Radical Faith is the one of the fruits of John Driver’s many years of teaching history and theology in a variety of mission contexts. The book is about
sectarian catholicity, an effort to demonstrate the continuity of radical faith throughout history from the New Testament origins of the church until the present. It is well written, accompanied by quotations from key texts from all the movements included and will be a good textbook in many different settings.
Since no reader is without bias, I should state mine from the outset. This reviewer works for the same mission agency that employed John Driver. Driver was a well appreciated colleague during the years he was in Spain in the 1980’s. As did John Driver, I also teach church history in a highly secularized but traditionally Catholic context. Even though the theology of liberation that strongly influenced Driver is less present in the French context where I live and work, I was able to identify with the questions that the book is asking and trying to answer. Before raising questions, I want to say clearly that I think the book is a very good one and deserves to be widely read and used, both in the classroom, as well as by anyone interested in the history of Christianity.
From the outset, John Driver makes it clear that he is operating out of a particular theological bias with well-defined criteria: his starting point is a
version of history found in the Bible, with its vision of the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. This book is not the story of the Ecumenical Councils, of theological debates, of Princes and Popes, or of crusades and conquests.
This is the story of the poor and oppressed, surprised by the grace of God those who, by human standards, have stood outside the institutions of salvation of those called to prophetic mission and martyrdom the story of the Messianic people who live in expectation of the radical restoration of God’s kingdom, in all its vigor and splendor. Driver’s book assumes a
Constantinian shift, which made the history of most of Christianity, to use Enrique Dussel’s terms, an
It is because of this perspective that Driver begins with two chapters which set forth this biblical vision (chapter 1
The Story of the Christian People and chapter 2
A Biblical Vision of the People of God). Here it becomes clear that the book uses these theological criteria (based on Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings) as a
filter but will also highlight the economic and social factors that seem to consistently appear at the origins of the various movements chosen as representatives of
radical faith. The close attention paid to these different historical contexts is one of the strong points and strengths of the book.
Driver’s book presents a series of movements and people that represent
radical faith. Early Christianity is represented by the pre-Constantinian church, the Montanists, Monasticism and the Donatists. Medieval representatives include the Waldensians, St. Francis, John Wyclif and the Lollards, and Peter Chelcicky and the Czech Brethren. Sixteen century radicals include Juan de Valdes, Carlstadt, Müntzer, the Peasants’ War, along with Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists. From the Reformation period until the twentieth century the following movements were chosen: George Fox and the Quakers, Pietism and the Church of the Brethren, John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Plymouth Brethren, Pentecostalism, Basic Ecclesial Communities.
In some ways, John Driver’s effort is similar to James McClendon’s attempt to establish a
baptist tradition which includes (but at the same time is larger than) the direct descendants of the
Radical Reformation. Not all of Driver’s radicals baptize adults, nor are they all consistently non-violent. The criteria searched for and the similarities highlighted go beyond some of the traditional attempts at establishing continuity between
marginal groups in church history. In the end, we find radicals who
direct their lives according to the authority of scripture, who
generally appeal to the poor and marginalized, women, outsiders, the ceremonially unclean, movements where the
doctrine of ’salvation by grace’ takes on a deeper significance, groups that
acknowledge the Spirit of the living Christ in their midst, where
common lay persons can become active protagonists in the life and mission of the church, where
the poor are subjects of their own liberation. The relationship to mission is also clearly underlined. These radicals
see themselves as communities of mission, in which every member is called to witness.
These movements do not generally seek social survival, but rather faithfulness in mission.
Many radical movements find the suffering witness of martyrdom to be a strategic alternative to the official exercise of coercive power. Here we have an important reminder that
radical faith is worth being shared.
John Driver is not the first person to write such a history. Sixteenth century Hutterites attempted to tell their story by tying it into the larger picture of the history of Christianity; so did the Martyrs’ Mirror. As time went on, Mennonites in North America no longer seemed to need to see themselves as part of a larger context. Much of Anabaptist history done in the twentieth century has been written using the sixteenth century Reformation as the immediate backdrop and context. Such an approach has the advantage of helping to understand Anabaptists on their own terms and to distinguish their concerns from those of the
official Reformers. It has the disadvantage of forgetting that the immediate context of the Reformation was Roman Catholicism, the failure of several centuries of reform efforts to bear fruit in a satisfactory way, and the splitting up of Western Christendom. We therefore often forget our Catholic roots, having too easily become used to the divisions and denominationalism of Western Christianity and no longer seeing our story as part of a much larger story of continuity (and conflict) with other Christians. Our own story is too often self-sufficient, perhaps because it is about ourselves and our ancestors.
