Eric A. Kouns
Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship
Writing in Gospel Herald, April 26, 1994, Levi Miller noted that "during the incubation of The Anabaptist Vision, Harold S. Bender described the theology and piety of the Mennonites in the late 1930s this way:"
All the American groups without exception stand upon a platform of conservative evangelicalism in theology, being thoroughly orthodox in the great fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith such as the unity of the Godhead, the true deity of Christ, the atonement by the shedding of blood, the plenary inspiration and divine authority of the Holy Scriptures as the word of God. Neither the eighteenth-century rationalistic moralism of the Enlightenment, nor the modern religious liberalism of the nineteenth century, has had any significant effect upon their thinking, in spite of the fact that individuals here and there have adopted unorthodox views. (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1937)
Mennonite scholars have written numerous volumes offering varying interpretations of historical Anabaptism and its contemporary implications. Some have emphasized the evangelical roots of the Anabaptist movement and have argued for the essential compatibility of Anabaptist distinctives and evangelical faith. Others have gone to great lengths to point up a perceived incongruity between evangelicalism and Anabaptism.
Much of contemporary Anabaptist historiography interprets the dynamic of sixteenth century Anabaptism somewhat differently than H. S. Bender. For certain, Anabaptist/Mennonite scholarship of the past 50 years has challenged Bender's assumptions regarding the relationship between Anabaptist emphases and the theology of the magisterial Reformers.
Still, there is solid evidence to support the claim that historic Anabaptism was an evangelical movement, founded on theological presuppositions. The first Anabaptists did not so much devise a new theology as call for a faithful application of evangelical theology in every area of life. The implications of Anabaptism for contemporary Christian living are most faithfully expressed and experienced with the context of evangelical Christianity, and a consistent commitment to the spirit of sixteenth century Anabaptism requires identification with the broader evangelical community and a repudiation of the influence of rationalistic liberalism on contemporary Anabaptism.
Now, what about this "evangelical community" with which I am encouraging Anabaptist Christians to identify? Who are evangelicals, and what is evangelicalism?
If we depend upon either the mainstream media or even much of the mainline denominational press for a definition of those terms, we will conclude that evangelicals are either:
Although the term "evangelical" has a rich history, its contemporary use as the designation for a particular theological perspective may be dated from 1942 and the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals. A prominent leader in the evangelical movement of that era, Harold John Ockenga, writing in the October 10, 1960, issue of Christianity Today, offered this description of some of the goals and purposes of American evangelicalism at mid-century.
(The evangelical) desires to win a new respectability for orthodoxy in the academic circles by producing scholars who can defend the faith on intellectual ground. He hopes to recapture denominational leadership from within the denominations rather than abandoning those denominations to modernism. He intends to restate his position carefully and cogently so that it must be considered in theological dialogue. He intends that Christianity will be the mainspring in many of the reforms of the societal order. (from "Resurgent Evangelical Leadership")
These goals, intended to set evangelicalism apart from fundamentalism, have been realized only in part. Still the evangelical movement in America has grown in popularity and influence, reaching a "high water mark" of sorts when a Newsweek cover story declared 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical."
Broadly defined, evangelicalism is a transdenominational movement comprised of all those who have personally experienced Jesus Christ as their Savior and who seek to share Him others. While the movement has grown dramatically in the past 50 years, theological erosion and pluralism have taken their toll on evangelicalism. Some feel the movement has become so theologically fragmented that it no longer has a coherent self-identity.
To address this problem, the National Association of Evangelicals and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School co-sponsored a consultation of more than 650 evangelical leaders which was held on the TEDS campus, May 14-17, 1989. The goal of the consultation was to determine if a consensus statement could be drafted which would summarize the essence of evangelical belief and practice. In 1990 the consultation published its major papers under the title Evangelical Affirmations (Zondervan, 1990), edited by leading evangelical theologians and former Christianity Today editors, Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry. Conclusions from the consultation are summarized in the book's introductory chapter where three marks of "evangelical identity" are outlined.
1. Evangelicals believe the gospel as it is set forth in the Bible, that is, the good news of God's saving work in Christ. The benefits of the work of Christ, i.e. personal salvation and forgiveness from sin, are bestowed upon us freely and graciously and are received through personal faith in Christ. They are not conditioned on our merit or personal goodness but are based wholly on the mercy of God.In a further effort to summarize the heart of evangelical Christianity, the British scholar, Alister McGrath, in his book, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (IVP, 1995), states:
2. Evangelicals hold to all the most basic doctrines of the Bible. These include the Trinity; the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ; His sinless life, authoritative teaching, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and second coming; the necessity of holy living; the imperative of witnessing to others about the gospel; the necessity of a life of service to God and human kind; and the hope in a life to come.
3. Evangelicals hold the Bible to be God's Word and, therefore, completely true and trustworthy ("and this is what we mean by the words infallible and inerrant.") (Evangelical Affirmations, p. 38).
Evangelicalism is grounded on a cluster of six controlling convictions, each of which is regarded as being true, of vital importance and grounded in Scripture. These are not purely 'doctrinal,' if this term is understood to refer purely to a set of objective truths; they are also 'existential,' in that they affirm the manner in which the believer is caught up in a redemptive and experiential encounter with the living Christ. These six fundamental convictions can be set out as follows: 1. The supreme authority of Scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living.
2. The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as the Savior of sinful humanity.
3. The lordship of the Holy Spirit.
4. The need for personal conversion.
5. The priority of evangelism for both individual Christians and the church as a whole.
6. The importance of the Christian community (the church) for spiritual nourishment, fellowship, and growth. (Evangelicalism and the Future pp. 55, 56)
All is not well in the contemporary evangelical movement, however, a fact borne out by a major article in the October 5, 1992, issue of Christianity Today, titled "Can Evangelicalism Survive Its Success?". A transdenominational movement, evangelicalism has suffered from a lack of cohesive vision and unifying leadership. Despite its emphasis on orthodox theology, contemporary evangelicalism has seen its theological foundations eroded and its ideology corrupted by the modern phenomena of secularism and materialism.
In a paper titled "Who Are the Evangelicals?", delivered at the Evangelical Affirmations consultation mentioned above, Carl Henry noted:
Little more than a dozen years ago, Newsweek magazine in a 1976 cover story heralded "The Year of the Evangelical." "The religious phenomenon of the '70s," reported Newsweek, "was the emergence of evangelical Christianity into a position of respect and power." But in a decade or so, the evangelical movement has squandered much of its moral and spiritual initiative, and secular society has placed a large question mark over its motives, its goals, and even its integrity. (Evangelical Affirmations, p. 69)
In his response to Henry, Nathan O. Hatch wrote:
The evangelical world is extremely dynamic, but there are few church structures to which many of its adherents or leaders are subject. The evangelical world is decentralized, competitive, and driven by those who can build large and successful organizations. It is this instability that I think is problematic for theological integrity. (Evangelical Affirmations, p. 98)
This note of pessimism regarding the future of evangelicalism is sounded loudly in a 1991 work titled The Variety of American Evangelicalism (InterVarsity Press, 1991), edited by Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston. In this collection of essays the editors reinforce the idea that the movement has no genuinely unifying force and even go so far as to suggest that the term "evangelical" may have outlived its usefulness.
Not all evangelical thinkers are so negative in their assessment of contemporary evangelicalism. Of note is Donald Bloesch, author of more than twenty books, many of which critique the evangelical phenomenon and offer suggestions for its revitalization. In his book, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, first published in 1983 and reissued in 1988 (Helmers and Howard) with an introduction by Mark Noll titled "The Surprising Optimism of Donald Bloesch," Bloesch argues for an evangelicalism marked by balance and consistency. He decries the tendency of mainstream evangelicalism to succumb to the influence of contemporary secular culture.
