D. Ray Hostetter, The Soul of the Brethren in Christ: Essays in Church History. Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 245.
[This is the first part in a multi-part review of D. Ray Hostetter’s new book, The Soul of the Brethren in Christ. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3, and 4…]
In The Soul of the Brethren in Christ: Essays in Church Identity, D. Ray Hostetter sets out to answer one question: Who are the Brethren in Christ? A small, conservative Protestant denomination that emerged in eighteenth-century Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Brethren in Christ have been previously the subjects of numerous book-length historical and theological studies, including Carlton O. Wittlinger’s Quest for Piety and Obedience: The Story of the Brethren in Christ (Evangel Press, 1978), considered by many to be the definitive history of the church. Most scholars identify the group as evangelical, and cite its roots in the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Holiness traditions as determinative of its unique character.
Hostetter’s analysis purports to move beyond previous inquiries, to probe what few (if any) other scholars have: “the very soul of the [Brethren in Christ] body” (p. 235). This study, Hostetter claims, is different in that it seeks to understand more than theological underpinnings or historical roots; The Soul of the Brethren in Christ is concerned with the identity of the denomination.
In his introduction to the book, Hostetter contends that the identity of the denomination ought to be determined by studying “the doctrines [the group] emphasizes, the traditions it embraces, and the patterns of life it follows. Variations of these ingredients provide a profile that distinguishes one denomination from another” (p. xi). From that methodological platform, Hostetter constructs his profile of the Brethren in Christ.
The author writes from a unique perspective. As a life-long member of the Brethren in Christ Church and the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Brethren in Christ bishops, he possesses an “insider’s view” of the denomination. As the sixth and longest-serving president of Messiah College (1964-1994), a liberal arts institution launched by the Brethren in Christ in 1909 as a bible school and missionary training home, he has overseen (in a general way) the undergraduate education of many of the denomination’s current ministers and laity. And as an academic major in history, he possesses the knowledge necessary to understand historical and religious developments and their impact on denominational identity.
Given this background, he seems the ideal candidate to pen an identity study of the Brethren in Christ: on one hand, his impressive academic credentials allow him conversance with scholars; on the other hand his background in administration and his “insider’s view” of the church makes him capable of speaking meaningfully to pastors and other ministerial leaders.
Hostetter seems aware of the potential for this dual audience as he writes. In articulating the rationale for a denominational identity study in the book’s first chapter, he indicates that he writes both for “general historic and comparative analysis reasons” and to enable church leaders and the laity “to project a future vision in accordance with . . . [the group’s] historic vision” (p. 3).
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Hostetter’s book reaches two conclusions about the identity of the Brethren in Christ. The first—that “the basic historical identity of the Brethren in Christ [Church] is rooted in Pietism and Anabaptism (not [the] three or four traditions that have been suggested in various studies)” (p. 57)—satisfies the theoretical/historical component of the work; the second—that “‘a living faith’ is the soul of the Brethren in Christ” (p. 237)—satisfies the practical/ministerial component.
To be continued . . .