The Hermenutics of Anabaptism – How We Read Scripture and Why – Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

Image This afternoon during my split shift break I had the privilege of attending a special webinar through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. The seminar leader was Dr. Loren Johns, professor of New Testament at AMBS and also an accomplished writer, editor for the Believer’s Church Bible Commentary series, and genealogy expert (trust me, if you ever meet Loren he’ll try to figure out how you are related to him even if you happen to be Hispanic and he – ethnic Mennonite).

For those who are not aware of my denominational background, I consider myself fairly ecumenical. I grew up primarily in the Lutheran and Baptist denominations, however, chose to embrace Anabaptism (and more specifically Mennonitism) of my own accord. As such, the deep historicity of the Mennonite faith, their love for community involvement, and their desire to work towards a world of peace and justice have grown on me. Yet, because of my background as ecumenical both growing up as well as through attending Tyndale University College and now Tyndale Seminary, I have long had to wrestle with how, although we are all brothers and sisters and share much in common, the Anabaptist distinctives and approach towards a Biblical hermeneutic have shaped who I am as a person as well as how Anabaptist denominations as a whole are viewed by those outside this particular understanding of faith.

What I would like to offer in the following paragraphs is a short synopsis of what was discussed during Loren’s presentation. Due to the fact that his presentation was one hour long followed by another half an hour of questions and comments, I will only highlight a few of the most important aspects of what was discussed. After I have laid out his meticulous research, I will provide my own critique to be used as a basis for discussion. Ultimately I hope that this blog will be edifying to you and help expand your knowledge of how we have come to interpret and “own” Scripture and that it will be useful to your church as well in understanding how community and leadership both play distinctive roles within the body of faith.

Loren’s Presentation focused primarily on two key aspects of Anabaptism and its relationship to Scripture.

1)      7 Ways 16th Century Anabaptists Viewed Scripture Which Are Inherently Unique From Other Denominational Backgrounds

2)      12 Challenges that 21st Century Anabaptists Face As They Struggle To Maintain a Pure and Historical View of Scripture in the Church and Cultural Climate of Today (Addressed in Another post – https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/the-hermenutics-of-anabaptism-how-we-read-scripture-and-why-part-2-of-a-2-part-series/)

7 Anabaptist Distinctives On Approaching the Bible

1)      Spirit and the Word

The 16th Century Anabaptists believed that when one read the Bible they must do so with an awareness and acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit is present. The Anabaptists were called to be open to Spiritual awakenings whether personally or through congregational worship.

2)      Rule of Paul – Congregational Hermeneutics

The Holy Spirit moves and guides our congregation into communal discernment for a specific time and place. As evidenced in 1 Corinthians 14:27 there is a time and place for the weighing of individual opinions or ideas, all things being brought back into subjection to God’s Will and plan for the church. (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+14%3A27&version=NASB)

3)      Rule of Christ

Christian discipline should be discerned at large by a congregational structure rather than by one or two key leaders (such as the Pope or a bishop). The text most often quoted in this argument is Matthew 18   http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+18&version=NASB)

4)      Christocentrism

Scripture serves first and foremost as a witness to Christ and just as Christ is the center of our lives, so He also, is to become to focus of Scripture. This then leads to three main interpretations for how to deal with Old Testament understandings of Scripture while still keeping Christ at the center:

1)      To read (almost) every Old Testament prophecy as a direct foreshadowing of Christ’s rule and reign

2)      To evaluate all teachings through the lens of Christ, carefully weighing what was said through looking at the model of how Christ lived His life (especially helpful when coming to some troubling war texts in the OT).

3)      To read all Scripture with discipleship at the center (for example thinking about how Old Testament lessons can ultimately inspire us to live a more fruitful Christian life of radical hospitality and service)

5)      Priority of the New Testament

The belief that because Christ is at the center of our Scriptural interpretation, we should therefore, consider Christ the ultimate portrayal of God’s revelation and as a result believe that the New Testament has greater value than the Old.

6)      Perspicuity – Self-Interpreting Clarity of Scripture

Christians are granted a certain level of freedom to discover what individual passages may mean to them, yet, this is done with the caution that all Scripture must be read with the “Spirit at the Elbow” (Loren John’s term for an acute awareness that the Holy Spirit is present), in consultation with other Biblical passages, and tested within a believing community.

7) The Epistemology of Obedience

The Bible is more than just a guidebook, a road map, or a dictionary.  It is also a prayer and meditation book, a biography, and an artistic expression. Yes, there is a need for accurate study, but information cannot be sought out from the Bible without looking into the formational aspects of what the Bible is and does if we wish to do it justice.

Discussion: In these seven steps, Loren very carefully and very helpfully lays out a basic understanding of how the early Anabaptists would have been doing church life together. Yet, are all of these seven aspects still necessary in the life of a Christian (and more specifically Anabaptist) in our changing world and modern society?

#1 – I found the belief in the Holy Spirit being ever present in dialogue and discussion amongst believers today to be an interesting assumption. As someone who considers themselves more along the Charismatic lines and has attended a transdenominational school with a large percentage of Pentecostals, the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer still intrigues me. From the Mennonite angle, I would venture to say that in MOST (though certainly not all) Mennonite settings that the Holy Spirit’s role is overshadowed by that of the community.

