The Gospel of All Creatures
An unusual and distinctive feature of the teaching of some of the leaders in the South German Anabaptist movement was the ‘gospel of all creatures’ or ‘gospel of the creatures.’
The first-generation itinerant evangelist, Hans Hut, may have been the first Anabaptist leader to articulate and popularise this teaching, but it appears in the writings of others, including Leonhart Schiemer, Hans Schlaffer and Pilgram Marpeck. The source of this notion (which appears to be based on a mistranslation of Mark 16:15) is uncertain, but it likely derived from the medieval German mystical tradition, especially as mediated by Thomas Müntzer.
Hut used this notion to provide theological underpinning for his pastoral and ethical emphasis on the concept of Gelassenheit (‘yieldedness’) The main elements of this teaching were:
- That God has revealed his character, purposes and ways of operating through the natural world – there is a fundamental ‘gospel’ at work throughout creation. In Marpeck’s words, ‘the gospel of the creatures is that the gospel may be preached through discerning the nature of the divine creation by which the Creator is known’.
- That the sufferings of Christ are reflected in the sufferings of creation.
- That human beings are prepared for the gospel of Christ through considering the way in which nature functions.
- That the natural world demonstrates a certain order within creation, whereby lower creatures are subject to and suffer at the hands of higher creatures.
- That human beings, likewise, are subject to and suffer at the hands of God.
- That the necessary response is Gelassenheit, yielding to God and embracing suffering.
This is a kind of natural theology. Hut used this concept to argue that simple peasants had direct access to the Gospel by observing the world around them. Schiemer focused on the submission of the other creatures to humanity, and the suffering of animals at the hands of humans. He regarded this as analogous to the submission of human beings to God and the suffering that might be involved in such obedience. Marpeck taught that creation witnesses to God’s providential care and ability to bring good out of suffering for the sake of Christ.
Schlaffer suggested that this ‘gospel of all creatures’ offered a starting point – it constituted the first witness, the second being Scripture and the third being Christ. Neither he nor others who used this phrase implied that illiterate peasants or others would naturally infer from their daily interaction with the natural world the theological significance suggested by this phrase. The ‘gospel of all creatures’ needed to be preached and God’s Spirit needed to enlighten their hearts.
This teaching is not found in other branches of the Anabaptist movement, nor did it persist as the movement developed over the centuries. It might simply be dismissed as an anomaly. But might it have any contemporary relevance? Two theologians have suggested this.
James McClendon, a Baptist theologian greatly influenced by Anabaptism, refers to Hut in a chapter on creation and suffering in Doctrine (the second volume of his trilogy on theology). He writes: ‘Hut pointed to examples ready to hand in medieval Europe – the horses and cattle, sheep, pigs, and fowl of daily farm life. All these worked and died in human service. As they fulfilled what Hut and his hearers took to be their purpose, so did the Christ fulfil his purpose by suffering and dying on the cross. Likewise, believers, upon hearing this gospel, would see that their calling was to suffer in Christ’s cause, patiently and humbly fulfilling their roles as they awaited the imminent end…the gospel of all creatures…declined merely to link suffering and guilt, suffering and punishment. Hut related suffering, instead, to ongoing creation: to exist is to suffer. Yet suffering, while not defined as punishment, nevertheless might have a point; it might be related, not to past misconduct, but to creation’s purpose and future glory.’
Similarly, Nancy Murphey, contributing a chapter to McClendon’s third volume, Witness, writes: ‘Hans Hut proclaimed “the Gospel of Christ crucified, how he suffered for our sake and was obedient to the Father even unto death. In the same way we should walk after Christ, suffering for his sake all that is laid upon us, even unto death.” It is interesting to note that several Anabaptist writers extended this account of human suffering to include “the gospel of all creatures.” Hut himself taught that the suffering of animals and the destruction of other living things conforms to the pattern of redemption through suffering, and in its own way preaches the gospel of Christ crucified.’
Perhaps this strange phrase invites us to move beyond an anthropocentric gospel and embrace an understanding of salvation that includes the non-human world – ‘all creatures.’ Indeed, McClendon hints that a wide-ranging doctrinal revision may be required, suggesting the need for ‘a Christian ecology, a view of creation than can replace the old human rulership and mastery views that have shown themselves so disposed to corrupt.’ Although he recognises the ecological damage done by science and technology, he acknowledges ‘there is regrettably some Christian fault as well’ and that ‘anthropocentric doctrines of creation are visibly at fault.’
Norman Wirzba, in Food and Faith, urges revision of such ‘anthropocentric doctrines’ as he insists that ‘we have entered the Anthropocene, the time when human ambition, power, and mastery now influence, even determine, every inch of the planet and all the processes of life…a time in which the effects of natural processes can no longer be understood apart from human activity.’
And Chris Sunderland, reflecting on lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, is more trenchant than McClendon in his critique of these ‘anthropocentric doctrines’ and urges us to work towards a different understanding of this new era: ‘The challenge to humanity today is to enter a new phase in our history. Our present society has drawn its roots from a tradition of human-centredness. All our institutions have developed around the unquestioned assumption that they work to enhance the interest of human beings. This new phase in our history must put the Earth at the centre of our priorities and our relationship with the Earth as the paramount consideration in all our decision making.’
Hans Hut: ‘The Mystery of Baptism’ in Walter Klaassen: Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), pp48-53
James McClendon: Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (Baylor University Press, 2012)
James McClendon: Witness: Systematic Theology, Volume 3 (Baylor University Press, 2012)
Joy Mead: In the Beginning…A Liturgy for Harvest Festival (Wild Goose Publications, 2015)
Norman Wirzba: Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
A Harvest Prayer
In the beginning,
God placed man and woman in the garden
to tend it and guard it.
God still entrusts us
with the care and responsible use
of our world and its resources.
We receive this task as a sacred trust,
and will manage our lives
in ways that honour God.
As stewards of God’s gifts,
we commit ourselves to using the earth’s abundance
to meet human need.
O Lord, save us from self-destruction fuelled by greed,
protect us from unjust exploitation of the land,
keep us from destroying the beauty of Eden!
All that we have is God’s,
time, talents, and possessions;
and without God we are nothing.
We worship and follow the One who,
though He was rich,
for our sakes became poor,
that we might become rich in Him.
Our lasting treasure is in heaven, O Lord.
Teach us to live lightly with our earthly treasure.
Forgive our preoccupation with comfort and luxury,
forgive our divided loyalty between God and Wealth.
Free us from anxiety over food and drink and clothing.
Empower us to live simply,
content in every circumstance:
well-fed or hungry, having plenty or being in need.
We commit ourselves to a life of
cheerful, regular, and sacrificial giving,
managing all that we have and are
for the glory of God.
Litany based on Psalm 65 (Toledo Mennonite Church)
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed.
O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
You are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
You make the gateways of the morning and the
evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy,
The meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy