X MENNO'S ATTITUDE TOWARD RATIONALISM
On this subject the most extravagantly incorrect views have been entertained. Various writers, giving evidence to the fact that they have never read Menno Simons' writings, have asserted that he rejected the deity and vicarious sacrifice of Christ, the universality of sin and the doctrine of justification by faith. Menno has been represented as a champion of the modern gospel of the fatherhood of God and the religious brotherhood of men whose burden is that all men are saved although they may not know it. "Modern liberalism," says a certain writer, "has its roots in the Anabaptist movement." The modern view of toleration has also been ascribed to Menno Simons: that matters of doctrine and creed are unessential and the church should not require a defined doctrinal position on the part of individuals or of congregations, that it should not stand for defined truth but that any religious teachings should be acceptable. The assertion has been repeatedly made by modern writers that the early Mennonites disowned doctrinal tests and occupied neutral ground on questions of doctrine. Menno Simons has been represented as an advocate of the autonomy of the church in the sense that every congregation instead of recognizing the Scriptures as the final authority should be "a law unto itself" in matters of faith and principle, and that the church as a whole has not the right to demand of the congregations a certain doctrinal position, and in the congregations the majority should be permitted to rule in questions of faith while the minority should be in duty bound to be satisfied with the decision. A writer in a well known German magazine has asserted that the Anabaptists rejected all dogma or authoritative doctrine, and freedom from all religious authority higher than themselves was their leading tenet; they stood for a free general union and brotherhood of men (freie Vergesellschaftung).
Now if Menno Simons held such opinions, it would apparently have been inconsistent for him to forsake the national church. He and his friends were a small minority. If the question of doctrine is not of vital importance he might well have contented himself with the doctrine of the church in which he was born and held office. In that case we should be obliged to consider him a leader in an uncalled-for schism. Was it not possible for him in the national church to lead a devoted life and to deviate even from the creed of the church, provided that he did not publicly profess his particular views?
Menno and the early Mennonite churches upheld a well defined standard of faith. No one who has read their own literature, in particular the writings of Menno Simons, can doubt this. The elders Adam Pastor, David Joris (both with a greater or less following) and Francis Reines Kuyper were excluded on account of unscriptural doctrine. Menno Simons was the leading interpreter of the principles and doctrines of the church. His writings were looked upon as a statement of orthodox doctrine and may be said to have served in a measure the purpose of a confession. That the Mennonites had until a later period, no confessions, besides the Scriptures and Menno's writings, is not an evidence of a "liberal" tendency. In our day, it is interesting to observe, a number of the most conservative Christian denominations could be mentioned who say they have no confessions beside the Bible, but it is nevertheless a fact that they hold to a well defined standard of doctrine; they have confessions in very truth, although perhaps unwritten. Of the church in which Menno labored it must be said that the least conservative wing, namely the Waterlandians, were the first to set up a written confession. They differed from Menno in doctrine (although not on fundamental points) and hence his writings were not a statement of doctrine as upheld by them. The more conservative Mennonites who for a long period did not deviate from Menno's teachings, adopted confessions at a later time.
The Mennonite confessions have been generally ignored in works on symbolics; only Mennonite and Baptist historians have taken them properly into account. The more important Mennonite confessions are:
Waterlandian confessions: 1. The Confession of 1577. (1) 2. The confession of Hans de Ries and Lubbert Gerrits of 1581. (2)
The Frisian Confession, prepared by Peter Janz Twisck (about 1600, according to Van Braght). Thirty-three articles. (3)
The Confession of the Upper German Churches in Holland, prepared by Jan Centsen in 1630. (4)
Confessions of the Flemish churches: 1. The confession of 1626 (Jacques Outerman). (5) The "Olive-Branch," of 1627. (6) 3. The confession prepared by Adrian Cornelis and adopted in 1632 at Dort in Holland, printed frequently in Dutch, German, French and English; various English editions have been published in America.
The date of the confession of the Old Flemish churches is uncertain, it is probably after 1650. A German translation was printed in 1768.
A confession prepared by Cornelis Ris was adopted in 1773 by the conference which held its sessions annually in the church called "To the Sun" at Amsterdam. This confession has also been published in the English language.
The Swiss Brethren, in 1527, adopted the seven articles of Michael Sattler at Schlatten am Randen, near Schaffhausen. Of this confession two recent editions have been published (by W. Köhler and H. Böhmer), as well as an English translation. (7) These articles treat only on the points on which the Brethren differed from the teaching of the state churches. The Swiss had no other [confession] until some of them (in Alsace) accepted the Dort confession of 1632. It is certain that they agreed with the churches of the lower countries in their attitude toward rationalism and liberalism.
The modern argument that confessions are uncalled for and the church should occupy neutral ground on questions of doctrine, for the reason that neither the Christian believer nor the church as a whole can lay claim to the predicate of infallibility, would not have born any weight to the mind of Menno and his friends. That they were not perfect in understanding was in their opinion no reason for ceasing to defend the great truths of God's word. They were fully decided to repudiate that which is clearly unscriptural and to cling to the Bible teaching on the points in question. They did not profess to have attained to all truth contained in the Scriptures, but admitted cheerfully the possibility of new Scriptural truth to come to them. If we may accept their own confession on this point, they welcomed new light from the Scriptures.
