Anabaptists and the Bible

Stuart Murray

Throughout 2017 events were held across Europe marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. Eight years later another significant anniversary will be celebrated, but probably by fewer people – the baptisms ‘on confession of faith’ in a house in Zurich on 21 January 1525 that launched what became known as the Anabaptist movement.

The label ‘Anabaptist’ was an accusation by their opponents. They had not only refused to allow their children to be baptised as infants but had now baptised each other, even though they had been baptised as infants themselves. Such ‘rebaptism’ was contrary to imperial law and, because it represented such a challenge to the sacral society that was Christendom, it carried the death penalty.

What had convinced them to take this drastic step was their engagement with the Bible and their determination to obey what they understood to be its clear teaching, regardless of the cost. Most of them were erstwhile colleagues of Ulrich Zwingli, pastor of the Grossmunster and the leading reformer in the city. They had revelled in his biblical preaching and studied with him, but they were bitterly disappointed that their mentor was unwilling to practise what he was preaching without the support of the civic authorities. This would become a persistent Anabaptist criticism of the reformers – however much they proclaimed sola scriptura, their subservience to the civic authorities and their reluctance to challenge the status quo prevented them from truly submitting to biblical authority.

Anabaptists and Reformers

Throughout the sixteenth century, reformers and Anabaptists explored numerous theological, ethical, and ecclesial issues in debates, trials, and interrogations of Anabaptist prisoners, exchanges of letters and treatises, and occasionally more friendly dialogues. Should the state dictate doctrinal orthodoxy and ecclesial practices and penalise dissenters? Was baptism for infants or those old enough to express personal faith? Was it ever right to take up arms or to take life? Should Christians swear oaths? Should Christian communities share all things in common? What kind of discipline was needed to protect the church from corruption?

From these exchanges it became abundantly clear that, although both sides regarded the Bible as authoritative, they were interpreting it very differently. Anabaptists had scant opportunities to develop a comprehensive statement of their principles of interpretation, subject as most of them were to persecution, but from their writings and records of trials and ‘disputations’ it is possible to discern a number of principles that differentiated their approach to the Bible from their more illustrious opponents. The suppression of the movement and its marginalisation by historians until the past few decades has meant that only recently has attention been paid to this approach. But renewed interest in the Anabaptist tradition, prompted by the demise of the Christendom system they rejected and the search for fresh insights on the issues they debated with the reformers, has encouraged Christians from other traditions to take a fresh look at the principles they adopted as they sought to understand and apply biblical teaching.

Unlike earlier dissenting movements in the Christendom era, whose writings were suppressed without difficulty by the authorities, the Anabaptists benefitted from the advent of printing in Europe and have bequeathed rich resources to future generations. What we know about these earlier movements suggests that they shared many of the same convictions and approached the Bible in broadly similar ways, so perhaps we should regard the Anabaptist principles of biblical interpretation as representative of what some historians designate ‘the old evangelical brotherhoods’ (groups such as the Waldensians and the Lollards). What we encounter in Anabaptist writings may, therefore, induct us into an approach to the Bible that characterised various movements that dissented from the mainstream Christendom-oriented approach and dared to interpret the Bible in ways that did not conform to what state and church authorities required.

The early sixteenth century witnessed an explosion of interest in the Bible. Translations into the vernacular and the dissemination of these translations through the new technology of the printing press gave thousands of people access to the Bible and was a significant factor in the spread of reforming ideas and passions. Although literacy was relatively low, many learned to read in order to study the Bible for themselves, and others listened attentively as literate members of the community read the Bible aloud. Anabaptist groups were not the only ones fascinated by what they discovered in the Bible, but they were even more thoroughly soaked in the biblical texts than others, memorising, discussing, and acting on what they read. Those who interrogated them were astonished, and irritated, to find illiterate Anabaptists responding to questions by quoting apposite biblical texts and arguing about biblical interpretation with scholars.

