Tag Archives: Scripture

A Better Anthropology

Last week I was knee deep in reading Peter C. Blum’s recent book “For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.” Since I had also just finished an extended essay on the relevancy of the Brethren tradition for today, I was reading it with an eye toward understanding the intersection of Pietism and Anabaptism. In reading Blum’s excellent essay on feet washing, I was able to narrow the field of my question: How does the Pietist emphasis on the individual offer both a hurdle to overcome and a helpful corrective to Anabaptist collectivism?

I’ve written already on the intersection of the two traditions here. My question though, was primed by my good friend Scott Holland, a frequent reader and commenter of the NuDunker blogs. Scott, once a student with Yoder, offers a solid critique of Yoderian Anabaptism saying that “it offers an anthropology of the disciple but not of the person.” So I threw the question out to Scott and some fellow NuDunkers in order to explore just how Pietism might help us get to a better anthropology within the wider conversations of Neo-Anabaptism.

First, a bit of history. The 16th century Anabaptists and the 18th century Pietists, though connected in an impulse to recover a radical discipleship based in their reading of the New Testament, were separated by the grand shift toward the individual begun in the Enlightenment. That is to say that a kind of Cartesian turn toward the interiority of the human person was a significant difference between the Brethren and the Mennonites. Put another way, the Pietists worked within the framework of the Cogito- I think therefore I am. There are of course a ton of problems with this kind of Cartesian turn to the individual- most notably the separation of the interior and exterior self. Yet, for as much as academics have refuted Descartes’ system (especially through the work of Phenomenology), this sense of interior confidence is part and parcel to the Western sense of the self.

For the Pietists, a sense of religious certainty was to be found in the inner life. Though they might have balked at Descartes over emphasis on rationality, it was still the case that the individual was a clear source for religious understanding. Hence, many of the Pietists gathered in conventicles or study groups to explore the scriptures together. Hence, Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone” found its logical conclusion among those small groups. They read together in order to better understand the scriptures and apply them to a life of holiness. Many of these groups were known for a rich spirituality, an affective reading of the scriptures that was deeply prayerful and mystical in tone. In a way, we might say that for the Pietists, Descartes maxim was better rendered “I pray, therefore I am.”

There were of course many Pietists who remained within their religious traditions. Some said that there were two churches- the visible church manifest in the institution and marked by both the lapsed and those in pursuit of holiness, and the invisible church comprised only of the holy. The Brethren, however, rejected that conception all together in the decision to baptize believers in water. In that decision they created a new, and only visible, community of discipleship. What is more, they followed the lead of the 16th century Anabaptists. Certainly, when we read the early writings of the Brethren, they would not have called themselves Anabaptists. As German historian and pastor Marcus Meier notes, the categories of Anabaptist and Pietist are modern labels applied to the past. Yet, there were streams of continuity between the 16th and 18th century reformers. What seems more operative, then, is a different sense of the person.

My emerging sense is that the Brethren- with a Pietist sense of heart and mind coupled with an Anabaptist desire for community and ethics- sought to temper the trajectory of radical individualism with a community of discernment and accountability. There are stories of persons whose mystical experiences were explored by the community and tested against the scriptures. One could not just say that “God told me so” without also asking fellow believers if this inner word coincided with the outer word of scripture. At the same time, the Pietist emphasis on conscience offered an equally critical tempering of an Anabaptist turn towards collectivism. In other words, the church was not an authoritarian herd but a community of persons seeking faithfulness and holiness together. There were certainly cases where such discernment resulted in a clear “No” on the part of the community, and yet as some stories show, the entertainment of the question was a two way street to test the community’s understanding as well.

