XII MENNO SIMONS' DOCTRINE ON THE INCARNATION OF CHRIST
Menno Simons held a peculiar doctrine on the Incarnation: Christ did not obtain His human nature from a sinful child of Adam. God through the Holy Spirit prepared for Him a body (Heb. 10:5). Mary was truly His mother; He is called "the fruit of Mary's womb" in a similar sense as we speak of grain as the fruit of the field (531a; II:337; also folio edition 316a). This doctrine of the Incarnation has been substantially accepted by a number of well known Bible scholars of our time. (1)
If Christ had been, as regards His humanity "of the impure, sinful flesh of Adam, He would through the eternal righteousness of God, be also guilty of judgment and death. And if He Himself owed a debt, how could He pay ours?" (367b; II: 157b). "This selfsame Word .... in due time descended from heaven and through the power of the Most High and of His Holy Spirit, above all human comprehension, became a true, suffering, mortal man, (2) not of Mary, but in Mary, as John says, the Word was made flesh" (565a; II:371b). To assert that Christ was, in that case, not truly human, says Menno, is to deny God's omnipotence. He replies to the question, Whence, then, has Christ obtained His humanity? with a counter question: "Whence came the abundance of water which flowed from the hard rock? Was it not accomplished above all human understanding and comprehension through God's almighty power, to which nothing is impossible?" (370a; II:161b).
Menno taught that Christ, while in the Incarnation "He took upon Him the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:7) did not forego His divine nature. The old charge which has been reasserted by a few modern writers, that he believed the Word to have become flesh by a change in His divine nature, he repudiated as a slander. (3)
"That I have ever said this [that the Word was changed into flesh and that Jesus was only man] no one will, I believe, ever be able to prove; nevertheless they have the courage to say and write such of us. I have spoken of this as the eminent apostle has taught me, namely that the Word was made flesh. This testimony I let stand unbroken and commit the mystery, how much there was changed or not changed, to Him who through His omnipotent power has so ordered it for the salvation of us all. Yet I would add, in my simplicity, if they interpret the said testimony of John, which I have quoted without changing a letter, in such a way as to make it appear that Menno teaches, with John, that the Word has been made flesh, therefore his opinion must be that it was changed into flesh, etc., they should know that change does not in every instance take away the nature of the first substance of which something consists or is wrought. Adam was a man created of earth; and although he was a man thus created, he nevertheless continued to be earth, as the Lord said, 'Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.' - My reader, understand me rightly, I do not present this illustration to assert that the Word was changed into flesh, but I have presented it for [t]he purpose of showing to the reader that even if the Word, in the Incarnation should have undergone a change, even then it nevertheless remained the Word. John 1:14; 8:23; I John 1:2; Rev. 19:13." (368b;. II:159b).
"I say that concerning this incomprehensible, sublime subject I do in no wise make reason my counsellor, but set forth the word of my Lord which teaches me in all clearness," etc. (595a; II:398a). "Since He is God's own and true Son and has no other origin but of God, He must also have the nature of the One of whom He is; this is too plain to be controverted" (589b; II:392b). "Although He humbled Himself and for our sakes for a time laid down His divine privilege, right and majesty, notwithstanding this He was God and God's Word" (372a; II:164a). "Christ is truly God and man, man and God" (525b; II:330b; also 363b; II:153b). "I confess both natures in Christ, the divine and the human" (569a; II:375b).
Menno repeatedly asks forbearance of his readers for enlarging on the subject of the origin of life in his defence of the doctrine of the Incarnation. "God knows how unwillingly I do it, but necessity forces me to it" (548; II:353b). He asserts that a new life does not originate from woman, hence Christ's origin, even as concerns His humanity, could not be of Mary. Martin Micron, after his discussions with Menno, wrote to Heinrich Bullinger on March 5, 1556, informing him of Menno's opinion and arguments, and stating that the Zwinglian theologian Musculus was of the same opinion as Menno Simons regarding the origin of human life and indeed had presented this view in one of his books. It is necessary, says Micron, that Musculus be called down and prevailed upon to modify or change his attitude on this question.
