Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Alter Call. An Anabaptist critique of Evangelical authority.


“Now I have friendly relations with a majority of my confrères over there 

and respect them as they are in a more difficult situation than I. 

Consider my moral scruples: it is not easy to write a pamphlet against living human beings 

and how can one be severe without usurping for himself the place of a judge?”

Czesław MiłoszLetter to Thomas Merton, Jan. 17, 1959.


I am an “Evangelical-Anabaptist” – it’s one of the things we Mennonite Brethren call ourselves – and I’m a pastor. Neither the names nor the role, to varying degrees, fit me easily. Readers will soon see why.


I was at a conference recently with several hundred other Evangelical-Anabaptist church leaders at which the stated aim was to reinforce our theological unity. The appointed consensus-builder chose the image of a sandbox as a metaphor, with the sides of the box meant to represent the theological boundaries within which he expected the rest of us to assemble. This leader’s efforts soon brought to mind the cliché about herding cats and the results of the conference eventually resembled what most cats would in fact choose to do in a sandbox.

I blame Anabaptism for the mess. Anyone familiar with these creatures will know the palpable bristle among Anabaptists when theology gets too prescriptive. Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to respect and even enjoy a good burst of authority. Being both – being Evangelical[hyphen]Anabaptist – means the question of theological authority is, well, fraught

I came to faith in the standard storybook way, sitting round a camp-fire, hearing about hell-fire, and soon grew into the standard storybook version of twentieth-century North-American Christianity: Evangelicalism.[1] Now, three decades later, I find myself leading and learning within a congregation for whom a once-beloved identity as Evangelical-Anabaptist represents a serious, even existential, dilemma. For my part, the hyphen between these two names represents an immense field of possibilities, even if at the moment I’m overly tempted to swing across it, smoothly away from my now tarnished Evangelical past and naively forward into whatever resolution an Anabaptist alternative might offer. This euphoric swinging should be borne in mind especially as we approach the end of this essay – at what for me is new terrain where the grass looks admittedly, and suspiciously, greener.

The thoughts that follow, then, are divided like I am: in the first section I’ll critique the original half of my identity and in the second part I’ll describe where I think I’d like to land. 


Biblicism – Evangelicals worship their Bibles

For most of church history, the inspiration and authority of Scripture was accepted as more or less obvious. Then, during the Reformation, the Bible acquired a new role within a polemic against a perceived over-emphasis on the role of tradition. For this, the Bible became the principal source of theological authority. Approaching our own era, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Scripture as a theological source acquired another unique, and uniquely Evangelical, function. Christian fundamentalists wanted into a conversation in which fallibility and errancy – a pairing of near-synonyms which usually means mistaken and misleading – were the accepted terms of exclusion. To be heard by the masses, to gain an audience from the big platform, meant the possibility of basic errors or uncertain authority needed to be eliminated from the outset. 

On the one hand, epistemological objectivity was the widely accepted gold standard for knowledge established by modern science – something was true if it could be dispassionately observed, empirically measured and subsequently re-tested as both. On the other hand, faith as psychological delusion was the common, and commonly accepted, theme from Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud – a compelling case to which liberal theology eventually replied with a spectrum of responses, from outright acceptance to degrees of concession. Combined, modern science and liberal theology seemed to make a simple demand of early Evangelicals: either find a claim to truth – a theological authority – outside the knowing subject’s psyche or find an exit from public discourse. 

Of the four usual sources of theological authority – Scripture, reason, tradition and experience[2] – only the first, only the Bible, could be sufficiently distanced from subjectivity to suit the terms of the demand. The Bible, we will agree, is a thing, an object; as such, it could, with a little academic fast talk, plausibly be considered immune to the kinds of subjectivity that would disqualify it as a respectable source of authority. It could, in other words, be re-presented to the public not as a set of religious texts authored and transmitted through history by various and vastly different human subjects, but instead as something that is fundamentally stable and objective. With this – sola scriptura – Evangelical theology now had what it needed to enter the public arena. But something important had changed since Evangelicals argued in Latin. What the Reformers meant by sola scriptura was that the Bible alone should have precedent over other valid and fallible sources of theological authority, but what the early Fundamentalists needed was infallibility pure and simple – so the Bible became not just the most important, but the only source of theological authority.

What I’d like us to see at this point is that a change was made in theology about revelation in order to engage in a conversation that either excluded or denied the possibility of divine revelation in the first place. A choice about the nature of theological knowledge was made, in other words, for the sake of an atheological epistemology. This choice had consequences.

Early Evangelicals[3] wanted the kind of knowledge people respected. People, it seemed, respected hard facts.[4]The solution was to solidify the Bible to fit the bill. Problems began to compound, however, because the logic here was so tight: the Bible, obviously, is not itself God, yet Evangelicals had made it the only source of theological knowledge. Put these two beliefs together, and early twentieth century Evangelicalism had introduced a subtle and fateful distinction between God and revelation of God. But as often happens in theology, especially in theologies impatient with nuance, this distinction soon solidified into difference. This is the crux. Now we were dealing with something different from God – a letter or a sermon or a hymn about him, for example – so a possibility was opened for a very different kind of knowledge; this was something we could get our hands onto, something we could put our minds around. But with this we also gained the possibility of losing the theological plot entirely. The problem, simply put, is that a difference between God and divine revelation means theology is no longer really about contact with God. 

Evangelical theology began with a distinction between revelation of God and God himself and then proceeded from that distinction to focus on the content of the revelation as its proper object. The Bible, then, became not simply the primary or exclusive source for theological knowledge, but had itself become the quasi-divinized object of faith. It was a subtle shift, and not one that has ever been made explicit, but it is, in the end, idolatry. This is what I’m calling biblicism.

To be fair, the shift to biblicism was not sudden nor is it yet complete, but a trajectory was set at the systematic helm of Evangelical theology and a swing began toward a new course, a course where the unspoken aim of theology is no longer knowledge of God but some kind of textual or historical or religious study – which of course is exactly what late modernity would prefer.[5]


Authoritarianism – Evangelicals worship their leaders

A second way Evangelicalism compensates for a relatively inchoate system of theological authority is by empowering authoritarian leaders. Such leaders are needed for two related reasons. First, as an inanimate thing, the Bible alone cannot act – to do anything, to exercise its authority, it must be handled in some way. In Evangelicalism, the notional authority remains with the thing but, in practice, it passes freely to its handler. Second, and more fundamentally, Evangelicalism has accepted an epistemology in which knowledge should be non-subjective – “truth,” to use more familiar terms, must be absolute and unchanging. The combined effect means Evangelical Bible-handlers are not just responsible for stewarding the source of authority, but also for preserving its propositional content. And since these propositions are by definition unchanging, preserving them means preventing change. This is where we get the common image of church leaders as doctrinal police, and is in part why Evangelicals are so enamored with apologetics.

