Is the Neo-Anabaptist Tradition Being "Claiborne-Again"?

July 11, 2017

Is the Neo-Anabaptist Tradition Being “Claiborne-Again”?

The Old Guard of Neo-Anabaptist academics are likely soon headed for retirement. When that happens, who should we expect to take their place? Is Shane Claiborne leading the movement through a “Claiborne-again” experience?

Several hours of trying to infiltrate the Neo-Anabaptist world online and find their up-and-coming academics to little avail resulted in few answers. Perhaps they are a humble bunch, there is simply little consensus on who these individuals are, or maybe they don’t exist. What could this mean for the future of Neo-Anabaptist thought?

John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) is widely recognized as the founder of this niche, yet influential, movement. Most well-known for his influential work The Politics of Jesus, Yoder is commonly referred to as the theologian responsible for the rise in popularity of Christian pacifism (one of the central tenants of the movement) as a legitimate, defensible ideology. Because Yoder was a Mennonite writing from an Anabaptist perspective, those deeply inspired by his work have been referred to by some as Neo-Anabaptists.

Following Yoder’s death, and the exposure of some morally unconscionable aspects of his life, Stanley Hauerwas, 76, was left to carry the mantle, which he has done since. Professor emeritus at Duke University, Hauerwas has received widespread recognition for his work on ethics and political theology. In 2001, Time Magazine even named him “America’s Best Theologian”. His most influential works (The Peaceable Kingdom and Resident Aliens) were both written in the 1980s, though he has written dozens of books since.

Hauerwas is a giant in the world of political theology and Christian ethics. He won’t keep writing forever, though. When he does eventually step away, he’ll be leaving some rather large boots to fill.

It’s unclear if anyone is lining up to fill these boots. While searching for the prominent names in the Neo-Anabaptist tradition, names referred to me included Scot McKnight, Stuart Murray Williams, Greg Boyd, and Shane Claiborne. However, there is very little consensus about who the leading minds, aside from Hauerwas, really are. Some of the figures that others point to as leading the way in Neo-Anabaptist thought don’t even associate themselves with this line of thinking (as Scot McKnight politely informed me was true of himself). This is evidence of the apparent void, and perhaps demonstrates confusion as to exactly what Neo-Anabaptist thought is.

It appears that Neo-Anabaptists generally adhere to a set of principles, but not a systematic theology. While Yoder and Hauerwas wrote extensively on ethics and political theology, their work doesn’t focus on developing a systematic theology as such. What typically separates Neo-Anabaptists from other movements is the renunciation of violence and strong belief in the need for separation from the world (be that disengagement from political matters, holding strong counter-cultural values, or, for some, creating a physically isolated community). Beyond those values, however, there doesn’t seem to be much that unites them.

In a recent article, Scot McKnight suggests that better than asking what an Anabaptist is, is to ask who the Anabaptists are. Without a clear doctrine to be found, looking at the lives of self-proclaimed Anabaptists could be a good way to reveal what an Anabaptist is. But even that is inconclusive, as leaders in the Neo-Anabaptist world range from pastors to activists; from those disengaged from world affairs to those actively combating social injustice; from those leading large churches to those withdrawing and forming church communities on the fringes of society.

Of the three branches of Neo-Anabaptist leadership that have emerged (theologians, pastors, and activists), the theologians appear to be losing dominance and will likely face a critical blow when Hauerwas steps down. At the same time, the activists are, rather unsurprisingly, on the rise. The emphasis on social justice that Anabaptists have valued for years is becoming far more prevalent throughout the Church at large, and many Christians have been swept up in the “Irresistible Revolution of Shane Claiborne. As many become “Claiborne-again,” it’s looking likely that New Monasticism – and the call to live a simple life, embracing those on the fringes of society – could become the face of Neo-Anabaptism.

It’s unlikely that Shane Claiborne will ever be named America’s best theologian by Time magazine, but it’s also unlikely that he would want to be. His form of Neo-Anabaptism occupies a different arena, but that doesn’t lessen its influence. The counter-cultural (and counter-traditional church) message of New Monasticism is striking a chord with young Christians, drawing them to engage, love, and live alongside those on the fringes of society.

At the same time, these ideas are supplemented by the arrival of new texts such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, urging Christians away from the “lost battle” at the forefront of American culture. The debate presented by Neo-Anabaptists is shifting from being one of ethics and politics, to culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, the lack of a clear Anabaptist doctrine, and the decline in influence of Anabaptist theologians beyond Hauerwas, allows the face of Neo-Anabaptism to change with the times, and it appears that the current change may be away from the forefront of theological academia to the sidelines of urban society—from the temple courts into the marketplace.


One Response to Is the Neo-Anabaptist Tradition Being “Claiborne-Again”?

  1. Tim Adams says:

    James William McClendon, who was a good friend of both Hauerwas, Yoder and Will Campbell, wrote a three-volume Systematic Theology – Ethics, Doctrine and Witness. McClendon was a prooonent of what he called the (lower case “b”) baptist vision. He was one of the founders of the Narrative Theology Movement and also wrote the book Biography as Theology. Anyone who is a leader among the Neo Anabaptiists willl have to read McClendon. At the time of his death in 2001 he was Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Fuller Theological Seminary and married to Nancey Murphy, who is Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller.

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