Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > MN-RC > CONTENTS > Called Together To Be Peacemakes (Chapter I)

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  PREFACE - select
I. Considering History Together
      A. THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH - select
  CONCLUSION - select



23. A common re-reading of the history of the church has proven to be fruitful in recent inter-church dialogues.5 The same is true for our dialogue. Mennonites and Catholics have lived through more than 475 years of separation. Over the centuries they developed separate views of the history of the Christian tradition. By studying history together, we discovered that our interpretations of the past were often incomplete and limited. Sharing our insights and our assessments of the past helped us gain a broader view of the history of the church.

24. First of all, we recognized that both our traditions have developed interpretations of aspects of church history that were influenced by negative images of the other, though in different ways and to different degrees. Reciprocal hostile images were fostered and continued to be present in our respective communities and in our representations of each other in history. Our relationship, or better the lack of it, began in a context of rupture and separation. Since then, from the sixteenth century to the present, theological polemics have persistently nourished negative images and narrow stereotypes of each other.

25. Secondly, both our traditions have had their selective ways of looking at history. Two examples readily come to mind: the interplay of church and state in the Middle Ages, and the use of violence by Christians. We sometimes restricted our views of the history of Christianity to those aspects that seemed to be most in agreement with the self-definition of our respective ecclesial communities. Our focus was often determined by specific perspectives of our traditions, which frequently led to a way of studying the past in which the results of our research were already influenced by our ecclesiological starting-points.

26. The experience of studying the history of the church together and of re-reading it in an atmosphere of openness has been invaluable. It has helped us gain a broader view of the history of the Christian tradition. We have been reminded that we share at least fifteen centuries of common Christian history. The early church and the church of the Middle Ages were, and continue to be, the common ground for both our traditions. We have also discovered that the subsequent centuries of separation have spelled a loss to both of us. Re-reading the past together helps us to regain and restore certain aspects of our ecclesial experience that we may have undervalued or even discounted due to centuries of separation and antagonism.

27. Our common re-reading of the history of the church will hopefully contribute to the development of a common interpretation of the past. This can lead to a shared new memory and understanding. In turn, a shared new memory can free us from the prison of the past. On this basis both Catholics and Mennonites hear the challenge to become architects of a future more in conformity with Christ's instructions when he said: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:34-35). Given this commandment, Christians can take responsibility for the past. They can name the errors in their history, repent of them, and work to correct them. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder has written: "It is a specific element in the Christian message that there is a remedy for a bad record. If the element of repentance is not acted out in interfaith contact, we are not sharing the whole gospel witness".6

28. Such acts of repentance contribute to the purification of memory, which was one of the goals enunciated by Pope John Paul II during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The purification of memory aims at liberating our personal and communal consciences from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults. Jesus asks us, his disciples, to prepare for this act of purification by seeking personal forgiveness as well as extending forgiveness to others. This he did by teaching his disciples the Lord's Prayer whereby we implore: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" (Mt. 6:12). The purification of one's own memory, individually and as church communities, is a first step toward the mutual healing of memories in our inter-church dialogues and in our relationships (cf. Chapter III).

29. To begin the process of the healing of memories requires rigorous historical analysis and renewed historical evaluation. It is no small task to enter into

"a historical-critical investigation that aims at using all of the information available, with a view to a reconstruction of the environment, of the ways of thinking, of the conditions and the living dynamic in which those events and those words were placed in order in such a way to ascertain the contents and the challenges that -- precisely in their diversity -- they propose to our present time".7

Proceeding carefully in this way, a common re-reading of history may help us in purifying our understanding of the past as a step toward healing the often-painful memories of our respective communities.


30. On the eve of the Reformation, Christian Europe entered a time of change, which marked the transition from the medieval to the early modern period.8 Up to 1500, the Church had been the focal point of unity and the dominant institution of European society. But at the dawn of the early modern period its authority was challenged by the growing power of the first modern states. They consolidated and centralised their political authority and sovereignty over particular geographical areas. They tried to strengthen their power over their subjects in many aspects of human life. For centuries, secular rulers considered themselves responsible for religion in their states. But now they had new means at their disposal to consolidate such authority. This sometimes brought them into conflict with the Church, for instance in the area of ecclesiastical appointments, legal jurisdiction, and taxes.

31. The rise of the early modern states led to a decline of the consciousness of Christian unity. The ideal of a unified Christendom (christianitas) that reached its climax in the period of the Crusades was crumbling. This process had been stimulated already by the events of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. At that time there was the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the papacy (1309-1377), when the residence of the Popes was in Avignon (in present day south-eastern France). Then followed the so-called Great Western Schism (1378-1417), when the papal office was claimed by two or even three rival Popes.

32. At the same time, a divided Europe was experiencing massive social and economic changes. The sixteenth century was a period of enormous population growth. Historians estimate that the European population grew from 55 million in 1450 to 100 million in 1650. This growth was of course prominent in the urban settlements, although the majority of the population still lived in rural areas. Population growth was also accompanied by economic expansion, which mainly benefited the urban middle classes. They became the main carriers of ecclesiastical developments in the sixteenth century, both in the Reformation and in the Catholic renewal. But at the same time economic expansion was accompanied by a growing gap between rich and poor, especially in the cities but also in rural areas. Social unrest and upheaval became a familiar phenomenon in urban society, as peasant rebellions were in rural villages. To some extent this social unrest also contributed to the soil for the Radical Reformation.9

