Menno Simons' Encounter with the Bible
MENNO SIMONS’ ENCOUNTER WITH THE BIBLE
→62# Menno’s experience with the Scriptures when he went through his soul-shaking struggles brought on by the questions related to the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper and baptism left an indelible impression upon him. Ever afterward he found it impossible to dissociate himself from the source which had answered his questions and through which he had met the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. No longer did he ask what the Church Fathers had said on an issue; now it was a question of what the Scriptures said. He had found a new authority.1
Following upon the new insights which he received he was confronted with the problem of integrating them into his life—his role as a Catholic priest, his parish ministry, his theological position, his relationship to the whole reform movement. Although he tried to evade the issue and carry on a carefree life as before, his situation became unbearable. He was so conscience-smitten because of his own sheltered existence in contrast to those who gave their very lives for what to him seemed a wrong cause that he could no longer endure it. Amid sighing and tears he came to God in prayer, being for mercy and forgiveness and asking for the courage to preach the “exalted name and holy Word in purity” to the end that God’s truth and glory might be made known. That prayer was answered, first in that he was able to preach boldly against the evil both of the Catholic Church and the perverted Münsterites, and secondly in that some months thereafter he was able to renounce all and “willingly submit to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ.”
Out of this experience came Menno’s specific attitude of devotion and obedience, an attitude that touched both the interpretation and the application of the Scriptures. Where this obedience to Christ was lacking, Menno would not vouch for the validity of an interpretation. In this own life he evinced an unrelenting vigilance that all his endeavors might bear the right fruits, as in obedience to his Lord he sought to preach the saving gospel of grace.
Menno’s stance before God was one of fear and trembling. Of him he implored wisdom to understand and to evaluate the Scriptures correctly.2 Disobedience meant error, while obedience was the →63 enabling factor that would make for understanding and knowledge.
The conviction that Hebrews 1:1 meant just what it said with its statement that God had now spoken decisively in Jesus Christ led Menno to place the New Testament above the Old. Because God’s purpose saw its culmination in the eternal Son who became the Redeemer of men, Menno said that Christ must be made central in every undertaking. Therefore all writing and preaching must be nothing other than Jesus Christ. If he, Menno, did not follow the testimony of Christ, all he did was useless. Even if he had visions and inspirations, these must be conformable to the Word and Spirit of Christ; otherwise they would be mere imaginations.3
Approaching the Scriptures with such convictions would necessarily imply a particular perspective from which to view its content. In some respects Menno approached Luther with his was Christum treibet, and like Luther Menno also found Christ in most unexpected places in the Old Testament. However, when he insisted that everything be seen and interpreted in terms of Christ, he wanted it clearly understood that Christ, not the Old Testament, was normative for the Christian. This was so definite with him that he did not doubt that “the merciful Father will keep me in his Word so that I shall write or speak nothing but that which I can prove by Moses, the Prophets, the evangelists and other apostolic Scriptures and doctrines, explained in the true sense, Spirit and intent of Christ.” Following through with this particular perspective, Menno knew himself taught by the Spirit of God and drawn by the Father. Yet he was ever ready to caution that interpretations be weighed “with the Spirit, Word, and ordinance of the Lord.”4 To bring Menno’s view of the Scriptures into sharper focus, it will be necessary to speak to a number of specific issues. One of these is the problem of understanding. The consideration of this question is most relevant since current discussion of hermeneutics centers directly in this area.5
THE QUESTION OF UNDERSTANDING
While all the Reformers began with the same formal principle, sola scriptura, it was obvious immediately that their interpretations varied considerably. The reason lay in their different conception or understanding. Menno encountered this problem from two directions. On the one hand he was convinced that many had failed to →64 understand the Scriptures (seen in the evil conditions of the time brought on by man’s disobedience), while, on the other hand, when he spoke and wrote to correct and to instruct, he himself was misunderstood.
In the first place we are led to ask about the objectives of understanding. For the scholastic men of the pre-Reformation period the objective of understanding was purely theological. Their endeavor was to find the necessary basis for the theological statements espoused, and hence the Bible for them was the infallible theological text-book. Luther was fully acquainted with this position, and his earliest writings are a rebellion against it. For him as for the other Reformers, including Menno, the Bible was not to be read to see what it would say by way of correction for dogmatics. They saw as the objectives of understanding the discovery of saving truth. Luther made a great discovery when he suddenly realized that the Scriptures teach that God meets men and imparts justification to them. The basic difference between the Schoolmen and the Reformers was evident: with the former the God-man relationship was seen in terms of a “servant- payment” relationship, while with the latter it was a “child-grace” relationship.6 Since Menno’s religious experience placed him very close to Luther, there was nothing he desired more than that others might also discover saving truth. The Scriptures set forth man’s sin and God’s grace, and Christ and his apostles teach God’s eternal truth which leads to eternal life.
If one raises the question: how does one receive the truth? one is brought to a consideration of the prerequisites of understanding. Objectively one sees in Menno the strong soteriological aspect of revelation. God wants to be known to men, and therefore men are made so that they can understand God. God approaches us in Christ; men can understand what God has to communicate to them. Otherwise there would be no purpose in Bible study and preaching. One of the prerequisites then is Bible study. To get at the Bible’s message one must study its text. Menno holds that the Word is plain, yet every person is to observe carefully what is contained therein. Prior to taking up his ministry to the scattered sheep Menno spent almost a year in Bible study. He says little about the way in which he went about that study. But that he learned to know the text of the Bible very thoroughly becomes evident from the profuse citations which mark all his writings. It was Luther who helped Menno to see that it was the message →65 of the Bible rather than the language in which it was written that was important; this emphasis, however, did not minimize the importance of the text. Menno nowhere indicates that he preferred one language to another. He used a number of different Bibles in his study (Latin, German, Dutch, Greek), the Dutch being used most—at least in his writings this is the case. He was writing for the common people. Latin citations are found scattered throughout his writings, something which one would expect since Menno had received his initial theological training in that language.7 Unlike the Reformers, Menno did not speak to the matter of distinguishing between the copies of Scripture made from the original (apographa) and the translations.8 He did have occasion to refer to different renderings when making comparison among several translations, and his writings show that he took the study of the text very seriously.
From the subjective standpoint, the prerequisites of understanding are seen to lie in the attitude of the one who comes to the Scriptures. Very briefly this attitude must be marked by obedience (willingness to submit to the cross), a willingness to be instructed both by the Spirit and by the brethren and a personal application in seeing the truths as they apply to everyday life. Education was not a prerequisite for Menno, and this because so much of his opposition came from the “learned ones.” But it was not so much the education as it was the disobedience which marked their lives, that plagued Menno.9 Here there was a decided carry-over to true exegesis and evangelism. Because the Word is not a neutral fact, but a living reality, it opens itself to the believer and closes itself to the evildoer. It becomes a veritable trap, for the sinner is prompted to find in the Bible the justification for his sinfulness (as when the learned ones find passages to justify their worldliness, insisting that people are to heed them even though they have their faults, just as Jesus told the people of his day to heed the words of the Pharisees, but not to follow their example).10 Wrong-doing therefore blinds people so that they do not understand. Menno makes a distinction here: sinfulness brings this about, occasional sins do not. And here it is evident that with Menno it is not the intellect but man’s heart that enables man to understand the Scriptures. One does not need formal education. This position is seen to make sense only if the positive principle is adhered to that through the heart the Bible is understood. Menno distinguishes rightly between volition and the heart. He does not say →66 that moral and spiritual perfection are necessary to understanding, but the new birth is. Menno follows Luther here. The Catholic opponents argued on the ancient theory of the mental faculties, of which volition is one, and they would say that it is the intellect which must interpret the Bible. Both Luther and Menno insisted that it is the heart, the self, that interprets the Bible. One must have the quality of heart rather than the mind or mere energy of the will.11 Both Luther and Menno were skeptical of an independent operation of the mind in ascertaining the biblical message. Luther said, “The Bible cannot be mastered by study and talent,” but rather by prayer and inspiration.12 Thus for him the new birth was a definite prerequisite for understanding the Scripture.
The essence of truth was to be discerned through a study of the Word of God. In his epistle to Micron, Menno says: “What I wrote that one should not swear at all in worldly dealings was taught me not by any gloss of the old serpent but by the Word of God. Matt. 5:37, James 5:12.” In effect, this was using the written Word to interpret itself. Menno was always ready to have someone disprove with other Scripture the interpretation or meaning that he ascribed to a passage of Scripture. If he could be convinced that he was wrong he would change. With the conviction that God’s Word was truth, and with the further conviction that truth would remain truth forever, the Word must come to bear on the interpretation, and thus it becomes an aid to understanding.
The preceding discussion has pointed out at least one obstacle to understanding, and that is disobedience. The devil is most happy to possess the citadel of men’s hearts to keep them from learning to know Christ’s nature, Spirit and power. When men know what they should do, but do not act upon that, they are also going to lose what has been given to them. Here Menno undoubtedly speaks out of his own experience, for he knew what he had to do when the Spirit illumined his heart to see the fallacies of the Catholic Church and yet he did not act. One can actually note how at this point the conscience becomes another aid to understanding. Through it God directs men to yield to his leading; in fact, Menno says that through his conscience God revealed himself as he, Menno, studied the New Testament.13
If it be asked in how far the aids to understanding as we have noted them are given by God, and in how far man needed to act, the →67 answer is a twofold one. Man certainly must act—act in response to the stirred conscience, study the Scriptures, meditate and discuss, and finally give himself completely to Christ. Yet Menno can sum this up in the following words:
And so you see, my reader, in this way the merciful Lord through the liberal goodness of His abounding grace took notice of me, a poor sinner, stirred in my heart at the outset, produced in me a new mind, humbled me in his fear, taught me to know myself in part, turned me from the way of death and graciously called me into the narrow pathway of life and the communion of His saints. To Him be praise forevermore. Amen.14
In effect this speaks of the crucial role of the Spirit of God in aiding men to understand. The Holy Ghost illumined Menno so that he could understand. And Menno went on to point out that the Spirit continues his work, for he teaches the gospel truths to his children, and “writes them upon the tablets of our hearts with the gracious finger of his heavenly flame.” He it is who works the changed life in people and through his mighty power causes the true Gospel of Christ to “joyfully progress among all nations. . . .”
When the Spirit leads in this way, and when men respond obediently, the outcome is that the “powerful word of the Lord is more and more miraculously breaking forth.” This says something about the way in which Menno conceives of the process of understanding as taking place. There is an illumination by the Spirit, there are evidences of his work by the fruits that are brought forth, and Christ’s cause goes forward. And further, Christians grow in grace and knowledge constantly. Littell is right in his observation that this is a far cry from the unwholesome emphasis on election characteristic of one type of Protestant orthodoxy. The Word’s renewal or its condemnation was determined by the response of the hearer.15
Menno believed that other people can be a help in one’s under-standing. But a basic difference is seen in the understanding of the preacher’s or interpreter’s office. Calvin saw the teaching office given by the Church as qualifying him to teach and from this nothing could move him. He could stand on his interpretation because he was a teacher of the Church, and when he compared his interpretation with others, it was obvious that his opinion must hold, for he found it in the Scriptures!
There is no question here of their opinion or mine. I show what I find in Scripture. And I do not hasten to come to a conclusion without considering it well more than three times. What is more, since what I →68 say is well-known, no one can contradict it without plainly denying the word of God.16
Luther began with the firm conviction that the Word of God authenticates itself. He had unbounded faith in the ability of the Word to work the task of reform without any further aid. Said Luther:
I have opposed the indulgences and all the papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy, that never a prince or emperor inflicted such damage upon it.... I did nothing; I left it to the Word.17
But Luther did not remain so sure of this working as time went on. The laity needed to be instructed. The German Reformer did not go as far as did his followers after him, but after some years it became evident that he would have to lend a hand. He requested the State to enforce the Church’s (his) interpretation, even though at first he claimed he did nothing but preach and write the Word. One must observe how Müntzer was cynical and scornful of Luther’s strong emphasis on justification by faith, because it was contingent on an understanding of the Bible. And the Bible could be interpreted correctly only by the theologians, who were in turn hand in glove with the civil authorities. This was nothing but a racket! “The civil authorities were determined to so influence the interpretation of the Scripture that the masses of the people would not be enabled themselves to understand its social implications.”18 With Menno the basis was different. It is regeneration that makes a man fit for the office of teaching the Word. Menno was a leader not because of the institution or office, but because of his personal qualifications. When he was called to take up the duties of shepherding the flock, his manner of life and his devotion to Christ had prompted the brethren to present their petition to him. He agreed that there was a necessity of having teachers in the Church as over against assuming that all people had a natural knowledge of God. But, in the first place, the true teachers were the canonical writings, and secondly, they were those who lived by the injunctions found in those writings—particularly those of Christ and the apostles.
If the question is raised about the possibility of losing an -insight which has once been gained, the answer for Menno is in the affirmative. The devil often succeeds in leading men astray. Men often →69 refuse to follow through on what they know to be the right, and they ultimately lose the insight which they already have. And still one more thing: men often bend God’s Word to suit them, thereby warping and losing what they already have.
From the question of understanding we now move on to some other problems which Menno encountered as he read his Bible.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE TWO TESTAMENTS
Because of the religious experience which Menno had he was in agreement with the majority of Anabaptists in emphasizing the New Testament over the Old. He too insisted that the Old could not be understood without the New. In analyzing the Old Testament Menno resorted to a spiritualization of its contents. An illustration of this spiritual interpretation is seen in Menno’s discussion of Jan van Leyden’s blasphemous claims that he was a third David. Among other things Jan was justifying his use of the sword. The Dutch Reformer was quick to insist that the Christian is to leave the armour of David to the physical Israelite and the sword of Zerubbabel to those who build the temple in Jerusalem, “which is a figure of them and a shadow of things to come.”
Now we should not imagine that the figure of the Old Testament is so applied to the truth of the New Testament that flesh is understood as re-ferring to flesh; for the figure must reflect the reality; the image, the being, and the letter, the Spirit. If we take this view of it we shall easily understand with what kind of arms Christians should fight, namely with the Word of God which is a two-edged sword. . . 19
This citation indicates with a series of couplets how Menno pictures the reality of the New Testament over the Old. One of the first functions of the Old Testament is preparation. Man is a sinner, estranged from God, and it is the purpose of the Old Testament to prepare the human heart for the help that is available.
. . . I say, search the Law diligently. For it points out to you, first, the obedience to God and righteousness required of you; and also the weakness of your sinful flesh, your impure and evil-disposed nature; and that you are already condemned to death, according to the rigor of the above- mentioned righteousness, since you, through your inherent weak nature and evil-disposed flesh, do not walk in the required righteousness as God has commanded and required of you in His Law.20
Secondly, Menno sees the role of the Law as being one of promise.
Behold, my reader, such a faith as mentioned is the true Christian faith which praises, honors, magnifies, and extols God the Father and His →70 Son Jesus Christ through loving fear and fearing love, for it recognizes the good will of the Father toward us through Christ. It recognizes, I say, that all the promises to the fathers, the expectation of the patriarchs, the whole figurative law, and all the prophecies of the prophets are fulfilled in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ.21
For Menno it was clear that God from the very beginning revealed his goodwill to men, and that he was therefore working with a definite purpose. Menno’s discussion often refers to “the fullness of time,” which is closely related to the promise function of the Old Testament.22 Besides noting the Old Testament as preparation and promise, Menno also made much of the devotional use of the Old Testament. From the characters on the historical stage Menno drew inspiration and challenge to live in his own perilous times. How comforting it was to observe that God had been with his people, leading them through the severest vicissitudes. Their examples of trust were to be followed. But their ethical conduct was to be measured against the standard of Christ.
Menno’s superior evaluation of the New Testament was but the corollary of his basic affirmation—the centrality of Jesus Christ. Following from the purposes which the Reformer saw the Old Testament to have served, he took it very seriously. Whereas Sebastian Franck placed no emphasis on the revelatory character of the Old Testament, seeing it purely as history, Menno viewed it quite differently. God was definitely leading men, and no one could deny that it, the Old Testament, was binding up to the time of Christ. The figures and shadows were used with a purpose and many of them were mighty vessels of God who proclaimed the Word of God as he led them. When Christ came he fulfilled the Law and enabled man to “realize” fully what God wanted of him. Menno says that men can now go beyond the Old Testament Law, for they are directed to Christ. Moses served his day, now Christ has given a new commandment. And this must now be heeded, for this ever-blessed Jesus is not only the One in whom the Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled; he is also the true Teacher and Finisher of the New Testament.23
Menno was fully aware of the ethical issues which stemmed from his theological concerns. His statements about warfare and the use of the sword grew out of his position of seeing the difference between the Old and New Testaments. Any vindictive approach to →71 a person is ruled out because the New Testament forbids revenge, and the law of love must motivate the believer. Christ’s command is too clear to be ignored, and wherever the Old Testament stipulations are not in accord with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles they must give way. This means that the oath may not be used any more, it means that infant baptism cannot be justified, inasmuch as Jesus’ command was to baptize those who believe, and it means that Christians take seriously the high ethical standards for a Church without spot and wrinkle.
THE PROBLEM OF THE SPIRIT
With this understanding of the relationship of the two Testaments, how did Menno meet the “problem of the Spirit”? Such a question seems just a bit odd, for did we not observe earlier that the Spirit illuminates the Scriptures, and thus opens their message to men? That it is the Spirit who drives God’s truth home to the human heart, who gives counsel, who enables men to judge correctly and to preach the Word unblamably, by his power? Surely it was this understanding which caused Littell to make the statement: “Nowhere among the figures of the sixteenth century Reformation or Restitution do we find a richer doctrine of the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit, than in Menno Simons.”24 Why then do I refer to the problem of the Holy Spirit? In answering that question let us observe first of all that for Menno the Spirit’s role is an all- pervasive one. Through the power of the Spirit and the Gospel truth in Christ Jesus the serpent is wholly vanquished. Through heavenly goodness and grace men may be born of the Word of the Lord through the Spirit. Men have graciously been permitted to find through the Spirit the great treasure, the true knowledge of the kingdom of God. These are counseled from above, and in coming to the Word of God they do not rely on visions and angelic inspirations, and should there be some of these visions, they would need to be conformable to the Word and Spirit of Christ before they could be valid.
The reference to visions has brought us to the point where we actually confront the problem to which we have alluded. Simply stated, it was the position of the spiritual extremists who believed that their own angelic inspirations might well supersede and even contradict the Scriptures. For them the Scriptures did not constitute any real authority. They paraded the freedom of the Spirit.
Menno could not separate the Spirit and the Scriptures. On the →72 one hand the understanding of the Holy Spirit is attained by a study of the Scriptures, while on the other the Scriptures cannot be understood except the Holy Spirit interpret them.25 In his Fondament Menno refers to the fact that his opponents argue that one is not to quench the Spirit, meaning thereby that they might legitimately go beyond the word of Scripture. Menno categorically rejects such a position. When Paul made his statement in I Thess. 5:19-22, he spoke this not to those out in the world, but to the prophets, pastors and preachers in the Church of Christ.