"We are deficiently evangelical," he writes (p. 17) "if we emphasize the person and work of Christ and treat lightly the effect of Christ in the lives of his people." Compare that with the famous quote by Hans Denck--"No one can truly know Christ except he follow Him in life"--and Bloesch sounds amazingly Anabaptist.
Bloesch goes on to offer the following definition of the term "evangelical."
An evangelical is one who affirms the centrality and cruciality of Christ's work of reconciliation and redemption as declared in the scriptures; the necessity to appropriate the fruits of this work in one's own life and experience; and the urgency to bring the good news of this act of unmerited grace to a lost and dying world. (Future..., p. 17)
Should contemporary Christians in the Anabaptist tradition hesitate to embrace this kind of Christianity and to identify with others who do likewise? I think not.
The Case for Evangelical Anabaptism
As an evangelical Christian as well as one for whom The Anabaptist Vision summarizes some important marks of consistent, practical Christian living, I have reached the following conclusions regarding the appropriate relationship between evangelicals and Anabaptists.
1. Anabaptism is founded upon the same essential truths (re scriptural authority, salvation, discipleship, etc.) as evangelicalism. Historically Anabaptism has been counted as part of the evangelical stream, just like Pietism, Puritanism, Wesleyan Methodism, Revivalism, etc. Historical Anabaptism is evangelical at heart.
2. Contemporary evangelicalism is a diverse community, and some elements have distorted the fundamental beliefs and emphases. To identify with the evangelical community does not mean that we adopt, or even endorse, every element of faith or practice in every other communion under the evangelical umbrella. It does mean that we claim solidarity with other Christians who share our fundamental commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. Instead of repudiating evangelicalism, we should rather engage in active dialogue with other evangelical communions. We might find that our perceptions of their foci and emphases might have been clouded or distorted. It may even be that we will all be enriched by the experience of fellowship, cooperation and identification.
4. To repudiate evangelicalism and to argue for a new sectarianism in which we identify ourselves only as Anabaptists is to take a far too narrow view of evangelicalism and reveals a disturbing underlying attitude of arrogance.
The Spring 1991 issue of the Mennonite Brethren journal, Direction, explored the theme, "Mennonite Brethren and Evangelicalism." Whether writing in favor of stronger identification with the evangelical community or in opposition to it, the various authors made their case as Anabaptists, not strictly as Mennonite Brethren, so their arguments have value for other Anabaptists who are not from their communion.
With regard to point number four above, I draw heavily on an article in that publication, written by Richard Kyle, titled "The Mennonite Brethren and American Evangelicalism: An Ambivalent Relationship." Since his points apply to the Anabaptist community at large, I have taken the liberty, in the quote below, to replace references to Mennonite Brethren with the term Anabaptist. Kyle writes:
Some (Anabaptists)...view American evangelicalism with contempt. In part, such a stance is derived from a narrow view of evangelicalism. Contemporary American evangelicalism is seen primarily as an offshoot of fundamentalism. In fact, evangelicalism is often equated with fundamentalism. This view largely ignores the evangelical traditions not related to the modernist-fundamentalist controversy and the many evangelicals who elected to remain within the liberal denominations. Moreover, this position feeds on the excesses of fundamentalism, (e.g., nationalism, militarism, materialism, subjectivism, and anti-intellectualism) and lumps all evangelicals into the same mold. This stance also focuses on the differences between American evangelicalism and (Anabaptists), while ignoring the significant points of agreement. In some ways this view reflects the old sectarian mindset which has long been a part of the Mennonite-Anabaptist tradition.
Some (Anabaptists) distancing themselves from American evangelicalism have often reasserted Anabaptist distinctives. They have called for a new sectarianism, based on Anabaptist theological principles, to replace the old cultural sectarianism that has gone by the way. (Anabaptists) are to renew their commitment to discipleship, peace, and social justice.