33. During this period, the cultural elite of Europe witnessed a process of intellectual and cultural renewal, identified by the words "Renaissance" and "Humanism". This process showed a variety of faces throughout Europe. For instance, in Italy it had a more 'pagan' profile than in northern Europe, where 'biblical humanists' such as Erasmus and Thomas More used humanist techniques to further piety and biblical studies. Meanwhile in France Humanism was mainly supported by a revival of legal thought. The core spirit of the Renaissance, which took its roots in Italy in the fourteenth century, is well expressed in the famous words of the historian Jacob Burkhardt as 'the discovery of the world and of humankind'. These words indicate a new appreciation for the world surrounding humanity. They also herald a new self-consciousness characterized by recognition of the unique value and character of the individual human person. Humanism can be considered as the main intellectual manifestation of the Renaissance. It developed the study of the ancient classical literature, both Latin and Greek. But it also fostered the desire to return to the roots of European civilization, back to the sources (ad fonts) and to their values. Within Christianity, this led to an in-depth study of Scripture in its original languages (Hebrew and Greek), of the Church Fathers, and of other sources of knowledge about the early church. It led as well to the exploration of other sources of knowledge about the early church. Humanism also entailed an educational program, which mainly reached the expanding urban middle classes. It fostered their self-consciousness, preparing them to participate in government and administration and to take on certain responsibilities and duties in church life and in ecclesiastical organization.

34. On the eve of the Reformation, church life and piety were flourishing. For a long time both Catholic and Protestant Church historians have described religious life at the end of the Middle Ages in terms of crisis and decline. But today the awareness is growing that these terms reflect a retrospective assessment of the situation of the Middle Ages that was determined by inadequate criteria. There is a growing tendency, both among Catholic and Protestant historians, to give a more positive evaluation of religious life around the year 1500.10 Many consider this period now to be an age of religious vitality, a period of 'booming' religiosity. They perceive the Reformation and the Catholic Reform not only as a reaction against late medieval religious life, but also and principally as the result and the fruit of this religious vitality. Certainly there were abuses among the clergy, among the hierarchy and the papacy, and among the friars. There were abuses in popular religion, in the ecclesiastical tax system, and in the system of pastoral care and administration. Absenteeism of parish priests and bishops and the accumulation of benefices were among the indicators of the problem.

35. Yet this was hardly the whole story. Religious life was at the same time characterized by a renewed emphasis on good preaching and on religious education, especially among the urban middle classes. There was a strong desire for a more profound faith. Translations of the Bible appeared in the major European vernacular languages and spread through the recently invented printing press. Religious books dominated the book market. The many confraternities that were founded on the eve of the Reformation propagated a lay spirituality. These confraternities served the social and religious needs of lay people by organizing processions and devotions, by offering prayer services and sermons, and by propagating vernacular devotional books. They also provided care and help for the sick and the dying, and for people caught in other kinds of hardships. Zealous lay movements like the so-called Devotio Moderna11 as well as preachers and writers from several religious orders propagated a spirituality of discipleship and of the 'imitation of Christ.' Many of the religious orders themselves witnessed reform movements in the fifteenth century, which led to the formation of observant branches. These groups desired to observe their religious rule in the strict and original way in which their founder intended it to be followed.

36. The Church in general also witnessed reform movements whose goal was to free the Christian community from worldliness. From simple believers to the highest church authorities, Christians were called to return to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. These reforms, which affected people at every level of society and church, criticized the pomp of the church hierarchy, spoke against absenteeism among pastors, noted the lack of good and regular preaching, and called into question the eagerness of church leaders to purchase church offices. These late medieval reform movements envisioned ideals that a century or two later would become common in the Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformation, and the Catholic Reform as well.

37. Of course, a certain externalism and even materialism and superstition were also present in late medieval popular piety. These were in evidence especially in the many devotions, in processions and pilgrimages, and in the veneration of saints and relics. But at the same time the performance of these many forms of religious behaviour reflects a strong desire for salvation, for religious experience, and a zeal for the sacred. In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation, the Radical Reformation, as well as the Catholic Reform benefited significantly from these yearnings for a higher spirituality.



38. The separation of the Anabaptists from the established Church in the sixteenth century is to be understood in the larger context of the first manifestations of the Reformation. The respective Anabaptist groups had varied origins within diverse political, social, and religious circumstances.12 Anabaptist movements first originated within the Lutheran and Zwinglian reformations in Southern Germany and Switzerland during the 1520's. In the 1530's, Anabaptist (Mennonite) movements in the Netherlands broke more directly with the Catholic Church. These ruptures had to do with understandings of baptism, ecclesiology, church-state relationships and social ethics. The latter included the rejection of violence, the rejection of oath taking, and in some cases the rejection of private property. For all at that time, but especially for the leaders in church and state, this must have been a very confusing situation. There were diverse and sometimes conflicting currents within the Anabaptist movement and within the Radical Reformation, for instance concerning the use of the sword. Nevertheless, all the Anabaptist movements, contrary to the main reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, agreed on the conviction that, since infants are not able to make a conscious commitment to Christ, only adults can be baptized after having repented of their sins and having confessed their faith. Since Anabaptists did not consider infant baptism valid, those Christians who were baptized as infants needed to be baptized again as adults. Anabaptist groups shared other convictions with related streams of the Radical Reformation. While the first Anabaptists often saw themselves in harmony with the ideals and theology of Luther and Zwingli, their rejection of infant baptism and other theological or ethical positions led both Protestants and Catholics to condemn them.

39. These condemnations should also be understood in relation to the disasters of the Peasants' War (1524-25) and the "kingdom of Münster" in Westphalia (1534-35). For Catholic rulers, the Peasants' movement was a clear sign of the subversive nature of Luther's break with Rome. To defend himself against such accusations, Luther (and other reformers) blamed the Peasants' War on people called "Enthusiasts" or "Anabaptists". It is difficult to sort out historically the origins of Anabaptism in the context of the popular movement commonly designated as the "Peasants' War". The early years of the Reformation were quite fluid, and historians now recognize that movements or churches designated as "Lutheran", "Zwinglian", or "Anabaptist", were not always clearly recognizable or distinct from each other, especially up until the tragic events of 1524-1525. Nevertheless, the radical experiment of the kingdom of Münster, where in 1534-35 the so called Melchiorites (followers of the Anabaptist lay preacher Melchior Hoffman) established a violent and dictatorial regime in order to bring about the "Day of the Lord", confirmed both Catholic and Protestant authorities in their fear of the Anabaptist movement as a serious threat to church and society. Whereas many Anabaptist groups were faithful to their principles of non-violence and pacifism, some groups nevertheless allowed the use of the sword in the establishment of the Kingdom of God.13 As a result, the term "Anabaptist", employed in both Catholic and Protestant polemics, came to connote rebellion and anarchy. Often it was deemed that Anabaptist groups who claimed to be non-violent were only so because they lacked power. Rulers thought that if the occasion arose, violence would once again be used by Anabaptists.

40. Given the close relationship between church and state, the practice of rebaptizing those who were already baptized as infants had an extremely provocative effect in the sixteenth century. For the Catholic Church and the emerging Protestant Churches, it could only be considered heretical. The practice of rebaptism had already been condemned in the early fifth century as reflected in Augustine's polemics against the Donatists, a separatist movement in North Africa, who rebaptized all recruits from the established Church.14 For the state, a law of the Roman emperors Honorius and Theodosius of 413 determined severe penalties for the practice of rebaptism. In 529, the emperor Justinian I, in reproducing the Theodosian edict in his revision of Roman law, specified the penalty as capital punishment.15 On the basis of this ancient imperial law against the Donatists, the Diet of Speyer in 1529 proclaimed the death penalty for all acts of "rebaptism".

Images of Each Other

41. Mennonites and Catholics have harboured negative images of each other ever since the sixteenth century. Such negative images must of course be put into the context of early modern Catholic and Protestant polemical theology. Nevertheless both Catholics and Protestants condemned and persecuted the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists considered the Protestant Reformers to be as reprehensible as the Catholic Church they had left.

42. Anabaptists shared many of the common Reformation images of the Catholic Church. Along with other Protestant reformers, Anabaptists accused Catholics of works righteousness and of sacramental idolatry. They saw the Reformation as a prelude to the end of time, and viewed the Pope as the Antichrist. Anabaptists soon left the Reformation camp, criticizing both Catholics and Protestants for what they saw as very unhealthy relationships with political power. They considered the Church to be fallen. This fall was associated with the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius and the fact that Christianity was officially proclaimed as the only religion of the Roman Empire. They saw infant baptism as the culminating sign of a religion that forced people to be Christians independent of any faith commitment. In the eyes of the Anabaptists, such Christianity could not be ethically serious nor produce the fruits of discipleship. Persecution and execution of Anabaptists increased the level of polemics and fostered negative images. Anabaptists saw Catholic religion as being based on ceremonies, works, tradition and superstition. Priests were characterized as ignorant, lazy and evil. The Martyrs' Mirror, compiled by a Dutch Mennonite in the seventeenth century, tells the stories of many Anabaptist martyrs. It puts them in the context of the faithful church throughout the centuries. Through narrative and engravings, this very important book for Mennonites portrays Catholics and Protestants as persecutors, torturers and executioners. As the centuries went on, Mennonites often lacked direct knowledge about the Catholic Church and her history, but they retained their earlier views.

43. For Catholics, Anabaptists represented the logical outcome of Protestant heresy and schism. When Luther left the Catholic Church, he rejected the only legitimate Christian authority of the time. This opened up the door to numerous and contradictory readings of Scripture as well as to political subversion. Alongside traditional Catholic objections to "Protestantism", the rejection of infant baptism and the practice of rebaptizing dominated the early Catholic theological reaction against Anabaptism. Catholics saw Anabaptists as ignorant people whose theologians did not know Latin. For example, they charged that the Anabaptist theologian, Dr. Balthasar Hubmaier, was an agitator, an enemy of government and an immoral person. For a long time, even into the twentieth century, Catholic writers associated the most peaceful followers of Menno Simons with the radical Melchiorites of Münster. In fact, Catholic theologians had limited knowledge of the history of Anabaptism. They saw Anabaptists as restoring old heresies that had been condemned long ago. All this was complicated by the fact that during the sixteenth century, Catholic theologians were writing against people whom the state, at the request of both Catholic and Protestant princes, had already condemned to death at the Diet of Speyer (see para. 40 above), and who therefore lived outside the protection of the law.

