Anabaptist AND Pietist

When I associate with Pietists, I am convicted of our Anabaptist roots. When I am in a strong Anabaptist milieu, I want to espouse Brethren Pietism. (Dale Brown, 1994)

For the fifth post in this series on Anabaptist critiques of Pietism, we hear from Dale Brown and other scholars associated with the Church of the Brethren, one of the present-day American denominations that descended from an early 18th century German group called the Schwarzenau Brethren.

Alexander Mack
Alexander Mack (1679-1735)

While Harold Bender, in his brief entry on this group in the original edition of The Mennonite Encyclopedia, labels them “Schwarzenau Anabaptists” and neglects any mention of Pietism, the group and its leader, Alexander Mack, were originally influenced by figures like Gottfried Arnold (here’s his encyclopedia entry, by a rather admiring Robert Friedmann) and Ernst Christoph Hochmann von Hochenau, so-called “Radical Pietists” who shared the original concerns of Arndt, Spener, and Francke, but moved even further away from Lutheran orthodoxy and, in some cases, even separated from the state church.

Mack and his followers eventually adopted Anabaptist ecclesiology and the baptism of adult believers by “trine” immersion (immersing once each for the three persons of the Trinity). Thanks to this latter practice, these Brethren were nicknamed “Dunkers” after emigrating to Pennsylvania (the first few in 1719, then Mack and a larger group ten years later). In a split (in large part over education) in the 1880s, “progressives” formed the Brethren Church, while the “conservative” wing composed the Church of the Brethren. (Confused? It gets worse: the “progressives” have become members of the National Association of Evangelicals and the “conservatives” belong to the National Council of Churches. And neither group should be confused with the Brethren in Christ, even though the BIC too has dual Anabaptist-Pietist origins and historical roots in colonial Pennsylvania. Not to mention the Mennonite Brethren, who originated in mid-19th century Russia, or the non-Anabaptist Lutheran Brethren and Plymouth Brethren.)

Anyway, while (Church of the) Brethren historians have certainly contributed to the reawakening of Anabaptist identity and scholarship, some of them have taken a quite different view of Pietism than that of the original proponents of the “Anabaptist Vision.” Rather than treating the two traditions as polar opposites (or Pietism as a weakened or distorted form of Anabaptism), scholars like Donald Durnbaugh and Dale Brown suggest what the latter calls a “dialectical” approach, recognizing the differences but embracing the tensions as productive and helpful, with each tradition reinforcing and/or correcting the other.

Such an approach also tends to characterize Brethren in Christ historians like Carlton Wittlinger, who writes in his BIC denominational history, “The theological roots of the Brethren in Christ, nourished by historic Christianity mediated through the Protestant Reformation, go deeply into both Anabaptism and revivalistic Pietism.  Finding themselves at the point of intersection of these two movements, the Brethren founders could neither sacrifice their understanding of the church and the nature of the Christian life derived from the former nor their conception of the new birth gained from the latter” (p. 12). It’s also worth noting that the BIC publishing house, Evangel, put out the revised edition of Brown’s Understanding Pietism, which is probably the most popular introduction to Pietism available in English. Here’s one recent appreciation of that book, by a Brethren minister in Virginia.

Both Durnbaugh and Brown played instrumental roles in the development of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist (sorry – I’ll stop overemphasizing that conjunction now) Studies at Elizabethtown College, whose very existence is a kind of rebuttal to the Friedmann Thesis. In a November 1987 talk there, Durnbaugh assessed the state of scholarship on Anabaptism and Pietism. While he generally treated the two movements separately, he did take time to challenge one of the core neo-Anabaptist criticisms of Pietism: that it “has been accused of unseemly concentration on individual piety to the detriment of social concern. To the contrary, Pietism made extensive contributions to the welfare of society…. the phenomenal range of social services provided by A.H. Francke at Halle [goes] to disprove the claim that Pietists care only for the soul and ignored bodily needs.” He even quoted Emil Brunner’s claim that “quite apart from its rejuvenation of the dried-up Protestant church, what Pietism accomplished in the sphere of social amelioration and foreign mission is… among the most splendid record of achievement found in church history.” (The Divine-Human Encounter, p. 23)

