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Is “Love One Another” A New Commandment for You?

The coming of the light changes everything. Did you see the sunrise this morning? Even if you didn’t, it changed your life. The coming of the light transforms the whole world, including you and me. As the sun rises each day, we are infused (barring sickness or early alarm clocks) with new vision and energy, stirred to move with purpose and life.

The same is true of the spiritual dimensions of our beings. The coming of the Light changes everything.

The apostle and author John (assuming, with reason, that the two are the same person) liked to talk about light and darkness. He is the one, for instance, that noticed that Nicodemus visited Jesus in the dark while the Samaritan woman visited him in the light of the noonday sun. Guess who possessed spiritual sight?

One place where light makes all the difference is 1 John 2:7-11:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

This passage is full of short, simple words. Even the Greek is among the simplest in the NT. But, as is typical with John, easy words bear weighty thoughts.

I see at least three basic themes in these verses:

  • A commandment to love one’s brother
  • A contrast between light and darkness
  • An apparent contradiction between “old” and “new”

Let’s start with the apparent contradiction first.

How can the command to love our brother be both old and new?

Some try to solve this dilemma in part by noting that the Greek word for “new” in verse 8 is καινὴν, not νέος. The latter often means new in time (i.e., recent), while the former can sometimes mean new in quality (i.e., unusual or superior). Thus we could perhaps theoretically translate verse 8 like this: “At the same time, it is a fresh commandment that I am writing to you.” This would remove the tension between “old” and “new,” for an “old” commandment could still be a “fresh,” or perhaps even “better” one. One commentator suggests it is like a familiar symphony being performed anew by skilled musicians, or a familiar dish of food prepared by a culinary wizard.1

But, however true such images are, this solution doesn’t work on a linguistic basis. Why? Because the same word καινὴν is also found, negatively, in verse 7: “I am writing you no new commandment.” Unless John changes the meaning of καινὴν from one verse to the next (which is entirely possible but which then overturns the distinction between καινὴν and νέος), he is still apparently contradicting himself.

The simple English word “new” is a good translation. And the word clearly includes a chronological dimension, for “old” is amplified by the phrase “from the beginning.” So we must not try to hide the appearance of contradiction: John is saying that the commandment to love is both old (known from the beginning) and, in some other and more recent sense, new.

(John, with his black-and-white language, is full of such apparent contradictions, prompting us to puzzle profitably over his words as over cunning proverbs.)

So, how is the love commandment old?

One possible answer is to note that the command to love our brother has existed since the oldest parts of Scripture. Jesus summarized the OT law with two great commandments:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-39)

In doing so, Jesus cited two OT texts:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, …but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:17-18)

So the love commandment is as old because it is older than the Bible itself.

But John likely had something else in mind when he called the love commandment “old.” The commandment was old to John’s readers because they “had [it] from the beginning” (2:7). “From the beginning” is a phrase that John uses in multiple ways, but here it seems to refer to time when his readers first heard the gospel message:

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:24)

For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)

And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. (2 John 1:5)

Isn’t this true with us, too? I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know I was supposed to love my brother. Can you? “Love one another” is  very old command—so old, in fact that we sometimes forget that it is also new.

So, how is the love commandment new?

Here we are reminded of the words of Jesus—as recorded by John:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)

What did Jesus mean when he called this commandment “new”? I think the answer lies in the phrase “just as I have loved you.” Jesus provided us a new example of love, an example that renews the old commandment by giving us a picture of what our love should look like.

John says much the same thing in his first letter:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)

Jesus’ example demonstrates a new magnitude of love:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)

In fact, Jesus’ love extended not only to his friends, but to his enemies—an almost unheard of thing, as Paul notes:

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-8)

Jesus’ coming also provides a new power for us to love. John is the apostle of new birth. He is the one who records Jesus’ words, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He said that all who received Jesus were given the right to become children of God, born of God (John 1:12-13). And in his first letter he says that being born of God gives us power to keep God’s commandments, including the command to love one another:

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments... And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world… (1 John 5:2-4)

Being born of God gives us power to love. So does abiding in Christ, another theme emphasized by John. At the end of the famous passage about bearing fruit by abiding in the Vine, John records these words from Jesus:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends... You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (from John 15:12-17)

Abiding in Christ, therefore, empowers us to bear the fruit of mutual love.

I have suggested three ways (there are surely more) in which the love commandment can properly be called new:

  • Jesus provided a new example of love.
  • Jesus’ example demonstrated a new magnitude of love.
  • Jesus’ coming gives us new power to love.

John pictures all this newness by talking about light.

Listen again to the verse where John first calls the love commandment “new”:

 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:8)

There are grammatical challenges in interpreting this verse. (In the Greek, “which” is a neuter pronoun while “commandment” is female, so the relationship between clauses is debated.)

But the basic ideas seem clear: The love commandment is “true”—realized or actualized—in both Jesus and in those who belong to him. And it is realized because “the darkness is dissipating and the true light already shines.”2 The coming of the light actualizes the commandment, thus making it new.

