The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists

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The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists

John H. Yoder#


>11§ As has always been the case in any stable society, a meeting cannot properly begin without a gesture of reverence toward the ancestors. I have therefore been called in, as one of those men assigned to the study of ancient monuments, to lead the congregation in its ritual nod to the past.1

For a number of reasons it is of limited value to take one’s orientation for a study like this from another century. Although in some ways the Anabaptists are the spiritual ancestors of contemporary Mennonites, in many other ways it is quite questionable whether the heirs really stand or wish to stand in their succession. If it were to be assumed that simply because of the accident of historical connections the position of a few men 400 years ago was to be a standard for all their progeny, this would of course mean that most other Christians would for the same reason be closed to all that they have to say—a most hopeless vision of the ecumenical effect of historical perspective. In terms of theological and ethical substance, the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century are not really the major spiritual ancestors of Goshen College Seminary alumni. It could effectively be argued >12 that modern American Mennonites have about them more that has been derived from John Wesley or Dwight L. Moody than from Conrad Grebel, Pilgram Marpeck, or Menno. This non-Mennonite character of contemporary Mennonitism explains a fundamental warp in most current thinking about church identity and church unity. Further reason for doubt about the exemplary value of historical origins is that, whatever else we do, no one is today founding a movement. There was about the early Anabaptists a character of historical originality which cannot be found in anything which can or should happen among their progeny.

Really the only appropriate question we should ask of any past movement is what the major point was which was at stake at the time it came into being, and whether at that one point this group of Christians was more correct than their interlocutors. If we judge them to have been on the right side in that one key issue, we may next appropriately ask what light that correct insight throws on other issues which were not then central in the same way. It is however wrong to ask simply what the Anabaptists would have done, or did, about some challenge which they in fact did not have immediate reasons to face. This is a general remark concerning the limits of historical study; it will also apply, as we shall see later, to our particular topic.

Especially does this kind of caution need to be stated when the persons whose thought we are attempting to understand were themselves not highly conscious of being theological thinkers. The first Anabaptists did not have the time or the gifts to concentrate on careful logic. They were never asked to present all their thought as a coherent whole. They did not claim to be the mentors of a movement, for they began as the intellectual children of Luther and Zwingli. Those men, both of them scholars, did in a genuine sense think something through and then apply it; the same was not the case for their disciples. Even for those who came to such a degree of independence as to create a movement of their own, later called “Anabaptists,” this step was not the unfolding of a new logical or theological position, but rather expressed a different concern for integrity in practice.


When we today speak about “The Hermeneutic Problem,” we mean to point to one of several contemporary intellectual issues.

(a) The first of these, the old “hermeneutic problem,” has to do with the truth value of the statements and assumptions which the Bible makes concerning history and nature, especially when these >13 seem to contradict the reports of the secular disciplines like history, geology, biology. Is there a genuine conflict and must we, if we believe the Bible, claim that the other disciplines are wrong? Or must we learn a new way of re-interpreting the Bible so as not to have a conflict? Is there some way in which these secular sources of insight themselves contribute to our better understanding of the Bible?

The question as thus stated is only one facet, but the crucial one, of what may more broadly be characterized as “the hermeneutic problem” in all reading of history: how do we relate the reading of any document to what we know about the vast difference in intellectual life and in views of reality between its age and our own?

This question has one degree of urgency when it speaks to matters which, although present in the Bible, are not central to its concern (i.e., evolution); it adds another level of urgency when the “secular disciplines” of history or archaeology actually come into the biblical interpretation itself and suggest new understandings of what the Bible texts actually meant in their own times, or raise questions of whether their accounts can be correct.

(b) There is another kind of hermeneutic problem, currently referred to as “new,” although actually it is older than the other. How shall we reinterpret the biblical message so as to fit within a world view which the scholar finds more acceptable than that of ancient times? Beginning with the fact that modern man starts all thought with himself; or, more precisely, with his “self,” being aware of and accepting himself as the center of meaning, how then do we “interpret the Bible” so as to make it “meaningful for me”? Especially as this modern man has grown culturally to the point where the word “God” is no longer a meaningful word for him, what then is the Christians’ message? Must we tell him that his world is wrong? Or can we interpret the Bible so as to speak also to him in a “relevant” way?

(c) Somewhere between these two questions is the continuing practice of critical study of traditional understandings of the faith, from the perspective of continued biblical research. Is the inherited doctrinal system of a given denomination, which claims to be identical with the total teaching of Scripture, really that accurate as a portrayal of what the Bible says? Does this not need to be tested again in every generation? Otherwise, how would we explain the variety of positions each of which claim to be simply identical to the biblical teaching? But if we are to test our own traditional formulae for their faithfulness to Scripture, we then need rules of interpreta- >14 tion by which we can criticize our own rules of interpretation. How can this be done honestly?

