22 March 2014

Neo-Anabaptists or Historical Anti-Constantinianism?

Here is a link to an article by a conservative Methodist who is critiquing Christian Pacifism and even though he doesn't really name it, his real attack is against the doctrine of the Spiritual Kingdom. He's accusing the followers of Yoder and by consequence people like me of novelty.

I argue that not only is he in theological error, he has misread the history.

Why bother to respond? In the 1950's it was the Niebuhr camp of the Mainline Churches that attacked Mennonites and other pacifists. This of course was in the wake of World War II and the newly developing Cold War. Niebuhr's theological liberalism (unbelief) and the decline of the Mainline Churches meant his views were for many years all but ignored. The resurgence of political Evangelicalism in the 1970's re-embraced Christian Nationalism and consequently Militarism and yet the viewpoint and certainly the tact were a bit different than Niebuhr.

Tooley, the author of this piece is in many ways attempting to re-invigorate the Niebuhr position. The Mainline Churches have largely just followed the culture when it comes to their understanding of theology and the Church's relation to the world. Many drifted toward what might be called a Center-Left position in terms of politics. Tooley seems to be re-embracing a Nationalistic variety of the Mainline.

Dealing with the full scope of his arguments would be a project in and of itself. In the end since I'm not an Anabaptist, I'm not particularly interested in such an undertaking. But I do believe that in the post-Reformation era it was largely the Anabaptists who continued to faithfully adhere to a foundational doctrine of persecuted Medieval Non-Conformity.

This was the idea that the Church embracing political power leads to its compromise and ultimately its apostasy. The Church cannot serve God and Mammon. Dissent in the Middle Ages often expressed some form of Biblicism but even when it didn't (such as in the case of the Cathars, the Arnoldists or the Franciscans) it meant a rejection of the Church holding wealth which these dissenters rightly understood as synonymous with power. They have always gone together but this was perhaps even more poignant in pre-modern times. They rejected the idea of a Christian political order and the economic implications that went with it.

When the Church held lands and was integrated into the feudal system it ceased to represent the Spiritual Kingdom. It became acculturated and ultimately (despite its official positions) denied the Bible as its source of authority.

The Dissenters divided and some sects turned violent. Most of them had either been eliminated by the time of the Reformation or abandoning some of their previous principles joined with it.

The myriad of medieval sects all but disappeared. The groups that stood the test of time embraced poverty and pacifism. They were serious about the teachings of Christ concerning the Kingdom.

Now how to interpret and apply poverty and pacifism? That's a discussion we can have. But the author of the article would have little interest in that.

His article is well written and gives a good challenge. If I were officially an Anabaptist I would feel more inclined to spend some serious time interacting with it. In lieu of that I've decided to highlight several points where I think his assessments and certainly his application of Scripture are flawed and gravely in error.

This article exhibits some common misconceptions and assumptions regarding Christian Pacifism.

1.    The idea that we are somehow being protected by the police and military is a concept most of us utterly reject. We see these institutions as self-serving and violent expressions of state power. The military hasn't defended this country from foreign invasion since the War of 1812 and the contemporary enemies of America are born of American foreign policy and geopolitical meddling... a euphemism for Empire. The Police are the defenders of the system. The notion that they serve and protect the public is something you don't have to be a Pacifist to realize is bogus.


2.    While I personally have no stake in defending the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, the statement rightly affirms the teaching Romans 13. The state has been instituted by God and serves a purpose. But that doesn't sanctify it. It may be a minister of God's Providence but Biblically these same terms and concepts were used in reference to Cyrus of Achaemenid Persia and even the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Were they sanctified? I think not.


The idea that the Anabaptists accepted the order as it was and just decided to not participate in it is to misunderstand their motivations. He's equating them with someone like Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard had no problem with Crusades and Christendom, he just chose to separate and live the monastic life. His piety was not anti-system or non-conformity, it was rooted in a belief of a hierarchical concept of Christian spirituality.

The Anabaptists had a problem with the very notion of Christendom. The idea that state violence could somehow be viewed as Christian was repugnant to them. We need a state to some degree but it will never be Christian. That's impossible. Tooley has misunderstood their position.

