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Theological DNA

During my sermon yesterday, I made some remark about how such and such a way of looking at the Christian life was “in our theological DNA” as Anabaptists.  I suppose the comment was meant to communicate that the stream of the Christian tradition from which we emerged has had a specific take on what discipleship looks like and that those of us who trace our lineage to the Anabaptist tradition are theologically hard-wired to embrace certain things.  It’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves.  Or can we?

As I reflected upon this little phrase, an article I recently bookmarked from Mennonite Weekly Review came to mind.  In it, the author asks if there are tensions between organizations such as the newly formed Anabaptist Network in North America and the values of our Anabaptist forbears.  Specifically, such hallmarks of early Anabaptism as uniformity/discipline, strong authority, and separation from the broader culture seem to be at odds with the values being championed by today’s proponents of Anabaptism.

Anabaptism is certainly in vogue in some circles these days, but some, like the author of the article above, wonder if it might be a selectively accessed version.  The Anabaptism attracting many these days is often a more theologically liberal, inclusive Anabaptism, one that incorporates such as elements as care for the created world, a strong emphasis on social justice, and a willingness to learn from and participate with Christians from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds.  Even a casual glance at a history textbook would reveal some rather stark contrasts between today’s Anabaptism and earlier versions which were often wildly apocalyptic, inflexibly doctrinaire, rigidly disciplined, and radically separate from the broader culture.

One of the questions the article provoked for me is, “to what extent are we obliged to adhere to the distinctives held by earlier members of our theological community?”  As I read the author’s list of early Anabaptist emphases and values that stood in tension with today’s version, I found myself thinking, “yes, I agree—and I think it’s good that we no longer see things that way!”  I’m not eager to return to some of the early Anabaptists version of “disciplined community” nor am I inclined to forswear engaging with the broader culture as many in my tradition have in the past.  I’m actually quite glad that many Anabaptists have moved beyond some of these values.

Does this make me a bad Mennonite?  An illegitimate heir of the Anabaptist tradition?  Well, I guess it all depends on the role we think that one’s theological DNA plays or ought to play in the life of faith.  Is one’s theological tradition a template or a pattern that must be uniformly applied from the beginnings of a movement on in perpetuity?  Did the first Anabaptists get everything right, leaving for the inheritors of their tradition the sole task of understanding and implementing their doctrines and practices?  Does one’s theological DNA lock in a certain range of options from which there must be no departure?

I don’t think so. I think things are quite a bit more complex, interesting, and promising than that!  Just as we know that our biological DNA does not determine everything about a human life, so our theological DNA, while shaping and influencing (for better or worse) our spiritual journey, does not determine it.  We are not obliged to simply reproduce what those before us have thought or said; rather, we are to respectfully and gratefully receive our theological inheritance, and creatively move the story forward.

Twenty-first century Anabaptists are not responding to the same cultural forces and social realities that were present in the sixteenth century.  It makes sense that Anabaptism in 2011 in North America would look different than Anabaptism in 1730 or 1890 or any other part of the story.  And, it is worth considering that at least some of the differences between the twenty first century version and earlier ones represent genuine improvement in how we understand the life of faith.  Perhaps, some of the “tensions” identified in the article above are simply errors that our ancestors made that have—thanks be to God!—been corrected.

Of course, the other error would be to disregard our theological DNA altogether.  Just because we don’t reflexively reproduce what those before us have said and done, doesn’t mean that we don’t give thanks for our tradition, for the role it has played in shaping our view of the world, and for the possibilities it has opened up to us.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t consider carefully our points of departure from what has been said and done before, and constantly subject these to the authority of Scripture and the collective wisdom of the community.  It makes little sense to just chuck out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Our theological DNA is a part of us, after all.  It has shaped us in ways we may not even be able to articulate.  And even when we try to abandon it, we often end up defining ourselves by what we have rejected.  Far better to acknowledge the importance of our theological DNA, and make the most of what we have been given.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    As always well thought out and written, Ryan. Your propositions are clearly defined and reasonably defended.

    Ryan, my question regarding a concept of “evolving distinctives’ is simply, who get’s to decide? Me, you, them, us….whose authority empowers us to know what stays and what goes?

    May 30, 2011
    • It’s a good question, Paul, and one that is not easily answered. From an Anabaptist perspective, authority is located in the spirit-empowered discernment of the community as it interprets the Scriptures. Of course, “the community” doesn’t discern infallibly as Anabaptist history quite ably demonstrates. But then we’re hardly alone on this… One doesn’t avoid error by replacing sinful and limited human communities of discernment with a magisterium led by sinful and limited human beings. Every stream of the Christian tradition has decided badly, at some point or another.

      The problem of who gets to decide what stays and what goes is one that has to be wrestled with on an ongoing basis by all Christians, I think, regardless of their polity.

      May 30, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks for the prudent reminder regarding the “universality of error”, Ryan. We all stand afflicted. But what of truth itself. Can it be truth and be errant? Should we not be able to say ” Here it is, here is truth, now let us make our best effort to live it.”

        May 31, 2011
      • Well truth, by definition, cannot be errant. At issue is the human ability to apprehend it. I think that a consistent Christian anthropology must always be prepared to acknowledge the possibility of error, whether due to ignorance, disobedience, sin, or whatever. And of course we must always remember that, from a Christian perspective, truth comes in the form of a person, not a body of knowledge that can be mastered and articulated perfectly. Somehow, it is Jesus himself, not what we say about him, that is truth and life. Which is reassuring, given our limitations when it comes to truth in the abstract.

        Re: should we not be able to say, “here is the truth…” Personally, I prefer the language of “conviction” when talking about truth in the realm of worldview, meaning, and ethics. “I am convinced of x or y.” And I think we can wholeheartedly make our best effort to live according to the truth we are convinced of.

        May 31, 2011
    • James #

      Hi Paul. As you can tell the quest for an articulate Anabaptist identity is something that I share with Ryan. Your question strikes at the heart of Anabaptism and part of the answer is epistemological. Truth is not located in a theological or social structure but remains with God Himself. In other words, no one gets to decide what truth is any more than anyone get to decide what gravity is. Any given formula will have its merits and weaknesses and we do well to refine these but they will always be “through a glass, darkly”. For Anabaptists the Scriptures are the given.
      On the other hand, as Ryan adds, an Anabaptist distinctive is that Jesus gave the Kingdom community the Holy Spirit to give it into truth. The fact that errors of every variety happen is to be expected. That is why renewal of the faith is needed in every generation.

      May 31, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        Hi James.

        James, if we start from the premise that we have been bequethed a Spirit of truth wouldn’t it make sense that at some point we would be able to define a true theology; a true social structure?

        May 31, 2011
      • James #

        The short [and long 🙂 ] Anabaptist answer is “No, by virtue of our humanity we will always fall short.” That does not however translate into post modern relativism. Truth still remains and an image seen through a darken glass is still not a mere imagination.
        In that sense Anabaptists are neither post modern nor Catholic in their view of truth.

        May 31, 2011
      • Ken #

        Such “falling short” sounds quite close to postmodern statements about truth or ultimate truth. Postmodern writers, at least those who reflect the linguistic turn, do not say that truth is relative. They say, instead, that if there is an ultimate truth it cannot be known. They do not say that truth is relative. They are agnostic about ultimate truth and appreciative of how context affects claims about truth, whether or not ultimate truth exists.

        I think whether one says truth cannot be known by virtue of what we are (beings who have evolved by natural selection, as in the postmodern narrative) or whether we cannot know truth because we always fall short in our efforts to learn it (fallen creatures made by God as in the Christian narrative,) one is left wondering about truth, and about how to best live.

        The Roman Catholic Church, which Paul defends, does offer a plausible statement about truth, about ultimate truth, about eternal truth. In addition, it offers more than plausible truth, it offers meaningfulness that is profound. Whether the Roman statement of truth passes the impossible test of the postmoderns is irrelevant to one who knows the Eucharist as Paul does.

        At the same time, from what you and Ryan write, it sounds like renewal from generation to generation is, or has become, part of the Anabaptist distinction, just as it is part of Protestantism. I also have the impression from what Ryan has written that not everyone believes this is part of the Anabaptist distinction and that a fight is underway. The assertion that renewal from generation to generation is part of the Anabaptist distinctive appears to be a volley in the battle between liberals and conservatives within Anabaptist churches, an attempt to legitimate the changes liberals seek.

        May 31, 2011
      • James #

        My impression of post modernism is that it does not distinguish carefully enough between ambiguity with has degrees and fantasy which doesn’t. It is one thing to argue with Catholics about their interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, as truth- it is another thing entirely to speculate about the deity of Jesus as truth. On the latter point Anabaptists and Catholics are part of one family- on the former, we respectfully disagree.

        As far as the battle between conservatives and liberals within Anabaptism, I’ll have to give that some more thought. I don’t recognize the division you describe but it may be there.

        May 31, 2011
      • Ken #

        Re: “the deity of Jesus as truth”

        I am reading now, “When Jesus Became God” by Richard E. Rubenstein, a professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University who specializes in religious conflict. The book is an analysis of the conflict over the deity of Jesus in which Athanasius defeated Arius. If Arius had prevailed our truth would be expressed differently. Another thing he mentioned, which I hope he develops in the book, is the effect the persecution of Christians had on our theology and on our ways of dealing with conflict into our own time. And another interesting thing he offers is an understanding of Diocletian, the great persecutor, as one, who like modern people in the west, believed that accepting diversity of belief was necessary for minimizing conflict within the empire. His problem with Christians was that their faith would not allow this and for that reason he believed they were a threat to the empire. Their truth was absolute. Many Christians today, although certainly not all, are like Diocletian. What an irony. He would have loved us.

        May 31, 2011
      • James #

        Recently I read a book called, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria. The battle between Athanasius and Arius was a significant chapter. I left saddened by the controversy which, it appears, has very little to do with Biblical faith and a great deal to do with the political ambitions of the combatants. It is stories like that that prompt many Anabaptist to be inclined to declare a pox on both their houses. We tend to see creedalism as a problem within the church. After Nicea the creeds become more and more combative. This was after the great persecutions of Christianity had ended and the Christian/state entity had turned its attention to killing all opponents of the new orthodoxy- ironically in the name of Christ who told us to love our enemies. That is the Anabaptist view of Christendom.

        June 1, 2011
  2. Ken #

    A conservative makes changes incrementally and, while seeing the need for change, fears losing more than is gained and so is slow and careful. A liberal makes changes more quickly and has more confidence that changes will be beneficial.

    From a postmodern perspective, the idea that change represents progress is not believable. At the same time, from a postmodern perspective, such as in the writings of Foucault or Rorty, oppression is intolerable, whether such oppression comes from those who resist change or those who advocate it. Disputes over change involve assertions of power over others – oppression.

    Whether change comes incrementally or more quickly, it is important, if kindness is to prevail, for those advocating change to be sensitive to the concerns of those who resist change, and vice versa, and not belittle the concerns of others as so many change advocates, and those who resist them, tend to do. Such kindness is rare. Theology is played for blood. Such cruelty is in our theological DNA.

    May 30, 2011
    • it is important, if kindness is to prevail, for those advocating change to be sensitive to the concerns of those who resist change, and vice versa, and not belittle the concerns of others as so many change advocates, and those who resist them, tend to do.

      Well said, Ken.

      May 31, 2011
  3. “we are to respectfully and gratefully receive our theological inheritance, and creatively move the story forward.”

    Good take on this complex process of living out our theological identity. And you did it without using the “r” word (relevance). Good work! 🙂

    May 31, 2011
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Ken, my friend, I think I should stop talking (good luck with that one!) and let you speak for me. You do it so much better than I. 🙂

    Yes, that is my claim, the Eucharist as truth. As you say Ryan, Jesus as truth if one can believe Christ present in the Eucharist. Not a heretical re sacrifice but an ongoing sacrifice. A continual outpouring of salvic grace. In this way the Cross transcends time. Calvary isn’t just a static event that happens once in time. it is an ongoing living event that happens once and then always, through time. With us always until the end of this age. Until he comes again in glory.

    My church is awash in sin so grotesque, perhaps a radical and painful purge is our only recourse. I struggle with addictions and their related depressions as a consequence of free choices I made in my youth. I am a sinner in a sinners church. But it is and always will be home. Christ is present in the Eucharist. I have “seen” Him. I have been with Him. Where else can I go.

    June 1, 2011
    • Ken #

      Yes, “Christ is present in the Eucharist. I have “seen” Him. I have been with Him.”

      June 1, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    James, I think many Roman Catholics view the Eucharist with a degree of ambiguity similar to yours.

    June 1, 2011
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Hmm…I’m not sure a full reading of history would support your mistrust of creedal identities, James. While there is schism within the Catholic faith, there is also communion and full recognition of the other. Fillioque, the doctrinal understanding between the Father and the Son and the relative state of sin born into the Blessed Mother are issues of concern and contention to be sure but the underlying unity of so many other creedal distinctives makes censure of the other impossible. We cannot deny the EO and related churches without denying oursleves. What is true for us is true for them also. The creeds will not allow what human politic might otherwise insist upon.

    A similar cultural constraint doesn’t seem to exist within other expressions of Christianity who subscribe solely to ongoing interpretations and reinterpretations of the Word.

    June 1, 2011
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, James would either or both of you like to comment more specifically on the evolution of Mennonite/Anabaptist traditions. The good; the bad. What’s been lost. What’s been found.

    June 1, 2011
    • Lost: Accountability to a community of disciples, a consistent and articulate peace witness, perhaps the strong sense of belonging and community that characterized early Anabaptist communities…

      Found: A commitment to cultural engagement (i.e., less sectarian), a more tolerant approach to other streams of the Christian tradition, an embrace of education that was perhaps not as evident in earlier expressions…

      Those are a few, just off the top of my head… I’m sure there are others that I’m not thinking of at the moment.

      June 1, 2011
  8. Ryan, thanks for this. An excellent post that makes sense here in the UK as well. To a degree, everyone from an Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in the global north is figuring out the Post-Christendom puzzle. In the U.S. and Canada there’s centuries of water under the bridge. In the UK we have no Mennonite folkways, only a few tantalizing abortive 16th Century relics. In other word we have no usable tradition and we’re coming at Anabaptism fairly fresh. I am a fan of the UK Anabaptist Network but I do have some reservations about the emphasis on Anabaptist over Mennonite identity. In my view the former lacks the congregational grounding of the latter. I’ve posted a lot around this issue but this is pretty typical: Shalom, Phil

    June 1, 2011
    • Thanks for the link, Phil—it gives a very helpful window into the UK Anabaptist-Mennonite experience. I think that there are pluses and minuses to both the North American situation and the UK one. Traditions are good in that they give shape and direction and provide weight and solidity. They can also be straitjackets. And while your situation allows you the freedom to focus on the theological distinctives of Anabaptism without all of the ethnic/cultural baggage that is part of our experience over here, I imagine there are times when you would like some tradition to lean on.

      I think that the Anabaptist-Mennonite witness in both contexts is crucial as we, along with our Christian sisters and brothers from other streams, figure out the “Post-Christendom puzzle.”

      June 1, 2011

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