Anabaptist Hermeneutics: A Summary

by Stuart Murray Williams

A. Introduction: Hermeneutics and Christendom

For three quarters of its history, the European Church has operated within a Christendom framework. Only in the first three centuries, in persecuted movements between the fourth and nineteenth centuries, and in the last century has this mindset been challenged. Christendom presuppositions have influenced every aspect of the life of the churches, including hermeneutics. From early in the Christendom era, it became clear that the bible would need to be interpreted in the light of the new realities. Having accepted the support of the political authorities, and having interpreted this support as providential, the Church quite naturally began to adjust its hermeneutics to reflect the new status quo. Scripture tended, therefore, to be interpreted in such a way as to maintain the existing order which benefited both Church and State. The resultant hermeneutical changes became established as orthodox and provided constant reinforcement of the system and ways of evading biblical challenges to it.

It was soon recognised that it was impractical to require the whole population to accept New Testament ethics, so Old Testament norms were adopted for all except the monastic orders. Church leaders also realised that the New Testament provided no guidelines for organising the kind of sacral society or hierarchical Church which were emerging, but they found many hopeful structures in the Old Testament. Consequently, the authority of the Old Testament grew and much New Testament teaching tended to be regarded as applicable only in the religious orders, in the eschatological kingdom, or as unreachable ideals.

In particular, the increasing distance between Jesus' lifestyle and that of church leaders necessitated a marginalisation of the humanity of Jesus. It was no longer acceptable to see him as the example Christians should imitate. Consequently, in the fourth century, Jesus was recast as a celestial figure, his divinity was emphasised and the dangerous memory of the Nazarene was allowed to fade.

Rosemary Ruether has written (1975:256): 'The reign of Christ was declared to have already realised itself on earth in the form of the establishment of the Christian religion. Constantine, the most gracious Christian king, could be regarded as the Vicar of Christ on earth. The cosmic theology, which regarded Jesus as the incarnation of the Cosmic Logos, could be used to integrate the political realm with the cosmic realm…the imperial Christ of Nicene theology, was constructed by the fusion of two basic symbols from the twin heritages of Christian theology: Hebrew messianism and Greek philosophy… Christ becomes the Pantocrator, the cosmic governor of a new Christianized empire. The Christian emperor, with the Christian bishop at his right hand, becomes the new Vicar of Christ on earth, governing the Christian state of the new redeemed order of history. In this vision, patriarchy, hierarchy, slavery and Graeco-Roman imperialism have all been taken over and baptized by the Christian church. Needless to say, elements of this christology might have been constructed in a different way. The victory of Messiah as vindicator of the oppressed might have been seen as the radical levelling of all hierarchy and subjugation rather than the installation of the New Israel as the centre of a new empire…Instead imperial christology wins in the fourth century as a sacralized vision of patriarchal, hierarchical and euro-centred imperial control.'

This change is evident from an analysis of fourth century creeds, hymns, church calendars and catechisms. Fourth century sermons and writings demonstrate an abandonment of Christocentric biblical interpretation. The life of Christ was used devotionally rather than ethically. These same sermons demonstrate the impact of the disappearance of the distinction between "church" and "world" on biblical interpretation, Major New Testament themes such as the kingdom of God no longer seemed significant. The great Commission seemed to have been fulfilled. The Sitz im Leben of the early Christians seemed so removed from Christendom that it was difficult to understand New Testament teaching on many issues. The blurring of the distinction between church and world resulted in New Testament passages such as Romans 13 being interpreted in ways that reflected the requirements of Christendom. Furthermore, the dominant position of the Church within society significantly affected the presuppositions with which it approached Scripture. Whatever other hermeneutical principles were operating, a political hermeneutic was highly influential.

This was the situation, both politically and hermeneutically, that faced Reformers and Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. The Reformers appear to have moved through three stages in their opposition to the Catholic establishment. Initially, they criticised blatant abuses and immorality without urging schism. They seem then to have accepted the inevitability of separation and to have toyed with radical ideas about the nature of the Church. Finally, having secured the support of certain political authorities, they set up alternative expressions of Christendom that removed objectionable features but maintained the basic Christendom framework. David Bosch (1980: 120) concluded that the area of the relationship between Church and state "was redefined in a more nuanced way, yet with little fundamental difference. The old, monolithic Christendom merely, gave way to different fragments of Christendom".

