What Pietists Can Learn from the Anabaptist Vision

Today we come to the end of a series that has looked at 20th century (neo)Anabaptist critiques of Pietism, starting with Harold Bender‘s influential “Anabaptist Vision” speech and Robert Friedmann‘s famously anti-Pietist “thesis.” After a pause to sum up that critique and look at its continuing influence, we examined how revisionist and post-revisionist Anabaptist historians rethought the critique and then, last time, at Brethren scholars like Dale Brown, who found Anabaptism and Pietism to be mutually reinforcing.

At the end of the series, I’d like to step back and ask, as someone who both studies Pietism and identifies more and more as an evangelical rooted within that particular tradition, What can today’s Pietists take away from this chapter in Anabaptist historiography?

Benson Great Hall at Bethel University
Benson Great Hall - Bethel University

Before I even start to answer that question… I recognize that a phrase like “today’s Pietists” is already problematic. Even before Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” sought to reframe the importance of that tradition for Mennonites living in 20th century North America, there was some sense of Anabaptist identity (albeit fragmented into different Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, and Hutterite pieces) that was made concrete by church, community, and family structures. By contrast, Pietists have never been known for formal ecclesial structures, clear leadership, or (least of all) theological unity. Indeed, one of the key themes in our Pietist Impulse book is the challenge that a seemingly straightforward question, “What is Pietism?”, poses for scholars.

To be sure, some churches and church-related colleges have identified themselves at various points by association to a Pietist tradition. I happen to be connected to two such institutions: the Evangelical Covenant Church and Bethel University. And there are others, but my question today is meant for a more nebulous assortment of Christians from a wide variety of traditions who find themselves identifying with Pietism.

So with that established, back to our question for the day: What can today’s Pietists take away from the historiography of this Anabaptist critique?

1. Shared “Vision” and the Usable Past

As Leonard Gross comments in his Mennonite Encyclopedia entry on the man, Harold Bender’s significance must “be seen in terms of how he dealt with these new trends, both Fundamentalist and Liberal, within the [Mennonite] church. Bender chose a route and approach to vision that differed from both.” This kind of quest for a “third way” likely resonates with many self-described Pietists today, if, like me, they feel themselves less than fully at home in either mainline or evangelical Protestantism.

What Bender then provides is an example of how to draw on historical study to define such a third way. But that notion of a “usable past” comes with benefits and pitfalls.

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

On the one hand, Bender’s dedication to defining a common identity around a relatively small set of shared essentials (and maintaining unity in the face of non-essential differences that had long torn Anabaptists apart) will strike most Pietists as admirable. And rather than doing this via systematic theology (again, Pietists will be on board), he framed his three elements of Anabaptist faith and life in terms of continuity with historical roots—essentially, letting 20th century Mennonites feel part of a 400-year old story.

As revisionists soon pointed out, Bender’s story was constructed so as to ignore characters and events that the storyteller found inconvenient. But post-revisionists like Denny Weaver and John Roth have both accepted the revisionist corrections and nonetheless retained the basic spirit of seeking unity of purpose and identity in a shared (though now expanded and more complicated) story.

Can we imagine a speech (or nowadays, blog post) entitled “The Pietist Vision” having the same effectiveness? It seems unlikely, given how diffuse the “Pietist” population is. There is no built-in center of the tradition like Goshen College; no common institutions like those Bender directed and developed at Goshen: the Mennonite Historical Society, Mennonite Historical Library, and the Mennonite Quarterly Review. And the world of American Christianity is more fragmented even than the one Bender encountered; denominations have continued to splinter and to lose their meaning for individual Christians, who can tailor their Google Reader settings or iTunes subscriptions to whatever blogs or podcasts reconfirm the particular mix of beliefs they hold.

All that said, nothing seemed especially likely about Bender’s speech — a pacifist appeal delivered in the middle of World War II to a group of fewer than twenty (non-Mennonite) scholars — inspiring a movement that would reshape Anabaptist scholarship and, indirectly, Anabaptist clergy and laity in multiple denominations. And just as Bender’s speech came at a time when even non-Anabaptist historians (e.g., Roland Bainton) were already beginning to reassess long-held negative stereotypes about the Radical Reformation, a hypothetical “Pietist vision” moment would come in the wake of a generational shift in interest in Pietism studies that has made Pietism seem both more complicated and more relevant to present circumstances.

