American Mennonites and the Bible

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American Mennonites and the Bible, 1750–1950

C. Norman Kraus§


→131# In the early 1900s a small but extremely significant group of emerging leaders in the Mennonite Church allied themselves theologically with the cause of Fundamentalism and for a generation guided the denomination in that theological direction. This loose alliance introduced into the Mennonite tradition a strain of religious expression that was alien to it both theologically and ethically. Indeed, at least some of the men responsible for this identification of the Mennonite cause with that of the Fundamentalists were conscious of the dangers inherent in it. George R. Brunk was extremely critical of the “laxitarian” Fundamentalists and constantly warned against the errors of Calvinism and Plymouth Brethrenism. Against the “so-called Fundamentalists” both he and Daniel Kauffman stressed the “all things” of Scripture—the ordinances not generally accepted by other Protestants, nonresistance and separation from the world. Nevertheless having entered this caveat they identified with their cause. “The Mennonite Church,” wrote Daniel Kauffman, “is firmly committed to the Fundamentalist faith; including some unpopular tenets of faith which many so-called Fundamentalists reject.”[1] They were frightened by the specter of Modernism and by “liberalism” in the Mennonite Church and they readily accepted the Fundamentalists’ definition of the issues and adopted their line of defense.

As these men saw it, the issue was the authenticity and authority of the Bible understood “literally.” By literal they meant that the accounts of supernatural activity such as creation were to be understood as “historic fact and literally true,”[2] and that the teachings of Christ and the apostles were to be literally and directly applied to the life of the church today. Thus, for example, the church is not to “spiritualize” such practices as the veiling of women for worship, or washing the saints’ feet. Neither may it adapt scriptural commands such as those against the wearing of gold in order to permit gold watches or eyeglass frames.

In their uncritical acceptance of a fundamentalistic definition of biblical authority resting on a particular theory of inspiration these leaders saddled the Mennonite Church with concepts which were not endemic to it and which are even yet causing anxiety as we →132 attempt in our seminaries to more carefully examine the nature of Scripture’s authority and application to the present-day church.

This criticism, however, should be qualified at the outset with a word of deep appreciation for the dedication and spiritual foresight of the men who gave leadership to the Mennonite Church during the years 1900–45. We can thank God that they preserved for us a heritage that takes the Bible with utmost seriousness, and if through theological naivete they have left us with some inadequate hermeneutical precedents, we should not be overly critical. Rather, we should follow their high example in loyalty to the witness of the Holy Spirit in Scripture even though we beg leave to re-examine their theological definitions.

What I propose to do in this paper is to put the above criticism in historical and theological perspective so that we might understand the nature of the task that lies before us in the reappraisal of the issues. In my judgment it is extremely important that we should not a second time be forced to decide between inadequate options through faulty understanding of either our own history or the present theological situation.

Post-Reformation Developments in Protestant Orthodoxy

In order to understand the significance of the Mennonite-Fundamentalist alliance at the opening of the twentieth century we must first of all review briefly two areas of development within both Protestant Orthodoxy and Mennonitism following the Reformation era. The development of a doctrine of Scripture and a hermeneutic were closely related to other theological developments, and cannot be properly understood outside the larger context. Formally the developments within both these traditions are properly designated legalism but with a difference. Orthodoxy veered toward theological legalism while the Mennonites soon were mired in moral legalism. And this difference is significant for understanding their views of Scripture.

Lutheranism, following the lead of Melanchthon, soon lost Luther’s emphasis upon the evangelical experience and the definition of faith as trusting acceptance of God’s grace. Reverting to the scholastic position, the Lutheran theologians defined faith as rational assent to correct doctrine. Already in the Augsburg Confession of 1530 it is suggested that belief in the doctrine of justification by faith is necessary for salvation by faith. Such a definition of faith underscored the primary importance of the correct formulation of doctrine. In turn the consequent emphasis on correct theology led to dissension and dissimulation among the Lutherans themselves and between →133 the Lutherans and the Reformed. Indeed, the schisms that rent the Lutheran churches in Germany between 1545 and 1600 parallel in intensity and scope the schisms among the Dutch Mennonites during roughly the same period.

At the heart of both the Lutheran and Reformed debates was the question of monergism versus synergism, or, in Reformed terminology, God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will. What is the nature of God’s action in man’s behalf? How is man involved in his own salvation? What kind of a response is required of him? Indeed, what kind of response is possible for him? The advocates of strict pre-destination and sovereignty were able to dominate the theology of the period. Beginning with the Augustinian definition of man’s total inability even to co-operate with God, the emphasis was placed upon God’s sovereign initiative. With unrelieved logic the monergists spelled out a system that would safeguard God’s sovereign and exclusive role in the salvation of man.

At the expense of gross oversimplification we note that this had far-reaching and serious consequences not only for theology but for the whole life of the church. Man’s part in salvation was greatly minimized in favor of God’s “supernatural” activity. Christ’s humanity was likewise minimized, and the atonement became a legal transaction within the Godhead while justification was described as a “legal fiction.” The supernatural was distinguished sharply from the natural and in every case given the priority of logical necessity.

It was in the context of this theological climate that the further definition of biblical inspiration and authority were developed in Protestant Orthodoxy. When faith was defined as assent to correct doctrine, the Bible came to be viewed as the source-book for correct doctrine. Scripture was no longer interpreted as the dynamic message of a “gospel” which aroused trust and repentance. It became a book of holy doctrine which must be subscribed to in order to be saved— hence the term theological legalism.