Hermeneutically. They introduced changes but they did not escape the Christendom mindset which had dominated biblical interpretation for centuries. By rejecting the monastic options they removed the two-tier approach to discipleship, but they did not reassert New Testament morality as the standard. By emphasising justification by faith they focused attention on the New Testament and on Jesus as redeemer, but they would not allow Jesus to be normative for ethics as well as soteriology. Though they insisted on the freedom of biblical interpretation from the scrutiny of political or ecclesiastical authorities, in practice they often deferred to these authorities. They continued to operate with a "hermeneutic order". Their laudable attempts to apply Scripture to the whole of life were undermined by their wariness of interpretations that might threaten the social, political and economic status quo. And they continued to find in the Old Testament guidelines for the new Christendoms they built.

Anabaptists came to realise that reforming the state church system was inadequate and that forming believers' churches was essential. After some initial uncertainty, they comprehensively rejected Christendom and its symbols. This radical stance enabled them to interpret Scripture in new ways. They too rejected two-tier Christianity with different standards and callings for different Christians, but unlike the Reformers, they chose to apply New Testament standards to all Christians. Instead of a two-tier Christendom, the recovered the "two kingdoms" approach of the New Testament and argued that for Christians Jesus was the norm for ethics as well as salvation. The Old Testament might still be relevant within society, but within believers' churches the New Testament governed ecclesiology and ethics. And New Testament teachings were to be obeyed whatever there social implications. Many Anabaptists rejected interpretations of Romans 13 that seemed to require excessive deference to the political authorities and operated not with a "hermeneutics of order" but with a "hermeneutics of obedience". Unlike the Reformers, they were not in a dominant position. Their position seemed analogous to the persecuted churches of the first three centuries, and their interpretation of Scripture resembled pre-Christendom interpretations more than those of the Reformers or most interpreters since Constantine, with the exception of certain radical movements.

The implications for hermeneutics of the Anabaptists' rejection of Christendom were profound and led to the development of an approach to biblical interpretation that was very different from that of the Reformers, an approach that resulted in alternative perspectives, especially on ethical issues and ecclesiology.

B. An Overview of Anabaptist Hermeneutics

Those who have examined the hermeneutics of the Anabaptists have identified six key components:

(1) The Bible as Self-interpreting

(2) Christocentrism

(3) The Two Testaments

(4) Spirit and Word

(5) Congregational Hermeneutics

(6) Hermeneutics of Obedience

Two immediate cautions need to be sounded, however, as we consider these six components. First, there is considerable diversity among Anabaptists in the area of hermeneutics. Not all Anabaptists gave the same emphasis to all these components. Nor did all Anabaptists agree with each other in the implications of using these principles. Some scholars have even doubted whether there is such an entity as "Anabaptist hermeneutics". My conviction is that, while uniformity is lacking, coherence is present – and further that the variety may enhance rather than hinder the discovery and analysis of Anabaptist hermeneutics. There are differences, both of emphasis and of substance, but there is sufficient agreement among the major branches of Anabaptism to make possible the study of Anabaptist hermeneutics, especially if the gradual convergence towards accepted hermeneutical principles is examined. Interaction between different branches of the movement resulted in an increasing convergence of both ideas and practice. Some elements were discarded, some early diversity was homogenised. Differences remained, however, and the ability of different groups to survive under persecution or to escape from this was influential in the kind of Anabaptism that persisted.

Furthermore, for those interested in exploring the possible contemporary significance of Anabaptist perspectives, it is worth asking which is more useable – a homogeneous movement or a heterogeneous movement within which various insights were explored. John Roth (in Bowman & Longenecker 1995:62) has characterised Anabaptists as participants in a "shared conversation" and has argued that this offers a more dynamic for understanding biblical interpretation than a focus on hermeneutical norms. Arnold Snyder (1995:379) has advocated engaging with sixteenth-century Anabaptists as conversation partners, not only listening in to their own conversations but exploring issues in conversation both with the received tradition and with diverse deviations from this. Perhaps there is as much to be learned from the disagreements among Anabaptists on hermeneutical issues as there is from the areas where they agreed with one another. In exploring the contemporary significance of Anabaptist hermeneutics, then, we will welcome Anabaptists as conversation-partners, learning both from the hermeneutical principles which seem to have been widely adopted by Anabaptists and from the creative tension evident in the conversations which took place as they debated hermeneutical questions.

