Taking Stock: Anabaptist Critiques of Pietism

For the third part of my series on (neo)Anabaptist critiques of Pietism, I’d like to pause, sum up the points of criticism, and invite readers’ responses before moving on.

Goshen College: Home to Harold Bender, the Mennonite Historical Library, and the Mennonite Quarterly Review
Goshen College: Home to Harold Bender, the Mennonite Historical Library, and the Mennonite Quarterly Review - Creative Commons (Liz DeCoster)

In the first entry in the series, we reviewed Harold Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” speech, then continued in part 2 with the “Friedmann thesis” promulgated by Robert Friedmann in his 1949 book Mennonite Piety through the Centuries. If I were to sum up the critique of Pietism offered by these two closely connected scholars, I’d center on the following two claims:

That Pietism is excessively individualistic

Pietism’s emphasis on the personal/emotional/internal experience of salvation (Bender: “enjoyment of the inner experience of the grace of God through faith in Christ”) leads to three problems for these neo-Anabaptist critics:

  1. Individual experience (and, among Radical Pietists, claims of special revelation communicated directly by the Holy Spirit) could become the highest authority for determining belief, praxis, vocation, etc., rather than Scripture as interpreted by the community
  2. The Pietist ecclesiola in ecclesia (“little church within the church”) became just a “resource group for individual piety” (Bender) or “gathering of individualists” (Friedmann), rather than a genuine fellowship
  3. So long as their own salvation was assured, Pietists withdrew into themselves and failed to fully recognize the needs of others — e.g., Friedmann described the Pietist “struggle for repentance” as an “exclusively mental labor with oneself, which is quite apart from all thought of love”

That Pietism accommodates too easily to the world

At the core of this criticism is Bender and Friedmann’s distinction between the Pietist emphasis on the enjoyment of personal salvation and the suffering discipleship they put at the center of Anabaptist identity. But their larger concern was that the overly spiritual, overly emotional, and insufficiently Christ-like Christianity of the Pietists presented a temptation to make “peace with the world as it is” and “no longer [cause] the church or authorities any trouble.” Unlike the Anabaptist discipleship ideal of Nachfolge, which led the Christian to endure persecution as he sought the radical transformation of the world, the inward focus of the Pietist “avoided or eliminated the friction and opposition which he would otherwise have had to face.” Pietists believed in “the new life,” but one that “could be lived within the framework of the middle-class life of the time.” (these quotations are all from Friedmann)

It’s a powerful critique, and one that continued to influence neo-Anabaptist scholars into the second half of the 20th century. For example, in 1957’s The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision (ed. Guy Hershberger), published in honor of Bender’s 60th birthday and including a reprint of Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” both Ernst Correll and Ernst Crous lamented the twin influences of Pietism and Rationalism on German Mennonites. Correll traced the corrosive effects of Pietism as far as the twentieth century:

…in Germany Mennonitism had been modified by Pietism on the one hand and by rationalism on the other to such an extent that the vision of the Anabaptist fathers seemed hopelessly dimmed. During the [First World] war the way of the cross had given way to that of the sword to such an extent that military service was everywhere taken for granted by a once nonresistant people; and the church was not at all prepared to resist the devastating influence of national socialism when it came a decade later. (p. 26)

It’s not the first or last time that Pietism and Rationalism have been linked; linking Pietism to the failure of Germans to resist the rise of Adolf Hitler is, as far as I know, an isolated claim in historiography.

Cornelius Krahn
Cornelius Krahn - Global Anabaptist-Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

Cornelius Krahn’s 1958 article on Pietism in the original Mennonite Encyclopedia began on a more positive note, acknowledging the “beneficial” effects of Pietist renewal, “in many areas revitalizing the rather dead and traditional Mennonite orthodoxy. The emphasis on a personally experienced salvation, on the Christian outreach at home and abroad, and the use of newer forms of spreading the Gospel is particularly due to the revitalization which came through Pietism.” But he repeated several of Bender and Friedmann’s criticisms: Pietism “weakens the witness pertaining to peace and nonresistance”; Pietism causes the Gospel and classic confessions to be “minimized since Pietism considers the personally experienced conversion as the cornerstone of Christendom”; and the “Anabaptist emphasis on the church of believers within which each member is challenged to discipleship differs from what is commonly found in an emotionally experienced conversion of the pietistic fundamentalist practice.”

