Anabaptist Hermeneutics: The Letter and the Spirit

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Anabaptist Hermeneutics: The Letter and the Spirit

William Klassen§

→77# “That weighty word ‘hermeneutic’ seems slowly but surely to be creeping into the vernacular.” With these words a prominent bookseller recently advertised a new book dealing with the subject of hermeneutics. The advertisement called attention to the fact that Time magazine had recently devoted major space to the subject of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics has traditionally been understood as the study dealing with the process of interpretation. It used to be assumed that it dealt primarily with rules. Now it is generally recognized that exegesis is both an art and a science, and although it must reflect upon valid and invalid methods of procedure hermeneutics is much more than merely the formulation of rules, and exegesis is more than the implementation of those rules.

In the area of Anabaptist studies a number of scholars have posed the hermeneutical question in their study of the early leaders. To some extent all of us are captivated by our own prejudices and interests. The early in-group students of Anabaptism, engaged as they were in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies, defended the Anabaptists staunchly as Fundamentalists, or at least as orthodox proponents of the traditional faith. In reaction, some sought to demonstrate that the Anabaptists were really neo-orthodox; at the very least they were existentialists! Still others think that surely the Anabaptist orange has been squeezed dry and that we had better seek to extract nourishment elsewhere.

→78 It may therefore be in order to suggest the perspective from which these matters are here treated. The assumption that the Anabaptists spoke a final word for their followers is denied implicitly by their position. When we study them we are primarily interested in discovering the issues which constituted the center of their life and thought. Their positions have naturally been subjected to the test of history and most of their positions have shown an incredible ability to survive rigorous scrutiny. Others have been modulated according to the historical exigencies of subsequent years and should not merely on the basis of such modulation be considered suspect. Our task certainly is not to defend the Anabaptists with our words, since their strongest defense is always a community of people translating their beliefs into courageous corporate life. Without that a verbal defense is merely words blown into the wind.

There is a certain urgency about the question of how the Anabaptists used the Bible. The question would not be urgent if Anabaptists found sources of authority outside the Bible. It is, however, extremely urgent for people who claim to base their total position upon biblical revelation. It is certainly conceivable that a group of people living four hundred years ago who approached the Bible earnestly and naively could be shown to be wrong today on the very premises that meant most to them. If they were most interested in what the Bible says, it is conceivable that we, their followers, might conclude that it really does not say what they thought it did. Obviously if their position cannot be defended upon the grounds of sober study and understanding of the text, if they were either too busy or too uneducated to give the Bible the kind of thorough study it deserves and arrived at their positions intuitively or charismatically, then a rejection of their position should be the first order of the day. No emotional attachment to them or historical antiquarianism should detain us in this rejection, nor should anyone consider us irreverent iconoclasts for carrying the original Anabaptist premise to its logical conclusion.

The question about the hermeneutics of the Anabaptists is also raised because hermeneutics is the question in modern theology. No longer do only the Fundamentalists study hermeneutics in an attempt to find ways of approaching biblical texts according to certain rules. Now major efforts of biblical scholars are devoted to hermeneutic[1] consultations. Indeed there is evidence to indicate that →79 biblical scholars are so busy thinking, writing, reading, and talking about hermeneutics that there is no time to write commentaries on the biblical books or to really do exegesis. This strange habit of the specialist to concentrate on preliminary issues is not confined to biblical scholarship.

Why, then, ask about Anabaptist hermeneutics? One reason is that modern theology has given Protestantism a vital shot in the arm through its renaissance of Reformation studies. Calvin and Luther renaissance movements have done great things for their followers. We are a part of the history of the Reformation, and whether we like it or not, whether consciously or unconsciously, we always relate to our past.