Another way to state our problem would be to say that we live in an age whose predominant intellectual mode is one of relativism.

(a) In our age it is impossible to avoid cultural relativism. We know that food, dress, and manners vary enormously from one time to another and from one place to another. For a woman to cover her head means one thing in India and another in Japan. To kill a bull means one thing in Spain and another in Chicago. What does it then mean to “believe” or to “apply” what the Bible says when we do not live in the world of the Bible?

(b) There is linguistic relativism. People who grow up speaking only one language can assume that to every word there corresponds a thought and to every label a reality. Thus “verbal revelation” can be for them a very solid concept. But those who have learned to live in several different language worlds soon discover the variability of the sense of reality lying behind each language. One can no longer assume that any text, especially if it has been translated from another language, as all the Bible has, most obviously must mean thus and so. In fact the whole concept that God speaks through words changes when we recognize that words are not solid units of meaning, but fluid and fuzzy products of constant cultural change.

(c) There is the psychological and existentialistic relativism of one side of modern culture. Man himself being the center of all of his experiences, the only meaning there is what things mean to him. The only truth is truth for him. It is then a meaningless question to ask how some ancient document has “authority” for him; all that we can ask is how much of it appeals to him, whether it “rings a bell” for him.

(d) There is the fact that relativity is part of our world view. There is no longer one center to the universe or to earth; any place is as good as another to start measuring or navigating. When we live in a world where there is no one center, judgments of right and wrong, normal and abnormal, seem to take on a different shape.

Now the point which needs to be made for our purposes is a negative one; it is that these questions could not really come to the surface in the sixteenth century. The conflict with other world views is completely a modern problem; others of these challenges were potentially present, and can be found behind the scenes, but the intellectual tools which we currently use for dealing with such questions were not available, and they could hardly have come to the surface in this particular form. Especially the form of this debate >15 which arises out of the Anglo-Saxon modernist-fundamentalist controversy is strange to our materials. The entire sixteenth century made basically the same assumptions about the nature of religious authority in revelation. Roman Catholics and Protestants differed about whether there was one source of revelation or two, but with regard to how Scripture functions as one such source they were agreed. They held to understandings of how revelation can be in a book, and of hermeneutic rules for interpreting the book, which were hardly different. Thus when it is reported at great length (quite accurately) by scholars that the Anabaptists were very biblicistic, this does not say too much. Everyone was a biblicist in the sixteenth century. Even the spiritualists and the rationalists took Bible authority for granted and used proof texts to make their points. Even when their point was the insufficiency of the letter of Scripture, they proved it with a proof text.

We should therefore not expect the sixteenth century, and especially Anabaptism within it, to throw much new light on twentieth-century discussions either of the authority of the Bible as revelation, or of its form (the “propositional” question).

When we can speak of the wide consensus of the sixteenth century on the interpretation of the Bible, this has to do not only with the reading of the text itself, but also with the total framework in which the appeal to the Bible was made in the age of the rediscovery of sola scriptura. The Anabaptists, and all kinds of Protestants as well, were arguing for a restoration of the purity and faithfulness which Christianity had before the “Fall of the Church.” They differed only as to when the Fall of the Church had taken place. For the Anabaptists it was in the age of Constantine, for the Reformers somewhat later, so as to save the ecumenical councils. The analysis which distinguishes radically between “restoration” and “reformation,” with the Anabaptists alone representing “primitivism,” is overdone. After the fact, we can see a real difference in degree between the “reformation” of Luther and the “restoration” of the Anabaptists; but this was not the result primarily of a radically different strategy of reformation; it also is conditioned by the fact that the Lutherans had a chance to tell the existing church what to do and this chance was not given the radical disciples of Huldrych Zwingli. If Zwingli had gone on with the aggressive process of gradual reformation which he had begun, there is no indication that any “primitivistic” drives would have kept his younger disciples from following him.2 >16

Similarly, both the Anabaptists and the other Protestants were concerned for a renewal of morality and of piety, over against the abuses which had entered Christendom in the Middle Ages. Martin Luther tended to feel that this moral renewal would follow almost automatically from the restoration of proper preaching, whereas the Anabaptists made it a matter of congregational action. This is one of the places where the Anabaptists demonstrate a continuity with the best vision of the medieval church, and it is Luther who is taking a radical new position. But this difference between “preaching alone” and congregational concern was not a difference between Anabaptists and the rest of the Reformation; for the early reformed leaders, especially Oekolampad, Bucer, and Calvin, were all on the “free church” side with regard to this question.

