A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism

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. 

Catch the pre-hangout posts from some fellow NuDunkers DanaBrian, and Andy.

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.


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21 responses to “A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism

  1. Scott Holland

    Excellent post, Josh.

    I’ve been thinking lately about our many intramural language games: Peace Church, Anabaptist, Pietist, etc., and how easily they can become secret passwords at the guarded gates of sectarian reservations rather than invitations into more public conversation. Can the Spirit also inspire a discourse of worldly holiness and holy worldliness?

  2. “Rather, the Spirit works around, through, and in spite of our churchiness.” Yes!

  3. Thanks, Josh! One thing that strikes me as I read through this is the “individual/community” dialectic you present.

    Chalk this up to my social media-heavy practices and “formal Brethren/anonymous Mennonite/catholic evangelical” identity complex – but it seems to me that maybe “overlapping spheres” is a helpful image when talking about discernment of the spirit. I belong to multiple “communities” in a range of modes – familial, organizational, denominational, traditional, cultural, digital – and I find my sense of individuality/personhood inescapably bound up in those webs of connection. I’m interested to think about how to faithfully discern the Holy Spirit’s presence and guidance across these threads.

    So maybe another way to test this out is to ask a series of questions:
    * For 16th century Anabaptists – was there a cultural, collectivist dimension to their origins that shaped their view of the Spirit’s work in the reading of Scripture? (I think there was – and it extended to their view of the Spirit’s work in other worship practices.)
    * For 18th century Pietists – was there a cultural, modernist/individualistic dimension to their origins that shaped their view of the Spirit’s work?
    * If there’s any merit to the previous two – How might we as Anabaptists+Pietists honor our forebears and be faithful amidst our cultural milieu in our late modern, secular age, and all its digital-technological trappings? How can we balance this “individual/community” dialectic across complex and numerous social orderings?

    Thought-provoking stuff; thanks, Josh. I’m glad you brought out explicit reference to the two pillars of our Brethren tradition.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Well, Brian that sounds like another great conversation for the NuDunkers- especially the part about being a part of multiple communities.

      Regarding your later questions- I think for sure we cannot separate the early Anabaptists and Pietists from their cultural surroundings. I have kicked around just how much we can unhinge Cartesian individualism from our Pietist roots. Honestly, though I think the turn towards Anabaptism by Mack the Radical Pietist was a desire to stem isolated individualism within the Brethren movement. This is why I have argued elsewhere that Anabaptism and Pietism is better understood in Chalcedonian terms- Both/And, united without confusion.

    • Scott Holland

      Overlapping communities is a nice way to imagine the constitution of both the church and the self. “A web” is also a useful metaphor: Brian Gumm, the theologian as Spiderman.

      A question you NuDunkers might ponder. If we are constituted by webs of discourse and practice, or overlapping communities, must “the church” remain a central or primary community? If so, does not this tame, tutor and institutionalize the Spirit? Does this not place a mere contingent collective where God should be?

      • Joshua Brockway

        The theologian as Spideman…..Nice. Very nice!

        I was thinking about this question on the drive into work this morning. In some ways we have circled around this question in a variety of ways in a variety of forums. So I began by asking myself “why do I think the church is a primary community, or the community of communities within this web.” It seems to me that few of my other communities of discourse and practice are gathered around the scriptures. We might gather around a game, hobby, political interest, or even event. Yet few of them are set to ask the question “What is God doing in scripture, and what is God doing now?” This is not to say that I do not gain insight from these other contexts, or find my “heart strangely warmed” but that the place where I gather with others around the scriptures is the place that helps in discerning the meaning and authenticity of those experiences.

        Now, to be fair, this ‘church’ community may not be my local congregation. So maybe the better question is- which community within my web of communities is church?

      • I was thinking about the question this morning, too – thanks, Scott for asking it!

        In addition to the uniqueness of gathering around scripture, the church community is also unique in being explicit about offering an overarching framework or worldview or formation through which to make sense of all the other commitments and communities. Scripture is a big part of that, as is worship. The church circle is one of several overlapping identity circles that shape me, but it might be the only one baldfaced enough to claim ability to collect and interpret all those other pieces of identity.

      • I think of church as the “de-centered center” (I think I got this from W. Cavanaugh) in these overlapping spheres of communities. And amidst other non-church spheres, the church itself is a diverse body. “We who are many are one,” as my Methodist pastor says in the Holy Communion liturgy.

        Within my own working theological categories, I think you can’t finally separate “anarchist pneumatology” from “radical ecclesiology” – which I described last fall as “the ‘weightiest’ site (sphere) of God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16-21). Birth to new life in this body begins the slow, painful process of liberation from the power of death – learning to see and be in the world anew, re-educating our bodies into the virtues of humility, peace, joy, hope, gentleness, and self-control through the practices worship and service – prayer, reading Scripture, corporate gathering, mutual submission, forgiveness, ‘seeking the peace of the city,’ care for the marginalized, among others.”

