[This is the second part in our review of D. Ray Hostetter’s The Soul of the Brethren in Christ. To read the first part of our review, click here.]
Conceptually, Hostetter divides his book into three parts. In the first, he outlines the project and offers a brief overview of Brethren in Christ identity as interpreted in previous scholarly inquiries. In the second, he posits a fresh thesis about the historical roots of the church, and unpacks that thesis by documenting the church chronologically from its founding to the present day. In the third, he turns to ministerial concerns as he presents a series of subjective interpretive essays analyzing key qualities of the Brethren in Christ and predicting the future ministry vitality of the church.
Given this blog’s primary interest in Brethren in Christ history, the remainder of this review will treat in-depth the elements of the book dedicated to examining and analyzing the church’s past.
The first “section” of Hostetter’s book — chapters one through three — lays the groundwork for his analysis of the denomination. Beginning with an essay-length rationale for studying denominational identity and a summary of the various theological traditions (Pietism, Anabaptism, Wesleyanism, and Evangelicalism) linked to the Brethren in Christ Church by previous scholars, Hostetter concludes with his provocative thesis that only Pietism and Anabaptism form the historical identity of the church.
From here, he launches into the second part of his analysis, wherein “[a]djustments to the denomination’s identity are examined according to five historic periods” (p. 70). In chapter four, he examines the “founding vision” of the church and looks at how Anabaptist and Pietist influences shaped the denomination in its first hundred-or-so years of existence (approximately 1778-1865); using the group’s 18th century Confession, he shows that the two influences persisted in dynamic interplay in this era. In the next chapter, Hostetter examines the church’s evolution between 1865 and 1950 — an 85-year period that saw the conservative fellowship formally adopt a number of innovations from the larger evangelical movement while also reinforcing its commitment to separation through a series of proscriptive changes to its doctrinal manual. Chapter six describes how, between 1950 and 1980, the Brethren in Christ “compromised” some of their nonconformist beliefs while increasing their missionary outreach at home and abroad — a trend Hostetter terms “engagement.” Finally, in chapter seven, Hostetter describes how the Brethren in Christ “confront[ed] postmodernism” during the 1980s and 1990s, and how the group settled on a distinct identity “rooted [primarily] in pietist principles” (p. 133).
The tenth chapter — though separated from the earlier historical sections of the text — seeks to determine the best “descriptive designations to identify who the Brethren in Christ are” (p. 205). Hostetter spends much of the chapter delineating eighteenth-century Pietism from contemporary American Evangelicalism. He argues that “the term Pietism may be misleading if used to describe the [present-day] Brethren in Christ,” since “[h]istorically Pietism was a trans-denominational renewal movement in central Europe” that influenced American Protestantism most dramatically during the Great Awakening (p. 206). Instead, he contends, the Brethren in Christ Church of today would do well to employ modifiers — like “irenic” or “centrist” — to further complicate the designation “evangelical,” or double-up the terms (i.e., “Pietist/evangelical”) (p. 217). Finally, he closes the chapter by suggesting a “rather concise identity statement” for today’s Brethren in Christ Church (p. 217).
To be continued…