What hath Abraham Kuyper and Menno Simons in common?
I asked this question in my previous blog post, in which I laid out three strengths I find in Anabaptist thought—truths that the rest of the Church (including Kuyperian folks like me) should consider.
Likewise, David Fitch (an Anabaptist Holiness evangelical) laid out several strengths he finds in the Reformed tradition, of which he is often critical. The two of us are responding to each other’s posts today, continuing a much-needed dialogue between Anabaptist and Reformed traditions.
First, I am heartened to hear of David’s affinity for leading missional thinkers who come from the Dutch Reformed tradition. Missionary-theologians such as Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, and Michael Goheen have been instrumental in my own thought and practice as well.
With the same heart, I offer my gratitude for the Anabaptistic theologians who have shaped me also, people from history—Balthasar Hubmaier, Dirk Phillips, Menno Simons—and people today such as Malcolm Yarnell, Scot McKnight, and Stanley Hauerwas. In keeping with the Anabaptist emphasis on the local church, I cannot help but mention professors and pastors I learned from in Romania, where—as a beleaguered minority—the church’s context was decidedly more Anabaptistic in its outlook.
Breadth of the Reformed Tradition
I do wonder how David defines the contours of the Reformed heritage. At times, I get the impression that he is speaking of the Reformed tradition in its distinctively Calvinistic soteriological position. Certainly, one can speak of the “Reformed” in this way, but I suppose I come at this definition by considering the broader framework of the Reformation tradition.
For example, I don’t think of Os Guinness or Charles Colson as “Calvinists,” but as thinkers who have adopted and adapted the Kuyperian worldview and its distinctive approach to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Perhaps my concern with proper definition says more about my own placement in this tradition, as one who doesn’t line up exactly with Calvinist soteriology and yet appreciates the worldview emphasis one finds within this tradition. Defining terms within this larger Reformational framework, I could include John Wesley under the broadly Reformed moniker, even though he was an Arminian with his own Wesleyan twist on the doctrines of salvation!
Interestingly, when David lifts up contemporary treatments of the atonement from N. T. Wright and Fleming Rutledge as preferable to the classical Reformed tradition, he is lifting up heirs to that broader tradition. That’s not to say there aren’t differences between Wright, Rutledge, and the classically Reformed. Still, these writers operate within the basic Reformed worldview and outlook. So, when David differentiates his perspective from the “Reformed,” he does so by appealing to one wing of the Reformed tradition over against another.
Why does this matter? To me, it indicates the beauty and strength of the Reformation tradition. Within its overarching view of the world and of the Bible, there are many perspectives. (Certainly, Anabaptists have diversity, too. It is delightful to hear Stanley Hauerwas and Paige Patterson in conversation, for example—thinkers who come from radically different wings of the current Anabaptist movement.)
David is right to point out the sectarian nature of many Anabaptists today. But I don’t think that such sectarianism is limited to Anabaptists. One only has to witness the sort of Puritan introspection that can paralyze many young Calvinists, or the kind of excessive focus on “getting the gospel right” that can supplant passion for “getting the gospel out.” Sectarianism comes in all shapes and sizes, even in Anabaptist circles or Reformed worldviews.
I do appreciate the attention that David gives to sola Scriptura. This emphasis on Bible study and application is indeed a strength of the Reformed tradition. There are certainly some problems with how Sola Scriptura gets applied, and David puts his finger on some of the problems of authority in interpretation.
But before David throws inerrancy out with the bathwater, or decides that Sola Scriptura is a recipe for interpretive anarchy, I recommend he consider a chapter in Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel, which demonstrates the way in which Sola Scriptura itself has the resources to counter pervasive pluralism or relativism in interpretation.
David critiques popular expressions of the substitutionary atonement, preferring models that speak a certain way about God’s agency in the violence wielded against the Son on the cross. Interestingly, I do not sense this discomfort with the penal substitutionary aspects of the atonement in the earliest Anabaptists. This appears to be a rather modern phenomenon in Anabaptist thought.
As a rule, whenever we feel uncomfortable about something our forefathers and mothers accepted without any problems, we should consider what our discomfort says about us before we should seek to minimize the discomfort by altering our biblical understanding. Hearing from Christians in other times and places should alert us to areas where we may be more “culture-formed” than “Scripture-formed” or “church-formed.” When key Christian teachings (on the atonement, on eternal judgment, etc.) cause modern discomfort, we ought to reexamine our own feelings in light of Scripture and the beloved community.
I do appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with David Fitch about the strengths and weaknesses of the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions. Kuyper and Simons have more in common than may first appear, and the church today will be stronger when the strengths of these movements converge.