Separation in Anabaptist Persuasion: The Case of Peter Riedemann

Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast


Faculty Colloquium

Bluffton College

February 25, 2000




            Early in Herman Melville’s magnificent novel Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael is meditating on the stubborn religious observance of the Islamic holy day of Ramadan by his “pagan” friend Queequeg.  This cross-cultural friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg and the common humanity Ishmael recognizes in Queequeg has relativized Ishmael’s own Presbyterian Christianity and brought about a grudging tolerance of his friend’s “strange” practices.  In light of his growing respect for Queequeg, Ishmael considers that “we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects.”[1]  Furthermore, Ishmael decides that further argument would be of no use and then makes a pronouncement that exhibits great wisdom about the human condition: “let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”[2]

            It is the contribution of the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida to have shown how this crack about our heads is, above all, a discursive crack, a communicative crack: a linguistic seam that runs through the center of being which both holds together and threatens to undo social meaning and identity.  Far from being grounded in a transcendent presence that holds meaning in place, human communication as described by Derrida is rather a movement of signification that originates in differance or the deferral of surplus meaning.  In describing the differance, the crack, the seam at the center of meaning, Derrida notes that all structures of signification are built on the exclusion of that for which they cannot account.  We speak and write, in short, not because language and reality correspond but rather because they do not.  Put simply, without the exclusions and deferrals of language, meaning and selfhood would turn into a kind of inconceivable chaos; concomitantly, without the Other of our meaning-making always at the doorstep of our linguistic home, language would become unnecessary and we would all inhabit a kind of totalitarian transcendence that led in the Old Testament to the tower of Babel.  Surely our everyday practices of communication though speech and writing confirm this sense that making meaning through language is always a struggle, as often as not a battle to clarify what we do not mean to say or did not intend to imply.  It is those things we say in order to explain ourselves, to keep unauthorized interpretations at bay, and to prevent our interlocuters from riding our train of thought too far down a certain track, that show up the limits of our reasoning process and demonstrate the finitude and contingency of our so-called world-views or ideologies or theologies.  At those moments we often welcome in the back door what we had kicked out the front.  An easily accessible example of this problem is the logic of liberal tolerance, which is all too often willing to entertain intolerable practices and ideas in the name of open-mindedness and liberality.  Or multiculturalism, which too often colonizes the cultures it seeks to preserve by making those cultures a benign feature of an ethnic fair or a beautiful rainbow.  And at the end of the day, there is always something left over in the project to tolerate everything or to reduce culture to cool food. 

            Derrida calls this outside idea, commitment, or logic that contrasts with yet is at the same time necessary to a coherent articulation of a particular truth, the supplement.  As Derrida puts it, “whether it adds or substitutes itself, the supplement is exterior, outside of the positivity to which it is super-added, alien to that which, in order to be replaced by it, must be other than it.”[3]  Not surprisingly this supplement, this remainder of any coherent logic or discourse, is always bothersome and usually calls forth more speech.  In Moby Dick, for example, Ishmael is unable to simply let Queequeg alone; a page or two after he decides to “let him be” Ishmael is busy trying to convince Queequeg that Christianity is a more advanced religion than Queequeg’s.  The supplement exists in an uneasy and troublesome tension with that linguistic homeland from which it is exiled. 

In order to grasp the argument I am making today about the Anabaptist advocacy of separation from the world, it is important to keep this theory of linguistic instability and necessary supplementarity in mind.  This is because, as I will argue, every Anabaptist articulation of separation also has had to acknowledge and explain non-separation; that is, all refusals of the world have also included and even affirmed the world, as we will see.



            Perhaps the best simple example I can think of which illustrates how the supplement works in Anabaptist separation, and at the same time explains how I became interested in this question, comes from the days when I sat as a child in a conservative Mennonite church and paged through the hymnbook when I was bored or frustrated by the preacher.  Every Sunday we heard from the pulpit how we should not to conform to the world, why our plain clothing and non-whitewall tires reminded us of who we were: a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people that had come out from among “them” and were “separate.” Yet as I paged through the Mennonite hymnbook I noticed the names of many composers and authors who were obviously not Mennonites and in some cases doubtfully Christian.  Mozart, for example, composed several of the tunes we sang regularly, including a tune we sang with these words: “Jesus I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee; Naked, poor, despised, forsaken, Thou, from hence, my all shalt be. Perish every fond ambition, All I’ve sought, or hoped, or known; Yet how rich is my condition! God and heav’n are still my own.”[4]  Because I had started to borrow records of Mozart symphonies and concertos from the public library, faithfully reading the liner notes, I doubted that Mozart was really a good example of taking up the cross, at least not in the way Mennonites envisioned it in my congregation.  Nevertheless, there we were, singing what could only be described as a worldly tune, and the name of the worldly composer was right there in the sacred hymnal.  I have come to see this apparent contradiction not simply as a naïve oversight of overzealous plain people but rather as an example of the problematic divide that rests at the center of any social identity; what Julia Kristeva has called the stranger within.  The profound place of music and singing in Mennonite worship—a role some are now calling sacramental for Mennonites—is inconceivable without the musical compositions and musical texts of “worldly” outsiders.