If, therefore, we hope to get immediate light from the sixteenth century on the questions referred to today as “the hermeneutic problem,” we are asking the wrong questions of the sixteenth century. We can get light, but must do it indirectly and without any prior assumption that the answers defined there will be immediately applicable. We cannot ask what their answers were; at the most we can observe how they went about asking their questions.


The adversaries of the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century, as well as historians of our century writing critically about them, set side by side two different accusations.

On the one hand, they were and are accused of an overly great literalism in the interpretation of the Bible. This came to the surface constantly in debates about such matters as the oath and the bearing of the sword, usury, and the baptism of infants. At these points the Anabaptists would insist simply upon the words of the Scripture, and their adversaries would call them to a more “spiritual” interpretation, or to “the general sense of the text,” as over against the letter. The critics of the Anabaptists would argue for the necessity of more complicated analysis of a biblical text in order to avoid taking it at its most simple meaning.

If we are to evaluate the nature of the danger of such an >17 exaggerated literalism, we would have to say that after the first generation of Anabaptist leaders the danger was real, but not for theological reasons. The point is rather that, with the loss of the first generation of intellectual leaders, the entire movement had to rely upon the kind of leadership which could arise out of the rural congregations. It was thus inevitable that there should be a tendency to oversimplification of the real problems of interpretation. It is in this kind of context that we should not be surprised to find some simple Anabaptists saying that, now that the Bible has been translated into the language of the people, we actually need no scholars at all.

Yet these simple spokesmen of refugee Anabaptism nevertheless did not make a systematic issue of their insistence on the clarity and simplicity of every text. They did leave real room for what they called “the character of Scripture.” They recognized that there could be such a thing as the general drift of a text, or the meaning which a total passage has in its context, which could conceivably he distinguished from the immediate wording of one particular verse. They, however, challenged the way in which this kind of generality was used against them by the Reformers. If we were able to examine further the particular cases with which we have to deal, the validity of their objection would be understandable. The best examples of what they had to be afraid of were the meaning of “faith” and of “love” in the theology of the official Reformation.

The most extensive documentation of this clash of hermeneutic assumptions is to be found in the recorded disputations of the 1530’s.3 More briefly, an excellent sample can be seen in Heinrich Bullinger’s 1531 letter, “How to Deal with Anabaptists.”4 Here it is transparent how the concept “love” has become equivalent to “whatever serves the preservation of the unity of society,” with “faith” meaning all the dogmatic deposit of the church’s experiences. Thus the “rule of faith and love” as hermeneutic guide could mean the radical relativisation of sola scriptura.

And yet on the other side another set of accusers claim that the Anabaptists relied upon the personal possession of the Holy Spirit to the extent that the Bible was unnecessary. There do seem clearly to have been some individuals who would speak of doing what the Spirit told them to do in such a way that it seemed to the Reformers that they were affirming a special revelation. We know of no significant cases where a person fully within the Anabaptist movement >18 used such language about actions which were not themselves commanded in Scripture, but it certainly appeared on the margins, and there must have been something about the movement itself which left some room for this.

One often finds early Anabaptists appealing directly to “the Spirit” to explain why they behave as they do. But when one looks at the specific action which they take or convictions which they hold on this ground, we find that these are all clearly biblical in origin. The Spirit is not claimed as a source of new revelation. They ascribe to the Spirit the motivation for their repentance or their requesting baptism; for their confessing sins; for their going out to preach and to baptize; for their confidence that in the future they will be guided by their Lord. Often, in fact, “the Spirit’’ seems to be thought of not so much as a power operating only in the present but also and at the same time as the author of Scripture; “the Spirit says” can be the preface to a direct biblical quotation. But the fact remains that this reference to the Spirit involves a level of subjective acceptance and commitment which is not characteristic of some other doctrines of Scripture.

In the face of the fact that some critics of Anabaptism complain of too much emphasis on the letter and others of too much emphasis on the Spirit, part of the explanation is of course in a difference in persons. Not all the critics were speaking of the same Anabaptists. But nevertheless there is a sense in which both kinds of accusation had a real point of contact. The way the Anabaptists themselves developed their position, which seemed so self-contradictory to their critics, made use of the phrases “Inner Word” and “Outer Word.” The language is consciously borrowed from an older mystical tradition, but with a significant modification.