Two issues are isolated in these lectures. These issues are more or less central in all of Anabaptism, at the very least they are central in Swiss and South German Anabaptism. The first issue can be described as “the relation of the spirit to the letter.” The expression needs to be clarified, however, before we look at the way it illuminates Anabaptist hermeneutics. The Apostle Paul himself provided the impetus to this expression in his discussion of the relation of the Spirit to the letter in II Corinthians 3. The interpretation of these Pauline terms has moved in several directions. Some, through the influence of Plotinus, the Neoplatonist, disparaged all matter and sought for the spiritual rather than the material. To be free from the material was the ultimate freedom and toward this they worked. They believed in spirit against letter. These interpreters ignored the fact that when Paul refers to “the Spirit” in this context he is obviously thinking of the Holy Spirit. Others in a more general way refer to “the letter and the spirit” and indicate merely a literal approach over against finding the meaning of what is being said. Tell a person like that to “go jump in the lake” and his literalism leaves him no other option but to literally get wet. This second group believed in the letter against the spirit. A third group, by far the majority, saw in the letter-and-spirit distinction a welcome open door to allegory. Back in Greek times men argued that the Homeric poems were not to be taken literally and that the deeper meaning could only be found through allegorization. Through Philo, the Jewish writer of the first century, allegory entered the Christian tradition at Alexandria and it remained to plague the majority of commentators until the sixteenth century.

One book which sharply posed this matter during the years of the Reformation was Augustine’s De Spiritu et littera which was written in 412 in an effort to inform Marcellinus about the dangers →80 of Pelagianism. Both Strasbourg and Zürich promoted the book widely in German and Luther had high praise for it. Carlstadt was enthusiastic enough about it to edit it and write a commentary on it as well as promoting it widely in German.[2] Yet no two groups of these promoters of Augustine’s thesis on the letter and the Spirit received the same message from the book. Luther naturally stressed Augustine’s emphasis on grace, whereas Bucer and Zwingli buttressed their concept of the sacrament with an appeal to Augustine. Strangely enough, even the Anabaptists appeared to appeal to Augustine in their radical distinction between the Old and New Covenants, an idea strikingly prominent in this book by Augustine but apparently of little interest to the other Reformers.

The Anabaptists approached this expression from II Corinthians 3 in a quite different way. They followed Augustine in assuming that the primary point at issue in the discussion of this chapter was the relation between the Old and New Covenants. Thus when Paul said “the letter kills” he was referring primarily, if not exclusively, to the Old Testament and the letter of the Law there. He cannot have meant the New Testament writings or any literal observance of them because the New Testament letter does not kill but the words of Christ bring life.

The Anabaptists have often been described as biblicists and literalists. Though there are some anecdotes which support this, the totality of evidence cautions us not to use these terms for the Anabaptists. J. C. Wenger apparently uses this term merely to say that they used the Bible extensively.[3] If this is all that is meant not much harm is done, but usually the term “biblicist” is reserved for someone who assumes that the Bible is self-explanatory, that it needs only to be memorized and repeated to be effective. The biblicist is William Jennings Bryan as portrayed in Inherit the Wind. Unable to overcome the opposition by clear reasoning he resorts to quoting the Bible from memory beginning with Genesis 1:1. The Pietists of Württemberg who argued that one could consume wine because it is mentioned in the Bible but that beer was forbidden because it is not, were biblicists.[4] In that sense the Anabaptists were not biblicists, although in the early years they had a difficult time cutting them- →81 selves off from the biblicism of Zwingli.

It is of course difficult to transport ourselves into that world of the Reformation when the Bible was first made available to the common man. We have been surfeited with Bibles in more versions than we can ever possibly read and have been admonished from early childhood to read the Bible and therefore have a hard time imagining what it must be like to find the Bible after years of being enslaved by human instruction and calcified dogma. Yet this same release often takes place today on the mission fields of South America where new converts find great joy as the biblical truths are opened to them. They move through the barrier of illiteracy and at the same time find the freedom of Protestantism, and as they do so the Bible takes on an almost magical significance. This is precisely what happened in the sixteenth century. Printing had been invented just fifty years earlier. Although many of course could not read, nevertheless with the coming of Luther’s Bible in the vernacular new worlds of spiritual discovery opened up to the masses. When they argued about whether one needed the written word to be saved they were not modern liberals talking about emancipation from the written code or mystics thrilled with their spark of divinity but they were merely asking whether Uli the Ploughman or Hans the Baker would have to learn to read before God could really speak to them. The answer was evident: God speaks through the man reading the Word and through the man speaking the word in the church, not only through the written word known as the Bible. We obviously do these men a great injustice and commit a grave historical blunder if we assume that they were addressing themselves to modern controversies which involve the written and spoken word. For them it was a supremely practical issue—not a theological one at all. They were thinking about communication, not revelation.