Some of the most important issues in biblical interpretation to be addressed in this period emerged from debates between reformers and Anabaptists. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation? To what extent can the Bible be regarded as perspicuous? What is the place of the gathered congregation in discerning the meaning of the text? What is the epistemological significance of obedience? As these issues remain pertinent and disputed, perhaps the Anabaptist tradition can offer some fresh insights and alternatives to traditional post-Reformation approaches

As the Anabaptists developed their distinctive approach to biblical interpretation in response to their dissatisfaction with the reformers’ methods and conclusions, it is helpful to set their approach in this context. The reformers moved through three stages in their opposition to the Catholic establishment. Initially, hoping that reforming the system might be feasible, they criticised what they regarded as its blatant abuses, doctrinal errors, and immorality without urging separation. The resistance they encountered persuaded them that this was not possible and they accepted the inevitability of separation. Some toyed with ideas about the nature of the church that would shortly be espoused by the Anabaptists but concluded that this too was impractical. Finally, having secured the support of various political authorities, they set up alternative expressions of Christendom that removed the most objectionable features but maintained its foundation and framework.

With regard to biblical interpretation – a pressing issue now that the Bible was more freely available – the reformers introduced what appeared to be significant changes, although these proved much less radical in practice. Having apparently encouraged all Christians to become biblical interpreters, the reformers were disturbed when some of these newly enfranchised readers of the Bible disagreed with their own interpretations and insisted that they should ensure their interpretations agreed with those of the pastors and scholars. Although in theory they insisted on the freedom of biblical interpretation from the scrutiny of ecclesiastical or political authorities, in practice they frequently deferred to these authorities. By emphasising justification by faith they focused attention on the New Testament and on Jesus as redeemer, but Anabaptists complained that they would not accept that Jesus was normative for ethics as much as for soteriology. Their laudable attempts to apply biblical teaching to the whole of life were undermined by their fear of interpretations that might threaten the social, political, and economic status quo. And they continued to find in the Old Testament, rather than in the New Testament, guidelines for the new Christendoms they built.

The Anabaptists were disappointed by what they regarded as a half-hearted reform movement and by the reformers’ apparent unwillingness to countenance interpretations that might result in social upheaval or personal cost. Although the earliest Anabaptists seem to have hoped that a thorough reformation of the state churches might be achieved, they were soon disillusioned. The reformers chided them for impatience and worried that they were threatening the reform movement by unsettling the authorities, but the Anabaptists concluded that reforming the current system, or developing new mini-Christendoms where political support allowed, was inadequate and that forming believers’ churches, free from state control, was essential. And in these churches believers would be free to read and discuss the Bible together, dissent from standard modes of interpretation, and explore ways of putting into practice what they read. A foundational conviction in these communities was that biblical teachings were to be obeyed, whatever their social implications. Jesus was the norm for ethics as well as for salvation and the New Testament must not be countermanded by the Old.

Anabaptist Principles of Biblical Interpretation

Identifying Anabaptist principles of biblical interpretation is hampered by the absence of any sustained discussion of these principles in their writings. Some of the leaders who lived long enough to reflect on their approach did explain and defend this, but generally in passing and in relation to specific topics. So our understanding of how Anabaptists interpreted the Bible requires us to discern this primarily from their practices.

Another limitation on any search for a definitive summary of the principles of Anabaptist biblical interpretation is that the Anabaptist ‘movement’ was, in fact, comprised of various groupings in different geographical areas with divergent views on a range of issues and their own approaches to biblical interpretation. This factor should not be over-emphasised. The authorities were in no doubt that they were dealing with a coherent phenomenon, all of which they labelled ‘Anabaptist’, and there was increasing convergence as the movement aged, but we should not be surprised that the disparate emerging movement lacked uniformity. Nor is this necessarily a disadvantage in our search for the principles of Anabaptist approaches to biblical interpretation, as these principles were often hammered out and refined in discussions between representatives of these different groups. Listening in to these intra-Anabaptist conversations helps us discern the principles and the thinking behind them more clearly.

Collating the evidence from these various sources, six principles can be identified, albeit expressed and nuanced in different ways across the movement. Separating these principles for analysis helps to clarify them, but this is inevitably somewhat artificial. It is the interplay between these principles that constitutes the distinctive Anabaptist approach. Taken alone, each principle can be criticised for inadequacies, but many (though not all) of these perceived weaknesses are less problematic when cross-referenced with other principles.