An Ecclesiology of Restitution

44. The question of the apostolic nature of the church created a major ecclesiological divide between Anabaptists and Catholics during the sixteenth century. From the early centuries on, Christians of both East and West had understood apostolic succession via the office of bishops as ensuring the transmission of the faith and therefore the transmission of the apostolic nature of the church throughout the ages. Sixteenth century Anabaptists, on the contrary, rejected the idea of an apostolic continuity guaranteed by the institutional Church. They began to speak of the "fall" of the Church and described it as a sign of her unfaithfulness. This unfaithfulness implied the necessity of a restitution of the "apostolic" church. The Catholics and most of the magisterial reformers considered infant baptism to be an apostolic tradition, practised from the beginning of the church. Anabaptists, on the contrary, saw the general acceptance of infant baptism, together with the close political ties between church and empire (Constantine and Theodosius), as the major signs of apostasy from the apostolic vision of the faithful church and therefore as evidence of the "fall". For the Anabaptists, correspondence with the New Testament writings on ethical and doctrinal issues became the test for measuring apostolic Christianity. Faithfulness was defined not as maintaining institutional continuity, but as restitution of the New Testament faith. In their view, the restoration and preservation of the apostolic church required them to break away from the institutional church of their day. Continuity was sought not through the succession of bishops, but rather through faithfulness to the apostolic witness of Scripture and by identification with people and movements. For example, the Waldensians and the Franciscans were considered by the Anabaptists as faithful representatives of true Christianity throughout the course of their long history.16

Persecution and Martyrdom

45. One of the results of the division among Christians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, given the approach to judicial matters and punishment at that time, was persecution and martyrdom.17 Given the close relationship between religion and society, the establishment of the principle cuius regio, eius religio (the religion of the ruler is to be the established religion of a region or a state) at the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 contributed to the already strongly negative sentiments between separated Christians. It introduced a type of society where one specific Christian confession (Catholic, Lutheran, and later Reformed) became the established religion of a given territory. This type of society, the so-called confessional state, was characterized by intolerance towards persons of other Christian confessions. Due to this specific and particular political situation, martyrdom became a common experience for Christians of all confessions, be it Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican or Anabaptist.

46. Mennonites suffered greatly in this period, both in Protestant and in Catholic states. Many governments did not tolerate Radical Reformation dissidents, including pacifist Anabaptists. According to recent estimations, approximately 5,000 persons were executed for their religious beliefs in the course of the sixteenth century. Of these, between 2,000 and 2,500 were Anabaptist and Mennonite men and women, the majority of them in Catholic territories, who were convicted of heresy.18 Anabaptists could hardly find any stable political haven in sixteenth century Europe. In some countries the persecution of Mennonites would last for centuries. In some states they were discriminated against and subjected to social and political restrictions even into the twentieth century, especially because of their principled attitude of conscientious objection.

47. For Anabaptists and Mennonites, discipleship indeed implied the openness to oppression, persecution, and violent death. The danger of persecution and martyrdom became a part of the Mennonite identity. As the Mennonite scholar Cornelius Dyck has written, "the possibility of martyrdom had a radical impact on all who joined the group -- on their priorities, status and self-consciousness".19 Mennonites held their martyrs in highest regard. They sang of their faithful testimony and celebrated their memory by collecting their stories in martyrologies, such as Het Offer des Heeren (The Sacrifice unto the Lord) and Thieleman Jans van Braght's Martelaers Spiegel (Martyrs' Mirror), which is still read today within the global Mennonite church.

48. Catholics never suffered any persecution at the hands of Mennonites.20 Nevertheless, in the consideration of the Anabaptist and Mennonite experience of martyrdom and persecution, it is important to note that, in their post-medieval history, Catholics have also known this experience. In some territories where the Reformed and Lutheran confession was established, and also in England after the establishment of the Church of England, Catholics were subject to persecution and to the death penalty. A number of them, especially priests, monks and nuns, were brutally martyred for their faith. Persecution of Catholics and violation of religious freedom continued in some countries for centuries. For a long while, the practice of the Catholic faith was not allowed publicly in England and in several Lutheran countries such as in Scandinavia and in the Dutch Republic. Catholics were able to practice their faith openly in these countries only by the end of the eighteenth or the beginning of the nineteenth century. In some cases discrimination against the Catholics lasted into the twentieth century. During those restrictive years, both Catholics and Mennonites in several countries were constrained to live a hidden life.

Areas of Future Study

49. When conflict occurs within an institution and separation ensues, discourse easily takes on the nature of self-justification. As Mennonites and Catholics begin discussion after centuries of separate institutional existence, we need to be aware that we have developed significant aspects of our self-understandings and theologies in contexts where we have often tried to prove that we are right and they are wrong. We need tools of historical research that help us to see both what we have in common as well as to responsibly address the differences that separate us. Mennonites now have almost five centuries of accumulated history to deal with, along with a growing experience of integration into the established society. Catholics, on the other hand, increasingly find themselves in situations of disestablishment where they are faced with the same questions as Mennonites were facing as a minority church in an earlier era. These facts could help both traditions to be more open to the concerns of the other, and to look more carefully at the fifteen centuries of commonly shared history as well as the different paths each has taken since the sixteenth century. Our shared history of fifteen centuries, built upon the foundation of the patristic period, reminds us of the debt that Western Christianity owes to the East, as well as of the rich and varied theological, cultural, spiritual and artistic traditions that flourished in the Middle Ages.

50. Contemporary historical scholarship speaks of the "Left Wing of the Reformation" or of the "Radical Reformation". Less polemical and less confessional historical perspectives demonstrate that there were many different theologies and approaches among the Reformation dissidents. Not only were there Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Rationalists among those called "Enthusiasts" or "Schwärmer". There were also different kinds of Anabaptists and Spiritualists. Present day Mennonites find their origins in the non-violent Anabaptist groups of Switzerland, southern Germany and the Netherlands. Both Catholic and Mennonite scholars now have become aware of the complicated situation of the sixteenth century rupture within Christianity. They also acknowledge that the rupture between the Catholic Church and the Anabaptist groups should be studied and understood within the broader framework of the social, political and religious conflicts of the sixteenth century. The oppression and persecution of Anabaptists and Mennonites need to be perceived and evaluated within the framework of a society that resorted to violent 'solutions' rather than to dialogue.