The point of the insistence upon the Inner Word is that a biblical text without the penetration and testing of personal appropriation is a dead letter. Hans Denck, perhaps the first Anabaptist to use this pair of terms, drew up a list of contradictions in the text of Scripture.5 His point in so doing was not to argue that Scripture should not be authoritative, but rather to point out that in order to >19 reconcile seemingly contradictory understandings, there must be a deeper personal penetration of what the texts are all about. The statement “the Bible is true” is obviously not hermeneutically sufficient if its text contains statements which are mutually contradictory. It only becomes a true statement in the context of interpretation and “reception”6 in which varying texts are related to one another and all are understood within a larger framework. Only in this framework have they meaning, and thereby authority. Denck did not necessarily mean that the working of the Spirit which is necessary to interpret Scripture as a unity would be a kind of mysterious or mystical insight. In the case of some of the contradictions he found in the text of Scripture, a further grammatical or contextual analysis is sufficient to show that the texts do not really speak against one another. But even this linguistic analysis is part of a process of appropriation, not contained within the text itself. Thus it is understandable that the Reformers, with their strong emphasis (when arguing against the Roman Catholics) that the text of the Bible is sufficiently clear—the doctrine of “perspicuity”—and carries with it its own final authoritative interpretation, felt that the Anabaptists, with their insistence on personal appropriation through the Spirit, were opening the door to “enthusiasm.”7

And yet on the other hand the only court of appeal is the text of Scripture. No congregation and no prophet may claim with any authority to have heard the Spirit, unless in the testing of that Spirit Scripture can be appealed to. The disciples of Melchior Hofmann in Strasbourg, themselves given to quite fantastic interpretations of biblical prophecy, still could see clearly to reject the personal visions of a David Joris, when he claimed that they should listen to him because of his visions.8 In their understanding of prophecy the Melchiorites were “far out,” but they still believed they were interpreting the letter of Scripture. Thus it is also understandable that Heinrich Bullinger could hold against the Anabaptists primarily their literalism, that is, their insistence on letting any particular text say what it really means to say. This was reflected in the Anabaptists’ >20 suspicion of excessive reliance on the tools of rhetoric as instruments of textual analysis.

This Anabaptist understanding of the complementary relation-ships of the Inner Word and the Outer Word provides a possible answer to a question which theology has continued to debate since the beginning of Protestantism. In what sense is faith a condition for the correct interpretation of Scripture? If we have a fair understanding of the words of Scripture and are technically capable of under-standing these words as human communication, what then does faith add? Does it add a new knowledge which we otherwise would not have received? Or has it to do only with some kind of mystical or subjective dimension, not really part of the communication of the text? In the eighteenth century, when the Pietists argued that faith is a necessary condition for correct understanding of Scripture, they meant this as a rejection of what then was held to be “orthodoxy”; at that time, official Protestant “orthodox” belief was being taught by persons who had no necessary personal, emotional, or missionary commitment to those “truths.” Pietism insisted that the theologian must be a regenerate believer.

Strikingly, today the meaning has been reversed. When today it is said by conservative Protestants that faith is a pre-condition of proper understanding, it usually means that only he who is first of all committed to a basically orthodox set of Christian ideas can be sure to find those ideas in the same shape when he reads the Bible. Thus it is that often in a seminary curriculum a course in systematic theology precedes specific biblical book studies. “Faith” is here understood not as subjective commitment but (as with Bullinger) as the acceptance of a set of right beliefs. Thus two contradictory meanings of “faith” can circulate under the same label. I would suggest that the Anabaptist understanding of the two dimensions of the Word of God might provide protection against both of these dangers.


Balthasar Hubmaier had not yet become an Anabaptist when, late in 1524, he addressed to his former Catholic colleague John Eck a challenge to debate. The key provision in his proposal for the ground rules of the disputation was drawn from I Corinthians 14:29. He placed the audience, which would gather for a disputation, completely within the framework of a congregation gathered for worship, as Paul describes the same in I Corinthians 14. He proposes that >21 before this gathering each party should speak his convictions, and then let the congregation decide who has spoken more nearly according to Scripture. The same basic approach to a “theology of debate” can be found in the writings of Huldrych Zwingli as well; to him we owe the designation “Rule of Paul” for I Corinthians 14:29. It was thus a common conviction in the circles where Anabaptism came into being, and continued to be upheld by them when the official Reformation leaders had abandoned it.

It is a basic novelty in the discussion of hermeneutics to say that a text is best understood in a congregation. This means that the tools of literary analysis do not suffice; that the Spirit is an interpreter of what a text is about only when Christians are gathered in readiness to hear it speak to their current needs and concerns. Hubmaier was still desirous of having scholars present to speak to matters which were of scholarly character, but only for such technical details as precise translation and reporting on other interpretations of a passage.

The first implication of this conception of the congregation listening to the Word of God is that the common man becomes a full member of the church. Now that the Bible is available in the language of the people, it is the entire congregation, and thus primarily simple people responding to the obvious meaning of the text, who will make the decision as to what God says for today. This implication of congregationalism found its most widespread realization in the Anabaptist movement, but it as well had begun with Huldrych Zwingli. One continues to find among later Anabaptists a serious suspicion of formal learning and of tools of the scholar. It seemed to them almost unavoidable that such learning would be used as a means of evading the greater meaning of Scripture.

