The Hermeneutics of Obedience

From Anabaptistwiki

The Hermeneutics of Obedience: Reflections on Anabaptist Hermeneutics

Ben C. 0llenburger§*

From the Early Church to the Sixteenth Century

→45# From its origin the church has been confronted with the responsibility of interpreting Scripture. The problem of relating the words of Scripture to the problems of theology, apologetics and ethics was undertaken in systematic fashion already in the second century by Justin Martyr and others. The most consistent hermeneutical problem faced by the church was what to make of the literal words of Scripture. Origen dealt with this problem by distinguishing three levels of meaning,1 which he characterized as flesh, soul and spirit. The highest significance was given to the spiritual meaning, which was also the farthest from the literal. Cassian, followed by Augustine, arrived at a twofold system of exegesis, dividing interpretation of Scripture into literal and figurative modes. By using the figurative mode the same meaning derived from clear passages of Scripture, interpreted literally, could be derived from unclear passages which were not susceptible of literal interpretation.

The significance of the literal interpretation of Scripture was again affirmed by St. Thomas, the dominant influence of the Middle Ages. He believed that the literal meaning of a passage was to be identified with the intention of its author. Thus, for example, St. Thomas was able to recover the literal meaning of the Old Testament which was lost with Augustine, who wanted to derive normative theological value from it, but he was no longer able to use the Old Testament (in its literal sense) as a source for theology.

The medieval tradition of Scripture interpretation was mediated to Martin Luther primarily through Peter Lombard and William of Occam. Two principal characteristics of Luther’s method derive →46 from these men. Lombard was concerned with the literal and spiritual meanings of Scripture and concluded that, basically, the Old Testament is Letter while the New Testament is Spirit.2 Occam, a nominalist, denied that figurative meanings had any concrete referent and were hence useless for theology, which must depend upon the literal interpretation of Scripture.

Among the other medieval influences on Luther none were more important than Nicholas of Lyra, who taught Luther to attend to the original languages and to the text itself, and Faber Stapulensis. Stapulensis emphasized the role of the Spirit in interpretation—as well as attention to what the original author intended to say. Faber said that the key to interpreting the Old Testament is the New. The Old Testament by itself is worth nothing for theology. Christ, speaking though his Spirit, provides the correct interpretation.3

The hermeneutics of Martin Luther can be best understood as continuing the tradition of the medieval period. Where he stands apart from this tradition is not in the matter of method, but in authority. As early as 200 years before Luther, Occam had stated that final authority must be submitted to Rome in matters of interpretation. Luther stated that even a layman may be correct in his interpretation and has the right to disagree with the Pope.

Luther claimed that Scripture is authoritative because its content is Christ. Christ is what determines Scripture as Scripture. Consequently anything, even if it is in the Bible, which does not witness to Christ is not Scripture. The Bible contains different levels distinguished by the quality of their witness to Christ.4

One of the ambiguities of Luther’s theology is the concept of the “Word of God.” On the one hand Luther spoke of Scripture as being the verbally inspired Word of God, and he certainly held to a very rigorous theory of inspiration. Yet he seemed to be not at all hesitant to point to certain errors in the Old Testament and to accept real disagreement between the Gospels. Though his language is ambiguous, it is apparent that Luther meant more by “Word of God” than merely Scripture. He spoke of Scripture as the swaddling clothes for the baby which is Christ. He spoke of the Greek and Hebrew languages as “the casket →47 in which we carry this jewel.” Luther clearly recognized the normative value of Scripture’s witness to Christ, but he recognized it as witness.

In his method of interpretation Luther followed closely the medieval practice. In addition to the influence of Lyra and Stapulensis, Luther received many of his exegetical insights from his own mentor, Johannes von Staupitz, vicar-general of the Reformed Congregation of the Hermits of St. Augustine. Particularly helpful to Luther was Staupitz’ identification of Law Letter and Gospel Spirit. The significance of Staupitz’ insight was that Law was not equal with the Old Testament and Gospel with the New, as was the case with Stapulensis. Rather, the central hermeneutics’ point is Christ. That which bears witness to Christ is Gospel, what does not is Law. Luther learned three things from Staupitz: that Law and Gospel are found throughout the Bible; that Christ is the center of interpretation; that the Spirit speaks directly to the heart of the believers.5