I’ll start with the more straightforward of these observations: the Bible is a book. As a book, it must be read or at least consulted or at very least referred to in some way in order to exercise its authoritative function. In theory, Evangelicalism believes in the perspicuity of Scripture – the idea that any Christian can read and understand it – and in the priesthood of all believers – the idea that any Christian can mediate God’s presence to the church. In theory, this disperses the authority of the Bible to every reader and implies a flat, democratic structure of theological responsibility. In practice, however, neither reading nor understanding the Bible is especially common among Evangelicals and so, in practice, the Bible’s authority is condensed and deferred to those who presumably do read and understand it, the preacher-leaders.[6] Functionally, these preacher-leaders are now the Delegate Hermeneuts (DH) and the once-flat structure of theological authority has become vertical and at least potentially authoritarian.[7]

In this arrangement, a DH and a church share a tacit agreement about how the system functions: for his part,[8] the DH facilitates cohesion and agreement by keeping the terms and boundaries clear; for their part, non-leaders comply with the system by attending or exiting the group when they agree or disagree with the DH. The result is a culture of manufactured consensus, a group in which people do indeed experience a real sense of unity and cohesion, but only because it’s been carefully managed so there are none among them who hold substantially different views. It’s a mostly peaceful scenario, and it is efficient, but my point here is that there is nothing especially Christian or theological about it.[9] It’s just ideological stability, just one more example of the fact that any group can play nicely when everyone agrees. If serious questions are only asked by those on their way into the box or those on their way out of it, we need only thank the boundaries and their keepers for the peace. 

And all this is based not on a belief in the authority of the Bible but in a decision about what the Bible is and how its authority should function. In Evangelical groups, the Bible doesn’t just mediate divine revelation, it is divine revelation, it’s become divinized, and this makes the presence of any actually divine authority, i.e. God, unnecessary. A shocking suggestion, I realize, but for the pious mind this shift can feel not like a displacement of God but on the contrary like a heightened respect for God’s word. In practice, though, it makes at least two persons of the Trinity redundant; it puts the DH handlers of the now divinized book in the mediatorial position, and makes them de facto arbiters of truth.[10]

One of the ironies here is the way a desire to secure a non-subjective source for theological authority has come full circle to create a culture in which authority and responsibility are so often condensed into the hands of single human subjects.[11] Biblicism and authoritarianism are symbiotic.

Biblicism and authoritarianism are perfectly compatible for one more reason, too. When we begin with the Bible rather than Jesus for a theology of revelation, we lose any way to distinguish Jesus categorically among all the other biblical characters. With respect to leadership style, Jesus will of course have notional priority over the apostles and prophets but he is nonetheless among them as one of several “biblical” models for how to lead. The meek and gracious attitude of Jesus, for example, might be the ideal, but this is only relatively better than the brash and inflammatory style of some of the prophets. The selfless love of Jesus, for another example, is maybe the preferable option whenever convenient, but of course there are other less peaceful options for when it is not. The result is not just the obvious way this kind of hermeneutical loop reinforces systemic patriarchy but also the way the patriarchs it produces gain immense breadth of “biblical” justification for abjectly unchristlike styles of leadership.


Colonialism – Evangelicals worship Evangelicalism

Within Evangelicalism there is a presiding sense that the only correct posture to be taken with anyone who isn’t an Evangelical is proselytization. On the surface this is a mundane observation – Evangelicals are into evangelism – but my intent here is to notice how this push toward multiplication and expansion has a profound effect within Evangelicalism. There is a culture of mission, by which I mean the shared goal of converting others into Evangelicals provides immense cohesive strength to the movement itself. In this respect, Evangelical culture is a case in which the ends are in the means: by aiming to make new Evangelicals, current ones have incentive to set aside the kinds of squabbles that might otherwise occur for those within such an inchoate system and cooperate instead on a larger objective. At play here is some semantic overlap between a theological concept of mission and a business-savvy technique for corporate efficiency – and the blurring of concepts has served Evangelicalism well: mission has become not just a straightforward response to the Great Commission, but also a unifying principle for making the commissioners great. Now the relative lack of theological depth in Evangelicalism is made up for in width; the movement expands not because it is great but becomes great because it expands. 

            This drive to proselytize tends to be one of those characteristics that appears on all the many checklists about how to identify Evangelicals, but it has not always followed the same approach. Whereas earlier forms of Evangelicalism followed a stereotypically Anabaptist impulse to come out from the world, after WWII, Evangelicalism adopted a more Reformed mood about the relation between the church and culture.[12] Rather than marking the line between God’s redemptive domain and the world along the boundary between the church and secular culture, modern Evangelicalism now largely views society and the state as terrain to be captured and eventually dominated by the Lordship of Christ. To be simplistic but to the point: secular culture is now less like Egypt and more like Canaan – it’s no longer a domain from which God rescues his people, but one into which he calls them, to multiply, subdue and possess. 

            This shift of posture is not as drastic as might first appear; both align with a binary narrative according to which people are either acceptable or excluded. The former version marks the crucial boundary between the church and the world, the latter puts the wall between an exceptionally Christian culture and all others. In both cases the Evangelical posture toward the non-Evangelical world was and remains isolationist. The exit-and-cloister impulse is isolationist in a straightforward or even physical way, the enter-and-conquer impulse is isolationist in a subversive and ideological way. Each is a version of the strategy according to which the best offense is a strong defense. And while that similarity is important, equally so is the immense distance travelled in less than a century. Whereas the original defensive instinct aligned with Anabaptist ideals about real distance between church and state, we’re now seeing a movement that can somehow be both isolationist-defensive and expansionist-triumphal. This is at least partway toward an explanation for the otherwise baffling compatibility of contemporary Evangelicalism and populist nationalism.[13]

There are social and economic factors of course but beneath or among these is a theological change we’ve already covered: by accepting modern science’s commitment to empiricism and rejecting liberal theology’s embrace of subjectivity, early Evangelicals restructured theology around a doctrine of revelation that at first favoured and then relied exclusively on non-subjective propositional truths. To achieve this, divine revelation needed to be reducible to a message that could be lifted from its original historical, social and political context. The culture in which the divine propositions were originally delivered, then, was only as important as a husk to a kernel, something to get past or through en route to transmitting the propositional content of the revelation to everyone and all cultures. 

