The Anabaptist Vision

Now that our series on teaching the history of World War I in Europe (“Over There”) is well underway, I’m starting a new (though somewhat less frequently updated) series stemming from my research into Pietism and higher education, in which we consider some significant (neo)Anabaptist critiques of Pietism.

Growing up in suburban evangelical churches, I didn’t exactly have a lot of encounters with Anabaptism. I’m sure I was aware of the Amish, though that awareness ranked about a 2.7 on a five-point Likert scale with 5 = having watched Witness more than once and 1 = these recent comments from former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher about the folk-rock band Mumford & Sons:

Mumford and Sons
Anabaptist Chic?

I’m sure they’re all nice lads but that’s not for me, man. They look like f***ing Amish people. You know them ones with the big sideys that don’t use electricity? Growing their own food and putting barns up.

And I have to admit: when I first came to Bethel and joined the teaching team for the introductory Western Civ/church history course that most 1st year students take, I was taken aback that a one-semester sprint through nearly 2500 years of history would devote a full lecture to 16th century Anabaptism.

Over time, however, it’s come to be one of my favorite lectures to deliver, and I appreciate the wisdom of that course’s designers in recognizing that a tradition can have significance far out of proportion to its numbers or name recognition. Indeed, if John Howard Yoder isn’t quite “widely read” on the Bethel campus, I’m sure that The Politics of Jesus or Greg Boyd’s Yoder-regurgitating book Myth of a Christian Nation is quoted or paraphrased in at least one paper in every course I teach.

And as someone who’s rediscovered his own Pietist heritage, I’m happy to find common ground with any other tradition that prizes practice over belief, Scripture over doctrine, and irenic conversation over heresy-hunting.

It’s taken me by surprise, then, to realize how negatively some leading 20th century Anabaptists felt about Pietism. I first came across such sentiments in researching my project on Pietism as a usable past in the historiographies of Christian colleges and universities (which I’ll be blogging through in a separate series), when I found that certain scholars in the various Brethren traditions discarded or diminished their Pietist roots and affirmed a proudly Anabaptist vision. (Especially true of the Mennonite Brethren tradition, less so of the Church of the Brethren and Brethren in Christ, as we’ll see.)

Where did this antipathy come from?

One can surely trace such conflicts back to the early modern period and the origins of both traditions. And just as surely, the critique does not flow in one direction. In the 18th century Radical Pietists (some of whom embraced pacifism, rejected infant baptism, or separated from the state churches of Germany) interacted with Mennonite communities in Europe and North America, but often found the Anabaptists’ version of Christianity almost as cold and sterile as they did the magisterial form of Protestantism. Most famously, Schwarzenau Brethren leader Alexander Mack derided German Mennonites as “deteriorated baptists.”

Harold S. Bender
Harold S. Bender - Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

But in terms of the historiography I deal with in my research, the Anabaptist critique of Pietism emerged most clearly in the neo-Anabaptist revival of the mid-20th century centered at Goshen College in Indiana, where Harold S. Bender taught church history, Bible, and sociology and served as dean.

Bender’s leading role in the revival started in the 1920s, when he helped to develop the Mennonite Historical Library and establish the Mennonite Quarterly Review, but his pivotal moment came in 1943, while president of the American Society of Church History. Speaking at its meeting a few days after Christmas, Bender spent thirty minutes articulating what he called “The Anabaptist Vision.”

In the first half of the speech, Bender presented an overview of the Anabaptists’ role in the Protestant Reformation that contrasted “the decision of Luther and Zwingli to surrender their original vision” with the “the sense of victory in the hearts of the Anabaptist martyrs who laid down their lives in what the world would call defeat, conscious of having kept faith with their vision to the end.” As a work of historiography, Bender’s talk made the case for treating Anabaptists as deserving of serious study by historians of the Reformation, rather than simply dismissing them (as 19th century German church historians had done) as fire-breathing radicals who gave Protestantism a bad name.

He then defined three emphases distinctive of historic Anabaptism, and central to his vision for Anabaptist revival in the 20th century:

  1. Discipleship as essential to Christianity:It was a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ.” He quoted from magisterial Protestants like Zwingli and Bullinger who found themselves compelled “to admit the apparent superiority of [the Anabaptists’] life,” even as they persecuted them.
  2. The church as a voluntary “brotherhood” or fellowship of converted disciples:This vision stands in sharp contrast to the church concept of the reformers who retained the medieval idea of a mass church with membership of the entire population from birth to the grave compulsory by law and force.” So opposition to infant baptism (the source of the movement’s name) was but “a symbol of the cause” — i.e., “their disavowal of the state church.” Logically following from this principle, for Bender, was the the “nonconformity of the Christian to the worldly way of life,” and then “the concept of the suffering church,” since “Conflict with the world was inevitable for those who endeavored to live an earnest Christian life.”
  3. Christian ethics centered on love and nonresistance: Meaning the “complete abandonment of all warfare, strife, and violence, and of the taking of human life.” (Keep in mind that Bender was speaking in the middle of World War II — in fact, he was late to the Society’s meeting because of the difficulties of wartime rail travel.)

If only on the first point, it would seem that Bender could have found much common ground with Pietism. Substitute “Pietists” for “Anabaptists” in one of his clarifying remarks on the importance of discipleship and we might be looking at a speech called the “The Pietist Vision,” or reading Pia Desideria:

The Anabaptists could not understand a Christianity which made regeneration, holiness and love primarily a matter of intellect, of doctrinal belief… rather than one of the transformation of life. They demanded an outward expression of the inner experience. Repentance must be “evidenced” by newness of behavior.

Reinsert the clause I replaced with an ellipsis, however, you’ll find one of Bender’s chief reservations about Pietism: …or of subjective ‘experience’…”

Bender shared the Pietists’ distaste for “dead orthodoxy.” But he worried that Pietists wandered so far in search of living faith that they lifted subjective experience above both the objective authority of Scripture and the collected wisdom of the community. Not to mention its collective good.

Indeed, Bender went on to accuse Pietists of faulty ecclesiology: not solely because Spener, Francke, et al. refused to separate from the state church (hence “churchly Pietists”), but because Pietism in general viewed the church as “a resource group for individual piety,” rather than “a brotherhood of love in which the fullness of the Christian life ideal is to be expressed.”

Ultimately, Bender lumped Pietism with Lutheranism as a kind of mysticism that mistook Christianity to be “chiefly enjoyment of the inner experience of the grace of God through faith in Christ,” rather than “the transformation of life through discipleship.”

Pietism was not a central theme of Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” address, but five years later the outline of his critique of it was fleshed out by one of Bender’s colleagues, Robert Friedmann, whose “thesis” about Pietism influenced neo-Anabaptists for a generation or more. More on that in our next entry…

Read the next post in the series>>


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