This language of light links back to the foundational theological thesis statement for whole letter:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

How did John know that God is light? Because Jesus, God in the flesh, had come into the world. John is a first-person witness to the word/Word of life (1 John 1:1). The incarnation of the Word is the theme of the opening verses of John’s letter (1 John 1:1-4), and also of the prologue of his Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:1-9)

As John’s poetic prologue continues, the identity of the “true light” becomes clear: It is Jesus.

“The true light.” This is the same phrase that John uses in our original passage: “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Jesus, God in the flesh, is “already shining”!

Putting it all together, here is what John is saying: The coming of Jesus, the light of the world (cf. John 8:12), makes the commandment true and thus new.

There is much more to see about the nature of light and darkness in John’s writings. Light suggests divine revelation, human exposure, honesty, spiritual sight, and holiness. Light exposes our hearts (John 3:19-21; John 9:39-41) and will transform us into “sons of light” if we believe in it (John 12:35-36).

We have enough light to ask ourselves some questions:

Am I loving my brother in a way that demonstrates that the Light has come into the world? Or am I still living as if the world is abandoned in darkness?

Can others see, by the way I love, that I have been transformed by the Light?

Am I imitating Jesus’ new example of love? Does my love mirror his new magnitude of love, or is it no bigger than the love of non-Christians around me? Am I experiencing new power to love? (Or is there little evidence that I am abiding in Christ or even born again?)

In sum, is the command to love my brother a new commandment for me? Or is it just an old, powerless, forgettable and forgotten one?


I’ve tried in this post to express the love command in something of its end-of-the-age freshness. I have also tried to demonstrate some techniques of good exegesis:

  • Identifying and focusing on key words and themes.
  • Tracing these key words and themes beyond the immediate text, giving priority to (a) the rest of the same book of the Bible and then (b) to other books by the same author, without importing meanings from more distant contexts.
  • Teasing out apparent contradictions, without denying anything Scripture affirms.
  • Looking for how Christ, the ultimate subject of Scripture, is key to the meaning of the text.

Now it is your turn. What insights do you think John intended to communicate? How has the coming of the Light changed the way you love your brother? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. David L. Allen, 1-3 John: Fellowship in God’s Family, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), Kindle Location 1251.
  2. Translation by Robert W. Yarborough in his 1-3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Exegetical, 2008), 101.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (6): William Tyndale

The idea of Tyndale having an ecclesiology is new for me. Tyndale is famous for being the father of the English Bible, not for having founded any church. Yet Tyndale did have an ecclesiology, and he did help to found a new church. Just as Tyndale’s translation work lies hidden in plain site within the King James Version Bible–about 80% of the KJV NT matches Tyndale’s–so his influence on ecclesiology lies hidden in plain sight in the many branches of the English Protestant church.

Tyndale’s ecclesiology was hammered out in the context of his experience, a scholar on the run, a theologian in exile… Even Menno Simons, who faced harassment and persecution, seems to have had a respected leadership role among the scattered Anabaptist communities in the Low Countries. He was able to get married and have a family. Not so William Tyndale. He lived hand to mouth, so to speak, depending on the generosity of a few friends, never knowing when the creak on the stairs or the turn of the lock would be his summons from the authorities. And yet he thought and wrote a great deal about the church, which he frequently referred to as God’s “little flock”: “The Kingdom of heaven is the preaching of the Gospel, unto which come both good and bad . But the good are few. Christ calleth them therefore a ‘little flock’ (Luke 12:32).” (Kindle Locations 7737-7744, emphasis added)

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, and Simons. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for, hopefully, some wrap-up thoughts.)

One of the first things I noticed while reviewing George’s survey of Tyndale’s theology was that Tyndale’s Bible translation had ecclesiological effects. Even if Tyndale would have had no conscious theology of the church himself, he still would have shaped the ecclesiology of the English world simply through his translation. This happened in at least two ways: (1) through the gatherings that were formed by readers of his translation and (2) through the vocabulary choices he made as he translated.

Tyndale didn’t aim to produce a new church through his translation work:

At first Tyndale tried to accomplish his mission by working through official channels of the established church… The decree of 1408 forbidding English Bible translations provided only one loophole: Such a project could be undertaken with the permission and supervision of a bishop. (Kindle Locations 7176-7179)

Though the established church denied him support, Tyndale refused to deny the common plowman the chance to read “God’s Word.” Tyndale’s declared goal was to work for spiritual renewal of both individuals and the English nation at large:

Tyndale believed that the translation of the Bible and its dissemination into the hands of ordinary people were the means God had appointed to bring about genuine reformation and spiritual renewal in his time. In his brief epistle “To the Reader,” Tyndale commended his translation of the New Testament in this way: “Give diligence dear reader (I exhort thee) that thou come with a pure mind and as the Scripture saith with a single eye unto words of help and eternal life: by the which (if we repent and believe them) we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the love of Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7225-7233)

Tyndale longed for God to use his translation to create new creatures in Christ Jesus. It did more than that; it also created new gatherings of believers.

Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament entered England as contraband and began to circulate in this way. Literacy was on the rise but still not common. Those who did not know how to read gathered eagerly around others who did to hear for the first time the words of the New Testament read aloud in English. Here and there, in the dark corners of the land, common folk gathered for such secret readings of Tyndale’s New Testament. Imagine being in such a group and hearing for the first time these words from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son for the intent, that none that believe in him should perish: But should have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world, to condemn the world: But that the world through him, might be saved” (John 3:16–17 Tyndale).(Kindle Locations 7215-7221, emphasis added)

King Henry VIII banned Tyndale’s translation; it was burned in St. Paul’s churchyard; and Tyndale remained on the run throughout the continental Europe. Yet his translation continued to find readers and to gather these readers into groups.

The case of William Malden illustrates the impact of Tyndale’s New Testament as it began to circulate throughout England in the late 1520s. Malden was a teenager, fifteen years of age, who lived with his family in the town of Chelmsford. At that time all of the services in the parish church there were still conducted in Latin. But, as Malden later recalled, “Divers poor men in the town of Chelmsford . . . bought the New Testament of Jesus Christ and on Sundays did sit reading in the lower end of the church and many would flock to hear their reading.” When Malden’s father found out about his son’s attendance at these Bible-reading sessions, he forbad him to participate anymore, insisting that he could get all the Bible he needed by going to Latin matins. Contrary to his father’s wishes, young William learned to read so that he could have access to the Scriptures for himself and not depend on its being read to him by others. (Kindle Locations 7259-7266, emphasis added)

Given this result of Tyndale’s efforts, it is interesting how he has been compared to the Paul the apostle and church planter:

Tyndale had enemies in high places, but he also had his champions, among whom there was none greater than John Foxe. In his Acts and Monuments, Foxe referred to Tyndale as one “who for his notable pains and travails may well be called the Apostle of England in this our later age.” Foxe invited one to think of Tyndale as a kind of apostle for his time, like Paul. The parallels between the two are, in fact, striking. Both were unmarried celibates who had no family of their own. Both Tyndale and Paul skirted danger in the fulfillment of their mission. Both were betrayed by untrustworthy companions, both spent time in prison and produced letters in their confinement, both were shipwrecked and finally put to death at the hands of imperial power . What Paul said about himself in his “catalog of sufferings” could be echoed by apostle Tyndale in the sixteenth century… (Kindle Locations 7241-7248)

A second way that Tyndale’s translation had ecclesiological effects was through the vocabulary choices that Tyndale made as he translated.

Tyndale’s desire to put the Scriptures into “plain plowman’s English” led him to introduce a new biblical vocabulary. As we have seen, charity became love. He turned penance into repentance and rendered confess as acknowledge. And, just as Luther preferred Gemeinde (community) to the German word Kirche (church), so Tyndale translated the Greek ekklesia as congregation. (Kindle Locations 7748-7752, emphasis added)

According to George, Tyndale recognized that there were four ways that the terms church and congregation were used. Tyndale didn’t approve of all these uses:

…Fourth, in Tyndale’s day the word church was used in a technical and exclusive sense to refer to all the clergy, who were also known as “the spirituality.” Tyndale called them “a multitude of shaven, shorn, and oiled.” Tyndale pointed out that this use of the word is found nowhere in the Scriptures; it represents a false institutionalization of the people of God.

So, what did Tyndale mean by congregation?

Congregation, as Tyndale often used it, refers to the true remnant, the “little flock,” Christ’s elect church, which is

The whole multitude of all repenting sinners that believe in Christ, and put all their trust and confidence of God; feeling in their hearts that God for Christ’s sake loveth them, and will be, or rather is, merciful unto them, and forgiveth them their sins of which they repent; and that he forgiveth them also all the motions unto sin, of which they fear less they should thereby be drawn into sin again.

Upon the rock of the faith that Peter confessed in Matthew 16, Jesus said that he would build his congregation. “And against the rock of this faith can no sin, no hell, no devil , no lies, nor error prevail,” Tyndale declared. It is this knowledge and faith that “maketh a man of the church.” Furthermore: “And the church is Christ’s Body (Col. 1); and every person of the church is a member of Christ (Eph. 5). Now it is no member of Christ that hath not Christ’s Spirit within it (Rom. 8); as it is no part of me, or members of my Body, wherein my soul is not present and quickeneth it. And then, if a man be none of Christ’s, he is not of his church.” (Kindle Locations 7753-7772, emphasis added)

Given this emphasis on knowledge and faith, we can see that Tyndale’s translation work was urgent and essential. He rested his hopes for individual salvation and for church renewal on the power of the written Word. To put it another way, Tyndale’s beliefs about the Word and about salvation shaped his understanding of the true Church. The Word awakens faith in the individual, and the gathering of the faithful is the Church:

“In as much as the Word is before the faith, and faith maketh the congregation, therefore is the Word or Gospel before the congregation.” (Kindle Locations 7777-7778)

Once again, as we’ve seen before in this series, ecclesiology rests on soteriology–that is, what we believe about the church is based on what we believe about the gospel and how it saves us. Differences in soteriology (doctrine of salvation) inevitably led to division between Tyndale and the Roman Catholic Church:

Both Thomas More [Catholic English statesman] and William Tyndale, like all Catholics and Protestants engaged in sixteenth-century salvation debates, believed in both faith and works. But how these two dimensions of the Christian life are related, which came first, whether either involves the accrual of merit, and what role each plays in the economy of grace—these were church-dividing matters that could not be resolved. (Kindle Locations 7607-7610, emphasis)

So what did Tyndale believe about salvation? In summary, according to George: Tyndale “was the first English-speaking theologian to give” justification by faith “due attention” (Kindle Locations 7495-7496). He emphasized the covenants God made with humanity, God’s work of electing and granting faith to his chosen ones, and how God grants sinners “totus Christus, the whole Christ: ‘His blood, his death, all that he ever did, is ours. And Christ himself, with all that he is or can do, is ours.’” (Kindle Locations 7581-7582)

At some points Tyndale sounds very Anabaptist:

None of this happens apart from the Holy Spirit. Tyndale’s emphasis on regeneration, the new birth, resonates more with Menno Simons and the Anabaptist vision than with the other reformers studied in this book. (Kindle Locations 7581-7584)

Unlike Luther, Tyndale placed a high value on the letter of James and quoted from it often. Tyndale saw no real contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law and James’s statement that one is justified by works and not by faith only (Jas 2:14–24). James was not opposing works to true faith, Tyndale said, but rather works to a false conception of faith. (Kindle Locations 7682-7684)

And at other times not so much:

In his prologue to Romans, Tyndale declared that “predestination, our justifying and salvation are clean taken out of our hands, and put in the hands of God only, which thing is most necessary of all. For we are so weak and so uncertain, that if it stood in us, there would be of a truth no man be saved, the devil no doubt would deceive us.” (Kindle Locations 7538-7540)

Now may not we ask why God chooseth one and not another; either think that God is unjust to damn us before we do any actual deed; seeing that God hath power over all his creatures of right, to do with them what he list, or to make of every one of them as he listeth. (Kindle Locations 7545-7547)

Tyndale’s soteriology–with its ecclesiological ramifications–was not just communicated subtly through vocabulary choices in his translation:

Tyndale was not only a translator of the Bible, but he was also a teacher of the church.

In the preface to his commentary on 1 John, he gave this as the reason for writing that book and everything else he produced : “to edify the layman, and to teach him how to read the Scriptures, and what to seek therein.” In addition to translating most of the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek—a formidable task no one had ever done before or has been required to do since—Tyndale produced an amazing theological corpus: prologues, introductions, expositions, and commentaries on the Bible as well as polemical and doctrinal treatises, not to mention sermons , letters, and liturgical writings, only a small portion of which have survived. (Kindle Locations 7334-7338, emphasis added)

Nor was Tyndale afraid to directly criticize the established church:

Among many complaints registered by Tyndale against leaders of the church, two stand out as especially offensive. The first was their avarice, greed, and exploitation of the flock over which they had been placed as shepherds… Every priest took his cut, as Tyndale wrote with sarcasm: “The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the frier scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth; we lack but a butcher to pull off the skin.” (Kindle Locations 7788-7794, emphasis added)

Tyndale also excoriated religious leaders for their moral laxity and sexual sins. Although he did not regard marriage as a sacrament—only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were New Testament institutions with a “promise”—he held a high view of married life… He strongly opposed the imposition of enforced clerical celibacy. This practice, Tyndale believed, invariably led to two extreme responses: On the one hand, the shunning and despising of all women—an attitude he detected in Jerome among others—and, on the other hand, a “false feigned chastity” that resulted in lust, lechery, and sexual abuse. (Kindle Locations 7801-7807, emphasis added)

Tyndale’s criticism of the established church clarifies that his vocabulary choices as a translator were very intentional, loaded with theological significance:

In criticizing late medieval religious practices, Tyndale made the priesthood of all believers the basis of his own ecclesiology. William S. Stafford has pointed to the significant change signaled by Tyndale’s choice of the term congregation over church. It amounted to “the re-evaluation of the laity, a religious, social and political relocation of the multitude who were baptized but untonsured.”1 (Kindle Locations 7816-7819, emphasis added)

Tyndale’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers reminds me of Luther. The similarities between the two men go beyond the fact that both permanently shaped their respective national languages through their exceptional linguistic and translational skills. Tyndale was strongly influenced by Luther’s theological writings and may have even studied directly under him for a time. The following, though written of Tyndale, equally accurately describes Luther:

He believed that everyone in the congregation, informed by the Scriptures, had the right to admonish teachers and pastors when they went astray. All walks of life are holy callings. (Kindle Locations 7827-7829)

However, we should not imagine that Tyndale had no concept of an ordered ministry. Certain persons, mostly men, Tyndale thought, but also women (in case of emergency) were charged with preaching openly to the entire congregation. Tyndale opposed the idea that “the wagging of the bishop’s hand over us” had some supernatural power to make a preacher where there was none before. What mattered most was neither the ceremony of induction nor degrees earned at a college or university and certainly not the social status or rank of the preacher. Rather, what mattered most was the integrity of the message and the endowment of the Spirit. “When a true preacher preacheth,” wrote Tyndale, “the Spirit interrupts the hearts of the elect…” (Kindle Locations 7831-7837, emphasis added)

I want to end this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology where I began–by observing how fellowship around the Bible was central to his ecclesiology. Yet this fellowship, for Tyndale the “true preacher,” was not a self-centered withdrawal from the world, but one more way of sharing the love of God with all he met.

