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"Reconstructionists" and Anabaptists
The "Christian Reconstruction" movement may well be one of the most uncelebrated, yet influential, groups in the last half of the 20th century. Led by such scholars as R.J. Rushdoony and Gary North, the "Christian Reconstruction" movement has gone virtually unnoticed by the secular media -- with increasing exceptions. Newsweek magazine referred to the Chalcedon Foundation, which is the vanguard of the movement, as the "think tank" for the "Christian Right." Without a doubt, the "Reconstructionists" have shaken the Fundamentalists out of their separatist slumbers and turned them into a powerful political force.1 The "Reconstructionists" have given impetus to the resurgence of conservative and fundamentalist politics. Their ever-growing number of publications are being studied by increasing numbers of influential Christian leaders. The fact that TIME Magazine has not recognized them means little. The liberal, secular media have no idea what motivates conservative Christians, and what makes the Moral Majority tick.
I have long been associated with the "Christian Reconstruction" movement, and have long called myself a "Theonomist" or "Reconstructionist." I studied for some time under R. J. Rushdoony, president of Chalcedon, and was a regular contributor to The Chalcedon Report. I have also contributed articles to the publications of the Institute for Christian Economics, headed by Gary North, and the Geneva Divinity School (James B. Jordan).
I am increasingly alarmed, however, at developments in the "Reconstructionist" movement and in the "New Christian Right," and quite fearful of certain tendencies. Some of these tendencies center around the leaders of the movement, rather than anything they explicitly believe or hold in any of their creeds or position papers. The leaders of the movement, few in number, have certain eccentricities -- an acid tongue, a commanding air of authority, a dogmatic and ridiculing rejection of all "opposition" sources2 -- that are quickly being picked up by the "laymen" of the movement. Other of these tendencies are in their creeds and position papers, and seem to me to be quite unBiblical. These tendencies are in turn being institutionalized in churches across the land, and increasingly by the Fundamentalist Right.
These peculiarities are brought to the fore in the current revival of interest in the Anabaptists of the 16th century. A growing number of Christians are re-examining and embracing the tenets of the Anabaptists. Many of these Christians come out of the "Reformed" camp, as do the "Reconstructionists." They maintain that the Anabaptists were a persecuted group of sincere Christians who, following the Scriptures and led by the Holy Spirit, lived model lives of Christian service and left many remarkable insights into a Biblical direction for a Christian society. In contrast, the "Reconstructionists" believe that the Anabaptists were among the most destructive and dangerous groups of unruly fanatics to appear in two thousand years of church history.
The three major issues in this debate, as I see them, are first, were the Anabaptists a group of stable, Bible-believing Christians from whom we can learn much, or were they a wild, heretical, and revolutionary sect with dangerous views and destructive tendencies that should be vigorously warned against? Second, were Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Reformers fair and truthful with the Anabaptists, and third, should we emulate Reformed pastoral and political policies today? The implications of these issues in light of the current politicization of conservative Christians could hardly be overestimated.
As a "Reconstructionist" I learned to take the Bible seriously. All of the Bible (not just parts) is to be consistently applied (not just randomly or subjectively) to every area of life (not just the "religious" areas, but to the State, to economics, to education -- everything). It is a noble goal. I also learned that this principle is the heritage of the Protestant Reformation; that we should strive to become consistent to the principles of the Reformation -- "truly Reformed," as some would put it.
Then I came in contact with a group of Christians who argued that we should not become consistently Reformed; that the Reformers had some very severe problems that have been overlooked over centuries of zealous adherence to Reformed soteriology ("the doctrines of grace"). Overlooked, that is, until the "Reconstructionists" came along and actually began consistently putting these errors into practice. This group of Christians believes that we should hold on to the good that the Reformers taught, but that we should listen to the Anabaptists of the 16th century, who pointed out many of the Reformers' errors and made many positive contributions to our understanding of the Scriptures.
Although Mennonites and other modern descendants of the Anabaptists have been quietly discussing Anabaptist themes for many years,3 it was the Baptist Reformation Review and its editor, Jon Zens, who has brought the neglected teachings of the Anabaptists to the attention of the Reconstructionist scholars and has challenged the notion that we should strive to become consistent Reformers.4 Zens first came to suspect that not all of the truth was on the side of the Reformers when he read two books by Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, and The Anatomy of a Hybrid,5 and these books have become the focus of much controversy in the "Reconstructionist" movement.