Following this logic it was imperative that the doctrines contained in Scripture be imbued with supreme validity and authority. If Scripture is to be an authoritative source and criterion of doctrine, it must have God’s infallible imprimatur in every detail. Certainty of salvation could rest securely only on God who acts in a supernatural fashion apart from and in spite of man to produce a book of saving doctrine. Indeed, it must be in effect his words free from any errors that might detract from its character as a source of basic information upon which and from which a theological system might be logically derived. In the words of the Westminster Confession →134 (1647), authoritative doctrine must be “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequences . . . be deduced from Scripture.”

It is at once obvious that only God could be the author of such an inerrant book. And if he deigned to use human writers, it would be necessary for him to control the process sufficiently to overrule their errors. The monergistic bias of these orthodox theologians provided the theological setting for just such a theory. The Second Helvetic Consensus of 1675 takes the position that the language of Scripture itself is a special, supernaturally designed vehicle of God’s revelation.

…The Hebrew Original of the Old Testament, which we have received and to this day do retain as handed down by the Jewish Church, unto whom formerly “were committed the oracles a God” (Rom. iii, 2), is, not only in its consonants, but in its vowels—either the vowel points themselves, or at least the power of the points—not only in its matter, but in its words, inspired of God, thus forming, together with the Original of the New Testament, the sole and complete rule of our faith and life; and to its standard, as to a Lydian stone, all extant versions, oriental and occidental, ought to be applied, and wherever they differ, be conformed.[3]

Quenstedt (1617–1688), a Lutheran theologian of the strictly orthodox party, provides us with a classical statement of the resulting inerrancy of a dictated text:

The original canonical s[acred] scripture is of infallible truthfulness and wholly free of error, or, what is the same thing, in the canonical s[acred] scripture there is no lie, no falsehood, not even the smallest error either in words or in matter, but everything, together and singly, that is handed on in them is most true, whether it be a matter of dogma or of morals or of history or of chronology or of topography or of nomenclature no want of knowledge, no thoughtfulness or forgetfulness, no lapse of memory can or ought to be attributed to the secretaries of the H[oly] Spirit in their setting down of the s[acred] writings.[4]

Not all of Protestantism followed this lead even in the seventeenth century, and certainly as we shall see in the pages that follow it was not a part of the Mennonite tradition prior to the early twentieth century. What is significant for our purposes, however, is that the Fundamentalists and the theologians of old Princeton did espouse these formulas, and these are the sources from which it was imported into the Mennonite Church. →135

Developments in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition

In contrast to the Protestants, who defined faith as assent to doctrine and worked from a monergistic premise, the Anabaptists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries defined it essentially as obedience to Scripture and were frankly synergistic. Where Orthodoxy said one must believe (give assent to) certain doctrines in order to be saved, the Anabaptists held that one must obey the law of Christ to be saved. Saving faith was obedient faith, or “obedience through grace,” as Twisck put it in his confession of faith.

Faith in Scripture for the second generation Anabaptists, then, meant acceptance of it as the moral authority for life rather than subscription to its authoritative doctrine. They were not primarily concerned with correct theories of inspiration which would guarantee the Bible’s rational authority. Neither were they under any logical compulsion to formulate a theory that would eliminate all the effects of human co-operation in its production and thus keep its authority purely objective. Scripture’s authority rested on the fact that it was God’s covenant with man, and it was an authority to be obeyed rather than defined. Thus in the “Confession of Faith According to the Holy Word of God” by Peter Jansz Twisck (1565–1636) the article on “The Written Word of God” deals with the relative authority of the old and new covenants for regulating the Christian life. The old covenant, he asserts, was “perfect” for the men who lived before Christ, but the New Testament is “the new law of Jesus Christ,” and to this law

all decrees, councils and ordinances made contrary to it by men in the world, must give place; but all Christians must necessarily, as far as the faith is concerned, regulate and conduct themselves only in accordance with this blessed Gospel of Christ, And as the outward man lives outwardly by the nourishment of bread; so the inward man of the soul lives by every word proceeding from the mouth of the Lord. Therefore the Word of God must be purely and sincerely preached, heard, received and kept, by all believers.[5]

The point here is that this article on Scripture, quite in contrast to the creeds of Protestant Orthodoxy, does not make a correct doctrine of scriptural inspiration fundamental to the rest of doctrine. Neither does it make any attempt whatsoever to spell out the nature of inspiration or its theological implications. Scripture is simply accepted as the trustworthy instrument of God for the disclosure of his will in Christ. Thus all Christians are bound to submit their →136 “whole heart mind and soul under the obedience of Christ and the mind of the Holy Spirit as expressed in the holy Scriptures.”[6]

There is no article on Scripture as such in the Dordrecht Confession (1632), but in Article V, “Of the Law of Christ, Which is the Holy Gospel, or the New Testament” we find the same emphasis on the authority of the new covenant as in Twisck’s confession. The article speaks not of a book but of a covenant, not of a canon but of a gospel proclaimed through His apostles. This proclamation is obviously identified with the canonical New Testament which contains “the whole counsel and will of his heavenly Father, as far as these are necessary to the salvation of man,” but the clear implication is that the authority of the New Testament rests upon the fact that it is the authentic proclamation of the “Holy Gospel” of salvation. The authority of the New Testament scriptures—it does not explicitly speak of the Old—is Jesus Christ. The New Testament is his covenant proclaimed by men of his choice and calling, hence its authority.

Of the other confessions known to and widely used by Mennonites in America only that of Cornelis Ris contains an article on Holy Scripture. Ris took great care over a number of years (1747–66) to formulate a balanced and comprehensive statement. His confession shows definite influence of the Reformed and Arminian theology, and agrees generally with the latter. As one might expect under these circumstances, Article II, “Of the Holy Scripture,” follows a form more like the Protestant Confessions. However, it is quite biblical and non-scholastic both in content and mood.