For nine months before his arrest, Tyndale lived in the English Merchants House in Antwerp… On Sundays he could be found in one of the largest rooms in the house reading a portion of the Scriptures, no doubt from his own translation. These readings would have included expositions of the text and pastoral applications as well. He repeated this exercise after dinner, “so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently” that he brought heavenly comfort to his listeners. On Mondays he would visit the English refugees who had come to Antwerp. On Saturdays he would walk around the city, looking into “every corner and hole” for those especially destitute—the elderly, women, children, the outcast. He gave liberally from the means he had to help those in need. He maintained a study in Merchants House and on all other days gave himself “wholly to his book.” In this brief sketch we see something of the pastoral calling at the heart of Tyndale’s work. (Kindle Locations 7850-7860, emphasis added)


Postscript

Although the theme of this series is ecclesiology, I am so impressed by Tyndale’s words about loving our neighbors that I cannot help sharing them also. And where better to begin loving our neighbors than right in our own churches? Listen and live:

“For as a man feeleth God in himself,” Tyndale wrote, “so is he to his neighbor.” Behind this principle is a view of Christian sociality that denies private ownership of one’s possessions in any absolute sense. This is how Tyndale put it: “For if my neighbor need and I give him not , neither depart liberally with him of that which I have, then withhold I from him unrighteously that which is his own.” And again: “Among Christian men love maketh all things common: every man is other’s debtor, and every man is bound to minister to his neighbor, and to supply his neighbor’s lack, of that wherewith God hath endowed him.”

But who is my neighbor? Tyndale answered that our neighbors are, in the first place, the members of our own family and household. Second, our neighbors include all those who live in proximity to us, “them of thine own parish,” as Tyndale put it, or, as we might say, the folks in our neighborhood. But our indebtedness to our neighbors extends far beyond this close circle, even to “the brethren a thousand miles off,” and, beyond that, “to the very infidels.” All these “have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself: and if thou withdraw mercy from them, and has wherewith to help them, then art thou a thief”! …“Neighbor is a love word,” he wrote. Loving our neighbors means that we pray for them, extend help and mercy to them in their need, and also share with them the message of Christ’s gospel. “Them that are good I love, because they are in Christ; and the evil, to bring them to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7710-7724)

Tyndale extended the scope of Christian witness to include those outside the bounds of Christendom: “I am bound to love the Turk with all my might and power; yea, and above my power, even from the ground of my heart, after the example that Christ loved me; neither to spare goods, body, or life, to win him to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7726-7728)


(Next up: some of my conclusions and questions as I reflect on the ecclesiology of the reformers.)

What did you learn from this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology? What should we learn from Tyndale yet today? Do we need to relearn the importance of choosing sound vocabulary when talking about the Church or our congregations? How does our ecclesiology line up with our soteriology? Are our churches gathered around the reading of the Scriptures? Share your insights and questions in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1.  William S. Stafford, “Tyndale’s Voice to the Laity,” in Day, Lund, and O’Donnell, Word, Church, and State, 106.

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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (5): Menno Simons

Menno Simons, had he foreseen it, would have been dumbfounded: today there are about 1.7 million people who belong to churches that bear his name. (He would have been doubly disoriented by the discovery that over 96% of them do not live in Europe!) As one of these Mennonites,  I have good reason to be curious about what Menno Simons believed about the Church.

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , and Calvin. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for William Tyndale and my conclusions and questions.)

Perhaps because I have personal stake in the quest, I have found this the hardest post yet to prepare for this series. I’ve had to cut out so much intriguing information! To manage length somewhat, I will focus on one theme in Menno Simon’s ecclesiology: the purity of the Church. Along the way, I’ll note other themes also worth exploring.

First, I’ll let Timothy George introduce the Radical Reformation:

The Radical Reformation…, was not merely a “wing,” a side effect that revealed a more extreme form of the Reformation; it was instead a movement that gave birth to a new form of Christian faith and life. As one scholar put it, it was a “reformation of the Reformation” or “a correction of the correction of Catholicism.”1 Precisely this, together with the fact that for the most part the radicals were forced to develop their model of the Christian life outside the confines of the official churches, gave their spirituality and church life a distinctive cast. (Kindle Locations 5827-5831)

George identifies three branches of the Radical Reformation–the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists.

