Anabaptist Evangelicalism?

Ted Grimsrud—July 8, 2012

What do you do if you are a young theologian or historian who is located in an evangelical tradition long removed from its Anabaptist heritage and you discover that heritage and find it attractive? If you are Jared Burkholder, a professor at Grace College, and David Cramer, doctoral student at Baylor University and former instructor at Bethel College (Indiana), you tap the shoulders of other like-minded young scholars and sympathetic senior scholars and produce a lively and thought-provoking collection of essays that, in sum, makes the case that evangelicals would benefit greatly from more appropriation of Anabaptist emphases—and that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism.

This is the book: Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds. The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

I am quite a bit more sympathetic with the first of these two cases (that evangelicals would benefit from more Anabaptism) than with the second (that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism). Without question, though, this is an excellent group of essays. Each one is readable and interesting.

What is “evangelicalism”?

The first section of the book, “Intersecting Stories: Historical Reflection on the Nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” draws on three of the senior scholars, including two Mennonites (Steve Nolt and John Roth) who warmly welcome the interest of evangelicals in Anabaptism and emphasize the compatibility between the two streams of Christianity. Roth, especially, seeks to counter the much more hostile response to evangelicalism characteristic from Anabaptist scholars in a much earlier collection (C. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism [Herald Press, 1979]) that is cited as the main previous book to take up these issues in depth.

The discussion by Nolt and Roth points to one of the most complicated issues that lurks throughout this book and, actually, in all such conversations. What precisely to we mean by “evangelicalism”? The editors state that they intentionally did not ask their writers to follow a given, stable definition but gave each the freedom to use the term as they saw fit.

Nolt’s definition is, more or less, followed by most of the other authors: 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 problem with this rather benign definition is that it doesn’t really help us understand why there would be a tension in anyone’s mind between “evangelicalism” and “Anabaptism.” The writers in this book, of course, don’t want to emphasize tensions. Most advocate (or at least hint toward) a sense of harmony between the two streams. Nolt and Roth even seem to hint at the presence of bad faith on the part of the contributors to Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (as well in the writings of prominent Mennonite historian Theron Schlabach, especially in his 1980 book, Gospel vs. Gospel: Mission and the Mennonite Church, 1863-1944, that decried the influence of evangelicalism on Mennonite missionaries) insofar as those earlier writings assume a strong sense of tension and express concerns about how evangelicalism impacts Anabaptists.

Nolt’s definition puts 20th-century American evangelicalism in a direct trajectory with earlier Protestants. The definition that would likely have been followed by the contributors to the Kraus volume and by Schlabach would suggest more of a sense of discontinuity between the earlier Protestants and 20th century American evangelicals that has to do with the emergence around 1900 of the fundamentalist movement in North America. More recent evangelicalism, according to this second definition, cannot be understood apart from its identity as a kind of “post-fundamentalist” movement (“fundamentalism” in the sense of the movement that only emerged ca. 1900). That is, as a post-fundamentalist movement, evangelicalism builds on fundamentalism and in some sense remained defined by the core elements of fundamentalism.

These elements are quite a bit more specific than Nolt’s list. For example, it’s not just “the authority of the Bible,” it is “verbal, plenary inspiration” and inerrancy. It’s not just “Christ’s death on the cross,” it’s the substitutionary atonement. And, importantly, the consequences of less than full adherence to these beliefs are to be considered heretical.

When we think of evangelicalism in terms of its modern fundamentalist roots, it is easier to see why some might see stronger tensions between evangelicalism and Anabaptism than is expressed in The Activist Impulse. However, since the main agenda of this book is to try to encourage evangelicals to be more open to Anabaptist influences, it makes sense that the tensions between the two streams would not be front and center. Only if one approaches this conversation from the other side—that is, whether Anabaptists should be more open to evangelical influences—do the points of tension become more important. I will return to the tensions toward the end of this post. First, I want to make some appreciative comments about some key points the book actually does make in light of its agenda of encouraging rapprochement.

Contributions of The Activist Impulse

Several of the essays sketch historical background for formerly Anabaptist evangelical groups such as the Missionary Church (Matthew Eaton and Joel Boehner) and Grace Brethren (M.M. Norris), as well as Jared Burkholder’s interesting account of dynamics among Pennsylvania Mennonites that led to a couple of “misfits” leading churches out of the Mennonite fold. These essays provide helpful information for understanding better the desires of some kind of rapprochement in the present, though they don’t focus on the more recent history that led the formerly Anabaptist groups to move so far away from their background that they have mostly lost any Anabaptist characteristics.

David Swartz (“Re-Baptizing Evangelicalism: American Anabaptists and the 1970s Evangelical Left”) and Geoffrey Bowden (“The Evangelical-Anabaptist Spectrum: The Political Theologies of Francis Schaeffer, John Howard Yoder, and Jim Wallis”) make solid contributions in adding to our understanding of ways (admittedly a small minority of) evangelicals have been open to Anabaptist influences, especially from John Howard Yoder, in contrast to the general sense in our culture since the emergence of the Christian Right in the 1970s that evangelicalism should be understood only in terms of conservative, Republican Party politics.

The final section of the book includes three stimulating essays that point to ways the link between evangelical and Anabaptist theologies could be furthered to enhance our peace witness. Kirk MacGregor makes a persuasive case for a nonviolent atonement theology that is more “orthodox” than Denny Weaver’s, and David Cramer draws heavily on John Howard Yoder’s thought to make a strong case for a biblically based pacifism that would have potential to draw Anabaptists and evangelicals closer together.