            As I argued two years ago at another faculty colloquium, the oldest Anabaptist confession of faith, the Schleitheim Brotherly Union, exhibits precisely this instability with respect to the location of the sword.  On the one hand, the Brotherly Union articulates a dramatic antagonism between church and world, Christ and Belial, clearly placing the sword in the category of Belial.  On the other hand, and in contrast to this dramatic antagonism, the Brotherly Union also recognizes that the sword of governance is ordered by God (ein Gottes Ordnung) for the protection of the good and the punishment of evil even though the sword is outside the perfection of Christ (der volkumenheit Christi).  While the Brotherly Union is clear that Christians cannot occupy the political offices that require use of the sword it nevertheless acknowledges the work of God in this “worldly” practice.  By thus recognizing the godly uses of the sword, the Brotherly Union undermines the clear logic of antagonism between church and world, peace and the sword, that it had established elsewhere.  Again, this contradiction in the Brotherly Union is not a naïve oversight but rather a symptom of the inherently problematic yet fruitful tension between separation and civility that constitutes any radical Christian effort to constitute a socially visible alternative community that witnesses to the presence of God’s reign in the world. The focus of my research this past summer was to examine how this tension between separation and civility was managed in an influential text by Peter Riedemann, a Hutterite Anabaptist who wrote a confession or account of the Hutterite faith from his jail cell in Hesse during the early 1540’s.




            During the early months of 1540, Peter Riedemann, a Hutterite leader and missionary was captured and imprisoned after travelling to Hesse in order to advance the cause of Hutterian Anabaptism.  While in prison he composed a lengthy confession of faith in order to explain the Hutterian faith to Philip of Hesse, whose policy toward Anabaptists featured persuasion and argument rather than torture and execution. Not long after Riedemann wrote the confession, the document was sent to the large Hutterite communities in Moravia where it was soon adopted as a definitive statement of the communities’ faith.

            In his confession or Account of our Religion Riedemann explained in considerable detail the biblical and theological understandings that had led to the formation of separated Christian communes in which private property had been banished and community of goods normalized. Riedemann’s Account defended the biblical authenticity of the communistic communities that had been in existence since that dramatic moment on March 22, 1528—only about a year after the writing of the Schleitheim Brotherly Union—when dissident Anabaptists from Nikolsburg appointed two stewards to take charge of their worldly goods and the well-being of all.  As the Hutterian Chronicle records it, “These men then spread out a cloak in front of the people, and each one laid his possessions on it with a willing heart—without being forced—so that the needy might be supported in accordance with the teaching of the prophets and apostles. Isa. 23; Acts 2, 4 and 5.”[5] 

