Volume 8, Issue 5: Magistralis
S. Stephen Thomas
The many distinctives which characterize anabaptist thought of the sixteenth century share much in common with modern evangelicalism. They are branches of a common tree, the roots of which find nourishment deep within the same soil of individualism. Without question, we can all learn from our anabaptistic brethren, especially from their devotion to mercy, self-discipline, and family bonds. Yet their theological distinctives have wreaked some havoc in contemporary evangelicalism.
We can see this first in their nearly exclusive focus on the New Testament instead of tota scriptura. This mindset of discontinuity has come to a fuller, more consistent expression in dispensational theology. Both anabaptist and dispensationalist theologies see the distinctives of the New Covenant as essential rather than incidental. They also reject covenantal continuity and the biblical model of federal headship in covenant institutions. Rejecting the validity of Old Testament law unless the Spirit repeats it in the New leaves them destitute of detailed objective standards. Living not by bread alone, but by only some of God's words historically has created a vacuum filled by humanistic autonomy. Antinomianism and legalism have met; Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee have kissed each other.
We also find their debilitating individualism expressed in Church government. Independent congregations which answer to no one but themselves are simply the outworking of the individualism principle in the ecclesiastical sphere. The consequence of no governmental affiliation breeds what one author calls church growth via church splits. An autonomous ecclesiology renders modern evangelicals impotent to address the nation univocally.
This type of individualism has also seen its consequences in civil government. Under the guise of separation of church and state, the state was given freedom from biblical morality. It began by restraining the hand of civil authority in religious matters of minor importance and personal conviction, but it has now come to tolerate child sacrifice and other horrors for the sake of personal convenience.
Other examples abound. And with all is the irony that these examples are those in which legal judgments and justice are required, yet modern evangelicals don't employ the standard which God has given. They have made the antitheses not between darkness and light, but between the various administrations of God's covenant. Pitting the Old Testament against the New and failing to see that if in the New, the Author and Finisher of faith is the same, and the faith and its exercise are the same, and if the justification, grace, and mercy are the same, and if the vineyard, olive tree and the covenant are the same, and if the expectation of judgment, warnings, and encouragements are the same, and if God is the same, then the people who are called by God's name are the same people and are sanctified by the same Word. And we are sanctified in His Word, for His Word is truth--all of it.
It should come as no surprise that anabaptists were largely Arminian in their soteriology. An autonomous free will stood at the heart of their doctrine of salvation, as it did in the rest of their theology. Having believed and declared the sovereignty of man and the responsibility of God, the role reversal was inevitable. The church, the bride of Christ, in relation to her God, was not the one chosen, but the suitor. After centuries of development, the masculine trait of initiative was not attributed to God, but to man's sovereign will. The feminine trait of response and submission belonged not to man but to God.
The flip side of the masculinizing of the church in its relationship to God was the feminizing of the church in its relationship to the world. The church, having separated itself, not from sin but from the world, found herself to be the tail and not the head. Worse yet, this retreatism and submission to the world demonstrated that the church would willingly have the world for a husband. And so we do.
Having stood everything on its head, we are dismayed to find that we are not a mighty army storming the gates of hell with the Word of our God, but rather hapless victims awaiting rescue from the onslaught of the enemy. This eschatology of martyrdom is with us still and bears no resemblance with the Hebrew hall-of-famers we claim as our fathers. We should be ashamed to even think that the return of our Lord is imminent when the kingdoms of this world lie in unbelief and have not yet been realized as the kingdoms of our Lord.
What the church of our Lord Jesus needs foremost at this juncture is not more movements and pep rallies but life from the dead. We need revival from the Spirit of God--an awakening which He alone must initiate. Secondly, we need reformation of our doctrine and practice which is scripturally measured and honors the Word. And third, we need a reformation of our institutions and cultural endeavors illumined by the Father of lights.
"And it shall be said in that day, 'Behold, this is our God; We have waited for Him, and He will save us. This is the Lord; We have waited for Him; We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation (Is. 25:9).'"