Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Brethren and a beautiful creative tension

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
For the past few weeks and continuing on through the rest of the summer, I've been working with a Brethren scholar up at Elizabethtown College. The title of this study is: "Brethren Beliefs and Practices." It is best described as an historical theology course. (I would argue that all theology is historical, but...) One thing I've grown to appreciate about Brethren is their ability to sit in creative tension within their Christian faith. Listen to the balancing act Alexander Mack, the first leader of the Schwarzenau Brethren, is doing:
That which the Holy Spirit ordained for the faithful was written outwardly. All believers are united in it, for the Holy Spirit teaches them inwardly just as the Scriptures teach them outwardly... Therefore, when a believing person whose inner ears are opened reads the Holy Scriptures outwardly, he will hear as the Lord Jesus intends his teaching to be understood. He hears that which the apostles want to express in their writings. He will also be impelled, through his inner hearing, to true obedience which makes him obey even in outward matters. Outwardly, he reads the Scriptures in faith and hears the inner word of life which gives him strength and power to follow Jesus.
Here's a guy in 18th century Germany that doesn't want to drift into stifling legalism (the danger of their nearby Mennonite friends) but simultaneously wanting to steer clear from willy nilly subjective spiritualism (the danger of their theological forebears, the Radical Pietists). Now here's Vernard Eller, a 20th century American Church of the Brethren scholar, weaving this together nicely:
The two emphases check and balance each other. When the Radical Pietist tendency would slide off into subjectivism, private inspiration, mysticism, enthusiasm, or vaporous spiritualism, it is pulled up short by the demand for concrete, outward obedience to an objective Scriptural norm. Conversely, when the Anabaptist tendency would slide off into formalism, legalism, biblical literalism, or works-righteousness, it is checked by the reminder that faith is essentially a work of God within the heart of the individual believer, an intensely personal relationship rather than a lega one. Thus, within Brethrenism, Anabaptist influences discipline Pietism at the same time that Pietist influences inspire Anabaptism.
All this I found in the work of a Brethren Church (different denomination, long story, don't ask) scholar, Dale Stoffer, in his excellent (but HIGHLY was his doctoral work, I think) Background and Development of Brethren Doctrine. I've started to dig deeper into my own tradition this year in my academic work, and I'm finding some real golden nuggets. This creative tension has always been implicit in my approach to the faith, so in that sense I'm Brethren inside and out. It's just fun to bring the implicit at least somewhat out into the open through historical and theological work.

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