Friday, August 28, 2009

The Perennial Temptation of Anabaptist Theology

Anabaptist theology has traditionally stressed the imitation of Christ and following Jesus strictly in the way of non-violent discipleship. So has the monastic movement. However, because of tragic events during the 16th century Reformation the Anabaptists followed a sectarian path and became estranged from the Church as a whole, while monasticism remained within the Catholic Church. Monks and nuns remain in the church and live lives that focus on confession of sin and partaking of the sacrifice of the mass, in which they confess their brokenness and find grace through the reception of the body of Christ over and over again. This counterbalances their temptation to perfectionism.

The perennial temptation of Anabaptist theology, however, has always been to become so committed to, and so entranced by, the prospect of following Jesus faithfully that it loses sight of the impossibility of doing so perfectly. Perfectionism is a constant temptation because it counsels us to disregard or even deny the Augustinian (and Biblical) doctrine of original sin. When that happens, Anabaptist theology ceases to be a religion of grace and falls into the heresy of works righteousness. This need not happen necessarily, but it can happen and has happened many times. I remember talking to a member of a rather conservative Mennonite church in Lancaster County last summer whose parents left the Amish church over the issue of works righteousness.

The concept of the covenant community, which is united by its common commitment to following Jesus in the path of discipleship, is part of the Christian tradition and is, in fact, the basis of all monasticism. But when the voluntary community of believers falls prey to the temptation of Pelagianian perfectionism, then it embraces a similar heresy to that embraced by theological liberalism in the modern age: the idea of human pefectability and progress.

The difference between Anabaptists and liberal Protestants is that liberal Protestants believe that the social gospel can be applied to the whole of society even if most people in society are not Christian believers, whereas Anabaptists limit the applicability of the perfect community to that believers' church - a separated and sectarian voluntary fellowship. But as Anabaptists leave the relative isolation of rural Mennonite communities and enter higher education in cities in large numbers, the temptation is to apply pacifism to the whole of society and to join with liberals who preach a similar pacifist perfectionism for all of society. This is a way of making their Anabaptist faith "relevant" to the wider world.

Anabaptists who encounter conservative theology that stresses original sin, the need for repentance, faith and conversion and the need for ceaseless struggle with sin and sanctification throughout this life, find their pacifism regarded as a heretical (or at least theologically naive) form of perfectionism and so they often feel rejected by theological conservatives. Thus, the natural desire to find a congenial relationship with the wider church often tends to focus on liberal Protestantism, even though theologically they may well have less in common with liberal Protestants than they have with conservative Protestants.

The move from the perfectionist, visible, local, church fellowship to the social gospel is a plausible move once the doctrine of original sin has lost. This, move, I would say, is the perennial Anabaptist temptation. Only a strong doctrine of original sin and a high view of grace, together with a realistic view of progressive sanctification with no attainment of perfection in this life, can prevent a drift into a form of theological liberalism.

The perennial Anabaptist temptation is just that: a temptation. It is not an inevitability.


Andrew said...

Well, there's another reason why Anabaptism has a tendency to move from Augustinian views of grace (hint: it's hidden in the very term!) ;-)

The more sin and guilt is seen as something beyond the control of the rational, voluntary individual, the more likely people are to think perhaps grace/the kingdom appears to more than just the fully rational, voluntary, individual.

As Leithart puts it, infant baptism is the (a?) nub of the issue... (man, I'm almost getting tired of myself quoting him... I recently have discovered 2 areas where I don't agree with him though, so I feel a bit more like a grown-up :-D )

Anonymous said...

I think your analysis is quite far off the mark, no surprises here.

So, in essense, your claim is that because we take the Holy Spirit's promised transformation and Jesus' radical discipleship seriously we should be condemned for being to 'perfectionist'?

Anabaptist's believe in original sin, we know better than any conservative or liberal protestants what martyrdom is. The evil of sin has not been lost on us. Unlike Augustine, we don't think that human imperfection is an excuse for more violence and exclusion.

Sam Adams said...

I appreciate your warning with regards to the temptation Anabaptism faces in liberal protestantism, i.e. that of a Pelagian perfectionism. Yet I am left with the impression that you assume Anabaptist theology is a perfectionist theology (at least within the Christian community) and therefore unrealistic with respect to the possibilities of human achievement vis a vis sin. I think that the best Anabaptist theology would use the word 'faithful' rather than 'perfect' and so retain the humility required by eucharistic practice displayed in your post by the monastics. 'Faithfulness,'unlike 'perfection,' assumes that God is in the picture thereby safeguarding us within the Creator-creature distinction. If we assume that the Anabaptist community is a perfectionist community then it becomes too easy to write of its witness as "unrealistic." Anabaptist pacifism is unrealistic if it is an attempt to be perfect, yet it is something entirely different if it is understood as a faithful response to God.

In my own work as a Mennonite pastor I have found that frequent celebration of the Eucharistic meal and, lately, preaching through Revelation are very effective in countering the temptations of liberalism in all of its guises. I suspect that returning again and again to the martyr stories of the Martyr's Mirror would also go far to re-embedding scripture into the imagination of the church as that which enables us to resist the lies of the world (but there I go...sounding like a sectarian perfectionist!)

Thanks for the warning. We need it.


Craig Carter said...

I certainly appreciate the language of faithfulness as better in this context than perfectionism and I hope I was clear that I was not accusing all Anabaptists of perfectionism. I was speaking of "tendancies" such as the Catholic tendancy toward legalism, the Baptist tendancy toward individualism, the Lutheran tendancy toward antinomianism - we all have weak points (perennial temptations) and we sometimes succumb to them and other times we triumph by God's grace over them.

Yoder in PoJ ch. 7 amasses enough biblical evidence to support his contention that the Anabaptist emphasis on following Jesus (imitating Jesus) is biblical in origin. However, I wonder if there is enough balance in PoJ. Surely imitation is not the whole story.

We are called to imitate; because of sin we can only imitate extremely imperfectly. So we are called to do what by our fallen nature we cannot do perfectly. This creates a paradox.

But this is the critical point. Pelagius cut this knot by asserting that God would not call us to do what we are incapable of doing and, in saying this, he abandoned the doctrine of original sin and opened the door to perfectionism and works righteousness.

So we have to hold sin and discipleship in a paradoxical relationship, it seems to me, that is never completely resolved in this life except in the eucharist. Only there do we catch a glimpse of and participate in the eschatological resolution of the paradoxical situation in which we find ourselves in this life: sinners by nature, Christians by conviction, failures in imitation, yet called to continue imitating, sinful, yet walking by faith.

In the end, the language of faith is crucial because it is the opposite of walking by "sight."

Sam Adams said...

I think you are right and it is a helpful reminder. I think there are definitely strong biblical grounds for speaking of imitation, yet more helpful in our context might be the language of witness--again, assuming something other to which our lives point (imitation can be witness, but it also tends to say, "look at me!"). Imitation assumes the goal of exact correspondence...witness simply points toward that which is perfect.

From Revelation I have learned to speak of worship as the first task of the church, prior to imitation, and this, if faithful, develops humility and orients us correctly toward the God who alone is perfect.


Craig Carter said...

I completely agree that witness is the most helpful category to describe the mission of the church in this age. And it is true that witness can happen even in our failures because as we corporately repent and partake in the eucharist we show forth both our sin and God's salvation in Christ.

The key to the idea of the witness of the visible church is not the perfectness of our discipleship, but the repentance of sin and joyful thanksgiving for God's grace taht characterizes our lives and is displayed in worship.