If they teach anything not in accordance with the Scriptures and true faith, we are to avoid it. For if any man prophesy, let him prophesy according to the proportion of faith, Rom. 12:6, and this is that to which John exhorts his disciples: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God.”26
On the basis of this and similar statements, it is apparent that Menno cannot be accused of being a spiritualist. He had a similar problem to that of Luther when he was forced to speak to the spiritual excesses in his own brotherhood. But in meeting these excesses, he adopted a policy which forced him to cling fearfully to the exact words of the biblical text. Herein he lost some of the freedom which characterized Luther’s approach. However, this very position removes any basis for the accusation that for him “the Spirit soared beyond control.”27
While this unwholesome attitude of Menno’s was evident in his polemics against those with spiritual excesses, it was not so marked in his conversation with other groups. He was quick to say that the Spirit of Christ was not bound by languages and learning, but he did insist that the Spirit would work in such a way that there would be unity and accord among the children of God. Marpeck was equally clear on the matter of unity and his emphasis is seen repeatedly. Klassen has observed that “no aspect of Marpeck’s view of the church is more pronounced than his emphasis on its unity.”28 However, when he saw that others and he were not agreed, he did not accuse them as readily of not having the Holy Spirit. Rather he spoke of them as lacking in knowledge and the understanding of Christ. Both Luther and Menno were more severe. Luther, for example, did not deny that Müntzer had a spirit, but he claimed that it was a satanic spirit. Menno spoke similar words when he said that the motivation of his opponents stemmed from the pit.29 →73 It should be observed here, however, that Menno’s statements about those in his own brotherhood were also much milder. He knows “that preferences, judgments, affections, and minds are varied, and that the consistent grasp of the truth and the fear, the Spirit, and the unction of the Lord are not possessed by everyone in the same fullness,” While Marpeck was careful to point out that the interpreter could not force the Holy Spirit, and that he should be very careful not to let personal desires masquerade as the Spirit’s leading, Menno was more concerned to draw attention to the Scripture and its correct meaning. He did not spell out the “freedom” of the Spirit in the same way that Marpeck did, but he too had some practical checks to determine whether what was proposed was according to the Spirit or stemmed merely from human opinion. Here again, obedience to the Word’s injunctions became a test for the correctness of the interpretation, and Menno does not hesitate to ask his reader to consider the “reasonableness” of his teaching. Together with this, however, he is clear on the fact that reason must be subservient to the Word of God. “I therefore beg all pious hearts for Jesus’ sake to submit their reason to the Word of the Lord, to think and believe concerning God as the Scriptures command and teach.”30 So also other “authorities” were not accepted, as for instance, the Church Fathers, except they agree with Scripture. If they were contrary, there was no further question—they were ruled out. Then Menno resorted to higher doctors—the apostles and prophets; against these none could stand. These were the mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit, and they took precedence over all others.31
Another facet of the problem of the Spirit was the tension arising from varying interpretations given to the same text, the issue of letter and spirit. In the nature of the case, Menno’s emphasis varied, depending on who his opponents were. When arguing with the spiritualists he tended to place undue emphasis on the “letter.” When he argued with the Reformed and the Lutherans, particularly when these in turn argued from the Old Testament, he insisted on the “spiritual” interpretation. This was spelled out in its fullness against those who insisted that justification of certain New Testament rites, such as baptism, was thereby an analogy of Scripture in the Old Testament practice of circumcision. But if one is literal here, Menno insisted, this is nothing less than discounting the reality of a Savior who has come. Jesus has changed the literal and sensual ceremonies of the Law into new, spiritual, and abiding realities. →74 Menno’s spiritual interpretation was one of seeing the old fulfilled in Christ; it insisted that for its time the Old Testament was completely binding. But the Old Testament stipulations could no longer be taken as applicable for the present. That would be to take them literally. Taken spiritually, however, they mean in effect that that which Christ and his apostles taught is now to be taken as normative for the Christian. Menno drew attention to the fact that all those who taught anything contrary to the word of. Moses were false prophets. By analogy, any prophet who now teaches contrary to the Spirit and commands of Christ is a false prophet. The strong emphasis on the commands of Christ and a strict adherence to them as advocated by Menno causes him to go from the very spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament to a very literal interpretation of the New Testament. To be sure, Menno makes a number of noteworthy statements about the children of God having spiritual freedom. God’s work is not a keeping of the dead letter, but a heavenly power —a moving of the Holy Ghost. But while he gives strong support to this spiritual freedom, he does not go along with those who are at liberty to follow unscriptural teachings and practices. This would be nothing less than despising the Spirit and doctrine of Christ, and furthering the cause of Antichrist.
