In a helpful article, “Anabaptism and History” John Howard Yoder explores the often raised questions about the alleged “ahistoricism” of the Radical Reformation tradition. He insists that the Radical Reformation tradition of “restitution” requires, not an ahistorical consciousness which longs for a mythical “Eden” in which the church was perfect, but rather a rigorous Christian historiography. In fact, as Yoder shows very convincingly the Anabaptist tradition must be more historically conscious than normative Catholicism or Protestantism. By claiming that some sort of “restitution” is necessary for the present faithfulness of the church, it is incumbent upon the Anabaptist tradition to show precisely how and why this is so through being radically immersed in history:
An ahistorical bias is incompatible with restitutionism; historiography is theologically necessary. By standing in judgment on particular fruits of historical development such as the church/state linkage, episcopacy, and pedobaptism, restituionism accepts the challenge to be critical of history and thereby to take it more seriously than do those for whom some other criterion than the New Testament determines the faithfulness of the church. A classical Tridentine Catholic affirmation of the teaching authority of the hierarchy, or a classical Hegelian affirmation of the revolutionary power of the Spirit of Western culture is “serious about history” in the sense of accepting the results of the particular evolution of certain institutions in European experience. It however need not and perhaps cannot deal with history critically, since it has totally affirmed its own path as its norm. Dialogue is by definition questionable. On the other hand, a view which criticizes what has come into being in the course of history, on the ground of criteria which themselves are also drawn from within the course of history, is thereby obliged to be concerned with historical data in a way different from those traditions which claim each in its own way to be the “mainstream.”
In contrast to the common Catholic assertion that the Reformation, and the Radical Reformation in particular requires one to abandon history, Yoder argues that the Anabaptist tradition is in fact far more critically historical than the alternatives:
Only when one assumes that the choices leading to where we are now were right, can one equate the criticism of those choices with the rejection of history as such. Thus the course of history becomes its own justification. It can be judged only be immanent criteria; thus the contingency of the present is denied. Only a reference point in the past can be equally accessible to all and a judgment on all. Only the normativeness of some past afford us critical leverage on the present.
Moreover, Yoder argues that this restitutionist view does not require one to deny that the history of the church is a “historical progress under God”. One need not, and indeed must not from the standpoint of restitutionist historiography argue that the “fall of the church” means the annihilation of the church, or the complete apostasy of the church. It requires one to be specific and critical in the making of historical-theological judgments about where and how the church has gone wrong and continues to go wrong in its life.
The fact that in every age particular dimensions of apostasy are identified, denounced, and dismantled, is a way of discerning the real substance of salvation history. Thus…the doctrine of restitution does not deny but rather enables real historical progress under God. It does so by identifying in each age the criterion of progress, namely the capacity to identify the new forms of apostasy, so as to restore accordingly a redefined faithfulness.
Moreover, Yoder goes on to further specify the historicist nature of belonging to the Anabaptist tradition. Radical Reformation Christianity does not simply have an interest in history for the sake of finding where things “went wrong”. Rather, Christians in this tradtion must take history seriously because the fact of the church’s ability to fall into apostasy requires them to take their own participation in history with an even greater seriousness:
Radical reformation is not history-oriented only in the sense of needing to study how things went wrong. It is also historicist in that it affirms the character of man as a being who within the temporal order makes decisions which themselves determine history. To speak of the present or the immediate future as an age of restitution by the Spirit is to take the uniqueness of every moment, and the importance of every decision, more seriously than when one sees the career of the church as an unbroken gradual climb and one’s present institutional and doctrinal stance as obviously the best possibility for the present. The radical reformers read their Bible because they took their own time seriously as one more kairos of choice between fall and renewal. A picture of past and present made up of crucial particular choices, on each of which the future depends, is far more earnest than one in which an indefectible church and a pious government have things so in hand that only natural catastrophe and the exotic infidel are to be feared.
Regardless of whether or not one accepts Yoder’s Anabaptist historiography and ecclesiology, his comments should at least give pause to those who so readily throw Newman’s phrase that “To be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant” as if it were a self-evident truth. There are more modes of serious Christian historicism than the Roman one, and they should be engaged rather than simply dismissed as “ahistorical”. I believe Yoder’s construal of an Anabaptist historical consciousness constitutes a well-articulated and powerful perspective which deserves to be taken with more seriousness than has often been the case.