Creation, Theology of
A definitive study of Anabaptist and Mennonite theologies of creation is a much-needed research undertaking. This article serves merely to comment on several aspects of the topic. Belief in God as Creator was one of the crucial battlegrounds of early church theology. Gnostics had a highly spiritualized view of God; hence they could not conceive of God stooping to create physical matter. Thus they considered the Creator God Yahweh to have been an intermediary divine being. The orthodox Christian defense of God and Christ (the Logos) as Creator -- and the Christian identification of this creator God with the Jewish Yahweh and Yahweh's Spirit and Wisdom-was one of the ways the early church retained its Jewish heritage.
The defense of God as creator lies behind the entire sacramental theology of the early and medieval church -- the belief that God comes to humans in physical and material life in the incarnate Christ Jesus and thereby redeems all of the created order, led to the belief that created things (bread and wine, water) can serve as vehicles of God's grace. A similar defense of God as Creator lies behind the Augustinian effort to establish a Christian society, since human society and culture also are created, material things that have been corrupted by sin but are redeemed in Christ. The orthodox Christian doctrine that God had created out of nothing, was a way to guard against pantheism: the world was not identical with God. Rather, it had been created by God and now was redeemed in Christ. Creator and creatures were clearly distinct (thereby avoiding pantheism), yet in Christ the Creator had become the Mediator between the fallen creation and God's shalom (meaning the integration, harmony, peace of the original creation and of heaven), was restored, already but not yet.
Anabaptists were suspicious of the sacramental theology of the late medieval church. A thoroughgoing rejection of sacramental mediation is characteristic of all of them, with the exception of Pilgram Marpeck, although even he ultimately abandoned sacramental mediation for a more direct spiritual, salvation (Rempel, "Christology and Lord's Supper," 182-86). In place of the redemption of the old creation (including human society, the magistracy, warfare), Anabaptists preached the new creation. In Menno's view, people are created after the image of God when they are converted to Christ (Menno, Writings, 55-58, 396, 409, 416). Rarely does he refer to the original creation of Adam and Eve after the image of God (Writings, 305-6, 503, 804). Traditional Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching emphasized the original creation in the image of God and its re-formation as the process of salvation proclaimed by Christ's incarnation (Ladner). Melchior Hoffman's and Menno's difficulty accepting the full, human enfleshment of Christ and their doctrine of the celestial flesh of Christ, are related to their mistrust of the role of created things in salvation. They preferred to emphasize instead the power of the Holy Spirit to recreate rather than re-form. Menno came close to identifying the original creation with sin itself (Tonkin, 141-42, 164-65; Verduin). Unlike the Augustinian understanding of visible words (God spoke and visible creation existed) underlying sacrament, Menno and most Protestants emphasized the role of the Word (or Word and Spirit) alone. In a broad sense, Protestant and Anabaptist rejection of created things as vehicles of salvation was an overreaction to the idolatrous use of these things. As with Eastern Orthodox icons, classic Christian teaching on the role of created things, in worship and salvation walked a narrow line between idolatrous worship of created things and orthodox use of them because God used them in Christ's incarnation. It was the idolatrous abuse of creation in the church that loomed large on the Anabaptist horizon.
Anabaptists frequently emphasized disjunction between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Faith must be individually and directly appropriated; human society (parents, families, liturgy, schools) cannot mediate faith between generations.
This attitude toward the created order based in theological rejection of a corrupted Christian society, was modified as Mennonites established their own subcultures and their own version of sacramental, cultural faith (Crook, "Gelassenheit"). As farmers, who worked daily with the natural world and its wonders, they intuitively reappropriated a sense of God's working through the created order to bring wholeness, integration, shalom. Mennonites were not ready, for the most part, to articulate a theology of the sacramental nature of created things, whereby the Incarnation serves as the testimony that God is redeeming the sin-corrupted creation, and as testimony that created things, like Christ's physical, human body, serve as vehicles for God's grace. The "Mennonite period" of Anabaptist and Mennonite history, then, was lived in the tension between intuitive reappropriation of created things as means of God's mercy and grace, as signs of God's faithfulness, on the one hand, and suspicion of "merely" cultural faith, or fear of the idolatry that so easily grows out of sacramental religion. Thus renewal among Mennonites has rarely taken the form of sacramental or liturgical or cultural renewal; rather, most renewal movements have emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit or radical, individual, crisis conversion (Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren, charismatic renewal, revivalism).