Don’t get me wrong here. I know that unfortunately many people have misused manifestations of the Holy Spirit, have abused prophecy, and have distorted visions. I am fully aware that by trying to gain authority over another individual simply by exerting the fact that “God told me so” often leads to power trips, Scriptural neglect, or worse. Yet, I also know that the Holy Spirit was sent as a messenger after Christ had ascended into Heaven and as such He is still meant to be our guide, our shepherd, and our traveling companion (http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+14%3A26&version=NASB). Therefore, it is my belief that we must strike a delicate balance. Certainly the Holy Spirit can and does speak to us at different times and in different ways. The Spirit may speak to us through poetry, through song, or through nature. We may discern the Spirit through a deep and profound way or through the whisperings and stirrings of our heart strings. Sometimes the Spirit may prompt us through a Christian broadcast, a conversation with a close friend, or a meaningful conversation with our spouse. Although these are all different expressions of how the Holy Spirit can manifest Himself to us it does not mean that any of these experiences are more worth more than any others.

Yet, what I have found is that whereas my Pentecostal experiences have been such that they place the Holy Spirit in such a high role that individualism can sometimes seem to take over rather than communal and collective engagement, many Anabaptist churches have done the exact opposite and allowed for the community to completely take over the territory that should belong to the Holy Spirit.

#2 – The challenge to carefully weigh an individual’s words and opinions against the church’s doctrinal beliefs and Scripture at large is an important and necessary one. Unfortunately, because we live in a world that is very individualistic, this sometimes creeps into our church and communal life. As Anabaptists, I believe we are called to discern God’s Will and next steps for our churches and for our lives in general. In Anabaptism, I have found that collective discernment is a high priority, although as with any other human institution, it does take careful reworking of power structures that be to ensure that this is really happening.

#3 – Christian discipline is a key part of keeping the church Spiritually healthy and there are examples in Scripture as to why allowing someone who is going contrary to the teachings of the leadership to continue in their practices can ultimately disrupt the life of a young, immature Christian. Yet, unfortunately, discipline has often been misused both in the past and in the present as a way to say, “if you don’t agree with me, you are wrong.” There needs to be a place for healthy debate and welcomed discussion rather than being shut down out of fear of excommunication or shunning. In Loren’s discussion, he gave some consideration to whether the word “discipline” should be changed with “discipleship.” The two words connote something very different from each other. In “discipline” the emphasis is on the negative – on consequences for unfavourable behaviour, but in “discipleship”, the emphasis is placed on building up one another and edifying the church. Therefore, I would argue that rather than focusing on how to severe a poisonous branch, we, as a congregation, seek to understand how that branch became poisonous in the first place and to safe guard ourselves by looking at preventative maintenance rather than radical amputation.

#4 – For this point, I place points #4 and #5 together. It seems that in the majority of churches the Old Testament is largely ignored while the New Testament is given much thought and weight. It is a comforting thought to interpret everything through the lens of the New Testament (and moreover the story of Christ) but as a student of Biblical Studies and Theology I believe this is doing the Old Testament a bit of injustice for we are reading it as one who knows the end of the story. In some cases, we cannot deny that there was a direct foreshadowing going on about the birth and death of Christ, but in other cases, we simply must accept the Old Testament as one means through which God communicated to the people of the Old Covenant. In many instances, God was not always speaking of a future hope being several thousand years later, but rather was speaking into the reality of that time. In a way, it’s kind of like if someone from the year 2050 looked at our present lives through the lens of what they now know and tried to tell us that all this happened a certain way even though it really wasn’t that way for us.

Therefore, I believe that to truly be a student of Scripture we must become familiar with the history and culture of both Testaments. As church leaders we cannot neglect one while raising up the other. I would even go so far as to say in order to truly understand the New Testament we must have knowledge of the Old.

#5 – Here again, I wish to bring up points #6 and #7 into this one point. There is a place for seeing how specific Scripture applies to our lives. In the academy we are taught essentially how to rip the Bible into shreds. In school I was taught, “this is what you were told growing up, but it’s completely historically inaccurate.” Well, there is definitely a place for careful academic study of the Word of God and I believe that all pastors should be trained (though perhaps in different ways) on how to remain as Biblically accurate as possible. Yet, on the other hand, we cannot deny that every one of us reads the Bible with a huge range of biases. Our culture, our own individual backgrounds, our denominational leanings – all of these profoundly affect how and what the Bible will mean to us. Therefore, I will admit that while the Bible can definitely be very instructional, I prefer to see it moreso as formational. As a way of inspiring and reaching out to all of us, offering us hope and encouragement in our own lives as we seek to be disciples of Christ within our communities of faith and abroad.

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2 thoughts on “The Hermenutics of Anabaptism – How We Read Scripture and Why – Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

  1. Pingback: The Hermenutics of Anabaptism – How We Read Scripture and Why – Part 2 of a 2 Part Series | Zweibach and Peace - Thoughts on Pacifism and Contemporary Anabaptism

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