Second, these six principles do not stand alone but overlap and mutually reinforce or qualify each other.

(1) Scripture as Self-interpreting

The widespread Anabaptist conviction that Scripture was clear enough for ordinary Christians to understand and apply without assistance of education, philosophical or theological expertise, clerical guidance or ecclesiastical tradition, together with the expectation that difficult passages would be illuminated by clearer ones, was in practice qualified by other convictions.

Scripture was clear, they taught, when it was read under the tuition of the Holy Spirit. Such clarity could not be expected, however, by those who neglected the Spirit's help. Many Anabaptists insisted that they relied on the Holy Spirit as the interpreter who would lead believers into the truth and whose teaching was more helpful than education or theological expertise. Some also located interpretation primarily within communal context, where the opportunity for all to interpret was safeguarded but where the results of such interpretation were open to challenge and correction. Furthermore, they were clear that this communal context must consist of those who were committed to discipleship. Scripture was clearly only to those who approached it with a right attitude, with a commitment to obedience, rather than curiosity or merely intellectual questions.

In addition to these locational and attitudinal qualifications, there was a substantive qualification to the conviction that Scripture was perspicuous. Most Anabaptists regarded Scripture as Christocentric, treating the words and example of Jesus as the clearest and most accessible portion of Scripture. All other passages were interpreted in the light of this. They acknowledged that the Old Testament was less easy to interpret, requiring careful handling lest it detract from the centrality of Jesus and the radical newness of the new covenant. But since Christians were no longer under the old covenant, many argued, they could concentrate on the New Testament and use it to explain the Old Testament. In practice, therefore, not all of Scripture was clear, but guided by the principle of Christocentrism, ordinary believers could use the Bible with confidence.

(2) Christocentrism

The centrality of Jesus in Scripture was foundational for Anabaptist hermeneutics and theology. He was regarded as the one to whom all Scripture pointed and witnessed, and his words and deeds were authoritative and normative. The conviction that this part of Scripture was the clearest of all (though also the most demanding) meant that the principles of Christocentrism and the clarity of Scripture overlapped and reinforced each other. So fundamental was this principle of Christocentrism in Anabaptist hermeneutics that it tended to qualify other elements rather than itself being qualified. However, discerning the meaning and significance of the life and teachings of Jesus was necessary if this was to act as the key to the rest of Scripture. Thus, the emphasis on the Spirit as interpreter and the attempt to balance Word and Spirit meant that the spirit and intention of Jesus were sometimes sought rather than a literal interpretation of his words. This might mean, in practice, that considerations from other parts of the Bible were allowed to instruct interpreters in their understandings of Jesus' intentions and concerns, although Anabaptists were very wary of any dilution of his actual words or any erosion of his pivotal position.

(3) The Two Testaments

From this Anabaptist conviction that Jesus Christ was pivotal to biblical revelation flowed the priority they accorded to the New Testament. Most were convinced that the new covenant he introduced made it impossible to put the Old Testament on the same level as the New. Although many acknowledged the essential unity of Scripture, the Anabaptists' Bible was not flat, and many emphasised the discontinuity between the Testaments.

Two other convictions, however, qualified this focus on the New Testament and helped to prevent them jettisoning the Old. First, the emphasis on the clarity and self-interpreting nature of scripture prevented them from emphasising the discontinuity of the testaments even more strongly. If Scripture is self-interpreting, it must have a basic unity and coherence. Provided the two Testaments were not confused, much spiritual benefit, albeit of a devotional nature, could be gained from the Old Testament. Second, reliance on the Spirit encouraged some Anabaptists to reclaim the Old Testament using allegorical methods.

