Ted Grimsrud—June 11, 2012
I recently read a fascinating and well executed collection of essays, The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism, edited by Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer (Pickwick Publications, 2012). I intend to interact more explicitly with this book soon, but right now I want to reflect a bit on some thoughts that reading it triggered for me.
One of the basic issues The Activist Impulse takes up is the relationship between “Anabaptism” and “evangelicalism”—especially how closely those in each movement should be linked. As many of the writers in the book acknowledge, each of these terms is difficult to define. Both refer to movements and mindsets, not to clearly delineated organizations.
What one means by “Anabaptism” is probably easier to settle on, at least in a general sense, than what one means by “evangelicalism.” Most of us would agree in linking the term with a particular (though surprisingly diverse and amorphous) movement that arose amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and ultimately found institutional shape in the Mennonite churches, their siblings (such as the Amish and Hutterites), and various cousins (especially the movement that evolved in diverse forms to produce the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Grace Brethren, and German Baptist Brethren).
However, since the term was rehabilitated following Harold Bender’s widely circulated and praised summary statement, “The Anabaptist Vision,” increasingly many non-Mennonites and Brethren have used the terms in a positive sense that speaks more to certain theological and ethical sensibilities—most notably pacifism, a strong emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount, simple living, and intentional community.
Evangelicalism—Two senses of the term
What is meant by “evangelicalism” is more contested. Without getting into to various debates, I will simply suggest two general senses of how I see the term being used (let me note that the editors of The Activist Impulse deliberately chose to avoid a stable definition in their book, allowing each author to use the term in their own way—a mistake in my opinion that leads to less precision than would have been desirable in the collection as a whole).
The first sense is to see “evangelical” simply as a rough synonym with “conservative Protestant” and to link it with the Reformation itself and other later renewal movements. This is the way Mennonite historian Steve Nolt defines it in his essay in The Activist Impulse: “Evangelicalism is a stream of Protestant Christianity marked by emphases on religious conversion, active and overt expression of faith, the authority of the Bible, and Christ’s death on the cross. These hallmarks, as British historian David Bebbington has shown, were common across the north Atlantic world among those who called themselves evangelicals in the 1700s, and they have served as a minimal definition of evangelicalism in the centuries that followed” (pp. 13-14).
The second sense is more conflictual and North American-focused. It would be to link “evangelical” with institutions and sensibilities that evolved from the early 20th-century Fundamentalist movement in the United States and Canada. This sense of “evangelical” may be understood in relation to entities that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Billy Graham movement, and seminaries such as Fuller, Asbury, Trinity, and Gordon-Conwell and a college such as Wheaton. Evangelicals in this sense tend to have doctrinal statements that are enforced. The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) still requires its members to believe in biblical inerrancy. From time to time the ETS will go through a process to decide whether a member has crossed the line and violated evangelical orthodoxy.
Evangelicals have been spoken of as having theological affinity with fundamentalists, but a less separatist spirit; somewhat contentious and intolerant, but less so that the combative Fundamentalists.
To ask about Anabaptists and evangelicals, it matters whether we are defining evangelicalism more in the first sense or the second sense. Steve Nolt and his Goshen College historian colleague John Roth in their essays in The Activist Impulse both tend toward the first sense and both seem quite sanguine about close connections between evangelicals and Anabaptists.
I tend toward the second sense of understanding evangelical. [I have written a bit about my own background as an evangelical and my self-conscious move to leave evangelicalism and become an Anabaptist here and here.] It seems to me that when “evangelical” is used of theology (in a broad sense), it needs to be understood against the background of the Fundamentalist movement that gained traction in the early 1900s and that still defines much of the theological sensibility of evangelicals.
Focusing on differences between evangelicalism and Anabaptism
I think discussions about evangelicalism and Anabaptism should focus on the differences between the two movements before developing a sense of commonality over the similarities. I am still thinking about how to articulate this concern.
For various reasons I have gotten more interested in such discussions lately. My school, Eastern Mennonite University (perhaps as much of a bastion of Anabaptist sensibility as any place right now), hosted three quite different visitors this spring semester who each, in some sense, came to EMU as evangelicals attracted to Anabaptism and wanting to learn more about it first hand.
One was folk musician Shaun Groves, who travels widely performing mostly at evangelical schools. He was our “Spiritual Life Week” speaker/performer. According to his extensive (and fascinating) reflections on his blog, he found the experience of interacting with Anabaptists surprisingly a bit unsettling in a way that seems to have made him think that linking evangelicalism and Anabaptism might be more complicated than he might have thought.
Then we had James Davison Hunter, prominent sociologist of religion at the University of Virginia who came to talk about ideas from his recent book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). He was followed by pastor and urban missiologist David Fitch from Northern Theological Seminary in Chicago, who discussed his book, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Cascade Books, 2011).
Each in his own way also seemed to find their conversations with EMU folks helpful but also a bit unsettling. I would say that part of the unsettling aspect is it becoming more clear that, though they each have found themselves attracted to some elements of Anabaptist thought, the differences between evangelicalism and Anabaptism remain significant and complicated.
These encounters, one after the other though none connected to the other, stimulated me to think more about issues I have long been interested in. I have also read in order to review several books lately that have continued the stimulation. Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Cascade Books, 2012), is an evangelical and Mennonite who critiques the theology of John Howard Yoder and concludes that Yoder was not “orthodox” (my critique of Martens’s critique is here). The second is The Activist Impulse, mentioned above. The third is another book of essays, this one edited by Justin Bronson Barringer and Tripp York, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (Cascade Books, 2012).