Ris speaks of Scripture as an “incalculable boon” because without it we would be “much in the dark, as has been generally true of all the heathen.” The Bible records as much of God’s revelation in the past “as is necessary for us as a rule of faith and conduct.”

These Scriptures we call holy because they are inspired (eingeben) by God and written by holy men of God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, H Peter 1:21, We accept them, therefore, not as man’s word but God’s Word; as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith and conduct (Leben) to which we owe supreme reverence and obedience.[7]

What is most intriguing, however, in the Ris Confession is his list of “weighty arguments” upon which faith in Scripture rests. →137 There is not even a hint of the scholastic definition of inerrancy among them. Rather it is Scripture’s clarity of disclosure, worthiness of content, and the holy ends which they serve that commend them. Added to these are the miracles, fulfillment of prophecy “and many other things” which God has done to convince us of their divine mission. And he concludes, “Everyone who yields himself in honest obedience and submission to the Word of God, finds peace of heart and obtains for himself the assurance of the truth.”

Here is no talk of verbal inspiration and inerrancy even to the minutest details of Scripture such as we find in the Lutheran and Swiss Reformed theologians of the same period. The Mennonite writers do, of course, speak of inspiration, and they often quote II Timothy 3:16, and II Peter 1:21, but taken in context these statements do not mean or imply the fundamentalist doctrine of “verbal and plenary inspiration.” The authority of Scripture is grounded on the authority of Christ, and it is validated in faithful obedience to its precepts.

Two features that are characteristic of Mennonite discussions of Scripture need to be carefully observed at this point. In the first place, the concept of inspiration is spoken of in connection with the high value of Scripture as a guide to the knowledge of God. It does not convey to Scripture some supernatural quality of perfection, but rather makes it profitable for us. Thus, e.g., in Gerrit Roosen’s Conversation on Saving Faith,[8] another doctrinal symbol which had widespread use in America, the assertion of inspiration of Scripture is in answer to the question (8) “In what respect then are the Holy Scriptures preferable to other writings [of the wise heathen which are not sufficient to bring us to a saving knowledge of God]?” And the answer is that Holy Scripture is the Scripture inspired by God for man’s instruction, punishment, correction and understanding in righteousness (II Tim. 3:16), and that it was given through highly enlightened holy men who were especially gifted by God’s Spirit above others and who wrote by God’s inspiration. The emphasis is clearly that men are inspired to write things profitable and in that sense also their writings may be referred to as inspired.

In the second place, in keeping with their strong emphasis on the centrality of faithful obedience they made “supreme reverence and obedience” the touchstone for a valid confession of Scripture rather than a technically correct statement of its inspiration. They deemed the correct use of Scripture as the Spirit’s regulation for life →138 to be more important than a correct formulation of the Spirit’s activity in the process of transcribing Scripture.

In a similar manner the concept of Scripture’s infallibility, which is quite common in older Mennonite literature, is in every significant reference conceived as the infallibility of its witness to Christ and his will for us. The emphasis is upon its absolute trustworthiness as a guide to salvation and the true knowledge of God. The Ris Confession says that Scripture is the “only infallible and sufficient” source of our knowledge. And according to the “Waldeck Catechism” (first published in 1778) [9] the evidence of infallibility is that “all things written therein, foretold of Christ, have been literally fulfilled.”

The reference in the Roosen Catechism to the “infallible Word of God” as that upon which saving faith must be grounded requires this same interpretation. In addition it raises two other interesting points. First, it is clear that the “Word of God” in this context does not mean simply Scripture, but rather God’s message of salvation in contrast to man’s wisdom. Thus infallibility is not being ascribed to the Scriptures as documents but to the message which they bring. Second, the Old and New Testaments are spoken of as servants of the Word. There is no simple equation of words written in the Scripture and the Word of God. There are statements, as for example in the Waldeck Catechism, that follow the common pattern of identifying the two without any technical equation. This is quite common in Protestant parlance and should not be cited as evidence of verbal dictation.

In summary, then, it may be stated that in none of these confessions and catechisms which were in general use in the American Mennonite churches from 1750 to 1900 is there any attempt to spell out a theory of inspiration for the documents. Indeed, in the most widely used symbols, Dordrecht and Roosen’s Catechism, there were no articles as such on Scripture. The Bible is accepted as completely trustworthy and inspired by God for man’s guidance, but emphasis falls upon the content and unique value of its message, not upon verbal inerrancy.

Precisely these same emphases characterize the articles, tracts, and books by American Mennonite authors published in the period 1750–1900. They assumed the Scripture’s authority and concentrated on its contents seeking to understand and apply it. They conceived of the Bible as a disclosure of God’s will and approached it as a →139 book of instructions and moral precepts with the confidence that in its pages they would find “the mind of the Holy Spirit.” Even Christ was for them the giver of a new law, and their discussions have mainly to do with the Christian life and conduct.

This conception of the Bible became for them a hermeneutic principle. In their preaching and writing they went to great length to recount the story of man’s creation, fall, and redemption era by era,[10] and their purpose was to make clear the relation of law and grace—the old and new covenants. Thus their expositions of the history of salvation are not so much focused upon the great acts of God as upon man’s response to God’s disclosures and the developments which lead to the new covenant law. They argued that the new law requires a higher, spiritual obedience of love, and it is the purpose of the New Testament to lead to such obedience.

