Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.
Two things stand out in this statement: 1) The centrality of Jesus in Anabaptist approaches to Scripture; and 2) The role played by the community of faith in reading and interpreting Scripture. Both are susceptible to misuse and abuse. But both are hugely important to how Anabaptists understand discipleship and the role Scripture plays in the life of faith.
Reading Scripture Christologically is not unique to Anabaptists, of course, but it’s possible that no single stream of the Christian tradition has so consistently emphasized the life and teaching of Jesus as not only the pattern for Christian living but also for interpreting Scripture. Anabaptists spend a lot of time in the gospels, and this feeds back into, informs, and determines how we read the earlier parts of Scripture. To take just the most obvious example, the Sermon on the Mount and its location in the ongoing unfolding of God’s character and story changes how we read earlier parts of the story. Jesus is a fuller representation of who God is than we have in, say, Leviticus.
Consequently, Anabaptists are sometimes accused of having a canon within a canon—of disregarding the OT or even the writings of Paul. But I don’t think Anabaptists need to apologize for privileging the gospels. They are the only record we have of the life of Christ, the clearest self-revelation of God we have (Col. 2:9). If we wish to call ourselves “Christ-followers,” the accounts of how he lived (even if we are not called to do everything he did) ought to function as a kind of canon with the broader canon of Scripture. This is not to say that other parts of Scripture are “less inspired” only that Jesus is the hinge of history, the climax of God’s story, and God’s solution to the problem of sin, death, and evil. The Gospels represent our most direct access to the object of our faith and hope, and Anabaptists need not apologize for according them special status in our attempt to live as his followers in the cultures we find ourselves.
So, Anabaptists read Scripture Christologically. They also read it together. At least they claim to. The community hermeneutic is meant to be both a guard against elitist and authoritarian interpretations of Scripture and an acknowledgment that God can and does speak through his word to everyone, not just the expert exegetes or the theologically trained. There is a firm conviction that Scripture is given to and for everyone.
At its worst, the Anabaptist approach to Scripture is simply the pooling of ignorance. All kinds of crazy interpretations of Scripture are accorded unwarranted legitimacy because there is no gatekeeper. When you claim that the Holy Spirit can and does help each Christian believer interpret Scripture, the doors are thrown wide open and the results aren’t always pretty! From the sixteenth century down to the present there have certainly been some fairly “imaginative” interpretations of Scripture (Münster, anyone?!). “Community hermeneutic” sure sounds wonderfully democratic and inclusive, but usually only as long as the community agrees with me!
But at its best, the community hermeneutic points to the centrality of the community of faith in God’s unfolding story. For whatever reason, God has decided that this is how the kingdom and mission of God will move forward. We may not understand it. We may even lament it—the community moves slowly and often in fits and starts, lurching variously backward and forwards. But God has entrusted us with his word and given us the freedom to learn from it appropriately. We are forced to learn how to listen and speak well to those we disagree with (often profoundly!). Even when it is not easy (or enjoyable!), we are called to wrestle with the Scriptures as a community.