The Friedmann Thesis

Part two of my new series on (neo)Anabaptist critiques of Pietism. See the first entry, on Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” here.

Robert Friedmann
Robert Friedmann - Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

Pietism in the larger sense is a quiet conventicle-Christianity which is primarily concerned with the inner experience of salvation and only secondarily with the expression of love toward the brotherhood, and not at all in a radical world transformation. (Robert Friedmann)

One of Harold Bender’s chief collaborators in the neo-Anabaptist revival of the mid-20th century was the Austrian-born historian-philosopher Robert Friedmann, raised in a Jewish family but baptized into the Mennonite church not long after fleeing Nazi persecution and arriving in the United States in the 1940s.

His most famous work, Mennonite Piety through the Centuries: Its Genius and Its Literature (1949), in many ways elaborated on the central themes of the “Anabaptist Vision” that Bender had defined. Echoing Bender’s emphases on discipleship, the church as a voluntary fellowship distinct from the worldly, state-controlled entity that used the name, and an ethic of nonresistance, here’s Friedmann’s definition of historic Anabaptism:

Anabaptism was essentially a movement which insisted upon an earnest and uncompromising endeavor to live a life of a true discipleship of Christ, that is to give expression in fellowship and love to the deepest Christian faith, with full readiness to suffer in conflict with the evil world order. So long as this willingness to suffer as an expression of deepest faith, and this readiness to enter into a non-resistant struggle for salvation, was a living reality, just so long was Anabaptism a great and powerful movement. (p. 11)

Also like Bender, he drew crucial distinctions between Anabaptism and Pietism. But while Pietism was only one of several other Christian traditions against which Bender contrasted his Anabaptist vision, and then only in cursory terms, Friedmann took the problem of Pietism very seriously. He even considered titling his book Anabaptism, Mennonitism, and Pietism, but decided that Pietism was too obscure a term for American audiences (xiii). Still, the first half of Mennonite Piety is devoted entirely to the historical connections between Anabaptists and Pietists, and to comparing and contrasting their approaches to Christianity.

Earlier church historians, without displaying much sympathy for either movement, had treated Pietism either as descending from Anabaptism (Max Goebel) or reviving it (Albrecht Ritschl). Friedmann, on the contrary, sought to draw a clear distinction between what he viewed as the ideal Anabaptist witness (the 16th century Swiss Brethren and similar movements) and the later Pietists.

To be sure, he acknowledged some superficial similarities that clearly distinguished the two movements from Roman Catholics or “orthodox” Lutherans. Both diminished the importance of “Confessional dogmatism” (72). Both sought “true piety” rather than going through the motions of state-sponsored religion. Both trusted in a Spirit-guided understanding of Scripture as the primary source of authority. “Both were seriously concerned with a Christian reality which lies beyond church and worship,” but Friedmann concluded that “they understood the ultimate nature of this Christian reality differently.” (12)

To start with, their differing understandings of conversion and sanctification manifested themselves as divergent responses to the world.

To Friedmann, Pietists and Anabaptists alike “believed in the possibility of a sanctification of life, in contrast to the theology of the ineradicable depravity of human nature but understood its implications quite differently” (73). The difference was that new life for the Pietist was not marked by following the suffering example of Jesus, but by retreating within oneself:

The Pietist ceased to place the emphasis upon the outer life which was in any case unsatisfactory, but rather upon the pure inner perfecting of holiness, on the possession of Christ in prayer, song, sacrament, and fellowship. In brief, his purpose was edification, enjoying or ‘tasting’ of salvation which had already been achieved. (12)

Rather than pursuing the costly discipleship so central to Bender’s “Anabaptist vision,” or seeking the “radical world transformation” that was a hallmark of Friedmann’s own Anabaptist ideal, Pietists abandoned “concrete Christianity” and replaced it with “an emotional Christianity which no longer caused the authorities of state or church any trouble. So the Pietist made peace with the world as it is, and in spite of his sincere intentions to achieve a real Christlichkeit [Christianity], avoided or eliminated the friction and opposition which he would otherwise have had to face” (12). This sort of “new life” was one that “could be lived within the framework of the middle-class life of the time” (11-12).

Friedmann lamented that pietistic influence had led some later German and Dutch Mennonites down a similar path: “One might name this the ‘pietistic’ route which is looking rather for ‘Gottseligkeit’ (inner experience) than for ‘Nachfolge’ (imitation of Christ), cultivating the inwardness of the Word of God in a more static manner and thus not conflicting with the surrounding world” (57).

For Friedmann this distinction — inner experience vs. imitation of Christ — arose from a hermeneutical difference. Pietists inherited the Lutheran pattern of reading the Gospels through Paul, while Anabaptists read Paul through the Gospel:

He who seeks to secure a total understanding of Holy Scripture from the point of view of Paul, starts with the experience of sin, and experiences salvation in the consciousness of freely bestowed grace. But he who seeks to understand the Holy Scripture from the point of view of the Gospel, starts with the requirement of discipleship (Nachfolge), that is, he starts from the point of view of concrete love and the cross, and takes from them his sense of commission. (86)

Pietists traced a direct line from justification to “enjoyment (Geniessen)”; Anabaptists were convinced that seeking the kingdom of God “ultimately leads us to work and to suffer” (86-87). For the Anabaptist, salvation entailed suffering for the good of others; for the Pietist, the “struggle for repentance (Busskampf)” was “an exclusively mental labor with oneself, which is quite apart from all thought of love,” since it ended with the convert content in his own personal joy. At most, Friedmann expected from Pietists “a mild friendliness and morality” disconnected from any true understanding of the kingdom of God (73-75).

The individualism that followed from Pietist soteriology inevitably resulted in an impoverished ecclesiology: “The conventicles of the Pietists represented a devotional gathering of the regenerated, in which each one as a consequence of his own private experience of the Busskampf and assurance of salvation, felt himself distinct from the others” (76). Echoing Bender’s description of the Pietist collegia pietatis as “a resource group for individual piety,” Friedmann saw the conventicles as “gatherings of individualists” that never truly achieved “the utmost possible disappearance of everything personal and selfish (Eigenen) in the practice of a true brotherly reciprocity” (76) that marked Anabaptist communities.

In the next post, we’ll consider how the “Anabaptist vision” and “Friedmann thesis” influenced subsequent Anabaptist scholarship before receiving criticism from a new generation of revisionist historians.


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