Stuart Murray Williams
Soon after the Anabaptist Network was formed in 1991 some of those involved began to formulate our core convictions. Why were we both inspired and challenged by the Anabaptist tradition? What issues did it help us to see more clearly? On what aspects of Christian discipleship did this tradition have distinctive perspectives?
Anabaptists have often been suspicious of ‘statements of faith’, especially where these are regarded as definitive and are used to exclude others or as a grid that allows only certain interpretations of Scripture. Anabaptists have preferred to frame ‘confessions’
- Not comprehensive but focus on key issues
- Not final but open to revision and development
- Not only about belief but also about practice
- Not composed by one individual but emerging from communal reflection
A very early example – only two years after the first believers’ baptisms in Zurich – is the Schleitheim Confession (1527). In this, representatives of Anabaptist communities in Switzerland recorded their agreement on seven convictions that helped to shape and define the emerging movement. This confession did not contain everything the Swiss Brethren believed, but it spelled out their current understanding of controversial and pressing issues of discipleship.
The core convictions of the Anabaptist Mennonite Network should be understood in a similar way. They highlight particular issues, priorities and commitments. They address a particular social and ecclesial context. They comprise a community document that is open to improvement and correction. They encourage action rather than mere assent. And the fact that there are seven core convictions (like the Schleitheim Confession) is coincidental!
There are eight sessions in this study guide – designed for group study but amenable also to personal study. Sessions 2-8 explore each of the core convictions in turn. The first session is an optional extra for those interested in some historical perspective.
Convictions, Creeds and Confessions
- Compare the Schleitheim Confession with one of the historic creeds of the church – such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed – or with a contemporary statement of faith – such as the Evangelical Alliance’s statement or a denominational statement of faith.
What differences do you notice in scope, language and intention?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?
Is the Scheitheim Confession compatible with the creeds?
- The Schleitheim Confession addressed issues Anabaptists were facing in the early sixteenth century. It reflected their political, social, economic and ecclesial context as well as their theological convictions – a movement of mainly poor and powerless people who were liable to persecution.
Which of the issues it addresses still seem important?
Which no longer seem so relevant – or are hard even to identify?
In what ways does the content of the Confession reflect its context?
How much does its tone and use of Scripture reflect its context?
Might its attitude towards government be different in a democracy?
- Creeds tend to give the impression that they are timeless but, like confessions, they reflect the political, social and economic context of the generation in which they were written and the concerns of those who framed them.
In what ways does the historic or contemporary creed you have looked at reflect its context and the priorities of those who framed it?
What issues still seem important and what issues are missing that are really important today?
Is the language more or less helpful than that of the Confession?
- Although they accepted the historic creeds, Anabaptists have been wary of creeds in principle for several reasons:
They can act as grids that force biblical interpretation in certain directions and in practice exercise greater authority than Scripture.
They can function as definitive and final statements that discourage and inhibit theological reflection.
They can give the impression that correct belief is more important than faithful behaviour.
They can be used to exclude people rather than inviting conversation.
How legitimate do you think these concerns are?
- Anabaptist confessions are:
Not comprehensive but focus on key issues
Not final but open to revision and development
Not only about belief but also about practice
Not composed by one individual but emerging from communal reflection
How significant are these features?
- Read through the core convictions of the Anabaptist Mennonite Network.
Is this a creed or confession – or something else?
How do these convictions reflect their context (Britain today)?
How do these convictions reflect the concerns of those who framed them?
What is missing from these convictions, and why?
How does this document differ from the Schleitheim Confession?