However, such a reassertion of Anabaptist principles is only part of the answer. Whether some like it or not, (Anabaptists) are part of the kaleidoscope that makes up North American evangelicalism....Because evangelicalism does not share some important Anabaptist distinctives does not mean that (Anabaptists) are not part of North American evangelicalism, any more than it means that Pentecostals are not evangelicals (just) because mainstream evangelicals do not speak in tongues.
Rather, (Anabaptists) should regard North American evangelicalism as a vital but diverse movement, and affirm their relationship to it. They should see themselves as a sub-group in this large movement. At a time when the significance of denominationalism is declining in America, (Anabaptists) need to reassert their historic distinctives, but they should not allow these positions to erect unnecessary barriers to cooperation with other evangelicals. While avoiding the excesses of fundamentalism and popular evangelicalism, (Anabaptists) need to accentuate what they have in common with other evangelicals. Instead of distancing themselves from American evangelicalism, (Anabaptists) can make a healthy contribution to the movement and serve as a corrective to some of its less desirable traits. In the other direction, American evangelicalism has something to offer to (Anabaptists). It can temper some of Anabaptism's less desirable traits, namely a vulnerability to humanistic, liberal and social gospel tendencies.
(Kyle, "The Mennonite Brethren and American Evangelicalism," in Direction, Spring 1991, pp. 34, 35)
As an evangelical Christian I readily, if sadly, acknowledge that much of the criticism leveled against contemporary evangelicalism is valid. We can be superficial, materialistic, overly subjective, excessively pragmatic, and marked by an unhealthy fascination with individualism and self-improvement techniques. As an Anabaptist Christian I must admit, with equal sadness, so can we.
In arguing against the identification of Anabaptism with evangelicalism, Delbert Wiens has rightly reminded us,
Evangelical book stores are full of manuals telling us how to manage our families and our psyches. Churches try one technique after another to promote that sort of progress which they call "growth." And instead of the communal statesmanship that (seeks) holiness, we have religious entrepreneurs creating para-church empires or shaping congregations around themselves. (Wiens, "Mennonite: Neither Liberal Nor Evangelical," in Dialog, Spring 1991, p. 49)That is all true, to one degree or another. But it doesn't require Anabaptist discernment to recognize those weaknesses. The truth is that many within the evangelical community are painfully aware of these foibles and are calling their own communion to self-examination and repentance. As evidence I cite only a few of the works by evangelical authors, addressing this theme, which have appeared in the past few years.
The Body - Being Light in Darkness, Chuck Colson (Word, 1992)The critique of evangelicalism offered by these authors will not likely satisfy most contemporary Anabaptist critics of the movement. I note these works mainly to illustrate that evangelicals are trying to judge themselves in order to enhance their effectiveness as an instrument for the advancement of the gospel of the kingdom. Contemporary Anabaptist leaders would be well-advised to follow their example instead of devoting so much time to cultivating a self-defensive mindset which leads to theological isolationism.
Selling Jesus: What's Wrong With Marketing The Church? Douglas D. Webster (IVP, 1992)
Power Religion: The Selling Out Of The Evangelical Church. Michael Scott Horton, Editor (Moody, 1992)
No God But God: Breaking With The Idols Of Our Age. Os Guinness and John Seel, Editors (Moody, 1992)
The Consumer Church: Can Evangelicals Win The World Without Losing Their Souls? Bruce Shelley and Marshall Shelley (IVP, 1992)
Ashamed Of The Gospel: When The Church Becomes Like The World. John F. MacArthur, Jr. (Crossway Books, 1993)
No Place For Truth or Whatever Happened To Evangelical Theology? David F. Wells (Eerdmans, 1993)
God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. David F. Wells (Eerdmans, 1994)
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Mark A. Noll (Eerdmans, 1994)
The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel. John H. Armstrong, Editor (Moody, 1996)
Here We Stand: A Call From Confessing Evangelicals. James M. Boice and Ben Sasse, Editors (Baker, 1996)
The Compromised Church. John H. Armstrong, General Editor (Crossway, 1998)
Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. David F. Wells (Eerdmans, 1998)
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