A Pietist-Spiritualist Corrective to Anabaptism

Church of the Brethren logoThanks to Brian Gumm for drawing my attention to a recent post by Joshua Brockway, a minister in the Church of the Brethren, considering how the Pietist half of the COB’s heritage contributes a “spiritualist corrective” to its Anabaptist half.

As I continue to prepare my comments for this weekend’s seminar, Pious Wishes and Better Times: The Pietist Impulse in the 21st Century, I’ve felt keenly my lack of knowledge or experience of the Radical wing of the Pietist movement. But apparently, what’s true of this Covenanter (and self-professed “churchly Pietist“) is also true of many Brethren, despite that church’s growing use of the phrase, “We speak from our Anabaptist and Radical Pietist roots.”

That is well and good, but unless you have a degree in church history or theology it matters very little….

So we resort to a kind of short hand. “We are one of the historic Peace Churches.” To those who have made a life of witnessing to non-violence this might strike up some memories, but still it is a term for insiders. So we shorten it even more- “We are kinda like the Mennonites.” And with that answer we short circuit any attempt to speak of our unique qualities.

For we are anything but “like the Mennonites.” That is not to dismiss our brothers and sisters of the faith, but to say that the heritage of the Brethren, and the ways we have understood being the church differs. In short, we are back to the two pillars of our past- Anabaptism and Pietism. So what on earth does that mean?

Lots of things, some of which I’ve blogged about in an earlier series on Anabaptist critiques of Pietism. But Brockway focuses on one that seems especially intriguing, even as the Lutheran and evangelical parts of me get wary:

Alexander Mack
Alexander Mack, founder of the Schwarzenau Brethren (1679-1735)

For the 16th century Anabaptists, the radical move was to assume all christians had access to and could understand the scriptures. The simple idea was that, when gathered together, the community of believers discerned together what the text meant. It was a kind of radical democratization of theology based on the shared reading of scripture.

The 18th century Pietists, however, applied the democratization principle not to scripture but the Holy Spirit. In other words, the community was not the arbiter of the presence of God’s Spirit. Rather, each person by nature of his or her confession of faith and baptism, was gifted with the Holy Spirit. This has traditionally been articulated in the phrase “respect for conscience”. Here, the community is to recognize the wisdom of collective discernment but refrain from forcing it on others whose conscious attention to the Holy Spirit says otherwise.

I’m glad to have encountered this for several reasons. First, it helpfully complicates the conclusion of the historical sketch that will open the seminar Friday night, when I’d plan to lay out a few shared Pietist emphases. Because — in the setting of a Covenant church — I’m focusing on Philip Spener (whose first proposal for church reform was for a “more extensive use of the [written] Word of God among us”) and the Swedish “readers” whose “Where is it written?” test remains alive and well in today’s Covenant Church, I had planned to talk about Pietist biblicism. But can a tradition be both biblicist and spiritualist?

Second, it reminds me that my own pneumatology is ambivalent and underdeveloped. Like most Covenanters I know, I both affirm our “conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit” and feel distinctly uncomfortable around more charismatic expressions of Christianity. Like Luther and Spener, I know that there can be no renewal of the Church without the movement of the Spirit, but I’m afraid that “Spiritualism” makes me think of the antinomian and millenarian excesses unleashed by the Reformation — the Schwärmer that Luther preached against.

Of course, many Lutherans dismissed even non-violent Anabaptists as such “Enthusiasts” — as some did later with Spener and Francke, to say nothing of Zinzendorf. But Brockway closes by noting how

Anabaptism reigns in our Spiritualism with the reminder that we are to test what we have come to understand in daily living with the understanding of the community. It is not just I who know God, but we.

And that illustrates one of the distinctive riches of the Brethren tradition: rather than viewing the Anabaptist and Pietist heritages as “sides” to be chosen, Brockway finds them producing a “synthesis [saying] that what we each experience is made complete in the project of shared discernment of the actions of the Holy Spirit.”

Read Brockway’s full post here.

3 thoughts on “A Pietist-Spiritualist Corrective to Anabaptism

  1. Thanks for picking up so much of the post!
    I should say that my reading in the primary texts of (Radical) Piestism is limited. So my narrative shouldn’t be taken as well supported within the sources.However, I do think that the Philadelphians and Jane Lead demonstrate a pretty radically egalitarian understanding of who has access to the Holy Spirit.

    I would not say that this demarcates the distinction between Radical and Churchly Pietists. Instead, I tend to follow Jonathan Strom here (provided he still stands by it) that the line is between staying within the denomination or became separatists (as in the case of the forebears of the Church of the Brethren).

    Glad to converse about this! Thanks for connecting to the conversation.

  2. The question of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church is very important. The Charismatics/Pentecostals have one part of the picture but there obviously is much more to say. One of the most helpful books, I believe, is Ray S. Anderson’s “An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches,” IVP 2006.

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