Education, Authority and the Church in the Life and Thought of John Ellsworth Hartzler

By Benner, Keith | Mennonite Quarterly Review, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Education, Authority and the Church in the Life and Thought of John Ellsworth Hartzler


Benner, Keith, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: Many varied influences were bearing upon the Mennonite Church at the turn of the century as its members were slowly emerging from their ethnic enclaves and engaging the mainstream of American economic, cultural and educational life. While some church leaders were adopting an aggressive form of Protestant fundamentalism, their antagonists--led by John Ellsworh Hartzler--had warmed to the rhetoric of liberalism. Hartzler's long academic career offers an instructive glimpse into these complex, sometimes conflicting, forces that were shaping a new generation of Mennonite leaders.

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"It is safe to say," declared John Horsch in his 1924 expose of modernist tendencies among American Mennonites, "that never before in her history has the Church faced such a crisis." And no contemporary church leader offered better proof of his concern, Horsch claimed, than John Ellsworth Hartzler--a fellow Mennonite scholar and former president of Goshen College whose writing and speeches were "a perversion and denial of the fundamentals of the faith." (2) Hartzler, in turn, could have used the same language to describe his view of Horsch's brand of fundamentalism, a peculiar form of faith that he thought had infected American Mennonites with overly rigid spirit and a zealous doctrinal legalism alien to the Anabaptist tradition. (3)

Arguments between "fundamentalists" such as Horsch and "liberals" like Hartzler during the opening decades of the twentieth century were not simply clashes between two opposing theological positions. As the trajectory of Hartzler's life and thought helpfully illustrates, many other forces were at work in the Mennonite Church during the first half of the twentieth century--forces that tend to be obscured by the rubrics of "fundamentalist" and "modernist." This essay will trace the significance of Hartzler's interaction with liberal theology, demonstrating not only how Hartzler integrated these ideas in his understanding of Anabaptism but also how this synthesis informed his strong reaction against Mennonite fundamentalism and the centralization of church authority that accompanied the movement.

AMERICAN MENNONITES IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY

In seeking to understand the transformations that occurred within the church during the first half of the twentieth century, Mennonite historians have frequently highlighted the significance of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. To some, the rise of evolutionary theory and historical criticism of Scripture weakened orthodox understandings of biblical inerrancy, and a new confidence that secular social programs could adequately address the problems of American society seemed to undermine the authority and relevance of Christianity itself. For others, however, the American liberal theology movement--expressed variously as theological liberalism, evangelical liberalism, transcendentalism and scientific modernism--held out the promise of integrating Christian faith with modern trends. (4)

In broad terms, liberalism or modernism assumes that truth claims should be based upon reason and experience, and that traditional Christian teachings should be reinterpreted in light of scientific knowledge and modern ethical values. As historian Gary Dorrien describes it, liberalism essentially argues that Christianity need not be based on any authority external to human experience. Scripture and Christian dogma therefore become "authoritative within Christian experience," but neither can "establish truth claims about matters of fact." (5) In his recent interpretation, Dorrien has called American liberal theology the most significant religious movement since the Reformation. In his words, it "redefined the religious teaching and social ambitions of mainstream American Protestantism." (6)

Christian fundamentalism emerged as a reaction against this new synthesis between religion and modern trends in education and society. …

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