Each branch of the Radical Reformation attached itself to a distinctive “root.” For the Anabaptists it was the Bible, especially the New Testament. They desired not merely to reform the church but to restore it to its pristine, apostolic purity. (Kindle Locations 5820-5822, emphasis added)

Menno’s early life and education were formative, but let’s leap ahead: What drove Menno Simons from being a Roman Catholic priest to becoming “the most outstanding leader” (George) of the Anabaptists?

Three important clusters of events and ideas are in Menno’s developing consciousness of the true church and his role in it… In 1525, the year that Grebel and Mantz were organizing the first Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland, Menno began to entertain doubts about the dogma of transubstantiation. “It occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord.” (Kindle Locations 5887-5894, emphasis added)

Menno might have quietly remained within the Roman fold had he not come to question another pillar of the established tradition, infant baptism… On March 20, 1531…, an itinerant tailor named Sicke Freerks was beheaded because he had been baptized a second time. Menno later commented, “It sounded very strange in my ears that one spoke of a second baptism.” …He began to investigate the basis for infant baptism. He examined the arguments of Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger but found them all lacking… Finally, he “searched the Scriptures diligently and considered the question seriously but could find nothing about infant baptism.” (Kindle Locations 5908-5917, emphasis added)

Possessed of new convictions on the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Menno nonetheless did not break with the Roman Church until he was deeply stirred by events surrounding the… violent, revolutionary kingdom of the two Jans at Münster… On March 30, 1535, a group of some three hundred violent Anabaptists captured the Old Cloister near Bolsward… On April 7 the cloister was retaken and the radicals savagely slain. Among them was Menno’s brother…

After this had transpired the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul… I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. And I was one of those who disclosed to some of them the abominations of the papal system… I thought to myself—I, miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and do not live agreeably to the Word of the Lord, according to the knowledge of the truth which I have obtained; if I do not censure to the best of my little talent the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life, the erroneous baptism, the Lord’s Supper in the false service of God which the learned ones teach; if I through bodily fear do not lay bare the foundations of the truth, nor use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, to the true pastures of Christ—oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the midst of transgression rise against me at the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce sentence against my poor, miserable soul! (Kindle Locations 5920-5936, emphasis added)

Let me draw two observations from this description. First, note the centrality of the Scriptures for Menno. They are, he realized, the ultimate guide both for discerning truth and for living rightly. Second, note Menno’s self-identity as a teacher. He was a teacher before he became an Anabaptist, and when he finally decided to become one, his decision was sealed by his sense that the Anabaptists needed a pastor-teacher “to direct the wandering flock… to the true pastures of Christ.”

Menno… felt a special compassion for the “poor misguided sheep” who wandered about without a shepherd. About a year after he had left the comfortable parish at Witmarsum to become an itinerant underground evangelist, …Anabaptist brethren near Groningen entreated him to accept the office of elder or chief shepherd of the brotherhood. After a time of struggling with this decision , he consented and so began “to teach and to baptize, to labor with my limited talents in the harvest field of the Lord, to assist in building up his holy city and temple and to repair the dilapidated walls.” Having been baptized earlier, Menno was now duly ordained… (Kindle Locations 5950-5956)

Menno Simons is reported to have said, …that nothing on earth was as precious to him as the church. For twenty-five years he labored throughout the Netherlands and northern Germany to establish fellowships of believers into organized congregations committed to one another and to their mission in the world. (Kindle Locations 6385-6387)

Most of those years were spent on the run for his life. And somehow, while on the run with his family, Menno wrote.

…Menno’s theology was situational; it emerged in the context of his active involvement in the life of the church… Menno never had the leisure to produce learned tomes or to develop a systematic theology. Yet he wrote with vigor and insight, drawing both on the earlier Anabaptist heritage and the wider Christian tradition but primarily on his own intensive engagement with the Scriptures. (Kindle Locations 5981-5984)

In Menno’s writing, as in his speaking, he was a teacher of the Church:

In 1540 Menno published what was to become his most influential writing…The Foundation of Christian Doctrine. In some ways this treatise is comparable to the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, published only four years earlier. It was at once a tract for the times and a sort of catechetical instruction for new believers. (Kindle Locations 5986-5989)

The Foundation was an apology for those Anabaptists who chose the way of the cross over that of the sword… Menno’s book had little if any impact on the rulers, who continued their unabated assault against all Anabaptists. Its real influence was on the believers, who found in it a succinct summary of Anabaptist theology and churchmanship. (Kindle Locations 5998-6002)

Menno’s beliefs about the purity of the true Church were shaped by his understanding of conversion:

As long ago as 1848, the historian Max Göbel recognized that “the essential and distinguishing characteristic of this [Anabaptist] church is its great emphasis upon the actual personal conversion and regeneration of every Christian through the Holy Spirit.”2 Although Luther described himself as “born again,” and both Zwingli and Calvin commented on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, Menno placed the greatest emphasis on the necessity for the new birth: “If now you desire to have your wicked nature cleared up, and desire to be free from eternal death and damnation . . . then you must be born again.” (Kindle Locations 6029-6034)

Conversion involved both faith and repentance:

Faith was the inward appropriation of the gospel, which Menno defined as “the blessed announcement of the favor and grace of God to us, and of forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 6034-6036)

God radically transforms such a believing heart! But faith

was incomplete without the prior act of repentance… It will not “help a fig,” he averred, to be called Christians or boast of the Lord’s blood, death, merits, grace, and gospel, as long as believers were not genuinely converted from their wicked, sinful lives. (Kindle Locations 6044-6048)

If believers had the faith of penitent Zacchaeus , Menno claimed, then… “There would soon be a different and better situation because, it cannot fail, the righteous must live his faith.” (Kindle Locations 6059-6062, emphasis added)

Much could be said here about how Menno’s understanding of Scripture shaped his theology and ecclesiology. For example, his “severe pruning of the liturgical tradition of the church was based on a strict application of the principle that what the Bible does not expressly enjoin should not be permitted” (Kindle Locations 6169-6171).

It is significant that Menno quoted more from the New Testament than the Old at a ratio of 3:1… The thrust of the whole Scripture is to direct us to Christ… According to Menno, Jesus Christ really did bring something new. (Kindle Locations 6210-6213)

Thus Menno rejected the mainline reformer’s use of the Old Testament to justify infant baptism and church-state relationships.

Such topics are familiar to most amateur students of Anabaptism. But fewer people are aware of another theological topic that shaped Menno’s understanding of the church:

Menno obviously felt that his doctrine of the incarnation was worth defending in large treatises as he devoted more attention to it than to any other doctrinal concern… Menno could not allow that Christ received his human nature from Mary, else he would have been tainted with the Adamic sin that is common to all his descendants. (Kindle Locations 6325-6330, emphasis added)

More could be said here about Menno’s understanding of Adamic sin (he did not actually believe we are held guilty because of it) or of Roman Catholic and Reformed explanations for Christ’s sinlessness.

Menno set aside both of these explanations: The former elevated Mary to the status of a divine goddess, the latter split Christ into two parts, destroying the unity of his person. Menno sought to resolve the problem by pointing to the celestial origin of Christ’s entire being: “The entire Christ Jesus, both God and man, man and God, has his origin in heaven and not on earth.” (Kindle Locations 6335-6340, emphasis added)

[Menno’s] opponents… accused him of teaching a docetic Christology, the ancient heresy that Christ only appeared or seemed to be human… However…, Menno had no intention of denying the true humanity of Christ… He asserted that Christ “was truly human and not a mere phantasm… He was afflicted, hungry, thirsty, subject to suffering and death, according to the flesh.” Menno’s concern was to show how Christ remained unsullied from original sin, able to offer a perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. (Kindle Locations 6355-6364, emphasis added)

Many Anabaptists in Menno’s own time, and most since, have rejected Menno’s understanding of the incarnation. So why is it worth mentioning in this post about ecclesiology?

…During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Menno’s doctrine had important soteriological and ecclesiological implications for Dutch Anabaptism. The crucial importance of the new birth depends on the incarnation through which believers are made partakers of the divine nature. Menno’s concept of the church as a community without spot or wrinkle, feasting at Communion on the heavenly “manna” that Jesus identified with his body (John 6:51), is also related to the miracle of the incarnation. (Kindle Locations 6374-6381, emphasis added)

If true believers share in Christ’s pure divine nature, then purity, surely, is a distinguishing mark of the true Church. Menno’s words:

They verily are not the true congregation of Christ who merely boast of his name. But they are the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted, who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the divine Word, and have become the children of God, have entered into obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments, and according to his holy will with all their days, or from the moment of their call. (Kindle Locations 6390-6394, emphasis added)

Thus, with the other Anabaptists, Menno wanted to restore the Church, not merely reform it:

Unlike Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, who wanted to reform the church on the basis of the Word of God, the radical reformers were more concerned to restore the primitive church, which they believed had “fallen” or apostatized… New wine could not be stored in old wineskins. Rather the New Testament church had to be restored “according to the true apostolic rule and criterion.” (Kindle Locations 6418-6422)

Doctrinal and ethical purity marked the truth Church:

Menno’s favorite word for the church was Gemeente (cf. Gemeinde), by which he designated the living fellowship or community of believers, the true communion of saints. In his Reply to Gellius Faber Menno listed the following six characteristics by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word. It is significant that four of these six marks of the church are concerned with the ethical and moral dimensions of the Christian life. (Kindle Locations 6431-6436, emphasis added)

Menno’s understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper also featured this focus on purity. George summarizes Menno’s doctrine of baptism in three affirmations. Here is the third:

Baptism is the public initiation of the believer into a life of radical discipleship... For Menno baptism signaled a response of obedience to the gospel, a literal imitation and initiation taken by a novice upon his entrance to the monastic order. In the monastic tradition, such a vow implied a radical break with one’s past life and the assumption of a new identity within the community, symbolized by the receiving of a new name and investiture in new garments. Baptism among the Anabaptists was symbolic of a similar radical change in identity and lifestyle. (Kindle Locations 6475-6485)

In his Foundation Menno discusses four affirmations about the Lord’s Supper. Here is George’s description of the fourth:

