The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism.

Ted Grimsrud

The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 3 (Fall 2013)

Jared Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds. The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012.

What do you do if you are located in an evangelical tradition long removed from its Anabaptist heritage and you discover that heritage and find it attractive? If you are Jared Burkholder, a professor at Grace College, and David Cramer, a doctoral student at Baylor University and former instructor at Bethel College (Indiana), you tap other like-minded young scholars and sympathetic senior scholars and produce a lively, thought-provoking collection of essays contending that evangelicals would benefit greatly from more appropriation of Anabaptist emphases—and that Anabaptists should see their tradition as compatible with evangelicalism.

The book’s first section, “Intersecting Stories: Historical Reflection on the Nexus of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” draws on three senior scholars, including two Mennonites (Steve Nolt and John Roth), who warmly welcome the interest of evangelicals in Anabaptism and emphasize the compatibility between the two streams of Christianity. Roth, especially, seeks to counter the more hostile response to evangelicalism from Anabaptist scholars in an important earlier collection (Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism [1979]).

The discussion by Nolt and Roth points to a complicated issue lurking throughout this volume. What precisely do we mean by “evangelicalism”? The editors intentionally did not ask their writers to follow a given, stable definition but gave them the freedom to use the term as they saw fit. Nolt’s definition is followed by most of the other authors: “Evangelicalism is a stream of Protestant Christianity marked by emphases on religious conversion, active and overt expression of faith, the authority of the Bible, and Christ’s death on the cross” (13). This rather benign definition doesn’t clarify why there would be any tension between “evangelicalism” and “Anabaptism.” Writers in this book don’t want to emphasize tensions; most advocate harmony between the two streams.

Nolt’s definition puts 20th-century American evangelicalism in a direct trajectory with earlier Protestants. The definition followed by contributors to the Kraus volume would suggest more discontinuity between earlier Protestants and 20th-century American evangelicals that has to do with the emergence around 1900 of the fundamentalist movement. More recent evangelicalism, according to this alternative definition, cannot be understood apart from its identity as a kind of “post-fundamentalist” movement. As such, evangelicalism builds on fundamentalism and in some sense remains defined by its core elements. These elements are quite a bit more specific than Nolt’s list. For example, it’s not just “the authority of the Bible” but “verbal, plenary inspiration” and inerrancy. It’s not just “Christ’s death on the cross” but the substitutionary atonement. And, importantly, less than full adherence to these beliefs is considered heretical.

When we think of evangelicalism in terms of its modern fundamentalist roots, it is easier to grasp why some see stronger tensions between evangelicalism and Anabaptism than are expressed in The Activist Impulse. However, since the book seeks to encourage evangelicals to be more open to Anabaptist influences, it makes sense that such tensions would not be front and center. Only if we approach this conversation from the other side—whether Anabaptists should be more open to evangelical influences—do the points of tension become more important.

Several essays sketch historical background for formerly Anabaptist evangelical groups such as the Missionary Church and Grace Brethren. Two others show how (admittedly a small minority of) evangelicals have been open to Anabaptist influences, especially from John Howard Yoder, in contrast to the view that evangelicalism should be understood only in terms of conservative politics.

The final section includes stimulating essays linking evangelical and Anabaptist theologies in order to enhance our peace witness. Kirk MacGregor argues persuasively for a nonviolent atonement theology more “orthodox” than Denny Weaver’s, and David Cramer draws heavily on Yoder to make a strong case for a biblically-based pacifism with the potential to draw Anabaptists and evangelicals closer together. Timothy Paul Erdel argues for Christian social faithfulness focusing on “making Christian disciples” (defined in terms of “biblical pacifism”) more than on secular politics. Erdel, like others in this collection, appears to believe that evangelicals who are pacifists in the Anabaptist sense have something more fundamentally in common with non-pacifist evangelicals than they do with non-Christian pacifists or, perhaps, even non-evangelical pacifist Christians. I wonder if evangelical pacifists take seriously enough the problem of evangelical Christianity tending to influence people to be more violent, not less.

This may be at least partly why earlier Mennonite writers were concerned about the influence of evangelicalism. My problem is not with the four points Nolt lists in defining evangelicalism, but with the impact of fundamentalism on those older evangelical beliefs during the 20th century, and the sense that this book’s writers don’t take seriously that impact’s problematic effect—perhaps paradigmatically expressed in typical evangelical hostility toward pacifism that makes me question how much common cause Anabaptists could have with non-pacifist evangelicals. The suspicion I, as an Anabaptist, have about rapprochement with evangelicals is largely due to their antipathy toward pacifism. My question to Cramer and others is why, as pacifists, they want to remain identified with such an anti-pacifist stream of Christian faith. 

Ted Grimsrud, Professor of Theology and Peace Studies, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia