Protestant Radicalism
Identification of the Phenomenon as Eschatological Witness in the World.
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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In this article, Dr. Eller traces the "believer's church" theology articulated on this site (and referred to as "house church theology") back to its historial roots in pietism. He aligns that theology with eschatology--not the kind of "popular" eschatology that is characterized by prophetic speculation, but the idea that the redemption, and mission of the people of God can only be eschatological in its whole approach to its work in the world and its obedience to its king. ed.

Within Christian history there is a tradition which is rather easy to spot and trace but which has proved very awkward to categorize and name. Several labels have been tried, but none has been very satisfactory: the free church, he believers' church, the gathered church, classic Protestant sectarianism, the left wing. To speak of the "radical Reformation seems eminently right, but nomenclature for the tradition as it extends beyond the 16th century does not come so easily. "Radical Protestantism" points in the right direction, but it perpetuates a wrong implication: the tradition is not a Protestantism that became radicalized but rather a radicalism, traceable throughout Christian history, which inevitably became Protestant at the time of the Reformation. Perhaps, then, "Protestant radicalism" is the best term--if it be clearly remembered that, etymologically speaking, "radical" means "driving strongly toward the root" and not "pushing out the periphery." In any case, "radicalism" is the term I shall try here.

In broad terms, the tradition came into its clearest expression as the radical wing of the Reformation, centering particularly in the Anabaptists, and then got its second wind under the influences of the Awakening of the 17th and 18th centuries. The descendants on the current scene, then, include such churches as the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren (plus Moravians, Schwenkfelders and such), then the Baptist bodies, and to a lesser extent the Methodists and Congregationalists. Also in the stream must be included such more recent churches as the Disciples of Christ, the Churches of God (Anderson, Indiana) and so on.

I. An Eschatological Perspective

But having labeled the tradition and located it within the catalogue of Christendom, we still are left with the basic question: What is it that justifies our calling it a tradition? A number of rubrics have been proposed, but, again, none is completely satisfactory. These range from the church's relationship toward society (or, even more closely, its relationship to the state) through the voluntary character of membership, restitution of the early church, and the radical concept of discipleship. Each is apt enough as a characteristic of Protestant radicalism, but no one of them serves very well as an organizing principle by which to pull the various strands of the tradition into an integral configuration.

Let us, then, offer a new proposal: The radical churches are those which consistently have seen themselves from an eschatological perspective.

We must be careful not to claim for this principle more than the evidence will support, but there are possibilities here that do not suggest themselves on first reading. I certainly do not mean to imply that every belief and emphasis of the radical tradition can be drawn under this umbrella. Nor can I say that, even in regard to those matters which can be interpreted eschatologically, the radicals were at all times deliberately and self-consciously "doing eschatology." Nevertheless, I submit that the norm of "eschatological perspective" will go further in organizing the radical tradition than has any principle tried thus far.

For one thing, this concept makes plain in what sense the tradition is "radical": here is an attempt radically to restore and preserve the eschatological dynamic so central to the career of Jesus and the life of the early church. The basic ecclesiological distinction involved is that the radical church sees itself always as being "on the way," in process of becoming, pointed toward the new age which is its true home, held in the dialectic tension between the Already and the Not Yet--whereas the ecclesiology of the churchly tradition has been marked much more by concepts of establishment, triumphalism, surety, tradition and institutionalism. Indeed, the Roman Catholic scholar Rosemary Ruether, in her forthcoming book The Church Against Itself, categorizes the tension that governs Christendom as a whole, as well as every unit within it, as being the church as "eschatological community" over against the church as "institution." Clearly, in such a typology the radical tradition marks the pull toward the eschatological pole.

II. The New Testament Witness to Radicalism

Obviously, it would require more space and documentation than is available here were I thoroughly to test the historical tradition against my proposed norm. But at least I can suggest some leads:

  1. The radical tradition unquestionably makes much more use of explicit eschatological language (sheer apocalyptic lingo) than does the churchly tradition. This is a somewhat misleading test, however, because it does not get to the heart of the matter. The distinction which modern scholarship has made so clear regarding the historical Jesus--namely, that while he was a thoroughly eschatological personage he did not indulge in apocalyptic speculation--also must be made in regard to Protestant radicalism. Indeed, the proper understanding would seem to be that whereas the churchly tradition goes to seed by becoming cold, formal and static, the radical tradition does its going to seed by sliding off into apocalypticism and chiliasm. Thus the mere test of language would tend to focus on radicalism's deterioration rather than on its norm.
  2. A much more reliable test would be to read the radical tradition for its emphasis on "the kingdom of God." Here is the concept that stood at the heart of Jesus‘ own eschatology; my guess is that it is central to the radical tradition in a way that it is not to the churchly.
  3. George Huntston Williams, a prominent authority on the radical Reformation, recently presented a paper in which he listed ten or so metaphors (models) that the radicals customarily used as types of the church. Subsequent contemplation reveals that almost all these are eschatological in orientation. Included, for example, were:
    1. Marriage. The Bible, which was the radicals' sourcebook, regularly uses marriage as an eschatological symbol, and the radicals no doubt followed this lead.
    2. Companionship--viatoris, those who are together on the way. One need only ask, "On the way to where?" in order to discern the eschatological import of the idea.
    3. Camaraderie--fellows in arms--This figure in the mouths of pacifist radicals recalls Jesus' words, "If my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight" [Jn. 18:36]. Clearly, the war intended is an eschatological one, a reference made explicit in the Quaker doctrine of the "Lamb's War" (the Lamb who conquered by being slain rather than by slaying).
    4. Citizenship. And where else but in "the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God"?
    5. Elected Confederacy. Under this heading Williams dealt with the idea that the church represents the first-fruits of a redemption which is destined to take in the whole of creation--an eschatological concept if ever there was one.
    6. Communion--community. Williams tabbed this as the most fundamental concept of the lot and explicated it in overtly eschatological terms.
  4. The rather clear predilection of the radicals for the historical Jesus as over against the churchly predilection for the exalted Christus carries eschatological overtones. The historical Jesus with his proclamation of the "kingdom at hand" is nothing if not eschatological. On the other hand, the exalted Christus historically has tended to become a static, realized, mythologized cult symbol used precisely to displace the dynamic, in-process-of-being-realized kingdom as the focus of the church's life.
  5. The radical emphasis on discipleship also had eschatological overtones. The English language did not make it as clear as does the German, but discipleship is essentially a "following after" Jesus. The basic idea is that disciples are those who follow the precursor of the kingdom on his eschatological way toward that kingdom.
  6. The radical motif of nonconformity to the world dovetails with the eschatological affirmation that
    "this world is not my home,
    ‘cause I'm bound for the kingdom."
    Likewise, the counterpart motif of servanthood within the world is the eschatological affirmation that, whether it knows it or not, this world is bound for that kingdom too.
  7. All the "anti" themes of Protestant radicalism (anticreedalism, anticlericalism, antisacramentalism, anti-intellectualism, antiformalism-antireligion or religionlessness, if you please) come clear within an eschatological context. They are protests against those elements that tend to entrench and engraft church into the status quo and thus rob it of eschatological vitality and vision.
  8. The radical church's very unrealistic and inexpedient stance of nonresistance, or defenselessness (which, by the way, was understood not merely an exceptional position regarding carnal warfare but as the essential character of the church‘s way in world), makes sense at all only from an eschatological perspective. The methods of the "Lamb's War" are viable only on the premise that the kingdoms of this world are slated to become, and even now are in process of becoming the kingdom of that Lamb.
  9. A little thought should indicate and some historical research demonstrate that, whereas the infant baptism of the churchly tradition stands as the natural and proper symbol of a person's becoming beneficiary of the graces mediated by a holy institution, the believer‘s baptism of the radicals is just as naturally and properly a symbol of recruitment and commitment to the company of eschatological pilgrims--the task force of the Lamb, which is the radical church.
  10. The matter of "eschatological perspective may also help account for the fact that historically the radicals have been able to do a fairly creditable job of keeping a balance between personal salvation and redemption of the social order. The New Testament hit its balance in the same way: if, as eschatological perspective would have it, redemption is essentially a cosmological process currently being worked out in the world, then it necessarily involves man's social structures, though it needs also to be discerned, appropriated and furthered through the faith of individual persons.
  11. On first thought the major radical emphasis upon restitution of the early church would seem distinctly anti-eschatological, a move into the past rather than into the future. But a second thought is called for: If the life of Jesus was an eschatological event (as the New Testament consistently understands it to be), if his gospel was primarily an eschatological proclamation and if the New Testament ekklesia was the church which was born out of and lived within that eschatological expectation, then to focus on the first century as one's guide and norm signifies not so much a move backward as a means of getting properly oriented toward the future which was revealed there in greater clarity than it has been before or since.

I cannot at this point claim to have established it as historical fact that Protestant radicalism is that tradition which consistently views the church from an eschatological perspective. But perhaps I have offered enough suggestions to open the possibility for serious consideration.

III. Contemporary Developments

If my thesis is correct, it has a significance that goes far beyond that of mere historical typology. For there is much evidence to suggest that "eschatological perspective" is on the verge of becoming the great new discovery of Christian thought in our time.

The ferment can be spotted at several points. The amazing renewal currently taking place within the Roman Catholic Church can be understood at least as a recovery of eschatological perspective, a new appreciation of the church's role as "eschatological community" (as Rosemary Ruether would put it).

On the Protestant scene, though it has not yet resulted in a transformation comparable to the Catholic, the move toward eschatology may be more self-conscious and pervasive. In any case, it is coming up strong.

The interest seems first to have shown itself in biblical studies. Under the leadership of such men as Bornkamm, Cullmann, Jeremias, Fuller, Munck, Ladd, and Perrin, it has been solidly established that the central orientation of both the historical Jesus and the New Testament church was eschatological, and that that eschatology was understood in terms of the kingdom of God even now in process of realizing itself. Based on a concept of the overlap of the ages, it was a dialectical eschatology focusing both on the Already and the Not Yet.

Although eschatological themes had a real prominence in the work of theologians such as Barth, Brunner and Bonhoeffer, the orientation is now being made controlling by a contemporary school (if "school" it chances to become). Harvey Cox‘s programmatic essay preserved in New Theology No.4is an explicit commitment to the movement. Jürgen Moltmann's The Theology of Hope (to he released later this month in English translation) and Gerhard Sauter's Zukunft und Verheissung could be the first fruits of a far-reaching theological development.

The third front on which the eschatological perspective shows signs of burgeoning is that of ecumenical church studies. World and National council of churches study groups in which such names as Thomas Wieser, J. C. Hoekendijk, Hans Schmidt, Harvey Cox and Colin Williams are prominent show the tendency very clearly. Two specimens of such studies are Planning for Mission, edited by Thomas Wieser, and The Church Inside Out, by J. C. Hoekendijk.

Another author deserves particular mention in this rundown, though his work does not quite fit any of the three categories above and nowhere other than here is he likely to get listed in connection with the theology of hope. In 1928 Gerhard Gloege published an inaugural dissertation on the kingdom of God which may have been the first proposal of the dialectical, overlap conception which has since come to carry the field. The main thrust of Gloege's career, however, has been in theology rather than in Bible, and a review of his published works makes it evident that the thinkers who have influenced him and with whom he has been in conversation are Luther, Zinzendorf, Kierkegaard, Blumhardt, Barth, Bonhoeffer and, more recently, Pannenberg. As the following will make clear, this puts him directly into the line of tradition I am developing.

More recently (1960)--yet earlier than the beginning of the theology of hope ever will be dated--Gloege wrote The Day of His Coming, a beautifully written book about Jesus directed to the lay reader. Since it is not a scholarly monograph, it can hardly be counted as a contribution to the contemporary quest of the historical Jesus. It does, however, present a picture of Jesus that is quite consistent with that quest--and in the process it illuminates several important aspects of the theology of hope. In the first place, Gloege consistently and effectively pictures the historical Jesus against the background of his own eschatological perspective. Second, his format frees him from confining himself to historical description and allows him to project the modern relevance of such eschatological theology. In the third--and most striking--place, Gloege pictures the world into which Jesus came as being so culturally and ideologically similar to our own that the parallel is almost eerie. And if it was an eschatological faith that got through to that world and turned it upside down, then perhaps now is the time and place for another theology of hope. And finally, in a way that speaks right to the basic thesis of this article, Gloege shows that from the Old Testament prophets through the intertestamental apocalypticists to the historical Jesus, the eschatological tradition was carried by radical, sectarian, underground fellowships that precisely were in protest against the established church and culture-religion. The pattern I am proposing for the Protestant centuries can be found even in the background of Jesus and the early church. Because it is a book for people rather than for professional theologians, The Day of His Coming can be recommended as the best available introduction (perhaps "prologue") to the theology of hope.

IV. The Historical/Theological Thread

Much of this new material shows a rather striking parallel with historic radicalism--and the affinity is more than accidental. The eschatological interest now aborning was not created simply by the nature of our 20th century situation and independently of that earlier radicalism. There is a direct bridge between historic radicalism and the eschatological radicals of today. True, the existence of that bridge has not been recognized, but the evidence is all there.