The other necessary implication of thus placing theological authority in the hands of the congregation was that the congregation must not be bound by tradition or former creedal statements, nor by the supervision of government authority. The congregation will recognize the assistance of a teaching tradition, and learn from it as long as it is in accordance with Scripture; Balthasar Hubmaier in fact collected writings of the church fathers on topics in which he was interested. There was no denial of history; but there was a refusal to be bound by tradition.

With the Reformers, and in literal dependence upon Huldrych Zwingli, the Anabaptists placed in a central position the text of Matthew 15, in which Jesus condemns the Pharisees for having created traditions which God did not command, and in which he >22 threatens to pull up by the roots everything which his Father did not plant. This was used by Zwingli in his January 1523 debate against John Faber; two years later it was being used by Anabaptists against Zwingli with regard to infant baptism. This particular text became the slogan which best expressed the Anabaptists’ general attitude toward all religious tradition; it has no authority counter to the teaching of Scripture, nor can it even require with authority items to which Scripture does not speak. But this attitude is quite distinct from “primitivism.” It is not a position which has no interest for the intervening period between the writing of the Bible and the present, or for how things came to be as they are. Among the very earliest Anabaptists we know of more than one quasi-scholarly effort, with names and dates, to understand how it came to pass that infant baptism became the general practice of the medieval church. Balthasar Hubmaier in fact finally brought together a book out of his research in the history of the meaning and practice of baptism. Thus the Anabaptists cherished no illusions about the possibility of leaping back into the first century or of repeating in some childish way the exact patterns of the primitive church. The concern was for a faithful restoration and moving forward, not for an impossible reversal of the course of history. Even when the word “restitution” was used, this meant not a simple repetition of what had been before, but rather a positive movement forward in the history of salvation through the overcoming of apostasy, which brought the church farther along than it had been in the simplicity of the first century.

Just as the Anabaptists were quite sober about the realities of historical development, notwithstanding their biblicism, likewise there is no denial of a need for order. The congregation will have its own “umpires” to ascertain when the meeting has come to a united conviction. Yet their authority is not to deal with the truth of the text but only to keep order in the meeting.9

Throughout Protestant theology in the early years, in the writings of Luther and Zwingli as well as the Anabaptists, it is this authority of the local congregation to hear and understand the Word of God which limits the right of governments to place or to silence preachers. When, therefore, the Anabaptists went farther to reject the idea of government administration of the churches completely, they were simply carrying to its logical conclusion the initial Protestant concept of the discerning church. >23

It is peculiar to this understanding of the process of revelation that it cannot remain on the level of theory. If our theory has to do only with how the words of God were placed in writing, we can discuss that without any reference to the time and place where we stand, or to any particular text. But if the claim is that the words of God are most adequately understood in the listening congregation, this obliges us to make very strong and specific statements about our actual congregational activity. This was also a part of the earliest self- awareness of the Anabaptist movement.

In January 1523, a disputation was convened at Zürich, at which the accusations of some Roman Catholic critics against Huldrych Zwingli were to be heard in the presence of all the Church of Zürich. The effect of this meeting was a confirmation of the authorization, given to Zwingli already in 1522 by the City Council, to continue to preach as he had been doing. In order to make the case for this authority, taken upon itself by the City of Zürich, Zwingli began at that disputation, and again especially in October of the same year, by laying out an understanding of the process of testing truth within the conversation of the congregation, very similar to what we have been discussing. Zwingli, together with his disciples who were later to become Anabaptists, believed that in these two meetings of January and October 1523, the Spirit of God actually did work in a unique and historical way so as to make clear truths which had for centuries been hidden.

The classical expression of the fact that this authority in the hands of the congregation may not be limited by the state is expressed by Simon Stumpf in the October meeting itself. Similarly, as we noted before, it takes the authority away from specialized theologians or hierarchical authorities, in whom the church up until then had placed ultimate intellectual authority; not because they are learned, but because they are not the congregation. Likewise, this understanding of the process of finding the truth in the church constituted a rejection of all kinds of visionary enthusiasm. It was in synod-like meetings of Anabaptists that the moderate leaders of the main stream of the Swiss Brethren movement dealt with visionaries and libertines. At Schleitheim in early 1527 a clear position was taken against the misunderstanding of Christian liberty; at Augsburg later the same year, Hans Hut agreed to follow a sober line in his descriptions of the coming judgment. In Teufen, a small Swiss village, a group of over forty Anabaptist leaders gathered in 1529 rejected the claims of Augustine Bader to have been called to a special position in the kingdom of God. >24