51. Further joint studies by Catholic and Mennonite historians would deepen our knowledge and awareness of the complexity of our histories. Catholics would do well to acquaint themselves with the history of the extreme diversity of the radical movements. This would help prevent continual historical misrepresentations of Mennonites. At the same time, Mennonites need to rethink how difficult it must have been in the sixteenth century to sort out the differences among those who had rejected both Rome and Luther. Those who now call themselves Mennonites came to a doctrinal understanding of non-violence only after the Peasants' War (1527 at Schleitheim in the case of the Swiss Anabaptists) and after Münster (1534-1535 in the case of the Dutch Anabaptists).

52. The common experience of martyrdom and persecution could help both Catholics and Mennonites to reach a renewed understanding of the meaning of martyrdom in the painful division of the Christian church in the early modern period, given the close relationship between religion and society at that time. A common study of the history of sixteenth century martyrdom and persecution can help Catholics to appreciate and esteem the Mennonite experience of martyrdom and its impact on Mennonite spirituality and identity. Mennonites could benefit from a study of the Catholic Church's minority status in many countries since the Reformation period and from the knowledge that Catholics have also had the experience of being persecuted over the centuries.


53. After having studied the sixteenth century together, it became clear to our dialogue group that further joint historical work was necessary on two other periods. In the Reformation period conflicting understandings of these periods of history were a major reason for separation. The following sections reflect our consideration of both the Constantinian era and the later medieval period.

A Joint Reading of Events and Changes

54. By 'Constantinian era,' 'change' and 'shift,' we refer to the important developments that took place from the beginning of the fourth century onward. Mennonites and other radical reformers often refer to these changes as the 'Constantinian Fall'.21 In 313, the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which allowed Christianity to exist without persecution alongside other religions. He also required all buildings, cemeteries, and other properties taken in earlier persecutions to be returned to the church. In 380, the emperor Theodosius I decreed Christianity as the official religion of the Empire by raising the Nicene Creed to imperial law. At this point, religions other than Christianity no longer had legal status in the Roman Empire, and they often became the objects of persecution. Due to these changes, the Church developed from a suppressed church (ecclesia pressa) to a tolerated church (ecclesia tolerata), and then to a triumphant church (ecclesia vincens) within the Roman Empire.22

55. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity became a respected religion, with greater freedom to fulfill its mission in the world. Churches were built and worship took place without fear of persecution. The Gospel was preached throughout the world with the intention of evangelising culture and society under favourable political circumstances. But during the same period, civil rulers sometimes exercised authority over the Church and often asserted the right to control ecclesiastical affairs. And, in some instances, though not without resistance from the Church, they convened synods and councils and controlled various kinds of ecclesiastical appointments, especially those of the bishops in the main cities of the empire. The Church accepted the favours and the benevolent treatment by the state. The power of the state was used to enforce Christian doctrines. To some extent Christians even accepted the use of violence, for instance in the defence of orthodoxy and in the struggle against paganism although some did resist this use of violence. In the ensuing centuries of the Middle Ages, this arrangement led in some cases to forced conversion of large numbers of people, to coercion in matters of faith, and to the application of the death penalty against 'heretics'.23 Together we repudiate those aspects of the Constantinian era that were departures from some characteristic Christian practices and deviations from the Gospel ethic. We acknowledge the Church's failure when she justified the use of force in evangelism, sought to create and to maintain a unitary Christian society by coercive means, and persecuted religious minorities.

56. A common rereading of the history of the early Church by Mennonites and Catholics has been fostered by at least two recent developments. First of all, the social environment and societal position of both the Catholic Church and the Mennonite churches have changed. In many parts of the world Mennonite churches have left their position of isolation that was often imposed by others. Thus Mennonites are experiencing the challenges of taking up responsibilities within society. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Catholic Church 1) affirmed freedom of religion and conscience for all, 2) opposed coercion in matters of religion, and 3) sought from the state for itself and all communities of believers only freedom for individuals and for communities in matters of religion.24 The Catholic Church thus renounced any desire to have a predominant position in society and to be recognized as a state church.25 In the following decades, the Catholic Church strenuously defended the principle of religious freedom and of the separation of church and state. In his encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991), Pope John Paul II stated that religious freedom is the "source and synthesis" of other human rights. Secondly, the 1999 document, "Memory and Reconciliation", published by the International Theological Commission, challenges us to study the history of the Church, and to recognize the faults of the past, as a means of facilitating the reconciliation of memories and the healing of wounds.

57. Both our traditions regret certain aspects of the Constantinian era, but we also recognize that some developments of the fourth and fifth centuries had roots in the early history of the church, and were in legitimate continuity with it. Mennonites have a strong negative interpretation of the Constantinian change. Catholics have a strong sense of the continuity of the Church during that period and through the ages. But both of us also recognise that past eras were very different from the present, and we also need to be careful about judging historical events according to contemporary standards.

Areas of Future Study

58. We can agree that through a reading together of sources of the early church, we are discovering ways of overcoming some of the stereotypes that we have had of each other. The ressourcement (return to the sources) that the Catholic church engaged in when preparing for the Second Vatican Council, enriched Catholicism, and a parallel movement is beginning in contemporary Anabaptism.26 With the use of early Christian sources we can affirm new ways of understanding the question of continuity and of renewal in history. We can both agree that the study of the Constantinian era is significant for us in that it raises important questions regarding the mission of the church to the world and its methods of evangelisation.