The issue “letter or spirit” was most vigorously debated between the Anabaptists and the Spiritualists. In Anabaptist research the parting of the ways between Spiritualism and Anabaptism has generally been dated as 1540 when Marpeck and Schwenckfeld finally had it out in what George Williams has imaginatively called “the Damenkrieg.”[5] Feminine followers of both men who were tempted to vacillate between the two leaders finally forced Marpeck and Schwenckfeld to engage in extensive literary duels, some of which seem somewhat pedantic to us today. More recently, however, we are of the opinion that the lines were rather clearly drawn between Anabaptists and Spiritualists at least as early as 1530 in Strasbourg →82 and according to John Howard Yoder probably even earlier in Switzerland.[6]

What is a Spiritualist? Walther Koehler made the definition “separation of word and spirit” famous.[7] The persons who represent this position can easily be identified. They include Jakob Kautz and Hans Bünderlin who definitely submitted to believer’s baptism, and also Sebastian Franck, who admired the Anabaptists but never actually joined them. Schwenckfeld was a Pietist with strong spiritualist leanings and Hans Denck also had leanings in this direction although his keen intellect, artistic connections, and subtle mind make him hard to place in a theological straightjacket. Too often Mennonite scholars have hoped to find in him the exactness of theological expression found in some other writers and chastised him for his vagueness, but it is doubtful that we ought to treat him as severely as we have in the past. He is due to be rehabilitated and again find his place in the mainstream of Anabaptism.

The Spiritualist is one who says that he does not need the outer ceremony of baptism, Bible reading, church attendance, or Lord’s Supper because God is a Spirit and therefore is not to be sought in the externals of life. Like Plato he may argue that truth cannot and should not be written down because the living word cannot be written down without mortal consequences.[8] Why these Spiritualists nevertheless wrote books so diligently is somewhat of a mystery; at least they never addressed themselves to this apparent inconsistency in their own approach, an inconsistency Marpeck was quick to point out.

No one in Anabaptism so vigorously opposed Spiritualism as did Marpeck. During four years at Strasbourg (1528-32) he met most of the Spiritualists and engaged in extensive discussions with them and their followers. During the year 1531 he published two books, the contents of which have just become known during the last few years. In these books he addressed himself both to the spiritualizers within Anabaptism (Hans Bünderlin) and those on the fringes (Caspar Schwenckfeld). In both instances the attack against Anabaptism was the same. The external means are no longer needed because we live in the age of the Spirit. In the Old Covenant, it was argued, →83 God’s people were infants and so God gave them an elaborate ritual, priests, and ceremonies to play with. Now however, we are grown up and no longer need these playthings. Why then did Jesus institute baptism, Lord’s Supper, ordination, etc.? The Spiritualists answered that Jesus played along with these toys as a concession to the weak Jews. As a means of gaining an entrance into the Jewish faith Jesus allowed such external things as baptism to stand but with the death of the apostles and in our own advanced state these ceremonies have completely outlived their usefulness. What is now needed, the Spiritualists argued, is a completely spiritual religion.

The reply given to this approach reveals that Marpeck had an uncanny ability to comprehend the biblical view of reality. Not only did he argue that such an approach would obviously not take seriously enough the commission of our Lord which was binding on us since we are still in the apostolic age, but he also argued that such a spiritualization of the church would mean its demise. To be sure, he admitted, God could have sent his Spirit into the world in order to save the world. Instead he sent a Son who came to men as a lowly carpenter from Nazareth. Naaman the Syrian could have been healed by a command; instead he had to wash in the filthy Jordan. Jesus could have ordered the man born blind to be healed; instead he used such lowly means as mud and spittle. Here Marpeck saw the clue to the divine-human encounter. God uses lowly means to communicate to us. Yet in these despicable forms he visits us with grace and mercy.

The focus of the Spiritualist attack came on the observance of the sacraments. There was a good deal of discussion among the Marpeck group whether the term “sacrament” was allowable and they concluded that it was, provided it was used in the sense in which the early Church Fathers used it. Roman Catholic usage assumed that a metaphysical change takes place in the elements and that something sacramental is inherently efficacious. Naturally Marpeck rejected this, but against the Spiritualists he argued that something really does happen when baptism takes place or the Lord’s Supper is observed. In terms of human experience a change does take place. God is at work in the act of baptism. Under no circumstances would he concede that these rites and ceremonies were mere symbols. He rejected the Zwinglian notion that they were symbols (Zeichen) and argued instead that they were witnesses (Mitzeugen). The bread and wine were concrete witnesses to the body and blood of our Lord, broken and spilled on our behalf. The water of baptism was an effective witness to the water of the Word through which we are →84 cleansed and renewed. Without these witnesses the Christian life would be immeasurably impoverished.