            The emergence of community of goods as practiced by the Hutterites had been fraught with conflicting understandings and leadership struggles in the years following the exodus from Nikolsburg, beginning with the conflict in Nikolsburg between the sword-bearing Anabaptists (Schwertler) led by the theologian and pastor Balthasar Hubmaier and the staff-bearing or nonresistant Anabaptists (Stabler) who eventually left Nikolsburg.  In the years following this exodus, numerous groups committed to Anabaptist communism emerged, often competing with one another in their missionary activities and social practices.  For example, the group led by Jacob Hutter was shaped by its quarrels with other communitarian Anabaptist groups in Moravia, including the group in Austerlitz led by Jacob Wiedeman which had made the decisive departure from Nikolsburg, a Silesian group under Gabriel Ascherman which settled in Rossitz, and a group of Swabians led by Philip Plener living in Auspitz.[6]  These different groups were related to one another loosely but also often quarreled over matters of leadership and the details of their communalistic arrangements.  In the communities associated with Jacob Hutter, a rigorous system of communal living emerged, featuring concentrations of large houses called bruderhofs where the Hutterites lived and worked together under the joint leadership of pastors and stewards.  In these bruderhofs the family was less important than the community, children were reared in large nursery schools, ownership had been almost entirely collectivized, and craft production dominated the economic life of the community.  As James Stayer has noted, “the Hutterite community was a craftsman’s and peasant’s realm without clergy, aristocrats or merchants.  The socially necessary tasks of offering spiritual direction, providing order and justice, and buying and selling had been taken over by craftsmen and peasants who remained craftsmen and peasants.”[7]  Jacob Hutter was burned at the stake in Innsbruck for his missionary activities in the Tyrol on February 5, 1536, the victim of the Habsburg monarchy’s zeal to get rid of all Anabaptists especially in Moravia, where the lords had often resisted Habsburg policy.  By mid-century, however, the Moravian lords had returned to a policy of toleration and the Hutterite communities flourished for over half a century until the onset of the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 when the Hutterites were nearly wiped out.   During those years of toleration, often called the Golden Years of the Hutterites, the Hutterites grew in number to nearly 30,000 living in dozens of Bruderhofs throughout Moravia.  The flourishing of Hutterite life and the development of a stable religious and social identity during those Golden Years in the last half of the sixteenth-century are largely attributed to the work of two Hutterian leaders and writers, Peter Riedemann and Peter Walpot. 

Perhaps no action of Riedemann’s was more influential than his authorship of the Account of our Religion, which is still read and used for catechetical instruction today by Hutterite communities.  The document is both a fervent response to magisterial Christian authorities who are suspicious of the radical Christianity of the Hutterites and also an eloquent summary of Hutterian Anabaptist faith and practice that provided an orderly identity for Hutterites during their Golden Years in Moravia, as well as during their more recent sojourn in North America.



            Since the Account of our Religion was written first of all to defend the beliefs of the Hutterites to a territorial prince—Philip of Hesse—who seemed interested in engaging Anabaptists in discussion, it is not surprising that the first part of Riedemann’s Account is organized around the Apostle’s Creed.  Following the discussion of the Creed is a description of the particular Christian practices that follow from the faith commitments expressed in Riedemann’s gloss on the Creed.  In the second part of the Account there is then a more thorough discussion of certain practices associated with separation: church purity, communally-oriented Lord’s Supper, refusal of the sword, and avoidance of the oath.  Thus, while the Apostle’s Creed frames the beginning of the Account, it is in the final instance eclipsed not only by the extensive commentary on each phrase and clause in the Creed, but also by the sheer bulk of text devoted to practical questions of discipleship and of the nature and characteristics of the true church.  From a rhetorical perspective, the Apostle’s Creed appears to function as credibility building—to convince authorities and neighbors that the Hutterites “are not heretics and seducers,” as Riedemann writes in the preface, nor had they “deserted the church that is in Christ Jesus” or “founded another sect outside the church,” but rather had “drawn near to the church” committing themselves “to serve God and Christ with a blameless conscience within the church.”[8]

            In any event, Riedemann’s use of the Apostle’s Creed is an ingenious mix of rigorously orthodox statements about the trinity, creation, the fall, the crucifixion, salvation, and resurrection along with glosses of those ancient affirmations that reconstitute the creed not merely as a summary of beliefs but as a manifesto for a new way of life.

            Under the five subheadings dealing with God the Father and Creator, for example, Riedemann equates God’s truth with God’s power—power to create and power to transform—so  that the first clause of the Apostle’s Creed is turned into an Anabaptist sermon on obedience and the importance of both words and deeds.  One can see this rhetorical movement quite clearly in the following three sentences from under the first subheading “We Confess God,” the first sentence of which is a conventional statement about God’s unchanging truth, the second of which resituates that truth in the context of the believer’s life, and the third of which makes that truth a basis for transformed living: “Therefore, this one, eternal, almighty God is the one, eternal, and unchanging truth, which has being in itself and remains eternally unchanged. This truth pours itself into believing souls.  It transforms us so that we may live by it, and so our words and deeds may testify to the truth within us.”[9] 

            In his book, The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation, Alvin Beachy argues that among the radical reformers “the concept of grace was always related to the Johannine concept of salvation as the divinization of man” as opposed to “the forensic concept of grace which prevailed in the magisterial reformation.”[10]   While Beachy did not include Riedemann in his study of seven Anabaptist writers, Riedemann’s section entitled “Our Father” confirms Beachy’s thesis:

We confess that God is our Father because in his grace he has accepted and chosen us through Christ to be his own. For this reason, too, he sent his Word from heaven and made us alive again, for we were dead through the disease of sin.  He has given us a new birth to an imperishable hope, grafted us into his divine nature, and after we believed the gospel, sealed us with his promised Spirit. This Spirit now accomplishes everything in us, eradicating and destroying the sin that we have by nature so that what is good, true, and holy, which he brings with him and plants in us, may take root and bear fruit.[11]

Here Riedemann begins in good orthodox fashion with the action of God toward human beings, continues by emphasizing the empowerment of humans through the Holy Spirit, and by the end of the paragraph is talking about fruits.  God’s grace is manifested in God’s power to act in God’s children.  As he puts it, “They are to call God “Father” not only with their lips but with sincere hearts in deed and in truth.”[12]  In this succinct statement, which appears in a variety of forms in many Anabaptist texts, Riedemann captures perfectly the complicated relationship of Anabaptism to orthodoxy and articulates the relationship of his own text to the creeds.  Orthodoxy by definition made matters of belief, construed as verbal assent to specific verbal formulations, central to Christianity.  For Riedemann, orthodoxy is meaningless unless it can be lived.  Yet, rather than simply reject orthodox statements, he instead invests them with practical meaning and turns them into the articulation of a way of life. Put simply, for Riedemann, to confess God as Father is to be by definition an obedient child of God.

            Turning to Riedeman’s discussion of Christology we find many Nicene and Chalcedonian sounding statements about Jesus being both fully God and fully human with Jesus and God not being two but one.  However, the rhetorical force of seven subsections on christology is to constitute the work of Jesus as an act of God’s power: “This Word proceeded from the Father so that the harm caused by Adam’s transgression could be healed and the Fall restored…He is the Savior who has robbed death of its power, torn its bond and snare asunder, and set us, his people, free.”[13]  This sort of biblical Christus Victor language is not an isolated event.  Under the section “We confess Jesus as Lord” Riedemann insists that for believers the victory of Christ on the cross is a victory that has occurred in their own lives as well: “This means that Christ has overcome the devil in him too, has torn away his snare (his sin), set him free, and reconciled him with God.”[14]  In the following section on Christ’s Lordship this message is reaffirmed with some interesting qualifiers:

By his death he became victor over the devil, liberated us from the bonds of the evil one, and reconciled us with God the Father.  He has made us a royal priesthood for himself and for his Father.  He also made us his dwelling place and has now begun his work in us. Thus the sin from which he redeemed us, even if it stirs within us, may not take control of us, continue to destroy us, or lead us to death.”[15]

Robert Holland has argued that Riedemann’s confession requires absolute sanctification of Christians and makes our relationship to God dependent on our obedience to God.  As he puts it, for Riedemann, “conduct determines whether or not one is a Christian.”[16]  As should be clear, however, Riedemann does not expect absolute perfection from Christians, nor does he make salvation dependent on human deeds.  Rather, he insists that being a Christian—a child of God—will in fact determine one’s conduct and that human deeds are therefore evidence of whether or not one is a child of God.  While sin may stir within us, it will not take control of us, if we are truly God’s children.  Furthermore, throughout his discussion of salvation he insists that the Christian response to God is one of surrender and obedience to God’s work rather than of accomplishing good works.

            The emphasis on God’s power continues in the sections on the Holy Spirit where Riedemann repeats orthodox language about the trinity containing three names but one essence and then moves on to stress the power of the Holy Spirit to gather to God “a people without stain, wrinkle, or fault.”[17]  This church is called to be a light to the world, “a lamp, a star of light, and a lantern of righteousness in which the light of grace is held up to the whole world, so that its darkness, unbelief, and blindness may be illuminated, and people may learn to see and know the way of life.”[18]  The church has power to bind and loose, to forgive and to exclude. Apart from the church there is no salvation, according to Riedemann:  “Within the church and not outside the church, dwells God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who vindicates everything and makes it holy.”[19]  This last statement is a rather amazing sentence that recognizes the particular location of the God recognized and worshipped by the church and at the same time the universal salvific intent of God’s work in the world through the church.  Finally, the church is thoroughly dependent on the Spirit for its existence.  As Riedemann puts it, “There are no churches apart from those which the Holy Spirit gathers and builds.”[20]  This is a remarkable claim, given Riedemann’s painstakingly detailed description of how the true church ought to function throughout most of the rest of the Account.

