It is astonishing the way that errors of thought can hook onto otherwise harmless facts and spread generations, even centuries, of mistaken impressions. Many accounts of our Anabaptist history are replete with these left-field clinkers, even among some august and widely respected sources. Chalk it up to our sectarian reputation – indelibly affixed and nourished by our magisterial counterparts in Christianity – but one would expect better by now.
Recently, a group of Mennonites and Lutherans began a two-year series of discussions about this kind of problem, focusing in part on the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. Written by Philip Melancthon in 1530 to present Lutheran doctrine to the princes and magistrates of the Holy Roman Empire, the Augsburg Confession makes several scorching references to Anabaptism. It condemns our theology in areas ranging from baptism to eschatology. Lutheran leaders have long acknowledged that these condemnations no longer stand. But they have resisted changing the language of the confession, citing its integrity as a historic document and not wishing to raise needless complications with revisions at this late date. We gladly leave this where it rests for now.
Indeed, we are confident that with time, Mennonites will come to a deeper understanding with our Lutheran friends, whether the confession is changed or not. The problem resides not in 500-year-old words but in a greater trend of misunderstanding about our doctrine and especially our history, which early on was colored by the libelous fusillades of our opponents.
A common confusion concerns the troubling – and decidedly violent – Maensterite movement of the 1530s, a splinter group that abandoned pacifism and established its own apocalyptic siege kingdom in the German city of Manster. Even today, some reputable historians and theologians use the terms “Mennonite” and “Anabaptist” interchangeably with reference to Mansterite depravity. Referring to the Mansterites as “Mennonites” is even an anachronism, because Manster predated Menno Simons’ gathering of a church.
We raise this because in looking at documents like the Augsburg Confession, we must remember that context and the lasting marks of ancient slanders are often all that stands between us and those who do not know our faith. Looking at the confession in light of its origins, amid the trials and fear and belligerence of the age, we can understand how it came to read as it does.
Is acknowledging this enough, or do we need to press farther and actually alter such a document? Maybe if we addressed instead the nature and mistakes of our history, we would achieve a far more enduring accord.
This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.