This is a problem. When a contextless, de-cultured message is authoritative for a religious community with an impulse for expansion, the result is a culture of mission with all the markers and effects of colonialism. Since the first thing to be said about divine revelation is not that God has become encultured and contextualized but that he has revealed a message that somehow transcends all cultures and contexts, the stewards of this transcendent message have a divine imperative also to transcend all cultures. All cultures, that is, with the glaring exception of their own. That this is impossible is beside the point. To attempt the actually impossible on a small scale would be a simple tragedy. But if hundreds of millions of people imagine this is exactly the God-given point of their lives, it’s a catastrophe. Such is the exceptionalist rationale for Evangelicalism’s colonialist missiology. The results range from, on the one hand, a simple lack of self-awareness to, on the other, an explicitly baptized version of manifest destiny. Either way it’s a recipe for an ideology according to which one culture perceives all others as deficient to the degree they differ from itself while at the same time believing the remedy for these deficiencies cannot be administered by degree but only by total surrender or assimilation. The remedy for all others, in short, is to cease being other.

This negation of otherness is relevant to my concern about theological authority in Evangelicalism for the way sameness can feel so similar to unity. Typically, colonial cultures were monarchical or imperial and as such had a more or less solid structure of authority. This stability meant the homogenizing effects of their expansion were mostly unilateral – a dominant and monolithic society expands and absorbs other cultures into its own. But modern colonialism is different. For capitalist democracies in general and Evangelicalism in particular the homogenizing effects of colonialism are now multilateral: differences are eliminated in the process of expansion from both the sending and the receiving cultures. For a movement with minimal structure, this flattening of difference is crucial – any trend toward social, racial, political and economic sameness serves Evangelicalism by providing it with much-needed, albeit theologically artificial, cohesion.


Can Evangelicalism be saved?

You don’t have to be an especially attentive reader to realize I have some concerns about contemporary American Evangelicalism. The question now is, can it be saved – can Evangelicalism be anabaptized? 

The three trends I’ve identified as ways Evangelicalism compensates for a structural lack of authority – biblicism, authoritarianism, colonialism – reinforce one another in a theological web that includes many other trends beyond the scope here. Before the more ambitious second half of this essay, I’ll make one observation about the general shape of this web.

To get to the point quickly, let me re-sketch what I think is driving so many problems with the Bible: it’s not hermeneutical issues (understanding the interpretive event), and it’s certainly not exegetical ones (interpreting the text as such); as I see it, the problem with how Evangelicals handle the Bible is a misconstrued theology of revelation (and, consequently, a misconstrued bibliology – what we think the Bible is and why). And this, in turn, is not really an epistemological problem (defining it as such was the modernist bait), theology about revelation is just theology – knowledge of God and how he relates to the world.[14]

And how does God relate to the world? To simplify again, consider the classic tension between immanence and transcendence: God is both “near” – through the incarnation and the presence of the Spirit, and he is “far” – uncreated and qualitatively other. It’s a tension that can never be fully resolved in Christian theology, but various systems tend to lean in one direction or the other. Reformed theology for example, when it is done well, achieves a respectable tension with many constructive results. Done less well, or done under pressure from atheological decisions like what I’ve called biblicism, and the ship of theology heels over, takes on water until it develops a list, and eventually capsizes altogether.

When the transcendence of God is over-weighted, a systematic precedent is set to favour the general over the particular throughout the system. Put differently, starting with God-as-other rather than Immanuel establishes a pattern in which otherness dominates relation throughout the theological web. We’ve just rushed through some examples of this pattern: in epistemology it’s the preference for propositional over personal knowledge; in ecclesiology, it’s a preference for monolithic authority rather than congregational contingency; in mission, it’s for collective ideology rather than interpersonal love. At each point the same choice for distinction over connection repeats itself. In Christology, this habit means a preference for one of the two natures over the single person of Christ; in theological anthropology, it becomes a preference for the self over society; in eschatology and ethics, it’s for separation rather than reconciliation; in theology proper, a preference for unity over triunity; in the doctrine of creation, for stability over change, and so on.

The common theme throughout all these choices is a lean toward what we might call an antagonistic metaphysic or an ontology of separation. And at this level we get to what Christians really think is happening between God and the world. To ask that kind of question specifically of Christians should have us reaching for something to say about our faith in Christ. My critique of Evangelical structures of authority, in a nutshell, is that it has effectively displaced Christ from the centre of Christian systematic theology and things have unravelled accordingly from there.[15]

For the sake of what remains of this essay, we can imagine this unravelling as the interrelated deterioration of four of the central elements of the Reformation: sola scriptura became biblicism, which deflated the priesthood of all believers into authoritarianism, which led to a culture no longer contingent on transforming union with God – sola gratia­ – but depended instead on transforming others into itself, colonialism. And all this rests on what or in whom our sola fide is placed, and then on the way this crucial choice establishes a structural precedent for the rest of the theological system. So, for the second half of this essay I’ll begin there, with a different notion of faith; then I’ll go back to the first problem about revelation; then see what that means for structures of authority; then finish, finally, with a suggestion about how this different structure might possibly hold together. 


Anametaphysics – rebaptizing sola fide

Western metaphysics [Aside: I suspect what I’m about to suggest applies beyond whatever “Western” means but the scope of this claim is already going to be embarrassingly broad] really only offers two options with respect to the nature of reality: either things are ultimately stable and unchanging, or, as much as we might like them to be, they aren’t.[16]Monotheisms generally tend toward the stable/unchanging side of this spectrum of imaginable possibilities. When we say “God” we usually mean an ontological singularity, the source of being alongside of whom there is nothing else, nothing, that is, unless this God should bring something else into being – as would appear to be the case: creation, you and I, etc. That we believe such a God exists usually brings with it the related idea that everything else now alongside him depends for its existence, moment by moment, on him.[17] We contingent creatures experience change, flux, decay and the like now but ultimately we will arrive in or so near to God that everything will finally be stable, complete, perfect. 

Even though this is a pretty stilted way of describing the scenario, most readers will recognize the basic plotline. We go to church and we pray and worship and we sometimes do theology and these are ways of participating in or anticipating that ultimate perfection, the presence of God. But here’s the problem: on these terms theology is about grasping something static. We might be humble about our limited access or modest about the strength of our grip but the aim is to find and know and express (and then of course defend) something that does not change. And since this something is the Ultimate And Absolute One Important Thing, the doing of theology becomes functionally inseparable from the exercise of authority and power. That, I think, is the root of our problem. 