            Perhaps one of the most intriguing appropriations of orthodoxy to Hutterian Anabaptism’s particular understanding of the church is found in the section on the communion of saints where Riedemann makes the relationship of Father and Son in the Trinity the basis for Christian community of goods.  Miroslav Volf has argued recently that “the idea of correspondence between church and Trinity remains largely alien to the free church tradition.”[21]  As James Reimer has pointed out, Volf relies heavily on the Baptist John Smyth as the representative free church thinker and thus has painted a fairly individualistic picture of free church ecclesiology and trinitarian thought.[22]  Peter Riedemann offers a clear example of an early free church thinker who links the Trinity with the character of the church.  As he puts it:  

Community means that those who have this fellowship hold all things in common, no one having anything for oneself, but each sharing all things with the others.  Just so, the Father has nothing for himself, but everything he has, he has with the Son.  Likewise, the Son has nothing for himself, but all he has, he has with the Father and with all who have fellowship with him.[23]

In a context in which communistic Anabaptists were accused again and again of basing their whole economic structure on a few lines in the book of Acts about the economic practices of a group of early Christians, this trinitarian argument for community of goods is a rather bold move.

Occuring as it does under the section from the Apostles Creed on the communion of saints, it represents perhaps the most dramatic moment in Riedemann’s reworking of orthodoxy for Anabaptist purposes.  While a great deal of Riedemann’s Account is biblically-based (over 1400 biblical references) his use of the Apostle’s Creed in general and of the clause on the communion of saints in particular to make a trinitiarian theological argument for Christian communism demonstrates the flexibility of his rhetorical skills and illustrates the creativity with which some Anabaptist writers were able to use orthodoxy to make radical appeals.  However, as Franz Heiman argued in a 1952 article, it is the “principle of absolute purity, both at the individual and of the church as a whole, which is almost in the center of Riedemann’s teaching concerning the church and which permeates his entire book.”[24]  In other words, separation forms the basis for the Account, not orthodoxy.



Early in the twentieth century, Johann Loserth claimed that Riedemann’s Account is largely based on the writings of the Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier.  Heimann qualified that claim helpfully by agreeing that Hubmaier’s influence is found especially in the articles by Riedemann on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and ban.  However, Heimann argued that Riedemann’s separatist ecclesiology more closely resembles the characterization of the church found in the letters of Jakob Hutter and in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union which Hubmaier scorned, an eminently plausible claim.  However, at First Mennonite Church last Sunday we sang a hymn authored by Hubmaier which included the following stanza that caught my attention: “O Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our friend, the living Word, don’t let us turn away from you but from, but from this tempting world.”  This stanza captures perfectly the logic of separation that Heiman correctly placed at the center of Riedemann’s Account.  The world and Christ are assumed here to exist in an antagonistic relationship; turning toward Christ by definition means turning away from the world.  This hymn text is proof of nothing of course than that the logic of separation is not entirely foreign to Hubmaier’s writings.  No doubt Riedemann picked up separation language more from the Schleitheim Brotherly Union more than from Hubmaier.  Nevertheless, Riedemann’s treatment of separation is far more sophisticated and theologically complex than found in the Schleitheim articles.  If Loserth and Heimann are right this theological sophistication may have been due in large part to Riedemann’s familiarity with Hubmaier’s theologically oriented writings.  As such, we might characterize Riedemann’s treatment of separation as an effort to bring the theological acumen he learned from Hubmaier to provide a more comprehensive theological rationale for separation than is found in the Schleitheim Brotherly Union.