(4) Spirit and Word

The use of allegorisation was one element in the debate about Spirit and Word that characterised the early Reformation period. On a continuum linking spiritualists at one extreme to literalists at the other, many Anabaptists could be located nearer the spiritualists that the Reformers. Accused of both literalism and spiritualism, most Anabaptists were committed both to the normative role of Scripture and to the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in the process of interpretation.

Their emphasis on the role of the Spirit was tempered by some of their other convictions. First, their belief that Scripture was essentially plain and self-interpreting discouraged them from adopting speculative interpretations under the supposed influence of the Spirit's illumination. Common sense and the obvious meaning of the text were not easily rejected in favour of more esoteric or supposedly spiritual meanings. Second, their Christocentrism meant that any supposed guidance from the Spirit had to be squared with the teaching and example of Jesus. They acknowledged that the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of Jesus and that he would not teach them anything inconsistent with what Jesus had taught. Third, those who located interpretative authority in the community of believers resisted the adoption of individualistic interpretations that were not open to scrutiny. The Spirit was expected to bring the believers to agreement as well as operating through charismatically gifted individuals.

(5) Congregational Hermeneutics

this conviction that the congregation was where Scripture should be interpreted, rather than the university, the preacher's study or the mind of the individual, was significant in some Anabaptist groups. However, this too must be understood in the context of other important convictions.

These primarily concern the nature of the hermeneutic community, which was understood as both a charismatic community and a community of disciples. The Anabaptist emphasis on the role of the Spirit meant that only a congregation where there was freedom for the Sprit to guide individuals and unite the community around the Word would be able to operate properly as a hermeneutic community. And the Anabaptist emphasis on obedience as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture meant that only a community of would-be disciples could expect illumination. Unfaithfulness could make a congregation unable to function properly as a hermeneutic community.

There were two other qualifications which would have limited the interpretative freedom of the congregation, although the first only marginally. The belief that Scripture was usually plain and self-interpreting limited the role of the congregation in theory, but in practice there were enough unclear passages to require the help of others and the guidance of congregational leaders. More important was the emphasis on Jesus, which meant that communal understandings of Scripture were expected to be in line with this fundamental Christocentrism, although here too it was in the community that the meaning of Jesus' life and teaching was established.

(6) Hermeneutic of Obedience

The importance attached to ethical considerations in interpreting Scripture, both in the legitimising of interpreters and the testing of their conclusions, is clear from Anabaptist writings. However, this principle overlapped with others in certain ways which in some measure qualified it.

First, the ethical presuppositions by which they tested both interpreters and their interpretations were, at least in theory, not free-standing but derived from their Christocentrism. This was necessary if their commitment to sola scriptura was not to be compromised by importing an ethical norm that somehow stood over against Scripture. Thus, the ethical focus needed to be subordinate to their Christocentrism. Second, the commitment to the clarity of Scripture meant that obvious interpretations might tend to be accepted even if their ethical implications had not been carefully assessed. This was inevitably the case in early years of the movement when there was not enough time to consider every issue in detail. But, in principle, no disagreement was anticipated between the obvious meaning of a text and its ethically-tested interpretation. A frequently stated Anabaptist concern was to avoid devious interpretations that resulted in ethically questionable consequences. Testing interpretations ethically and insisting on the plain meaning of the text were attempts to avoid such consequences.

At this point, it would not be surprising if the question of why Anabaptism led to the appalling incident at Munster were raised. How could a hermeneutic that so emphasised ethical criteria have been used to justify events there? It is clear that at Munster biblical interpretation was t3ested neither ethically nor by common sense criteria. Old Testament teachings took precedence over the New Testament, and the Christicentric principle was absent. Ethical criteria were ignored in favour of "spiritual" revelations. Common sense interpretations were superseded by visions and millenarian fervour. And self-appointed leaders determined the meaning of biblical texts rather than functioning within hermeneutic community. The acceptance of subjective, individualistic interpretations and the disregard of New Testament ethical norms went hand in hand.