Luther never swerved from his insistence that Christ is the center of Scripture and that the Spirit is the essential guide to correct interpretation. He also insisted that the literal meaning is preferable to the allegorical, that each passage is interpreted by the Biblical message as a whole, and that faith6 and experience are important in interpreting Scripture.6

Sixteenth Century Anabaptists

A. Points of agreement and disagreement with their contemporaries.

How then do the Anabaptists relate to the medieval and early Reformation tradition of Bible interpretation? No simple answer is possible, for the Anabaptists differ with each other. However, they generally agreed with their sixteenth century contemporaries on the following points:

1. The Bible holds a place of authority in the church.
2. The Bible is meant to be understood. The Anabaptists were in particular agreement with Luther that the Bible is understandable.
3. There are some parts of the Bible which are difficult to understand.
4. These require special techniques for understanding: allegorization (Philips and Luther), →48 comparison with Scriptures clearly understood (Luther), comparison with the whole biblical message (Menno and Luther), relegation to an out-of-date or inferior revelation (Marpeck).
5. With Luther, the Anabaptists emphasized that interpretation of Scripture should be undertaken in freedom from church authorities who restricted the prerogative of Scripture interpretation to themselves or to their offices. Here there was some disagreement with the older medieval traditions, but the Anabaptists were particularly close in spirit to the conciliar movement in the Catholic Church with their concept of congregational hermeneutics.7
6. All parties to the debate agreed that the Bible should be obeyed. Disagreement arose with respect to the Bible’s meaning and regarding the scope of its applicability in contemporary life.

We can summarize the areas of agreement between Anabaptists and their contemporaries by saying that in exegetical technique they differed very little. Both Luther and Menno find Christ in the most interesting places in the Old Testament. Both of them read the Psalms as personal confessions, as devotional literature. Like Augustine, Hofmann found it necessary to differentiate levels of Scripture. Dirk Philip’s use of allegory could compare to a whole host of medieval interpreters. Hut, Denck, Schwenckfeld, Spittelmayer and Müntzer all have deep roots in the medieval tradition through the Theologia Deutsch if not Joachim of Fiore.8

Thus there is a broad base of agreement between the Anabaptists and their contemporaries. In the disputations both sides knew how the Bible should be read. Yet the Anabaptists arrived at conclusions so radically different that their theological brethren thought it right to burn or drown them. Obviously there were some disagreements.

1. The most obvious point of disagreement between the Anabaptists and their contemporaries was the extent to which the Bible’s authority was applicable, particularly to public life. Among the Reformers limitation of the applicability of Scripture’s authority emerged in the conflict with magisterial, civil, authority. For the Anabaptists there could be “no other norm for Christian behavior and Church order” than the Word of God,9 leaving aside the question of the meaning of “Word of God.” →49 However, certain “pre-understandings” guided their reading of Scripture.

2. One of the pre-understandings of the Anabaptists which separated them from their environment was their sharp distinction between the Old and New Testaments. We call this a pre-understanding because it stands as a principle of interpretation, not as a result of it. This principle also stood within the “hermeneutical circle,” it was not simply drawn out of thin air. However in the concrete form that it took it was determined by the context of debate with the magisterial Reformation, and the Anabaptists’ reading of Scripture was guided by it.

3. Another pre-understanding of the Anabaptists was that Jesus was to be followed. Of course this is what the New Testament says to do, so it should not be surprising. What is surprising is that the (prior) commitment of obedience to Christ is the sine qua non for understanding Scripture. Henry Poettcker says that for Menno 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 . . ., 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 . . . . Wrongdoing . . . blinds people so that they do not understand.10

That is why this essay is called “The Hermeneutics of Obedience.” The Anabaptist genius lay not in any exegetical technique or hermeneutical novelty or even in any theological discoveries, but rather in the simple (and expensive) commitment to do what Jesus says. Their separation of Old Testament from New Testament grew out of this commitment and as a result of difficulties which arose when they were not separated.

4. A fourth area of disagreement was the Anabaptist insistence that anyone who has made the commitment to obedience and has the Spirit of God can read the Bible with understanding. They profoundly mistrusted the theologians with their circumventing interpretations, interpretations which avoided →50 obedience and did not result in improved behavior on the part of the interpreter. Sattler refers to such interpreters as scribes and Pharisees.11 But the Anabaptists also yielded their interpretations to community consensus. In this there was radical departure from the magisterial Reformation.