The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies
The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies - Elizabethtown College

Three years later Brown was at the Young Center to give two talks himself. In the first, he outlined “Points of Convergence and Divergence” between Anabaptists and Pietists. The differences he described should sound familiar if you’ve been following the series to this point:

It is not accurate to infer that the Anabaptists were without a message of salvation and that Pietists were not interested in discipleship. But we can discern a major tension between these streams by highlighting divergent emphases. Pietists generally have proclaimed the good news of what Jesus can do for you. Anabaptists have given more emphasis on being faithful to Jesus…. Pietist rhetoric calls us to be heaven bound; whereas Anabaptist admonitions would have us attempt to play heaven on this dirty earth.

If I haven’t said so already, let me underscore that this critique of Pietism being “heaven bound” is hardly unique to Anabaptists. In the current issue of Christianity Today, New Testament scholar Tim Gombis contends that evangelicals’ “pietistic heritage” reinforced a tendency to see  “Paul as focusing on believers’ private spirituality to the relative neglect of the church’s communal character and social dynamics…. [This] vision of the Christian life is one in which believers cultivate inner piety and practice private devotion.”

Dale W. Brown
Dale W. Brown

What of the Anabaptists’ attempt to “play heaven” here on Earth (which Brown, per John Howard Yoder, calls “kingdom theology”), seemingly squelched by the Paul-reading, Gospel-neglecting, soteriology-obsessed Pietists? Here Brown found the differences more nuanced. Both groups agreed that this world was deeply flawed and that there would be a future age. But while Anabaptists treated Church and World dualistically,

The Pietists, on the other hand, were more optimistic that the Spirit of Christ’s love might permeate all of the world. Anabaptists saw the gathered community as the primary paradigm of the advent of signs of the kingdom coming. Pietists tended to discern both more sinfulness in the church and possibilities of the presence of the Spirit in the world. Pietist strategy reasoned that awakened and changed lives including those in high places could change the world; whereas the realism of early Anabaptists about their milieu opted for the presence of a faithful suffering community as the primary manifestation of the first fruits of God’s coming kingdom.

So without entirely discarding the Bender/Friedmann characterization of Pietism vs. Anabaptism, Brown finds the differences more subtle, of degree (or tone) not kind. (With the important exception that the churchly Pietists—unlike some of Radicals—simply did not accept the ideal of non-resistance, so crucial to Anabaptist ethics.) He continued, then, by identifying several points of convergence, including:

  • Awareness of “the obvious tension between their high ethical norms and the culture of Christendom”
  • Primitivism, focused on common admiration of early martyrs
  • Eagerness to see the Reformation continue—bringing reprobation and derision from state churches

But most importantly, given Robert Friedmann’s insistence on pitting Pietist “salvation” (or, in Brown’s term, a “reformation of life”) against Anabaptist “discipleship,” Brown sees both as resulting from a common emphasis on the ordinary Christian’s “daily walk.” After reminding his audience that Pietists like Spener stressed regeneration, not just conversion or assurance (“new life,” not just “new birth”), Brown argued:

Thus, Anabaptist obedience themes easily conjoin with sanctification and holiness motifs of later Pietism. Though the language is different and shifts between Anabaptist human response and Pietist emphases on God’s initiatives, both teaching embody a theology which joins doctrine with ethics, faith with works, and belief with life.

The close of this first talk segued neatly into the topic of the second: exploring the possibilities of an “Anabaptist-Pietist Dialectic.” Dialectic, for Brown = “when a theologian talks out of both sides of her mouth and believes she still makes sense.” [bah-dum-bum] “Or in this context the dialectic proposes that some of the divergences between Anabaptists and Pietists can constitute a creative and healthy tension.”

