This post is a part of the next NuDunker conversation. This round we will be looking at Pneumatology, or theologies of the Holy Spirit. The NuDunker Hangout will be Friday February 8th at 11 AM Eastern. You can join the Hangout here https://plus.google.com/events/clb732ip7fr679sg1c682akciq4
If you miss the live discussion, no worries. We will share the link to the recorded conversation.
In the recent flurry of strategic planning around the Church of the Brethren a phrase has risen to the surface; We speak from our Anabaptist and Radical Pietist roots. Each time this phrase occurs, it is usually in reference to the unique contribution of Brethren theology to the wider Church.
That is well and good, but unless you have a degree in church history or theology it matters very little. Those of our faithful members might have encountered the idea in their early membership classes, but to the wider public shaped by terms such as Mainline, Evangelical, or non-denominational, it says 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?
The short, non-academic, answer is that Brethren have done church in between corporate and individual discernment. Two pieces then emerge as central to Brethren thinking- the community on one hand and the individual’s access to the Holy Spirit on the other.
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.
Through time, this emphasis on access to the Spirit has propelled Brethren into places our more sectarian Anabaptist sisters and brothers were want to explore. The most notable piece has been the Brethren involvement in the ecumenical movement. While we have not jumped in with both feet, we have been in the room from the beginning. More strict Anabaptists, even among the Brethren, have balked at the sense of compromise involved in the ecumenical process. More Piestist Brethren, however, have been quick to reply that the Spirit is often alive in places beyond our own understanding. The effect has been a kind of Mainline-ization of the Brethren. By the 1960’s the Brethren soon began to look more and more like their Methodist cousins.
My sense is that Pietism is the appropriate corrective to our more sectarian impulses. Attention to the workings of the Spirit is a constant practice among the Brethren. We don’t just assume that when the community of believers gather the direct output is the complete and established understanding of God’s will. Rather, we gather frequently, asking one another questions raised in the context of living out our faith. It is a constant means of testing what we have come to understand out on our own. Often this means that what the community has said in one place or one time is represented to the church for further discernment.
That is the root of our rejection of the creedalism (not creeds, but the settling of one question for all time). Attention to God’s workings, in scripture, among the church, and out in the world forces us to regularly ask; “Is this how we understand God to act?” This frequent discernment propels us back into the world- living out our faith, experiencing God’s ever present actions, and seeking out what God is doing beyond our sectarian confines.
Most often the correctives inherent in holding Anabaptism and Pietism together in one tradition has more recently been about choosing sides. There are those who grab onto a strong sense of community bounds articulated in Anabaptism while others reach far into the ways of Spiritualism implicit in Pietism. Yet, I think the two are best held together. Our theology of the Holy Spirit reminds us that, while the community is the context for discernment of the Spirit’s work, it is not the arbiter of God. Rather, the Spirit works around, through, and in spite of our churchiness. To be sure though, 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 a rich Anabaptist and Pietist synthesis says that what we each experience is made complete in the project of shared discernment of the actions of the Holy Spirit.