Many Mennonites are aware that the man whose name we bear, Menno Simons, was considered an arch heretic by the Dutch authorities, so that he lived his life as a fugitive. What most of us do not know is that many of us today might also consider him a heretic for his view of the nature of Christ, or what is called Christology.
Mennonites are not known for our fine theological distinctions, and perhaps this is partly due to the embarrassing stream of Christology that some early Dutch Anabaptists followed. The Dordrecht Confession, the Dutch confession that Swiss and German Mennonites gradually adopted as they migrated to America, refuses to be too specific about the nature of Christ, not wanting to offend one side or another in these discussions.
Why could we call Menno a heretic? In many ways he had an orthodox view on the nature of Christ. The early centuries of the church were full of debates about how to understand Jesus as both human and divine. Some sides emphasized his divinity and said he only seemed human while others emphasized his humanity and said God only made him divine at his baptism or resurrection.
Through these debates the orthodox view became that Christ is both fully human and fully divine. Athanasius wrote that God became flesh in order to reestablish the original pattern for human life, a life in God’s image. By being both human and divine, Jesus faithfully demonstrated what God intended for human life. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus made a way for us to find new life.
Menno followed the earlier Dutch Anabaptist leader Melchior Hofmann and his fellow leader Dirk Phillips in affirming that Jesus was fully human and divine. But they added something that is not part of the orthodox view. They believed that Jesus did not receive his flesh from his mother Mary. God imparted to Jesus human flesh directly from heaven. In other words, Jesus shared human flesh with us but it was not flesh descended from Adam, like ours, but newly imported flesh from heaven. This is why it is sometimes called a “celestial flesh” Christology.
When I explained this to a Lutheran friend he asked, “What’s the advantage of that?” And honestly I don’t know or understand why Menno and his colleagues thought this was a helpful view. Menno was pessimistic about human nature but optimistic about the perfectibility of humans. Christians could become more like Jesus and follow his commands. Perhaps he saw this celestial flesh as the way Christ achieved this new humanity.
But how would it lead to optimism about Christians becoming more Christlike? We still have Adam’s flesh, not Jesus’ celestial flesh. So how can we be expected to live like Christ? Growing in Christlikeness came through regular participation in the Lord’s Supper.
And here is the other puzzle to me in Menno’s theology. I would expect Menno to have a high view of the Lord’s Supper, much like the Roman Catholic view from which he came, that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. This was the way Christians could come to share in the flesh of Christ. But no, he followed the more common Anabaptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper as spiritually communing with the body and blood of Christ but without any transubstantiation of the elements.
So we are left with a Christ who mostly shares our flesh. We are called to live by the standards by which he lived, even though he was given a heavenly advantage that we do not have.
The orthodox view strives to have Christ fully share in our humanity “in every respect” so that Christ can, as Hebrews 2:17-18 says, “help those who are being tested.” A Christ who inherited his flesh from heaven rather than from his mother does not share our humanity fully with us.
So Menno holds to the high ideals of Christ while also undercutting our ability to live by those ideals. Just as harmful is that this view of Christ teaches us that our humanity cannot be embraced. God had to bypass our flesh in order to bring salvation. While the orthodox view can teach us to embrace our bodies as the place where God’s redemption takes place, Menno’s view teaches us to suspect our bodies.
Mennonite theologian Thomas Finger has the best statement and reflection on these issues that I have seen in his magisterial and encyclopedic A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (IVP Academic, 2004). He is both more nuanced and kinder to Menno and his companions than I am.
He ably connects Menno’s view of Christ and the Lord’s Supper with Menno’s view of church discipline. For all Anabaptists, church discipline was a key element of renewing the church. But for Menno and other leaders around him, church discipline became extreme.
Because of our human nature inherited from Adam, the church must help people take on fully Christ’s human nature. Sin by church members made evident that the Adamic nature had not been conquered by Christ’s and so must be stridently disciplined.
For the Dutch, this meant increasing use of the ban and shunning. This meant not only refusing sinners the Lord’s Supper but also refusing to eat or even greet them. This eventually led to spouses and families no longer being permitted to live with the sinner.
This strict use of banning led the Waterlanders to depart from other Anabaptists, as well as factions among the Flemings and Frisians and even between the Swiss and Dutch.
Menno excommunicated the entire Swiss Anabaptist church for refusing to agree with his approach to shunning. These differences also led to the only split within the Swiss church, with the Amish leaving other Swiss, who they thought had become too lax in discipline.
Finger summarizes perceptively: “The body, for most Anabaptists, was so incorrigible that it could express the Spirit only when restricted by multiple rules. As a result, it often seemed that Anabaptist bodies, individual and corporate, were being not so much transformed by as clashing with God’s Spirit, to the detriment of both.”
I recognize that most Mennonites do not share Menno’s Christology. But we have inherited his pessimistic view of human flesh, along with his high ideals for Christian living, which led to his overzealous church discipline. This suspicious view of humanity has helped mark Mennonites as a people who severely discipline and, when we do not agree, divide. These divisions have often turned on questions of our bodies, especially on clothing, gender and sexuality.
Menno’s strange Christology is not the only reason Mennonites have struggled with discipline. We are not the only Christian church to wrestle with issues of a split between spiritual and material, sexuality and spirituality. But it has added a certain intensity to these debates in our history, an intensity we are experiencing once again in debates about LGBT concerns.
A more orthodox Christology invites us to embrace Christian existence as bodily existence. In Christ, God has joined us and sanctified our humanity. Christ saves us in our humanity and invites us to follow with the enabling grace and strength of the Spirit. We need not fear our bodies or our sexuality. This does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that we will talk and work together on these issues rather than excluding and silencing one another.
Douglas Kaufman is co-pastor of Benton Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.
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