Menno says: "Gellius writes that we should be stopped and silenced, lest the unwary be deceived. I answer: A better and surer way than we have through the grace of the Lord obtained, no one can point out; of this we are fully assured from the inmost of our consciences; for we realize and are fully convinced that we have God's Word. Nevertheless we shall at any time freely offer: if any one who is God-fearing, through the Spirit, word, example, command, prohibition, ordinances and usage of the Lord (in accordance with which in Christ's church everything must be ordered if it be valid and acceptable before the throne of His majesty), and not through tyranny and the power of the authorities, could point out to us in the fear of the Lord that which is in any way more appropriate and better and more conducive to the honor of God and the welfare of His church, than that which we have for a number of years of enlightenment confessed and steadfastly maintained in so exceedingly much oppression, homelessness, need and persecution, we shall at any time from our hearts accept and willingly follow it. I am fully confident that all who seek the Lord and fear Him from their heart are of the same mind with me on this point" (235b; II:12b). "By the grace of God I seek nothing whatever upon this earth and shall seek nothing but the unadulterated word of our Lord Jesus Christ, and this according to the record of the Scriptures. Now if I in any way err, which indeed I hope by the grace of God is not the case, I pray every one for the Lord's sake, if any one has more convincing Scripture and more powerful truth, that he through brotherly exhortation and instruction come to my aid, that I may not be put to shame [in the end]. I desire from my heart to accept it, if it is right" (163; I:214a). "If any one under the broad canopy of heaven, be he learned or unlearned, man or woman, can instruct me with clearer Scripture and more powerful truth, gladly will I accept and obey it. But, by the grace of God, we know that we have the sure and true way, which Christ has prepared for us. It is well with us if we walk in it and enter in at the strait gate" (239b; II:17b).
Menno and his friends were guided by the aim to accept and make a part of their creed (written or unwritten) all the truth that through the Scriptures would come to them and to discard everything that is not founded on God's Word. It was their foremost principle that all that may concerning doctrine and Christian practice be found in the Bible should be willingly accepted and followed. They believed the doctrinal position of the national church to be unscriptural and had therefore renounced it. Neither by pope, church fathers, emperor or state authorities they would be guided, but by God's Word alone. On the point of the authority of the Scriptures extensive quotations from Menno will be given in another place.
The church, in so far as it stands for the truth of God's word in doctrine and practice, Menno, according to his own testimony, "loved above everything on earth." A church that does not stand for the truth of God, as revealed in His word, but takes an attitude of neutrality and general toleration on the question of doctrine, has in his opinion no excuse for existence. The supposition that he conceded to every congregation the right to set up its own creed, or no creed; to stand for any doctrine or no doctrine is quite unfounded. Such a position would be clearly irreconcilable with the emphasis which he laid on the great central truth of the Gospel: that salvation is only through faith in the atonement made by the Son of God through His blood on Calvary and further than the Christian church must be founded upon and guided by God's Word alone. The thought that all religious teaching whether founded on the Scriptures or contrary to them, should be acceptable in the church, was to him a very abomination. To hold that liberty of conscience should mean that the church be given license to disown the authority of God's Word was in his opinion to substitute religious anarchy for liberty. He realized that conscience is not an infallible guide, but is dependent upon the Scriptures for enlightenment and guidance. Hence to substitute conscience for God's Word was to his mind to reject the rightful religious authority. (8)
While in Menno's opinion, conscience if it is not guided by the Scriptures is unsafe to follow, an erring conscience should not and could not be compelled to receive the truth. To set the erring conscience right is not the business of the state through imprisonment and persecution, but it is the business of the church through the Word of God. Menno realized that the great work of maintaining the truth and spreading the Gospel is the task of the church and not of the state. His great concern was that his own conscience and life be perfectly in tune with the Word of his God and that all men whom he found it possible to influence should reach the same goal. While he believed that it is not the province of the state to set up a standard of faith and it is contrary to all Christian principles to establish and maintain the truth through the arm of the flesh and persecute those who would not accept it, he, as already said, differed radically from the idea that the church, like the state, should occupy neutral ground on questions of doctrine. He must have realized that a church which takes the neutral position on questions of religious doctrine and practice is as much out of place as a state which would be neutral and indifferent on matters of civil law and order, taking, in other words, the anarchistic position. The modern contention that exclusion from the church for any rightful cause is persecution, he would not for a moment have countenanced. He insisted to the contrary that scriptural church discipline and exclusion is "a great work of love," for its purpose is not only to maintain the church in accordance with scriptural principles, but to make the excluded one realize the error of his way and to win him. And an important purpose of discipline was in his opinion to keep the church pure in the wholesome doctrine of the Word, "My brethren," he says, "this is the real reason why and to what end this separation or ban is so earnestly taught and commanded in the holy Scriptures by Jesus Christ and His holy apostles, namely first on account of false doctrine, further sinful, carnal life, and again that the offenders should be admonished." (9)
(1) Published by E. M. ten Cate. from a manuscript in the Mennonite Library in Amsterdam, in D. B., 1904, pp. 145-156.
(2) Or probably somewhat later; compare ten Cate, Geschied. d. Doopsgezinden in Holland, vol. 1, p. 385. Published in English by McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, Philadelphia. For the Dutch original see Schijn-Maatschoen, Geschiedenis, vol. 1, 1743, pp. 238-279.
(3) Printed in Van Braght, pp. 360-395. The Baptist Historical Collection in Hamilton, N. Y., has a copy of this confession printed in 1620.
(4) Printed in Van Braght, pp. 32-36.
(5) Van Braght, pp. 1048-1049. The name Flemish was due to the fact that the first churches consisted principally of fugitives from Flanders.
(6) The same, pp. 26-32.
(7) McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, pp. 3-9.
(8) At the Fifth International Congress for Free Christianity and Religious Progress, held in Berlin, 1910, J. G. Appeldoorn asserted that the complete independence of conscience was an Anabaptist principle. Appledoorn, Die Mennoniten, etc.
(9) 634; II:446. Had Menno lived in our day, he could point to the fact that even the secret orders exclude those who forsake their principles, and no one raises the cry of narrowness or persecution against them.