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To be Steeped in Hisory is to be…Anabaptist?

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.


  1. Ben wrote:

    I can’t really tell what Yoder is saying. Correct my interpretation:

    “Anabaptists must be historically grounded so they know exactly what is wrong in each age and their own, so that those errors can be corrected and avoided, and that, furthermore, no particular time in the past may be constructed as a Golden Age of correctness.”

    Is that about right?

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I think that’s pretty close. I would also add, that Yoder would certainly also say that while there was no “Golden Age of correctness”, there were some times that were more correct than others. For him the chiefly involves the issue of Constanianism.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
  3. I was wondering when Anabaptists would make it into the conversation. Thanks for the posts.

    I’ve always thought of resitution historiography as intellectual pacifism. The way Yoder “did history” always required the church to loop back to rediscover and readdress itself in every age. His stance required vulnerability to the other, “wild patience,” as Rom Coles has said.

    I especially appreciate losing the language of “best practice” and beginning to ask the question, “is any church intelligible?”

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    “is any church intelligible?”

    Damn, that is the question isn’t it? Well put.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I think it is worth considering whether or not the milieu that produced the Reformation in its various forms was actually anything other than business as usual for the church since its inception. By that I mean, on the question of features which may be potentially in need of reform, does the immediate pre-Reformation period actually stand out versus the history of the Church generally speaking. I know I was personally shocked at the virtually perpetual nature of doctrinal conflict within the Church even at very early periods as I began to study it more thoroughly.

    With that in mind, why does Anabaptism emerge when it does? Its ecclesial vision differs very clearly not just from the church of the late middle ages but also of virtually the entire history of both Eastern and Western Christianity. I don’t think it’s possible to extricate it both from the magisterial Reformation as well as various philosophical developments and trends associated with what has come to be understood as the emergence of the “secular.” Related to that point, why is it that, as far as I can tell, JHY is one of a very small number of theologians who have ever written persuasively on this subject and that no actually historical tradition of this kind of historicism exists in an ecclesial context.

    This all goes to my general suspicion of most well developed Anabaptist theology as dressing up something (albeit in a fruitful and often convincing fashion) that actually has a far less appealing genealogy. JHY may advocate a very compelling alternative mode of ecclesial historicism, but it actually bears little resemblance to any extant ecclesial tradition.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I suspect there are a great many Mennonites who would have a lot of reasons, both historical and experiential for why they very much believe that an “actually historical tradition of this kind of historicism exists in an ecclesial context”.

    Have you really read much Yoder? If you do I think you’ll find that he isn’t writing out of thin air. The only reason he was able to write what he did was because of the historic Mennonite tradition that formed him. It was very much an “extant ecclesial tradition”, not just something on paper. And there have been a lot more Anabaptist writers besides him who have written extensively on these things. Check out the books published by Herald Press and you’ll have your hands full! I’m constantly trying to keep up with the breadth of Anabaptist history and theology. For all its minority status, there’s plenty of work being done by Anabaptist theologians and historians.

    As to why Anabaptism emerges when it does, I would briefly cite two proximate causes. First, the political climate of the time which was inhospitable to the non-conformist and pacifist theology of the Anabaptists. (After all, the one thing that Protestants and Catholics could really agree on in those days was that slaughtering Anabaptists was a fine thing to do!) Second, obviously the Magisteral Reformers “paved the way” by suggesting that some elements of the gospel message had been lost in the medieval Catholic church. It was a natural step for the Anabaptists to begin to question if this “fall” or “degredation” had deeper roots in the Constantinian synthesis of the fourth century and the had come to be inractably inmeshed in the Catholic hierarchy itself.

    I would also question the statement that there are no historical antecedents to the Anabaptist tradition in all of church history. I honestly think that the church of the first centurly looked a lot more like the Anabaptist churches than the Roman Catholic church. I know that’s a contentious claim, but there’s plenty of scholarship on both sides of the issue, so I’ll leave it at that for now. But there were also a great many other “forebears” of sorts, such as the Waldensians for example. So I don’t think it was a completely new pheonomenon. What made it so distinctive in the historical falling-out of things was the way in which Anabaptism was percieved as seditious and dangerous because of its refusal to submit to the authority of the European princes. As such it was vehemently pesecuted, by Catholics and Protestants on relgious and secular fronts. That, I think galvanized an solidified the Mennonites and Hutterites and other groups into the tradition which they become.

    Ironically enough, your last paragraph pretty much typifies my current feelings about the way the Roman Catholicism is presented as a hisorical embodied tradition over against other alternatives. Interesting!