We may now consider some individual representatives of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement.

B. Individual Anabaptists

1. Menno Simons. We begin with Menno Simons because he had the greatest influence on subsequent generations, often being the only Anabaptist whose writings were read. He is the paradigmatic Anabaptist. The first impression one receives when reading Menno is that he was a man molded by the Bible. He spoke the language of the Bible, as his writings show. The second thing that strikes one about Menno is that he spoke very little about the Bible. Even such a document as the “Foundations of Christian Doctrine” contains no section dealing with the authority of Scripture. It was not a subject he needed to address. Few, if any, of his readers doubted the authority of Scripture. It was not a subject he needed to address. Few, if any, of his readers doubted the authority of the Bible. He could expect them to go to Scripture, as did he, to solve the matter at hand—to learn to “walk as Christ walked.” For him, belief in the Word and obedience to the demands of the Word amount to the same thing. Hence, where there is disobedience there is no true belief. Where there is obedience there is understanding.

Knowing the Bible comes from taking the Bible not literally, but seriously—seriously enough to build its truth into the very structure of human life and relationships.12

Yet Menno did remain, usually, with the literal sense of the text (not to be confused with what we would call the historical sense of the text), and he believed that its meaning is plain. Some of his contemporaries thought that he stuck too closely to the text. Men such as Franck urged the freedom of the Spirit in interpretation, while Dirk Philips employed some fairly wild allegories to explain the text. But by and large Menno remained a literalist. He took the →51 words of the text at what he considered to be their face value, urging obedience to the plain meaning.

Menno did not, however, neglect the Holy Spirit in the matter of interpreting Scripture, speaking of “what is written in the Word of God and understood in the Spirit.”13 The Spirit is active through the Word and thus prevents the text from becoming a dead letter. But the Spirit is fundamentally connected with the body, the church. It is in the church, the gathered community of Jesus-followers, that understanding occurs through the work of the Spirit.14

It is often emphasized that Menno employed a Christocentric hermeneutical method. If an interpretation corresponds to the teaching of Christ, then it is acceptable. Menno says

All Scripture both of the Old and New Testament rightly explained according to the intent of Christ Jesus and His holy apostles is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 2 Timothy 3:16. But whatever is taught contrary to the Spirit and doctrine of Jesus is accursed of God, Galatians 1.15

Menno’s theology on this point is really quite simple. Any teaching, interpretation, or even Word of Scripture which is contrary to “the intention of Jesus Christ” is false. But here Menno was involved in a hermeneutical circle. The logic of his claim is that after we know “the intention of Jesus Christ” we may proceed to interpret the entire Bible. However we would assume that the Bible would have to be interpreted before one could determine “the intention of Jesus Christ.” Here Menno is working from another “pre-understanding,” like that which makes obedience a condition of understanding. He comes to the texts of Scripture guided by his picture of a pattern of life given concrete embodiment in Jesus Christ and in the believers. Interpretation may not yield results which contradict this embodied pattern.

While Menno held that the Bible is a “unity” of Old and New Testaments, his commitment to follow Christ led him (and the other Anabaptists except Müntzer) to follow the New Testament rather than the Old. For Menno Scripture is an organic unity in that →52 “all the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, on every hand point us to Christ Jesus that we are to follow Him.” It is Christ who constitutes the unity of Scripture. Therefore the Old Testament has no validity apart from the New. The Old Testament is but a figure of the New. What was valid in the Old Testament is not valid in the New. Standards of conduct for the Old Testament “saints” are substandard for the New Testament saints. The New Testament takes precedence over the Old where matters of ethics or morals are concerned. Menno undertakes no fancy tricks to try to impose a material unity on Scripture; he is content to let the Testaments lie with the New over the Old. Granted that Moses authorized the oath, Jesus forbade it. Jesus is the completion and the illumination of Moses.16

It is sometimes pointed to with pride that the Anabaptists, and Menno in particular, were the only Reformation group to show serious concern for context in hermeneutics. It is true that Menno encouraged a respect for context, but this refers to literary context, not historical—he objects to reading one verse without reading the verses which come before. Yet Menno read the Bible devotionally, finding Christ throughout the Old Testament. And he read it as a guide to life, with little or no concern for historical setting.17 To find fault with that would be impudent. But to imply that Menno practiced historical criticism is rather silly. He read the Bible much as did the medievals who were his contemporaries.

