It is tempting to draw a parallel between the varieties of sixteenth century Anabaptists and their equally diverse twentieth century counterparts and leave the argument at that point. I cannot do that, however, because the religious, political, economic, intellectual and social milieu of late twentieth century America is far different from that of sixteenth century Europe. Even if it were possible to recapture the essence of that historical movement, its expression today would necessarily differ in substantive ways from that of nearly 500 years ago.
For one thing, sixteenth century Anabaptism was a pre-Enlightenment phenomenon. Those believers did not face the challenges to biblical authority brought about by the rationalistic philosophies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Theological liberalism with its anti-supernatural bias had not yet come on the scene. However diverse the first Anabaptists may have been, they did not have to deal with the consequences of an historical-critical approach to Bible interpretation which is more ideology than methodology.
Further, unlike their twentieth century namesakes, Anabaptists in the sixteenth century did not need to face the effects of nearly five centuries of institutionalization on their dynamic, first-generation movement. In fact, twentieth century "Anabaptism" is not a "movement" at all. It is an established enterprise, complete with hierarchical bureaucracy and layers of red tape. It has become respectable religion. Its most visible expressions (i.e. the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church) pursue an agenda which reflects social liberalism more than radical biblicism.
What Is The Anabaptist Vision?
In December 1943, Harold S. Bender presented, as his presidential address to the American Society of Church History, an essay which he titled, "The Anabaptist Vision." In it he sought to distill the essence of the historical movement from which his denomination, the Mennonite Church, had descended. For thirty years, "The Anabaptist Vision" served as the essential description of the heart of Mennonite Christianity.
The 1960s and '70s produced at least two phenomena with profound consequences for the Mennonite / Anabaptist community at the close of the twentieth century. The first was a recognition that Bender's summary of sixteenth century Anabaptism was, to some degree, "revisionist history." As Walter Klaassen noted in an article titled " 'There Were Giants on Earth in Those Days': Harold S. Bender and the Anabaptist Vision," published in the Fall 1994 issue of The Conrad Grebel Review, "(t)he Anabaptist sword-bearers, the apocalyptic visionaries, the literalistic sillies, and the mystic contemplatives were all expelled by him from the movement as not being true Anabaptists. Only those whom Bender identified as 'evangelical Anabaptists' became the carriers of what he identified as the Anabaptist vision in his 1943 address." (p. 236)
The second phenomenon with profound effect upon contemporary Anabaptist/Mennonites was the tendency on the part of Bender's "disciples," those young scholars who had studied at Bender's feet as it were, to advance the outward manifestations of Anabaptism without either adopting Bender's spiritual and theological presuppositions or emulating his deep, personal piety.
Bender believed that Anabaptism was "the culmination of the Reformation, the fulfilment of the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, and thus...a consistent evangelical Protestantism seeking to recreate with compromise the original New Testament church, the vision of Christ and the apostles." He further argued that "the Anabaptists...retained the original vision of Luther and Zwingli, enlarged it, gave it body and form, and set out to achieve it in actual experience." (Quotations from "The Anabaptist Vision.") His "disciples," however, sought to distance Anabaptism from evangelical Christianity and, thus, from its spiritual and theological roots. The result has been, in the words of one Mennonite scholar, that "for some the pursuit of the Anabaptist Vision (has) led down a road of alienation and estrangement from the Christian faith of our Anabaptist-Mennonite forebears." (Stephen Dintaman in an article titled, "The Pastoral Significance of the Anabaptist Vision," published in Refocusing A Vision, 1995.)
Dintaman's perspective is important because it challenges the mystique that has grown up around the Bender article and dares to suggest that the use of the Anabaptist Vision by many of Bender's "disciples" has omitted some elements that are vital to a balanced and healthy spiritual life.
"In contemporary North America, the Anabaptist Vision no longer offers us significant resources for the renewal and sustaining of a vital Christian life. The children of the Anabaptist Vision will not find in it what their parents found. They will either maintain a Mennonite identity based on social service ideals and affiliation with Mennonite institutions or abandon faith and move on to other forms of spiritual identity. Or they will find their way back to the primal Christian truths that were assumed but not expressed in their upbringing." (Dintaman, op. cit., p. 50)