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I cede your point about the Mennonite tradition being real and extant. If I were attempting to buy in to Anabaptism whole hog, however… that being a Mennonite represents the fullness of the Christian vision? I just don’t think there is a universalizable Anabaptist historical witness, and I think that my point regarding the historical circumstances of the emergence of Anabaptism must be addressed. If JHY suddenly found himself in Rome in 400 AD, he probably would have attempted to give the Reformation a 1000 year head start, but I think he would have been flying solo in that project. I can’t imagine a world in which the Radical Reformation had “had it’s way” historically. I think if we are being perfectly honest, much of what we call orthodoxy, or at least what the church of the first thousand years called orthodoxy, wouldn’t even be on the radar if we were all happily united Mennonites.

    I still ultimately think, and I can’t help but be biased on this issue, that there is one Church which is both the ground of all discussions of “ecumenism” as well as the center around which those discussion orbit, and that is the Roman Catholic Church. That isn’t necessarily an argument conversion, but it is worth considering why that is the case as well as what the counterfactual alternatives would look like.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I guess, Hill that I don’t have the same confidence as you that any one tradition, including the Roman Catholic tradition contains within itself “the fullness of the Christian vision”. I don’t think any Mennonite would say that they have the fullness of the Christian vision; a statement like that would be mitigated by the very agenda of the Radical Reformation, namely that the church is never “finished”. That is the essence of the critique that the Radical Reformation tradition(s) seek to make. That there is always a need for “restitution” and that the “fullness” we seek is something we always fall short of. Redemption is not yet consummated, and as such I don’t think we can expect the kind of closure and finality that many seek in Rome.

    And of course I can’t help but be biased on the issue, either!

    p.s. I tried to address your question of the historical emergence of Anabaptism above. Though for the whole story William Estep’s, The Anabaptist Story would be a good place to go.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I agree in a theological sense with what you are saying about the idea of the Church never being finished, etc. (and I don’t think that need be a Protestant idea per se). What I mean about Catholicism is that, apart from any analysis of the “authenticity” of this or that tradition, Roman Catholicism is still the ground of all ecumenical dialogue. That’s just an operational truth, not a claim to theological or ecclesial supremacy necessarily. I can imagine Christianity without the emergence of Lutheranism or Anglicanism or the Mennonite religion or Calvinism. I can’t say the same about Roman Catholicism. I don’t mean to suggest that that is obvious, but I have ultimately been convinced of it.

    I think what you have said about seeking closure and finality in Rome is something that I’d like to hear fleshed out from your point of view at some point. I have been giving it some thought as well. I think I understand the sentiments to which you refer, and I admit they are often seen to be a common thread among converts to Catholicism. My personal experience is one of being quickly disabused of those illusions, by the grace of God, after my conversion. The Church is indeed in ruins, but it was only in returning to her in her historic visible fullness that I was able to truly clutch the stones to my breast. In response to “That there is always a need for “restitution” and that the “fullness” we seek is something we always fall short of. Redemption is not yet consummated.” I would say of course! There is no reason to associate an opinion contrary to that with Roman Catholicism. I think that this sort of theology, of a kind of Radnerian bent, needs to be more clearly articulated in this day and age from the perspective of Roman Catholicism, but I think it lies there latent already.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    “I can imagine Christianity without the emergence of Lutheranism or Anglicanism or the Mennonite religion or Calvinism. I can’t say the same about Roman Catholicism.”

    I find that statement interesting. I suppose I can really imagine Christianity without emergenece of any of the distinctive traditions that have come to emerge in the history of the church. However, on the other hand I can’t imagine the vitality and faithfulness that exists within much of the Catholic Church today without the emergence of the Reformation churches in the sixteenth century. That might be a bit more of a controversial point, but I think its an important one.

    I guess the question that this statement raises for me is what is it that really constitutes “Roman Catholicism” for you? Is there a sine qua non of Roman Catholicism that you have identified as unique to that tradition and without which Christianity would be unimaginable? If so what might that be?

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    That’s an important question to answer. For me, Roman Catholicism is not a distinctive tradition, it is the Church in her fullness (and yes, temporal imperfection). It only seems like another denominational choice to people accustomed to viewing Christianity as composed exclusively of self-consciously distinctive traditions. (Basically any 21st century American falls in to this category.) Roman Catholicism emerged in my imagination as I’ve said as the conceptual ground of any coherent internal discussion of my ecclesial life. That’s a personal realization that I can’t really generalize, but take it for what you will. I guess I would briefly say that I kind of see conversion to Roman Catholicism was a rejection the idea of “the best option among several” entirely. There is a clear apophatic dimension to that, though.