The third essay in this section, an interesting and perceptive argument by Timothy Paul Erdel for an emphasis on Christian social faithfulness that focuses on “making Christian disciples” (defined for Erdel in terms of “biblical pacifism”) more than on secular politics, ends up hinting at some of the tensions I still feel after reading this most perceptive collection of essays.

I am thrilled to read the theological perspectives of Erdel, along with MacGregor and Cramer, that present such strong cases for peace being at the center of the gospel. They all affirm what I agree to be one of the main contributions the Anabaptist tradition can make to contemporary evangelical Christianity—a long time embodied and increasingly articulated commitment to Jesus’ pacifist message.

The issues that remain

However, I wonder about something that seems to be assumed throughout the book and strikes me as an inherent part of the evangelical sensibility. Erdel, like most everyone else in this collection, appears to accept the idea that evangelical Christians who are pacifists in the Anabaptist sense have something more fundamentally in common with non-pacifist evangelicals than they do with non-Christian pacifists or, perhaps, even non-evangelical pacifist Christians.

Behind this assumption, I suggest, is a sense that Christianity is uniquely and distinctly true, that it is clear who is and who is not a Christian, and that Christianity in the sense it is being used here ultimately is most of all a system of belief. I am not quite sure yet how to articulate this point. However, I think one of the consequences of this assumption is that evangelical pacifists do not take seriously enough the problem of evangelical Christianity (and, actually, Christianity in general) actually tending to influence people to be more violent, not less violent.

This, I suspect, is at least a big part of why earlier Mennonite writers such as Norman Kraus and Theron Schlabach were concerned about the influence of evangelicalism on Mennonites—certainly is is a big part of my concern about the “evangelicalism and Anabaptism as complementary” motif in The Activist Impulse.

My problem is not with the four points Steve Nolt lists in his definition of evangelicalism (conversion, activism, biblical authority, and the Cross). It is more with the impact of fundamentalism on those older evangelical beliefs during the 20th century and the sense that the writers in this book don’t take seriously the highly problematic effect of that impact—perhaps paradigmatically expressed in the typical evangelical hostility toward pacifism, a hostility that leads me to question how much common cause an Anabaptist could have with a non-pacifist evangelical.

At the very end of David Cramer’s essay, the final essay of the book, he writes: “Instead of rehashing the well-worn arguments that divide Anabaptists from evangelicals, Anabaptists would do well to maintain focus on the historically evangelical nature of their faith. Such a focus might foster more fruitful dialogue between Anabaptists and evangelicals going forward on just how fundamentally pacifism fits among the core commitments of their shared biblical faith” (400-01).

Perhaps a bigger issue here is why these “well-worn” arguments are not more persuasive in challenging evangelical pacifists to see more distance between themselves and evangelical non-pacifists. I totally agree, that for pacifist evangelicals and Anabaptists, “the core commitments of their shared biblical faith” are fundamental. I can’t imagine any Anabaptist doubting that or, for that matter, having any resistance to cultivating the commonalities resting on those core commitments. The problem is that the vast majority of evangelicals are against pacifism—and I suspect most would say that their rejection of pacifism is because of their evangelical identity.

The suspicion this Anabaptist has about rapprochement with evangelicals is almost completely due to the antipathy evangelicals tend to have toward pacifism. My question to Cramer and others in this excellent book is why, as pacifists, they want to remain identified with such an anti-pacifist stream of Christian faith.

6 thoughts on “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?

  1. Thanks for the review. Ted, you say, “The problem is that the vast majority of evangelicals are against pacifism—and I suspect most would say that their rejection of pacifism is because of their evangelical identity.” Since the vast majority of all Christians are against pacifism and it relates to their Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of “just” violence, do you have a similar problem as you do with evangelicals? Is it possible for you to be united with other Christians, if they are not pacifists? And if yes, on what basis?

    1. I am not too well versed in this issue so I will make a comment here and study the reasoning of those who reply. Also, I do not too often let my ignorance keep me from speaking on a subject…
      So much I hear from “non-Pacifists” has an underlying theme of fear that, if we don’t fight, who will save our country? That’s an interesting question in that it indicates that the Kingdom of my country is more important than the Kingdom of God.

      I defend my country for sentimental and property reasons. If we are defeated by the “Russians” or the “Islamists” or the “Elbonians” then we will no longer be able to maintain ownership of our property and will be under the domination of “Them” and will lose our freedom.

      Chrisitan Pacifism assumes that there is a higher order – a more important kingdom than this one – a kingdom whose gates are open to the peacemakers and not the warriors.

      I have been strongly influenced by the disc set, “The Cross in China.” There many Christians lived under a pretty hideous domination by the Maoists but they lived out their Chrisitan lives without gong to war or resorting to violence.

      And, they rejoiced in Christ…

  2. I’ve noticed that many recent news articles about Todd Akin have included references to his supporters as being “the evangelicals,” that he is meeting with “evangelical leaders,” and other similar uses of the word “evangelical.” These provide additional reminders of how the meaning of the word “evangelical” has been completely hijacked by the currently used vernacular to refer to groups with political positions that are (in my opinion) foreign to the Anabaptist tradition.

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