Anabaptist Hermeneutics

Here are key excerpts from a paper summarizing Anabaptist hermeneutics by Stuart Murray:

[Within the Christendom framework,] It was soon recognised that it was impractical to require the whole population to accept New Testament ethics, so Old Testament norms were adopted for all except the monastic orders. Church leaders also realised that the New Testament provided no guidelines for organising the kind of sacral society or hierarchical Church which were emerging, but they found many hopeful structures in the Old Testament. Consequently, the authority of the Old Testament grew and much New Testament teaching tended to be regarded as applicable only in the religious orders, in the eschatological kingdom, or as unreachable ideals.

By emphasising justification by faith [the Reformers] focused attention on the New Testament and on Jesus as redeemer, but they would not allow Jesus to be normative for ethics as well as soteriology. Though they insisted on the freedom of biblical interpretation from the scrutiny of political or ecclesiastical authorities, in practice they often deferred to these authorities.

Anabaptists came to realise that reforming the state church system was inadequate and that forming believers' churches was essential. After some initial uncertainty, they comprehensively rejected Christendom and its symbols.

The implications for hermeneutics of the Anabaptists' rejection of Christendom were profound and led to the development of an approach to biblical interpretation that was very different from that of the Reformers, an approach that resulted in alternative perspectives, especially on ethical issues and ecclesiology.

(1) The Bible as Self-interpreting

Most Anabaptists regarded Scripture as Christocentric, treating the words and example of Jesus as the clearest and most accessible portion of Scripture. All other passages were interpreted in the light of this. They acknowledged that the Old Testament was less easy to interpret, requiring careful handling lest it detract from the centrality of Jesus and the radical newness of the new covenant.

(2) Christocentrism

The centrality of Jesus in Scripture was foundational for Anabaptist hermeneutics and theology. He was regarded as the one to whom all Scripture pointed and witnessed, and his words and deeds were authoritative and normative.

(3) The Two Testaments

From this Anabaptist conviction that Jesus Christ was pivotal to biblical revelation flowed the priority they accorded to the New Testament. Most were convinced that the new covenant he introduced made it impossible to put the Old Testament on the same level as the New. Although many acknowledged the essential unity of Scripture, the Anabaptists' Bible was not flat, and many emphasised the discontinuity between the Testaments.

(4) Spirit and Word

Accused of both literalism and spiritualism, most Anabaptists were committed both to the normative role of Scripture and to the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in the process of interpretation.

(5) Congregational Hermeneutics

This conviction that the congregation was where Scripture should be interpreted, rather than the university, the preacher's study or the mind of the individual, was significant in some Anabaptist groups. However, this too must be understood in the context of other important convictions.. . . . And the Anabaptist emphasis on obedience as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture meant that only a community of would-be disciples could expect illumination.

(6) Hermeneutics of Obedience

The importance attached to ethical considerations in interpreting Scripture, both in the legitimising of interpreters and the testing of their conclusions, is clear from Anabaptist writings. However, this principle overlapped with others in certain ways which in some measure qualified it.

The synthetic model that can be extracted from Anabaptist hermeneutical principles and practices is that of a Spirit-filled disciple, confidently interpreting Scripture within a community of such disciples, aware that Jesus Christ is the centre from which the rest of Scripture must be interpreted.