The 20th-century "recovery of the Anabaptist vision," especially since World War II, likewise has mistrusted enculturated Christianity (Kreider, Holiness). It has emphasized the Exodus-prophets trajectory at the expense of the creation-kings trajectory in choosing models for sociopolitical activism. It has been suspicious of natural theology, which is intimately related to but not identical with a positive theology of creation in classic Christian orthodoxy (John H. Yoder). At the same time, Mennonites have moved into the mainstream cultures, abandoning their subcultures. A variety of forms of enculturated Christianity have been experimented with, but no articulated theology of creation and its re-formation in Christ exists to guide either the older subcultures (nostalgically celebrated, after they disappear) or the new enculturations. The issues are particularly acutely raised in Mennonite institutions and businesses. Similar tensions are evident in Mennonite art. Because the modern world, especially the modern, western Protestant world, has shared the Mennonite mistrust of the sacramental use of the created order, the Mennonite venture into the larger culture has rarely brought Mennonites into contact with articulated theologies of creation, culture, and art. Instead, it has contributed to the tension and confusion between intuitive appreciation for God's creation and fear of using it in idolatrous ways. Similarly, the Protestant mistrust of sacral use of created things lies behind the rise of modern technology and the disastrous modern misuses of the ecology. Contrary to frequent assertions in the ecology movement, the abusive "domination of nature" is not a necessary outcome of Christian theology. As long as Christian theology was based on sacramental use of creation, limits were placed on the exploitation of the natural world. As nature was reduced to mechanics and desacralized, domination by human machinery triumphed.
Discussions of creation in 20th century Mennonite catechism or doctrinal manuals have often been dominated by an effort to respond to the challenge of evolution theory (Daniel Kauffman, Wenger, Harder, Waltner).
As Mennonites begin to work with systematic, articulated theology, the question of creation is being addressed, although there is no consensus on its place in Mennonite life and thought. The reader is referred to the works by Peter C. Erb, Gordon Kaufman, A. James Reimer, and Calvin Redekop in the bibliography below.
Redekop, Calvin W. "Toward a Mennonite Theology and Ethic of Creation." Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (1986): 387-403.
Erb, Peter C. "Reflections on Mennonite Theology in Canada." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 179-90.
Reimer, A. James. "The Nature and Possibility of a Mennonite Theology." Conrad Grebel Review 1 (1983): 33-55.
Kaufman, Gordon. Systematic Theology: a Historicist Perspective. New York: Scribners, 1968, 1977: ch. 18-23, 31.
Kauffman, Daniel, ed., Doctrines of the Bible. 2nd ed. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Pub. House, 1929, 1949): 35-50, 378-81.
Wenger, J. C. Introduction to Theology. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Pub. House, 1954: esp. 73-85, 107-112, 231-41.
Waltner, James H. This We Believe. Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life, 1968: 30-44.
Harder, Helmut. Guide to Faith. Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life, 1979: ch. 4.
Loewen, Howard John, ed. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith. Text-Reader Series, 2. Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985, e.g., p. 63 (Dordrecht, art. 1), 80 (Schleitheim, art. 4), 87/85 (General Conference/Ris, 1766/1895, art. 1), 204 (Church of God in Christ, 1952, art. 1).
Goudie, S., ed., Book of Religious Instruction. n.p.: S. Goudie for the Executive Committee, Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, 1930: 23-26.
Rempel, John D. "Christology and the Lord's Supper in Anabaptism: a Study in the Theology of Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and Dirk Philips." ThD diss., St. Michael's College, Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto, 1986.
Tokin, John. The Church and the Secular Order in Reformation Thought. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1971.
Stoesz, Willis M. "The New Creature: Menno Simons' Understanding of the Christian faith." Mennonite Quarterly Review 39 (1968): 5-24.
Verduin, Leonard. "Menno Simons' Theology Reviewed." Mennonite Quarterly Review 24 (1950): 53-64.
Keeney, William E. The Development of Dutch Anabaptist Thought and Practice from 1539-1564. Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1968.
Voolstra, Sjouke. Het woord is vlees geworden: de melchioritisch-rnenniste incarnatieleer. Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1982.
Ollenburger, Ben C. Zion, the City of the Great King. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987.
Ollenburger, Ben C. "Isaiah's Creation Theology" in Ex Auditu, 3 (1988): 54-71.
Cronk, Sandra L. "Gelassenheit: the Rites of Redemptive Process Among Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities." PhD diss., U. of Chicago, 1977.
Kreider, Alan F. Journey Toward Holiness. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1987.
Kraus, C. Norman. "Becoming Who We Are in God (as Christians)." Gospel Herald (12 April 1988): 249-51.
Ladner, Gerhart B. The Idea of Reform. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 1959.
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1963, 1973.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 210-211. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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