Menno tried to resolve the tension between the literal and the spiritual in several ways. Firstly, he gave the general statement that the doctrine of the New Testament is a service of the Spirit, not of the letter. Secondly, he said the Old Testament must now be interpreted spiritually. For him the literal adherence to the statements of the Old Testament carried the connotation of disobedience, but this connotation drops away in the New Testament context. Thirdly, while the literal meaning was usually followed in the New Testament, the context of a passage and Christ’s total teachings needed to be considered in any one particular instance. This would then give the directive for the interpretation to be given to a specific passage.
With all that has been said, it is still a fact that at times Menno’s New Testament literalism bordered on an unhealthy biblicism. Menno’s fear of excesses (such as the Münster episode) caused him to give primacy to the New Testament; his fear of rampant spiritualism caused him to adhere to the biblical text more and more, even though he insisted that it was the sense which was the important thing. But there were situations where it was not a matter either of spiritual excesses or of a wrong use of the Old Testament, and yet where Menno was driven to a rigid approach to the Scriptures. A case in point is infant baptism. How strongly Menno felt on this →75 issue is seen from the fact that he treated it several times.32 Christ’s injunctions must be taken seriously. Menno insisted that people had no right to institute other forms setting forth the relationship of man with God than those which Christ himself has given. Although Menno placed the Old Testament on the same base as the New as far as obedience expressing itself by faith is concerned, this did not permit men to transfer circumcision to the New Testament. Since the command of Christ obviously referred to believer’s baptism, we have no right to find justification for infant baptism by way of implication or by way of analogy—that infant baptism is in the New Testament what circumcision was in the Old. Here is one of the crucial differences when it comes to exegesis of passages dealing with baptism. While the Reformers maintained that logical deductions drawn from the Bible had equal authority with the Bible itself, Menno insisted that this was not permissible—this was mere philosophizing and rationalizing. He therefore went to an extreme in the opposite direction: when the Reformers challenged him to show them where infant baptism was forbidden in Scripture, he countered with the question: where is it commanded? The rule for Menno (as for some other Anabaptists, including Grebel) became: what is not specifically commanded in the Scriptures is thereby forbidden! Such a position is of course very difficult to hold, and in Menno’s case it certainly pushed him toward a biblicism which was not always wholesome.
Our consideration of Menno’s position could easily end in a purely academic analysis. While we may grant that his encounter with the Bible is highly interesting, we can easily pass on without reflecting seriously on the issues involved. I choose therefore to be “preacher” for a moment to make a few applications.
It is obvious that a number of parallels from the sixteenth century are mirrored in our own time. Unfortunately we still have our modern “Schoolmen” for whom the Bible is merely a theological text-book. It becomes the source-book from which one draws support for an espoused position. With the proof-text method, which was obviously not foreign to Menno, one can prove anything. One need only think of the preoccupation with the Incarnation of Christ to have a case in point. While one may be consoled by the fact that Menno’s arguments were no worse than those of his opponents, it is apparent that a fitting of passages into a pattern or system which one already has constitutes a real danger to understanding the mes- →76 sage of God’s Word. While Littell is correct in citing the passage from Christian Baptism in which Menno himself protests “proof-texting,” Menno’s practice unfortunately did not quite measure up to his theory.33 We need therefore to call out clearly that the Bible was not written to proof-text any position. It was written to bring men to the saving truth.
