Generic Anabaptism and Biblical Interpretation

By Norman Kraus

What is generic anabaptism?

Anabaptism with a small ‘a’ is a twentieth-century phenomenon – an attempt to adopt and adapt the insights and values of sixteenth-century Anabaptism as a guide to the application of Scripture in our twenty-first century context. While contemporary generic anabaptism attempts to preserve an authentic continuation of the sixteenth-century movement, it is not and cannot be a replica of pristine Anabaptism. Rather, it represents a post-denominational perspective that seeks to dialogue across denominational lines.

Much has changed over the past five centuries. We live in vastly different political cultures than did the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Historical studies have changed our way of understanding and interpreting the Scriptures. Scientific research and technological developments have altered our very way of life. Subtly these changes have altered the cultural, political and religious climate so that the conservative patterns of groups like the Amish and Mennonite communities less and less resemble the dynamic innovative responses of their forebears, the original Anabaptists. This has introduced an ambiguity into claims on the anabaptist label.

Thus, not all Mennonites are necessarily anabaptist in the generic sense. Anabaptistic Mennonites as participants in inter-denominational dialogue are evangelical, pacifistic, non-hierarchical (lay), socially concerned Christians with an emphasis on a Jesus-centred view of the Bible. And there are many others who take an anabaptist perspective in biblical interpretation but are not Mennonites. This ecumenically oriented anabaptism is intellectually comfortable on the left wing of Evangelical scholarship and does not draw sharp lines of distinction between its conservative and liberal interlocutors. It has a conservative but critical perspective on biblical interpretation, attempting to preserve and promote an authentic modern contextualisation of the pre-critical hermeneutic of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists.

The goal of generic anabaptism is not a fixed, uniform position. Its goal is not orthodoxy but authenticity – authentic interpretation of Scripture through the lens of its own Anabaptist tradition. This necessitates a dialogue in two directions. First, a dialogue between sixteenth-century Anabaptism and twentieth-century anabaptism, and second, a dialogue between twentieth-century anabaptism and other traditions. At least implicitly, it recognises that an authentic expression of Christ-centred faith as portrayed in the New Testament requires an inclusive conversational dialogue among all those seriously seeking to follow the way of Christ.

What then is the perspective that this generic anabaptism brings to the interpretation of the Bible? Anabaptism does not establish a new orthodox creed for the universal church to follow. It does not establish a standardised theological and ethical formula to achieve uniformity among the diversity of the world’s cultures. Rather, it is a perspective, a way of reading Scripture. It offers a way of reading and contextualising Scripture under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit that adapts to multi-cultural dialogue. It makes Jesus the lens through which all Scripture is read, concentrating attention on the pattern of Jesus’ life as the authentic example of God’s will for human society. It offers a way to deal with the multi-cultural expressions of Christian faith in Jesus.

The responsibility of the local congregation

We should begin with the conviction that the Bible is the book of the church. This is a perspective that the Anabaptists inherited and share with the Catholic tradition. The Bible is the inspired witness to and record of God’s self-revelation to be interpreted and used as authority in the church. The books of Scripture issued out of the life and experience of Israel and the church, and the church created the Christian canon (i.e., the list of recognised authoritative books). To speak with theological precision, the church does not give the canon its authority but recognises its divine authority for the life of the church.

The warrant for this authority is found not so much in the text of the Bible as in the Spirit of God that initially inspired the text and is given to the church to guide it in understanding and using the text. Today we refer to this as ‘contextualisation’ of the text, the interpretation and application of the text in different and changing cultural contexts. What does the Spirit intend in the original cultural context? What in the text transcends cultural differences, and what needs to be adapted to authentically preserve its original intention?

Both the Catholic and Anabaptist traditions recognise that this responsibility has been given to the church as the ‘body of Christ’, which continues the salvific work of the historical Jesus Christ. The Bible has not been given to individuals as a private revelation to provide a serendipitous authority and guidance. But here the Anabaptist and Catholic traditions have different perspectives. For Anabaptists, the church is made up of voluntarily committed members who are full participants in the life of the church. This includes participation in discerning the spiritual meaning, relevance and practical application of the text to specific situations.

To say that interpretation is basically the responsibility of Christian congregations living in the cultural situation does not mean that the congregation is a law unto itself! The congregation is dependent upon the ecclesial and scholarly resources at it disposal. The process of contextualisation begins with the study of original languages, historical and anthropological studies of the biblical cultures, biblical translation and theological evaluations, all of which require technical scholarly effort and insight. But, at the end of the process, it is the local congregation that is responsible to act in the name of Christ. This is a fundamental aspect of the historical Anabaptist perspective that generic anabaptism attempts to re-establish.

