Alfred Neufeld reads the past, for the future

I’m home from B.C., tired and brain-full. The Renewing Identity and Mission (RIM) event I mentioned at the end of my previous post was interesting and well worth attending. It was packed with workshops — three tracks running concurrently in every time slot, which means it was impossible to attend more than a third of them.

For now, I think I’ll simply post a few notes and reflections on the opening address of the RIM consultation, delivered by Alfred Neufeld of Paraguay. His paper served as a kind of foundational analysis for much of the conversation in subsequent sessions, as well as provoking some good discussion immediately. It deserves — and needs — further discussion, it seems to me, especially when the longer paper upon which his presentation was based is available as well.

Neufeld is an educator and writer with a long list of credentials which I won’t list here, except to say that he’s one of the denomination’s leading theologians and so it was fitting, I think, that he deliver the keynote address, attempting to draw an analysis of Mennonite Brethren (MB) identity with reference to its founding in 1860, as well as posit a vision for the future. He is also, thankfully, easy to listen to.

Neufeld’s reading of 1860 (shorthand for MB origins), he said, is threefold:

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the essential nature of the church.

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the existential dimension of salvation.

-Mennonite Brethren wanted to recover the transcultural mission of the Holy Spirit.

More precisely, Neufeld follows J.B. Toews in calling the MB origins “a phenomenon of renewal.”

Neufeld then provided a fascinating list of how historians and various members of  “the community of scholars” over the past 150 years have described the essence of the 1860 dissent that formed the MB Church. (I’m working from my scribbled notes here and apologize in advance for their inadequacy).

P.M. Friesen: all church members should be authentic believers.

1902 MB Confession: Scripture above confession; it was a renewal of life, not change of doctrine.

J.F.Harms: acting according to Scripture.

J.H. Lohrenz: spiritual awakening and newness of life.

A.H. Unruh: who belongs to the believers’ church.

J.A. Toews: MB origins and identity described in both positive (Biblicism) and negative (enmity to culture/legalism) terms.

H.S. Bender, C.J. Dyck: 1525 revisited in 1860.

G.W. Peters: pietistic in spirit, Mennonite in dogmatics, Baptist in organization.

J.B. Toews: a phenomenon of renewal.

John B. Toews: protest against religious totalitarianism and a revolution of the poor (sociological dimensions and anti-clericalism).

Johannes Reimer: early charismatics soon to be silenced in the June Reform (June Reform lost some presence and power – “the medicine stronger than the sickness”).

H.D. Giesbrecht: keeping body and soul together.

Abraham Friesen: breaking with the “corpus mennonitum”.

Paul Schrag (editor of Mennonite Weekly Review): re. ICOMB Confession of Faith, MBs are “holding inner spirituality and outer transformation together like two wings of a dove.”

Delbert Wiens: Man-the-maker (MBs were modernists, more than their spirituality allowed them to see; interested in progress, victory; modernistic conservatism.)

Delbert Plett: individualistic pietistic arrogance of the “converted” to modernism.

Returning to “renewal,” the “leading line” of his analysis, Neufeld stressed that renewal movements in history are contextualizations for their time. Contextualization must always be critical of two things, he said: of its traditional inheritance and of the culture in which it finds itself. He walked through aspects of this contextualization as he saw it in the 1860 breakaway that formed the MB church, including a strong element of continuity with “the house of Menno” as well as seeking relevance for the time and the South Russian environment.

“Denominations are not abominations,” Neufeld continued. “They honour God’s work in history.” He insisted that there was still a need for the “MB way” within the Anabaptist family and global Christian movement.

Neufeld then used his reading of 1860 as his outline of our current tasks: to recover the essential nature of the church, to recover the existential dimension of salvation, and to recover the transcultural mission of the Holy Spirit.

Under the second part – salvation – Neufeld spent some time urging an understanding of atonement that embraces all the “blessings” or images of atonement, including the images of courtroom, victory, hospital, liberation, and family. (Apparently someone later asked planners if Neufeld had been “put up to this,” the answer being that, no, he hadn’t, but of course he’s aware of recent debates on the matter, especially in the Canadian conference. His words offered little comfort to those who see penal substitution as the predominant and guiding metaphor for salvation; Neufeld listed at least five of “all the blessings,” not just once but twice, the second time counting them off on his fingers.)

Gerald Gerbrandt, president of Canadian Mennonite University, and a member of Mennonite Church Canada, responded to the paper. He said he was struck by the “strong and distinct identity you have,” a “cleaner line” from 1860 than his own history allowed him, “even as you discuss whether you’re Anabaptist, pietist, or evangelical.” He found the 1860 event both “inspiring and disconcerting,”  wondering what it was about the leadership of the time that tried to prevent the renewal from happening. He asked about dissent today, and the dynamic tension between individual and corporate today, simply to draw attention, he said, to possible necessary balancing of Neufeld’s analysis. He pointed out that the mission aspect (Neufeld’s point # 3) wasn’t actually present in the early documents, but it does come “intuitively” as MB history unfolds.

A round table discussion followed, with reports in a large group format. I’ll mention just one comment re. critical issues by Gordon Matties, professor at Canadian Mennonite University, with which I particularly resonate. He called on historians to “name our multiple identities more carefully” and urged that we recognize the dangers in some of these multiple narratives such as modernism and legalism. If we “name, narrate, and map” our identity, Matties suggested, we would be more comfortable being a “multi-sourced group.” Matties added that the atonement controversy, as one example, would benefit from understanding the modernist and legalist sources that have contribute to our current ethos.

(Discussion over strands, sources, whether MBs are  pietisitic, evangelical, Anabaptist or some combination of two or more of these, was a prominent one in the consultation. One person opined over lunch one day that all this trying to figure out who MBs are felt like lying on a Freudian couch!)

Well, this post has gotten long, and is more report than anything else perhaps, but I  offer a closing reflection of my own. I’m intrigued by how Neufeld works his reading of 1860 into his statements of tasks for the future. He’s using history in much the same way H.S. Bender’s “Anabaptist Vision” did, it seems to me, identifying key elements of the past by which to serve the future. Later, of course, Bender’s view of the Anabaptist past was criticized as simplistic, perhaps too optimistic.

We’ll want to consider then, too, since the line Neufeld pulls from past to present  renewal employs the same three points, how accurately he’s read the past, and how accurately he’s read the present, and whether this vision will compel this particular denomination into the future.

(Further reflections on RIM, as well as posts about Celebration 2010 which is now underway, can be found at the conference website here; click the “MyCelebration2010” box. I understand that an audio version of Neufeld’s address will be posted at the website as well.)

1 thought on “Alfred Neufeld reads the past, for the future

  1. Pingback: More on Alfred Neufeld « MyCelebration2010

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