by Stuart Murray Williams
On the inside back cover of Anabaptism Today are seven "core convictions" that summarise the values, principles, commitments and concerns of many who are part of the Anabaptist Network. They represent an Anabaptist way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus at the start of the 21st century. In a series of short articles we are unpacking these convictions, exploring their implications for faith, mission and discipleship.
The second conviction reads:
"Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship."
The Anabaptist movement began at a time when the Bible was newly available to people in 16th-century Europe. Although literacy was limited, recent translations of the Bible into contemporary language meant that Christians all over the place were reading or hearing the Bible read for themselves. And many of them were asking whether the clergy and preachers were interpreting it properly. There were many practices in both church and society that seemed to have little biblical support – indeed, some seemed to be contradicted by biblical teaching.
Furthermore, the Reformers seemed to be encouraging them to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than relying on traditional understandings and the pronouncements of popes and church councils. "Scripture alone!" was their rallying call. Anabaptists revelled in this new freedom and searched the Bible together for guidance on how to live as followers of Jesus and how to build communities of disciples. The answers they found on many issues were very different from the answers given by Catholic priests or the Reformers, and very threatening. A different way of reading and interpreting the Bible was emerging that would result in the planting of different kinds of churches and in persecution.
What was different about the Anabaptists’ approach to the Bible?
* They were confident that ordinary Christians, who had not received official accreditation or theological training, but who were open to the Holy Spirit, could interpret the Bible responsibly.
* They believed that the congregation, not the seminary or preacher’s study, was the place where the Bible should be interpreted – understanding the Bible was a community practice.
* Their focus was on application rather than mere interpretation – discovering what the Bible meant for discipleship rather than just searching out its original meaning.
* They insisted that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of the life, teaching and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the centre of the Bible, the one to whom both Testaments pointed.
This approach, which seemed arrogant, irresponsible and chaotic to their opponents (who quickly revised their suggestion that biblical interpretation was something everyone should be involved in!), challenged many long-held assumptions about how the Bible should be interpreted and resulted in profound disagreements about what it actually meant.
Many traditional views on ethical issues and church life appeared to be based on the Old Testament rather than the teaching of Jesus. On subjects as diverse as warfare, economics, swearing oaths, baptism, church discipline, leadership and the state, the Anabaptists argued that a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible resulted in a radically different understanding of discipleship. When the Reformers responded with a barrage of Old Testament texts, they complained that this was illegitimate – the Old Testament (and the New) had to be interpreted in the light of God’s decisive revelation in Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus would continue to be marginalised, as he had been since the early years of the Christendom era, and the Bible would continue to be misapplied.
There are some obvious dangers in the Anabaptists’ approach: ignoring scholarship and training may deprive churches of helpful insights, the Old Testament may be marginalised and congregational interpretation may be a pooling of ignorance. But this approach was liberating in the 16th century, where Anabaptists feared that otherwise the monopoly of the Catholic priest would simply be replaced by the monopoly of the Protestant preacher. And it resulted in the emergence of a radical renewal movement, in which the Bible was studied, discussed and applied in fresh ways – many of which are now widely accepted in both Catholic and Protestant circles!
This approach to the Bible continues to challenge and liberate those who encounter it through the Anabaptist tradition:
* Starting with Jesus, rather than trying to fit Jesus into positions derived from other parts of the Bible, leads to different and more radical views and practices on many issues of mission, church life and discipleship. A pertinent example is the role of women in church and society.
* Focusing on application (as various liberation theologies also advocate) takes Bible study out of the realm of academic discussion and into the realm of costly but invigorating discipleship.
* Empowering the community to learn together challenges the dominance of monologue preaching and invites scholars, teachers and other specialists to offer their insights within a multi-voiced community, where the insights of all are valued.
We will unpack the third core conviction in the next issue, and we welcome further comments on these convictions and how they are guiding and challenging Christians today.
Stuart Murray Williams, editor of Anabaptism Today, lives in Oxford and works as a trainer and consultant under the auspices of the Anabaptist Network.