This still leads me back to my original quest for a better anthropology. Though I assume that the early Pietists were the product of the Enlightenment turn towards the inner life of the individual, I am still wrestling with the anthropology that was at work in the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism. In many ways contemporary Brethren have camped out in either tradition, thus highlighting one as normative- either we are Anabaptists or we are Pietists, communitarians or individuals. My instinct is to say that both are true, but that still leaves open for debate how the heart felt mysticism of the Pietists finds grounding in the community of believers. That is to say that Pietism and Anabaptism practiced together avoids the pitfalls of collective authoritarianism on one hand and radical individualism on the other. Following Meier and others, the only difference I can discern in the historical narrative is the effect of the Enlightenment conception of the self. So the question haunts me- what is the better anthropology at work among the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism?

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Sect or Community

Bounded vs CenteredSet_ChristIn recent discussions (see here and the discussion here) of Neo-Anabaptism, historical Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, and even Missional theology, one refrain continues to surface: These groups or categories are just still to “old school.” In an age such as ours where pluralism is the norm and distaste for the all things religious, we theologians need to open the doors and sell off the old baggage of “Church.” In a way, such a thesis is a response to the charges of sectarianism leveled at the Radical Reformation traditions. By dumping the baggage in what can easily be identified as one of Phyllis Tickle’s 500 year rummage sale, the hope is that faith will find that the Spirit of God is out and about within wider world. Babylon may turn out to be much different from the heathen culture we have deemed it to be in our holier-than-thou sectarian confines.

This is true- in part. Our sectarian ideologies were simply too naive. To withdraw from the world as if to create the heavenly equivalent in the confines of a pure community simply created communities of control. Defining the stark boundary that should not be crossed by clothing, transportation, worship styles, and even purity codes and creeds missed the scriptural reminder that God is restoring the cosmos to its original intents- reconciling all things, as Paul says in Romans, to God’s self.

Jesus’ retreat to the desert was limited. It was not his whole life and ministry. Rather, such a reorienting withdraw sent him back into the culture of Roman occupied Palestine to answer the questions of faithful living.

Paul, with a foot in both Roman and Hebrew worlds, spoke in two languages, able to see the redemptive work of Christ for both the Jew and the Gentile.

Yet, each of these examples reveals that the redemptive work was done within these cultures and despite these cultures. Jesus didn’t accept all the ways of Rome and Paul did not adopt all the ways of his own Hebrew tradition. There is a sorting that goes on as we live faithfully within the world around us. In spiritual terms, we do some discerning to know if what is before us is of God or something else altogether.

That means we as followers of Christ don’t just sell off all the churchy stuff and jump into the ways of the world. In fact, it is too easy to see around us that things are not as they should be. Scarcity defines our economics to the extent that few have much and the many have very little. Wars dominate the societal visions for control as one country or group finds more and more efficient ways to terrorize and defeat their enemies. And politics, once the quest for the common good, has come to mean nothing other than brinksmanship so that a few may prosper.

Looking at these facets of the “world” should temper any vision that all is good in the land of Babylon.

However, there are places where God is clearly at work. There are times when life is nurtured, people are loved, resources are shared, and peace defines a time. We, as followers of Christ, have the occasion to see these moments for what they are- thin places between heaven and earth; horizons of the world as it is and the coming reign of God.

So we can’t just flee the world, nor can we just say that all is spirit and light. We must “discern the spirits” around us. And where else do we learn to see beneath the veneer but in the formative context of Christian practice. As James K.A. Smith reveals in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we must come to terms with the reality that the practices of the Church and the liturgies of the world are in competition. This is not to draw the stark boundaries of sectarian withdraw, sorting out the Church from the world. Rather, it simply names that we come to recognize God at work in the world through the embodied narratives (liturgies) of the Christian community. For it is there that we hear the shared stories of scripture that witness to the ways of God; share the testimonies of how God has been at work here and now; share a sparse spread of bread and wine as a foretaste of a grand feast; and take part in the needs and joys of each other in the recognition of our interconnected lives. These very practices confront the dominant societal narratives of self-interest, immediate gratification, isolation from and yet power over others. By seeing the contrast between the ways of God in the formative life of the Christian community, we come to look for these signs in our life in the world.

