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Brethren Religious Consciousness Series: Modern Stage (Ongoing Tensions)

In an earlier blog, I made brief mention of Michael Barnes’ book, In the Presence of Mystery: An Introduction to the Story of Human Religiousness (1990). Barnes offers helpful descriptions of religious experience/consciousness as part of a four-stage development (primitive, archaic, historic, and modern).[i] In this next series of blogs, I would like to expand on each of these stages in a Brethren context.

The primitive stage of consciousness contains little to no individuality but only the collective identity of the tribe or community. In the archaic stage, basic structures and systems emerge within the group. The historic stage witnesses the development of absolute truth and identity over and against other truth and identity claims as a systematic articulation of theological identity develops. Lastly, the modern stage transitions a black and white ideology/theology to one of paradox and mysticism in pursuit of the common good.

In similar fashion to Michael Barnes’ research, the nineteenth century was an axial moment for the Brethren. It revealed great strain on the Brethren dialectic—tension between sectarianism and societal engagement, Word and Spirit, Annual Meeting and local congregation, community and individual, and, finally, uniformity and personal freedom and conscience. The axial moment set Brethren back by severing the dialectic that had been reflected in immersion baptism two generations prior. Tragically, the end of the 1800s bore witness to a split between the historic (Old Order) and modern (Progressives) stages of Brethrenism with the largest faction remaining in the middle (Conservatives). The tension of autonomy and corporate identity, started in the archaic stage, reached a threshold with these schisms.

These blog posts have explored the various stages of Brethren life and their association with Barnes’ stages of religious consciousness. Alexander Mack Sr. and the primitive expression of Brethrenism gave way to his son, Sander Mack and Brethren of the latter 1700s, in the archaic stage. The archaic stage provided a foundational corporate identity in the new world that paved the way for the historic stage of Brethren of the 1800s illustrated by leaders like Peter Nead. The historic stage provided a systematizing of Brethren identity that created schisms at the end of the nineteenth century.

Barnes’ final stage, the modern, will bring Brethren into collaboration with the larger American Protestant landscape. Each stage in Barnes’ research deposits into the next. This will become the foundation for J. Allen Miller’s profound impact. Miller is a synthesis of all prior Brethren expressions. He holds the fundamentalist and liberal factions of the Brethren denomination together during the first part of the twentieth century. In fact, present day Ashland Brethren live in the shadow cast by this pivotal theologian. Miller exhibits what will be called the “conservative-progressive dialectic” arguing that truth is found in fundamentalism and liberalism and that the church must chart a unique third way between the two poles. “Modern religion,” Barnes comments, “will certainly not eliminate or replace primitive, archaic, or historic thought. What it will do is exert a continuing influence on the historic syntheses by relativizing them.”[i] Miller desires to hold all these strands of religious consciousness together by providing a synthesis, as Barnes asserts, of the former three stages. In Miller, there is a retrieval of the central dialectic of Brethrenism that had been generally, though not altogether, lost during the nineteenth century. It is this dialectic that animates Miller’s thought as he holds the Brethren Church together amid a turbulent period in American religious life—especially related to theological education at Ashland College.

On one side of the spectrum were the Fundamentalists. Fundamentalism brought together a hyper-Reformed slant to theology combined with Keswick thought and dispensational eschatology.[ii] It became codified and signified by a Princeton Theology that appeared in The Fundamentals (1917). Their posture towards society became one of withdraw and aggressively critique. A deep distrust of society, inspired by their reaction to American liberal and modernist theology, marked their distinct posture to the surrounding world.

On the other side of the spectrum were those open to dialogue with liberal theology, though it is a caricature to believe the “Brethrenists” were liberals. The belief of this faction was that conversation was necessary with this new theology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century (see chart below).

Brethren Group Desired Societal Engagement
Fundamentalist (Grace) Prophetic Separatism
Brethrenist (Ashland) Cooperative Separatism

These two camps have carved up the Brethren religious landscape of not just the early twentieth century but also to the present day. They represent impulses of engagement and separation that run concurrently through the larger American religious landscape. The modern Brethren scene is one tethered to a primitive nostalgia, an archaic reaction to religious others, and great discourse over historic understandings of identity. Forget postmodern (if it even exists), the Brethren continue to struggle pre-modern understandings within the bipolar nature of modernity. Look for future posts on Brethren in a “hypermodern” context coming soon.

[i] Barnes, In the Presence, 309. “Relativizing” here does not mean an absence or distortion of truth. Instead, Barnes speaks to the mystical and paradoxical understanding of religion. Instead of “either/or,” there is an appreciation for “both/and.” For example, to be explored later in this work, J. Allen Miller (1866-1935) writes: “God is in a very real sense both immanent and transcendent…Immanence without transcendence is pantheism and results in the denial of the personality of God. Transcendence without immanence is deism and leads to the denial of the providence of God.” See Miller, J.A., Christian Doctrine: Lectures and Sermons (Ashland, OH: Brethren Publishing Company, 1946), 7.

[ii] The main idea of Keswick theology, also known as the “Higher Life movement,” is that one first experiences an initial conversion moment followed by a second work of God in their life. This work of God is called “entire sanctification,” “the second blessing,” “the second touch,” “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” and various other terms. Keswick teachers promoted the idea that Christians who had received this blessing from God could live a more holy life. In Keswick thought, one first experiences Christ as Savior and later as Lord, a separation that is antithetical to Brethren thought.

Dispensationalism sought to address what were perceived as opposing theologies between the Old and New Testaments arguing that biblical history is best understood as a series of dispensations occurring in the Bible. Most dispensationalists cite seven dispensations:

  1. Dispensation of innocence (Gen. 1:1–3:7)
  2. Dispensation of conscience (Gen. 3:8–8:22)
  3. Dispensation of government (Gen. 9:1–11:32)
  4. Dispensation of patriarchal rule (Gen. 12:1–Ex. 19:25)
  5. Dispensation of the Mosaic Law (Ex. 20:1–Acts 2:4)
  6. Dispensation of grace (Acts 2:4–Rev. 20:3)
  7. Dispensation of a literal, earthly thousand-year Millennial Kingdom (Rev. 20:4–20:6)
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