Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Book Review: The Anabapist View of the Church

Just finished an excellent book, The Anabaptist View of the Church. While the title sounds like it is devoted to Anabaptist ecclesiology, it is more of a generalized overview and defense of Anabaptism in light of four centuries of poor scholarship and missing primary sources. As with other favorable writings about the Anabaptists, the author Frank Littell walks us through the three main groups of Anabaptists and does a convincing job of showing that the "mainstream" Anabaptists like the Mennonites, Brethren, Amish and Hutterites are the real representatives of Anabaptism, not the anti-trinitarians or the radical revolutionaries. Those movements by and large died out but the majority of Anabaptists (and those more properly called by that name) still survive and thrive today and played an important, if misunderstood and misrepresented, role in the Reformation period and the formation of evangelicalism.

Littell lays out the scope of Anabaptist thought regarding the church and it is unlike what you normally think of having grown up in America and our symbiotic church-society culture. In a day and age when perceived persecution against Christians (which is rarely more than a minor inconvenience) and the thinnest excuse for community suffices, the Anabaptist idea of Gemeinschaft (c0mmunity) and the theology of suffering is jarring. Where we often hear patriotism and Christianity blurred together, the Anabaptists insisted on a complete separation from the state and from worldliness in general. Where we tout our theories of "just war", the Anabaptists preached and practiced non-resistance. This stance of non-resistance and refusal to take up the sword made them easy prey for Protestant, pagan and Roman Catholics alike but that was accepted as part of what it means to follow Christ.

First and foremost, the Anabaptist view of the church was one that rejected the compulsory nature of 16th century Christianity and demanded a free and voluntary church coupled with a strenuous and serious church discipline. In the magisterial Reformation, one form of church-state was replaced with a different form. By rejecting this, the Anabaptists made themselves enemies of both the state and the religious establishment and paid a terrible price for it. Refusal to baptize infants led to criminal charges, baptizing adults who had been "baptized" as infants led to martyring by drowning. The early Anabaptists exhibited an earnestness and devotion that is commendable and sorely lacking today.

All in all an excellent book for students of the Anabaptists and the Reformation alike. The Anabaptist view of the church is highly challenging to Western Christians and it should be. There are some flaws. Littell often intersperses German quotes as if the reader can translate them with ease. He also throws quotes in with little to distinguish them, so sometimes I was unsure whether what I was reading was a quotation or his writing. He also was somewhat repetitive in places and was perhaps less critical in others where he should have been. Given the unbalanced nature of most Christian scholarship on the Anabaptists in the last four hundred years, I think I can forgive him for his zeal to set the record straight or at least give it some balance. I would commend The Anabaptist View of the Church to anyone interested in Anabaptists, the Reformation, the church and our faith in Christ.

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1 comment:

Steve Scott said...

You know, Arthur, there are today Reformed paedo-baptist churches who condemn the anabaptists, yet who do not recognize baptism within the Roman Catholic church and require re-baptism upon conversion to "true Christianity." Go figure.