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First Anabaptist theology forum unites European scholars


March 19, 2004
-by Bethany Keener


European Anabaptists came together for the first London Mennonite Theology Forum to discuss the topic of atonement.

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London, England–Dankwart and Brunhilde Horsch, Mennonite farmers from Sitzenhof, Schwandorf, Germany, are not theologians, but attended the first London Mennonite Theology Forum because of their interest in the Mennonite peace theology.

Twenty-six Anabaptists representing nine countries gathered at the Guy Chester Centre here on March 4-5. The event was sponsored by the London Mennonite Centre for European Anabaptists to explore the topic of the atonement.

Vic Thiessen, long-term worker with Mennonite Church Canada Witness and director of the London Mennonite Centre, organized the event. He said the atonement was chosen due to the considerable interest among European scholars in the subject.

Thiessen said, “Atonement is central to Mennonite peace theology.” By suggesting that God willed the violent death of Jesus in order to bear the punishment for human sin, traditional theories are founded in violence and retribution.

“The current interest is largely due to J. Denny Weaver’s book The Nonviolent Atonement, which suggests that it is time to abandon the traditional Anselmian satisfaction or substitutionary theory of the atonement [which states that] Jesus had to die to pay the penalty for our sins,” noted Thiessen. “The question of the atonement is also related to the wider issue of how Mennonite theology should relate to traditional orthodox theology, an issue that is being debated more and more as the mainline European churches decline.”

“Weaver’s book challenges these violent ideas of God as demanding retributive justice and sending his own son to die an innocent death to accomplish our salvation,” he said.

Weaver, a professor of religion at Bluffton (Ohio) College, participated in the forum, presenting on the “Nonviolent Analysis of Anselmian Atonement Violence.”

Other presenters included Margot Longley, who, with her husband Stephen, lives and works in Turku, Finland. A doctoral student in Turku, Longley presented a paper titled, “Atonement in the Early 16th Century: Metaphysical, Mystical and Ethical,” in which she noted that the early Anabaptists focused on who benefited from the atonement (a historical-ethical view) rather than how it happened.

Neal Blough, long-term Mennonite Church Canada Witness partner with Mennonite Mission Network in France and director of the Paris Mennonite Centre, also gave a presentation titled “Salvation and History: Atonement in the Theology of Pilgram Marpeck.” Blough said that early Anabaptist scholars like Marpeck were heavily influenced by Catholic and Protestant views of the atonement and would therefore not have been nonviolent.

Following the presentations, participants were given a chance to respond, both formally and within small groups.

“Many people said that to have a peaceful atonement theory enables them to discuss peace seriously with the congregations they work with,” Longley said, explaining that with such an understanding of the atonement peace is no longer something optional or in the periphery, instead, it is central to what it means to be a Christian.

“Weaver’s nonviolent atonement, which he calls “Narrative Christus Victor,” suggests that Jesus’ life of nonviolently challenging the domination system was vindicated in his resurrection, which signaled the defeat of the powers of evil, including the earthly powers that oppress people,” Thiessen said. “Changing the focus of atonement to following Jesus’ way of peace and justice is vital to Mennonite peace theology and has implications for the life of all Christians, not just academics.”

The forum not only created a space for theological discussion, but also for Anabaptists scattered throughout the European continent and the United Kingdom to meet one another and share in their common journey.

“It was great to meet Mennonites from the rest of Europe. The combination of a common Mennonite starting point, plus a willingness to take Denny’s proposal seriously, yet to ask searching questions of it, was excellent,” said British Anabaptist theologian Jeremy Thomson.

Jo Rathbone, an Anabaptist layperson active in an Anglican church in England, said, “For me it was a fascinating snapshot into the Mennonite world, not having met many Mennonites before. It was interesting to hear that they don’t all agree!”

“I am very isolated [in Turku]. There is no Mennonite church, let alone Mennonite theologians, to talk to. So, to have this opportunity, without having to fly over the Atlantic Ocean, is just great!” Longley said. “It was truly a historic and important occasion.”

Rainer Burkart, pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Church in Neuwied, Germany, and vice-chair of the North German Mennonite Conference summarized the forum as “an important part of the journey of seeking an adequate and responsible way to talk about God that is coherent with the biblical theology that is part of our heritage.”

According to Longley, participants were enthusiastic about the forum and have proposed meeting again in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005.