And this is not the kind of problem that can be solved with conceptual tinkering. It’s not even on the scale of “perspective” or “world view.” This is the sort of thing so basic it shapes the way we ask questions; it limits our possible answers in advance, even before we look for them. At this level, if we have already come to believe that everything is, or someday will be, or somehow should be, absolutely stable and unchanging, then we are bound to arrive at various versions of the conviction that we should do everything in our power to expedite stability and then prevent change. But this sets us up for conflict in the world such as it is. In a world so full of change and difference and complexity, enacting this kind of conviction will inevitably require some coercion, or, failing that, violence. This is why metaphysics and theology are so unpopular today – they seem to lead inexorably to oppression and suffering.

Western intellectual history really can offer only one exit from this dilemma, it’s that there is no ultimate stability or transcendent meaning to anything. Historically, this has been a marginal view, held only by the smallest of minorities among serious thinkers.[18] But today it’s common, and usually accompanied by the false idea that it’s just the near-culmination of humanity’s progressive emergence from pre-scientific darkness. People today believe in naturalism or materialism or maybe a softened nihilism as if these ideas are new, but they are not. What is truly new is about two-thousand years old. It is still new, though, because you and I don’t yet have the conceptual tools to grasp it. Christian metaphysicians have certainly tried, but with only a few largely overlooked exceptions, we keep returning to variations on just our two given options. And given these options, Christians repeatedly reject the latter (chaos) and choose the former (stability). But, there is a problem: the gospel. Within our given metaphysical terms, the idea that the Creator might become a creature and then die as such – that God would somehow[19] change – simply does not compute. 

It is often noticed that Anabaptists have long functioned with an “implicit” theology – and the same is just as true about our association with metaphysics. But let’s look at it this way: the first radical reformers prioritized an encounter with God so completely that every other authority or power was deemed less significant. In short, they risked death for their faith. This was, among other things, a metaphysical decision. The ground and structures of the world, these men and women implied, had not been established in a past tethered through an unbroken succession to the present, nor was what shapes and orients life only real in some inaccessible future, nor does everything that matters boil down to abstract ideals available only to the mind; the ground and structures of the world, such as there are, could be realized through a transforming present encounter with a living, present God. 

I’ve heard others often suggest that Anabaptists exhibit “existential” leanings. As far as I’m aware what is meant by this is that Anabaptists tend to prefer a lived, embodied, praxis-oriented faith over other more cognitive, intellectualized or dogma-oriented versions. This is a valid use of the term existential. But there are more possibilities here. The pressing concern of twentieth century existential thought was the way humans seem to have so much freedom in so many ways with only the glaring exception of the single most basic one: whether to exist in the first place and whether to continue existing.[20] We just do. Then we have to figure out who we are, why we’re here, and what to do about it. And then we don’t. It’s the implacable order of those facts that captures both the wonder and torment of the human condition on the one hand, and the connection between existential metaphysics and Anabaptist instincts on the other. 

Existentialists had an implicit metaphysic (mostly despite themselves), were dismissed as enthusiasts (too much indirect artsy talk, too little proper analysis), and were disdained for their esoteric popularity. They were the radical reformers of the philosophical tradition. Their driving conundrum was summarized by Jean-Paul Sartre: “What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards.”[21] This is the flux and change option at full strength. Having ostensibly rejected metaphysics, humans are left to find their “essence,” their identity and purpose, on their own; we simply surge into existence and then must “define ourselves afterwards.” The famous impetus to all this was the widely reported death of God, and the way this made Sisyphus a hero, and meant hell is other people and the human condition is angst and nausea until nothingness.[22] It’s a brazenly atheistic assessment of things and so is not on the surface compatible with something as pious as Anabaptism. But if God is alive, indeed incarnate and risen from death and therefore triune, then recognizing these very same existential conditions could be another way of affirming a tenet of Christian theism particularly dear to Anabaptists: we are free to find our own new and true identity. In this respect, to be “defined afterward” is like being ana-baptized. To be baptized “again” (or indeed to reject the idea that this is a second baptism at all) is to insist on finding one’s own defining freedom after the preceding conditions of one’s birth or institutionalized identity.

Again, there is a metaphysical truth implied here. To imagine one could become someone other than just the product of their given conditions hinges entirely on a belief that the creator of the world also grants us freedom from and within those very conditions. That this feels like an illogical contradiction between the divine will and our own is a legacy of deism, namesake of the deus pronounced dead by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, the same deism which so many Evangelicals are determined to resuscitate. But this god is indeed dead – thank-God – and should be left to remain so. The glaring problem with existentialism, then, and the reason so much of it is dark and directionless, is that it has rightly left this god behind but wrongly thought it was God. God, however, is not dead. And since this is the case, the humaneness of existentialism can be hopeful. Now human freedom needn’t be a Sisyphean curse but can be received and enjoyed as an already-given gift. That our reception of freedom has been skewed and our giving of it to one another so often distorted is obvious enough but – and this is the crucial point – to swap the dead god for the Living One means we must also swap our notions of freedom. The freedom given by God is not diminished or put at risk by other people but on the contrary is, like his own, only receivable from and within communion with Others and others. 

In short, relations are ontologically constitutive. Our relations with others, returning to Sartre’s terms, “define” us, make us our true, essential selves. On these terms, persons and things can still be stable, we and they still truly exist as ourselves and not something else, but this stability follows rather than precedes our connections with everything and everyone else. If it weren’t for God, this would be the old minority view about instability and flux. But God exists, so this isn’t that. But neither is it the standard alternative. If relation is somehow the most fundamental dynamic, there are no static ontological bits to cling to – neither deep inside us, nor somehow beneath things, nor even far elsewhere in a realm of ideas or divine life. The unsettling piece here is the suggestion that this is not just true of creatures but also somehow of the Creator. Most monotheisms have a tidy term for this kind of thinking: heresy. We tend not to like the idea that God somehow receives his being-in-relation because it feels like a slight on divine immutability and therewith most other ideas we like to think about God. But most of the concern here derives from the way we tend to think of God as an impersonal monad rather than as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

For God to be triune means whatever God is or however God exists it can’t be about really, actually, after all, being one and only occasionally, maybe sometimes, just seeming, three. Deism is hard to shake because that distant deusis where our felt need for stability has so typically come to rest. Without it we seem to be in a tight spot: Who’s to say God won’t change, or just stop, or fail to pull through for us? I’ve heard this question before, in earnest, from pastors and church leaders (including myself) who normally don’t engage in blasphemy or idolatry. But such is the demand for security from anything besides the personal trustworthiness of God. Our fear must not be normative for our theology. We can still believe God is unchanging and the Son is incarnate, and indeed in all the other holy ideas, we just cannot rest them on anything other than our place in the love of the Father for the Son in the Spirit. As ever, the ordering of the ideas is crucial here, it sets the systematic ship on keel or off. God isn’t faithful because he’s unchanging; it’s the other way around; God appears to be unchanging because he’s so faithful. It’s not that there’s some higher ontological law about stability or immutability to which God must conform, rather we believe he is faithful because that’s just the kind of god the Father, Son and Spirit have shown us God is.  