It is in Christian community, not sectarian life, that we come to discern just what God is doing  in, around, and hopefully through us as followers of Christ.

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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

Last week my Twitter feed exploded with a number of tweets related to the Bible. In full disclosure, I was attending The Uncover Summit. This event, organized by the Forum of Bible Agencies, focused on the need for greater engagement with scripture- A concept I am fully supportive of, but not quite on board with the same theological and cultural baggage that was paraded before those gathered in Orlando.

As with any gathering of church leaders and parachurch organizations, some of he content was good and some of it was simply awful.

So in an a self indulgent effort to debrief, I want to work constructively at my own theology of scripture. This, I hope, will expand what I am looking for related to a robust centrality of scripture while deconstructing the rigid approaches of infallibility and inerrancy, and idolatrous approaches of some. I will work in a traditionally systematic approach, that is working through categories in order to set the Bible in a valuable location within Christian belief and practice. A later post will follow up with some historical references and make more clear the object to which the Bible points and the theological problems of inerrancy and infallibility.

1) The creating God- The prime object of all creation, worship, and the scriptures is God. This God is the creator of all, including Human Beings. This, by definition, makes clear one thing- God is God and humanity is not, a creator and a created. We, by our very nature fall on the created side of the line.

Yet, this same God reaches over he creator/created boundary to interact with the creation. In this way, God’s very nature is to reveal God’s self to humanity. So along with Creator, God is Revealer. That just has to be. Since God is so other to us, God has to give us some clues along the way. Ironically, we experience God in the opposite order. We first come to know God as Revealer since that is the first gracious action we experience. After becoming aware of God and coming to know God as revealed, then we come to know God as Creator, because that as well is an understanding given by God. As we see in the modern scientific age, it is possible to encounter and understand the world without God’s actions, or even God himself. To speak of God as creator is already to invoke Revelation as source of understanding, and thus to speak a position of faith.

2) Christ, the full revelation- Fall, atonement, and soteriiology aside, the person of Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God to humanity. In other, more classical and scriptural terms, he is God with us. In the familiar opening to the Gospel of John, this Christ is called the Word. It’s a great theological and poetic narrative which plays on speech as a revealing act.  God creates and reveals with words, but the fullest representation is The Word above all words.

3) The People of God- Since the nature of God is to interact with and be self revelatory, there are people who are engaged by God. These people at various times have been called Israel and later the Church. Both of these names make explicit the Divine and human interaction. First, Israel is the people that wrestles with God. Second, the Church is the people called together by God.

4) Scripture, the testimony of the peoples of God– These interactions with God, necessarily, must take place in time and throughout time. Since the nature of humanity is to communicate, both with God and with one another, there is a need to gather these divine encounters to shared through time, at first through stories shared by word of mouth and then in the technology of writing. Soon, because the technology allowed it, this communication about God and the experiences of God took the form of direct written communication. Thus, we have human attempts to narrate the Divine encounter both in stories and letters.

Since its too easy to fake an encounter with God, over time these people of God gathered the normative stories and texts together. These scriptures are the texts by which all new encounters are assessed and measured. This means one thing: the writers did not set out to write the definitive account of God but narrated their encounters. Over time, the people’s of God, along with the revealing work of God’s Spirit, have said these are The Stories above all stories, and are to be trusted as tests for each generation. They are set aside for God’s people throughout time. They are Scriptural Canon for the people of God.

This hierarchy makes several things clear. First and foremost, God is behind the scriptures every step of the way. God is present in the first revelation, with the persons who did the recording, and with the peoples as they set apart the text as the measurement of all later understandings. Second, as scripture, these texts witness to this chain of Divine self revelation. They are thus not historical or scientific in the way we conceive them today, but texts revealing God and God’s self revelation.

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Filed under Discipleship, Theology