One of the paradoxes of Reformation historiography is that Anabaptism is often seen as such a radical congregationalism that it could not deal with the problems of Christian unity on a broader scale, whereas as a matter of fact the Anabaptists were the first segment of the Reformation to establish a synodical order and practice. The state-church Reformers, who wanted to go slow enough to take the government with them so as not to destroy church order, were less—not more—able to attain what they sought. The Zwinglian Reformation had as yet held no synods and Lutheranism had sent no visitators, when the two “synods” of Schleitheim (February 1527) and Augsburg (August 1527) settled the major issues endangering the unity of the movement. These synods crossed national and provincial lines, as the magisterial structures never did. The repeated report of the Schleitheim document, “we have been brought to unity,” lays claim precisely to such a working of the Spirit as guarantee of the rightness of the conclusions reached.

Especially clear is this understanding of the meeting of the gathered congregation as a part of salvation history, in the cover letter which Michael Sattler wrote to accompany the seven articles adopted by the meeting at Schleitheim. Here the claim to a hearing made for the Seven Articles of the Brotherly Union is based upon the fact that, in the meeting, persons who had previously been of another opinion had been led to unity “without contradiction.” This itself was the demonstration that God had been at work, and thereby also the guarantee of the adequacy of the positions taken. Thus the Anabaptists considered themselves quite clearly in the succession of the early church’s process of decision making: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”


The most concise statement of the Anabaptists’ program of reformation, and perhaps the most radical definition of the Church ever stated in one sentence, was Conrad Grebel’s appeal to Thomas Müntzer: Go forward with the Word and establish a Christian church with the help of Christ and his rule, as we find it instituted in Matt. 18:15-18 and applied in the Epistles.10 Use determination and common prayer >25 and decision according to faith and love, without command or compulsion. Then God will help thee and thy little sheep to all sincerity. . . .

It cannot be our task to unfold the full ecclesiology represented here. It stands in line with the claim made earlier11 that redemptive church discipline was an issue in the birth of Anabaptism well before baptism or the church-state link were debated.12 Here we must limit our-selves to the light which the Anabaptist concern for “binding and loosing” throws on the broader hermeneutic question.

(a) The promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit to the church (Matt. 18:19-20, John 20:22ff) is given to the church in the context of the reconciling approach to the wayward brother. Thus the mandate and the enablement to discern the will of God are not primarily a provision for scholars writing compendia or logicians texting borderline cases, but for the concrete congregation struggling with differing visions of what obedience means here and now. The context for the discernment of what Scripture says to us is not scholarly objectivity but brotherly involvement in offense and reconciliation.

(b) This is a process in which the first responsibility is borne by the individual offended (Matt. 18:15) or offending (5:23ff), and the last recourse is the whole congregation (18:17). Never can it be delegated to official disciplinarians or scholars.

(c) The issues of truth and falsehood are such that the member who rejects the fruit of this fellowship process on his behalf is no longer a member of the community. It is not assumed that there are two right answers to a given question. The community’s hermeneutic authority is binding, for that time and place; at the same time it remains permanently open to review if the same process of admonition again be initiated when another brother claims new light or reports a new offense.

The church may well be and do many other things. But at the center, when we seek for that “mark” of being-church without which the other functions become hollow or without which a group of >26 people or an institution calling on the Lord is nonetheless not the Church of Jesus Christ, this mark is for Grebel the gathering to discern and to do the will of God. Such “going forward with the Word” is not only the end which Reformation seeks; it is also the means which Reformation must use.


From the original Reformed point of view, there is but one covenant between God and man, beginning with Abraham, of which Christ simply provides the fulfillment. This was the argument of Zwingli against the Anabaptists. It is because baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision and thereby belongs to all children born within the covenant family, that the teachings of the New Testament itself on baptism are not adequate guidance. Later in the history of Reformed theology there developed the idea of a series of varying covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses but this concept of a sequence of covenants was, in the sixteenth century, the position of the Anabaptists. Zwingli and his followers insisted that there was but one covenant above and beyond all changing times; this permitted them to retain much that the Old Testament said about the people of God—not only the membership of infants but also the place of the state.

