Reason and Obedience

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Reason and Obedience (to divine commands), one of the basic problems in the life of an earnest Christian, and in particular an issue in Anabaptist polemics. The Scriptural text from which the discussion proceeds is II Corinthians 10:5, "We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (with Luther: ". . . und nehmen gefangen alle Vernunft unter den Gehorsam Christi"; note that Vernunft is a far stronger term than "thought"). It is a perennial problem concerning the use of reason and its limitation by the unconditional obedience in faith to the Word of God, without further speculation. Rationalists have called this attitude a "blind faith," while Anabaptists would consider their opponents simply lacking that concrete faith which leads to evidencing or witnessing.

With the exception of its earliest period, Anabaptism had only a few scholars among its members. Only Grebel, Hubmaier, Denck, and a few more had humanistic training; only Hubmaier was a "doctor" of theology. This stood in sharp contrast to the state churches of the time in which university training was considered a necessary prerequisite for the ministry. A Hutterite tract of the 16th century entitled "Why Are There no University Graduates (Hochgelehrte) in our Midst?" answers that intellectual sophistication kills simplicity and with it faith, as Anabaptism understood the latter. Pilgram Marpeck, himself a learned engineer, praised Christ as "the unlettered son of a carpenter out of whom your [[[Schwenckfeld, Caspar von (1489-1561)|Schwenckfeld's]]] philosophy has fabricated such a high Christ" (Verantwortung, 55). All this seems to indicate that Anabaptism had chosen the type of faith which embraces the revealed truth with a simple heart no longer in need of theological speculation. But this acceptance of God's Word in obedience and discipleship in no way means dullness of the mind; it rather means the significant distinction between reason and "understanding" (the latter term used in the King James version at many places: Luke 2:47; Ephesians 3:4; Colossians 1:9; Colossians 2:2; II Timothy 2:7; Revelation 13:18, etc.), that is, between logical (Greek) rationality and Biblical spirituality.

In the age of Reformation this tension between reason and obedience appears particularly impressive in the debates (Gespräche) between Anabaptists and anti-Trinitarians (Socinians, Polish Brethren, etc.). Naturally, the controversy with this group was much more relevant for Anabaptists than a controversy with Humanism since the latter had hardly any appeal to Anabaptists. Anti-Trinitarianism represented at that time the rationalistic wing of the "Radical Reformation" which for reasons of intellectual integrity could not accept the doctrine of Trinity and with it the doctrine of the divine sonship of Christ. We know of numerous contacts which these anti-Trinitarians had with some Anabaptist groups and of the different approaches of the two groups toward a closer union (see Ostorodt). Since they accepted adult baptism and the simple life of discipleship, and since they even experimented with communal life, they felt rather close (morally) to both Hutterites and Mennonites, and could not understand the cool reception they received by both groups. In this connection a correspondence is revealing which in 1571 the Hutterite bishop Peter Walpot carried on with an elder of the Polish church in Cracow by the name of Simon Ronemberg, an apothecary (this correspondence is inserted into the great Hutterite Chronicle at the year 1571). "You give the impression," writes Walpot, "that you have already surrendered yourself to the obedience of God and have taken your reason captive unto His obedience. To this I say . . . you have indeed given obedience, but only to act according to your own free will, desire and pleasure, . . . which obedience is not that which Paul and the apostles sought to establish among the heathen" (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1945, 35). The letter goes on in this rather sharp vein and it may be assumed that the Polish brother wondered about this apparent lack of Christian love. But without such strictness, or full surrender as Walpot calls it (see Gelassenheit), Anabaptism would not have been able to carry on a life of discipleship in a world utterly unsympathetic to this idea. In a later letter Walpot writes to the Poles: "Those of you who were sent to us desired to teach us, which we could not accept at all; it would have meant letting ourselves be judged by those who have not completely renounced the world and the heathen way of life" (ibid., 39, 40) (see also Friedmann, "Encounter").

That was in 1571. In 1833 a simple minister of the Kleine Gemeinde in Russia, Heinrich Balzer, wrote a treatise for his church (which had recently separated from the main body of Mennonites in Russia for reasons of conservatism), which treatise sounds almost like a paraphrase of Walpot's letters. Balzer gave his tract the strange sounding title Verstand und Vernunft (Understanding and Reason—Simple Opinions Regarding the Difference Between Understanding and Reason According to the Teachings of the Gospel). Essentially it is a tract on the tension between reason and obedience, between intellectuality and spirituality, characteristic of both Anabaptists and conservative Mennonites. (For an English translation see bibliography.) The term Verstand the author seeks to explain as "Verstand des Herzens" (understanding of the heart), somewhat like Blaise Pascal's raison du coeur in the 17th century, which alone leads to a grasp of the genius of the Gospel message. Balzer approvingly quotes Paul's daring statement that "knowledge (i.e., Greek rationality) puffeth up" (I Corinthians 8:1), and refers to II Corinthians 10:5, just as it was used previously by Walpot and other Anabaptists.

The emphasis here as elsewhere is on simplicity (which alone enables absolute obedience and Nachfolge); but again this simplicity of the mind should not be understood as a renunciation of the gift of thinking. In 1560, when Claus Felbinger stood before inquiring authorities he told them that he intends to stay in the "simplicity of Christ," whereupon the interrogating officer answered, "I do not think that you are so simple. I think there would not be one in a hundred who could give an account of himself (his faith) as you do" (Mennonite Quarterly Review 1955, 141). But in spite of the clear distinction between the two forms of thought, whereby obedience is compatible with "understanding" but not with reason, the tension continues to exist and to face the Christian of the 20th century with the same dilemma which existed four centuries ago.


Friedmann, R. "The Encounter of Anabaptists and Mennonites with Anti-Trinitarianism." Mennonite Quarterly Review XXII (1948): 139-62.

Friedmann, R. "Reason and Obedience, an Old Anabaptist Letter . . . and Its Meaning." Mennonite Quarterly Review XIX (1945): 27-40.

Friedmann, R. "Faith and Reason, the Principles of Mennonitism Reconsidered in a Treatise of 1833." Mennonite Quarterly Review XXII (1948): 75-93.

Friedmann, R. "Concept of the Spirit Among Anabaptists." Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, 1949: 43, 81 ff.

Kreider, Robert. "Anabaptism and Humanism, an Inquiry . . ." Mennonite Quarterly Review XII  (1952): 123-41.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1959

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Friedmann, Robert. "Reason and Obedience." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 18 Mar 2019.

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Friedmann, Robert. (1959). Reason and Obedience. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 March 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 258-259. All rights reserved.

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