Listening to Jesus

A second distinguishing perspective – one that marked the Anabaptists off from other Protestants – was their insistence that because the New Testament is the record of God’s revelation in Jesus, the Christ, it has authority over the Old. It should be pointed out that this was not merely a legalistic shift from the text of the Old to the text of the New. Rather, their new authority was Jesus, the Messiah, and not Moses, the Lawgiver. The Christian’s mandate is to follow Jesus, and because the New Testament is the trustworthy written witness to him, it was of supreme importance. They valued the Old Testament as a preparatory document, the historical witness and record of God’s covenant with Israel preparing the way for Christ and a new covenant, in the words of Jeremiah 31, to be written on the hearts of God’s people. The New Testament, they held, is the culmination of, fulfils, and supersedes the Old.

Protestant leaders continued the medieval pattern of appealing to the Old Testament law to establish a socio-political structure within which the church functioned. In effect, they continued the social pattern in which the church (spiritual) and the state (secular) joined to establish a sacral community in which the civil structures for the total community were found in the Old Testament. The debates between Lutheran and Reformed theologians merely continued the medieval argument whether the spiritual trumped the secular in authority, or vice versa, but both fully agreed that the Testaments—Old and New—shared an equal authority in the institutional church. Thus, for example, in Calvin’s Geneva the church could render a judgment of heresy with the intention and full expectation of the death penalty to be carried out by the ‘Christian’ government.

Anabaptists understood the New Testament to be a new covenant between God and humans creating a ‘new people of God’ – a new social order. It was not merely a spiritual directive for individuals in their religious life, but a social directive to guide the ethical life of the human community. The Hebrew covenant is explicitly a religio-cultural covenant providing a socio-political structure for a national ‘people of God’ among the pagan nations of the earth. The New Testament gives little or no political instruction. Christians are simply to be ‘salt and light’ for the world – a rather non-specific ethical directive. This raises the question how the new Christian covenant is to be interpreted.

Protestant reformers held that the new covenant assumes and accepts the political context of the old, and merely provides for a mid-course correction and personalisation of the relationship. Anabaptism, on the other hand, asserted that the new covenant establishes a new spiritual and cultural pattern based on the example of Jesus as ‘the true and living Way’ (John 14:6). The church as the people of God under this new covenant is to be a voluntary alternative society taking its precedent from the New Testament. Where the New differs from the Old, Jesus’ words (‘It has been said by them of old…but I say unto you’) are the authority for action. Where the New differs from the Old, Christians are to be guided by a new ethical pattern. Nachfolge Christi (following Christ) was not equated with patriotism in a Christian nation governed in the spirit and form of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The consequences of this revision of the Hebrew covenant had inevitable sociological implications. The government was de-sacralised and understood as part of the fallen natural order. The secularisation of the political order placed it outside the church and, in effect, gave it the status of the pagan nations surrounding Israel. For the Anabaptists this created a tension between the true church and Christendom.

Although the first generation of Anabaptism did not function as a sectarian movement, it is well known that it became so in the centuries following. The Anabaptist perspective on New Testament ethical interpretation led eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mennonites to withdraw from political society, which it called ‘the world’. Where the example and teaching of Christ (understood as including the ethical admonition of the Apostles) did not provide a practical political guide for action there was nothing to do but withdraw. Now that the Mennonite world has assimilated much of the professional, institutional, political and economic culture, the relevance and role of the Old Testament is being re-examined. Generic anabaptism, however, maintains that Jesus as ‘pioneer and perfecter of the faith’ is the ethical and spiritual exemplar for Christian action.

Imitating Jesus

That leads us to the third perspective of contemporary anabaptist biblical interpretation, namely, that Jesus as the climax of revelation—the Word made flesh (John), and ‘image of the invisible God’ (Paul)—is both the personal-spiritual and social-ethical pattern for Christians. Evangelical Protestantism has interpreted Jesus as a spiritual redeemer and ideal for personal life, but not an example to be followed in social ethics. Beginning with the original Protestant, Martin Luther, Jesus was understood to have had the unique ‘vocation’ of Saviour – a vocation, or calling, that his followers do not and cannot share. Although the spirit of Christ motivates lay Christians, the law of justice guides their secular functions in the world.

One can find beautiful passages in Luther’s works extolling the non-resistant love of Jesus as an example for Christians to follow in their personal attitude, but alongside such passages are exhortations to these same Christians to apply for the public job of hangman because as individuals of faith and love they bring the right spirit to the ghastly job. Jesus’ call to ‘take up your cross and follow [my example]’ does not apply to the Christian calling in the public arena. Discipleship is a matter of private faith and love.