The point here is that a swap of abstract immutability for relational faithfulness is exactly the metaphysical shift needed for people to become willing to oppose established structures of authority so they can live radically with and for others – and do so even at great personal risk. I’m not trying to suggest the Anabaptist revolution started in left-bank French cafés or that their prison hymns and underground preaching included veiled speculations about the Trinity. But with an anachronistic glance backward from this side of the twentieth century (and a hopeful one forward), the congruencies are hard to overlook. 


Guerilla theology – rebaptizing sola scriptura

Early Anabaptists were so disaffected with established church authorities that they developed a radically different notion of biblical revelation. The idea is relatively mundane today but was revolutionary at the time: God reveals himself in Scripture not top-down through the channels of a Church magisterium but rather from the bottom up, in and through a freely gathered laity as their collective witness either affirms or rejects the words of those among them who teach and preach. 

Several factors are at work here. The first is an extraordinary amount of social space for individual freedoms. As is often pointed out, there’s a nascent democracy here and a respect for personal conscience centuries before most of the rest of Europe could imagine either.[23] The second is the way this embrace of human freedom hinged entirely on a belief in the freedom of God. God was free to work outside of and indeed in opposition to the religious establishment; he could communicate with and bring new life directly to his people. And more is at play here than a simple adjustment to pre-existing possibilities; the terrain of imaginable reality had altered from a world in which truth is static and functionally absent to one in which it (indeed, He) is alive and present.[24] This freedom of God to be immediately real and the vibrant newness this presence brought could be quenched neither by fear of capital punishment nor threats from other lethal powers because the early Anabaptists had discovered something more sublime than the security of the status quo. They themselves might call it nachfolge Christi and although we often interpret this “following” in a narrowly moral sense, we might also call it existential freedom: they’d found a way to follow Christ in which the conditions of their existence – political isolation, suffering, proximity of death – had become less metaphysically normative than their essential being: love for God and others.

It’s clear all this freedom did not lead to a scenario in which people were especially agreeable. Early Anabaptism was not so much a cohesive movement as it was a multi-genetic hodgepodge of older ideas that finally found their footing in various places and various ways across Europe. People in these different places had different ideas about how they should think and behave – their beliefs were broadly similar in many ways, but their various emphases and priorities were always unique to their local situations. Their theology was indigenous to where and who they were, it rose impromptu from their lived experience of God and from their new freedom to interpret Scripture.[25] This legacy continues; Anabaptists still consider themselves “people of the book,” and indeed we are. But we must also insist that where the Spirit of the Lord is, the Bible is not alone. In such a place there is freedom to include contributions from the past as well as freedom to welcome and affirm new experiences of God in the present because the Spirit responsible for our hermeneutical community is unrestricted by time as we know it. This same Spirit co-authored our Scriptures back then, enabled their co-mission to us now, and is yet available to co-interpret them among us ever anew. The result is guerilla theology. Unofficial, conceptually minimalist, perpetually reforming in sometimes radical ways, the work of rogue churches operating outside the rules of political compromise. And since this theology does not fit within, does not endorse, can not be used by, established systems of authority, these churches must be officially rejected – and the original Anabaptists certainly were. They were deemed treasonous and executed as anarchists.[26]


The joy of sects – rebaptizing the priesthood of all believers

The question in view is whether the grassroots ad hoc nature of this theology and the local, de-centralized, easily replaceable kinds of authority in these communities were weaknesses due to the movement’s infancy, or if this is theological authority as it should be: only strong when it is weak, only true when it is free. Careful readers will notice this is a rhetorical question, the implied answer to which can now be made explicit: how a church structures itself is its theology. The only way to really affirm the priesthood of all believers is to keep theological authority on the ground, spread-out, vulnerable to change, shared among and across a gathered laity.

            But if this is theological authority as it should be, who’s to keep local churches from sliding into error? The only possible answer: Nobody. Not God, certainly. Even more certainly, not one of his creatures – myself and present readers included. Nothing keeps us from theological error, and it takes only a modest glance round any one of our churches or a quick flip through an Anabaptist history book to admit they’re all a case in point. Full and complete orthodoxy, whatever that might look like, is only an eschatological possibility and anyone who insists otherwise in the meantime likely has their ego or job at stake. Being wrong with our ideas about God is indeed something to be avoided whenever possible, but the category of concern here is several grades lower than what so many of our church authorities would have us believe. That the church has always survived and at times thrived with any number of incomplete or mixed-up or contradictory beliefs should assure us that doing likewise is nothing to fear. I mention this here because fear is too easily a tool of control.

Our real concern should be right action. Theological error is a fact to be borne, a burden to carry, while we feed the hungry, tend the sick and dying, seek justice – in short, behave like Jesus – and, in the doing of these things find our collective burden lighter, our corporate knowledge of God clearer. Orthopraxy will mitigate heterodoxy. Yes, this is a loop – a good shared life opening minds and hearts to good theology and this inspiring that life to yet better living, and so on around, outward and onward – and this loop is the route to freedom. And the route is clear, it doesn’t need boundary patrollers or a priestly class of guides, and we keep it clear by walking on it, unafraid of mistakes and unwilling to let fear about wrong ideas stall our progress.  

It’s true this kind of thinking has led churches to fracture, and it almost certainly will lead to more. And it’s true church fractures have produced pain and suffering for Christians, and more of this, too, seems inevitable. But a broken church is not always just a moral failure on our part. It can be God working through our weaknesses to save us from the distortions to the gospel and Christian life that occur when theological authority gets too centralized; it can be the cruciform grace of God transforming our suffering into salvation from our idolatrous impulses. Pain and suffering are not in themselves a symptom of unfaithfulness; indeed, the example of Christ and the martyrs suggests an entirely opposite and counterintuitive explanation. And this is as true of an individual’s life as it is about a church’s corporate life: being small, seemingly insignificant, even dying – these are perfectly compatible with being faithful. The felt need to be large and secure, on the other hand, to be institutionally significant, to be ideologically compelling – whether as a leader or as a body of believers – none of these arise from a straightforward grasp of the gospel. In this respect it’s not Evangelicalism’s lack of theological authority that’s the problem, it’s the many and destructive ways it attempts to compensate for this lack. 