This preoccupation with rules of conduct produced many examples of quaint proof-texting and the finding of direct guidance from the pages of the Bible. Either example or precept sufficed to document a decision of the church. In his Useful and Edifying Addresses to the Young (1792), Christian Burkholder, a prominent bishop in Pennsylvania, argued that interdenominational marriages are forbidden in the Bible on the basis of Numbers 36:6-8 which restricted marriage among the Israelites “only to the family and tribe of their fathers.”[11] Heinrich Funk thought that he could demonstrate that the wicked will be “transformed into the appearance of a sackcloth of hair, as the scripture says. . . .”[12] And J. M. Brenneman of a later generation could find many texts to prove that “Christians ought not to laugh aloud.” [13]

I think that we might call this approach to Scripture a pretheological biblicism. There is a kind of artless freedom under the guidance of the Spirit to use the Scriptures for admonishing the brotherhood. They were not challenged to defend the Bible against attacks upon its authority. When they wrote about it, they magnified and praised it, pointing out the superiority of its contents, but they simply assumed its divine origin and validity. Therefore, to read a theory of verbal inerrancy into their writings is anachronistic. They had no defined doctrine of inspiration either as to its scope or exact meaning.

→140 It is clear then that when we arrive at the opening of the twentieth century, the development of an articulate theology of Scripture still lies ahead. Even the writing of men like D. H. Bender, M. S. Steiner, and Daniel Kauffman, who later espouse “verbal and plenary inspiration,” do not reveal any new emphases on the doctrine of Scripture prior to 1908.

Twentieth Century Developments in Mennonite Theology

In order to see the significant change of mood and emphasis that took place in Mennonite doctrine during the first quarter of the twentieth century one has only to compare the statement on Christian Fundamentals which was adopted by General Conference in 1921 with the earlier confessional symbols. This statement was first drawn up by a “Committee on the Investigation of Liberalism in the Church” appointed in the Virginia Conference in 1918. Members of the committee were George R. Brunk, Sr., A. D. Wenger, and J. B. Smith, the last of whom apparently wrote the eighteen articles. The “Eighteen Fundamentals” were presented by the committee to the 1919 session of Virginia Conference and adopted as the conference statement of faith. With few minor editorial changes and additions of Scripture texts, these articles were accepted by General Conference meeting at Garden City, Missouri, in 1921.

The “Preamble” of this Garden City statement sets the mood for the rest. It reads:

In order to safeguard our people from the inroads of false doctrines which assail the Word of God and threaten the foundations of our faith, we, the Mennonite General Conference ... herewith make the following declaration regarding the fundamental doctrines of our faith.[14]

The first article of the statement is on the Bible. In it the Bible is simply equated with the Word of God. Indeed, the article is entitled “The Word of God” rather than Holy Scripture even though the Bible is the subject. The purpose of the article is to defend the authority of Scripture by explicitly equating it with Word of God. Further, it is declared to be the Word of God on the grounds of its “verbal and plenary inspiration,” not on the grounds of its divine content as in earlier statements. And in addition to using the more traditional language concerning its infallibility as a rule of faith and practice, the article explicitly says that the original writings were inerrant.

If we look further in the statement for some hint concerning the implications of this verbal inerrancy theory, we are only confirmed in this evaluation. Article III reads, for example, “We believe that →141 the Genesis account of the Creation is an historic fact and literally true.” Here then is a definition of the process and extent of inspiration, and it is simply the definition of Reformed and Lutheran Orthodoxy which was again being pressed into service by the Fundamentalists.

The beginning of this shift in mood and emphasis may be dated at about 1908 and can be traced both in conference minutes and articles published in Mennonite periodicals. Prior to that time neither the Herald of Truth (Elkhart) nor the Gospel Witness (Scottdale), nor the first volume of the new Gospel Herald for that matter, show any serious involvement in the theological storm that was brewing in America.

In 1907 an article entitled “The Bible Inspired,” which presages the coming storm, was published in Daniel Kauffman’s (editor) Gospel Witness. In the first volume (1908) of the Gospel Herald Kauffman published an editorial on “Inspiration” in which he makes the point that the Bible is inspired by God in a unique way, and that we must “accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and the Bible as the life-giving word and only inspired message from heaven.”[15] These are quite mild and might be overlooked except for what was to follow.

In 1909 at least three articles from non-Mennonite sources on “Protestant Apostasy” and liberalism were printed. The following year John Horsch had a series of excerpts from Menno Simons printed under the title “Menno Simons on the Authority of the Holy Scriptures.” And that same year Kauffman authored and published a series of articles under the title “Upon What Fundamentals Should All Christian People Agree?” The fifth “fundamental” was on the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and he says that denying inspiration is tantamount to denying the Bible. After 1910 articles of this type become increasingly numerous.

Not only are the articles more numerous, but they show clear signs of their extra-Mennonite source. In an article on “Inspiration and Authority of the Epistolary Writings” in the January 1913 Gospel Herald, Abram Metzler speaks of “the great tidal wave of the latter day apostasy,” and of “dispensational grace.” He also used a phrase that was the slogan of the Niagara Bible Conference movement, “to the law and the testimonies.” Leaders of the Fundamentalist movement such as W. B. Riley, W. J. Bryan, R. A. Torrey, and Philip Mauro are referred to, quoted in articles and reprinted in toto. In 1918 George Brunk entered a charge against evolution, scientism, and higher criticism—the latter had come in for ridicule in →142 earlier issues—worthy of the best fundamentalist preachers.[16] He noted with satisfaction that the scientists’ presumptuous efforts to create life have come to an inglorious end. These are only a few examples that could be multiplied many times.