Menno also comes in for praise because he happens to agree with the “Menno-”nite doctrine of progressive revelation. I seriously doubt whether this can be substantiated. Granted that Menno makes clear a distinction between Old and New Testaments, can this be called progressive revelation?18 It should rather be said that Menno recognized the eschatological significance of Jesus and the importance that this has for understanding the Old and the New Testaments. Often the Anabaptists, and their followers, have forgotten this and allowed the New Testament to become law. As has been pointed out, the Anabaptists emphasis on the decisiveness of Jesus’ life for interpreting Scripture subordinates the New Testament as well as the Old, to the intention of Christ.19 Jesus, the decisive act of God in →53 history, is to be followed above the Old Testament—and the New. Menno recognized this in saying that “the intention of Christ” is the central exegetical principle. He gives no evidence of recognizing a gradual increase in the “level of revelation” from Adam to Christ. Progressive revelation is a Mennonite dogma which should be rejected. It has little support from Menno and less from the Bible.

2. The Spiritualists.
Within the Anabaptist movement, broadly defined, there was a genuinely mystical or spiritualistic tradition with roots that went far back into medieval Christianity.

One of the most problematic of the spiritualists was Thomas Müntzer—a problem for all sympathetic interpreters of Anabaptism, as well as a particular problem for the Anabaptists themselves and for Luther. Unable to live with the church/world tension with which the church has always to live, Müntzer felt called by God to institute the kingdom. His theology had to account for this call and his hermeneutics had to be able to support his conviction that he was a new Daniel come to wage an Old Testament-style Holy War. Müntzer's program could not be supported through an interpretation of the words of the biblical text, particularly the New Testament. Therefore, he turned to a spiritualistic theology and a heavy concentration on the Old Testament.

He held that the authority to preach (and thus to interpret Scripture) should belong to those receiving direct revelation from God, not the “Pfaffen and Affen” of the counterfeit church.20 Consequently, Müntzer was sharply critical of those who ignored the Inner Word, concentrating solely on the Other (i.e., the text of Scripture). In a letter to Melanchthon Müntzer says:

That error of yours, dearest friend, comes totally from ignorance of the living word. Look at the Scriptures. . . . ‘Not by bread alone does man live, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.’ Behold that the word proceeds from the mouth of God and not from books. A witness to the true word does indeed come from books. But if God’s word does not arise in the heart, the word of man →54 damns the deceitful scribes who have stolen the holy oracles (Jer. 23:30).21

If Müntzer is properly called an Anabaptist he was the only one of that number who gave full validity to the Old Testament. It is not hard to see why those Anabaptists who succeeded Müntzer found it necessary to move the Old Testament to a secondary status in questions of ethics and morality. They were forced to find a way to read the Bible which would not condone the way of Müntzer.

Hardly a Müntzer, Hans Denck was nonetheless a spiritualist. He followed Müntzer only in the emphasis on an Inner/Outer Word distinction, not in the necessity to impose the kingdom of God forcibly on the nation or in the emphasis on the Old Testament.

For Denck the scriptural text is very important as a witness. Denck claimed that Scripture is a very human production which speaks to humans. It is a “lamp which illuminates the darkness.”22 But one needs more than Scripture to eradicate the darkness. This requires the inner experience of Christ.

By nature I can never believe the Scriptures. But that within me, which is not mine, say I but that which drives me without my will or consent . . ., this drives me to read the Scriptures for the sake of testimony. Therefore I read the Scriptures and find in part evidences here which mightily bear testimony to that within me which drives me. This is Christ, to whom the Scriptures give testimony, that he is the Son of the Most High.23

The authority of the Scripture is “contingent upon its confirmation and clarification of what is experienced within.”24

Denck’s emphasis on the Spirit in interpretation is not what characterized him as an Anabaptist. What did was his conviction that the absolute prerequisite to reading the Bible with understanding is obedience. Only one who follows Christ can know him. Thus Lutheran exegesis is not to be trusted because it is done by men who do not follow Jesus. It is only through the hermeneutics of obedience that the Scripture is understood, and bears witness to the Truth.