It is, of course, arguable that Munsterite hermeneutics were not Anabaptist and actually had more in common with the approach of the Reformers, who were horrified by developments there, than the typical Anabaptist approaches. Dirk Philips regarded the Reformers and Munsterites as equally deficient in their use of the Old Testament. Munster, it might be argued, demonstrates what is possible when some of the Reformers' hermeneutical principles were used by unscrupulous leaders, but it reveals little, if anything, about Anabaptist hermeneutics. Most Anabaptists rejected the Munster debacle as totally illegitimate. However, it may not be possible to sustain this argument. The Munsterites were Anabaptists and there is no doubt that their biblical interpretation owed much to principles and practices from the Hoffmanite tradition. Their divergence from the mainstream of the movement was based on their adoption of an alternative hermeneutic, but this hermeneutic was constructed out of elements present in other branches of Anabaptism, albeit not combined in such a disastrous way. Perhaps this incident demonstrates the inadequacy, even the danger, of some Anabaptist hermeneutical principles if used in isolation and the importance of their integration within a system with effective checks and balances.

(7) Towards Integration

Anabaptist hermeneutics was not a unified or fully integrated system. It developed in a piece-meal fashion under pressurised circumstances and among a variety of groups. Nevertheless, there were a number of common convictions which in practice interacted to produce an approach to biblical interpretation in which the various principles acted as checks and balances. Not all these principles were operative in all Anabaptist groups, nor was the balance between them established uniformly, nor was the integration of hermeneutics principles often explicit. But from the movement as a whole emerges a paradigm of biblical interpretation, a paradigm which offers a more sophisticated and nuanced frame work than any sixteenth-century congregation would have recognised, but which is nevertheless true to the spirit and direction of Anabaptist hermeneutics.

The synthetic model that can be extracted from Anabaptist hermeneutical principles and practices is that of a Spirit-filled disciple, confidently interpreting Scripture within a community of such disciples, aware that Jesus Christ is the centre from which the rest of Scripture must be interpreted.

This approach was not without its weaknesses. Among the more significant of these are the extent to which scholarship was marginalised, depriving Anabaptist communities of helpful tools for interpreting Scripture; the inadequate handling of the Old Testament and lack of interest in the application of Scripture to the wider society; and the tendency towards literalism and legalism that hindered a more sophisticated approach to certain issues that was not necessarily equated with dilution and evasion.

However, even these inadequacies contain important warnings. The development of a more sophisticated and nuanced methodology has historically demonstrated the relevance of the Anabaptists' concern about dilution and evasion. The history of the interpretation of the Old Testament and its use to justify many practices that cannot be supported on New Testament grounds provides support for their concern about its misuse. And a relationship of mutuality between scholars and congregations has still not been satisfactorily established.

(8) Contemporary Significance

However the period since Constantine is assessed, evidence is accumulating of a transition from a Christendom to a post-Christendom situation. The percentage of the population attending state churches is now very small in many European nations. Frequent calls are heard, even from within state churches, for disestablishment, for changes to the parish system and to the practice of infant baptism. Few missiologists now divide the world into "Christian" and "pagan" nations, and the growth on non-Christian religions in Europe is forcing churches to explore the implications of witness in a pluralistic society. From within the established churches many voices are recognising and welcoming this transition.

Given its long history in Europe and its all-pervasive nature, the demise of Christendom is unlikely to be sudden or total. Even when the official relationship between Church and state is dissolved, the Christendom mindset with the churches (and within society) will persists any many will seek a return to a supposedly more "Christian" society. What does need to be challenged, if not eradicated, is the distorting influence of the Christendom mindset on biblical interpretation. It is this mindset rather than a political arrangement that is the heart of Christendom.

We live in a post-Christendom culture, a post-modern culture and a post-colonial culture (among many other "post" words we could use). We need a hermeneutic that is appropriate to meet the challenges and opportunities of this culture. The radical tradition offers a Jesus-centred hermeneutic in a post-Christendom culture, where the institutional church is declining but where the teaching and example of Jesus might be strangely attractive. It offers a communal hermeneutic in an individualistic post-modern culture where fragmentation has become an art form but where community is desperately needed as the context within which meaning can be discovered. And it offers marginalised European version of a hermeneutic of justice in a post-colonial culture, a hermeneutic for which liberation theologians have argued but which we may be tempted to dismiss unless we hear the resonances of the radical dissenting.

This paper was first presented at the Anabaptist theology forum. It is based on Stuart Murray’s Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Pandora, 2000).


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