John Driver has worked and taught in contexts where an Anabaptist (or
radical) version of the Christian faith had to be presented and explained to those who were not a part of this story and to whom the story appeared either unknown or so marginal as not to be worthy of serious consideration. It is in such contexts that one becomes aware of the necessity of building bridges and seeking continuity with a much larger Christian past. How many North American Mennonites feel kinship with Methodists or Pentecostals, Montanists or Donatists?
In my opinion, the book nevertheless raises important questions especially in terms of those who are not a part of the story. The Spanish preface quoted on the final cover page says that Driver has
written a history that is an alternative both to traditional accounts and to sectarian interpretations. I am convinced on the first point, but not completely on the second. To many readers outside the tradition, this will still appear to be a very
sectarian book. But can it be otherwise? How do Mennonites understand themselves in the context of the larger Christian tradition when we presuppose a
Constantinian shift as a starting point? How do we speak of our history and theology in contexts where Anabaptism is often nothing more than an incorrect and disparaging footnote in the larger story of the Christian church?
Taking church history out of the hands of ecclesiastical institutions (the insiders) has been one answer to such a question. In France as elsewhere, contemporary historians have often taken a more
scientific approach to the writing of Christian history Such an approach rejects traditional confessional and polemical perspectives and includes all representatives of the
Christian story as legitimate participants. This has the advantage of allowing Anabaptists (but also all the other groups chosen by Driver) to be a part of the larger story. This is definite progress, but it puts aside an important question that confessional approaches, including John Driver’s, ask. Is there a theological
essence of the Christian faith that can be either lived or betrayed ? Can the historian write of people, groups, and institutions that faithfully represented that which makes the Christian church
Christian ? Until quite recently in the history of Christianity, it was assumed that such questions should be asked and could be answered. There were a variety of responses, but they all assumed the possibility of a normative perspective from which history could be done.
John Driver successfully incorporates important aspects of
scientific historiography. He allows the outsiders a voice; in fact, they become the main participants and the center of meaning. He especially highlights the socio-economic conditions in which most of these radical groups came into being. But at the same time he assumes the faithfulness and exemplary nature of these movements. Other historians would have other readings on this question. Many would interpret Driver’s perspective to mean that since all Christians have access to the same biblical tradition, certain historical conditions bring about more
radical understandings of Scripture and therefore produce groups that have sociological similarities. A sociologist friend once asked me: do people who have no power have any other choice than an ideological rejection of power? Are there examples of radical Christian groups coming into being in other (i.e., more favorable) socio-economic circumstances? Are there examples of radical groups maintaining their
radicality once they find themselves in different socio-economic conditions? If not, what does that mean, both theologically and sociologically?
The question then becomes: are these groups the only
true essence of Christian history, or are they part of a larger story that also needs to be told ? The biblical narrative highlights faithful individuals and speaks of the remnant, of the
straight and narrow. But it also speaks of failure, of kingship gone awry, of exile, of betrayal, of weakness, of Moses the murderer, of Abraham the liar, David the adulterer, etc. But it’s one
big story of which David (the Old Testament Constantine) is still a part.
I am probably asking too much. John Driver’s book tells the story of these groups and highlights their similarities. That in itself is a quite helpful and useful task. These stories have not been told, or they have been told only to show that these people were wrong. My question is: how do these neglected stories relate to the larger story ? Is this the (only) faithful history and the rest only an
inversion (even though I do believe in
inversions and unfaithfulness)? If this is the only history of the church, how then do we dialogue with Catholics and others? How do we come to grips with our own failures, with our own cultural and social accommodations to more favorable circumstances? How do we develop a theology of
institutions and of the
long term once the first generation martyrdom and enthusiasm is no longer present? Can we appreciate the positive impact of Christianity on Western culture?
Over the last twenty years, Mennonite scholars such as John Driver, Alan Kreider, and Joe Liechty have been doing creative historical scholarship in quite varied contexts. Pandora Press should be thanked for making this kind of work available to a larger North American audience.
Saint Maurice, France