The clue may be found in an almost passing statement made by Emil Brunner in the course of his recounting the breakthrough of what came to be called "neo-orthodoxy": "For the best that we had when we started we were indebted, humanly speaking, to two great figures of Pietism--Chr. Blumhardt, in Boll, and Kierkegaard."

The name and place of Kierkegaard is well enough known--though certainly not as a Pietist or (in broader terms) a Protestant radical. In my forthcoming book Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship: A New Perspective I make at least a valiant attempt to show that his thought belongs squarely in this tradition. Yet even though Kierkegaard supported radical emphases right down the line, it will take a little more doing to prove that he operated out of an eschatological orientation--an aspect of Christian doctrine which he almost entirely neglected. However, there could be more here than meets the eye; the answer could be that with his continual reference to "time" as over against "eternity" Kierkegaard was thinking of neither more nor less than historical existence seen from a here-and-now perspective as over against the same existence seen from an eschatological perspective. We must at least consider the possibility that Kierkegaard truly represents the radical tradition in this as in so many other respects.

< p>Although there is not the slightest question about Blumhardt's being of the Pietist-radical tradition, he is not well enough known--at least in this country. Actually, there were two Blumhardts--J. C., the father (1805-1880), and Christoph, the son (1842-1919). But their careers were so much of a piece that the two men tend to get merged under the one name, Blumhardt. The totality of Blumhardt writings available in English is represented by Lejeune's slim anthology Christoph Blumhardt and His Message. That slimness I am working hard to correct because I feel that Blumhardt is crucial to the whole contemporary development.

Although the Blumhardts, in the style typical of the radicals, produced practical, occasional, sermonic pieces rather than a formal system, theirs was a deliberate theology of the kingdom of God; theirs was thinking done explicitly from an eschatological perspective. If I am correct in setting the radical typology as I have, then the Blumhardts represent something of a climax and crystallization of tradition.

James C. Cox's doctoral dissertation written under Karl Barth, Johann Christoph Blumhardt and the Work of the Holy Spirit(1959), explores the relationship between the elder Blumhardt and Württemberg Pietism out of which he sprang. A conclusion which Cox does not draw but which evidence might indicate is that the Württemberg Pietism of Blumhardt's day represented a perversion, a Pietism gone to seed on apocalyptic speculation, and that Blumhardt's own work represents not so much a departure from Pietism as a recovery of, the more normative tradition.

Gerhard Sauter, whom I mentioned above as one of the new, eschatologist theologians, also wrote his doctrinal dissertation on the Blumhardts, Die Theologie des Reiches Gottes beim ältern und jüngeren Blumhardt (1962). Therein he traces major influences from Blumhardt directly into the work of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Although Bonhoeffer did mention Blumhardt by name, Sauter found most of the themes (if not the actual catch phrase which represent his contribution to contemporary Christian thought) are foreshadowed (in some cases quite strikingly) by Blumhardt. Karl Barth, on other hand, publicly acknowledges a Blumhardt motto, "Jesus is victor!" as being the central rubric of his own theological work, and in the course of career Barth has written three different essays about the Blumhardts. Eduard Thurneysen, Barth's friend who introduced him to the Blumhardts, has written another essay and a book about them. And in at least some respects Emil Brunner's theology may more Blumhardtian than that of either Barth or Bonhoeffer.

Although much of the Blumhardtian eschatology has been mediated to the contemporary sub rosa as it were (by way of Barth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer), there is a direct feed-in as well. Of men mentioned earlier, of course Sauter and James Cox but also Moltmann, Wieser, Gloege and Harvey Cox know the Blumhardts and acknowledged a debt to them.

Thus, although the fact is virtually unrecognized, Protestant radicalism with its eschatological perspective has already, through Kierkegaard and Blumhardt, been extremely influential in setting the stage for a bright, new development in Christian thought. What this suggests is that the debt and connection might not be kept hidden. Studies of historic radicalism should be made with an eye to discovering its relevancy for our current situation. On all fronts--biblical studies, theology, ecclesiology, and mission--radicalism's eschatological witness should be making itself heard. The churches of the radical tradition--if they have any radicalism left in them--ought to be speaking within the ecumenical councils of the church in a much stronger and more self-respecting way than they have heretofore. From their perspective of "cosmological redemption in process" the radicals should be helping the total church make a more meaningful turn to the world. As Rosemary Ruether puts it, "Whenever there is authentic renewal there is a rebirth of the vision of radical renewal which is precisely the left-wing tradition." That rebirth now shows signs of happening; would that Protestant radicalism might take up its role as eschatological witness in the world!

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Copyright (c) 1967, The Christian Century