59. Various aspects of post-Constantinian Christendom have different meanings in our respective traditions. Catholics would see matters such as the generalization of infant baptism, the evolution of the meaning of conversion, as well as Christian attitudes toward military service and oath taking as examples of legitimate theological developments. Mennonites consider the same phenomena as unfortunate changes of earlier Christian practice and as unfaithfulness to the way of Jesus. Catholics understand the establishment of a Christian society during the Middle Ages, which attempted to bring all social, political, and economic structures into harmony with the Gospel, to have been a worthy goal. Mennonites remain opposed to the theological justification of such an endeavour, and are critical of its results in practice. Mennonites also tend to identify and locate the continuity of the church during this period, in people and in movements that were sometimes rejected as heretical by the Catholic Church. To be sure, they also see continuity in reform movements within the medieval church.

60. Mennonites can affirm the position on religious liberty that was adopted in the Second Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom" (Dignitatis humanae) in 1965. A key quote from the "Declaration" reads as follows:

"This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups or of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits" (Dignitatis humanae, 2).

This quotation and the entire text reflects in many ways the position that was taken by sixteenth century Anabaptists. Such Anabaptists as Balthasar Hubmaie27 or Pilgram Marpeck28 questioned the use of coercion in relation to religious pluralism and criticised the use of political means against those who believe differently or who have no religious beliefs at all. This same declaration signifies that the Catholic Church renounces the claim to be a "state" church in any and every context. Protestants are no longer addressed as heretics, but as separated sisters and brothers in Christ, even while there are continuing disagreements, and while visible unity has not yet been achieved. It was this "Declaration" as well as other important documents of the Second Vatican Council that contributed significantly to dialogues such as this one. In light of these changes, new possibilities for relating to one another are becoming possible.

61. Catholics affirm that the "Declaration on Religious Freedom" represents a development in doctrine that has strong foundations in Scripture and tradition.29 The "Declaration" states that:

"In the life of the People of God, as it has made its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history, there has at times appeared a way of acting that was hardly in accord with the spirit of the Gospel, or even opposed to it. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Church that no one is to be coerced into faith has always stood firm".30

Mennonite readings of medieval history doubt such a claim. They state that major theologians, Popes, ecumenical councils, emperors and kings justified persecution theologically. They supported the punishment of heretics by the state, and in some instances, from Theodosius onward, the Church forced the 'christianisation' of large numbers of people. The continuity of the tradition and the differing interpretations of the development of doctrine in this respect, as well as the different ways of evangelisation, need further joint study. Nonetheless, the contemporary Catholic position on this question allows for significant progress in dialogue, and for mutual comprehension and collaboration.

62. Catholics and Mennonites have different interpretations of the historical development of the practice of infant baptism in Christianity. Catholics understand the baptism of children as a long-held tradition of the Church in the East and in the West, going back to the first centuries of Christianity. They refer to the fact that liturgical documents, such as "The Apostolic Tradition" (ca. 220) and Church Fathers such as Origen and Cyprian of Carthage, speak about infant baptism as an ancient and apostolic tradition. Mennonites, on the other hand, consider the introduction of the practice of infant baptism as a later development and they see its generalization as the result of changes in the concept of conversion during the Constantinian era. The historical development of the practice of baptism in relation to the changing position of the Christian Church in culture and society needs to be studied together more thoroughly by both Catholic and Mennonite scholars.


Reviewing our Respective Images of the Middle Ages

63. In looking repeatedly at church history in the Middle Ages, both Catholic and Mennonite historians are becoming aware of the fact that their images of the medieval church may be one-sided, incomplete, and often biassed. These images need careful revision and amplification in the light of modern scholarship. To Catholic historians it is becoming clear that the Middle Ages were not as deeply christianised as the nineteenth century image of the 'Catholic Middle Ages' wanted to see them.31 To Mennonite historians it is becoming clear that the Middle Ages were not as barbaric and decayed as their restitutionist view depicted them. The period between the early church and the Reformation era is considered now to be much more complex, varied, many-voiced and many-coloured than the denominational images of this period wanted us to believe.

64. Therefore, for both our traditions, it is important to see the 'other' Middle Ages, namely those aspects of the period that are often lacking in the image that is popular and widespread in our respective religious communities. For Catholics, besides the positive aspects of the Christian civilization of the Middle Ages, it is important to see the elements of violence, of conversion by force, of the links between the church and secular power, and of the dire effects of feudalism in medieval Christendom. For Mennonites, besides the negative aspects, it is important to see that Christian faith also served as a basis for criticizing secular powers and violence in the Middle Ages. Several reform movements, led by monasteries (for example, Cluny), but also by the Popes (notably, the Gregorian Reform), tried to free the Church from secular influences and political dominance.32 Unfortunately, they succeeded only to a very limited extent. Other movements, often led by monks and ascetics, but also by Popes and bishops, tried to restrict the use of violence in medieval Christianity, and sought to protect the innocent, the weak and the defenceless. Again, their efforts were met with very limited success. Nevertheless, within the often-violent society of medieval Christendom there was an uninterrupted tradition of ecclesiastical peace movements.33 All these movements and initiatives reminded the medieval church of her vocation and her mission: to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to promote peace and justice. Their pursuit of the freedom of the Church from secular domination was also a pursuit of the purity of the Church. Similar concerns took shape in the Free Churches of the sixteenth century.