Marpeck said similar things about the Bible. While Schwenckfeld continued diligent study of the Bible, there were more radical Spiritualists for whom even the Bible was superfluous. Marpeck did not fall victim to a sterile conception of biblical authority which assumes that the Bible is the Word of God from cover to cover. He says explicitly that it is not the ink and paper, not the perishable, creaturely parts of books or human speech which is God’s Word, but rather that which it contains, its spoken and written sense.[9] Torsten Bergsten has commented that Marpeck does not represent an “orthodox verbal inspiration theory but rather his view of inspiration can be characterized as a combination of the theory of real and personal inspiration.”[10] Paul Peachey is correct in stating that “Anabaptist biblicism has in modern times become widely identified with the Fundamentalist view of Scripture.” He further states that he believes that “few outside influences have so adversely affected modern Mennonites as this confusion.”[11] For Marpeck the Bible is important not because of a view of inspiration he has inherited, but it is important rather because of the dynamic way in which it has continued to speak God’s word to the congregation of which he is a part.

The relation of the letter and the spirit was also seen differently by some of Marpeck’s fellow Anabaptists. It seems to have been a significant issue between the South German group and the Swiss Brethren. What place did Marpeck occupy in the relations of the Swiss and South Germans? The relation of the South Germans as a group to the Swiss Brethren as a group needs further investigation. As late as 1561 a complaint from the mountain workers lists the “Bilgerer, Sattlerische, and Gabrieliter” as the various Anabaptist sects in Strasbourg.[12] Since any grouping among the Anabaptists either geographically or otherwise must be undertaken with caution, [13] and since it is not necessary to do so here, we will confine →85 ourselves to the epistles which constitute the major interchange of ideas between Marpeck and the Swiss Brethren. The term “Swiss Brethren” is used not as including Pilgram Marpeck, as all Anabaptist studies have done prior to Kiwiet, nor to cover the whole group of Swiss Brethren, as does Kiwiet. The question of the precise usage of that term can remain open for the purposes of this investigation.

That the early Swiss Brethren had a biblicism bordering on legalism which they learned from Zwingli is generally recognized, the efforts of Grebel’s biographer to prove the contrary notwithstanding.[14] In view of the fact that all the correspondence between Marpeck and Swiss Anabaptist congregations reflects differences (and since the correspondence is not restricted to St. Gall and Appenzell where in the earlier days excesses were rampant),[15] it would appear evident that Marpeck was at odds with the whole Swiss Brethren movement. That he nevertheless felt himself to be in basic harmony with the early movement is evident from the reference to Schleitheim in the Kunstbuch (by Scharnschlager). It is, however, quite obvious that the answers given by the Marpeck group to ethical questions are considerably freer than the more simple biblicism of the Schleitheim Confession.[16] The number of letters exchanged and the urgency of those extant indicate that Marpeck viewed this difference in approach to the Scriptures as a most serious problem—and well he might for on this battleground was fought the hardest battle between biblicism and spiritualism, the letter and the spirit, law and gospel, freedom and enslavement. From the standpoint of Marpeck’s hermeneutics this literary exchange is invaluable.

If it was necessary to begin with the Spiritualists on the primacy of the Word become flesh, with the legalists within Anabaptism it was necessary to emphasize the primacy of the Spirit, while asserting the empirical union of letter and spirit. In his treatise on true faith Scharnschlager gave expression to the basic objection of the South Germans to the Swiss when he says:

Since we have been made alive through faith and live by faith alone as it says in Romans, how could such life come through external works as certain of the Swiss are insisting [treiben], as though such life, salvation, or rule of God consists in works, for it consists alone in faith. I speak of the faith that comes today after the resurrection and ascension of Christ. . . . →86 I refer to such a righteousness before God which comes by faith in Jesus Christ to all and upon all who believe. Further, they are all made righteous without merit by his grace, by the redemption through Christ, whom God had ad as a mercyseat through- faith in his blood. (After quoting Romans 5:1 he continues]: There it is dearly seen that Just as eternal life, so also essential goodness [Frömmigkeit] and righteousness (valid before God) comes alone through faith. Therefore those who promote external works, cleansing the outside of the cup, saying, “don’t wear this,” “don’t bear that” and the like should desist from it and perceive that such a faith (which is not a gift of man but of God) might be planted and built up. . . . (KB, fol. 255b).

