Verantwortung, a very important term in Anabaptist thinking. The German word has at least three different meanings: (a) moral responsibility for one's acts, presupposing free will; (b) accounting or answer to be given if asked; and (c) reply or answer, with the connotation of defense, mostly in polemical writings. Generally (b) is the major meaning of the term as found in 16th-century Anabaptist literature. The classical locus is I Peter 3:15; Luther's translation says: "Seid allzeit bereit [originally, 1522, 'erbietig'] zur Verantwortung jedermann, der Grund fordert der Hoffnung die in euch ist." The King James Version has: "Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you"; and the Revised Standard Version has: "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you." In each instance it means: confess your faith publicly whenever asked, "having a good conscience," as verse 16 continues to say. This is one of the foremost virtues of a disciple of Christ; it made the Hutterite confessions shine in gloomy places, and it was their strength and victory.
Before the rise of Anabaptism, Jorg Haug of Juchsen used this popular quotation as the motto of his widely read tract, Ordnung eines christlichen Lebens (1524). Then Peter Riedemann put it on the title page of his great Rechenschaft (Verantwortimg) of 1541, when he presented to Philip of Hesse "the reason for his hope." This verse is found repeatedly in tracts and records of trials and inquiries by the world. The Brethren were always ready to give an account, and they never tired of explaining the ground of their hope.
(c) The connotation of "Beantwortung" is used often in Anabaptist polemics. Thus, e.g., Pilgram Marpeck replied in 1544 to Schwenkfeld's Judicium with a heavy volume called Verantwortung. Here the term lacks the meaning of (a) altogether.
(a) Only Ulrich Bergfried in a recent study, Vertantwortung als theologisches Problem im Täufertum des 16. Jahrhunderts (1938), applies the meaning (a) to a discussion of Anabaptist thought, claiming that this term meaning "responsibility," is the very core of all debates between Anabaptists and Lutherans. He meant to show the implications of the basic decision whether or not man is morally responsible for his acts. Bergfried clearly recognized the exemplary Christian life of the Anabaptists, and then interprets this attempted holy life as emphasizing the problem of "Verantwortung" (responsibility) as the "central norm of all piety and religion." From his strictly Lutheran theological view point Bergfried opposes such an outlook as "anthropocentric" rather than Christocentric," and thus calls the Anabaptist vision "the myth of the pious man" (201). Bergfried's position is that Christ alone bears our sins and our responsibility, for man is "an enslaved sinner." The ideas of obedience and sanctification of life do not enter his theological system. This interpretation misses the deepest Anabaptist intentions. It is certainly correct that the Anabaptists accepted the idea of Free Will, i.e., the possibility of obeying (or disobeying) God's commandments. Hence they never denied that in a certain way man is responsible for his acts, to be sure only after his spiritual rebirth. But to call "responsibility" the key theological problem of Anabaptism is misleading, and rather shows the difficulty which traditional Lutheran theology has in coping adequately with the issue of sanctification and obedience to God's Word. (See also Sweet and Bitter Christ.)
Bergfried, Ulrich. Verantwortung als theologisches Problem im Täufertum des 16. Jahrhunderts. Wuppertal, 1938. (This citation only for the meaning of “a”).
Fischer, Hans G. "Lutheranism and the Vindication of the Anabaptist Way." Mennonite Quarterly Review XXVIII (1954): 27-38.
Walther Kohler reviewed and criticized Bergfried's book in Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter (1940) 10 ff.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 806-807. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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