Centrifugal church – rebaptizing sola gratia

The issue is sharpest today in missiology: how to “share” the gospel or “make” disciples without taking an authoritarian, even colonialist, posture over the unbelieving other? At root is the postmodern conundrum about the possibility of making any assertions or predications whatsoever, the way saying just about anything about anyone, regardless of intent or content, is in some fundamental sense a claim upon that other and thereby a form of coercion. It’s as if our capacity for language is our capacity for violence.[27] I should be clear here that “language” is not just about the wind from our mouths, the sounds and their meanings, the neutral transfer of data from one mind to another; it’s about the way everything we say comes laden both with how we see the world and with how this world has already been shaped by what’s conceivable within the rules or “grammar” of our language. It’s another loop – this time headed in the opposite direction, away from freedom – and it’s not just the simple claim that we see what we want to see, it’s also the way we foist these wants onto others, and in the process diminish both their lives and our own.

At one level this is a dilemma for all humans but at another it’s a critique of authorities who use this oppressive, foisting dynamic to secure power. The concern here is what is often called a hegemonic discourse – a dynamic in which those who control the discourse, the “hegemons,” maintain their power and privilege simply by keeping the story straight and continuing to talk. If the narrative is large enough and the grammar clear enough, sheer momentum will provide all the needed cohesion. Any dissenting views are as such grammatically incorrect and to the same degree incomprehensible. Any interruption to the presiding, or “meta-,“ narrative can only come from outside the linguistic group and is therefore unworthy of audience. This is filibuster theology with no conceivable adjournment.

The theological authorities in these systems needn’t be bad people, they may be perfectly benign. They are probably not consciously or deliberately manipulating others but the possibility in view here is that they themselves are being manipulated by their own grammar – the accepted norms of their ways of speaking and thinking are restricting the imaginable terrain of the conversations over which they preside. This is the metaphysics-is-intrinsically-violent problem I mentioned earlier only here it’s couched in terms of language and grammar. Putting it this way signals the fact the problems here are pre-cognitive – we tend not to think about our language because we think with it – and so the most energetic perpetrators of these systems can be nice people with innocent psyches and no problems sleeping at night.

This is most common where privileges groom us from very young to expect others to listen to us.

The sentence above is a case in point. A white man (me) has just framed a problem about authority with himself (“us” / “others”) at the centre. The first time I wrote that sentence I wasn’t even trying to exhibit the problem I’m trying to describe. It was just me doing my best to get my head round this, but in the process I’ve demonstrated the way systemic privilege has prepared me to understand problems as if I somehow must be central to the solutions, even if it’s the problem of my own centrality I’m trying to address. In this respect the most well-intentioned advocates and ostensibly progressive speakers can displace others, even in an honest effort to bring them in.[28]

To be clear, this isn’t a complaint about who is in the centre at any given moment, as if simply swapping one narrator for another would solve the problem. It’s that there is a centre – a presiding narrative, a central script – at all. If what I’m talking about here is intrinsic to the way language works, if it’s actually the way our minds and therefore all our relations are shaped, replacing one centre with a slightly nicer one just means the new oppression is relatively more polite. Is there any escape from this? Who can free us from this body of death? If the act of communicating with others is at best hospitality – an invitation into the world I inhabit – or at worst a form subliminal coercion – an implicit demand to accept as your own the world I’ve made – then the question now is just the basic theological one: Who after all is the creator? Is it humanity, shaping our selves and worlds with the language and grammar we make up? Or is it God? 

It must be both. And he is – Jesus is both. The only way a community can speak without in the process excluding others is to have one at its centre – the One – who is existentially both divine and human. Jesus has his being-in-relation-for-others; he is both immanent by kenosis and transcendent in cruciform love. This self-emptying and self-giving incarnate Son can therefore be central without thereby de-centering others. With such a one at the centre, the centre is always open. And not open in the sense of vacant but open like always and perpetually moving outward, away from itself in a love that is renewed every moment from and as the self-existence of the God who is love.[29] So a Christocentric church will be a centrifugal church. Followers of Jesus cannot solidify into an institution gathered round a static centre nor can we huddle inside stable boundaries because we are a living, enSpirited body motivated perpetually outward by our head.[30]

The nature of our theology ought to correspond to the nature of whom this knowledge aspires, and since God has neither an exclusive centre nor a limiting boundary, neither should our theology. Theological authority, then, is an oxymoron. Ideas and beliefs about God cannot be prescribed for others without somehow diminishing the purpose and function of Christian theology in the process. Unless it inspires rather than controls, frees rather than binds, is continually dying and rising rather than clinging to its own wellbeing, theology will not find the God revealed in Jesus.



I cringe to imagine what some of my more attentive congregants might think of the leaps and sweeps I’ve made in these last few pages. It’s maybe not Anabaptist in any historically valid sense. But I hope it at least imbibes some of the radical and reforming spirit of what got our history moving. I’d also like to think a student of pre-fundamentalist Evangelicalism might say some of the instincts roughly displayed here could’ve fit within the start of that movement too. In any case, I feel more hopeful at the end of this essay than I did where it began. It may turn out that all this was less about an exasperated slide from one end to the other of my Evangelical-Anabaptist identity, and more about a renewed appreciation for the hyphen in the middle that could yet hold it all together.

[1] For much of my life I was baffled by requests to define “Evangelicalism” because it just seemed like a redundant synonym for “Christian” or maybe “orthodox.” That this displays a shocking lack of historical or social self-awareness is part of the Evangelical ethos – exactly the je ne sais quoi component of Evangelicalism that so consistently evades most scholarly attempts to define the term. Academics are too restricted by scruples about objectivity or neutrality to stoop to naming something so impolite. That defensive readers could easily point to exceptions to the broad-stroke-caricatured version of Evangelicalism I’ll be critiquing here (please tag these comments #NotAllEvangelicals) is granted but, in my defense, please notice I’m deliberately talking about Evangelicalism and not particular evangelical individualsOf course there are anomalies in the system. You may even be one. But it’s the system as such I have in view. My aim here is to identify and address a set of problems theologically –  not historically or sociologically. That this is a perilous aim maybe displaying just a different form of hubris, I accept; that it’s an aim exactly opposite to the typical Anabaptist approach (and, come to think of it, what “Anabaptist” even means) – is an issue I’m happy to leave to proper scholars and worthier Anabaptists.

            Readers unsatisfied with this elusion or interested in the polite definitions can search online for “Bebington Quadrilateral” or follow the paper trail from here: “Evangelicalism today includes any Christians traditional enough to affirm the basic beliefs of the old nineteenth-century evangelical consensus: the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, the real historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture, salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, the importance of evangelism and missions, and the importance of a spiritually transformed life.” George Marsden cited in Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals. The struggle to shape America (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2017) pp. 2-3. Or, and especially germane to my direction in this essay, see: Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason. The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford, 2014). For a Canadian perspective see also: Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson, A Culture of Faith. Evangelical Congregations in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 2015).