…The Supper was the Communion of the body and blood of Christ… With connotations of the heavenly flesh of Christ, Menno declared that in Communion Christians were made “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.” (Kindle Locations 6545-6550)

Menno’s emphasis on the purity of the church was related directly to his “celestial flesh” Christology and to his view of the Supper as a marriage feast or fellowship meal with the sinless Christ. As Adam had but one Eve, and Isaac but one Rebecca, and even as Christ had but one body

which was heavenly and from heaven, and was righteous and holy in all its members, so also he has but one Eve in the Spirit, but one new Rebecca, who is his spiritual body, spouse, church, bride, namely, those who are believers, the regenerate, the meek, merciful, mortified, righteous, peaceable, lovely, and obedient children in the kingdom and house of his peace; pure, chaste virgins in the spirit, holy souls, who are of his divine family and holy flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone. (Kindle Locations 6585-6591, emphasis added)

If–as all the Reformers agreed–the sacraments form the boundaries of the Church, and if it is also true–as Menno emphasized–that personal and corporate purity are intrinsic to the sacraments, then the true Church must practice church discipline.

Despite the differences among themselves, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin agreed on two essential marks or characteristics (notae) of the true church: the correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments… The Anabaptists, on the other hand, insisted that discipline, carried out in accordance with the instruction of Jesus in Matt 18:15–18, was an indispensable mark of the true church… (Kindle Locations 6568-6573)

Menno wrote three treatises on the subject of church discipline.

So prominent did the role of excommunication become in the Dutch Anabaptist tradition that one historian has dubbed the entire movement as “Anabanism.”3 …In his later years Menno regarded the strict practice of discipline as one of the features that distinguished the peaceful Anabaptists from their violence-prone rivals: “It is more than evident that if we had not been zealous in this matter these days, we would be considered and called by every man the companions of the sect of Münster and all perverted sects.” (Kindle Locations 6579-6584)

Church discipline was essential, especially for a church without the governing “help” of magistrates. But it was also a point of great controversy among the Anabaptists. For example, should a wife sleep with her husband if he was under church discipline? Answers varied.

…The formal ban was, at least in theory, only a social confirmation of a severance from Christ that had already occurred in the heart of the unrepentant member:

No one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or improper conduct. For we do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save.

The pastoral tone of this statement, which comes from Menno’s Admonition on Church Discipline (1541), was in fact often betrayed by the vindictive and harsh recriminations often involved in the shunning of expelled members. (Kindle Locations 6600-6607)

I don’t have time or space to reflect deeply here on this issue of the purity of the Church. It was a burning issue in Menno’s day, and it remains a burning one today. On the one hand, I resonate deeply with the Anabaptist insistence that Christ’s grace transforms individuals! I also heartily affirm their rejection of corpus christianum and their insistence on a believers’ Church.

That said, it is no secret that even Menno was distressed in his latter days by harsh applications of church discipline and the resulting church divisions. (Listen here to a fascinating talk by Chester Weaver which contrasts this Dutch Anabaptist experience with the Swiss Brethren emphasis on brotherly love.) Perhaps the strongest warning I would sound today is that it is deadly to retain the Anabaptist emphasis on the purity of the church while also forgetting Menno’s clear teaching about the gospel of grace and the regenerating power of the Spirit.

Let me end with three more quotes from George–one summarizing what we’ve already discussed, and two introducing more of Menno’s marks of the church:

Faced with persecution and hostility from without, the Anabaptist churches were especially on guard against corruption or laxity from within. Membership in an Anabaptist church was neither casual nor assumed; participation was perforce hearty and vigorous. A true, visible church was at once a rebaptized company of gathered saints, separated from the world in its autonomous polity and eschewal of all violent connections, and a squad of spiritual shock troops separating back to the world through congregational discipline those members whose lives betrayed their profession. (Kindle Locations 6622-6626)

Another mark of the Church:

Perhaps more so than with most other Christian groups, it is difficult to separate the ecclesiology of the Anabaptists from their ethics. Menno felt that genuine compassion for the poor was one of the marks that distinguished his movement from that of the mainline reformers. He criticized the “easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking” of the established clergy who lived in luxury while their poor members begged for food, and the old, lame, blind, and suffering ones were shunted. (Kindle Locations 6780-6783, emphasis added)

And one final mark of the true Church:

Menno… believed the true church of Christ was characterized by the fact that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone. The gospel was to be preached to everyone, but no one was to be compelled by force to accept it. These principles are accepted as axiomatic by large segments of modern society. Yet we should not forget that they were first enunciated at great risk by the early Anabaptists. (Kindle Locations 6794-6797. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of William Tyndale.)

What did you learn from these excerpts of Timothy George’s survey of Menno’s ecclesiology? What do you think we should learn from Menno today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our early Mennonite ecclesiological DNA? Share your insights and questions in the comments below. Thank you!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR 51 (1977): 176.
  2. Max Göbel, Geschichte des Christlichen Leben (Coblenz, 1848), 37.
  3. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 485.

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