Krahn’s linkage of Pietism and Fundamentalism adds a new layer to the Bender-Friedmann critique, one with particular resonance among American Mennonite scholars struggling to chart a middle course in the ongoing modernist-fundamentalist debates of the 20th century. In a future series on Pietism and the historiography of Christian colleges, I’ll explore the influence of the “Anabaptist Vision” and the Friedmann thesis on the generation of Mennonite Brethren scholars who designed the neo-Anabaptist “Fresno Pacific College Idea” as a conscious turn away from what they saw as the MB flagship school’s Pietist-Fundamentalist roots.

I’ll have a couple of thoughts to add in closing this stage of the series, but first, let’s widen the conversation:

What do you think of the neo-Anabaptist critique of Pietism? (Perhaps you wouldn’t identify as a “Pietist” yourself, but you might have experienced its influences in other churches: Evangelical, Wesleyan, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.) Do you agree that Pietism overly emphasizes the individual, experience, or personal salvation? All to the detriment of the community, the authority of Scripture, or the integrity of discipleship and Christian witness? Or resulting in an impoverished understanding of concepts like Church and Kingdom of God?

I’ll come back to these questions as the series continues, first by sharing a revisionist Anabaptist response that finds Pietism a helpful partner to Anabaptism, then by looking at the American Pietists whom I encounter in my research. But I’ll close today’s post with two final thoughts about the Bender/Friedmann/Krahn critique.

1. Theirs is not the only critique of Pietism, but it’s perhaps the most important.

Just for fun, click the “Pietism” tag at the top of this post (or click here) to see how some of my fellow WordPress bloggers have treated the topic. You’ll find the conclusion to an interesting series from my colleague Chris Armstrong on some lectures delivered by the Herrnhut Pietist Nicolaus von Zinzendorf in 1746, plus several much less sympathetic reflections on the continuing influence of Pietism on contemporary Christianity, including:

  • This post at “Christ-Centered Love,” whose author fears that “Many churches, families, and children are being led astray by false teachers practicing the methods of Pietism.”
  • And this one from a Reformed church in Wisconsin, linking to a podcast that exposes “The Bane of Pietism Upon American Society.” Neo-Anabaptists would surely find this particular criticism baffling. While the author agrees with Bender and Friedmann that Pietism is overly personal, he then veers off in quite a different direction: “Pietism believes that Christianity was not intended to impact nations, nor do they believe the moral Law of God has any place in the governance of society.”
  • And this link to “Pietism as an Ecclesiological Heresy,” a 1984 essay by the Greek Orthodox philosopher Christos Yannaras.

The last, in particular, offers some important food for thought. But as a Christian who increasingly identifies with the Pietist tradition, I find the Anabaptist perspective especially worthy of attention, since the two traditions respond to similar impulses. Borrowing Friedmann’s words, Anabaptists and Pietists alike sought a “Christian reality which lies beyond church and worship,” a “true piety” surpassing mere “Confessional dogmatism.” Reading criticism of my own tradition from an Anabaptist both hurts and convicts, like hearing difficult truths from a brother or sister.

2. The legacy of the “Anabaptist Vision” can teach Pietists about the problems and possibilities of seeking a “usable past.”

Van Wyck Brooks
Van Wyck Brooks

Here again I’m hinting at something I’ll develop in more depth in the future series on the historiography of Christian higher education, where we’ll find Van Wyck Brooks’ notion of a “usable past” enlisted by Christian scholars seeking to define distinctive identities for their institutions of higher learning.

Suffice it to say that, whatever his misgivings about Pietism, Harold Bender may provide Pietists with a model of how careful historical study—in recovering a long-neglected tradition from derision, misunderstanding, or sheer disinterest—can renew not just scholarship, but the identity and mission of a community and its institutions.

Of course, the danger of the “usable past” approach is that it tempts the historian to construct a narrative that ignores or explains away those facets of the story that are unusable, inconvenient, or embarrassing. According to revisionist historians of the 1970s/1980s, that’s precisely how Bender, Friedmann, et al. went wrong in recovering their vision of what it meant to be Anabaptist. More on that process of revision in part 4, plus and in part 5, the work of Brethren historians to reconcile their Anabaptist and Pietist roots.

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One thought on “Taking Stock: Anabaptist Critiques of Pietism

  1. Thanks for this interesting article on looking at pietism from an anabaptist perspective. As a young man who recently had my membership terminated from a ‘neo-Mennonite’ church for succumbing to ‘pietistic thinking’, I found your thoughts on this subject rather thought provoking. I won’t go into great length here, but will say that it’s really amazing the way that the ultra conservative Mennonite churches are really extolling the dangers of pietism and ecumenism over the last couple years especially.

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