The town clerk: “The hangman shall convince you; he shall dispute with you, arch-heretic.”

Michael Sattler: “I appeal to the Scriptures.”

So ends the dramatic dialogue between the town clerk and Michael Sattler at his trial as recorded in Martyr’s Mirror. Along with other reformers of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists saw the Bible as the primary authority for their life of faith and way of being church. However, the Anabaptists had their own unique way of reading and using Scripture that continues to this day. What is this unique perspective on reading and using Scripture?

For me, the 2006 Mennonite World Conference statement about Scripture not only states this view for the global Mennonite church of today but also captures the essence of the way sixteenth century Anabaptists viewed Scripture. “As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.” I see four themes in this statement; let’s examine them one at a time.

1. “As a faith community… interpreting it together”

 In the sixteenth century the Roman Catholics relied on the church hierarchy consisting of popes and bishops to provide the authoritative reading of Scripture and Reformers looked to pastors and theologians. For the Anabaptists it was important that all members of the community were involved in reading and discerning the Bible. The Bible was best read and interpreted by ordinary people rather than by leaders and learned powerful people. Women as well as men gathered around tables to study the Bible and thus Anabaptists were sometimes falsely accused of having their women in common because they so freely gathered with the men around the Bible study table!

The Bible is read by and for the faith community. The primary use of Scripture was to guide the faith and life of the church. Conrad Grebel writes in his letter to Thomas Muntzer that “we took the Scripture in hand and consulted it on all kinds of issues.” It was a communal project to consult the Bible on whatever they were struggling with in their life together. The Bible was a primary source of guidance for the church but Hans Denck adds a warning: “Let him who honors Scripture but is cold in divine love beware lest he make Scripture an idol.” The loving community was the context for proper interpretation. John Howard Yoder states it even more strongly when he says that “the text can be properly understood only when disciples are gathered together to discover what the Word has to say to their needs and concerns.”

This is communal interpretation of the Bible is not unlike the Bereans we read about in Acts 17:11-12 who studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul was preaching was actually true. Do church groups still gather around the Bible to see if what their pastors are preaching has integrity? Too often in the modern era we rely on professionals to interpret the Bible for us rather than gathering together as faith communities around a table. Then we dismiss them if the interpretations do not please us! Although pastors and professors have a role to play as members of the community, it is everyone’s responsibility to participate in reading and interpreting Scripture for our life together. This is why Mennonites sometimes take so long to reach a resolution on issues! Let us be patient and humble as we read and study the Bible together on the issues we face in our time.

2. “Under Holy Spirit guidance”

A few generations ago much was made of the authority of Scripture based on elusive concepts such as inerrancy and infallibility. For Anabaptists “the authority is found not so much in the text of the Bible as in the Spirit of God that initially inspired the text and is given to the church to guide it in understanding and use of the text,” writes C. Norman Kraus. The south German strain of Anabaptists emphasized what they called the “inner word” of the Spirit over the “outer word” of the Bible. They noted the danger of relying on the “dead letter” instead of the “living word.” Hans Denck warns us again that “whoever does not have the Spirit and presumes to find it in Scripture, looks for light and finds darkness.” After all, Jesus did not say, “I will send you the Bible to guide you into all truth;” rather, he said, “I will send you the Spirit to guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13; 14:26)

It is fine to say that the reading and interpretation of Scripture happens with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. How does this look? The guidance of the Spirit is an intangible—like the wind. How can two groups of people both gather in community listening to the Spirit yet come up with variant readings? How do we recognize the voice of the Spirit if the Spirit speaks in unconventional or non-traditional terms? There is no formula for these dilemmas, although Hans Hut has some good advice. “The Word must be received with a true heart through the Holy Spirit and become flesh in us. This happens through great terror and trembling.” Again, some humility and patience are in order. The next statement may also help us out.

Sometimes we deal with the elusiveness of the Spirit’s guidance by saying that the Spirit will never reveal anything to anyone that is contrary to Scripture. We can also affirm that the Spirit will never reveal anything in Scripture that is contrary to the person of Jesus Christ.

3. “In light of Jesus Christ”

Pilgram Marpeck agrees. “Only that which Christ spoke before and taught, and no other word does the Spirit recall or instruct by way of wisdom to His own.” Menno Simons’ motto verse was 1 Corinthians 3:11. “Other foundation can no one lay than what is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

This third emphasis adds another unique element to the Anabaptist way of reading Scripture—it is sometimes called a Christo-centric hermeneutic wherein all Scripture is interpreted through the lens of Christ.

The sixteenth century Anabaptists emphasized nachfolge Christi or “following Jesus” as their central motif. Jesus is the climax of the redemption story and the ultimate revelation of what God is like. While the Old Testament looks forward to Jesus and the letters look back to expound on the significance of Jesus, the stories of Jesus in the Gospels are the center and pinnacle of the Bible. Therefore Anabaptists have sometimes been said to have a “canon within a canon” because they highlight the Gospels. The centrality of the person of Jesus then influences how we read and interpret all other sections of the Bible. For example, the war texts in the Old Testament narratives and Paul’s commands for women to be silent in the church must be read in light of Jesus’s reconciling and liberating work and teaching. This does not make our interpretive work any easier but it does give us a good lens through which to read the Bible.

How might this Christo-centric hermeneutic guide us in our debate over gay marriage that we are facing today?

4. “Our authority for faith and life… To discern God’s will for our obedience”

As a professor in a Bible college I have to remind myself and my students that the goal of biblical study is not theoretical knowledge but practical behavior. James exhorts believers that “even the demons believe;” thus, true “faith must be accompanied by deeds.” (James 2:14-24) While biblical literacy is a worthy pursuit, the purpose for knowing the Bible is that its message might transform our lifestyle and perspective. Hans Denck’s famous quote from the sixteenth century highlights this goal. “No one can know Christ except they follow him in life.”

There was a controversy among sixteenth century Anabaptists regarding the nature of the incarnation of Jesus. The Dutch had this peculiar belief that the flesh of Christ had a special “celestial” quality coming directly from heaven and only passed through Mary like water through a pipe. The German and Swiss Anabaptists held the more orthodox view and won the debate at a conference in 1555 but what is telling is their conclusion. The most important thing agreed upon was that obedience to Christ in every-day life and deed was more important than confessing Christ correctly in word.

With the heavy emphasis on community, Holy Spirit, and practical obedience to the way of Jesus, what about truth, what about the authority of Scripture? Scriptural authority among Mennonites is not so much a doctrine of what comes before Scripture—inspiration, but what comes after—obedience and transformation. While the Bible is important for developing our doctrinal statements, its primary authority is for how we live our lives. The best apologetic for the power of Scripture is lives that are transformed by the message it proclaims.