Medieval Traditions of Spirituality and Discipleship and the Roots of Anabaptist-Mennonite Identity

65. Moreover, the medieval church reveals an ongoing tradition of Christian spirituality, of discipleship (Nachfolge), and of the imitation of Christ. From the early monastic tradition up to the mendicant friars of the High Middle Ages, and from the movements of itinerant preachers up to the houses of Sisters and Brethren of the Common Life, medieval Christians were in search of what the challenge of the Gospel might mean for their way of living.34 They tried to discover how their personal relationship with Jesus might change their lives. The concept of conversion gained a new and real meaning to them. They were not Christians merely out of habit or by birth.

66. Both Catholic and Mennonite historians have recently made clear that at least a part of the spiritual roots of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is to be found in this medieval tradition of discipleship.35 Key concepts of the Anabaptist-Mennonite identity, such as yieldedness (Gelassenheit), discipleship (Nachfolge), repentance (Bussfertigkeit), and conversion were developed through the Middle Ages in all kinds of spiritual traditions. They are found in the Benedictine and the Franciscan tradition, in the tradition of German mysticism, and in that of the "Modern Devotion". Medieval and post-medieval Catholic spirituality, on the one hand, and Anabaptist and Mennonite spirituality, on the other, are essentially in harmony, with respect to their common objective: holy living in word and deed.

67. Recent scholarship has also shown that the early Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, as well as others such as the Lutheran tradition, used the same catechetical basis as did medieval Christianity. Both traditions considered the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles' Creed and the Ten Commandments to express and represent the essence of Christian faith and doctrine. In this sense, early Anabaptist sources stood in a clearly identifiable medieval tradition. As their medieval predecessors had done, Anabaptist leaders considered these three texts to be essential elements of Christian knowledge. They accepted conventional catechetical presuppositions of the medieval tradition and used them as a prerequisite and a preparation for baptism.36

Areas of Future Study

68. Mennonites and Catholics share the need for a fuller appreciation of the variety of medieval Christianity. They are both engaged in (re-)discovering unknown aspects of their common past, the 'other' Middle Ages. Nevertheless, they still have a differing appreciation of their common medieval background. Mennonites might tend to evaluate certain spiritual movements in the Middle Ages as rare exceptions that prove the rule, whereas Catholics might be inclined to consider them as the normal pattern of medieval Christianity. Mennonites and Catholics might reach a deeper understanding of their common background by reading and studying the history of medieval Christian spirituality together. Finally, further scholarly research is important in the field of the relationship between medieval traditions of discipleship and the early Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. Can Anabaptist-Mennonite piety indeed be understood as a non-sacramental and communitarian transformation of medieval spirituality and asceticism?


  1. Cf. the following samples from bilateral dialogues: 1) "Towards a Common Understanding of the Church: Reformed/Roman Catholic International Dialogue, Second Phase (1984-1990)", chapter 1, "Toward a Reconciliation of Memories", and chapter 3, "The Church We Confess and our Divisions in History", Information Service 74 (1990/III), pp. 93-102, pp. 106-115; 2) The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (1999), Information Service 103 (2000/I-II), pp. 3-6; 3) "Les entretiens luthéro-mennonites (1981-1984)", Cahiers de Christ Seul, No. 16 (1984); 4) Bericht vom Dialog VELKD/Mennoniten: 1989 bis 1992, Texte aus der VELKD, 53 (Hannover: Lutherisches Kirchenamt der VELKD, 1993).

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  2. John Howard Yoder, "The Disavowal of Constantine: An Alternative Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue", in: The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 242-261, esp. p. 251.

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  3. Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and Faults of the Past, 4.1, International Theological Commission, Vatican City, December, 1999.

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  4. For paragraph 30 and following, cf. Thomas Brady, Jr., Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, eds., Handbook of European History, 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation (Leiden/NY/Cologne: E.J. Brill, 1994), 2 vols., reprinted Grand Rapids, 1996; John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); John W. O'Malley, ed., Catholicism in Early Modern Europe (St. Louis: Center for Reformation Research, 1988); Robert Bireley, The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450-1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation (New York/London: Macmillan, 1999).

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  5. The term, "Radical Reformation", was introduced by the historian George Hunston Williams in his famous book of the same title, The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992). By "Radical Reformation" we mean that sixteenth century movement which rebelled not only against the Catholic Church at that time but also against the classical Reformers. It consisted of varied groups such as the leaders of the Great Peasants' War (1524-1525), the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, Evangelical Rationalists, Unitarians and Schwenckfelders. Others label these groups as the 'Left Wing of the Reformation.'

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  6. For instance, see Bernd Moeller's famous article "Frömmigkeit in Deutschland um 1500", Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 56 (1965), pp. 5-30, translated several times, for example, as "Piety in Germany Around 1500", in: Steven E. Ozment, ed., The Reformation in Medieval Perspective (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), pp. 50-75. See also Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1992).

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  7. Devotio Moderna or 'Modern (= New, Contemporary) Devotion' is the name of a movement of spiritual renewal that laid great emphasis on the inner life of the individual and on the imitation of Christ. It was inspired by the deacon Geert Grote (1340-1384), and had its origins in the Low Countries, but during the fifteenth century it was spread all over Western Europe. See R.R. Post, The Modern Devotion (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968); G. Epinay-Burgard, Gérard Grote (1340-1384) et les débuts de la dévotion moderne (Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1970); John van Engen, Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1988).

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  8. Cf. James M. Stayer, Werner O. Packull, and Klaus DEPPERMANN, "From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: The Historical Discussion of Anabaptist Origins", Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (1975), pp. 83-122.

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  9. Cf. James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 2nd edition (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1976).

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  10. Cf. William H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1952).

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  11. Cf. Code of Justinian, book I, tit. 6,2.