"If our adversaries once observed this in the writings of Musculus," he continues, "they would utter the greatest boastings [having found this teaching in our own publications] and would already among all men ascribe to themselves the victory. Great is the authority of Musculus everywhere and if he furnishes our antagonists with such weapons against us, it will scarcely be possible to stop their mouths. - I beseech you .... that you admonish Musculus concerning these things, so that he at the earliest possible opportunity come to the aid of the church that is thus struggling. - If our adversaries dare to oppose us on the authority of Aristotle, what would they do, if they knew that Musculus is on their side, as doubtless they will soon know from his aforementioned work, for Menno is hunting for such things among our own writings, unless Musculus soon concurs." (4)
From another letter of Micron it is apparent that Musculus fully complied with the wishes of his friends and repudiated his former opinion on the point in question.
Menno rejected the view that Christ as to his body was human while as to his mind and soul He was divine. "The Scriptures know of no divided Christ." If He had His human nature from Mary, "He could in such case be not more than half man, namely as concerns His mother's part according to the assertion of the theologians" (Folio edition 316b). "Above all human understanding" the divine and the human nature were united in Him. That this doctrine of the Incarnation has a tendency toward the denial of the deity of Christ was indignantly denied by Menno. On the contrary, his opinion was that what is generally considered the orthodox view dishonors Christ. (367a; II:158a).
Although Menno held that only the regenerated are spoken of in Scripture as brethren of Christ, and for the reason that they are partakers of the divine nature (II Pet. 1:4), he repudiated the idea that the regenerated are divine in the same sense as Christ. He says:
"Dear brethren, we do not say, Christ is born of the Spirit, but we say with the Scriptures that He is incarnate and conceived through the Spirit. Now it is a different matter, as you know, to be born of the Spirit and to be incarnate and conceived through the Spirit. Can any one doubt that to be born of the Spirit is regeneration?" (533a; II:339a). "Christ not only calls the regenerated His brethren, but also His children, and says, Behold I and the children which God has given me, Isa. 8:18. They are called His children for the reason that He through the word of His grace, by the power of His Holy Spirit in the sprinkling of His precious blood, has begotten them unto God His Father" (376b; II:170a) "Christ, the Prince of our salvation, has led us to His glory and thus accepted us as brethren and children in the faith" (378b; II:172b). "On account of being born of God, and not for the sake of the birth of Adam, we are His brethren, for the regenerated have one Father with Him" (553b; II:358b). "They are the true brethren of Jesus Christ who with Him are born of God" (425a; II:221b). "For the reason that the regenerated are, with Christ, born of one God and have one Father, therefore He calls the sanctified who with Him are born of God, His brethren, not because of the flesh but because of the new birth. If it were otherwise, you would have to say and admit that all wicked, unbelieving and perverse men and women were brethren and sisters of Christ, as well as the believing, sincere and pious. By no means, for Christ says; Whososoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother" (519b; II:335a).
The said doctrine of the incarnation of Christ was not original with Menno, but was in substance held by the Obbenites from the beginning. The opinion that Menno at the time of his conversion was not acquainted with this teaching (5) is unfounded. In all probability this doctrine was for a time a hindrance standing in the way of his identification with the Obbenites. He writes in 1544:
"When this matter of the incarnation of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ was first mentioned and set before me by the brethren I was, on hearing of it, greatly amazed and startled fearing lest I should err in the matter and be found before God in hurtful unbelief. Yea, on account of this article I was also after receiving baptism many a time so troubled and oppressed at heart, that for many a day through the anxiety of my soul I abstained from food and drink beseeching and praying God in tears and great uneasiness, that the kind Father by His mercy and grace would rightly disclose and open unto me, a poor sinner who diligently although in great imperfection and weakness sought to do His good will and pleasure, the mystery of the incarnation of His blessed Son, so far as may be useful and necessary to the glorification of His holy name and to the consolation of my oppressed conscience. Thus straying for days, weeks, and moths, I have, concerning the said matter which bore so heavily upon my conscience, discussed and treated with a few who are of your opinion or belief, yet no one instruct or teach me sufficiently concerning this matter, for gross misunderstanding of certain passages of Scripture which they used to support their assertion I found with them, not according to my mere opinion but according to the testimony of the Scriptures; so that at last, after much fasting, praying, heaviness and anxiety I, through the grace of the Lord was fully consoled and refreshed at heart, assured by the unerring, in fallible testimony of the Scriptures, and I sincerely acknowledged and believed that Christ Jesus, forever blessed, is the Lord from heaven, I Cor. 15:47," etc. (525a; II:330a).