That the issues between the Swiss and Marpeck were primarily hermeneutical, involving both the problem of the Old Testament and that of the spirit and the letter is apparent. Marpeck’s most extensive discussion of the place of the Scriptures as well as the Law came in his correspondence with the Swiss. While the concrete issue which is repeatedly discussed is an ethical one, namely Christian freedom, Marpeck does not separate systematic theology or biblical theology from the practical life of the church.

The point at which this discussion between the Swiss and Mar- peck takes on additional importance and relevance is the difference in conclusions drawn from the biblical message by separate believers, all studying the same Scriptures ostensibly under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit. Marpeck did not assert, as he might have, that since there was discord they obviously did not have the Holy Spirit, but he explicitly rejected such a position and affirmed that they were zealous lovers of God and his Spirit, but lacking in the knowledge and understanding of Christ (KB, fol. 27).[17] To be sure, all knowledge on this earth is only fragmentary and once a man begins to think that he knows, it is certain that he does not know.

There is no lack of Spirit that there should be factions between us, but there is still a deficiency in our weak conscience and immature understanding and it is from this that divisions have come (KB, fol. 56b).

Marpeck’s conversations with the Swiss cannot be understood apart from his abhorrence of all sects and his deep desire to realize the unity of Christ’s body, the church (V, 72f., 89, 584; TB, Preface). No aspect of Marpeck’s view of the church is more pronounced than his emphasis on its unity. At this point too he differed radically from the Spiritualists, for they insisted that the more divisions the better; →87 for in that way the true members of Christ’s body would be shown to exist.[18]

If the unity of the church formed the theoretical theological basis for Marpeck’s discussion with the Swiss, the immediate occasion was given by concrete ethical issues. We are considerably handicapped by a lack of major sources available from the Swiss side and must therefore describe the Swiss position as it comes to us from Marpeck’s writings; though no serious attempt will be made to evaluate whether or not this is caricature, or whether Marpeck’s account of the Swiss problem may be distorted.

Evidence of the Swiss position is found in a letter by Cornelius Veh, an elder from Moravia, to the church at Appenzell and Zürich, dated 1543, which describes at length the danger that Christians will not be genuine but instead counterfeit coins moved by themselves rather than by the Spirit of Christ. To test these spirits the Scriptures have to be read, for the Scriptures testify to Christ and only as these spirits are tested by the Scriptures can their genuineness be determined. This is made more difficult because they too use the Scriptures, but according to the letter, as did Satan when he tempted Christ, and by omitting certain words or portions of Scripture. Often they distort or confuse the Scriptures. Like Pilate they use a language which means nothing to them, although sometimes it nevertheless is a witness to others (KB, fol. 219b). The touchstone is Jesus Christ and they must be tested by this stone. Unfortunately many are seeking Christ in the wrong places. There are still some (Anabaptists) who seek him in the desert, denying themselves the usual foods, drink, and clothes hoping thereby to follow the example of John the Baptist and others of the apostolic age. Veh objected to this since John’s asceticism was meant as an object lesson to the Pharisees and has no relation to us (KB, fol. 220b). Others seek him in the closet and “no one can reach him there but we who have the key.” After listing a number of groups who take this approach, he warned that Christ cannot be found in the bread or any other place apart from the human heart:

… as is the custom of the false Christians, some even called Brethren, that →88 is Taüfer who would like to be that, of whom some say Christ is here, others there, once there in the Scriptures, or in other dead creatures like craftsmanship or other things which one should not or may not use. At another time they see it in temporal goods, as community of the same, whoever does not hand them over and forsake them cannot come to Christ, nor can he find him, even less be saved, unless he sell it and give it to the other (as they say the poor) children of God and similar statements, as has been the manner of the two harmful and destructive sects called Swiss and Hutterian, and as even today in particular the Hutterians practice with regard to temporal goods (KB, fol. 221b).

Veh castigated this approach and admonished his readers to test themselves to see whether they had the Holy Spirit within themselves, for

Whoever does not have the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart is no Christian but a castaway [Verwürflingö], nor can he call Christ truly a Lord because he is not ruled by his Spirit (which is Love) KB, fol. 222).

