The origins of the Anabaptist Tradition is an ongoing and contested one--from a monogenesis of pacifism and peace to a varied and complex polygenesis, the history of 16th century Anabaptist research remains lively and animated, both in the beginnings and contemporary applications of such an interpretation. Then, there is, of course, the haunting demon of the Munster Rebellion of 1534-1535 that lingers and will not disappear.
The appeal of Abraham Friesen’s book, Menno Simons: Dutch Reformer Between Luther, Erasmus and the Holy Spirit, is the way he ably and nimbly navigates the important areas of Menno scholarship. It is impossible, of course, to disconnect Menno Simons from his historic context, hence Part I of the tome (“The Reformation, An Era of Recovery and Conflict: Revolutions, Spiritual and Material”) reveals, on a broad and convincing cavass the reality within which Simons lived, moved and had his being. The more pressing and not to be denied or ignored context is covered in much more depth and detail in Part II (“The Movement: Munster as Background and Context”). Friesen devotes almost 100 pages (about ¼ of the book) to the Munster Rebellion from which Menno Simons articulated and lived forth an alternate faith journey and, in many ways, birthed the Mennonites.
There was in Menno Simons’ writings and life a congealing of a vision that pointed the way forward for the Mennonite clan and denomination.
The major part of Menno Simons is focussed in Part III (“The Man, Menno Simons: Dutch Reformer between Luther, Erasmus and the Holy Spirit”). It is in Part III that the burden and deeper research is unpacked and revealed in intricate and meticulous detail (almost 250 pages are committed to both recounting the life of Simons and, equally important, encountering the “problem areas of Menno scholarship”).
It is this double entendre of both a retelling of Simons’ life and an intermingling of such a rewriting by engaging Menno scholarship that makes this new book on Menno Simons a plough to soil break through beauty of a read. Friesen has done his homework well and wisely and the finished product makes this abundantly clear.
There is, of course, yet another approach to understanding the journey of Menno Simons that Friesen deftly and insightfully navigates. There can be no doubt that two of the major reformers of the first half of the 16th century were Erasmus and Martin Luther, and, when push came to shove (even though Erasmus did support Luther into the early 1520s) Erasmus parted paths with Luther for a variety of significant reasons. Menno Simons, needless to say, could not ignore the towering presences of both Erasmus and Luther and Friesen, to his thoughtful and engaged research credit, amply illustrates just how Simons found a different pathway than that of Erasmus and Luther, hence the subtitle of the tome (“Dutch Reformer between Luther and Erasmus”). There is yet more to Simons’ journey than a reformer between Erasmus and Luther--there is the indwelling and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is fitting that Friesen should include this in Simons’ journey as a reformer for the simple reason that a sensitive attitude to the inner life was central to Menno Simons.
There are many reasons that Menno Simons: Dutch Reformer Between Luther, Erasmus, and the Holy Spirit should be a must read--a deeper and more thorough feel for the life of Simons and internal debates about how to interpret Simons, the origins of Anabaptism, the ways and means Simons articulated a route different from Erasmus and Luther (and why) and the life giving reality of the Holy Spirit in Simons’ life and writings. Obviously, a valuable counter to Friesen’s tome would be how Erasmus and Luther would differ with Simons and why, but this would be the labour of another book. There has been a tendency in much Erasmus and Luther scholarship to either ignore Menno Simons and the Anabaptists or only see them in a more reactionary, reductionist or violent manner (Munster). The valuable contribution of Friesen’s Menno Simons is the way he, rightly so, suggests that Simons needs to be seen as a mature dialogical partner in the complex nature of 1st generation Reformation history.