Monday, April 15, 2013

Ye Ole Anabaptists

The last few years I've become increasingly aware of the Anabaptist tradition and its impact on the American Christian landscape. It is a subtle influence, because we're not talking about a specific church group.  We're not exactly talking about Baptists, for example, although they are surely related.

The Anabaptists come from those groups of "re-baptizers" who were persecuted in the 1500s by the first Protestants. It starts with Zwingli, who certainly was not Anabaptist.  He followed Luther in protesting against the way things have developed in the Roman Catholic Church. But then, he kills some in Zurich who take it further.  They do not believe the Bible teaches infant baptism and they all start getting re-baptized. He responds by drowning them in the river.

So obviously Anabaptists do not accept infant baptism. But they also, understandably, have a strong anti-establishment Christianity, anti-power motif.  They tend to be pacifists. They tend a bit toward anti-denominationalism or at least they resist having much church structure. Thus it is no surprise that the Baptist tradition is "congregational" in terms of church structure.

I believe the last decade or so has seen significant impact from the Anabaptist tradition on American Christianity, not least in the house church movement. When you read people like Frank Viola or Alan Hirsch and hear themes like "Constantinian Christianity," I believe you're hearing some Anabaptist influence.  This is the narrative that says everything was peachy keen until Constantine made Christianity official and "institutional." Then it all went downhill from there.

Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder have been very trendy in post-liberal schools like Duke and Princeton. I've heard that Niebuhr's model of Christ and culture has been significantly updated. I'm sure he needed it, but then again, I suspect there is some Anabaptist hidden in there with which I disagree.  I like Niebuhr and suspect some of the critique is just traditional disagreement.

There is an affinity between the Wesleyan tradition and the Anabaptists. They tend to be pietist, as we do.  Wesley was influenced by Moravians early on, and they were Anabaptist. But here's why it is valuable to know some church history. The ideas swirling out there are not just "Scripture alone." They are traditional forces.

Knowing the forces at work gives us freedom to choose, rather than just being bandied about by the latest idea that seems new and trendy to us...

1 comment:

Patrick Bowers said...

The closest connection that Wesleyanism has with the Anabaptist tradition is with the "Brethren in Christ Church" (the founders of Messiah College).
(http://www.bic-church.org/about/history.asp) Of course this why many of those from the Methodist tradition and holiness background who become more Anabaptist in theology (especially pacifistic in action) tend to join the BIC Church more than the Mennonites.