Riedemann’s discussion of separation from the world in part one is clearly entwined in a rebuttal to charges that the Hutterites had cut themselves off from the true church by leaving the established churches and forming their own alternative religious communities.  Riedemann’s argument is that precisely by separating themselves from compromised churches in Christendom that his people have “drawn near to the church.”  A detail of his argument that is often overlooked is that he does not necessarily equate his church with Christ’s church; rather, he says that the Hutterites have “turned toward the church of Christ” and “drawn near and yielded ourselves to it.”[25] In turning toward the church of Christ, the Hutterites had come to reject a specific set of worldly practices in which they refused to participate.  In Riedemann’s Account, this list of social practices avoided by true Christians included attendance at temples, association with priests, accepting government office, participating in warfare, paying war taxes, making swords, making worldly clothes, bringing lawsuits, swearing oaths, selling purchased goods at a profit, being innkeepers, drinking toasts, and so on.  It must be remembered that these practices are for the most part practices considered respectable by Christendom and that the rejection of these practices does not necessarily constitute a wholesale rejection of the world perse but rather a rejection of the social status quo.  Holland, for example, accuses Riedemann of harboring a deep hatred for the creation and a contempt for the ‘unregenerate’ people outside the church, which he says contradicts Riedeman’s concern elsewhere for “the salvation of all men.”[26]  Holland is certainly right that in the second part of the Account, Riedemann emphasizes the biblical precedents for separating the faithful from the unfaithful, for the calling out of a specific people identified with God.  After summarizing the Old Testament accounts of God’s covenant with Abraham, faithfulness to Jacob, commands to Moses, through which the people of God were constituted, Riedemann asks with the Apostle Paul, “’Can Christ and Belial agree?’ Because the believer has nothing in common with the unbeliever, God wishes to separate his people from the ungodly.”[27]  However, when this logic of separation is understood more as a biblical topoi for practical argument rather than an absolutist philosophical statement, Riedemann’s rhetoric appears less to be the product of contempt for the world than it is a forceful opposition to the compromised Christianity of his time in all of its personal, institutional, and social shapes. Indeed, Riedemann insisted elsewhere that the creation was evidence of God’s power and goodness, “the first book written by God’s own hand” that “all people without exception can read: poor or rich, powerful or humble, noble or common, educated or uneducated.”[28]  Moreover, claims Riedemann, “All created things point to obedience to God, for they all obey him and bear their fruit in season according to his bidding.”[29] 

Perhaps the section of the Account where Riedemann seems most hostile to the creation is the section on community of goods where he states emphatically that “whoever has become free from created things can then grasp what is divine.”[30]  However, even here, Riedemann is critiquing a particular relationship to the creation, that of ownership, more than he is opposing the creation itself.  In fact, he says, such large created bodies as the sun, which “are too great to be brought under human control” and which can thus enjoyed by all, remind us of the relation God intended for humans to have with the whole creation: to have all things in common.  As he puts it, “The more a person is attached to property and claims ownership of things, the further away he is from the fellowship of Christ and from being in the image of God.”[31]

This recognition of the potential godliness of the created things, when they are received as gifts, rather than commodities to bought and sold, undermines the generally rigid force of separation that is expressed throughout much of the Account and opens up the possibility that the world can be a blessing to humans.  Similarly even though Riedemann seems on the one hand to see ungodly neighbors as threats to purity, he on the other hand, recognizes the biblical mandate to extend hospitality and churchly obligation to be a light.  Perhaps by struggling to deal with the orthodox affirmation of God’s good creation, Riedemann was forced to develop a creative resolution to the tension between separation and hospitality.

No less difficult a problem for him, as it was for all pacifist Anabaptists, was the relationship of the separated church to the government with its sword.  On the one hand, one who serves in government cannot be a Christian Riedemann insists, but on the other hand, he recognizes, following the Schleitheim Brotherly Union (and Romans 13) that government is used by God for God’s purposes.  Riedemann accepts the Schleitheim formulation that government is outside the perfection of Christ but he provides a great deal more complex theological explanation for what being outside Christ’s perfection means.  For him, it means that “power and government have grown from God’s wrath and punishment, rather than from his blessing.”[32]  Furthermore, governments tend to overextend themselves and to make themselves into usurpers of God’s rightful authority: “Therefore, wherever the ruling power presumes to act on its own, the rod rebels against the striker, the ax against the hewer, and the saw scratches the one who saws.”[33]  Whenever this happens, when “governments ignore their responsibility to God and turn to exterminate and wipe out nations, the Lord will punish the fruit of their arrogant hearts and eyes.”[34]  By way of contrast to this cycle of violent checks and balances in which the saw scratches the one who saws, in Christ’s kingdom, all vengeance is forbidden to believers and the authority of government is forbidden to be used.  This logic is summarized well in the following sentences:

God has two kinds of servants.  One kind, the servants of vengeance, carry out God’s wrath upon the evildoer, since they themselves were given in wrath. Christ, however, did not come for vengeance but for blessing. Hence, those who are planted in Christ and are his servants must bring blessing, not vengeance.  Each one must edify the other, all growing together and increasing in the knowledge of Christ, and each becoming perfect in Christ’s perfect maturity.[35]

Hence, the Anabaptist relationship to the sword of governance is here rooted in a distinction between two persons of the Trinity: the Father, who exercises wrath upon the evildoer via the sword, and Christ, who came to bring blessing even to God’s enemies.  The two are not against one another, Riedemann insists; rather Christ is the full expression of the Father’s blessing.  As Riedemann notes: “Whoever does not see and heed this distinction will not be able to understand.”[36]  Indeed, this distinction between the Father’s wrath and the Son’s blessing is crucial to Riedemann’s Account.  For the distinction both supports and calls into crisis any simple argument for separation.  Like the argument for the potential goodness of the created things that tempt our selfish desire to consume, the acknowledgement of the godly ordering of the sword outside Christ’s perfection suggests that, counter to what Riedemann argues elsewhere, God the Father also dwells outside the church.  In which case, the outside cannot be entirely dismissed.



Pointing to these contradictions and tensions in Riedemann’s writing are not meant as criticism in the conventional sense.  Such attentiveness is rather an effort to recognize and acknowledge the supplement that haunts Anabaptist arguments for separation.  The world which the church seeks to supplant with the perfection of Christ cannot be entirely dismissed.   In order to constitute a Christian community capable of resistance to such social practices as property ownership, warfare, and compromised worship, Riedemann understandably stresses the difference between the church and the world.  The success of his argument depends both on his forceful argument for separation and on his ability to manage the worldly ambiguities that undermine separation.  The relationship between church and world is supplemental, not absolute.

Similarly, I want to argue, the relationship of Anabaptist Christianity to Christian orthodoxy is a relationship of supplementarity in Riedemann’s work, and perhaps in most Anabaptist argumentation.  Recognizing that there are many orthodoxies—classical orthodoxy, fundamentalist orthodoxy, Protestant orthodoxy, to name a few—we can nevertheless recognize that orthodoxies of all kinds call attention to the importance of right belief, right understanding, and even the sacramental qualities of the spoken or written word.  By using the Apostle’s Creed as a framework for his treatise, Riedemann was not only establishing credibility with the authorities, he was also recognizing that seeking to make correct statements and to harbor right beliefs about God, the world, and salvation is a valuable exercise in the giving and receiving of Christian counsel and of proclaiming the good news of the gospel.  However, as we can also see, by the time Riedemann is done with the Apostle’s Creed, it is hardly recognizable anymore.  Having parsed each phrase and elaborated on its meaning for the life of the church, Riedemann has challenged the orthodox assumption that simply concurring with or rejecting the creed is a very important expression of faith.  When, for example, he makes the trinity definitive of Christian communism or insists that confession of God as Father is necessarily to also live a life of obedience to God’s commands, Riedemann has also rendered untenable the idea that the Creed represents a core of Christian belief held to by all Christians. The controversial specificity of Hutterian discipleship—in particular the doctrine and practice of separation—has become so intertwined with the ancient truth claims of the creed that it is no longer possible to separate out core from addition. In short, Riedemann’s gloss on the Apostle’s Creed is no longer simply orthodox, it is a new and particular Hutterian statement about the commitments and life of Christian faith.

For a long time, historians and scholars have rightly described Anabaptism as a sort of left-over movement of the reformation, a third way, neither Protestant or Catholic, both Protestant and Catholic, the stepchildren of the Reformers, etc.  There is no doubt that such phrases correctly capture the way in which Anabaptism was a supplement to both Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy which threatened at the same time to undo the logics and practices associated with orthodoxy.  Anabaptism radicalized Christian faith by promoting social and ethical practices that were often unqualified by the checks and balances of orthodox faith.  The Anabaptists were always a little bit more than orthodox, sometimes anti-trinitarian, sometimes monophysite, sometimes revolutionary, sometimes a bit anarchic, and often overly apocalyptical.  What the Derridian analysis of supplementarity, as exhibited in Riedemann’s confession, shows us is that this Anabaptist “leftover” actually represents a reconstitution of Christian faith that subverts and undermines orthodoxy.  By prioritizing practice over belief, for example, Anabaptism denied to some extent the significance of right belief.

At the same time, the supplement of Anabaptism can be seen as necessary to orthodoxy; indeed, we can view the long history of Christianity from the standpoint of various anabaptist-like reformations that sprang up at its border emphasizing the need for radical identification with Jesus, a visible church, and a bodily obedience.  Such reformations included groups that tormented Augustine, such as the Donatists, and monastic renewal movements throughout the Middle Ages, including the Franciscans, and free church movements like the Waldensians and the Czech Brethren.  Orthodoxy requires such movements to prevent the churches it constitutes from simply disappearing into the status quo, to keep alive the transformative potentialities of the claims it makes.  Riedemann’s Account is one instance of such a threatening, yet potentially revitalizing encounter between Orthodoxy and its Anabaptist Other.