A further parallel is that of the callousness with which men tend to react to the biblical message. Evident here is a real danger which confronts the person who would understand God’s message. While we need not try to reincarnate Jonathan Edwards, it is imperative that men be asked to hear, believe, and repent of their sins.
There is another danger that besets us—the danger arising out of an unwillingness to penetrate further into God’s truths because we fear the outcome or because the cost is too great. We need not try to bring persecution upon ourselves, but we are called to an applied study of the Word of God with the willingness to plumb the depths of his truth. Much of the spiritual mediocrity of the present is due to the fact that people are not willing to apply themselves seriously to what God has made available for them. This too is disobedience and disobedience always brings its grave consequences.
Finally, there exists with us too the selfish and proud attitude arising out of a comparison of our understanding of Scripture with the understanding of others. Invariably “we” suggest that “we” are right and that “they” are wrong. Let us learn from a study of the Reformation struggle with its many shadows, that we need not perpetuate those shadows. Let us rather unite as people under God to take up anew the study of his Word. Let us exhort and admonish each other to the end that our differences may be bridged and that our agreements may lead to significant relevant conclusions.
We are reminded that one of the most impelling motives for learning to interpret the Scriptures is the necessity to understand precisely that which we seek to communicate to others. If Paul reminds us of the solemnity of failing to preach the gospel, it is equally solemn to misrepresent that written record which presents the gospel. Menno’s willingness to be instructed is an example to us here. May the world see in his followers, who today recognize not only that heritage, but who are first and foremost followers of the Christ, that they are obedient servants proving to be neighbor to all whom they meet.
§ 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.
- Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans, by L Verduin (Scottdale, 1956) 668 ff. (hereafter, CW). For a full discussion of Menno and authority, see A Legacy of Faith, ed. C. J. Dyck (Newton, 1962) 31-54.
- CW, 201, 305, 425 f.
- Ibid., 310, 311.
- Ibid., 310, 159. Italics are the author’s.
- I refer, e.g., to the essay by Amos N. Wilder in Current Issues in New Testament Interpretation, ed. W. Klassen and G. F. Snyder (New York, 1962).
- F. J. Preuss, Die Entwicklung des Schriftprinzips bet Luther Ns zur Leipziger Disputation (Leipzig. 1901) 22.
- Menno said on one occasion that he was not qualified to write in Latin, CW, 229.
- J. K. S. Reid, The Authority of the Scripture; a Study of the Reformation and Post- Reformation Understanding of the Bible (London. 1957) 88 f.
- CW, 628, 790.
- Ibid., 177.
- Preuss, op. cit., 20. 35.
- E. H. Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the Reformation (New York, 1956) 106, 111.
- CW, 325 f.
- CW, 671.
- Franklin H. Littell, A Tribute to Menno Simons (Scottdale, 1961) 20.
- Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. John Allen, I: New Haven & Philadelphia. 1816) 3.
- Quoted by John Oyer, Lutheran Reformers Against Anabaptists: Luther, Melanchthon and Menius and the Anabaptists of Central Germany (The Hague, 1964), 33.
- Ibid., 19.
- CW, 42 f.
- Ibid., 818.
- Ibid., 339.
- For Marpeck, cf. William Klassen, “The Hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck,” Dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1960, 105 ff.
- Ibid., 603, 927.
- Littell, op. cit., 57.
- CW, 469, 964.
- Ibid., 197.
- Oyer, op. cit., 30 f. Cf. Julius Koestlin, Luthers Theologie in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwickelung, II(Stuttgart, 1901), 220 (2nd rev. ed.).
- Klassen, op. cit., 84.
- CW, 179.
- Ibid., 863.
- Ibid., 310, 216.
- The three selections in which the topic is treated extensively are: Foundations of Christian Doctrine. Christian Baptism, and Reply to Gellius Faber.
- Litton, op. cit., 12. 6