In the Autumn of 1978 Zens set forth his intentions in re-examining the Anabaptists:
I believe there is much that we should learn from this era of church history which covers generally the years 1500-1600. Because of the theological bias and historical misrepresentation concerning the Anabaptists which has accumulated over the years, it is imperative that we honestly assess them in the light of history. Such misrepresentation has clouded some of the vital issues which are relevant to us today. I am not concerned to present the Anabaptists as the "good guys" and the Reformers as the "bad guys." History will not bear out such a simplistic assessment. The facts of history reveal that both sides were guilty of certain errors and extremities. Thus we must not skirt the obvious faults of our favorite Reformation heroes, not must we overlook the insights of the Anabaptists who were lacking in theological depth. Neither the Reformers nor the Anabaptists were perfect. But all of their imperfections did not ultimately hinder them from making positive contributions to the cause of truth -- contributions which neither side would acknowledge at the time of their intense conflict.6
As a dyed-in-the-wool Reconstructionist I was trained to be skeptical that any good could come out of this group. I was told that they were denying many cherished Reconstructionist beliefs. I had never read a word from original Anabaptist sources, or even favorable secondary sources; I was content to listen to the Reconstructionist leaders and mimic their derisive, acidic style. I would overhear remarks made by Reformed and Reconstructionist friends of mine, such as, "Have you heard? Jon Zens is going Anabaptist!" I had next to no idea what an "Anabaptist" was, but I nevertheless reacted with appropriate displays of shocked disbelief: "You mean The Baptist Reformation Review? No!" (Theological peer pressure runs thick, and young, up-and-coming theologians are particularly susceptible to its force.)
The Reconstructionists were quick to respond to Zens' attacks on the consistently Reformed. Some followers of his at a nearby Christian Discount Book Center, knowing of my affiliation with Gary North, gave me a copy of Zens' article on Oliver Cromwell.7 I rushed the article home to David Chilton, who lived close by at the time, so that work could begin on a response.8 After Chilton's article no significant exchanges took place until the summer of 1982, when the Reconstructionists mounted a major offensive against Zens, Verduin, and other "neo-Anabaptists."
In August of 1982, the Geneva Divinity School Press (Reconstructionist) announced a sale on a book marketed9 as a counter to the works of Zens and other Anabaptists revisionists. The book was Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, by Willem Balke.10 In their advertisement, mailed to those who subscribe to their newsletter, Calvin Speaks, they introduced the Anabaptist/Reconstructionist debate with these words:
The last decade has produced a line of scholarship that has represented the Reformers (especially Calvin) as the "bad guys" and the Anabaptists as the "good guys." The one work that has done more to popularize this opinion more [sic] than any other is the work of Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren. It is the conviction of Geneva Divinity School that Verduin's analysis of the religious conflict in the 16th century is woefully inaccurate.
The flyer castigated the "neo-Anabaptists" for opposing "Biblical Reform" and rejecting a "Biblical understanding of Word and Spirit."
The Romanists were not the only enemies of Biblical Reform. The "Second Front," as it was called by some of the Reformers, was at least as formidable to the Reformation as the Catholic Church was. In fact, in a letter to Vadian on 28 May 1525, Zwingli wrote, "The struggle with the Catholic party is but child's play when compared with the struggle that is erupting at the Second Front."
Biblical reform is being opposed today was it was then. Those elements of reform that we all long for, a Biblical understanding of Word and Spirit, a covenantal view of the relationship of the Old Testament and the New Testament, infant baptism, a viable application of the Ten Commandments, and a Reformed view of the Church and her worship, are all being rejected and opposed by these modern-day Anabaptists.
Dr. Balke's work is the most complete and accurate treatment of this important period of church history. He has thoroughly researched his subject, and presents his results in an excellent combination of chronological review and systematic analysis. As may be guessed, the principle significance of this book is that it vindicates and in a sense rehabilitates John Calvin over against the Anabaptists, and does so without perpetuating the unfair criticism of Anabaptists which was prevalent for a long time. The treatment is fair, balanced, and firm, and of a genuine historical value.
As a dedicated Reconstructionist I wanted to see for myself what the enemies of "Biblical Reform" were saying, and how they were answered by Balke. So I began to read Zens and Verduin with a fine-toothed comb. I also read as many Reformed writers on the Anabaptists as I could. I would like to say that the shoddy research of the "Neo-Anabaptists" was completely overwhelmed by the arguments of the Christian Reconstructionists. I cannot. Far from vindicating or rehabilitating Calvin, Balke's book, coming as it does from the pen of a pro-Calvinist, may well be one of the most damning corroborations of Verduin one could have expected. My own perspective of nearly unqualified support of the the Christian Reconstructionist program seems itself to be in need of "reconstruction."
