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lightstock_196298_jpg_tgcWhat hath Abraham Kuyper and Menno Simons in common?

I asked this question in my previous blog post, in which I laid out three strengths I find in Anabaptist thought--truths that the rest of the Church (including Kuyperian folks like me) should consider.

Likewise, David Fitch (an Anabaptist Holiness evangelical) laid out several strengths he finds in the Reformed tradition, of which he is often critical. The two of us are responding to each other's posts today, continuing a much-needed dialogue between Anabaptist and Reformed traditions.

Expressing Gratitude 

First, I am heartened to hear of David's affinity for leading missional thinkers who come from the Dutch Reformed tradition. Missionary-theologians such as Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, and Michael Goheen have been instrumental in my own thought and practice as well.

With the same heart, I offer my gratitude for the Anabaptistic theologians who have shaped me also, people from history--Balthasar Hubmaier, Dirk Phillips, Menno Simons--and people today such as Malcolm Yarnell, Scot McKnight, and Stanley Hauerwas. In keeping with the Anabaptist emphasis on the local church, I cannot help but mention professors and pastors I learned from in Romania, where--as a beleaguered minority--the church’s context was decidedly more Anabaptistic in its outlook.

Breadth of the Reformed Tradition 

I do wonder how David defines the contours of the Reformed heritage. At times, I get the impression that he is speaking of the Reformed tradition in its distinctively Calvinistic soteriological position. Certainly, one can speak of the "Reformed" in this way, but I suppose I come at this definition by considering the broader framework of the Reformation tradition.

For example, I don't think of Os Guinness or Charles Colson as "Calvinists," but as thinkers who have adopted and adapted the Kuyperian worldview and its distinctive approach to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Perhaps my concern with proper definition says more about my own placement in this tradition, as one who doesn't line up exactly with Calvinist soteriology and yet appreciates the worldview emphasis one finds within this tradition. I would include John Wesley under the Reformed moniker, even though he was an Arminian with his own Wesleyan twist on the doctrines of salvation.

Interestingly, when David lifts up contemporary treatments of the atonement from N. T. Wright and Fleming Rutledge as preferable to the classical Reformed tradition, he is lifting up heirs to that broader tradition. That's not to say there aren't differences between Wright, Rutledge, and the classically Reformed. Still, these writers operate within the basic Reformed worldview and outlook. So, when David differentiates his perspective from the "Reformed," he does so by appealing to one wing of the Reformed tradition over against another.

Why does this matter? To me, it indicates the beauty and strength of the Reformation tradition. Within its overarching view of the world and of the Bible, there are many perspectives. (Certainly, Anabaptists have diversity, too. It is delightful to hear Stanley Hauerwas and Paige Patterson in conversation, for example--thinkers who come from radically different wings of the current Anabaptist movement.)

Sectarianism Today 

David is right to point out the sectarian nature of many Anabaptists today. But I don't think that such sectarianism is limited to Anabaptists. One only has to witness the sort of Puritan introspection that can paralyze many young Calvinists, or the kind of excessive focus on "getting the gospel right" that can supplant passion for "getting the gospel out." Sectarianism comes in all shapes and sizes, even in Anabaptist circles or Reformed worldviews.

Sola Scriptura

I do appreciate the attention that David gives to sola Scriptura. This emphasis on Bible study and application is indeed a strength of the Reformed tradition. There are certainly some problems with how Sola Scriptura gets applied, and David puts his finger on some of the problems of authority in interpretation.

But before David throws inerrancy out with the bathwater, or decides that Sola Scriptura is a recipe for interpretive anarchy, I recommend he consider a chapter in Kevin Vanhoozer's Biblical Authority After Babel, which demonstrates the way in which Sola Scriptura itself has the resources to counter pervasive pluralism or relativism in interpretation.

Atonement 

David critiques popular expressions of the substitutionary atonement, preferring models that speak a certain way about God's agency in the violence wielded against the Son on the cross. Interestingly, I do not sense this discomfort with the penal substitutionary aspects of the atonement in the earliest Anabaptists. This appears to be a rather modern phenomenon in Anabaptist thought.

As a rule, whenever we feel uncomfortable about something our forefathers and mothers accepted without any problems, we should consider what our discomfort says about us before we should seek to minimize the discomfort by altering our biblical understanding. Hearing from Christians in other times and places should alert us to areas where we may be more “culture-formed” than “Scripture-formed” or “church-formed.” When key Christian teachings (on the atonement, on eternal judgment, etc.) cause modern discomfort, we ought to reexamine our own feelings in light of Scripture and the beloved community.

Conclusion 

I do appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with David Fitch about the strengths and weaknesses of the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions. Kuyper and Simons have more in common than may first appear, and the church today will be stronger when the strengths of these movements converge.


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16 thoughts on “In Dialogue with a Contemporary Anabaptist: A Response to David Fitch”

  1. Scott K Wiker says:

    Did you realize that the first Anabaptists were “calvinists”?

    1. Ken says:

      Please define what you mean by “calvinist,” since Anabaptist history dates from 1525 when John Calvin was just 16 years old.

      1. Scott K Wiker says:

        Today the first Anabaptists would be considered calvinistic baptists such as some of those who are Southern Baptists.

        1. Ken Abbott says:

          That’s factually incorrect. Zwingli tangled with the first Anabaptists in Zurich, whose spiritual descendants may be identified in such movements as the Mennonites and the Amish. Modern-day Baptists trace their descent from the independents and confessional Baptists that arose during the 17th century. These, specifically those who subscribed to such confessional documents such as the London Baptist Confession of 1689, may be termed “calvinistic Baptists,” although some might object to the label.

          1. Scott K Wiker says:

            Zwingli and the future first Anabaptists worked side by side. They were his students. Zwingli and the first Anabaptists had the same beliefs until Zwingli changed his mind on believers baptism.

  2. Blake Blount says:

    “I would include John Wesley under the Reformed moniker…”

    And you would be wrong to do so. The Reformed confessions explicitly exclude Arminianism from the Reformed tradition.

    Words no longer have meaning, it seems.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      From a confessional standpoint, that is absolutely true. From an overarching framework of thought, Arminius was working from within the wider Reformed worldview.

      1. Blake Blount says:

        I disagree with your stance. There is no Reformed worldview wider than the confessions. The confessional standpoint is the only objective standard for determining what is Reformed or not.

        1. Trevin Wax says:

          Under this definition, no Baptist can be Reformed. I recognize the confessional identity, but I also believe ‘reformed’ can be a description of a broader framework of thought.

          1. Blake Blount says:

            I realize that. Baptists aren’t Reformed. If they hold to a confession like the 2nd London Baptist Confession, they are called Particular Baptists, not Reformed. It’s only been in the last 50 years that certain Baptists that held to a Calvinist soteriology started using the Reformed moniker, but it’s inaccurate. We wouldn’t call Free Will Baptists “Lutheran Baptists” even though their soteriology and “wider worldview” is pretty close to that of Lutheranism.

  3. David Morris says:

    I appreciate this dialogue; it reminds of taking Anabaptist Theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary :) Have you read anything about the Reformed-Anabaptist dialogue in the ’70’s? Richard Mouw and John Howard Yoder had a sustained dialogue, and it got written up. Mouw has talked about it in his recent interview in Comment magazine too (which I highly recommend).

  4. Nevin says:

    Hi Trevin,

    Great thoughts here, all around. Just curious about the ways you don’t completely line up with Calvinist soteriology?
    I find I’m much the same way.

    Thanks!

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I could write a whole post on this. But the short of it:
      No limited atonement.
      Faith before regeneration in the ordo salutis.
      My view of salvation lines up closely with Bruce Demarest and Millard Erickson.

  5. At least from a historical perspective at the time of the Reformation itself, Calvin’s thoughts on the matter are worth consideration. :) He most certainly didn’t think they were closely associated with the Reformed churches in faith or practice, in any sense.

    “To write against all the false opinions & errours of the Anabaptists, should be a thing too long, & such a bottomless pit, as I could not well come out of. For this canker differeth in this thing from all other sects of hereticks: that she hath not erred only in certain points: but she hath engendered a whole sea, as it were, of foolish & false opinions. In such wise that scant shall a man find one Anabaptist which hath not some fantasy singular: which his fellows have not. So that if we would pluck out, or rehearse all their wicked doctrines, we should never make an end.”

    http://www.truecovenanter.com/calvin/calvin_against_anabaptists.html

  6. Chortles Weakly says:

    So Trevor, the TGC statement of faith says “He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and by his powerful and mysterious work regenerates spiritually dead sinners, awakening them to repentance and faith”. You don’t agree with that. It seems you agree that faith awakens the Spirit, not vice versa.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      My position would be similar to Richard Gaffin. Regeneration is only possible through union with Christ, and union with Christ takes place through faith. The effectual call is responsible for bringing about >> repentance/faith >> which unites us to Christ, who is the source of regeneration. The difference in ordo salutis does better at explaining the preponderance of Scriptural evidence that is more in line with “if you believe, you will be saved” not “if you are saved, you will believe.”

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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