Such a claim about the necessary relationship between a long tradition and its leftovers, is perhaps not terribly surprising.  However, I also want to suggest in closing that Anabaptism needs orthodoxy, not as a whipping boy or as a secure foundation for its radical practices, but rather as a risky yet necessary dialogue partner in the common struggle to constitute the unity of Christ’s body in the world.  Riedemann’s encounter with orthodoxy disciplined the perhaps overly hyperbolic separatism by which his biblical theology was tempted.  To be sure, Anabaptist communities and their rhetorical and ethical practices are profoundly undermined by orthodoxy; a fact that historians have been describing again and again in their analyses of Anabaptist encounters with various orthodoxies, whether fundamentalist or Protestant or Catholic.  The focus of orthodoxy on right belief surely threatens to undo basic Anabaptist commitments to the biblical story of Jesus as constitutive for Christian faith and life, threatens to deny the centrality of peace and reconciliation to the salvation accomplished by Christ, and tends to marginalize social ethics.

Yet without the concern for right belief and careful reasoning that is associated with the development of various Christian orthodoxies, Anabaptists can end up babbling in the streets like the children Jesus tells us we must become—which the Anabaptists did in St. Gall—or we can end up putting the godless to the sword in order to bring in the reign of God—as they did in Anabaptist Münster—or we can end up splintered and scattered into a hundred self-certain factions—as we in fact are in North America.  We frankly also need orthodoxy to remind us of the sin that creeps into the rhythms and habits of our best utopian Christian practices.

            Perhaps one gift to us of Peter Riedemann’s creative encounter with the Apostle’s Creed is its demonstration of the need for Anabaptists to be more than Anabaptist, perhaps in the same way that Elmer Neufeld has said that Bluffton College is more than Mennonite.  If this is so, then Anabaptists and Mennonites should probably neither attempt to build a thoroughly autonomous Anabaptist theology and polity nor to simply invest orthodoxy with the power to dictate the core commitments for all Christendom.  We might rather recognize anabaptism and orthodoxy as uneasy bedfellows who need to sleep together in order to avoid realizing the worst nightmares associated with the history of each.  I mean that figuratively.  Of course there are some Anabaptists in this room who in fact do sleep with orthodoxy.  And orthodox who sleep with Anabaptists.

            Maybe we should try a different metaphor.  Perry Bush’s history of Bluffton College has emphasized this college community’s history of welcoming strangers and collaborating with the Other.  I’d like to think that Riedemann’s creative encounter with Christian orthodoxy is something of a model for Anabaptist dances with the Kobzar, with the orthodox, with the stranger near at hand and far away.





[1] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Norwalk: Easton Press, 1977), 87.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press), 145.

[4] Church Hymnal (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1958), song no. 427.

[5] The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, Vol. 1 (Rifton, New York: Plough Publishing House, 1987), 80-81.

[6] James Stayer, The German Peasants War and Anabaptist Community of Goods (Montreal: McGill-Queens Univ. Press, 1991), 142-143.

[7] Ibid., 151-152.

[8] John J. Friesen, trans. and ed., Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999), 55.

[9] Ibid., 60.

[10] Alvin Beachy, The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1977), 28.

[11] Friesen, 61.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., 65

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Robert Charles Holland, The Hermeneutics of Peter Riedeman (Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt Kommissionsverlag, 1970), 73.

[17] Friesen, 76.

[18] Ibid., 77.

[19] Ibid., 81.

[20] Ibid., 77.

[21] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 196.

[22] James Reimer, “???” presentation at The Church Without Spot or Wrinkle conference, AMBS, Feb. ?, 2000.

[23] Friesen, 80.

[24] Franz Heiman, “The Hutterite Doctrines of Church and Common Life, A Study of Peter Riedemann’s Confession of Faith of 1540,” MQR 26 (Jan. 1952), 39.

[25] Friesen, 122-123.

[26] Holland, 93.

[27] Friesen, 163.

[28] Ibid., 63.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 120.

[31] Ibid., 121.

[32] Ibid., 214

[33] Ibid., 215

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 219.

[36] Ibid., 220.