[2] To casually presume the Wesleyan quadrilateral is “the… usual” is, alas, a feature of my Evangelical-Anabaptist heritage.

[3] By which I mean early twentieth-century Evangelicals, i.e. Fundamentalists. I realize there were non-fundamentalist Evangelicals at the time and that the term can be rightly used of even earlier Evangelicals but, alas, that is the whole problem in view with this essay – and one to which I’ll return at last below. C.f. George Marsden:  "My own unscientific shorthand for this broader usage is that a fundamentalist (or a fundamentalistic evangelical) is 'an evangelical who is angry about something.' By this standard, it should be carefully noted, the operational distinction between simply being an evangelical and being what I am calling a fundamentalistic evangelical involves their relative degrees of militancy in support of conservative doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and/or cultural issues.” Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: University Press, 2006) pp. 235-6. This is more than just clever, especially if we add anger’s cousin, fear – a fundamentalist is just an evangelical who is afraid of something.

[4] The past tense in this sentence is operative, and: sad. Most Evangelicals still long backward for a day – before Heisenberg and Gödel et. al. ­– when knowledge was manageable and truth was so compelling it was almost magic. This gnostalgia is intoxicating.

[5] This is a Barthian metaphor. Appropriate because it has been an entirely Barthian line of thought. To extend both toward the direction I’m headed below: the mistake in view began like the classic case of frazzled mariners who start to second-guess their navigational instruments. Rather than trusting the Christological compass on board, Fundamentalist-Evangelical theology recalibrated the ship’s doctrine of revelation to suit the prevailing epistemological winds. C.f. Stanley Hauerwas: “When sola scriptura is used to underwrite the distinction between text and interpretation, then it seems clear to me that sola scriptura is a heresy rather than a help in the Church. When this distinction persists, sola scriptura becomes the seedbed of fundamentalism, as well as biblical criticism. It assumes that the text of Scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.” Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993) pp. 27, 28 


[6] Such a damning indictment warrants a footnote more substantial than I’m able to provide. I plead only a practitioner’s expertise here: I am an Evangelical (sort of; maybe; depending on how you define it), and I have been one, without bracketed hesitations, vocationally, in four different countries, in six different denominations each with dozens of associated parachurch organizations and institutions, for almost forty years—and I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that while some evangelical individuals may indeed read their Bibles relatively often and carefully, those anomalies are not characteristic of Evangelicalism (c.f. note 1, above).

[7] The DH is considered particularly “strong” in Evangelical churches and organizations when the complexities of the Bible only make brief appearances in sermons or decisions en route to tidy, clear resolutions. The technique is so familiar it’s cliché: Bible texts are placed in parenthesis after propositional claims or referenced in passing before “clear teaching” with the understanding that the associated ideas are therefore biblical and therefore unquestionable. This mode of theology is simplistic but effective; it removes ambiguity for a group in which uncertainty is destabilizing, or, put differently, it provides cohesion for a group in which agreement is the basis for unity. 

[8] DH leaders are almost always men.

[9] LaPlace comes to mind, There is no need for God as a Hypothesis.

[10] C.f. my essay, “Sex after Church,” where the same point is made with a Christological analogy: “… a Eutychian notion of Biblical revelation conflates hermeneutics and exegesis altogether. The interpreter’s human understanding and the Spirit’s divine authority are merged so tightly that the preacher becomes neither fully divine nor humanly fallible, a mysterious third thing between the church and God.” in Direction 45:2 pp. 157-179.

[11] What changed during the late Fundamentalist stage of Evangelicalism was not the normative role of Scripture per se but the normative role of a belief in the normative role of Scripture. It wasn’t as much about a change in the function of the Bible as it was a new way of rallying diverse Christians into a cohesive group and, when necessary, excluding other Christians from that group. Biblicism became a form of Evangelical gerrymandering. Stephen L. Young has identified the way academic Evangelicals deny or obscure the difference between descriptive and explanatory reduction as a protective strategy for privileging inerrantist understandings of the Bible; the way, in other words, replies to standard intellectual queries about someone’s religious experience are presumed accessible only to  those who also have the same subjective experience, and the way this apologetic sleight of hand excludes anyone who does not affirm inerrancy: “… inerrantist scholars are not simply responding to an indubitable need for inerrancy to be articulated, theorized and defended. They create, maintain, and reinscribe these interests by, among other things, intellectualizing and theorizing about the Bible and (true) Christianity in ways that configure inerrancy as necessary for any proper approach to the Bible and Christian piety.” In “Protective Strategies and the Prestige of the ‘Academic.’ A Religious Studies and Practice Theory Rediscription of Evangelical Inerrantist Scholarship.” Biblical Interpretation 23 (2015) p.26, n.37


[12] See Mathew Avery Sutton’s America Apocalypse. A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge: Harvard, 2014) esp. pp. 266 ff.

[13] Unlike me, many historians don’t find this baffling. See e.g. John Fea, “Intellectual Hospitality as Historical Method” in The Activist Impulse. Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism eds. Jared Burkholder and David Cramer (Eugene: Pickwick, 2012) pp. 82 ff.

[14] Wolfhart Pannenberg: “Christians especially should have such confidence in the truth of their faith that they can let its divine truth shine forth from the content without any need for preceding guarantees.” Systematic Theology v.1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) p. 56. John Webster: “Bibliology and hermeneutics are derivative elements of Christian theology, shaped by prior Christian teaching about the nature of God and creatures and their relations.” (p.viii) … and “prudent theology will treat questions concerning the nature and interpretation of Scripture indirectly, that is, as corollaries of more primary theological teaching about the relation of God and creatures: this, because Scripture is (for example) part of God’s providential supplying of the life of the church, and will remain unclear about Scripture as long as we are unclear about God, providence and church.” (p.3) in The Domain of the Word. Scripture and Theological Reason. (London: T&T Clark, 2012).

[15] In other words, the postmodern antimetaphysical critique and (the un- and even anti-Christian themes in) Evangelicalism are products of the same thing: the collapse of an overly transcendent theology proper. 

[16] Readers interested in a quick run across Western intellectual history along these lines might enjoy Colin Gunton’s The One, the Three and the Many (Cambridge: University Press, 1993). Readers who appreciate metaphysical subtleties, if they haven’t already left, may want to skip the next couple paragraphs.

[17] There is no good reason for using masculine pronouns for God, especially when the scope, as here, is above or beyond the particularities of a given religious tradition. But neither are there, as far as I’m aware, any sufficient alternatives, especially since it’s not possible to speak above or beyond given particularities. 

