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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mennonites, Marcionism and Pelagianism

I am far from an expert on the various ancient heresies in church history, but I find familiarity with the major ones to be helpful. I find that by reflecting on them I can bring understanding to my own relationship with God, and clarity to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Two of these heresies are particular temptations for Mennonites, and show how a spiritual strength can become a weakness if we are not attentive. Marcionism, briefly, is a second century way of thinking developed by a man named Marcion who believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament, the former being a God of law and justice, the latter being a God of love and grace. Jesus reveals to us the New Testament God, thereby overthrowing the Old Testament.

Historically, the church, including Mennonites, has made the claim that we cannot fully understand Jesus unless we understand the tradition out of which he came, and which shaped him and his worldview, namely, the world of the Hebrew Bible. We have no understanding of Jesus, the church has taught, without understanding, studying and valuing the we have come to call the Old Testament.

Another heresy of which Mennonites have been accused is Pelagianism, a later heresy than Marcionism, developed by a man named Pelagius. Pelagianism teaches that Christians are able to choose God, and follow Jesus, independent of God's enabling grace. In short, a perfect church is possible.

The church has taught that humans are unable to choose God and follow the way of Christ without divine assistance. We do not do anything good in and of ourselves, but if we do good things it is Christ through us. The danger for us as Mennonites when we lean too far in a Pelagian direction is that we expect too much of the church and ourselves. We expect perfection, which is unreasonable for us as human beings.

I find these to be helpful starting points for conversations as we reflect on our spiritual journeys and the life of the congregation.


Stuart Showalter said...

Thanks for these blogs, Phil. Clearly written. Thought-provoking. I hope you will continue them.

Anonymous said...

Phil, I appreciate deeply your continuing blogs, all of them, about significant "this and thats." Please continue writing!
This is my second time to add my response, and it probably will not be my last one:
We don’t know much about Marcionism and Pelagianism, and what we do know, we have through the eyes of their antagonists. So what we know is already biased against them, and may thus grant a warped picture.
In any case, in my reading of Anabaptist/Mennonite history, I see little danger of Mennonites “overthrowing the Old Testament.” The same is true for perfectionism within the Swiss Brethren, Hutterian, and Dutch Mennonite traditions (except for those who followed Menno Simons’ teaching on celestial flesh). No groups that I know of (apart from Menno) from within these three main continuing traditions going back to Reformation times, have even toyed with the concept of perfectionism.
Menno came the closest to this, emphasizing as he did the pure church without spot or wrinkle, based on his view that Mary was simply the channel for Jesus’ birth, not having given any of her humanity to Jesus, which in turn allowed him to come into this world sinless, and thus able to save us from our sins. But this view even the Dutch (Friesian) Mennonites, after 1561 (the year of Menno’s death) largely disavowed. And the Swiss Brethren and Hutterites never accepted this teaching.
The Swiss Brethren (our CMC heritage) never went along with Menno, but saw Jesus as model, whom we want to become (as Jimmy Carter told us when he spoke to our Mennonite Assembly some years back, that “Christian” means “little Christs.”) We actually are to follow him, i.e., to become Christ in mind and Spirit, entering into his intention of fulfilling life as life is meant to be. This is our intention: to live Life. We strive to be fully human as Jesus was human. Our intention is to become Jesus, i.e., to become fully human.
We don’t always succeed, but we are serious about intending to so follow Jesus, together, as his very Body. And God, through grace, has provided the strength to make this possible – the gift of Christ’s Spirit. In the New Covenant, in the New Creation, the creation of humankind “in the Image of God” has found its fulfillment.

So: not perfectionism (although, as seen above, Menno came closer to this, but no others within the Anabaptist groups that continued past ca. 1540), but a church practicing mutual encouragement and admonition, as the way of and to reconciliation.

Re: the Old Testament. The Anabaptists (i.e., the Swiss Brethren, the Dutch Mennonites, and the Hutterites) were in no way “overthrowing the Old Testament” – any more than Jesus had overthrown the Old Testament – which, however, they were sometimes accused of doing. But they were Christocentric in their interpretation of the Old Testament: they saw the Old Testament through the eyes of Jesus. They were biblical theologians, not systematic theologians in the sense of a Calvin or Melanchthon – or even that of a Luther or Zwingli – all of whom had a “flatter” Bible than did the Anabaptists, especially in finding answers to socio-political (general societal) questions, where the Old Testament often seemed to be equal to the New in granting answers – such as answers to the question of war and violence.

But if the Anabaptists had been systematic theologians, they might have expressed their christocentricism as follows. Jesus, as:
• Son of man and Son of God: perfect human, in the image of God – i.e., perfect humanity as humanity is meant to be; and holy as God is holy: “Be ye holy for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
• God (the cosmic Christ): Jesus is not like God; God is like Jesus.

Placing this in dogmatic terms: If Jesus is God (the cosmic Christ), then God’s – i.e., Jesus’ – interpretation of the Old Testament, to quote from an old, old hymn: “is good enough for me.”

Leonard Gross (September 4, 2012)