The Holy Spirit is the Interpreter

Anabaptists across the movement insisted that the Holy Spirit was the interpreter of the Bible, active at all stages of the interpretive process – preparing the interpreter, guiding the reading and reflecting, making connections between texts, and stirring readers towards obedience. It was essential to seek divine guidance. The South German Anabaptist, Hans Denck, insisted: ‘The natural man cannot understand the Bible and is unable to deal with it by himself without making a sacrilege of it…For the person seeking the truth without the Spirit of God, there is not only no truth, but actual death.’[1] Peter Riedeman, one of the leaders of the Hutterite community, agreed: ‘Since the teaching of Christ is not of the letter but of the Spirit it cannot be taught by the carnally minded man…as the scripture came by the Holy Spirit, we must let it be judged by the same.’[2] The confidence expressed by leaders of the movement evidently inspired less educated members. John Claess, writing from prison, urged: ‘Search the Word of God, and ask Him for His Holy Spirit, and the same shall instruct you in everything which is needful for you.’[3]

No doubt the reformers would have whole-heartedly endorsed this conviction but, rightly or wrongly, the Anabaptists believed they were paying lip-service to this and in practice relying too much on other resources. They were deeply suspicious of scholarship, convinced that this too often introduced unnecessary complexities and resulted in evasion and endless debate rather than authentic illumination and action.

Reliance on the Spirit did not exclude common sense or learning from others who had studied the Bible through the centuries, but biblical interpretation did not, the Anabaptists believed, require specialist training or qualifications. Their experience of debating with the reformers also convinced them that too often biblical interpretation could amount to little more than proof-texting to support existing convictions. Reliance on the Holy Spirit implied openness to fresh insights and readiness to compare different texts and wait for understanding in God’s good time. Hans Denck instructed would-be interpreters: ‘If there is a part of Scripture that he cannot understand from the context of the whole, then he certainly does not despise the testimony of Scripture. Rather, he seeks its meaning with all diligence and compares [all parts of Scripture] with one another. But he surely does not accept them until they have been interpreted for him by the anointing of the spirit. What he does not understand, he reserves judgment about, and expects revelation from God.’[4]

All Can Interpret

In most branches of the movement, confidence in the Spirit’s interpretive guidance meant that biblical interpretation was not restricted to designated leaders, charismatic figures, those with educational qualifications, or men. Although in certain circles and in subsequent generations restrictions reappeared, across much of the movement there was confidence that all members of the community could interpret the Bible and contribute to the community’s understanding of the text. Anabaptists complained that the reformers had severely qualified the interpretive freedom they had promised, in effect replacing the tyranny of pope, priest, and councils with the tyranny of the preacher. They, however, embraced this freedom enthusiastically as they enfranchised both women and men to study the Bible and explore its implications.

Anabaptists were very wary of the restrictive role of church traditions, scholarship, and pre-existing doctrinal commitments, which could act as a grid imposed on the Bible, predisposing interpreters to understand texts in certain ways and precluding fresh interpretations. Even the translations of certain texts betrayed these presuppositions and prior commitments. Similar concerns are found in three different branches of the movement. Pilgram Marpeck, one of the leaders of the Anabaptist community in southern Germany, urged his readers: ‘Thus everyone who really desires it may read only the plain texts of biblical Scripture, omit the additional notes, and thus make his judgment.’[5] Melchior Hoffmann, Anabaptist pioneer in northern Germany, wrote: ‘For surely the Lord Jesus Christ does not deal with his people other than a bridegroom with a bride – with straightforward simple words… Therefore I warn all lovers of truth that they do not give themselves over to lofty arguments which are too hard for them, but that they hold themselves solely to the straightforward words of God in all simplicity.’[6] And Menno Simons, the Dutch Anabaptist leader from whom the Mennonites derive their name, confessed: ‘I want you to understand that I do not tolerate human doctrines, clever reasonings, nor twisting of the scriptures, nor glosses, nor imaginations in regard to this matter, but only the plain Scriptures.’[7]

With what seemed unjustifiable naiveté to their critics they asserted that much of the Bible was really not that difficult to understand – the challenge was obeying it. The influential Schleitheim Confession, formulated at a gathering of Swiss Anabaptist leaders in 1527, expressed this confidence: ‘Christ is simply yea and nay, and all those who seek him simply will understand his Word.’[8] And Balthasar Hubmaier, the most qualified theologian among the Anabaptists (whose writings were proscribed by the Catholic Church alongside those of Luther and Calvin), also insisted that the Bible was fundamentally simple to understand: ‘Judge in your consciences according to the simple word of God. Allow it alone to be the mediator and judge, and you will not go astray’[9]

Anabaptists acknowledged that there were some complicated passages but suggested that understanding of these could be gained by comparing them with the more straightforward passages and by waiting patiently for the Spirit to provide the necessary insight. In this pre-critical environment, they were largely unaware of the significance of cultural context, varieties of genre, and the many other issues biblical scholars have identified as critical in the interpretive process. However, although ignoring these issues resulted in interpretations that would now be regarded as quite inappropriate or illegitimate, their approach continues to challenge those who are so in thrall to scholarly apparatus that they overcomplicate matters and evade the challenges of the text.

Several Anabaptist writers made the seemingly obvious but significant point that many of those who wrote biblical books were ordinary, uneducated people. In this case, they argued, ordinary, uneducated people should be able to understand it. Although this assertion fails to take into account the cultural gap between first-century writers and sixteenth-century readers, it does question interpretive approaches that ascribe undue sophistication or literary ability to the biblical writers. First-generation Anabaptists found this approach truly liberating.

The Congregation is the Hermeneutical Community

Enfranchising all to interpret the Bible risks chaos, so for the Anabaptists it was important to balance this freedom with accountability, not to scholars or pastors, but to the community as it gathered to worship, pray, read together, and explore the implications of what they had read. Although all were free to read the Bible (if they could) and to offer their insights, these were to be weighed, tested, and discussed by the congregation as a hermeneutical community. In the Anabaptist movement neither individual interpretation nor scholarly domination was accorded undue authority. Those with teaching gifts and theological training were welcome to participate, offering insights and resources, but they were not to overrule others or expect their interpretations to be unchallenged.

What the teachers and leaders in the community did was to prepare ‘biblical concordances’ for their members – handbooks with biblical resources on a wide range of subjects, rather than definitive teaching, inviting reflection and further study. Their writings are also marked by frequent invitations to their readers to offer corrections, challenges, and fresh insights. The influence of some of these leaders was undoubtedly huge, but they insisted that they wanted to hear from those who disagreed with them or could help them understand more accurately. Pilgram Marpeck assured his readers: ‘We would not wish to prejudice or reject anything better that may come out of the Scriptures which disagrees with this our statement. We are doing here simply what we are able to do, and as much as God has permitted us to do. Let each man invest his talent and wager to the Lord. We do not speak against anyone, but simply confess our own faith and, if anyone can teach us something better, we shall give diligent and sincere thanks at all times.’[10] Menno Simons wrote along similar lines: ‘If you have plainer Scriptures concerning this article of the incarnation of Christ; if you have a clearer basis, plainer truth, or clearer proof than we have, then assist us, and I will by the grace of God change my mind in regard to this matter and accept your view.’[11]

The result of this approach to biblical interpretation was that congregations were decidedly multi-voiced. Many Anabaptists took as their biblical foundation for this the encouragement of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.’ Evidence from early Anabaptist gatherings indicates that these were very different from state church services, which were dominated by priest or preacher. Indeed, an early anonymous Swiss tract, written to explain why Anabaptists refused to attend these services, complained: ‘When someone comes to church and constantly hears only one person speaking, and all the listeners are silent, neither speaking nor prophesying, who can or will regard or confess the same to be a spiritual congregation, or confess according to I Corinthians 14 that God is dwelling and operating in them through his Holy Spirit with his gifts, impelling them one after the other in the above mentioned order of speaking and prophesying?’[12]

For the Anabaptists, it was essential to encourage, not just allow, multi-voiced participation, with opportunities to challenge, correct, refine, and endorse proposed interpretations. The early Swiss Order instructs congregations: ‘When brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it, the others should be still and listen.’[13] Ambrosius Spitelmaier, an Anabaptist leader in Nicholsburg, described a similar approach in the Austrian and South German area: ‘When they come together they teach each other the divine Word and one asks the others: how do you understand this saying?’[14] The role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation was not only, or even primarily, to inspire or guide individuals but to enable the gathered community to reach consensus.

The Prerequisite and Goal of Interpretation is Obedience

The frequently expressed fear that biblical scholarship too often facilitated the evasion of biblical teaching rather than obedience reflected the Anabaptists’ emphasis on application rather than mere exegesis. This was a movement committed to discipleship, impatient with those who would delay, prevaricate, or make excuses for not obeying biblical commands and introducing biblical practices into church and society. Although doctrinal matters have not been regarded as unimportant, Anabaptists have generally been much more concerned about orthopraxy than orthodoxy.

Readiness to obey biblical teaching was regarded as a prerequisite for understanding it. The Holy Spirit, they argued, was unlikely to give illumination to those who were not serious about applying what they learned to their lives. The help of the Spirit was promised to would-be disciples, and it was these that comprised the hermeneutical community. Pilgram Marpeck assured his readers: ‘If anyone seeks to do the truth…God will see to it that he truly finds it.’[15] Anabaptists were not convinced that this included those who were paid, supported, and protected by the civic authorities, who were more concerned with order than justice and more likely to soft-pedal biblical requirements than risk offending their superiors. But for those who were committed to discipleship and unhindered by such considerations, attempting to put into practice what they had already understood would open the door to further interpretive insights.

For those who would be teachers in the congregations, ethical qualities were more important than academic qualifications. Dirk Philips spelled this out: ‘He who does not have the Spirit of the Lord does not understand the Word of the Lord and does not experience what is spiritual. How should he then be able to teach God’s Word correctly or correctly distribute the gifts of the Spirit?…The other kind of fruit which a true teacher brings forth is a blameless life, walking in accordance with the gospel.’[16]

Ethical concerns also acted as a filter on proposed interpretations of the Bible. If outcomes of proposed interpretations resulted in unethical behaviour, injustice, or compromise, rather than enhanced discipleship, community life, and missional impact, these interpretations were to be regarded as illegitimate and unacceptable.

Jesus is the Centre

The application of an ethical filter to proposed interpretations of the Bible presupposes that there is a foundation for making such ethical judgments. For the Anabaptists, this foundation was the life and teaching of Jesus. Menno Simons concluded everything he wrote with words from 1 Corinthians 3:11: ‘For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ Christocentrism characterised all aspects of Anabaptist theology, including their approach to biblical interpretation.

This meant that proposed interpretations of biblical teaching must be congruent with the life and teaching of Jesus. If the interpretation commended or condoned behaviour that seemed to be inconsistent with this, it was to be rejected. Because the Bible contains such diverse texts and different perspectives on many ethical issues, this criterion provided a centre of gravity or hermeneutical focus that enabled Anabaptists to assess this variegated material. They were critical of the reformers for basing their ethical judgments on texts drawn from anywhere in the Bible without reference to the life and teaching of Jesus. In some of their debates with the reformers they were outraged by the tendency of their opponents to marginalise the teaching of Jesus and treat the Bible as a flat book from any part of which texts could be extracted to support their positions on issues such as tithing, swearing oaths, participation in warfare, and infant baptism. The Anabaptists insisted that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ must be accorded interpretive priority.

That revelation included his example, lifestyle, spirit, relationships, and intention, as well as his explicit teaching, Menno Simons wrote: ‘All the Scriptures point us to the Spirit, Gospel, example, ordinance and usage of Christ.’[17] However, the Anabaptists were very wary of the teaching of Jesus being evaded or watered down by reference to general principles, such as ‘love’ or ‘justice’. They strongly resisted what they regarded as the reformers’ attempts to evade the challenge of Jesus’ teachings in this way.

The principle of Christocentrism also related to their conviction that they all could interpret at least the clearest passages of the Bible. They believed that the clearest texts were those that portrayed his life and recorded his teaching. All other texts in both Testaments must be read and interpreted in the light of these.

The opening verses of the letter to the Hebrews offer a biblical basis for the Anabaptists’ focus on the revelatory centrality of Jesus: ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a). The Austrian Anabaptist, Leonhard Schiemer, explained: “God spoke to the Jews through Moses and the prophets in a hidden manner. But when Christ himself came, he and his apostles illuminated all things with a much clearer understanding.’[18] Swiss Anabaptist, Hans Pfistermeyer, also acknowledged past revelation but insisted that this must be understood as preparatory to the teaching of Jesus and not allowed to countermand this: ‘What Christ has explained and helped us to understand, I will adhere to, since it is the will of his heavenly Father. I accept the Old Testament wherever it points to Christ. However, Christ came with a more exalted and perfect teaching.’[19] In the Sermon on the Mount (a favourite passage) they also noted how Jesus insisted that his teaching must take precedence over what had been taught in the past (‘you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…’).