In addition it was this same concern that motivated thinkers like Chelcicky and The Waldensians. It's not a novelty despite the claims of Tooley. It's an old teaching, older in fact than the Reformation, and did not originate in the mid-20th century.


3.    No one is suggesting the Church lived in a pure age prior to Constantine. What is being suggested is that when the Emperor ended the period of persecution in the early 4th century and began the process of incorporation, fundamental changes began to take place. The Church 'shifted' its attitudes about state-violence, money and ultimately the very nature of the Kingdom of God. This shift is admitted and celebrated by many Evangelicals such as Albert Mohler.


While the Church wasn't perfect the changes ultimately changed what the Church was and within a few generations made it unrecognizable.


Even today authors like Peter Leithart try and vindicate the Constantinian Shift by the supposed lack of protest. He argues the Church at large embraced it and therefore it wasn't a 'shift' at all.

Neither the salient issues nor the argument are historical. History is nebulous enough to begin with, open to subjective interpretation and dependent on source survival. The heart of the argument isn't historical. The nature of the shift is theological. The reason it's viewed as a shift or even as 'The Great Apostasy' is due to the fundamental and existential change in what the Church was. I'll admit, most happily embraced it. It was catastrophe and one that has been repeated.


The image of a pure bride becoming the Beast-riding Harlot is very apropos.


We must look to the Scripture and the currents at work in the Early Church. A majority action does not grant moral rectitude.


4.    To bring Karl Barth into the equation just further emphasizes that Tooley is either ignorant of or has chosen to ignore the historical precedents I mentioned above. While Barth's ideas have loomed large since the early to mid-20th century, his concepts are not directly related to the issue of the state, warfare and violence. His context perhaps gave him some credibility in this realm but the Barthian Dialectic and his views of Natural Law are not the source of Yoder's thought regarding the politics of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Did Yoder and some of his followers help to synthesize Barthianism with older forms of Anabaptist thinking? Perhaps. But it must also be pointed out that Barth was hardly an Anabaptist.


5.    If it seems like there's an excessive amount of attention and criticism directed at the United States there's a reason for it and it's very simple. The United States is virtually alone in the contemporary milieu in its projection of Empire wedded to a cultural form of Christianity. This may not be official policy but it's often the elephant in the room.

Who can say? With Russia beginning to revert to its historical role the time may come to start really criticizing the Orthodox spin on their foreign policy. We have Christianized regimes in Africa that are worthy of criticism. They are wedding visions of the state and state violence with their understanding of God's Kingdom. Perhaps someday we will see 'Christian' regimes in places like China or South Korea. I hope not but if it occurs then the voices of criticism and denunciation will turn there as well.

Ours is not a preoccupation with the United States or some special hatred of it. The concern centers on the Christian Church and the worldwide influence of the Christian Church through the lens of American political and cultural power cannot be ignored.

The notions of Christian America, Christendom or even a Christian Culture are to be prima facie rejected as heretical. They erect a false kingdom based on violence, lies and hypocrisy. That's why there's such a great deal of criticism directed at the American Empire. There have been 'Christian' Empires in the past but I don't think the world has ever seen moral hypocrisy on the scale of what we witness in American word and deed.

6.    Patriotism and Nationalism are absolutely incompatible with Biblical Christianity. Tooley wishes to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to whitewash history because he doesn't want America to look bad. Rather than view America as yet another Rome or Babylon, and there have been many, he wants to vindicate its actions through his own perversions of Biblical texts. Somehow modern Christian Pacifists are at the same time Liberals and Fundamentalists, Moralists and Academics.

One of the hallmarks of Christian Pacifism has been a rejection of casuistry and slight-of-hand theological nuance. Its adherents have always argued that Christ lays out the mandates of the Kingdom and we are actually meant to follow them.

But that means we'll fail! We won't acquire power or respectability. We won't have security. We can't be middle class. The world will hate us and sometimes we'll be on the run or end up slaughtered.