How does that line go again? "I used to be a Democrat; then I learned to read." Although the gap between Calvinists and Anabaptists is certainly not as wide as that between Christians and Evolutionists, I liken the shaking of my Reconstructionist party adherence to the time I read a Henry Morris book on Creationism. I had for years been told that Evolution was an inescapable fact, conclusively proven by neutral and objective scientists. It really took only one creationist book, exposing the scientists' foolish, circular "proofs" for Evolution, and quoting their own admissions of their hatred for Christianity to convince me that I had been duped. Perhaps you will experience a similar sensation as you read your first Anabaptist book.
We would like to accomplish three things by re-examining this 16th century dispute: First, we would like to clear the tarnished name of the Anabaptists. A defense of the Anabaptists will strike many, especially ardent supporters of the Reformers, as out of place -- even a tinge heterodox. Yet the Anabaptists must be counted among our brothers and sisters in the faith, and many remarkable figures are to be numbered among the Anabaptists.
Second, we shall paint a more realistic picture of the Reformers. The historical revisionism of the "neo-Anabaptists" is doing much to show that the Reformers had serious flaws in their theology and their public lives. This paper will attempt to show that these flaws stem from a basic "statism,"11 a carry-over from their Humanistic educational backgrounds. This statism, as a drive for political power and visible control over the lives of others, manifested itself in the churches of the Reformers, which joined hands with the city-states of the day in an unBiblical quest for political clout.
In indicting an entire group of men, it is difficult to avoid two errors. The first is stereotyping. It is all to easy to call a group "statist," or, as Verduin tends to say, "Constantinian," and then proceed to use the label as a substitute for Biblical or historical analysis. We are trying to point out some social and theological tendencies in a broad way, and our polemic style will undoubtedly commit this error. Nevertheless, we shall try to limit ourselves to pointing out specific violations of God's Law.
A second error is that of forgetting all the good that a group has contributed, concentrating on their faults. As our purpose is to point out faults that have not yet been sufficiently recognized (especially by Reformed adherents) we will undoubtedly be guilty of this error as well. We do not criticize those studies which rightly point out the marvelous spirituality and goodness of the Reformers. Our goal is change and therefore our purpose is more negative. Nevertheless, we are edified by the insights of Errol Hulse in this matter:
Those who study the Radical Reformation for the first time should be warned against disillusionment in regard to some of the Reformers. Their part in the persecution of the Anabaptists is not a pleasant subject. The attention given to the long-neglected left wing inevitably means the rewriting of the Reformation in some of its aspects, and the reflection on the Reformers is not always sweet, to say the least. David Marshall, in reviewing Verduin's book in the Banner of Truth magazine, records understandable alarm. "This is hardly the time to denigrate the Reformers," he says, "when most evangelicals are tragically ignorant of the immense debt we owe to them." We fully sympathize with these sentiments. On the other hand we do not wish to live with a romanticized idea of the Reformation, or, for that matter, foster dreamland concepts of any epoch of history. When one has received incalculable blessing from the lives and teachings of the Reformers it is painful to read of their intolerance and harshness. The eminent historian Bainton confesses: "I felt intense resentment against Luther because he spoke so magnificently for liberty in the early 1520's and condoned the death penalty for the Anabaptists a decade later. Having worked for eight years on a biography of Luther in the 1940's, anger changed to sadness through the discovery that in this case, as often elsewhere, it is the saints who burn the saints.12
To be sure, we owe much to the Reformers, and this paper does not depart from the Biblical paths they charted. But there came a point in history when the Anabaptists said to the Reformers, "Brethren, I think we are starting to move in an unBiblical direction. Shall we move more in this other direction?" As we shall attempt to demonstrate, the Anabaptists had a good sense of direction, but were mugged at the crossroads. We hope to use this historical examination as a spring-board to further inquiry as to the direction Biblical reform should take in our century.
Third we shall pave the way for our non-political vision of society, which shall be given a Scriptural defense in the next Book. This vision comprises something of an Anabaptist-Reconstructionist synthesis, insofar as it is a result of extensive and favorable reading from both camps. Although owing much to both sides, neither the Reformers nor the Anabaptists, today or in the sixteenth century, may be comfortable with this view. But our concern is to be true to Scripture, not any party platform.