How can these tensions be “creative and healthy”? Brown runs through several examples…

First, salvation… After again stressing that, for Pietists, “salvation was not limited to conversion experiences or promises of entering the gates of heaven. Rather, salvation is both an event and a process,” and underscoring that Anabaptists did not reject salvation by grace alone, Brown says that the Anabaptist-Pietist “dialectic affirms we need both emphases [Pietism: God’s activity through grace; Anabaptists: necessary human response], especially if one is neglected.” Where one side of the dialectic is failing to seek a Shalom that seeks “peace, salvation, wholeness, justice, harmony, right relationships with God, others, and all of creation” or shorting either the decision or process side of salvation, the other is there to push or pull it back into balance. Brown illustrates this through a quick gloss on John 3:16-17. Neglect v 17 and Christianity becomes “but another mystery cult interested only in saving souls from this sinful world”; but focus solely on it to the detriment of v 16, and Christianity is left as “but another social movement without the power which comes from personal commitment.”

Second, and more challenging in Brown’s opinion and personal experience, is the relationship of Christians to the world… What do Anabaptists, who with “biblical realism” and “honesty” see themselves as called to “live as if the kingdom has already come,” expecting no good from the state but hoping to “model a caring and sharing community,” have to say to or hear from Pietists optimistic “about the Spirit’s power to both change persons and usher in better times for the world”? (Beyond simply contributing a short, accessible, English-language introduction to a field long dominated by Germans, Brown’s most significant contribution to Pietism studies may be his recovery of hope as a central Pietist virtue—summed up in Spener’s pious wishes “for better times” for the church and the world.)

While Brown (like Durnbaugh, above) isn’t as quick as Friedmann to pooh-pooh Pietist philanthropic and educational activities or their “compassion for the world,” he admits that the dialectic in this realm doesn’t work very neatly:

I have often vacillated between the biblical realism of Anabaptism and the optimism of the Pietist spirit. I want to follow the way of suffering love with a robust faith in the power of love. I strive to proclaim a theology of the cross in the context of a theology of resurrection. I would love to give priority to being faithful. At the same time I am concerned about being effective. I want to heed the commandment to love not the world because of loving the world so much I want it to be what God wants it to be.

Without fully resolving this tension, Brown closes by suggesting that it might offer a “third way” response to the problem of being in the world but not of it:

…neither to try to get on the top in order to make things come out the way we think they should or refuse to become involved at all. The third way or dialectic would adopt the servant role favored by our Lord. H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology in his book Christ and Culture types the Anabaptists as being against culture. I would propose a category Niebuhr does not have, namely, Christ the Servant of culture… it may be in such a nonconformist stance — which nevertheless loves the world for which Christ died — that we discern the genius of the Anabaptist-Pietist dialectic.

Brown’s proposal that we treat Anabaptist-Pietist differences as dialectical rather than polar echoes in one of the more significant recent studies of the Brethren: Brethren Society, by sociologist and former Young Center fellow Carl Bowman. In an “excursus” on the relationship between the Pietist and Anabaptist sources of Brethren identity, Bowman suggests that the two be viewed not as “religious crosscurrents” (with one usually accented at the other’s expense) but as “mutually reinforcing currents.” That approach “illuminates the fact that heightened (or lessened) spirituality may produce heightened (or lessened) obedience and church commitment; radical spirituality may yield radical or dissenting spiritual practices; and such practices may reciprocally nurture such spirituality” (p. 46). This leads him to reconsider the common Brethren notion that they were unique in finding an Pietist/Anabaptist balance. After a brief historical overview, Bowman arrives at the conclusion that “seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anabaptists were surprisingly pietistic, and Pietism shared much in common with Anabaptism” (48).

If that’s true, we’ve pretty much turned the Friedmann Thesis on its head, but what have we (especially we Pietists) learned from the historiography of the “Anabaptist Vision” and the Anabaptist scholars’ evolving views of Pietism? Those answers in our final installment, next week.

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