Five key differences
As I think about it, I think of numerous issues that I would want to discuss as differences. I think facing these head on would help us better define what is at the heart of both evangelicalism and Anabaptism—and would make the conversation about how they connect (or not) with each other more fruitful.
(1) Atonement—As is well known, even while ancient dogmas focused on clarifying Jesus’ divinity, they never did address the issue of what view of Jesus’ death and salvation would be considered orthodox. Numerous recent studies of atonement doctrines have emphasized the plurality of models and images in the Bible itself. Yet North American fundamentalism did make what is called the “penal substitution” view into an explicit boundary marker.
In Shaun Groves’ discussion of his experience at EMU, he asserts that a doctrine something like the penal substitution view was for him a “non-negotiable” in determining acceptable theology. I have had the experience in recent years of seriously being labeled a “heretic” by students strictly because of my lack of affirmation for the penal substitution view. Along the lines of J.Denny Weaver’s argument in his book The Nonviolent Atonement, I would suggest that in fact the penal substitution view (along with the less extreme view of Anselm—the “satisfaction” model) is actually in tension with Anabaptist pacifism and with the main thrust of the biblical teaching.
(2) Exclusivity—In Paul Martens’s critique of John Howard Yoder’s theology, a central problem that arises for Martens is what he terms Yoder’s failure to affirm “particularity” in his Christology. It appears that what Martens actually means is that Yoder does not affirm a strong sense of Christian uniqueness. What makes Christianity true, Martens implies, is that it is the only truth; the explicit affirmation of Jesus as one’s personal savior is the only way to salvation.
Anabaptists would not tend to be pluralists in the sense of affirming all religions as equally revelatory (certainly Yoder was not), but by seeing practice as integral to Christian faith (faith without works is dead, doctrine and practice belong inextricably together) they actually do differ from evangelicalism’s doctrine-first approach.
(3) Scripture—In my own experience, a key moment in rejecting evangelical theology came due to the debate over biblical inerrancy. I came to believe that evangelicalism often emphasizes the doctrine of scripture over the content of scripture. The key thing about the Bible in evangelical theology, it seems to me, is that it gives us an unassailable authority. So, for example, evangelicalism tends to begin systematic theology with the doctrine of scripture rather than the storyline of the Bible. We need to establish the Bible’s authority before moving on to other doctrines.
This emphasis on the Bible as first of all unassailable authority helps explain why, say, evangelical theology tends to be so dogmatically certain that homosexuality in all its expressions is wrong and that any argument to the contrary is “against the Bible”—even when the content of the Bible does not actually support such certainty. All we need to know, it appears, is that somewhere the Bible says something against some expression of homosexuality. Since the Bible is an unassailable authority that gives us that absolute directives we need, we may simply cites the negative allusion as our once-for-all-time answer to the issue. In this view, we do not need to ask about the context and specific meaning of the particular texts. That is, it is Bible as authority that matters, not the actual contextually specific content of the biblical references.
(4) Politics—I talked with a friend recently about some of these issues and he told me about his recently deceased mother, a deeply traditional Mennonite. Over the past several years she had expressed strong support for the death penalty. This surprised my friend because traditionally Mennonites have opposed the death penalty. It appears that her switch on this issue followed from extensive exposure to evangelical teaching on TV, the radio, and even in her Mennonite congregation.
I have written before about my experience in recent EMU classes of students’ increased dogmatism in their anti-abortion view and concomitant affirmation of governmental intervention to criminalize abortion. I have had guest speakers in the past who had expressed strong pro-life views as an expression of their Mennonite pacifism—but they had also argued against focusing on governmental intervention. This new focus strikes me as another way that exposure to evangelicalism has pushed Mennonites away from more overt Anabaptist theology.
I would trace the evolution in evangelical political engagement as being linked closely with activism concerning opposition to abortion. I was involved in Fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity right about the time that the U.S. Supreme Court forbade making abortion illegal with the Roe v. Wade decision in the early 1970s. At that time, evangelicals tended to be pretty apolitical. The movement against abortion has been able to greatly expand and focus evangelical political involvement. And this involvement tends to lead to uncritical support for the Republican Party and various “wedge issues”—most notably anti-abortion, pro-Israel, pro-death penalty, pro-militarism, and anti-homosexuality.
(5) Pacifism—The issue that highlights the differences between Anabaptism and evangelicalism most clearly is the issue of pacifism. Self-described evangelicals in the United States are much more likely than the general population to support warfare and the death penalty. Numerous of the above points are related to this fundamental difference.
For example, how else to explain the blindness in much of evangelicalism to the peace message of Jesus except that the Bible is being approached as an instrument of authority rather than as the source of basic ethical teaching? For another example, if the emphasis is placed on exclusive doctrinal truth over faithful practice (because “anyone” can try to be nonviolent but only a true Christian will declare that Jesus was God), it is small wonder that at best pacifism would be seen as one option a Christian might choose to take.
Even in the Barringer/York book, that very helpfully makes a strong case in favor of pacifism, several evangelical writers (such as Greg Boyd and Stephen Long) make a strong point of clearly differentiating “true Christian pacifism” from “liberal humanist pacifism” in a way that points toward the sense that correct Christian doctrine takes priority over an affirmation of Jesus’ message against violence.
Each of these five points deserves much more careful thought and discussion than I have been able to offer in these short comments. And it could be that I have made too many unfair generalizations about evangelicalism. But I still offer these as points of discussion. I believe that if we carefully examined these points of difference (even if we decide that the differences are not as strong as I am suggesting), then we will be able to make solid progress in growing in understanding about what we mean by both “evangelicalism” and “Anabaptism” and how a fruitful conversation between the two movements might proceed.