How little the texts of Scripture by themselves correspond to the Truth is evidenced by the Gegenschriften which Denck composed, illustrating →55 passages of Scripture which contradict each other (e.g. Rom. 11:34a/Eph. 1:9a; Wisd. 1:13/Sir. 39.29a). The obedient community is in a position, however, to understand the Truth which is witnessed to by Scripture. Denck held that all of us have a “Logos” which is in us but not of us, which the Bible cannot give us.25 It is this Logos which makes possible communication from God, communication which happens in the act of obedience.

Denck was able thus to stand outside of the hermeneutical circle from which Menno worked. Menno depended on “the intention of Christ” for true interpretation. Of course, the intention of Christ is derived through interpretation. Denck located the authority of interpretation outside the text, in the mouth of God. Both start from the presupposition that Jesus is to be followed and his Word obeyed, and that understanding can happen only under these conditions.

If the Anabaptist reading of Scripture can best be labeled the hermeneutics of obedience, then Hans Hut narrowed the focus by illustrating a hermeneutics of suffering. Here Hut followed Denck very closely in emphasizing the necessity of participation in the suffering of Christ ‘s body for a true knowledge of him. Through Gelassenheit (resignation, abandonment) before God the believer experiences the cross of Christ, the experience which opens the Word of God to the follower. Hut’s basic agreement with Denck is illustrated by the following passage:

Each person must suffer every article (of faith) within, for there is no other way to come to the knowledge of the highest good. The Word must be conceived within us, with a pure heart and through the Holy Spirit, and thus become flesh within us. This happens through great fear and trembling. . . .26

With Hut, as with Denck, authority is not primarily located within Scripture. Communication with God is '“unmittelbar.”' Along with this there is, however, an individualism which cannot be checked by reference to the text. With Menno’s approach there is always the safeguard against extravagant or subjective interpretation, because the community deals with the texts. For Denck and Hut authority rests within the individual and is (theoretically) unchecked by the community on the basis of the texts.

→56 Caspar Schwenckfeld stands in the same tradition as Hut and Denck. His principal distinction from Denck was in his insistence that the Inner Word is the possession of believers, not of people in general.27 Like Hut and Denck, Schwenckfeld emphasized (1) the necessity of the Spirit in interpretation, (2) the supremacy of the Word (Christ) over Scripture, and (3) the requirement of commitment for true interpretation. Schwenckfeld was particularly adamant in separating the Word of God from the text of the Bible. He says that when the text is emphasized

the first Word of God, Jesus Christ, is not revered. He is thrust out of his place and his office is darkened. In the same manner, the true worth of Holy Scripture . . . is for the most part destroyed. I say that in this sense men make an idol out of the outer words and give them forth as the self-same powerful Word of God.28

Like most things about Melchior Hofmann, his ideas about hermeneutics were different. Yet he made some unique contributions. He provided a transition from the “mystical” distinction between the Inner and Outer Word by applying it to Old/New Covenant. Like Denck, Hut, Schwenckfeld, and of course, Müntzer, Hofmann divided history into ages. This is the age of the Spirit and of the New Covenant. Only those who have the Spirit can properly interpret the Word.

Hofmann is well known for his principle of the “cloven hoof.” This idea was used to preserve the unity of Scripture (in response to the Gegenschriften of Denck?). The cloven hoof principle recognizes the higher spiritual unity which brings together apparently contradictory Scriptures. To be gifted in cloven hoof interpretation requires a special dispensation from God:

All the words of God are righteous and true to those who have received the right knowledge of God and the Key of David. The cloven hoof and the horns carry the true apostolic prophecy. The Scriptures are not open to everybody; not everyone can untie the strings and open the knots except alone to whom God gives this ability.29

Hofmann should also be noted for introducing a kind of typological interpretation which is quite modern in →57 appearance, wherein paradigmatic events are linked along the lines of salvation history.30

3. Michael Sattler and Pilgram Marpeck. Sattler's position on the Testaments was brought out most clearly in the tract, “On Two Kinds of Obedience.”31 The purpose of this tract was to contrast a legalistic kind of obedience to true Christian discipleship. The former is servile, the latter is filial. Servile (legalistic) obedience is Moses, filial is Christ. Thus the Old Testament is characterized as Law, the New Testament as Gospel.

