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The Naked Anabaptist 2: The Bible

On to the second of  Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptists (from The Naked Anabaptist):

Introduction

Part One

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 m0ve 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.


21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good post. I like how you noted the dangers of the communty hermeneutic “…pooling of ignorance…” . In my experience in Mennonite circles this potential problem has not been addressed adequately.

    I also value the Christocentric approach to Scripture. I also have no problem with giving priority to the gospels since I believe it is impossible to carry the entire Bible in your head at any given time. The prioritizing of the gospels represents a concious chosing rather than one that is haphazard. That being said I think we Mennonites have much work to do in the Old Testament. I do not think it is enough to merely read Christ back into the Old Testament but rather should be more of a two-way street. The Old Testament, after all, did inform the context in which the gospel took place.

    March 12, 2010
    • Thanks Travis. You’re right, Mennonites have certainly been guilty of overlooking/misunderstanding the OT. The two-way street you speak of really is essential. Anabaptists must continue to figure out how to articulate a Christocentric approach to Scripture that does not relegate the OT to an extended prelude to Jesus.

      March 12, 2010
  2. Ken #

    I see two things more clearly now: what it means for an Anabaptist to be Christ-centered and the connection between Hauerwas theology and Anabaptist theology.

    My own approach to the Old Testament is not Christocentric, but rather through seeing it as the Hebrew Bible, as a Jew sees it. And my approach to understanding the gospels is through the Hebrew Bible. In addition, I think I read it the way a philologist reads it because I have been so deeply influenced by the Jewish Hebrew (philologist) scholars who mentored me at the university. So, we each have deep reasons rooted in our own histories for reading it differently from each other. This is good to know.

    March 12, 2010
    • There is certainly a connection between Hauerwas’ theology and Anabaptist theology–however as a Mennonite I caution against viewing the two as synonymous. It’s important to remember that Hauerwas continues to belong to the Methodist denomination and his appreciation of the Anabaptist way of thinking stems from his close relationship to Yoder.

      March 13, 2010
  3. Great review, Ryan. It is important that we acknowledge the potential weaknesses in our traditions, which Stuart (and yourself) did very clearly. This helps us avoid idealism and pride. Very important.

    Ken, for myself, I read the Gospel’s significantly through the lens of the Old Testament too. However, I also read the OT back through the lens of Christ insofar as the conviction that the OT was always pointing towards Christ. It is a bidirectional reading.

    Peace,
    Jamie

    March 13, 2010
    • Ken #

      Jamie, the way you read the Gospels does sound like my way. I am not quite sure whether we read the OT the same way. I think that I may read the OT as pointing towards Christ in the sense that I see a messianic hope in the Hebrew Bible. I think of the NT, especially the gospels, as a claim that Jesus was the messiah and that the messianic era was imminent. I don’t tend to think in terms of OT and NT, even though that is certainly a part of Christian heritage. I think of them as going together. I think the Hebrew Bible can stand alone, but not the NT books. Does that sound like your way, or does it sound different?

      March 13, 2010
  4. James #

    I think that it is easy to misunderstand how Anabaptists understood a Christological reading of the OT. First they understood the Scriptures to be a single book with 2 Acts, the OT and the NT. Reading the OT Christologically is no different than reading Macbeth “Macbethically”, even the scenes that don’t contain Macbeth.
    Naturally Jewish theologians won’t recognize our Scriptures but Anabaptists don’t diminish the Hebrew Scriptures [they are not Marcionites. Marcion was the 2nd century heretic who did exactly that]- they simply believe that the Jewish people fail to recognize Act 2 as Act 2.
    Anabaptists are not particularly unique in this view of the Scriptures but they do distinguish themselves for the Reformed tradition which they feel reads the Scriptures as a “flat book”, failing to properly distinguish the Scene markers. Naturally the Reformers, don’t agree 🙂 This tends to be where the arguments between Anabaptists and Reformers are centred. The argument is often radicalized by both sides- producing far more heat than light IMHO

    March 13, 2010
    • Ken #

      James, after reading your and Jamie’s comments I am not sure I understand the Anabaptist distinction. Ryan sounded closer to Marcion than Jamie and you.