Clearly, it would take leaders with the dedication, energy, vision, and diplomatic skills of Harold Bender (one of the increasingly rare breed of “schoolmen” who also viewed themselves as “churchmen”), plus the support of institutions that would invest in such a movement. All tempered, hopefully, by the self-awareness and humility to learn from Bender’s mistakes in framing his story so narrowly as to make Anabaptist history in the image of his own preferences.

2. Tough questions about Pietism

While acknowledging the limitations of the kind of historiography practiced by Bender and Robert Friedmann, Pietists would also do well to appreciate the legitimate questions those Anabaptist scholars raised about Pietism.

  • Are we too individualistic? Too ready to follow our own emotions and experiences to the detriment of a faith community’s coherence or to the point of ignoring or distorting the objective truth of the Word? Or to focus on our own salvation and spiritual growth rather than seeking to love and serve others?
  • Are we too heavenly minded to be earthly good? Are we too spiritual? Too preoccupied with the world to come to care about the world that is?
  • Robert Friedmann
    Robert Friedmann - Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

    Are we too comfortable? So prone to read the Gospel through a Pauline (?) lens of personal salvation that we lose sight of the Kingdom?

Personally, I find the last most convicting. While all of these are caricatures, to be sure, there is more than a kernel of truth in Friedmann’s argument that a Pietist like me has “made peace with the world as it is, and in spite of his sincere intentions to achieve a real Christlichkeit, avoided or eliminated the friction and opposition which he would otherwise have had to face.” My “new life” can very much “be lived within the framework of the middle-class life” of my time.

So anyone hoping to articulate a “Pietist vision” ought to take seriously the calling of Jesus’ disciples to take up crosses, not merely experience conversion, and to expect some degree of hardship, not just the joy of salvation.

At the same time, Brethren scholars like Dale Brown should give us some level of reassurance that much as Pietists can learn from Anabaptists, the reverse is also true. One can practice serious discipleship while still desiring conversion of the whole person; openness to the Spirit moving in the lives of individuals need not destroy any sense of community or Scriptural authority; and the Pietist virtue of hope might usefully correct the Anabaptist expectation of suffering even as both seek “God’s glory and neighbor’s good” in this world, not just the next.

3. Multiple streams

And so my last takeaway in this series is to encourage Pietists (much as they might be excited to rediscover a heritage that’s more interesting and relevant than they might have realized) to drink deeply from the different streams of Christian tradition that all converge in the river of life. Here I borrow from Richard Foster’s famous image; he encourages his readers to recognize as flowing together streams “that have been cut off from the rest of the Christian community, depriving us all of a balanced vision of life and faith” (Streams of Living Water, xv). Or, borrowing from Dale Brown’s emphasis on the dialectic between Anabaptism and Pietism, reading beyond our own traditions (or theological preferences) can produce “fruitful tensions” and make us aware of unchallenged assumptions, habits, preferences, and emphases that can skew our understanding of Christianity.

Or, if nothing else, it would let modern-day Pietists (descendants of leaders as irenic as Philipp Spener and Gottfried Arnold) deliver a refreshingly ecumenical witness at a time when the Church seems increasingly torn apart by tribalism.

<<Read the previous entry in the series

2 thoughts on “What Pietists Can Learn from the Anabaptist Vision

  1. Thanks Chris! A very helpful series. I find all three critiques convicting. For too long I have focused on my own spiritual formation/growth as a private enterprise and missed the essential need to love and sacrifice for neighbor in order to truly become like-Christ. I was trained to hate the world and to love heaven to such an extent that I missed that God so loved the world that God did something to change the world. And, I too find myself too comfortable with (even pursuing) a middle-class life that does not offer much if any friction or opposition to materialism, consumerism, class-ism, etc..

    1. Thanks, Dale. As it happens, I’ll be returning to this series in a post tomorrow about John Howard Yoder. (I came across a document that coincided with your question about his views on Pietism…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.