Thursday, October 24, 2013

What The Anabaptists Can Learn From Their Reformed Brethren

In spite of the optimism it generated, I am somewhat concerned that those reading my prior post ( A Hopeful Conversation ) and the essay on the Gospel Coalition website can come away with the impression that "The Anabaptist have a lot to teach the Reformed" in terms of a one way street when in fact the opposite is true. We all have much to learn from one another and the theological in-breeding I spoke of regarding the Reformed is every bit as true among the Anabaptists and neo-Anabaptists. For my purposes "neo-Anabaptists" refers to those Christians on the (generally) leftward spectrum of Christianity and includes people who might not identify with historical Anabaptist groups but find commonality with certain aspects of Anabaptism (some real, some imagined), contrasted with "traditional" Anabaptists who would be the older strains of the Mennonites, the Amish, Hutterites, etc. who tend to not interact with the broader church at all. My comments are directed more toward the neo-Anabaptists since the traditional are unlikely to be reading my blog anyway!

I am awfully critical of the Reformed, especially the "young, restless, reformed" crowds that embraced the doctrines of graces as the newest, coolest thing on the block. To read some of my critiques you might think that I have nothing good to say about the Reformed tradition when precisely the opposite is true. In fact it is precisely  because of the incredible scholarship of the Reformed tradition, and the value that I see it could bring to the broader church, that I am so critical of the unnecessary and generally unhelpful sub-culture that has sprung up around the renewed interest in Reformed theology, a culture often devolves in playground level name-calling, bullying and one-upmanship.

The Reformed tradition is hundreds of years old and during those hundreds of years it has produced (and still does today) some of the greatest minds of the Christian faith. It is not a revelation that I find much of the subculture that surrounds Reformed theology to be erroneous and often repugnant. It should likewise not be a revelation that I find the Reformed writers and thinkers who have wrestled with the difficult doctrines of the Scriptures to be incredibly profitable to read. Not infallible to be sure but profitable and right more often than not when it comes to theology proper. It can be difficult to differentiate between the men and the message but if you can you will find a rich scholarly tradition that the church needs to learn from. Nowhere is that more true than among the Anabaptists where I find so many other areas of agreement.

I write this as someone who is, often uncomfortably, straddling both worlds. My bookshelf shows this as I have a ton of books from Reformed writers and fewer (but more that have been added recently) from an Anabaptost perspective. I think very highly of the Reformed theologians, past and present, and I also see much of value from the Anabaptists. A few years ago I never would have had a book by John Howard Yoder on a bookshelf alongside books from Whitfield, Sproul and Berkhof.

Now this list is not a line in the sand, you must agree with me or I might just have to sponsor a conference to denounce you! These are just issues that I think the Anabaptist/Neo-Anabaptist tradition would benefit from deeper interaction and consideration. I am sure many will take umbrage at this list ("I did a 27 part series on Calvinism and thoroughly debunked it!") and I don't harbor any illusion that many of those in groups this is directed at will agree with anything I have written. My intent is simply to provide a personal counterweight and suggest that the Anabaptist community would benefit from revisiting some of these ideas.

The Holiness and Justice of God

Hang on. I am not saying that Anabaptist don't believe that God is holy or just. In fact most of the more traditional Anabaptists I know personally have an exceptionally, um, robust view of God's holiness and justice, far more so than many evangelicals and do a better job in some ways of living it out. I am speaking more of the neo-Anabaptists who tend to overemphasize grace, if that is possible, while downplaying or denying the inherent holiness of God and His coming wrath that Christ saves us from. Perhaps a better way to put it would be that the focus of neo-Anabaptists, in my opinion, is more the here and now and less on the time to come (the reverse charge could be made toward some in the Reformed camp who seem content to read great books on theology while people starve and suffer). The reality of the coming wrath of God demonstrated in judgment and Hell are well thought out and explored in Reformed theology but not so much among neo-Anabaptists who seem to shy away, if not outright deny, many traditional teachings about the judgment and hell that unbelievers will face.

Election and Predestination 

Reformed soteriology is what is most commonly associated with this stream of Christianity and it is the aspect that is both most commonly misrepresented and most offensive to many people. Commonly called "Calvinism", an unfortunate label that leads to arguments about the man more than the doctrines, Reformed soteriology brings to life the dual themes of the sovereignty of God in all things and the disabling depravity of man. It is an ancient argument, does man have free will sufficient to allow men to choose Christ of their own volition or is sin so disabling as to leave the unregenerate man dead in his sins and helplessly dependent on a sovereign choice of God to quicken his soul and open his eyes? I come down firmly on the side of sovereign election and predestination along with monergistic regeneration.