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  12. Extended efforts to describe this continuity can be found in The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, translated and edited by the Hutterian Brethren (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1987); and in Thieleman J. van Braght, Bloody Theater or Martyrs' Mirror, translated from the Dutch Edition of 1660 by Joseph Sohm, 5th English edition (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1950).

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  13. Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake. Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge/London: Harvard University, 1999), esp. chapter 6 on Anabaptists and Martyrdom and chapter 7 on Roman Catholics and Martyrdom.

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  14. James M. Stayer, "Numbers in Anabaptist Research", in C. Arnold Snyder, ed., Commoners and Community: Essays in Honour of Werner O. Packull (Waterloo: Herald Press, 2002), pp. 51-73, esp. pp. 58-59. Anabaptist and Mennonite martyrs then constituted about 40 to 50 percent of all the religious martyrs of the sixteenth century.

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  15. Cornelius J. Dyck, "The Suffering Church in Anabaptism", Mennonite Quarterly Review 59 (1985), p. 5.

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  16. Cf. Brad S. Gregory, op. cit., p. 319. While there are no known instances of Mennonites persecuting or executing Catholics in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, Catholic soldiers may have been victims of the violence of the siege of Münster in Westphalia (1534-1535). Whether or not this is an instance of Anabaptist persecution of Catholics is an unresolved question of our discussions. For Catholics, this incident raises the possibility of Catholic deaths at the hands of Anabaptists. For Mennonites, both the Schleitheim confession (1527) and Menno Simons' critiques during and after these events have founded a consistent Mennonite rejection, from that time until the present, of what happened at Münster and all efforts at theologically justifying such actions.

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  17. Cf. Walter Klaassen, "The Anabaptist Critique of Constantinian Christendom", Mennonite Quarterly Review 55 (1981), pp. 218-230.

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  18. Cf. Gerhard Ruhbach, ed., Die Kirche angesichts der Konstantinischen Wende (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976); Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York/London: Knopf, 1987); Jochen Bleicken, Constantin der Große und die Christen (München: Oldenbourg,1992); Michael Grant, Constantine the Great. The Man and his Times (New York: Prentice Hall, 1994); T.G. Elliott, The Christianity of Constantine the Great (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997).

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  19. Cf. Ramsey MacMullen, "Christianity Shaped through its Mission", in: Alan Kreider, ed., The Origins of Christendom in the West (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), pp. 97-117; Gilbert Dagron, Pierre Riché and André Vauchez, eds., Évêques moines et empereurs (610-1054), Histoire du christianisme, vol. 4 (Paris: Desclée, 1993), p. 637; Michel Rouche, Clovis (Paris: Fayard, 1996), p. 143; W.R. Cannon, Histoire du christianisme au Moyen Âge: de la chute de Rome à la chute de Constantinople (Paris: Éditions Payot, 1961), p. 8; Jacques le Goff and René Rémond, eds., Histoire de la France religieuse, vol. 1 (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1988), p. 179.

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  20. See Vatican Council's "Declaration on Religious Freedom", Dignitatis humanae, especially 6-7, 12-13, also 2, 4, 9 and Gaudium et spes, 41 and 42.

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  21. Cf. Gaudium et spes 76 which states: "The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system … The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other".

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  22. Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Harrisburg: 1999); Idem, The Origins of Christendom, op. cit.

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  23. "But a Turk or heretic cannot be overcome by our own doing, neither by sword nor by fire, but alone with patience and supplication, whereby we patiently await divine judgment", Balthasar Hubmaier, "On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them", in: H. Wayne Pipkin and John Howard Yoder, eds., Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, Classics of the Radical Reformation, 5 (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989), p. 62.

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  24. "All external things including life and limb are subjected to external authority. But no one may coerce or compel true faith in Christ…", Pilgram Marpeck, "Exposé of the Babylonian Whore", in: Walter Klaassen, Werner Packull, and John Rempel, Later Writings of Pilgram Marpeck and his Circle, vol. I (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1999), p. 27.

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  25. Cf. Walter Kasper, "The Theological Foundations of Human Rights", The Jurist 50 (1990), p. 153.

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  26. Dignitatis humanae, 12.

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  27. John Van Engen, "The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem", American Historical Review 91 (1986), pp. 519-552.

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  28. Christopher M. Bellitto, Renewing Christianity. A History of Church Reform from Day One to Vatican II (New York: Paulist Press, 2001).

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  29. Ronald G. Musto, The Catholic Peace Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1986).

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  30. Bernard McGinn, et al., Christian Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1985-1989), 3 vols.

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  31. Kenneth Ronald Davis, Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1998); C. Arnold Snyder, "The Monastic Origins of Swiss Anabaptist Sectarianism", Mennonite Quarterly Review 57 (1983), pp. 5-26; C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale/Kitchener: Herald Press, 1984); Peter Nissen, "De Moderne Devotie en het Nederlands-Westfaalse Doperdom: op zoek naar relaties en invloeden", in: P. Bange a.o. eds., De Doorwerking van de Moderne Devotie. Windesheim 1387-1987 (Hilversum: Verloren, 1988), pp. 95-118; Dennis D. Martin, "Monks, Mendicants and Anabaptist: Michael Sattler and the Benedictines reconsidered", Mennonite Quarterly Review 60 (1986), pp. 139-164; Dennis D. Martin, "Catholic Spirituality and Anabaptist and Mennonite Discipleship", Mennonite Quarterly Review 62 (1988), pp. 5-25.

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  32. Russell Snyder-Penner, "The Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed as Early Anabaptist Texts", Mennonite Quarterly Review 68 (1994), pp. 318-335.

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