[18] As David Bentley Hart makes repeatedly and excruciatingly clear in The Experience of God. (Yale: University Press, 2014).

[19] Readers intrigued by the suggestion the gospel is so far inconceivable should get themselves to their nearest theological library, sever all future commitments indefinitely, and begin reading about the logos asarkos. N.B. this is not good advice.

[20] The apparent preoccupation with suicide among existential thinkers is not as morose as first appears. Dostoevsky’s Kirilov (“Every one who wants to attain complete freedom must be daring enough to kill himself… This is the final limit of freedom, that is all, there is nothing beyond it… Who dares to kill himself becomes God.”) and Vaclav Havel (“Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren't in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life”) – to pick just two examples – are not expressing a simple death-wish but rather the terms and terrain of our existential dilemma. See my “Looking for Personal Space in the Theology of John Zizioulas,” IJST 8:4 pp. 356-370.

[21] Existentialism is a Humanism, 1946.

[22]Czesław Miłosz: “In a period when the image accepted by majority is clear: empty Sky, no pity, stone wasteland, life ended by death.” Striving towards being. The letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz ed. Robert Faggen (New York: FSG, 1997) p. 62.

[23] The “democracy” in view here is about an individual’s free choice either to be (“re-“) baptized and participate in the shaping of an alternate polis or to remain within state-sanctioned structures of politco-religious authority. Harold Bender: “… the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.” (Anabaptist Vision, 1943, accessed). I freely signal my revisionist slant here. The actual events and ethos within early Anabaptism was of course excruciatingly more complex. To what degree Bender himself was aware of this is beside my point, which I offer with cases of authoritarianism in Anabaptist communities and collaborations with empirical powers notwithstanding. C.f. Ben Goossen: “Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism” in “Mennonites and Empire,” Anabaptist Historians, Sept. 2018, (accessed). 

[24] An example of an occasion in which “[t]he whole known network of meaning has collapsed and a new, dangerous situation of faith has emerged.” Walter Bruggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001), p. 96.

[25] C. Arnold Snyder: “The baptizing movement was a spontaneous, decentralized, grass-roots, underground movement of spiritual renewal and biblical reform, carried forward by ‘common people’ of no particular theological expertise. In its beginnings there were no governing church authorities, defining theological or political patrons. The baptisers therefore were an unusually heterogeneous lot, especially in their first generation. . . . [A] contemporary observer . . . who knew individual Anabaptists well . . . complained that ‘almost no one agrees with anyone else in all matters.’” Following in the Footsteps of Christ: The Anabaptist Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), p. 17. And n.b. this is not just a past-tense, historical reality. See Bruce Yoder’s dissertation “Mennonite missionaries and African Independent Churches: the development of an Anabaptist missiology in West Africa: 1958-1967” Boston University, 2016: “… for Mennonites the indigenous congregation was the normal form of the church. Mennonites affirmed ‘the theological legitimacy of the distinct existence of church bodies which do not stand in any direct juridical relationship to a specific “mother church” in Europe or North America.’” (quoting J.H. Yoder), p. 595, and c.f. 605-6: “Theology was something that the local church should develop and not something that could be imported ready-made from another context. … An articulation of Christian faith could not be transferred from one context to another in a simple fashion. The variety of diverse expressions that the Christian faith might take was limited only by the variety of local cultures and contexts in which churches existed.” See also his “Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria: Changing Contexts and Strategy at the Dawn of the Postcolonial Era,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37.3 p. 140, where these kinds of indigenous theologizing “were ways that a repressed people could embody resistance to political and religious authorities.”

[26] I’m using the term “anarchist” here loosely. In a more precise way, though, it could be accurate, and constructive, to describe Anabaptism as ecclesiological anarchism. See Noam Chomsky, On Anarchism (New York: New Press, 2013) and c.f. Ian Dyck’s Were the Early Anabaptists Proto-Anarchists?  “In these articles of faith put forward by the Schleitheim Anabaptists there is a clear articulation of proto-anarchist thought” in

[27] “What if nonviolence really is impossible? What if violence is not only practically unavoidable, as many people assume, but somehow radically inescapable? What if there is no place where we can make our bed, but violence is there? What if we really cannot do other than violence? Deconstructionist thinkers want us to take seriously the idea that this may be so.” Peter Blum, cited in Maxwell Kennel, “Mennonite Metaphysics? Exploring the Philosophical Aspects of Mennonite Theology from Pacifist Epistemology to Ontological Peace” Mennonite Quarterly Review 91 (July 2017), p. 216.

[28] Melanie Kampen: “The problem with an inclusionary approach, however, it that it simply widens the boundaries of the stable center that continues to be maintained. In an inclusion model, debates about inclusion/exclusion will go on the same way with minor changes in process – in other words, the center that makes it possible to include and exclude in the first place, continues to govern the whole.” In “Unsettling Mennonite Theological Methods,” a paper delivered at the Humanitas Anabaptist-Mennonite Theology conference in Langley, B.C., June 2017.

[29]Robert Jenson: “The reason we are not fully enslaved to the fellow humans from whom we learn to talk is that finally it is not they but God who so talks as to enable talking. There can be no rebellious gains, or defense of, any given discourse if and only if there is a Word before all human conversations that is the latter’s possibility and beginning.” Characteristically, Jenson then goes on to re-theologize contemporary philosophical language; he says God, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a conversation, and that the act of creation is God’s address to others, and that being human means being invited into this conversation. God, then, is what he calls a “meta-hegemonic discourse”: “The one meta-hegemonic Discourse is thus not itself a monologue; no one lays down the first and last grammar, since God himself is not merely one. The meta-hegemonic Discourse is antecedently in itself a true conversation. And moreover, it is, in the contingency of the divine choice, a conversation that includes us. Therefore we live, move and have our being in and over against a discourse that is liberating rather than oppressive.” From his,  “On Hegemonic Discourse (1994),” now available in Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics. Essays on God and Creation by Robert Jenson, ed. Stephen John Wright (Eugene: Cascade, 2014) pp. 18-22.

[30] That so much Anabaptist life has, as a matter of historical fact, huddled inside colonies is a case in point about the way the original spirit and the bodily life of a movement can so easily drift into odds. Chris Huebner recoups this somewhat by suggesting a properly pacifist epistemology would, rather than securing “power and control by means of argument,” be one that is “nomadic” and “diasporic” – “Globalization, Theory, and Dialogical Vulnerability: John Howard Yoder and the Possibility of a Pacifist Epistemology,” MQR 76:1, cited in Kennel, “Mennonite Metaphysics?...” p. 210.

An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Humanitas theology conference at Trinity Western University in June of 2016.

An edited version of it appeared in the Conrad Grebel Review here: