Sabbatical Report #8: Book Review

Note: This is part of a series of reposts from my sabbatical leave from mid-April to mid-July 2007. This piece was originally posted on May 15th 2007.

Stuart Murray: Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition

My book this past week has been Stuart Murray’s excellent Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. I suspect it is the most important book I have read so far on my sabbatical leave; I think that everything else in the Anabaptist tradition flows logically out of their approach to biblical interpretation. Stuart does not claim that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had a completely developed and logically consistent approach to biblical interpretation; this would have been an unrealistic expectation of a largely uneducated and vigorously persecuted movement. However, he identifies a surprisingly coherent approach across the various sixteenth century Anabaptist streams, while acknowledging differences of emphasis and admitting shortcomings.

He points out six general principles:

1. Scripture is self-interpreting.
Statements from Anabaptists show their confidence about the clarity of Scripture and its sufficiency without external additions. They strongly affirmed the right of private interpretation of Scripture, insisted that Scripture was clear enough to be understood and obeyed, and rejected the imposition of an interpretive grid on Scripture to force passages into consistency with preconceived theological systems. Statements from Anabaptists on trial show that their leaders’ attitudes had enfranchised the membership and produced tremendous faith and confidence in the ability of the ordinary Christian to understand and apply the Scriptures to their lives.

This principle has to be understood in the light of the historical situation of the Anabaptists. They were concerned that the 16th century Reformers such as Calvin and Luther were paying lip service to the plain sense of Scripture and the right of private interpretation but actually hedging these around with many qualifications. They suspected that priests and scholars were using their learning to find sophisticated reasons why simple obedience to Scripture was impossible and unnecessary.

Criticisms of this principle include the fact that Anabaptists failed to appreciate textual difficulties that cannot be resolved without good scholarship. What many readers assume is the plain meaning of the text may actually bear little resemblance to the original intent of the author when understood in a different cultural setting. Also, the disagreements and divisions about biblical interpretation within the Anabaptist movement would seem to indicate that the plain meaning of the text is not as plain as they assumed! However, for thousands of Christians, during the formative years of the Anabaptist movement, this approach was genuinely liberating. Whatever its shortcomings, it enfranchised people in ways the Reformation promised but often failed to deliver.

2. Christocentrism
Confidence that Scripture was clear and that all Christians could understand it applied pre-eminently to the passages containing the words and actions of Jesus. The belief that Jesus clarified what was previously obscure appears frequently in Anabaptist writings; it meant that Jesus’ words took precedence over all other words of Scripture.

Christocentrism meant that the Bible was not ‘flat’: some passages had greater authority for doctrine and practice than others. The New Testament took precedence over the Old, and Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching were the pinnacle of God’s revelation and primary in all questions of interpretation. Christocentrism meant that the whole Bible pointed to Jesus. It meant that his teaching was authoritative for ethics as well as doctrine; it meant that he was the authorised interpreter of the Old Testament, and that a living experience of him was a prerequisite for biblical interpretation. The Anabaptists focussed on Jesus himself rather than doctrines about him, and saw him not only as Saviour but also as Example to imitate and Teacher to obey.

3. The Two Testaments
Within Christendom many issues were decided on the basis of Old Testament texts. In contrast, Anabaptists emphasized the discontinuity between the Testaments and saw the New Testament as primary; the Old had validity only where Christ had not suspended it and only where it agreed with the New. This view led the Anabaptists to oppose practices they felt were grounded only in Old Testament texts (e.g. war as a legitimate option for Christians, the swearing of oaths, persecution, infant baptism).

Stuart points out that neither Reformers nor Anabaptists handled the Old Testament well. The Reformers insisted on the unity of Scripture, but in practice tended to justify practices from Old Testament texts in ways that marginalized the teaching of Jesus. Anabaptists challenged this, but in overreaction some tended to jettison the Old Testament altogether.

4. Spirit and Word.
Stuart sees the early sixteenth-century Anabaptists as a proto-charismatic movement and cites passages where a living experience of the Holy Spirit appears prominently in their writings. He points out that their expectation was mainly that the Spirit would transform them so that they could live obedient lives, although ecstatic experiences of the Spirit were not absent either.

The relationship between Spirit and Word was a major issue at the Reformation, and on this subject the Anabaptist movement did not speak with one voice. Some (the Swiss Brethren and the Hutterites) tended to emphasise the literal word of Scripture and of Christ, while others (the South German Anabaptists) emphasized following the inner guidance of the Spirit. Excesses in the latter movement led to an eventual reaction in a more literalistic direction. However, the Anabaptists’ Christocentric approach meant that they were never fundamentalists in the modern sense.

Reliance on the Spirit was expected to check naïve and legalistic interpretation of Scripture. Openness to the Spirit was preferred to reliance on education and scholarship. Approaches that polarized Spirit and reason were normally unwelcome. The Spirit’s work included conviction and persuasion so that the interpreters acted on what they had learned, and also included openness to correction and fresh insights. It should also be noted that the Anabaptist emphasis on the gathered congregation as the primary interpretive authority often helped to check individualistic interpretations of Scripture.

5. Congregational Hermeneutics
The Anabaptists took a communal approach to biblical interpretation and resisted tendencies to restrict the teaching office to recognized leaders. They rejected both the Catholic emphasis on the authority of ecclesiastical traditions and the Reformers’ practice of replacing priestly tyranny with the tyranny of the preacher. Their view of the congregation as the interpretive community presupposed a congregation of believers, which was not the experience of the Christendom churches with their view of the Church as a mixed community of believers and unbelievers.

The Swiss Brethren explored congregational hermeneutics extensively, allowing multiple participation in services, discussion of Scripture texts, and communal judgement. Some Dutch and German groups also developed this approach. Congregational hermeneutics does not require that every contribution carry equal weight, but it does require that every contribution be weighed.

In practice, this approach tended to die out in later years and was replaced by reliance on church leaders and received understandings of Scripture. Criticisms of this approach point out that if every congregation is an autonomous interpreter of Scripture there is no objective authority which can prevent division. Mistakes, disagreements, and poor interpretations would also suggest that Anabaptists underestimated the difficulties involved. Another limitation was the virtual exclusion of Christian wisdom from prior centuries; the focus was on present consensus, and little attention was paid to the consensus of the past.

There were obvious weaknesses in the Anabaptist congregational approach, but it also had significant strengths, especially in its conviction that every member could contribute to the interpretive task, its openness to correction, and its willingness to consider fresh interpretations rather than squeezing texts into conformity with set doctrinal positions.

6. Hermeneutics of Obedience
Anabaptists often complained that biblical interpretation was divorced from application. They saw the Scripture as plain enough to call for radical obedience, and the congregation as the interpretive community best placed to apply it to daily life.

Anabaptists saw obedience as a crucial prerequisite to biblical interpretation; ethical qualifications took precedence over intellectual abilities or official appointments. Only those actively committed to discipleship could be trusted to interpret the Scriptures. Obedience to one’s present understanding of Scripture, and openness to new understandings were essential for true interpretation. Interpreters must also be free from the influence of secular power and vested interests, as these would limit their ability to interpret in ways that challenged the status quo.

Reformers and Anabaptists disagreed about what norms to apply in their ethical application of Scripture. For the Reformers, social stability was crucial. For Anabaptists, obedience to Christ’s specific teachings and imitation of his lifestyle outweighed this, as they committed themselves to establishing in their churches a new social order rather than preserving the existing one.

Conversations
In the last chapter of the book Stuart proposes that Anabaptism be seen as a conversation partner with contemporary Christian traditions and the way they interpret the Bible. He gives two examples of how this might work, discussing the similarities and differences between the Anabaptist approach and that of Liberation Theology on the one hand, and the charismatic movement on the other. In each case he points out things that the traditions have in common and things they could learn from each other.

I would be delighted to have Stuart outline a similar dialogue with the Anglican tradition. I think some of the characteristics of Anabaptist biblical interpretation which he outlines are very congenial to our approach. Liturgically we have always emphasized the Incarnation and the gospels, although some of our traditions have perhaps been more Pauline in the way Stuart identifies with the Reformed approach. We also believe strongly that the Bible is the Church’s book and needs to be read and interpreted in the community of the Church.

Other characteristics of the Anabaptist approach would be more of a challenge to us. We have often been wary of the right of ‘private interpretation’, observing how this often leads to multiple divisions over little points of disagreement. We have a strong sense of the authority of tradition (meaning the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living!) and tend to defer to past voices in our biblical interpretations, believing that the Spirit has guided the Church as Jesus promised. And ‘Congregational Hermeneutics’ has been almost unknown to us.

However, a conversation with Anabaptism might help us to identify some of our weaknesses here. We believe that the Bible is the Church’s book and that the Church has authority to interpret it – but, in practice, does this actually mean ‘the priests and scholars of the Church’ rather than ‘the whole Church’? Anabaptism would remind us – helpfully and awkwardly – that in the New Testament ‘the Church’ means the whole people of God, and that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul expected every member to bring a prophecy or an interpretation or a psalm etc. Does the way in which the Bible is taught in the Anglican tradition actually encourage our members to read it for themselves? Or do we communicate the message that it’s really only a book for scholars?

Stuart himself suggests that the ‘congregational hermeneutic’ approach could easily be extended in two ways to compensate for its innate weaknesses. The first way would be to include scholars in the conversation – not as authoritative voices above the rest, but as partners in the conversation, offering their insights alongside those of the other members. The second way would be to include past generations as conversation partners as well. In this way the voice of tradition could be included in the work of biblical interpretation.

This has been a fascinating book for me, and one that I would recommend without hesitation to others interested in exploring Anabaptist approaches to biblical interpretation.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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