But when the Anabaptists rejected the Old Testament as a final standard for Christian obedience, this did not mean that they paid no attention to it or denied its authority. The relationship of the New Testament to the Old is not one of rejection but of fulfillment. When Zwingli accused them of not respecting the covenant with Abraham, they responded that the promise to Abraham was a “seed,” and that seed being Christ, and having come, it is in line with the promise to Abraham that we should listen to Jesus. Similarly in the classical statements of the Schleitheim “Brotherly Union,” Articles VI dealing with the sword and VII dealing with the oath both gave a very clear and affirmative place to the teaching of the Old Testament on these subjects. The provisions of the Old Covenant were not only authoritative then, they are also with us at present in the world, “outside the perfection of Christ,” and continue to be necessary. It is only “within the perfection of Christ,” in the new dispensation and in the Christian fellowship, that the fulfillment has replaced the foreshadowing.

Behind the question of the relationship of the Old Testament and the New, itself quite important, there is a still deeper one. It is the question of the relationship of God’s purposes to history. Should >27 we assume, with Zwingli, that truth is ultimately timeless, so that there can be no changing in God’s purposes from one age to the next, or do we understand God’s purposes to be working themselves out through history so that a meaningful movement from the Old Testament to the New can be a fundamental part of God’s plan? This is the point in Reformation theology where the issue came to the surface which more recently we label as salvation history versus Platonism, or as Hebraic thought versus Greek.


“No man can know Christ unless he follows after him in life.” This statement from Hans Denck has often been looked at as a condensation of the Anabaptist concern for discipleship and obedience. The important thing about the correlating of commitment and knowledge is, however, not the emphasis that it places upon commitment and obedience, but rather the limitations it places upon knowledge. This has clear and far-reaching implications for what it means when we say that the Bible contains the truth.13

In later years this topic came up again in the debate between the Orthodox and the Pietists, as the latter argued that the new birth is a prerequisite for valid theology. But if the meaning of the Bible is in the words, and if the words are clear and inspired by God, what difference can it make whether one individual reading these words has had a certain kind of spiritual experience or not? Are not the words the same in either case?

One of the outworkings of this correlation of obedience and valid knowledge is the emphasis of the Anabaptists on the real danger of unfaithful church leadership. We are not in a situation of tabula rasa, in which the question is how the true knowledge, by means of the words of Scripture, gets into our empty minds. We rather live in a situation where there are true and false prophets, good and evil leaders about, and an apostate church teaching untruth. So we must concentrate not on how the truth in the text gets into our open minds, but rather on the conflict between truth and falsehood, both calling for allegiance. Only he who is committed to the direction of obedience can read the truth so as to interpret it in line with the direction of God’s purposes. “If a man will to do the will of my father, he shall know of the doctrine.” >28


None of the early Anabaptists intended to do anything more than apply faithfully the fundamental sola scriptura of the Reformation. Nor did the Reformers themselves ever abandon that same intention. The differences between them flow from the fact that at the crucial point the Reformers abandoned their initial vision of the visible church, the hermeneutic community, and were obliged to shift the locus of infallibility to the inspired text and the technically qualified theological expert. Most of the characteristics of Anabaptist hermeneutic practice detailed above center around this issue— the integrity and obedience of the listening congregation, the committed and listening believer.

Only the Old and New Testament theme cannot be explained in this way. The origins of Anabaptist originality on this point, already visible in September of 1524, have not yet been traced. Whatever the origins, their attitude was of fundamental exegetical importance, as one of their century’s few ways of focusing the historical character of revelation.

The issues to which the Anabaptists had to speak were not the same as in our day; but to these two basic issues, the hermeneutic community and the historical relationship of the Testaments, their answers have been confirmed by further theological research and by experience.


§ 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. This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 11-28. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

1 Paper presented to regional meetings of the Goshen College Biblical Seminary Alumni Association in March, April, and May, 1966. This paper was prepared without awareness of the closely related materials which appeared in MQR in April 1966. It is here reproduced with only minor modification and annotation, without attempting extensive cross-reference to the papers in that collection. The two introductory sections testify to the context of the original presentation, where the historical study was intimately interwoven with contemporary pastoral and denominational concerns.

2 Elsewhere we have indicated (“The Turning Point of the Zwinglian Reformation,” MQR, April 1958) that the clear break between Zwingli and his younger disciples came not at any of the numerous times between October 1522 and December 1523 when Zwingli accepted moderation in the process of teaching reformation insights and implementing them socially, but only at the point in mid-December 1523 when Zwingli clearly turned back from an action within his own parish, to which he himself had publicly committed himself. This reconstruction of the events of October-December 1523 has been challenged (most fully by H. Hillerbrand in a review, MQR, October 1965. p. 310) but thus far no alternative reconstruction of the same events has been proposed which will better explain the data, of which the most significant (unmentioned in the Hillerbrand review) are the two memoranda of December 10 and 18 or 19, and Zwingli’s later claim that the strategy he adopted at this point was given to him by revelation.