Veh may be discussing the problem at St. Gall in a passage in this epistle where he referred to the slothful servant who hid his talent in a napkin. Under the guise of uncertainty they refuse to do anything. They do not know whether they can even trust those who have baptized them, and are suspicious of those who carry letters to them. They wish merely to stand still. These must be left alone until the Holy Spirit punishes them or spews them out of his mouth (KB, 224b f.). Apparently some of the Swiss objected to the work of the Marpeck group in Switzerland as though this portion of the country were not under its mission mandate. These subterfuges are rejected by Veh as evidence that they do not have the Spirit of Christ. For the rest Veh says they are still in one faith, mind, and spirit with them (KB, fol. 226).

Similar indications are found in the correspondence of Marpeck with the Swiss. His two closely related criticisms of their church life are their legalistic biblicism and their alacrity and sharpness of judgment.

When one has become accustomed to reading Schwenckfeld’s charge that the Anabaptists were hopelessly mired in the dead letter of the Scriptures it comes as somewhat of a jolt to find Marpeck chiding the Swiss for their devotion to the letter. Veh mentions such false devotion (KB, fol. 218b) and Marpeck refers to counterfeit Christian freedom as always adorning itself with the dead letter (KB, fol. 24b, 35). Having stressed the importance of Christian judgment taking place in harmony with Christ, he continues:

But the devil is using his weapons against us in all places in part and fragmentarily (in Teil und Stückweis) through the dead letter (KB, fol. 37f.).

→89 The devil confronts them with the two dangers of not judging at all, and of prematurely judging at all times.

As will be seen in the next lecture, the legalism of the Swiss came to expression in regulations on clothes, bearing arms, etc. Veh’s correspondence also alludes to the Swiss restrictions on clothing and other matters he considers adiaphorous (KB, fol. 220b).

Marpeck complains that their tendency to legislate violates the basic freedom of the Christian in Christ (KB, fol. 28). Hypocrites conceal their lack of spiritual life under human ordinances and commandments (KB, fol. 35), and whoever legislates, commands, or orders “usurps the office of the Holy Spirit.”[19] For Marpeck the only law in the Christian life is the law of love (KB, fol. 49), and the only sin is the sin of disobeying God’s word (ibid.). This adherence to the letter and attendant legalism has in Marpeck’s judgment caused the Swiss to become victims of the malady of judging prematurely and harshly (KB, fol. 28), a malady so serious that he refused on that ground alone to recognize them as a valid church of Christ. He could find no evidence in either Christ or Paul of such a censorious attitude and so could not see how they could be a church.[20] Church discipline cannot be exercised in the flippant manner evident among the Swiss where even the elders were under the ban, some even under the double ban (KB, fol. 62).[21] Some of their bishops have prostituted their holy calling of helping and assisting the weak into an unholy desire to judge and condemn the weak and the erring. It is the function of the bishop to care for the sick, not to kick them out.[22] Leaders are tolerant of the weak and the erring just as Christ is tolerant of us and strengthens us (KB, fol. 57). Where all spiritual life is gone it is a different matter, but to judge the men who are not living up to a certain level because of human weakness is not in the spirit of Christ, especially when the spirit of hasty condemnations rules in the church. He concluded his first letter to the Swiss with the plea: →90

Above all it is my prayer for the sake of Christ that you seek judgment from Christ and exercise it there. Learn from him longsuffering, patience, and tenderheartedness. May the merciful Father supplement all my shortcomings and insufficiencies which I still find daily. For the greatest uneasiness in my conscience (spalt in meinem Gewissen) about you i that I fail to find such quick, premature judgments and condemnations concerning every little thing with Christ and his apostolic church as I find among you (KB, fol. 61b).