Menno Simons points out repeatedly that the controversy concerning the incarnation of Christ was forced upon him by his opponents In his Brief Defense to all Theologians he asks for "a free public debate" with any one of his opponents and gives a list of subjects - ten in number - which should be made the base of the discussions, but does not mention the Incarnation. (6) In his first book on the subject (addressed to John a'Lasco) he urges that it was most earnestly asked and demanded of him to write (Folio edition 527a). In the same book he states that in his discussions with a'Lasco he was against his desire compelled to make this subject a question of dispute (519; I:326a). To treat in this connection on the origin of human life, etc., was distasteful to him. "I am ashamed from my heart, the Lord knows, that I must speak in such a way concerning this great and holy matter; but they compel me to it" (Folio edition 315b).
He also testifies, in the year 1544, that he avoided to treat on the subject of the Incarnation in his sermons. He writes:
"I say again, this is my confession toward those who most earnestly ask and demand of me a statement of my faith and leaching concerning this article. Yet in my common admonitions to the brethren and friends I never teach it so completely or extensively, nor have I heretofore ever taught it so fully as I have also told you [John a'Lasco] verbally. But I teach in a simple way that the blessed Christ Jesus is truly God and man, a Son of God and a Son of man, conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the pure virgin Mary, became a poor, needy man, like unto us in all things, except sin, etc. Therefore, I say, that I and all teachers can do no better than to teach and set forth this matter of the incarnation and the body of Christ to the common church in a true, simple, apostolic way to the edification, to love, to consolation, to sanctification, to a life in accordance with His precepts and example." "Among us there are doubtless many who fear the Lord from the inmost of their souls and have never in their life heard a syllable in regard to the mystery of this matter, as set forth above with great clearness, and have never inquired concerning it, much less do they know or understand it" (527 seq.; 11:332 seq.). "Herewith I conclude this my confession of the Incarnation of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. I write you on this subject in accordance with your desire and place it before you in all clearness, as one who is not ashamed of his faith. Nevertheless I do not teach and treat this matter to such depth in my admonitions to the brethren, or, as said above, have ever done so, but in all simplicity according to apostolic example to edification and love." (533a; II:339).
(1) K. Vos (Menno Simons, p. 78) says Menno had no clear conception of this doctrine. The doctrine of the Incarnation as held by Menno Simons is as reasonable as that which is generally accepted as the orthodox view and Menno defines it satisfactorily, but in his answers to the attacks of his opponents he sometimes apparently lost sight of the principle stated by himself: That the incarnation of Christ is not to be comprehended but to be believed. Vos (p. 78) quotes Alenson who gives two passages from Menno which seem to imply a partly contradiction on a phase of the point in question. In Menno's work the said passages are found 368b, II:159b and 370b, II:162a. Reading them in their connection is required for an intelligent understanding.
(2) It has been alleged (Vos, Menno Simons, p. 210) that in Menno's view Christ was not made partaker of our flesh and blood and hence his doctrine of the Atonement was not really orthodox. Menno often points out that Christ was not only divine but also truly human.
(3) The assertion that Menno held this view is made by S. Cramer in R. E., article Menno Simons, where it is also said that Menno did not accept the doctrine that Christ was both God and man. On these points compare the quotations from Menno given in this chapter.
(4) The letter is quoted in full by Ottius, Annal. Anab., p. 123 seq.
(5) This was the opinion of S. Cramer, R. E., vol. XII, p. 591.
(6) 335a; II:119b. Martin Micron in his first debate with Menno complained concerning the omission of this point and insisted that it be made a subject of discussion. Gerretsen. Micronius, 1895. p 44. That the incarnation of Christ is virtually the only point in which Menno was really dogmatically interested, as has been repeatedly asserted (e.g. Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 4, 1912, p. 270) is without foundation.