A review of conference minutes, both district and General Conference, reveals the same kind of progression of involvement in the Fundamentalist debate. We find the first explicit evidence that the church leaders in general were concerned about the new theological currents in the 1909 minutes of General Conference.[17] One of the major questions for discussion that year was the Conference’s attitude toward “the modern trend of religious thought.” The question was discussed by P. E. Whitmer, a Bible teacher at Goshen College who was later under the suspicion of “liberalism” himself, and others. A resolution was passed in answer to this question as follows:

Resolved, That we stand for a whole-Gospel religion which recognizes Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and the Bible as the inspired Word of God (II Tim. 3:16); which teaches true conversion and an experimental religion (Jno. 17:3; Eph. 4:13); an acceptance of Christ as our Savior (Acts 4:12); His Gospel our rule of life (Ga. 1:8, 9); and His Spirit as our teacher and guide (Jno. 14:26; 16:13).[18]

In 1911 the question “What is meant by the so-called essentials and non-essentials, and how do they effect our church?” was raised in the Indiana-Michigan Conference. J. E. Hartzler, the pastor of Prairie Street Church, who had just returned from Union Theological Seminary in New York and had only recently received an appointment to the Bible faculty of Goshen College, opened the discussion on the question. Conference passed a resolution in answer to the question stating that they “discourage such classification [essential and non-essential] and encourage the acceptance of the whole Bible as sacred and important.”

I point to this action because it provides significant evidence concerning the stage of developments in one of the first conferences to raise the biblical issue in its formal meetings. In the first place, its having been raised in Indiana and J. E. Hartzler’s prominence in →143 the discussion indicate one source of the new and unsettling ideas which were beginning to trouble some church leaders and called forth this reaffirmation of orthodoxy. Secondly, the way in which the question is stated indicates that the major problem was not a doctrine of Scripture, but the application of biblical teaching in a changing cultural situation. Some of the older applications were being dropped, and the justification for dropping them was that they were among the “non-essentials” of the Bible, And lastly, the language of the resolution indicates that fundamentalist terminology had not yet penetrated here. The resolution is in the best Mennonite tradition—“the whole Bible as sacred and important.” Incidentally, the men on the resolutions committee that year were J. K. Bixler, D. A. Yoder, and S. L. Weldy.

That same fall (1911) the Kansas-Nebraska conference raised the question whether versions other than the King James Version should be used in public worship. They resolved that they should not, and proceeded to declare their belief “in the verbal inspiration of the Bible in the original.” They also passed another resolution petitioning the General Mission Board to use utmost caution in selecting candidates for missionary work and requested “that only such workers be sent forth that believe in the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible and take a stand against the modern trend of religious thought.”[19] So far as I know this is the first time a conference statement used the phrase “verbal inspiration . . . in the original,” and I strongly suspect that it was no coincidence that J. B. Smith of the Hesston Bible faculty was on the resolutions committee. Smith was the man who perhaps more than any other introduced this kind of theological terminology into our brotherhood.

Again in 1913, meeting only a matter of days before the General Conference, the question of biblical inspiration was raised in the Indiana-Michigan conference. Again J. E. Hartzler officially opened the discussion, and in addition he served on the resolutions committee. At this time Hartzler was the newly elected president of Goshen College. Suspicion about the theological orthodoxy of the College Bible faculty and of President Byers made it necessary for Hartzler to declare himself clearly and openly.

The resolution summarizing the conference position on this question is longer than usual and is divided into four parts. It begins by distinguishing between “inspiration, revelation and dictation.” Inspiration, they wrote, has to do with “the recording, the making truth known,” but they added that it “does not create truth but . . . →144 is found in the use made of truth.” Then the resolution goes on to affirm the “full and complete inspiration of the whole Bible as the message of God to man,” and that “as an inspired record of revelation it is the perfect and heavenly message.”[20]

Here is obviously a studied attempt, most likely on the part of Hartzler himself, to affirm a high view of biblical inspiration without using fundamentalist terminology. It is the “message” of the “Bible as a whole” that is “inspired,” “perfect,” and “heavenly,” and its inspiration is found in the use made of truth. As we have seen this is fully in harmony with earlier confessions and catechisms.

Again the fact that B. B. King, who served on the resolutions committee with him, as well as other conservative men like J. S. Hartzler, J. K. Bixler, and D. D. Miller were satisfied with this resolution is good evidence that the finer points of Fundamentalism had still not become part of these men’s thinking. But there are other signs that fundamentalist theology was beginning to make its impact.

At the meeting of General Conference at Kalona, Iowa, that fall (1913) the Conference was asked to define its position on the inspiration of the Bible. In answer the following was adopted:

Ans. We accept the Bible as the one inspired, infallible, inerrant message of God, revealing Himself, His workmanship and His will to man.
We believe the inspiration of the Bible to be different in kind and degree from any other literature in this: The men who wrote the Bible were in the hands of God to such an extent that their message, inbreathed of God, is free from all human imperfections, and is therefore absolutely inerrant and reliable, while in all other literature the imperfections and shortcomings of the writers find their way into their productions, Notwithstanding errors in language which appear in translations and revisions, the message of God as originally given to man is perfect and furthermore He preserves this message absolutely inerrant making the Bible God’s eternal message to man, complete and sufficient for all ages.[21]

At the first reading this resolution sounds very fundamentalistic in tone and language. Scripture is “the one inspired, infallible, inerrant message of God.” Further, “the men who wrote the Bible were in the hands of God to such an extent that their message . . . is free from all human imperfections and is therefore absolutely inerrant and reliable” in contrast to all other literature. But then they add somewhat ambiguously that “notwithstanding errors in language which appear in translations and revisions, the message of God,” not only as originally given but even in its present form, is →145 preserved “absolutely inerrant making the Bible God’s eternal message to man.” I have italicized the word “message” because apparently it is purposely used instead of “words” of God. Thus, the message of the present translations is inerrant in spite of “errors in language which appear” in them.[22]

In reporting the action of the conference in the Gospel Herald[23] Daniel Kauffman said that the statement spoke to two vital issues: “(1) The Bible is God’s Word. (2) It is inerrant.” And a little later he says, “Really, this is not a debatable question—unless you consider the whole doctrine of Christianity debatable.” It is clear from Kauffman’s discussion that he considers inspiration the guarantor of revelation, i.e., the Bible is God’s Word by virtue of its inspiration, but he rejects the theory of inspiration “which represents God as speaking to the world through a set of dummies,” and affirms that “the Bible is at once the message from God and the message from the men whom He inspired for that special work.” Kauffman does not attempt to spell out a theory of inspiration beyond the Conference statement itself. He seems entirely satisfied with it, and he reports that the only dissatisfaction expressed to it on the conference floor was that no evidences for the Bible’s inspiration were included in the statement.