It is quite clear in reading this tract that what Sattler was contrasting was Old and New, but not necessarily Old and New Testaments. In other words there was not a complete identification between Old Covenant (or Dispensation) and Old Testament, or New Covenant (Dispensation) and New Testament. This is, of course, not unique to Sattler. It is quite clear in Conrad Grebel as well, as Gottfried Gerner has shown.32 Sattler spoke nowhere of a progress in revelation. He spoke only of a qualitative difference between Old and New. The point of this is that Sattler was writing about obedience and faith, not about hermeneutics. It is doubtful whether the distinction of Old from New had any precise hermeneutical function. If the hard and fast Old/New distinction were carried into the use of Scripture there could be no acceptance of the Old Testament, since Sattler says specifically that the Old “administers death.” Yet Sattler does employ the Old Testament for a specifically edificational function.33

Marpeck wrote a great deal on hermeneutics.34 His distinctive contribution was the complete separation of the Old from the New Testament. Again, the principal distinction made by Marpeck was dispensational, but this carried over into Scripture in a more explicit way than in Sattler. Marpeck saw the Old Testament as promise and the New Testament as fulfillment and came close to saying that the Old Testament had been annulled. Marpeck also conceived of the Old Testament in strictly legalistic terms.35 In other words, Marpeck took the nascent theology of the Anabaptists and drove it to (one of) its conclusion(s).

To counter the arguments of the Reformers against the ethics of the Anabaptists Marpeck could either →58 attenuate the authority of the Old Testament or show that it did not support the Reformers in their claims. No Anabaptist of the sixteenth century was able to do the latter. Thus they and Marpeck were forced to do the former. He could use the Old Testament “when the occasion demanded,”36 but if the concern was ethical rather than devotional (as was the case in the disputes between Reformer and Anabaptist), Marpeck had to drop the Old Testament. It was the only available strategy.37


For the Anabaptists, Jesus Christ ceased to be, as he was for Luther, a forensic act of justification. The Anabaptists viewed Christ as one to be imitated as a judge of ethics, and as standing in judgment over the ethics of the old eon. Christ is a person to be obeyed. Knowledge of Christ comes in walking with him, and only then can one understand what is written about him. A large part of “interpreting” the Bible is imitating it. Therefore they allowed it to shape the way they spoke and to shape the way they lived, following Christ to suffering and death. But they spoke of following Jesus in a strange way, as if they knew him apart from the texts of the Gospels—as those who had met him in life and who, therefore, looked to the Scriptures for guidance.

The Anabaptists grew out of the Middle Ages and used its methods. Sometimes they allegorized, sometimes they were literalists. Sometimes they were mystic-spiritual, but always they used the hermeneutical methods at hand to support the central thesis: Nachfolge Christi. They recognized that the movement is from knowledge of Christ to the understanding of Scripture.38 The effect of this was to value Christ’s Word or his Spirit more highly than the texts themselves. It cannot be stressed too highly that while the Anabaptists were not necessarily spiritualistic they saw regeneration within the community as the sine qua non of discipleship and scriptural understanding.

The only time hermeneutics entered into the debate was when the Reformers would offer an approach to Scripture which undercut Anabaptist ethical commitments. The other Reformers consistently used the Old Testament to destroy the Anabaptists’ arguments. Because the Anabaptists had no way to keep →59 their commitment to Christ and the Old Testament, they used a variety of hermeneutical procedures to lower the force of the Old Testament, making the New normative over the Old. This has nothing to do with scientific exegesis or progressive revelation. It was a tactic which was necessary, which worked, and which they could justify.

Anabaptist hermeneutics did not focus on methods and twentieth century Christians do not become “Anabaptists” by canonizing sixteenth century methods. We are not Anabaptists because we believe in progressive revelation or because we value the New Testament over the Old. The Anabaptists could not interpret the Old Testament in such a way that it authorized their claims made by appeal to the example of Christ. Hence they did what they had to do. We are in a different position and our faithfulness to them does not depend on taking stands necessitated by medieval methods and pre-critical understanding. Our task should be to show not that the Reformers did not rightly divide the Old Testament from the New, but that they have not rightly read the Old Testament.