In some ways I find myself more firmly holding to the "Five Points of Calvinism" after walking away from the Reformed/Young, Restless, Reformed subculture. When you peel away things like traditional ecclesiology, paedobaptism, clericalism, misapplying the Old Covenant to a New Covenant people, etc. you are left with a incredibly powerful soteriology that is, again in my opinion, the only lens where the entirety of Scripture makes sense without those troubling "yeah but what about..." sections that other systems invariably run into. I honestly think that the near universal and historical rejection of these doctrines stems back to the earliest days of Anabaptism where "Calvinism" was inextricably linked with Constantinian thought, paedobaptism and other negatives of the "Magisterial Reformation" and perhaps have never been given a fair shake.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

This one gets a lot more negative reaction from neo-Anabaptists than the traditional Anabaptists who seem pretty on board with this from what I  have seen. A lot of people just don't like it and this doctrine often falls into the category of "things that I think are contrary to the nature of God", where we create God in our image and then decide that things that don't seem to fit in that imagery must be wrong.

I think the case is awfully strong for the primacy of penal substitutionary atonement, especially when viewed from a high level in the unfolding revelation of God in both Testaments. It is not my intent to argue it out here but I believe that if you lack a fully fleshed theology of God's holiness and wrath this doesn't make sense. Why a spotless lamb, why did it have to die, why the bloody sacrifice that prefigures the cross? Like I said I don't intend to rehash the extensive arguments in favor of penal substitutionary atonement and I also recognize that the cross was about more than PSA but I remain convinced that you cannot understand atonement, the cross, the Gospel and the implications without it. Tale away PSA and you are left with Jesus being a simple political prisoner or God being in the wrong place at the wrong time or ultimately unnecessary as if Jesus could have accomplished His earthly work some other way.


This is a tough one given the social media brouhaha last week where "discernment" was taken about 100 steps too far but it still needs to be said. In an effort to be inclusive and as a backlash against some strains of exclusivist/fundamentalist groups many neo-Anabaptists have welcomed into their confidence all sorts of people from all over the religious spectrum. While that can be healthy it can also be dangerous if done without discernment. I get why it happens. Many neo-Anabaptists grew up in the extreme separation practices of conservative Anabaptist groups and are reacting to that but it sometimes seems that a teacher who denies some pretty critical facets of the faith is more welcome in neo-Anapbaptist circles than a conservative theologian who holds to more orthodox positions simply because he is "conservative". Now the traditional Anabaptists are an example of the extreme in the other direction but that is a different topic for a different day.

The Reformed tend to, perhaps to a fault, put the ideas and positions of anyone new they encounter through a pretty intense examination. Before anyone gets a hearing questions are often investigated to determine where they are coming from. Granted this tends to keep out a lot of people and that is a problem but I think the opposite, i.e. letting anyone teach without discernment (except someone who is "conservative") is even more dangerous.


Reformed theology doesn't equal complementarian teaching but it is true that many of the leading complementarians are also Reformed. The question of gender is an odd one in Anabaptist circles. Traditional Anabaptist groups have very strong positions on gender that are easily observed by the attire of women who tend to wear modest, plain dresses and the ubiquitous headcovering. Where we live is one of the few places in the country where headcovering women are a common sight thanks to the huge number of Amish, conservatives Mennonite, Beachy-Amish and other conservative Anabaptist groups. Women don't function as elders in the church and are decidedly aware of the distinction in calling. On the other hand, the neo-Anabaptist seem to take this issue to an extreme in the other direction and I think that as an outsider looking in a lot of it is a knee-jerk backlash against excesses, perceived and real, in gender roles in more conservative Anabaptism. This sort of ties in with the previous point where egalitarians are welcomed with open arms but complementarians are largely not in neo-Anabaptist circles. I get this is an emotional topic and many neo-Anabaptists have the same visceral reaction to suggestions that they might be off on this issue that Calvinists do when it is suggested that maybe Calvin was wrong on occasion. Nevertheless I think that this topic needs to be revisited among the neo-Anabaptists as it speaks to how one interprets the Bible and it is a topic that gets more than passing mention in the New Testament. I am not saying that neo-Anabaptists have not thought through this issue but I think their bias against complementarian teachings on gender has skewed their thinking. I can't think of any prominent teachers that would qualify as neo-Anabaptists that don't hold to an egalitarian stance just as I can't think of a single prominent Reformed teacher than does.

I think this list is important because a) I don't think these questions have gotten a fair treatment from Anabaptists, historical or contemporary and b) because I think that especially the neo-Anabaptists have often embraced teaching and teachers that are not only not in any way Anabaptist but are in many cases erroneous and even dangerous. Every tribe in the church, and like it or not there are always tribal affiliations based on like-minded Christians naturally gravitating toward other like-minded Christians, needs to revisit their established positions and listen to and learn from other tribes, especially tribes that have been viewed with suspicion or hostility in the past. If the Reformed can and should be encouraged to listen to their Anabaptist brothers so too should my Anabaptist friends listen to their Reformed brethren.

1 comment:

Drewe said...

I was actually thinking about some of these issues this week as we have some new friends out of the dutch reformed tradition.

One thing I really appreciate about them - which flows through to your comment on much scholarship - is the 'sunday school' for everyone after church. So not just the sermon, but essentially an hours seminary for all ever week on doctrine. Not a perfect system - but something I think other traditions could learn from!