One should probably not press the significance of the ambiguity and imprecision of the statement too far because it is obvious that the intention of the Conference was to declare for the orthodox position. But this statement does represent another stage in the evolution of Articles I and III of the Christian Fundamentals of 1921.

In the meanwhile a General Conference committee which had been appointed in 1911 was at work compiling a book of Bible Doctrine under the general editorship of Daniel Kauffman. The finished symposium which was the work of eighteen different ministers and teachers was published in 1914, and J. B. Smith had the chapter on “The Bible.” It is significant that there is no chapter on revelation in this volume. A section of three and one half pages in the chapter on God is devoted to “Theories as to how He is Revealed.” In comparison forty pages are devoted to the Bible. This indicates how completely those who were responsible for this book identified Bible and supernatural revelation.

In his opening Smith equates Bible and Word of God and turns immediately to a doctrine of Scripture—its nature, unity, inspiration, →146 canon, and transmission of texts. This is the most thorough and scholarly article to have appeared on this subject in the Mennonite Church, and it remained a basic reference for many years. We cannot examine it in detail, nor do we need to. Suffice it to say that it follows assiduously the best in the Bible Conference tradition which represented a coalescence of the older Orthodoxy and the emerging Fundamentalism. Smith is thoroughly acquainted with the terminology, and he fully understands and agrees with its implications. For example, Smith quotes with approval the English scholar, Dean Burgon, who wrote, The Bible is none other than the voice of Him that sitteth on the throne—every book of it, every chapter of it, every word of it, every syllable of it, and every letter of it is the direct utterance of the Most High.”[24]

When Kauffman revised the volume under the title Doctrines of the Bible (1928), he rewrote most of the chapter, but he did not change the basic point of view. He gave more attention to the doctrine of revelation, which he describes as a transfer of information about topics that otherwise would be a complete mystery to us. But his major concern is with inspiration and he does not hesitate to extend inspiration to “the very letter.”[25] ===Why Mennonite Leaders Identified with Fundamentalism

What I have attempted to demonstrate with this survey of materials is that prior to 1910 the Mennonite Church’s doctrine of Scripture was inchoate, and that the rationale which she accepted under the leadership of men like J. B. Smith, Daniel Kauffman, George R. Brunk, Abram Metzler, A. D. Wenger, S. G. Shetler and other prominent Bible teachers and evangelists of that generation was one simply borrowed from Protestant Orthodoxy in its new guise of Fundamentalism. As they began to be aware of the issues in modern theology, they knew that they were not liberals or Modernists, and in the heat of the moment they simply assumed that they were Fundamentalists. The major difference that they could see between themselves and Protestant Fundamentalists was their own willingness to be more consistent in the literal interpretation and obedience to Scripture—the “all things.”

If we ask why they so uncritically accepted the ready-made answers of Protestant Orthodoxy rather than constructing a theology of Scripture more in keeping with their own tradition of simple biblicism, the answer is not far to find.

In the first place, these men were not trained in theology, nor did they have a theological tradition of their own to fall back upon. →147 The renaissance in Anabaptists studies still lay ahead. John Horsch was beginning to uncover the earlier history, but he was highly excited over the Modernist-Fundamentalist debate and tended to read Fundamentalism back into the sixteenth-century fathers. Men like Hartzler,[26] Whitmer, and Byers had been theologically trained and recognized some similarities between traditional Mennonitism and the moral and practical emphasis of the Ritschlian theology they had contacted at Chicago and Union, and they attempted to maintain a position of neutrality with reference to the debate while remaining loyal to the church and the Bible. But their neutrality and their refusal to use the fundamentalist catch phrases and passwords only raised the suspicions of their more fundamentalistically inclined brethren who carried the day.

In the second place, the fact that the reawakening of the Mennonite Church which began about 1875 had been born in the matrix of revivalism and the American Bible and Prophetic Conference movements naturally created a bias favorable to the theology of that movement. A. D. Wenger, for example, spent a summer at Moody Bible Institute in 1894 and S. F. Coffman took courses there. J. B, Smith shows a thorough acquaintance with the literature of the Prophetic Conference movement as well as with the teachers of old Princeton. All too obvious words or phrases betray the origins of ideas which many of our evangelists were preaching and writing. Already by the 1880s the literature of the revivalist movement had become highly polemical, and many of our theologically self-educated leaders saw the issues only from this restricted point of view.

It is interesting to note that where a man had attended school often put him under suspicion fully as much or more than what he was actually teaching, I would attribute this awareness of the theological position of various graduate schools to the fact that schools like Union in New York and particularly Chicago Divinity School were under bitter attack in the fundamentalist periodicals and books of the time, and Mennonite leaders simply accepted their evaluations at face value.