Anabaptist hermeneutics is the hermeneutics of obedience. This is not very complex. It means simply that the church must abandon any structures, doctrines or methods which impede obedience. It means that the congregations must enter into “committed conversations,” or “congregational hermeneutics,” or, as we used to call it, “Bible study and prayer.” We must read the Bible as regenerated, obedient people, followers of Christ first and foremost. We must use whatever methods are appropriate, and this means utilizing the skills and training of those who know the ancient languages and historical-critical methods. And we must also utilize the skills and wisdom of those who do not. But “methods” only tell us what the text says and what it might mean. It is the task of the congregation, not the priest or the scholar, to discern the shape of the kingdom and the pattern of obedience as we together heed Christ’s call.


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 45-61. 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.

* I would like to express my appreciation to Delbert Wiens for his editorial work on an earlier version of this essay, and to Stephen Dintaman for his counsel on some of the matters the essay addresses.

  1. De Principiis, Origen, 4.11.11
  2. Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, trans. by R. A. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 94.
  3. James S. Preus, From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretation from Augustine to the Young Luther (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 138.
  4. Brian Gerish, “Biblical Authority and Continental Reformation,” SJT 10 (1957), 343.
  5. David Steinmetz, Misericordia Dei (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), pp. 173-77.
  6. Gerrish, p. 346.
  7. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), pp. 328f, 282.
  8. See Steven E. Ozment, Mysticism and Dissent: Religious Ideology and Social Protest in the Sixteenth Century (New Haven: Yale, 1973); and Abraham Friesen, “Thomas Müntzer and the Old Testament,” MQR 47 (1973), 5-19.
  9. John Howard Yoder, “The Prophetic Dissent of the Anabaptists,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, ed. by Guy Hershberger (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957), p. 96; and cf. Clarence Bauman, Gewaltlosigheit im Täufertum, Studies in the History of Christian Thought, III (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1968), pp. 148-49.
  10. Henry Poettcker, “Menno Simons’ Encounter with the Bible,” MQR 40 (1966), 115.
  11. John Howard Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Classics of the Radical Reformation, ed. C. J. Dyck (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), pp. 122, 124.
  12. Russell L. Mast, “Menno Simons and the Scriptures,” No Other Foundation: Commemorative Essays on Menno Simons (North Newton: Bethel College, 1967), p. 40.
  13. Menno Simons, Complete Writings, ed. by J. C. Wenger (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1956), p. 310.
  14. Franklin Littell, A Tribute to Menno Simons (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1961), p. 55.
  15. Simons, p. 312; cf. Peter Ridemann, Account of our Religion, Doctrine and Faith (Rifton, New York: Plough Publishing House, 1970), p. 198.
  16. Cf. Simons, pp. 749, 42, 520, 603, 964.
  17. Henry Poettcker, “Menno’s View of the Bible.” A Legacy of Faith, ed. C. J. Dyck (North Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1961), p. 36.
  18. J. C. Wenger, “The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck,” MQR 12 (1938), 207.
  19. Gottfried Gerner, “Folgerungen aus dem täuferischen Gebrauch der Heiligen Schrift,” Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter n. s. 26 (1974), p. 30.
  20. Hans-Jürgen Goertz, Innere and äussere Ordnung in der Theologie Thomas Müntzers. Studies in the History of Christian Thought, II (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), p. 50.
  21. Ozment, p. 70.
  22. A. J. Klassen, “The Bible in the Mennonite Brethren Church,” Direction 2 (1973), p. 39.
  23. Ozment, p. 122.
  24. Ibid., p. 121.
  25. Alvin J. Beachy, The Concept of Grace in the Radical Reformation; Bibliotheca Humanistica & Reformatia XVII (Nieukoop: B. De Graaf, 1977), p. 134.
  26. Rollin Stely Armour, Anabaptist Baptism: A Representative Study, (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1966), p. 80.
  27. Beachy, p. 136.
  28. Ibid., p. 139.
  29. C. J. Dyck, “Hans de Ries: Churchman and Theologian” (PhD Diss.: University of Chicago, 1962), p. 51; cf. Armour, p. 103.
  30. Armour, p. 111.
  31. Yoder, Sattler, pp. 121-25.
  32. Gerner, pp. 25-31.
  33. Yoder, Sattler, p. 128.
  34. William Klassen, Covenant and Community, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968).
  35. Wenger, p. 238.
  36. William Klassen, “Anabaptist Studies,” Concern 18 (1971), p.86.
  37. Armour, p. 114.
  38. Bauman, pp. 136, 168.