    I think Russell Reno’s account of his reception in to the Catholic Church expressed similar sentiments in a powerful way:

    “The Catholic Church did not deliver me from apostasy and false teaching. I teach at a Jesuit University, so I am not naïve about just how insouciant about orthodoxy priests can be. Nor did Catholicism provide me with a neat, efficient, and trouble-free church. I do read newspapers. What my reception into the Catholic Church provided was deliverance from the temptation to navigate by the compass of a theory. The Catholic Church has countless failures, but of this I am certain: Catholic Christianity does not need to be underwritten by an idea.
    A Pentecostal friend came to the Mass of reception at the Jesuit Martyrs’ Chapel. He is a close friend and a man whose faith I admire. After the Mass we talked for a while. He asked me, “So, what did it feel like to become a Catholic?” I told him, “It felt like being submerged into the ocean.” He reacted with a look of thinly disguised horror. That look reminded me that, while I sometimes suffer from an attraction to Emersonian fantasies of self-reliance and disdain for hierarchy, I have never wanted to be alone with God. It has always seemed to me that such a desire too easily turns into a longing to be alone with one’s idea of God, and that is the same as being alone with oneself.
    The ocean needs no justification. It needs no theory to support the movement of its tides. In the end, as an Episcopalian I needed a theory to stay put, and I came to realize that a theory is a thin thread easily broken. The Catholic Church needs no theories. She is the mother of theologies; she does not need to be propped up by theologies. As Newman put it in one of his Anglican essays, “the Church of Rome preoccupies the ground.” She is a given, a primary substance within the economy of denominationalism. One could rightly say that I became a Catholic by default, and that possibility is the simple gift I received from the Catholic Church. Mater ecclesia, she needed neither reasons, nor theories, nor ideas from me.”

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Yes, that is a powerful account. However, from where I am situated it feels like the reverse would be the case for me. I don’t have a theory for remaining where I am. Ultimately I have a people in which the presence of Christ and the Spirit is so powerfully manifest that I cannot in good conscience leave.

    If I were to become Catholic I think I would really be doing it on the basis of theory. By becoming convinced of the theory of apostolic succession, of the hierarchical/clerical mediation of apostolicity, of catholicity being constituted through communion with the Roman See, etc.

    Regardless, though thank you for how you’ve articulated your Catholic faith. You represent your tradition well, and I feel like our reasons for living in our ecclesial modes of being have more in common than not. Ultimately they derive from the sheer giveness of our respective expreiences of how the grace of God is present in our respective churches. I trust God will ultimately lead all his people through the ruins of the church to where he wants us to be.

    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 8:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Ben wrote:

    I guess I don’t know as much about Anabaptist traditions as I should, so I don’t know what to say when you claim that the Anabaptist church looks like the early church.

    Do they believe what the early church did? Maybe a good post would be to hit upon some of the Anabaptist distinctives and they way which you believe these distinctives to represent true apostolic teaching.

    I think the term “looks like” can be taken in two ways: form and content. I’m interested in what you have to say about the content aspect.

    Friday, November 16, 2007 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    I appreciate and respect that. In these discussions we must constantly remind ourselves that in the same sense that “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” no man (or woman) can find his or her way to the fullness of God’s will for their life but by the Holy Ghost. We can only pray that something said here becomes a vehicle for that grace, and I am optimistic in that regard. Thanks again for fostering the kind of rhetorical generosity that has been established on your blog so far.

    Friday, November 16, 2007 at 9:43 am | Permalink
  15. Christopher Greene wrote:

    What a tremendously clarifying discussion between Hill & Halden. I am a Lutheran from a Campbellite background. My former pastor and close friend has just converted to RCism where he will become a married priest. I too have a strong (Campbellite) urge to get the church right, but I belong to a faithful and powerful urban Lutheran church that is my primary point of reference (along with my family). So, even if I agreed with Hill (and I am so inclined), I am faced with Halden’s razor. I can no longer receive the body and blood of Christ with my friend who is now a RC unless I cheat and just go to the communion rail at his church. Though my friend considers me his brother in Christ, I am, to his new circumstance, a lesser “ecclesial community”. If I were to convert, I too would leave my sisters and brothers, with whom I have shared the joys and sorrows of life in Christ, never to return to that altar, that fellowship, that churchly way of being that I share with my church. So just where is God leading me and my family? Shall I unite with another just to create division where I am? It is a dilemma which many share on many different levels.
    Your dialogue has at least done a great job of clarifying the stances.

    Friday, November 16, 2007 at 10:13 am | Permalink

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