        This comports with what Dana & Josh are saying about what happens in that “unique sphere” of church – wherever it happens to be instantiated. Vision (worldview) and bodies (politics, being in the world) are transformed by the salvific story we encounter in worship of the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ in Scripture and by the Holy Spirit.

        This is the Anabaptist in me: I tend to think of the above in a sense more political-theological/radical-democratic than, say, James K.A. Smith might as a Reformed theologian/philosopher. And there’s also this weird tension in Cavanuagh (“Being Consumed,” “Migrations of the Holy”) – in that sometimes his ecclesiological theologizing sounds almost Anabaptist/free churchy, and I wonder “How can this guy be Catholic and say stuff like this?!”

  4. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

    I think the use of the word “spiritualist” is really misleading. I actually came and read this because I was curious to see how Josh might connect Spiritualism ( seances, mediums, reincarnation, past lives, spirit controls, etc. with radical Pietism)!

    • Joshua Brockway

      Hey Cheryl thanks for jumping in!

      You are right it is a little misleading. Yet, there was a strain of Radical Pietists that were similar to some of the things you mentioned. The Philadelphians were contemporaries to our early Brethren and had a large place carved out for spiritual visions and encounters. Some of them were complex and even ethereal. They might sound more like what we would call mystics (a little more generous than Spiritualist). Check out Jane Lead, and you will see what I mean.


  5. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

    Yeah…not convinced! Spiritualist is actually not a good word to mean what you are trying to say. “Spiritualist” technically means a participant in Spiritualism, which is a definite movement that I believe began in the late 19th century and really gained strength in the early 20th century, and actually is fully active still today. Read enough Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and you find out a lot about it, by the way.

    • Scott Holland

      Well, Cheryl, the use of “pneumatology” can likewise be problematic. A smart student at a seminary that shall remain unnamed confessed that he truly thought the word referred to the mechanics of those pneumatic air tubes and canisters at the drive through lanes at the local First National Bank!

      • Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

        Sorry to be a pain, accurate use of words is one of my pet peeves as a writer and editor. I’d hate to see the word “spiritualist” picked up incorrectly as a substitute term for Pietist–the connotations could be really disturbing to many Christians given the tenets of Spiritualism.

      • Joshua Brockway

        No sense of pain involved 🙂 Clarity is good. I initially didn’t change the title due to the fact that this post had been picked up in a number of links around the web for fear it would cause link confusion. Now, I see that wasn’t a problem. Also the comments here offer some clarity to the two meanings of the word.

  6. What a great conversation happening here. As a former conservative Mennonite and now Church of the Brethren, I always wrapped us up together in one cozy blanket. It wasn’t until recently, when I took a class on Brethren history, that I learned how varied our beginnings were. Although I have been a member of the COB for 10 years now, I’ve only recently started identifying myself as Brethren. In doing so, and in explaining that to others, I have found myself using the “peace church” “kinda like Mennonites” terminology. I enjoyed this post and am gleaning from the comments as well. I hope to join in for the discussion Friday. Thanks for the invite, Brian. Blessings to all.

  7. Pingback: A Pietist-Spiritualist Corrective to Anabaptism « The Pietist Schoolman

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about a theology of institutions… early Anabaptists point to it, and Wink picks it up a bit in the thoughts around powers and principalities. I’ve come to a provisional place of thinking that institutions have macro spiritualities, some positive, some negative, just in the same way that individual spiritual frameworks can be constructive or destructive. And I think the church provides Bruggeman’s counter-narrative, but it also could (ideally!!) provide a counter-macro-spirituality to the destructive macro spiritualities of, oh, say… particular corporations, etc. I am convinced that part of what we’re doing in worship is creating a real live body with a real unified spirituality that is somehow bigger than the sum of our parts, a spirituality that can then affect the world in ways that we as individuals cannot. To me, that’s why the church in some form (as, most basically, a gathering of those who claim Christ, follow the Spirit, and serve God) will always need to be part of the picture. I’m working on testing this hypothesis out… what do you all think?

    • Scott Holland

      I think this has great promise, Laura. To make this convincing, however, I think it will be important to point to concrete faith communities of practice and discourse where this is embodied in words made flesh. Many of us would not quarrel with the ecclesial visions of many prophetic, counter-story, Anabaptist or Neo-Anabaptist theorists but we would note that these proposals often tend to remain paper-communities and paper-churches lacking genuine incarnation. Anabaptism, after all, has always been an imaginary homeland.

  9. Pingback: A Pietist-Spiritualist Corrective to Anabaptism | The Search for Piety and Obedience

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