Exactly. It doesn't require an esoteric reading of Scripture to acknowledge these things. It's called Faith and a recognition of the Spiritual nature of the Kingdom....something Tooley clearly does not understand.

Like most cultural Christians he is unwilling to take up the Cross and follow the Lamb. I do not say that in a spirit of pride. I don't pretend that it's easy or uncomplicated. But his view is to cast down the New Testament and de facto turn the Imperatives of both Christ and the Epistles on their heads.

In the end what he's saying is that New Testament Christianity just doesn't work. I'll agree it doesn't if you're trying to do what Tooley is doing. He attacks this criticism but he cannot escape it. One wishes he would just admit that he doesn't believe New Testament ethics work in the real world. This was at the heart of Niebuhr's argument.

7.    Near the end of the essay Tooley again caricatures and misrepresents the position. The police are a necessary evil. They will do their work but it is not holy Kingdom work. They serve a Providential purpose. Through their less than pure motives they as agents of the state help to keep the world from getting completely out of control. They stop crimes but that doesn't mean they are therefore 'good'. Their mission is not ours.

His charges about genocide and rape are just examples of bearing false witness and in fact exhibit his irresponsibility or even desperation.

He speaks of a 2% minority or something along those lines. He pulls out the 'Historical Church' argument. Well, if you understand the thesis of the Constantinian Shift his arguments help to make our point. The Church drifted into error and compromise and ultimately embraced the Kingdom of the World and rejected the Kingdom of Christ. Is the Truth in the minority? Of course. Christ Himself said so.

If he doesn't think the majority slips into apostasy then why in the world would he be working to reform of all things the United Methodist Church? He's a minority figure within those ranks to be sure. The rebuttal of his view is staring him in the face.

There's nothing left to reform and if he thinks otherwise he's even more deluded than what he's already revealed in this well-written but completely flawed article. Theologically Liberal Mainline Christianity became the majority during the post-War years. Many rightly recognized it is apostate and broke away. If he wants to employ the majority argument he would do better to lay his crown at the feet of the Rome's Bishop, for that is at the heart of their argument. Historically they have the monopoly on numbers. If he thinks that is what 'make right' then there's nothing more to say.




Cal P said...

I read this a little while ago, and thought the same thing: another straw-manning of the 'Underground' position.

Of course, he does rightly point out that some of what passes for neo-anabaptist thought, post-Yoder, has shifted to a leftward-Constantinianism. Yet there are nuances, but those are smoothed over for the argument.

In regards to Yoder and Barth, I know the former was rather critical on the latter's politic. However, he did appreciate Barth's christo-centrism all the way down, through every doctrine.

Too long had many so-called theologians throw out the clear commands of the Lord for the "full council of God". Of course this meant cherry-picking verses, stringing them together, and justifying something. Casuistry that Jesuits would mouth-water over.

Yet, from some of Yoder's essays I've read, he sought to appropriate Barth's focus without taking his metaphysic and other baggage he was bringing. Barth would say he was against any metaphysics, but that's just a sly way of inviting Kant's criticisms in through the back-door. But I digress.

Ultimately, it's not rejecting power or soldiering but redefining them. Tooley et al. miss this. Jesus comes as a warrior with full authority, but uses it to bear the sins of the world, suffer, and die. Resurrection is the watchword, and in via crucis is the way we do battle. Yet the old, beggarly elements of steel and fire still tempt many believers. Blood-lust is a pornography of violence. They reject the Throne of David for a throne of blood and skulls.


I'm still thinking through the wealth thing, I'd be curious to converse on the practical application of such. "Poverty" not for the sake of itself, as ascetic will-worship, but in order to be among the least of these. Anyway, I'd love to engage with your thoughts on it.


Protoprotestant said...

I think we're on the same page with regard to the wealth/poverty thing. I'm not talking about monastic poverty at all. I'm talking about self-denial and our pilgrim-consciousness and our relation vis-à-vis the world.

I see you posted a new article about it. I want to read what you said. I skimmed it real quick and I liked what I saw. I'll try to get to it later today.