And Jesus was not only the interpreter of the Bible through his teaching, as recorded in the text, but the continuing interpreter through the work of his Spirit in the lives of believers and especially in the gathered congregation. The Anabaptists’ reliance on the Spirit as interpreter was also related to their conviction that Jesus was central and that the Spirit was the Spirit of Jesus. Pilgram Marpeck captures this dimension: ‘The Lord has opened, given, and revealed his priceless treasure and gift without price. Through his divine skill, he has unlocked and released the Scriptures.’[20]

The New Testament Takes Precedence

In light of the Anabaptists’ insistence on the centrality of Jesus and their conviction that God had done something radically new and decisive through the incarnation, it is no surprise that they accorded the New Testament precedence over the Old. They accepted the Old Testament as inspired Scripture but argued that this must be interpreted in light of the New and not used to evade what the New Testament taught. A statement from the Bern conference in 1538 is typical and unambiguous: ‘we grant the Old Testament validity wherever Christ has not suspended it and wherever it agrees with the New.’[21]

The Anabaptists came to believe that the Old Testament had been misinterpreted throughout the Christendom era and used to justify all kinds of practices that were incompatible with the teaching of the New Testament. Perhaps this is understandable. The New Testament offers no guidance for running an empire, whereas the church in partnership with the empire found all kinds of resources in the Old Testament for participating in a sacral society. The Anabaptists’ rejection of the Christendom synthesis liberated them from dependence on the Old Testament and enabled them to recover New Testament perspectives on ethics and ecclesiology, and to listen afresh to the Jesus who had been marginalised by the Christendom shift.

Contrary to the reformers, who taught that there was a single divine covenant, the Anabaptists argued that there was significant discontinuity, as well as some continuity, between the Old and New Testaments. Pilgram Marpeck, in his debates with Martin Bucer and others, insisted that this discontinuity be recognised: ‘In the Old Testament nearly everything was done in a figurative way and experienced in that way…For Christians, however, it is quite a different matter…A great difference exists between Christians and Abraham’s promise, a difference everyone, who can clearly understand the difference between the Old and New Testaments, can easily perceive…like most other things in the Old Testament, circumcision is a figure and image of the fact that God said to Abraham that He wanted to be his God and the God of his generation. From such a basis, the opposition argues that the Old and New Testaments are one. But one cannot extrapolate from this promise to Abraham that children are to be baptized…The old covenant is merely a covenant of promise.’[22]

If infant baptism could not be supported from the Old Testament, nor could participation in warfare be justified on this basis, as an anonymous Hutterite letter (dated 1545) explained: ‘The Bible is often quoted to excuse warfare. People say that David and many others waged war. We answer that in Old Testament times the new kingdom of Christ had not yet been revealed…War was not wrong for David and other devout men who lived before the time when grace was fully poured out by God. But to all those who have been chosen by God, war is now forbidden.’[23]

Often in their debates with the Anabaptists, if the reformers were struggling to refute their opponents’ arguments on the basis of New Testament teaching, they changed tack and used Old Testament texts instead. The Anabaptists regarded this as illegitimate.  They insisted that ethical and ecclesiological issues must be settled by reference to the New Testament, not the Old. Their frustration with this interpretive strategy is clear from their writings. Balthasar Hubmaier scolded Ulrich Zwingli: ‘For the sake of the last judgment, drop your circuitous argument on circumcision out of the Old Testament…We have a clear word for baptizing believers and you have none for baptizing your children, except that you groundlessly drag in several shadows from the Old Testament.’[24] And Dirk Philips warned: ‘For all that they cannot defend with the New Testament, that they wish to prove with the Old Testament and the letter of the prophets. Out of this many sects have come; out of this manifold false worship is established…Christ Jesus is the spirit and truth of all figures which have gone before.’[25]

The Legacy of Anabaptist Biblical Interpretation

Anabaptists approached biblical interpretation from a different perspective to the reformers in at least three significant respects. First, the Christian community gathered for worship was regarded as the primary locus of biblical interpretation, not the theological seminary or the preacher’s study. Might this approach, if practised today, contribute towards closing the widely-acknowledged gap between scholars and the churches? Second, unlike the reformers and most scholarly interpreters, most Anabaptists were poor, uneducated, and persecuted. Did this give them insights that were less accessible to their more comfortable contemporaries, but which were analogous to the experience of the early churches and are relevant to many Christian communities today? Third, the Anabaptists’ rejection of the Christendom system affected their interpretation of the Bible, just as the continued acceptance by both Catholics and Protestants of the Constantinian synthesis of church and state influenced their approaches and conclusions. Might this offer us an approach to biblical interpretation that has historical roots as deep as the reformers’ approach and is more appropriate for interpreting the Bible for post-Christendom churches and societies?

