Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Baptism, Postliberal and Anabaptist Theologies, and the Ambiguity of Christian Practice

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Baptism, Postliberal and Anabaptist Theologies, and the Ambiguity of Christian Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent Anabaptist theology has been strongly influenced by postliberal theology, which tends to regard Christian practices as unambiguously distinguishing the church from the world. This tendency is evident in the baptismal theologies of Stanley Hauerwas and Frederick C. Bauerschmidt. Attention to the history of baptism suggests, however, that baptismal practice relates the church to the world in multiple ways. On this basis, and in dialogue with James McClendon's "baptist" theology, this paper contends that attempts to regulate Christian practices should attend to their ambiguities.


Christian theology has experienced a "practice turn" (1) in recent decades. Instead of plumbing the logical depths of the creedal propositions or surveying the misty heights of universal religious experience, theologians have attended to concrete, embodied practices as constitutive and indicative of the character of Christian faith. Today a theologian is liable to answer the question "What makes a Christian Christian?" with a list of practices: a Christian has been baptized (and perhaps baptizes); preaches and teaches; prays; studies Scripture; partakes in communal worship and fellowship; receives the Lord's Supper; loves enemies; seeks justice, and so on. Although there is now some backlash to the practice turn, (2) a steady stream of books and articles continue to appear that, like this one, bear the language of practice in their titles. (3)

Within theological discourse, a major contributor to this practice turn has been postliberalism, which has even construed doctrine in practice terms. Postliberal theology is generally held to have emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, and its origins are strongly associated with Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck. (4) Postliberals, and especially those following after Lindbeck, are known for adapting Ludwig Wittgenstein's late work on rule-based grammars and "forms of life" to the church. (5) If practical grammars are the condition of a form of life's coherence, then grammatical clarification will contribute to the latter. Postliberals have taken up this insight by casting Christian doctrine as the practice of describing as clearly as possible the network of linguistic and other rules that make the church the church. For postliberals, doctrine, or Christian teaching, regulates the Christian life, and so makes it distinct and intelligible. (6)

Postliberal theology has made a significant impact in Anabaptist and Mennonite circles since the 1980s. (7) Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the best-known postliberal theologian, champions Anabaptism as closely aligned with his own understanding of the church and its practices. Hauerwas's Mennonite friend and major influence, John Howard Yoder, is sometimes discussed in studies of postliberalism, (8) and the work of both has been formative for recent generations of Anabaptist and Mennonite theologians. James McClendon, Nancey Murphy, Harry Huebner, and, more recently, Peter Dula, Chris Huebner, Alex Sider, Anthony Siegrist, and many others have articulated Anabaptist theologies through close conversation with postliberal sources. (9) This alliance between Anabaptism and postliberalism recommends the latter as a subject of inquiry for Anabaptist and Mennonite theologians today.

In this essay I respond critically to postliberal accounts of practice by reviewing two baptismal theologies, those of Hauerwas and Catholic theologian Frederick C. Bauerschmidt. I focus especially on their contributions to the Mennonite-Catholic Theological Colloquium that took place in 2001 and 2002. Bauerschmidt gave the keynote address, and Hauerwas provided one of the responses. From my perspective, their writings on baptism substantiate the charge levied by various critics--including sympathetic ones--that postliberals tend to construe Christian practices in unambiguous terms: practices and their effects can be known in advance without respect to their contexts, making them subject to comprehensive doctrinal regulation. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.