Afterword: Continuity and Change in Anabaptist-Mennonite Biblical Interpretation

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Willard Swartley§

→326 The first two essays implied that the methods of biblical interpretation used today differ substantially from those of sixteenth century Anabaptism. This Afterword will assess this assumption and seek to identify points of continuity as well.

Significant Changes

1. A most striking difference between sixteenth century Anabaptist and current Mennonite hermeneutic is the context and consequent function of each. The Anabaptists shared with the other Reformers a strong desire to free interpretation from tradition. In subsequent years the liberation of Scripture from tradition became chaotically complete, exalting itself amid historical probabilities and rational necessity. Now the pendulum swings toward increasing readiness to acknowledge that interpretation should be held accountable to faith, both confessionally and traditionally. This does not mean forfeiting the gains of the Reformation, but a candid acknowledgment that a Reformation 450 years old, even though it affirms semper reformanda, will necessarily appeal to its own history and tradition.

2. Standing between then and now, the Enlightenment continues to influence most current Mennonite use of the Bible. While rejecting rationalism that judges biblical historical claims by general human experience and methodological skepticism, Mennonite interpretation employs reason as a means to make sense out of the language, history and moral imperative of Scripture. Perry Yoder’s From Word to Life demonstrates this point systematically, suggesting that the method described here in Brunk’s essay may be utilized fruitfully, but apart from rationalistic assumptions.

But surely the difference is a matter of degree and context. For the Reformers were much influenced by the Renaissance and the European universities, which also began in the twelfth century and vigorously developed during the next several centuries. Even Luther’s sola Scriptura did not stand alone; reason →327 played an important role – in the study of the original biblical languages, in theological formulation and in the interconfessional debates. The invention of the printing press and consequent rising literacy, both the fruit of reason, were also significant catalysts in the Reformation’s hermeneutic.

Hence what appears first as difference bears similarities as well. The real difference, it seems to me, lies in the fact that we now live with both the figs and the thorns of five centuries of reason’s work. Using Bernhard Anderson’s figure of speech, much has gone over the dam--and more should, but the commitment to a reasonable method continues. Hence method as such plays a more major role in current biblical interpretation than it did in Anabaptist hermeneutics (although Marpeck seems to have thought much about this).

3. As Kraus’ article demonstrates, Mennonites today have been influenced by fundamentalist views of the Bible and consequent methods of using the Bible. No such contextual analogy can be found for sixteenth century Anabaptism. While in the sixteenth century the Bible was used to argue a variety of doctrinal points, a doctrine of the Bible itself, i.e., its inspiration and inerrancy, was not the object of argument. This means, among other things, that we today spend a disproportionate share of time debating about the Bible itself rather than appealing to it to address the kinds of issues the Anabaptists initiated: believers’ baptism, nature of the church, discipleship, the church’s freedom from the powers, witness to government, congregational discipline, non-participation in war, etc. This shift, when wedded with the concern for method noted above, raises sobering issues for us as biblical scholars and for the church as a whole: to which causes go the balance of our energies and time?

4. Although it is difficult for us to own, Mennonite biblical interpretation is more separated from practical life concerns than was Anabaptist interpretation. While we speak of the unity of knowledge and obedience, our situation in life does not require us to pay the cost; we do not suffer for our beliefs as did the Anabaptists. Hence while we espouse discipleship and obedience as important hermeneutical perspectives, even epistemological factors, our actual life-experiences participate in the luxuries of those physically secure and economically well maintained. We do not experience →328 “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor,” even though many of us identify to varying degrees with that perspective and cause. Hence in our more honest moments we must confess that our relationship to Anabaptist hermeneutics is that of “looking on from afar.” And the distance is greatest, in my judgment, in our drift away from strong communal ties of mutual support, economically and ethically. The individual¬ism of the Enlightenment has taken its toll upon us, and struck at a most vulnerable point, our continuity with the faith experience of the Anabaptists.

Significant Continuities

1. We continue “looking on.” Though we do not suffer persecution for our faith in North America, we do sometimes – even corporately – take unpopular stands which in principle commit us to walking the literal way of the cross and tasting the “bitter Christ,” about which the Anabaptists knew much – in joy. Our efforts to refuse participation in war and to support those who take more radical stands on nonregistration and refusal to pay taxes used for war fall within this stream of continuity. Certainly also our mission, service and relief endeavors, when they are undertaken in the spirit of humility, reflect continuity with the hermeneutic of obedience.