As mentioned above, each of the principles of biblical interpretation used and promoted by the Anabaptists has inadequacies, but the interplay of these principles offsets many of these. Nevertheless, weaknesses remain and these should be acknowledged.

Anabaptists were unduly confident that untrained interpreters could discern the meaning of biblical texts without assistance. The result too often was wooden literalism and failure to appreciate the nuances and cultural context of the texts. Although the congregational setting provided some assistance, especially when trained teachers were present, multi-voiced participation in the process might only result in the pooling of ignorance. Reliance on the Holy Spirit need not have marginalised scholars, past and present, to the extent to which it did, although the Anabaptists’ fears of evasion and dilution should not be dismissed. There was also, in common with movements emphasising discipleship, a preoccupation with ethics that resulted in legalism. The laudable focus on Jesus and determination to honour the impact of the incarnation resulted in the Old Testament being marginalised. Anabaptists were alert to its misuse but unsure how to interpret it well. And the proliferation of Anabaptist groups and divergent interpretations found in these communities suggested that the reformers’ accusation that the Anabaptists’ approach would result in interpretive chaos had some justification.

That the Anabaptist approach to biblical interpretation had weaknesses is unsurprising. Many of the movement’s most creative and theologically able thinkers were unable to develop their ideas before persecution robbed them of their liberty or their lives. Perhaps it is best to regard this approach as a protest against inherited principles and practices imbued with Christendom assumptions, a recurrence of the alternative strategies of earlier dissident movements as they rediscovered the Bible for themselves and rejected the domination of official interpreters. As a liberating and enfranchising movement, the Anabaptist approach to the Bible offers twenty-first century post-Christendom interpreters a refreshing and challenging alternative to ways of reading the Bible that marginalise the untrained, the congregation, the work of the Spirit, the priority of application and, above all, the life and teaching of Jesus.

For Further Reading

Durnbaugh, Donald: The Believers’ Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985)

Klaassen, Walter: Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981)

Murray, Stuart: Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 2000)

Murray, Stuart: The Naked Anabaptist (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2011)

Snyder, C. Arnold: Anabaptist History and Theology (Kitchener, Ont: Pandora Press, 1995)

Swartley, Willard (Ed.): Essays on Biblical Interpretation (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984)


[1] Quoted in Walter Klaassen: ‘Some Anabaptist Views on the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,’ Mennonite Quarterly Review (1961), 138.

[2] Peter Riedeman: Confession of Faith 1545 (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing House, 1970), 97.

[3] Thieleman Van Braght: Martyrs’ Mirror (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1950), 470.

[4] Denck, in Michael Baylor (Ed.): The Radical Reformation (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), 147-148.

[5] Klassen & Klaassen, Marpeck, 564.

[6] Hoffman, in George Williams, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 195-196,202.

[7] Menno Simons: Complete Works 1496-1561 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), 452.

[8] John Howard Yoder: The Schleitheim Confession (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977), 18.

[9] H. Wayne Pipkin & John Howard Yoder: Balthasar Hubmaier (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 99.

[10] Klassen & Klaassen, Marpeck, 177.

[11] Simons, Works, 452.

[12] Paul Peachey: ‘Answer of Some who are called (Ana)baptists why they do not attend the Churches: A Swiss Brethren Tract,’ Mennonite Quarterly Review (1971), 5, 7.

[13] John Howard Yoder: The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973), 44.

[14] Walter Klaassen: Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 124.

[15] Klassen & Klaassen, Marpeck, 179.

[16] Cornelius Dyck, William Keeney & Alvin Beachy: The Writings of Dirk Philips (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 206-209.

[17] Simons, Works, 173.

[18] Klaassen, Anabaptism, 147.

[19] Klaassen, Anabaptism, 149.

[20] Klassen & Klaassen, Marpeck, 438.

[21] Klaassen, Anabaptism, 150.

[22] Klassen & Klaassen, Marpeck, 223.

[23] Jacob Hutter: Brotherly Faithfulness (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing House, 1979), 169.

[24] Pipkin & Yoder, Hubmaier, 180.

[25] Dyck et al, Philips, 317.