stance.

Several comments are in order. First, Weaver emphasizes the temporal link between the creeds and "Constantinianism." But does temporal contiguity always indicate causal relation? Might the creeds have had quite another origin, but then been used wrongly? Weaver’s causal reasoning is largely deductive. While he mentions several facts in his favor, such as Constantine’s participation at Nicea (63), the overall historical context is not carefully examined.

It is possible, however, to view Nicea not as Constantinianism’s by-product, but as the end-product of a long development in the counter-cultural, pre-Constantinian church of the martyrs. I have presented some historical substantiation for the latter.4 Jesus’ life and ethics could well have been omitted because Nicea focused on one issue, and their importance seemed too obvious to require statement. One can, indeed, affirm the creeds for what they do say while recognizing the eventual liabilities of what they do not say and of ways they could be used.5 Yet I cannot recall Weaver, while expressing appropriate concern over the last two features at length, affirming the first by much more than the vague "Jesus is of God and also of humanity." (124)

I wonder where Quakers might emerge on such issues. While Friends surely stress Jesus’ life and teachings, do they find these opposed to a "higher" Christology? While they would doubtless oppose creeds as legal bases for ecclesiastical membership or excommunication, would they still find features of creedal Christology valuable? Quakers are surely repelled by imperial Christianity; but how closely would they align "the creeds" with or distinguish them from this? Quaker consideration of such issues would contribute to believers’ church Christology.

Second, the church’s peace witness, for Weaver, is mostly as a social stance. For him, "the church’s mission is to symbolize and witness to the presence in the world of the social dimension of the gospel." (154) And while Jesus’ humanity is obviously relevant to this, Weaver bypasses his deity here again. Further, Weaver’s overall theology bypasses careful discussion of the spiritual or inward dimensions of believers’ church existence.

I thoroughly agree with the importance of peace, and with rethinking theology comprehensively in light of this and other believers’ church "distinctives." Within today’s currents of believers’ church theology, J. Denny Weaver admirably champions the social-ethical concerns of many participants. Yet he reduces theology largely to these dimensions.

Some Quakers also incline in this direction. Yet might many Friends, given their stress on the Spirit’s immediate activity and presence, regard some discussion of faith’s inward and transcendent dimensions as central to theology? Today, many believers church theologians are seeking to distinguish their perspective from the common "evangelical" preoccupation with the inward and spiritual, as well as from the "ecumenical" predilection for the outer and social-ethical. Quakers could contribute to such often heated discussions, and help not only believers’ churches, but also evangelicals and ecumenicals.

NOTES

 1. See also the reviewer’s discussion of this volume forthcoming in Christian Scholar’s Review.

2. See James McClendon, Systematic Theology, Volume I: Ethics (Nashville, Abingdon, 1986), 34-35. McClendon also includes Quakers.

3. The Nicene Creed follows the narrative recited in the Apostles’ Creed, stretching from Jesus’ incarnation to his return, but expands on several portions, most notably on his "person." Chalcedon’s framers considered it an expansion or "Definition" of Nicea’s Christology, not a new creed, which took its place in Nicea’s overall narrative framework.

4. "Christus Victor and the Creeds: Some Historical Considerations," Mennonite Quarterly Review, 72 (1988), 31-52, responding to two earlier Weaver MQR articles. The Christus Victor motif of atonement depicts this act as Jesus’ conquest of Powers who rule our sinful world. For Weaver and me, it well expresses the conflict and distinction between Jesus and his opponents, and subsequently between church and world. Weaver, however, places Christus Victor in opposition to Nicene-Chalcedonian Christology with its omission of ethics. I sought to show that Christus Victor originated largely in Fathers who contributed directly to the latter Christology (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian) and, despite their obvious stress on ethics, affirmed creed-like statements which omitted Jesus’ life and teachings.

Weaver has replied that the early appearance of such statements shows that "Constantinianism" did not suddenly arise with Constantine, but was underway before him. However, these statements appear in Fathers who promoted not only "high" Christology, but also Christus Victor and ethics. I have not yet found good reason to maintain that "creeds" and "ethics" separated before or at Nicea, or sometime soon after. Of course, such a functional split eventually characterized imperial Christianity.

5. I argued this at some length in "The Way to Nicea: Some Reflections from a Mennonite Perspective," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 24 (1987), 212-231.

              

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