In summary, it can be noted that Marpeck was caught between the spiritualist critique of Anabaptism, which dubbed it a heresy of the letter,[23] and a sizeable proportion of his fellow Anabaptists who were fast becoming ensnared in a legalistic biblicism which picked certain issues and gave them absolute value, while the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith were slipping from the place of central importance. Marpeck registered a vigorous protest that human effort was beginning to take the place of divine grace and that the accomplishments of men were pushing the achievements and satisfaction of Christ out of the center. In this incipient threatening change he saw a deadly foe of the Anabaptist movement which he withstood with all the strength and vigor at his command. Whether he ever convinced the Swiss Brethren, no one knows, but that the foe against whom he fought was not an imaginary one, subsequent events in the Mennonite church have shown only too clearly.[24] Where discipleship moves to the center there is always the danger that the imitation-of-Christ ideal supplants the Pauline emphasis of God working in one and Christ being formed within one. The one is anthropocentric, the other theocentric. Even in the tension between spirit and letter Marpeck’s basic Christocentrism comes strongly to the fore.

Marpeck had come to resolve the tension between the spirit and the letter. The letter was important but not as a dead standard by which to live; rather it was a vehicle used by the Spirit to communicate its message to him, a vehicle which 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” (KU, C vb).


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 106-114. 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. It is now considered avant-garde to drop the “s.” On the importance of this distinction see J. M. Robinson, ed. The New Hermeneutic (New York, 1964) 39. Says Carl Braaten, “. . . now we are asked to be tidy in observing the difference between hermeneutic and hermeneutics—only now for the first time we are one-up on the Germans because they have no way of making this distinction.” “How New is the New Hermeneutic?” Theology Today, 22 (1965):220.
  2. The significance of Augustine’s work in this area for the course of the Reformation has been noted by Gordon Rupp, “Word and Spirit in the First Years of the Reformation,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 49 (1958):16. On Carlstadt’s commentary on it, see Ernest Kähler, Karlstadt und Augustin, Der Kommentar des Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt zu Augustins Schrift De spiritu et litera (Halle, 1952).
  3. See J. C. Wenger, “The Biblicism of the Anabaptists,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, ed. by Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale, 1957) 167-79.
  4. See the articles by E. Schott and G. Gloege on “Biblizismus,” in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (third edition) I, Cols. 1262 f., and Herman Diem, Was heisst Schriftgemäss? (Neukirchen, 1958) 9-10, all of whom consider biblicism an erroneous approach.
  5. G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962) 466-71.
  6. John H. Yoder, “The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, 96. His point is abundantly illustrated in the newly published writings of Hubmaier.
  7. Walther Koehler, “Die Spiritualisten,” in ARG 41 (1948):181: “Man pfiegt doch gemeinhin unter Spiritualismus die Distanzierung von Wort and Geist zu verstehen im Gegansatz zu ihrer Verbundenheit bei Luther.. . .”
  8. Phaedrus, 274B-277B. In Epistle VII, 344C Plato seems to disparage writing because when things are written down people tend to depreciate them. In Phaedrus the relation of writing and remembering is discussed. In neither does the Neoplatonic depreciation of writing on the basis that the written word is material rather than spiritual occur.
  9. Verantwortung II, pp. 518 if.: “Und ist nit das sichtlich, vergenglich, creaturlich papierbuch oder dinten, ja es ist eben das ewig, lebendig, weslich wort gottes, auf welchs dann die schrift and eusserlich predig nit allein. . . sondes sy ists eben, . . . durch Den unsichtlichen, geistlichen synn und verstand an im selbs von gott und dem h. geist ausgeend als geist und leben, ja gout Christus und h. geist im herzen durch den glaube. . .” P. 521: “Wir haissen nit dinten und papier oder was an buechern heyliger schrift oder an den inhaltenden verfassten, geredten und geschriben synn mainen wir.” See also pp. 529 ff.
  10. Torsten Bergsten, “Pilgram Marbeck und seine Auseinandersetzung mit Caspar Schwenckfeld,” Kyrkohistorisk Arsskrift, 1957-58, p. 35.
  11. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, 333.
