This series is an attempt to elucidate the dialectical (both/and) tension at the heart of Brethren theology and to relay its importance for today.
Three important groups for the early Brethren were the scattered Radical Pietists, Dutch and North German Mennonites, named after the Anabaptist churchman, Menno Simons (1496-1561), and the Swiss Brethren.[i] The Brethren wholeheartedly affirmed the Pietist concern regarding the fallen nature of the Church. If the Radical Pietists gave the Brethren an awareness of the fallen nature of the Church, the Mennonites and Swiss Brethren gave them a rationale for establishing a “true church” and a blueprint for its structure.
The early Brethren would have agreed with Menno’s famous document “Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing”:
Behold, beloved reader, in this way true faith or true knowledge begets love, and love begets obedience to the commandments of God. Therefore, Christ Jesus says he that believes on him is not condemned. Again at another place, Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that hears my word, and believes on him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life (John 5:24). For true evangelical faith is of such nature that it cannot lie dormant, but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto the flesh and blood; it destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; it seeks and serves and fears God; it clothes the naked; it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it aids and consoles the sad; it returns good for evil; it serves those that harm it; it prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes, and reproves with the Word of the Lord; it seeks that which is lost; it binds up that which is wounded; it heals that which is diseased and it saves that which is sound; it has become all things to all people. The persecution, suffering, and anguish which befall it for the sake of the truth of the Lord are to it a glorious joy and consolation.[ii]
Menno’s writings reflect the importance of the communal witness of the church. The church is to be a community of regenerate individuals who together provide an alternative witness to the ways of the world. If Pietism provided the inward regeneration, Anabaptism provided the outward witness in Brethren theology. Evidence of this influence is seen in the ecclesiology of the Brethren and in their Christocentric hermeneutic. Brethren theology pivots on the conviction that “all Scripture points to Jesus and proper interpretation begins with understanding Jesus as the key to understanding Scripture.”[iii]
The existential character of the Mennonite witness with its simple coherency was attractive to the early Brethren. The emphases of a
view of Christ as the Example of the new life, the straightforward approach to the Word which emphasized the Gospels rather than the more theological Pauline corpus, a conception of soteriology which saw all the aspects of the conversion experience pointing to the actualization of the new life in Christ, the prominent kerygmatic quality of the ordinances, the mild realized eschatology of the visible church all played a part in making Mennonite doctrine life-oriented.[iv]
Such emphases dovetailed with the Swiss Brethren witness of the period. Both Dutch Mennonites and Swiss Brethren were influenced by the Pietism that permeated both Germany and Switzerland. The Swiss Brethren, recovering from a 1693 schism with the newly formed Amish sect, found a willing and open dialogue partner with the early Brethren, another movement that sought an Anabaptist piety.[v] Evidence of the Pietist influence on the Swiss Brethren is found in Guldene Aepffel in silbern Schalen (Golden Apples in Silver Bowls: The Rediscovery of Redeeming Love) published in 1702.[vi] Unlike the Swiss Brethren, however, who began with an Anabaptist foundation and were later influenced by Pietism, the Brethren began with a Radical Pietist perspective that was modified in the direction of Anabaptism. Therefore, another Anabaptist text that was formative for the early Brethren was Martyrs Mirror[vii] (1660). Providing a detailed martyrology of seventeen centuries, Martyrs Mirror advocated distinction from the world which was a formative posture to the Anabaptist, and stressed piety and obedience (much like Golden Apples).[viii] This pursuit of both inward piety and outward structure was a needed corrective for the early Brethren from the mysticism of Radical Pietism. Brian Moore notes:
Whereas Radical Pietism emphasized personal and individual spirituality, [Anabaptism] provided an emphasis on an outward and corporate spirituality. The Brethren would seek to wed these two emphases, but always with Jesus as the focus of life and practice…The Brethren would overlap both Anabaptist and Radical Pietist thought with their emphases on obedience to Jesus and following him as example in life.[ix]
With the blending of the inner convictions of Pietism and the outer structures and symbols of Anabaptism, the early Brethren embodied a unity centered in the person of Jesus Christ revealed through both Word and Spirit. The Brethren witness, pivoting on the centrality of Jesus, was a theological movement that created ongoing reformation (Pietism) and consensus-driven unity (Anabaptism) in the witness of the church.[x]
This inner and outer dialectic of the Brethren is captured in baptism which remains constitutive of Brethren theology. The discussion of this dialectic through baptism is transmitted, ironically, through Hochmann who struggled with the need for immersion baptism. To his interactions with the early Brethren we will discuss in a later post. Before a discussion on the influences of both Hochmann and German Mennonites on the early Brethren, especially Alexander Mack, it is imperative to understand the social and religious milieu that was the German Palatinate and the Wittgenstein territory of the early eighteenth century. The Brethren did not develop in a vacuum. Schwarzenau was the confluence.
Next Post: The Confluence of Brethrenism—Schwarzenau, 1708
[i] The Swiss Brethren had come to the Palatinate during the second half of the seventeenth century due to persecution in Zürich and Bern—two Swiss cantons where Anabaptism still survived. Stoffer remarks, “It should [be noted] that the Swiss and South German Anabaptists had already agreed at the Council of Schleitheim on the essentials which Mennonites came to adopt…and which the German Baptist Brethren took over nearly two centuries later,” see Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 258.
[ii] Menno Simons, 1539, “Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 307.
[iii] Brethren Encyclopedia Project, Brethren Spirituality, 71.
[iv] Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 56.
[v] See Gross, Leonard, ed., Elizabeth Bender, trans. Golden Apples in Silver Bowls: The Rediscovery of Redeeming Love. Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 2014. See also Dale Stoffer’s comments on a “pietized Anabaptism” in Longenecker, Stephen L, ed., The Dilemma of Anabaptist Piety: Strengthening or Straining the Bonds of Community? (Blue Hill, ME: Penobscot Press, 1997), 35-46.
[vi] Golden Apples in Silver Bowls served as one of the foundational books arising out of seventeenth-century Swiss Anabaptist spirituality. Published in 1702 in Basel, Switzerland, this wide-ranging compilation of texts drew from varied genres such as martyr testimonies— Michael Sattler, Thomas von Imbrioch, Matthias Cervaes, and Konrad Koch, a formal confession of faith, prayers, instructions for singing, and devotional admonitions.
[vii] See Van Braght, Thieleman J. Martyrs Mirror: The Story of Seventeen Centuries of Christian Martyrdom from the Time of Christ to A.D. 1660. Translated by Joseph F. Sohm. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1938.
[viii] Martyrs Mirror is actually divided into two sections—the first traces the development of baptism and the second catalogs Christian martyrs.
[ix] Brethren Encyclopedia Project, Brethren Spirituality, 71.
[x] The reality is that the origin of the Brethren is eclectic. Early Brethren subjected every tradition—Reformed, Lutheran, Radical Pietist, Anabaptist—to “a critical evaluation in the light of Scripture,” see Stoffer, Brethren Doctrines, 257.