1. 97 Newsweek (Feb. 2, 1981) at 60. See also G. North, The Intellectual Schizophrenia of the New Christian Right 1 CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION (Spring 1982) 1-40 (James B. Jordan, ed.) (Demonstrates the debt of the Religious Right to R.J. Rushdoony and contrasts this with their unwillingness to openly acknowledge him or to adopt the Reconstructionist party platform (e.g., "Theonomy" [abiding validity of Old Testament Law], postmillennialism, etc.) in toto. | | [Return to text]
2. David Chilton's ridiculing dismissal of Ronald Sider's plea for Justice toward the poor (Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators [3d rev. ed., 1985]) and Rushdoony's hostility toward home-school advocate John Holt (Law and Society 88 (1982)) are two examples of this. James B. Jordan subsequently took a more moderate stand toward Holt (Are Christian Schools the Best Answer? 2 The Biblical Educator, April 1980 at 1). Upon taking a more moderate stand toward Sider, Chilton subsequently removed this writer's name from the acknowledgements in Productive Christians (1st ed.). We agree in large part with the opposition to Secular Humanism taken by the New Christian Right; we are uncomfortable with the pseudo-scholarship and knee-jerk reactionism so frequently encountered. Many writers cultivate an aura of authority without having gone beyond secondary and even tertiary sources; their congregations uncritically accept their often inaccurate generalizations about particular Humanist writers. One writer, giving no evidence of having read any primary sources, unfairly chastises John Dewey only two pages after shouting the praises of the (Unitarian!) McGuffey Readers (Tim LaHaye The Battle for the Mind 40-41, 44-45 ); contra George Dennison, The Lives of Children 246-82 ). We have discussed Humanism and American Education in more detail in separate chapters of this volume. | | [Return to text]
3. Chiefly in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, numerous books in the catalogue of Herald Press, and notably the works of F.H. Littel and L. Verduin. Many of these modern Anabaptists tend to be rather "liberal" in their politics and their theology. Thus, a Herald Press volume entitled Evangelism and Anabaptism (C.N. Kraus, ed. ) contains a contribution by Ronald Sider. Sider's latest book Nuclear Holocaust & Christian Hope (1982) relies heavily on Mennonite/Anabaptist organizations and writers who are clearly (though not necessarily erringly) on the pacifist side of the spectrum. Zens' theology is more conservative; his politics not quite so. | | [Return to text]
4. Zens recently changed the name of The Baptist Reformation Review to Searching Together to de-emphasize the distinctives of the Reformation and to emphasize the need to search through the Scriptures as a Community (cf. Acts 17:11). | | [Return to text]
5. Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, Grand Rapids: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Co., 1976.
___, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1964. | | [Return to text]
6. J. Zens, Editorial: What Can We Learn from Reformation History? 7 BAPTIST REFORMATION REVIEW, Autumn 1978, at 1. | | [Return to text]
7. J. Zens, More of Cromwell, Less of Gurnall? 8 BAPTIST REFORMATION REVIEW, Spring 1979. (Zens was responding to a flyer by Gary North.) | | [Return to text]
8. D. Chilton, Cromwell and His Critics (A Reply to Jon Zens) 6 THE JOURNAL OF CHRISTIAN RECONSTRUCTION, Winter 1979-80. Little of this article can be criticized, as it pre-dates the more mature Anabaptist/Reconstructionist conflict that is developing, although it is a fine introduction to Reconstructionist thought, and successfully answers many arguments (and misconceptions) of its critics (its limited purview [Cromwell] notwithstanding). | | [Return to text]
9. although Balke, not a Reconstructionist, probably did not intend it as such. | | [Return to text]
10. W. Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 1981. | | [Return to text]
11. Chilton has submitted this definition of "statism."
Statism is the practice of giving the government progressively unlimited powers. It is a violation of God's law, when rulers attempt to play god by controlling the lives and activities of their subjects. God has severely limited the powers of the state, and when the state transgresses these limits it is making a claim to deity, "to be as God." Statism is the applied theology of Ronald Sider and the "Christian" socialists. For the answer to practically every problem in life, they do not look to God and the law-order He provides. They look instead to the all-powerful state. Statism includes all forms of interventionism and socialism. See Sin and Curse.
Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators (2d rev. ed., 1982) at 276.
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12. E. Hulse, An Introduction to the Baptists (1976) at 13-14. | | [Return to text]
Since this chapter was written in 1982 (?) many additional references to the Anabaptists have surfaced in the writings of the Reconstructionists. Our initial assessment seems to be in need of no revision.
Late in '82 appeared the first volume of Gary North's Christianity and Civilization, a symposium on "The Failure of American Baptist Culture." Some of these articles have been spliced into this chapter and others. They contain explicitly anti-anabaptist articles, including an article by yours truly (mine was not anti-Anabaptist; only a few lines I would retract).
Flyers and newsletters from "Geneva" (i.e., Tyler TX) have continued to pour forth.
David Chilton's latest edition of Productive Christians has a whole chapter on "Socialism, the Anabaptist Heresy."
Then there's the new book by Franky Schaeffer on Capitalism.
The issues are still very much alive. Perhaps in a future edition we can evaluate these latest attacks on the Anabaptists and on "Creationist Anarcho-Socialism."
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