John E. Toews

The Conrad Grebel Review 17, no. 2 (Spring 1999)

Richard A. Kauffman and Gayle Gerber Koontz, eds. Theology for the Church: Writings by Marlin Miller. Institute for Mennonite Studies, 1997.

     Theology for the Church is a collection of previously published articles by the late Marlin Miller. The time frame for the original articles ranges from the mid-1970s through 1995. Many represent sermons or addresses published later in popular periodicals, e.g., Gospel Herald, Christianity Today. Some are scholarly papers presented in various forums and then published in academic journals. The original oral mode of these pieces is evident.

     The articles are organized into three sections: The Church and Its Witness (eight chapters), Pastoral Leadership and Theological Education (four chapters), and Theology in a Believers Church Perspective (seven chapters). As the editors suggest, the three sections focus Miller’s major concerns and scholarly interests.

     At one level the book outlines standard Mennonite theology. But at another level it advocates changes or hints at new directions. The theme of the essays is the church as an alternative community of faith in the world. This community is entered at baptism by adult believers; all its members are accountable to each other on matters of lifestyle and biblical interpretation.

     The central theme is supported by a series of sub-themes. (1) Church members are to follow Christ in all of life. The life, teachings, and death of
Jesus are normative. Christianity ethics is an ethic for the minority–believers, not for the majority–unbelieving society. (2) The gospel is the gospel of peace. Christians should reject violence in all forms, and work for peace and justice. (3) The church is gifted with leaders. The 1960s-’70s Mennonite theology of “the giftedness of all believers” is not sufficiently nuanced. The theology of the “priesthood of all believers” is a borrowed Lutheran concept that has no basis in earlier Anabaptist-Mennonite literature or theology. Leadership is a particular gift given to the church for the well-being of the whole. (4) The Bible should be read and interpreted in the context of the church.

     One sub-theme is hinted at several times but not developed. Anabaptist ecclesiology, Miller suggests, is built on a christology different from the Chalcedonian two-nature doctrine. The shape of such a christology is not spelled out; nor are the implications for atonement, a theme Miller was exploring at the time of his death, developed in any form.

     The purpose of the original sermons, addresses, papers was either the renewal of the Mennonite Church or a dialogue with a variety of ecumenical groups about peace or believers church theology. Both audiences reflect the world in which Miller worked, as well as his passion for a more faithful Mennonite Church and a better understanding of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition among other Christian traitions.

     This collection shows Miller at his best as preacher, teacher, and bridge builder with other Christians. The chapters would be considerably more useful if the editors had provided the historical setting for each item, e.g., Mennonite conferences or consultations, ministers’ workshops, or ecumenical consultations. Each chapter has a specific context and agenda which the reader must now guess at.

     Theology for the Church would be much more significant if the editors had also provided an introductory or concluding essay outlining Miller’s theology and showing how these chapters reflect it. The book makes clear that Miller was breaking at important points with H.S. Bender and John Howard Yoder. Where does Miller fit into the contemporary Mennonite theological
conversation and the search for a theology that will give direction to the Mennonite Church in a postmodern world? Miller was a major Mennonite
theological figure and leader in the last quarter of this century. Where was he leading the church, and why? How do these essays reflect that journey and that stance?

John E. Toews, Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, ON