  12. Krebs-Rott, #736. Does this indicate the three main groups, Swiss Brethren (Saltier), South Germans, and Gabrielites? Probably one has to be cautious with this evidence, since it comes from the mouth of people who wanted to discredit the Anabaptists. On January 14, 1556, Peter Novesianus (Krebs-Rott, #674) said there were Hutterites, Hofmannites, “Schweitzerische” and “Bilgramites” among the Anabaptists.
  13. See Heinold Fast, “Pilgram Marbeck und das oberdeutsche Täufertum,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 47 (1956): 223, 225.
  14. Harold S. Bender, Conrad Grebel (Goshen, 1950) 175. It is not difficult to see how the approach adopted by Grebel that the New Testament must teach something for it to be adopted would lead to biblicism unless definite efforts were made to avert it. Who would defend the argument, “what the Scripture does not positively teach and command is forbidden?” (Bender. op. cit., 176). Menno also took this position (Cornelius Krahn, Menno Simons [Karlsruhe, 1936]. 135).
  15. Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz visited St. Gall in an attempt to expunge these accesses. See Kessler, Sabbata, pp. 164 f.
  16. Cf. “Oath,” ME 4.
  17. Abbreviations in this article are as follows: Confession (1532), Conf.; Clare verantwurtung (1531), CV; Klarer unterricht (1531), RU; Vermanung (1542), TB; Verantwortung (1544), V; Testamenterleuterung (1549), TE; Kunstbuch, KB.
  18. On the basis of I Cor. 11:19. After speaking about the true fellowship of believers in the presence of Christ, Marpeck says: “Sonst entschlag ich mich aller Sekten, Rottierungen, und Versammlungen ... sonderlich deren die wider die Geduld Christi ... das leibliche Schwert brauchen im Reich Christi zu herrschen...” (KB, fol. 41). In the same vein he writes: “Die rechte und wahre Gemeinschaft des Leibs und Bluts Christi ist einigkeit, und Einigkeit im hl. Geist ist wahre Gemeinschaft, dann da kann und mag nicht Spaltung sein im Leib Christi, weils nur ein Glaub. ein Herr, ein Geist, ein Gott Vater unser aller ist, so ist je solche Gemeinschaft mit einem Geist, mit Wasser getauft, zu einem unzerspaltnen, ungeteilten Leib mit vereinten Glieder” (KB, fol. 66). Bucer argued that the presence of many sects and heresies is a sign that the true teaching of the Holy Gospel is present (Wie leicht unnd füglich christliche vergleichung der Religion [Strasbourg, 1545], LXXIII). This argument is used also by Franck, Bünderlin, and Schwenckfeld.
  19. KB, foL 56: “Darum war setzt, gebeut, oder verbeut, zwingt, treibt, straft oder richt vor der zest der offenbarung guten oder bosen frucht, der greift dem hl. Geist des Herrn Jesu Christi (wider die lieb, Gut and Gnad in sein herrlichkeit, Gewalt und Amt), und lauft Christo Jesu vor.” The danger of legalism is noticed also in KB, fol. 37b; 40b; 48.
  20. KB, fol. 66: “Wir haben euch aber billig bisher und noch von unserer Gemeinschaft in Christo abgestellt um unbilligs grichts und bannens wiliest etc.” Earlier he has said that even if they did recognize them as a church, God would not do so (fol. 65), and the reason why they cannot be recognized is that they do not judge according to the “sündverzeihender und sündbehaltender hli. geist christi” (fol. 65b).
  21. The seriousness of church discipline is evident from Marpeck’s plea that discipline follow the order prescribed in Matthew 18 and if the offender does not hear the church “so geht erst des urteil mit trübsal, angst, und trauern, und mit grossem schmerzen und leid, dann es gilt ein glied am leib Christi des herrn ...Es wird den andern gliedern am leib christi ohn schmerzhaften grossen schmerzen und trübsaln nicht zugehn” (KB, fol. 58b). In Kessler’s Sabbata we find similar evidence. After describing their modest dress and their attitude toward oath and sword he continues: “Verging sich einer hierin mit etwas, so wurde er von ihnen gebannt: denn es war ein tägliches Ausschliessen unter ihnen” (p. 46).
  22. “Nicht so schnell aus dem hause gottes zu stossen” (KB, fol. 57b).
  23. Sebastian Franck, Chronica (1531), fol. 444b: “den buchstaben der schrifft (den sye steiff für sich hielten).” In general it should be remembered that Franck felt the Anabaptists were so diverse “das ich nichts gewiss vnd endtlichs von ynen zuschreiben weiss” (fol. 445).
  24. Mennonites continue to attract the notice of others by their devotion to “the letter” (Louis Camels, United Press International Release, December 4. 1959). The extremes which our biblicism has taken is amusingly illustrated in the article “Suspenders,” ME, 4:664. Many divisions in the Mennonite brotherhood have resulted from a different hermeneutic and the inability to admit that when we differ in our interpretation of a given passage of Scripture and especially in its application, this does not necessarily denote unfaithfulness.