Anabaptist Hermeneutics: Presuppositions, Principles and Practice

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Anabaptist Hermeneutics: Presuppositions, Principles and Practice

Walter Klaassen§

Presuppositions of Anabaptist Hermeneutics

1. The Function of Scripture

→5# It is assumed by Anabaptists that not only does the Bible contain the good news of salvation through Christ, but it also contains specific directions for the individual and the corporate life of those who respond to the good news. The Bible gives specific guidelines for the shape of discipleship, for the form of the church and for the relationship of the church to the world. The basic models of the believer’s relationship to Christ (discipleship) and of the church as the binding and loosing community are to be found in Scripture and are to be followed and obeyed because they represent the mind of Christ.

The Reformed theologians approached the Bible in the same way but came to different conclusions because of their view of the relationship of Old and New Testaments. They appropriated models from the Old Testament as well, whereas Anabaptists insisted on the primacy of the New for the church.

2. Word and Spirit

Most Anabaptists identified the Scriptures and God’s Word. If one comes to the Scriptures with an honest and searching heart, the Spirit of God will illumine the mind and remove hindrances to understanding. Thus only one who comes with the right disposition which is mainly humility, a readiness to be instructed, will truly understand the Word. No scholarship is of any avail if the humble spirit is lacking. Only the Spirit provides true discernment as human natural gifts are strengthened by God’s own presence.

3. Understanding and Obedience

There is also a close connection in Anabaptism →6 between understanding the Scriptures and obedience to what they demand, between knowledge and discipleship (Yoder, MQR 41 [Oct 1967], 307). Some Anabaptists like Hans Denck and Hans Hut never tired of saying that true knowledge of God and his will cannot be achieved simply from reading the Scriptures. Hans Denck was pointing to this in the oft-quoted sentence: “No man can know Christ unless he follows after him in life.” Similarly Hans Hut argued that attaining to the truth was a process that took place in following the footsteps of Christ, not by attending the universities in Paris or Wittenberg. The readiness to obey Christ’s words is prerequisite to understanding them. Thus all the sophistication of interpretive methodology will be of no avail if the reader and interpreter of Scripture is not ready to obey Christ’s words in his life.

4. The Bible and the Word of God

Many Anabaptists believed that the Word of God was broader than the Bible, although the Bible is always viewed as the chief medium for the sharing of God’s Word with man. The Word of God can also come directly to the believer in the heart, i.e., that God uses no immediate medium for transmitting it. The Word of God can also come through the spoken word of others, particularly preaching and admonition. Although there is not total agreement among Anabaptists on these points, these views do represent a part of the tradition. Hans Denck refused to call the Bible the Word of God lest it cut a person off from hearing the Word of God directly in the present.

Hermeneutical Principles of Anabaptism

1. Christocentrism

For all Anabaptists Christ was the centre of Scripture. All Scripture must be seen and evaluated through the spectacles of Christ and his apostles. This principle expressed itself in the movement in several ways.

a. Pilgram Marpeck
The centrality of Jesus, the man of flesh and blood, the physical man, most strongly emerges in the works of Marpeck. God reveals himself in material ways. Only through the earthly, physical Jesus can one penetrate through to the heavenly Christ. In Jesus God has imposed physical →7 limitations on his revelation. This Jesus now becomes the clue to understanding the Scriptures. It is not the same as Luther’s “Was Christum treibet” (Whatever promotes Christ) for then Luther began to look for Christ everywhere and found him everywhere, especially in the Old Testament. The emphasis on the human physical Jesus places historical limitations on the interpretation of Scripture.

b. Swiss Brethren and Menno
Among the Swiss and in Menno Simons we find a somewhat broader and more general articulation of the principle of Christocentrism. Here we hear about “the life and doctrine of Christ and the apostles.” The main principle of interpretation then is the life and teaching of Jesus and its interpretation in the rest of the New Testament. It became especially a means of handling the Old Testament. It provided a way of discriminating about what in the Old Testament could be appealed to in the age of grace. Although somewhat broader, this view still places historical limits on interpreting the Bible and virtually shuts the door on all forms of allegorical interpretation.

c. Legacy of Hans Hut
Still others emphasized especially the Cross of Christ, like Hans Hut and his followers. The suffering of the innocent one becomes the clue to understanding the Bible. There is much talk about the lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world, which meant not merely the suffering of Jesus but the suffering of the creation and Christ’s suffering in his disciples. The Cross as the symbol of suffering thus becomes the key to the understanding of the whole of Scripture.

This is essentially a mystic view and also moves closer again to Luther’s “Was Christum treibet.” It enables a greater and wider use of the Old Testament as is natural, since the point of view came from Thomas Mintzer.

In sum then, the chief hermeneutical principle is Jesus, his life, words, and death. Whatever is in conflict with this is not God’s Word for the church.

2. Relation of Old and New Testaments

Most Anabaptists took an historical-development view of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Jesus stood at the centre. He was a hinge, a watershed. Before him had been one kind of historical reality; after him, another kind. Before Jesus everything was in the nature of promise of things to →8 come; in Jesus everything was fulfillment. The Old Testament was a shadow; in Jesus came the true reality. The law was the mark of a servile covenant; in Jesus Christ grace is the mark of a covenant of free sonship. These relationships emphasize the centrality of Jesus. What was before Jesus was real enough. To the real people of Israel God revealed real divine revelation, but it was incomplete, unfinished, suitable not to make sons but patiently to deal with servants. Where the Old Testament is superseded by the New it is no longer authoritative for Christians. It was authoritative for God’s people once, but now no longer. It does retain a certain authority “outside the perfection of Christ.” Thus even for the Old Testament Jesus became the interpretive principle. Whatever agreed with him was and remained God’s Word; whatever contradicted him was not God’s Word for the new covenant.

3. The Bible Illuminates Itself

Many passages in the Bible are obscure or even contradictory. When this is the case, that is, when the Bible is unintelligible at one point, some other part will come to the rescue and explain it. That is to say, the Bible interprets itself. This principle developed among Anabaptists out of dissatisfaction with scholastic methods of interpretation. By using this principle one did not need to resort to methods which supplied a meaning, for example, from tradition. Introducing meaning from external sources meant distorting the meaning of the text. Sufficient help for interpretation was found in the Bible itself if one searched diligently. And since the Bible was by one author, the Holy Spirit, it was proper to use one text to illumine another. The point that the Bible is basically simple and clear occurs frequently.

4. Letter and Spirit

Anabaptists were accused of both literalism and spiritualism, of a wooden insistence upon a literal following of Jesus’ words, on the one hand, and of abandoning Scripture by flight into complete subjectivism, on the other hand. There is some truth to both, but it is obvious that both cannot be true of the same people at the same time.

There is no question that the letter was important to Anabaptists, for they could not afford to →9 have the authority of the Bible undermined again by a disregarding of its obvious demands. The charge of literalism came especially in their insistence against infant baptism, the oath, bearing of arms, and usury. Those cannot be said to be unimportant issues. Anabaptists readily recognized that in some cases one had to appeal to the general drift or intention of a larger passage in preference to the literal wording of an individual text, but they challenged the way in which it was used against them by the Reformers in a generalized appeal to faith and love (Yoder, MQR 41 [Oct 1967], 297). For faith and love in the Anabaptist understanding had specific, not general content. By obeying Jesus literally on not bearing arms, one was being loving and faithful.

The Spirit was appealed to by Anabaptists, but not, except in a few isolated cases, as a source of new revelation. They felt driven by the Spirit to be baptized, to preach, read the Scriptures to others, or go to one place or another. But the Spirit they appealed to was the Spirit who was also the author of the Scriptures and who did not contradict what he had said in his main witness.

The problem is most acutely visible in Pilgram Marpeck and there most creatively articulated and resolved. To quote William Klassen:

The letter was important but not as a dead standard by which to live; rather it was the vehicle used by the Spirit to communicate its message to him, a vehicle that would be necessary as long as man lives on the stage of history. The letter had been infused with the Spirit and had become ‘a living letter in his heart.’ (Covenant and Community, [Eerdmans, 1968] p. 98).

Anabaptist Hermeneutics in Practice

That this section needs to be added is indication of how closely hermeneutics was integrated with life. It was not an abstract methodology but a part of the total being of the disciple.

The Community Interprets

It is a basic novelty in the discussion of hermeneutics to say that the text is best understood in a congregation (Yoder, MQR 41[Oct 1967], 301). →10 That is true both for today as well as for the sixteenth century. The Anabaptist insistence on community interpretation was a declaration that the academic tools of literary analysis were not enough. The text can be properly understood only when disciples are gathered together to discover what the Word has to say to their needs and concerns (Yoder, ibid). For each member of the church has something to contribute out of his own experience. It is therefore not the hierarchy as in Roman Catholicism, nor the scholar-teacher as in Protestantism who decides what the Word means in any given instance, but the gathered community under the guidance of the Spirit.

In this setting the scholar has a place in that s/he brings to the discussion knowledge of the languages and what others have said about the text. But s/he is not exempt from the congregational process of searching and finding. This process is designed to save Christians from the tyranny of the specialized knowledge and equipment of the scholar, as well as from the tyranny of individualist interpretation and of the visionary.


I am not sure what function such a statement might serve in a twentieth century setting. The problems and methods of hermeneutics have changed so radically since the introduction of historical and literary criticism in the nineteenth century that there is hardly any resemblance between their way and the sixteenth century way of biblical interpretation. Both take the Bible seriously and that is about where the resemblance ends. Can an essay like this be more than just a reverent nod to the ancestors, as Yoder says? Is it only the acknowledgement and articulation of an ideal we no longer attempt to practice? While the principles of Anabaptist hermeneutics may not adequately serve us today, the way in which they worked at the task may. Three points strike me as having special relevance for today:

  1. The view that it is the congregation that interprets Scripture.
  2. The view that the scholar is subject to the congregational process of interpretation.
  3. The relationship between discipleship and epistemology.


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 5-10. 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.