In the third place, while the reawakening had produced new spiritual life, it had also set in motion a process of change and accommodation to cultural (“worldly”) patterns that absorbed the energies of church leaders and deeply concerned even the more progressive ministers in the denomination. The mood of exhilaration and confidence which one might expect to accompany a period of awakening and renewal was muted by the tension and anxiety produced by rapid →148 social change. Concern became the dominant mood of the era. Men were not sure that the new spiritual forces which had been let loose were adequate to contain the “drift.” Questions like “How can we get our people to be more mission-minded and more interested in the Bible?” “How can we get our sisters to wear bonnets?”, and “How can we keep our schools from drifting into worldliness?”, lie side by side on the conference records, bearing mute testimony to the anxiety and problem-centered approach to even the joyous privilege of evangelism. This anxiety was augmented by a newly imported emphasis in eschatology which stressed “the apostasy” of the church and warned against the dangers of living in the “end times.”

In this situation the problem of control, both in the sense of a recognized standard and the power to compel conformity, was uppermost. The leaders needed the sure support of an absolute authority, and the Bible alone could provide such a control. Any lessening of the Bible’s authority represented a major threat to the leadership, for without a clear and certain conviction of its infallible rightness they would have been hopelessly unable to regulate the life of the church. Thus, they were in no mood to debate or take time to formulate the finer theological points of a doctrine of Scripture. The Scriptures had been established as God’s infallible Word and not man’s. They had been imbued with a supernatural authority which could not be questioned, and a theological definition designed precisely to establish that point lay ready at hand. Little wonder then that they grasped and held it tenaciously.

It it not surprising to notice that this was also the period in which conference authority was strengthened to buttress and fortify the ministry. Although there were small pockets of incipient theological liberalism in the Mennonite Church during the period of 191024, they were by no means significant or threatening enough to account for the violent and widespread fundamentalistic reaction which dominated the mood of the denomination during those years. It may, no doubt, be partially accounted for by the new awareness of and interest in the events of the larger Christian community, and by a frank recognition that Mennonites could no longer escape the influence of other Christian denominations. But this is not adequate to account for its intensity.

One can only conclude that the threat inherent in the growing social change produced a mood among the Mennonite leaders which made them highly susceptible to the fundamentalist anxiety that swept the country from about 1908–25. That the two areas of →149 concern, theological liberalism and cultural adaptation, were inextricably intertwined in their minds is seen in the double meaning of the word liberalism in the Mennonite denomination. One cannot escape the impression that a good deal of the excitement over liberalism was simply imported from the outside and superimposed upon the very real problem of cultural adaptation and reapplication of Scripture which faced the Mennonite Church. At any rate, it was in this climate that the first steps were taken toward a theology of Scripture, and quite naturally it took on a fundamentalist cast. ===The Last Twenty-Five Years: 1940–1965

The flood of fundamentalist influence in the Mennonite Church crested sometime in the early 1940s although the waters continued to swirl for some years to come. By that time a new group of leaders was beginning to come to the fore. These men were the products of conservative theological schools such as Princeton Theological Seminary and some of the Baptist seminaries, and while there was no question about their conservatism yet they clearly avoided some of the more literalistic hermeneutics of the Fundamentalists and began to move the church toward a more moderate position. Harry Rimmer was still good for an occasional lecture at Goshen College, and J. Gresham Machen’s interpretation of liberalism was still standard. Nevertheless there was perceptible progress toward a more substantial theologically oriented biblicism.

At the same time under the leadership of the late dean Harold Bender great strides ahead were made in the rediscovery of our own Anabaptist heritage. And with a clearer knowledge of our own tradition came the increasing awareness of the distance between Anabaptism and modern Fundamentalism.

So far as our theology of Scripture was concerned, however, we continued to take our cues from B. B. Warfield, Professor of Biblical and Polemical Theology at Princeton Seminary 1880–1921. In effect, we were abandoning the more superficial literalism of the Fundamentalists as a hermeneutical model, but we remained within the pale of Protestant Orthodoxy. This meant that we viewed revelation essentially as the transmission of information about subjects otherwise inaccessible to us, and we continued to define the Bible’s inspiration as the inerrancy of its original autographs. We continued to take the position, further, that its value as revelation is based upon its inspiration thus conceived.[27]

By the early 1950s there was a growing conviction among some →150 that the time had come to take a new look at the question of a theology of Scripture, and by the mid-50s the question had broken into the open among the seminary faculty at Goshen College. By 1960 we had shot the most dangerous part of the rapids, and it seemed that the seminary was committed to what I would call a conservative but nonfundamentalist position.

I think that it is clear that the so-called inductive method of Bible study furnished the bridge between the old point of view and the new. In the inductive method, we found a way to turn our attention again to the content and structure of Scripture without first settling the theological question of the nature of biblical inspiration and authority. And as we scrutinized the Scripture carefully and inductively it became increasingly clear that the old theological formulas were inadequate to describe what we actually found.

In effect, it could be said that we moved from the theological premise of B. B. Warfield of the old Princeton school to the theological position of a great conservative like James Orr. Orr had held that a theory of inspiration must follow an inductive examination of the Scripture and must be adequate to describe what one has actually found in the pages of Scripture. Warfield, on the other hand, in the tradition of Protestant Orthodoxy, held that a theological theory of inspiration must precede biblical interpretation and, in fact, be the ground for it.

I am of the opinion that the little pamphlet on “Biblical Inspiration and Revelation” by Harold Bender (1959) marks the transition from the one period to the other as clearly as any other document that we have.