With these strands of continuity to the Anabaptist hermeneutic of practical obedience, we face today a major challenge from liberation hermeneutics.[1] While Mennonite theology would need to criticize liberation theology – especially in the area of ecclesiology, we are confronted from both our own history and from liberation hermeneutics by questions arising from the “politics of understanding” and the “light of praxis.” That Anabaptism was often identified with the forces of revolution in the sixteenth century is no accident; nor is it accidental that Mennonites serving God’s kingdom around the world develop sympathies for revolutionary forces who promise hope for the poor. To interpret the Bible from “the underside of history” as we listen to intracanonical dialogue and critique is a point of continuity with the tradition which gave us birth.

2. A related aspect of continuity with the Anabaptist hermeneutic has been the emphasis upon “homing” biblical interpretation in the community of faith, specifically in congregations, among the members of the church. While Yoder described this experience as distinctive to Anabaptism, Lind and Bender emphasized its cruciality for today: Lind by →329 affirming the community of faith as the context in which the principle of analogy is applied and Bender by calling for the discernment of biblical teaching and its application in the congregation, even the weekly Sunday school class. This means that the biblical scholar plays only a catalytic function: s/he sets the stage for the community of faith to discern the truth—what God’s word means for us today.

For our contemporary setting, this means also that the church, and not the university, is the clue-generating community for biblical interpretation, at least for the discerning phase and for the testing of the compatibility of various methods and insights with the structures of belief and behavior in the faith community. This may produce a certain tension, a creative tension, for biblical scholars.

Further, this emphasis repudiates any model of “private interpretation” in which the intellect or convictions of one person control the minds of the members. Both in Anabaptism and in Mennonite hermeneutical efforts today, Paul’s teaching that the church be edified by the use of many gifts functions as a goal for healthy congregational life and spiritual vitality.

3. A very basic, but possibly overlooked, point of continuity lies in the general agreement, then and now, that interpretation should grasp the plain sense of the text, the historically intended meaning. While this commitment in the sixteenth century meant reducing allegorical, moral, and tropological interpretations to a secondary status, it means for us balking at structuralist directions which emphasize multivalent meanings and dogmatic schemes which make Scripture support systems of thought, be these dispensationalism, modern egalitarian rights platforms, or materialist ideologies. Conversely, it means that we do assess the influences upon the interpreter, especially the social world of the interpreter, to enable us to distinguish between what we want to hear in the text and what the text in its historical (literal) sense wants to speak to us.

General Observations

1. Recent trends in biblical interpretation, those outlined above in the second half of my essay, make continuity between current Mennonite biblical scholarship and Anabaptist hermeneutics relatively compatible, especially when compared with either the earlier rationalist, objectivist agenda or the more recent existentialist agenda. Trends toward →330 theological accountability and communal discernment fit well with Anabaptist emphases; the following plea from George T. Montague to the Catholic Biblical Association would readily receive applause from most Mennonite biblical scholars:

We have a “problem” of private interpretation because we see hermeneutics as a primarily individualistic activity. Under the impact of the dominant liberal ideology of Western society, the insistence of the reformers on the freedom of conscience of the interpreter has led to a view of hermeneutics in which an interpretation is a matter of opinion of the individual and in which one opinion is as good as another.

Against this we need to insist that interpretation is not a matter of “opinion” but of praxis. Interpretation does not end when we draw the “moral” of a text, but when we act upon it. Secondly, the praxis which is the end of interpretation is not individual but corporate. In the last analysis, it is the involvement of the interpreter in a community of interpretation, in a community of praxis, which makes interpretation a meaningful activity.[2]

Further, the call to hear the text as it is – from current literary concerns – makes the most important aspect of interpretation, listening to the text, the mutual privilege of congregation and scholar. Both start at the same place; specialized learnings are introduced at appropriate places to illumine the text. But the text remains central.

2. Within the current hermeneutical directions, Anabaptist-Mennonite contributions can play a significant role. Espousing the concerns for personal and social transformation (Wink), informing action (praxis) by the light of the Word (liberation hermeneutic), and seeing reconciliation as the unifying emphasis of the New Testament (Stuhlmacher), Anabaptist-Mennonites are faced with the opportunity and challenge to contribute examples and larger programs of biblical interpretation that show the epistemological and validating significance of love, obedience and shalom-justice, corporately conceived and lived.


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 326-331. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.

  1. See especially Laverne Rutschman, “Anabaptism and Liberation Theology,” MQR 55(July 1981), 260 – 61.
  2. George T. Montague. “Hermeneutics and the Teaching of Scripture,” CBQ 41(Jan 1979), p. 12. Montague cites this from David Lochhead, “Hermeneutics and Ideology,” The Ecumenist 15(1977), 83—84.