This perspective on Jesus’ divine person and work on our behalf led Protestants to a focus on ‘justification by faith-belief’ not by ‘works-righteousness’. Christ’s role as God’s penal substitutionary sacrifice became the almost exclusive centre of interest, and our relation to him was interpreted as one of dependence and trust (fiducia) – a favourite word of Luther. He remained focused on the cross and blood of Christ, made effective for lay Christians in the sacrament, rather than the ministry and lifestyle of Jesus that resulted in his execution as a religious and political threat. From this perspective, the resurrection of Christ became the vindication of his divine self-sacrificial atoning death, not of his incarnational identification with us as the ‘true and living Way’.

The recognition of Jesus’ sacrificial identification with us as God’s ‘pioneer’ (Hebrews 12:2), and ‘servant’ in whose likeness we are to be formed (Philippians 2: 6-8) is virtually ignored. His role as peacemaker is interpreted as a theological adjustment to satisfy the justice of God, and the ethical and social dimensions of peace making are muted. Salvation as reconciliation and transformation of human life and society through faithful commitment and enablement to follow his pattern is dismissed as ‘works-righteousness’

By contrast, the Anabaptist tradition has from the beginning insisted that salvation is by faith alone, but ‘faith without works is dead’. Faith is understood as faithfulness in following ‘the Way’ marked out by Christ. It is not simply belief and trust in the merits of his substitutionary example. Following Christ who is the culmination of God’s revelation is the essential core of Christian faith.

Following Jesus

Finally, related closely to the above understanding of Jesus’ pioneer role, is the concept of discipleship as Nachfolge Christi – the imitation of Christ. Anabaptists understood discipleship as apprenticeship. A disciple is one who learns by following the example of the master, not merely by calling him lord, but by imitating his life style. Jesus set the pattern to be followed. His endurance of society’s hostility and, in the end, execution as a political criminal is understood as a personal-social path to be followed as a kind of discipline. To keep the faith means to persevere in this pattern modelled by Jesus.

The goal of biblical study, therefore, is not theoretical knowledge but practical behaviour, namely, ‘justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17). Generic anabaptism require a ‘hermeneutics of obedience’. Its theology is a theology of apprenticeship. To be a Christian disciple means to participate in and live under the mandate of Jesus Christ, the Master, who not only leads but also enables and transforms us in and through the discipline of following.

In their literature Anabaptists referred to this alternative way of living in society as taking up the cross and following Christ. They characterised the Christian life as the way of the cross, which is exemplified in the non-violent lifestyle of Jesus. In this same manner, the anabaptist perspective interprets this call as a summons to the non-violent lifestyle, or pattern of life, that led Jesus to the cross. It does not in the typical Protestant evangelical manner simply equate ‘cross bearing’ (non-violence) with ‘crucifixion of self’ (self-denial). Certainly the non-violent lifestyle of a peacemaker will often require self-denial, but not every act of self-denial can be identified as ‘taking up the cross and following Christ’!

According to Matthew 28:20, from the Anabaptist perspective, the apostolic commission is to make followers of all the nations. Discipleship is not just for those of the Jewish nation, but for all humankind! The gentile nations are to be ‘apprenticed’, formed according to the archetypical pattern through following Jesus’ lifestyle. They are to be inducted into the holy nation which is being formed under the new covenant (‘baptising them’), and instructed in the commandments and example of the Jesus (‘teaching them’). This discipleship is not just the vocation of a special class – religious orders, pastors and preachers. It is the pattern of the transformed life to which Christ calls everyone.

‘Bearing the heavy cross of Christ’ was a favourite phrase of Menno Simons for describing the martyr vocation of Christians. For him it clearly meant following the non-violent pattern of Christ’s life and patiently bearing the consequences. That he considered this the calling of every Christian with no exceptions is illustrated by his approach to the question whether a Christian could hold office as a magistrate, which he admitted is a ‘dangerous office’. He did not give a direct answer with scriptural proofs. He simply insisted that whether a person is ordained of God to be king, magistrate or judge, as a Christian he is first called to follow the word and example of Christ in that office. There are no exceptions. Indeed, we end this article by quoting from his Reply to False Accusations [that Anabaptists will not obey the magistrate], and from his Epistle to Martin Micron.

‘Henceforth, beloved rulers, see to it, you who call yourselves Christian, that you may be that also in deed and in word. Water, bread, wine and the name do not make a Christian, but those are Christian who are born of God, are of a divine spirit and nature, are of the same mind as Christ Jesus…love their neighbours as themselves; lead an unblamable, regenerate, pious life, and willingly walk in the footsteps of Christ…These the Word of God calls Christians.’

‘That the office of the magistrate is of God and His ordinance I freely grant. But him who is a Christian and wants to be one and then does not follow his Prince, Head and Leader Christ, but covers and clothes his unrighteousness, wickedness, pomp and pride, avarice, plunder and tyranny with the name of magistrate, I hate. For he who is a Christian must follow the Spirit, Word, and example of Christ, no matter whether he be emperor, king, or whatever he be.’1

1 Menno Simon: Complete Writings 1496-1561 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 553, 922.