This seems to me to be the point which we have reached in our seminary. As I view the situation, I see us using the tools and methods of a reverent biblical criticism to explore even more carefully the nature of the biblical documents and their message to us. But we are doing this not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. The crucial question that faces us is the question of the Bible’s authority for us today, and this is not a theoretical question but a very practical one. We who are completely convinced on the theoretical level of the Bible’s authority for the church today, are called upon to find a dynamic and practical way in which to apply that authority so that it becomes conviction, moral and religious conviction, in the church, and can be used as a practical guide for the life of the church.

Many of the questions that were raised in conference in 1900–50 were prefaced with the words, “Is it in harmony with Scripture that . . . ,” and it is our deepest desire to continue this posture towards Scripture. But some of us are convinced that unless we can find more adequate methods of interpretation and more viable applications to the great issues of our present day, this authority of Scripture as a living reality in our church will be lost by default.


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 131-150. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.

  1. Daniel Kauffman. ed., Mennonite Cyclopedic Dictionary (Scottdale, 1937) 116.
  2. “The Christian Fundamentals,” Article 3. See J. C. Wenger, Doctrines of the Mennonites (Scottdale, 1950), 86.
  3. Article 2. From Leith, Creeds of the Churches. The Consensus was written by John Henry Heidegger, a Reformed theologian from Zürich.
  4. From Quenstedt’s Theologia didactico-polemica, Part I, Ch. IV, Sect. ii, question 5. Quoted by Arthur Carl Piepkorn, “What Does ‘Inerrancy’ Mean?” Concordia Theological Monthly 36 (Sept 1965): 578.
  5. Pieter Jansz Twisck (1565–1636) was an elder in the Old Frisian Mennonite congregation at Hoorn, Holland. He was a conservative who defended Menno’s views against the more liberal Waterlander leaders. His confession received wide distribution in the United States because of its inclusion in the Martyrs Mirror (see p. 382 of 1950 edition). It was also published by itself in English at Winchester, Va., in 1837.
  6. Ibid. Italics mine.
  7. The Ris Confession originally in Dutch was translated into German in 1776 and 1849, and was known to American Mennonites only in translation. An English translation was made from the German in 1904. This version was reprinted as late as 1961 and published at Newton, Kansas, The German word eingeben was the usual term for “inspiration” and translates the Dutch ingegeven.
  8. This may be found in Wenger, Doctrine of the Mennonites, 111ff. Roosen (1612–1711) was a prominent minister in the Hamburg-Altona congregation for many years. His catechism, “On Saving Faith,” was first published in German in 1702. It went through many editions and translations and was widely used in the Mennonite Church.
  9. This catechism, which is also known as Kurze und einfältige Unterweisung aus der Heiligen Schrift, was published in many editions in French and English. It first appeared In English in 1849, and Funk issued a revised English edition in 1874.
  10. Heinrich Funk said that the three stories of Noah’s ark typified the three eras of revelation: (1) Adam to the flood, (2) flood to Christ, and (3) Christ’s incarnation to the end of the world. He believed that only in the second coming would the full glory of God be revealed, See Eine Restitution oder Erklärung einiger Hauptpunkte des Gesetzes (1763), translated into English by A. B. Kolb and published by Mennonite Publishing House, 1915.
  11. Part IV of Conversation on Saving Faith (Lancaster, Pa., 1870) 245.
  12. Op. cit., 437.
  13. Plain Teachings or Simple Illustrations and Exhortations from the Word of God (Elkhart, 1876), 242–44.
  14. “Report of Committee on Fundamentals,” Gospel Herald (Nov. 10, 1921), 627.
  15. Page 113. Italics mine.
  16. “The Present Apostasy” (March 21, 1918), 931–32.
  17. Perhaps this is the place to point out that the years 1908–10 were crucial years for the growing Fundamentalist movement in general. In 1907 the International Sunday School lessons began with the Old Testament and higher critical findings were introduced into the materials of several denominations. Some denominational publications likewise printed articles that seemed favorable to the “New Theology,” The New York Presbytery accepted three Union Theological Seminary candidates for the ministry in spite of their avowed liberal convictions, These and other incidents of the same kind convinced the conservatives that the major denominations were in peril of defection to the liberals. There was a rather sudden wave of increased alarm throughout the Fundamentalist camp, and they launched a full-scale attack which culminated in the formulation of the World Christian Fundamentals Association in 1919. It is interesting to note how closely the awareness and growing concern among the Mennonites paralleled this more general escalation of the battle.
  18. Proceedings of the Mennonite General Conference (n.p., 1921), 133.
  19. Conference Record of the Kansas-Nebraska Mennonite Conference, 1876–1914 (n.p., n.d.) 166, 168.
  20. Minutes of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, 1864–1929 (Scottdale, n.d.) 119–20, Italics mine.
  21. J. E. Hartzler was on the resolutions committee that drafted this answer, and along with him were George R. Brunk, Daniel Kauffman, C. Z. Yoder, and Norman Stauffer. See printed minutes of the conference.
  22. Hartzler’s presence on both this committee and the Indiana-Michigan committee probably accounts for the similarity of language on this point. Be that as it may, it is significant that both G. R. Brunk and Daniel Kauffman subscribed to this language inasmuch as they moved far beyond this in the next few years.
  23. Volume 6 (December 11, 1913): 577–79. The wording of the conference definition is capable of being interpreted in more than one way, and one cannot escape the impression that Kauffman has given it a fundamentalist interpretation.
  24. Bible Doctrine (Scottdale, 1914), 111.
  25. Doctrines of the Bible (Scottdale, 1928), 144.
  26. In later years (1920s and 30s) Hartzler moved further to the theological left, but at least as late as 1914 Dan Kauffman was satisfied with his orthodoxy.
  27. See for example J. C. Wenger’s address to General Conference in 1943 entitled “The Inspiration and Authority of the Scriptures,” Gospel Herald (July 7, 1944): 266–67.