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A Pietist-Spiritualist Corrective to Anabaptism

CoB-logoWay back in February, Pietist Schoolman Chris Gehrz drew his readers’ attention to a fascinating post by Church of the Brethren minister and blogger Joshua Brockway. Brockway’s discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of one Christian community shaped by Anabaptism and Pietism has a lot to commend it to Brethren in Christ readers.

In “A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism,” Brockway describes how — in the Church of the Brethren context — Pietism has served to moderate the sectarian impulse embedded in historic Anabaptism.

Here’s a taste of Brockway’s argument:

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. . . .

My sense is that Pietism is the appropriate corrective to our more sectarian [Anabaptist] 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.

. . . Anabaptism reigns in our [Pietist] 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.

Check out Brockway’s whole post here.

The tension Brockway describes — between the communitarian impulse of Anabaptism and the importance of individual conscience embedded in Pietism — has long been present in the Brethren in Christ experience. That’s the “quest” of which historian Carlton O. Wittlinger spoke in the title of his magisterial history of the denomination — the “quest” to resolve the tension between Anabaptism and Pietism, so as to faithfully serve God.

Undoubtedly, Pietism “corrects” Anabaptism in an important way, by providing a personal pneumatology that understands the Holy Spirit’s availability to all who claim allegiance to Christ. In the Brethren in Christ tradition, that same emphasis on the individual receptivity to the Holy Spirit was replicated by the Wesleyan Holiness movement, with which we became involved in the late 19th century. It also helps to explain why Brethren in Christ people have been open to charismatic expressions throughout the last century-or-so of our history.

How do you respond to Brockway’s thoughts?

3 responses to “A Pietist-Spiritualist Corrective to Anabaptism

  1. Based on the cut you provided I think Brockway is correct. I would add, and perhaps Brockway covered this in his article, that the reverse is true also. As Pietism enhances Anabaptism, so Anabaptism enriches Pietism. The centrality of Scripture tempers feelings based excesses, while sensitivity to the Holy Spirit propels us to continually endeavor to live our what we say we believe. If my experiential evidence has any weight, I’d say the tension between the two is exactly where our faith finds expression.

  2. Thank you so much of picking up my piece and for the kind words. I imagine that there are a number of overlaps between the CoB and the Brethren in Christ as we think about these two traditions.

    I do indeed say the reverse- that Anabaptism is a helpful corrective to the extremes of Pietism (in regards to the role of scripture and the role of community in discernment}. I have been in a number of conversations though where Anabaptism has been the hot topic. Of course the Anabaptism they talk about is often more Yoder and Hauerwas than it is Anabaptist. At the same time I have met with several “Evangelical Neo-Anabaptists” and when I tell them the story of the CoB- of Anabaptist Pietists- they often remark “That’s what I am talking about!”

    Thanks again for picking this up and for expanding the conversation1

    1. Joshua: Thanks for weighing in! I really appreciated your piece, and I was glad to have The Pietist Schoolman direct my attention to it.

      As your comments suggest, finding adequate definitions of “Anabaptism” is difficult, especially in communities that look to Anabaptism to provide a “usable past” for contemporary religious life. This is certainly the case in the Brethren in Christ Church, in my experience. People my age tend to gravitate more toward visions of Anabaptism as proffered by Yoder and Hauerwas — visions that emphasize peacemaking, reconciliation, simplicity, communitarianism and the like as the “essence” of the movement. Others — usually older church leaders — are more drawn toward the “Evangelical Anabaptism” of Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision,” if they are even attracted to Anabaptism at all.

      The tension between these competing views (and I could list others — it’s more a continuum of difference than a pure binary) comes into stark relief when one or more of the visions is used to craft a “future” for the Brethren in Christ.

      I appreciated your post most of all because it reminds us of what our historians have argued for several decades — that the theological genius of the Brethren in Christ (and for groups like the CoB) lies in its ability to fuse Anabaptist ecclesiology with Pietist soteriology. The tension between these two traditions makes our traditions attractive in the 21st century — as your concluding comment indicates.

      Thanks again for this great conversation-starting post!

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