3 For Pilgram Marpeck’s exchanges with Martin Bucer, cf. ME 3:493. The written portion of this debate fills 135 pages of Manfred Krebs and Hans Georg Rott, Elsass I (Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, VII, Gütersloh, 1959) pp. 395-530. For Zofingen 1532 cf. ME 4:1035. For Bern 1538: Jan P. Matthijssen, “The Bern Disputation of 1538,” MQR 22 (1948):19 ff.

4 MQR 33 (1959):83ff.

5 Apart from a brief paragraph each of preface and conclusion, Denck’s 1526 pamphlet, “He Who Truly Loves the Truth,” is a simple series of scriptural antitheses (gegenschrifften), such as:

     VI: “God does not repent of his gift and calling. Rom. 11 [29]
        “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: I Kings 15 [I Samuel 15:11]
     VII: I have not come to judge the world, John 12 [47]
       I came into the world for Judgment, John 9 [39]
     VIII: If I testify of myself, my witness is not true, John 5 [31]
       Even if I bear witness of myself, my witness is true, John 8 [14]
     XXIX: I am with you always, Matt. 28 [20]
       Me ye have not always, Matt. 26 [11]
     Walter Fellmann, ed., Hans Denck, Schriften, 2. Teil (Gütersloh, 1956), 67 ff.

6 By “reception” as a technical term in the study of the history of laws and Institutions is meant the process whereby a later cultural or legal or social system incorporates a law or a practice from an earlier system, ratifying it by that acceptance but also often changing its meaning by inserting it in the new context.

7 “Enthusiasm” in its technical sense is probably the best English equivalent for “Schwärmertum.” In reaction to the sweeping polemics of the magisterial Reformation, some historians of the radical Reformation have attempted to avoid the term completely. To this writer it would seem more responsible to use It in a clearly descriptive sense, purged of evaluative overtones, to describe that particular phenomenon in which the claim to specific inner divine leading, independent of Scripture, is clearly made.

8 Friedrich Nippold, “David Joris von Delft: Sein Leben, seine Lehre and seine Secte,” Zeitschrift für die historische Theologie, 33 (Neue Folge 27, 1863) 104-8.

9 We speak here of the hermeneutic community, in a discussion of the meaning of Scripture. Here no one is required to keep silent: even the scholar must explain himself to the simple brother. This is not to deny the place of the specific leadership of the itinerant preacher, the “teacher,” and the local “shepherd.”

10 Grebel letter to Thomas Müntzer, September 5, 1523, quoted according to the Rauschenbusch translation in George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Library of Christian Classics XXV) (Phila., 1957) p. 79. The rendering “go forward” for the Swiss-German “Zuch mit dem wort” assumes the verb to be the equivalent to the modern “ziehen” in the sense of to “move on.” This is however an image difficult to fit into the context. Heinold Fast’s modern German version renders it “be a witness” as If the verb were cognate to “zeugen.” J. C. Wenger (in an unpublished retranslation) suggests that it might mean “discipline” (züchtigen). This would make most sense in the context but is linguistically unlikely. The designation “Rule of Christ” for Matt. 18:15-18 was not an Anabaptist originality but rather common Reformation usage. Martin Luther uses it with the same meaning in his 1526 “German Mass.”

11 Regarding the centrality of discipline for the Anabaptists, cf. the writer’s review and discussion in MQR 31 (Jan. 1957):63 ff. For treatment of the concept of the hermeneutic community cf. Franklin H. Littell, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Group Decisions,” MQR 34 (April 1960):75 ff. and Concern, No. 14 (Scottdale, 1967).

12 Grebel’s own rejection of infant baptism in the Müntzer letter already quoted was based not on speculation about what ideas or emotions an infant can experience, but on the covenant to mutual discipline. “We understand that even an adult is not to be baptized without Christ’s rule of binding and loosing” (Williams, op. cit., 80). Balthasar Hubmaier like¬wise related the baptismal pledge and the practice of discipline integrally to one another (Concern 14, p. 16 f., 40 f.): “But what right has one brother to use this authority on another?” From the baptismal pledge in which a man subjects himself to the church and all her members according to the word of Christ.” By the time of the Schleitheim confession the con¬cept that the ban has in the church the same function that the sword has in the world was fully developed; thus even the rejection of killing and the advocacy of religious liberty and disestablishment were derived from the vision of discipline “without command or compulsion.”

13 Irvin B. Horst confirms this with proposition V of the supplementary Theses appended to his dissertation on Anabaptism and the English Reformation to 1558, for his public defense March 4, 1966: “The concept of discipleship (Nachfolge Christi) among the Anabaptists, and to some extent among Martin Borer and the Strasbourg reformers, has epistemological importance in connection with right thinking (vera theologia) and is thus more than a question of piety and ethics.”