      Re: “Anabaptists are not particularly unique in this view of the Scriptures but they do distinguish themselves for the Reformed tradition which they feel reads the Scriptures as a “flat book”, failing to properly distinguish the Scene markers. ”

      I guess this is the subtle point I am not understanding.

      BTW, my impression is that most Christians are somewhat related to Marcion in their emphasis on the NT. One thing I think I may have in common with Anabaptists is an emphasis on the gospels within the NT. I think many protestants emphasize Paul more than all the rest of the Bible. I may be doing something quite different. I may be reading the OT as the Bible and the NT as the appendix. I don’t see anything new in the NT.

      March 13, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        The charge of being Marcionite is a very familiar one for Anabaptists- the usual retort is that Reformers are overly educated idiots 🙂 You can imagine that meaningful discussions seldom materialize between these 2 camps. IMHO too often neither side is prepared for the subtlety of the distinctions that their opponents hold.
        The Anabaptists were known as “The People of the Book.” Unlike “Anabaptist” this was a label that they appreciated. Ordinary Anabaptist men and women astonished their inquisitors [during their trials for heresy] with their first hand knowledge of the Scriptures. The actual reading and study of the Scriptures by ordinary people terrified Christendom, both Catholic and Protestant.
        While abuses of interpretation clearly took place [the infamous Munster being the favourite]- these need to be read against the alternative. It seems to me that errors come down from the intellectual elites at least as often as it arises up from masses.

        March 13, 2010
      • I should be clear, Ken, that I would affirm Ryan’s presentation, noting that (obviously) a comment leaves a lot unqualified. As James indicated, the charge of Marcionism is all too common. This is understandable without clarity, but ultimately is not an accurate representation.

        Peace,
        Jamie

        March 13, 2010
      • Ken #

        Well James and Jamie, you have left me confused, just when I thought I was understanding. I take your word that none of you are Marcionists. I also take your word that Protestants and Catholics have been ugly to Menonites. I had not heard of that conflict before, but certainly you are right about it.

        Jamie, what do you mean when you write, Anabaptists “do distinguish themselves from the Reformed tradition which they feel reads the Scriptures as a “flat book”, failing to properly distinguish the Scene markers. ”

        Ryan wrote, “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. ” And he writes, “Jesus is a fuller representation of who God is than we have in, say, Leviticus.” This is quite different from the way I read the Bible and the way I read the attitude toward scripture associated with Jesus in the gospels.

        Jamie wrote, “for myself, I read the Gospel’s significantly through the lens of the Old Testament too. However, I also read the OT back through the lens of Christ insofar as the conviction that the OT was always pointing towards Christ. It is a bidirectional reading.” That sounds a lot like the way I read scripture.

        It sounds to me like Ryan and Jamie read the Bible differently. And yet Jamie wrote, “I would affirm Ryan’s presentation, noting that (obviously) a comment leaves a lot unqualified.” It sounds like the there must be a lot unqualified somewhere.

        I thought I was understanding Anabaptists, but now I am confused. Any help? James? Ryan? Jamie?

        March 13, 2010
      • Ken, I think you are quoting James in the first quote you attribute to me. At any rate, it is not that I am contradicting myself as much as I think you might be misunderstanding Ryan’s intent with his words. Specifically what aspect do you see in contradiction?

        March 13, 2010
      • James #

        Carrying on 3 conversations at one time would confuse anyone 🙂 Let me just add two little pieces-
        Re: Marcion. His division between OT and NT was not merely a prioritization of readings- his view of the OT involved a different god. The OT Demiurge was evil while the God of Jesus was good. That was the basis the Scriptures were prioritized. The Anabaptist reading is based on one Book, one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. The charge of Marcionism is very frustrating but persistent. I realize of course that I was the one who introduced Marcion [and probably added confusion because of it] to this discussion but it is the language with which Anabaptists have been painted.
        Re: the missed markers. The Reformers, of course use the same Bible as we do, but Anabaptists feel that Reformers/Christendom bring forward a theocratic impulse from the OT that ceases with Jesus [“my Kingdom is not of this world.”] The OT Kingdom of God was attached to physical land and king- the NT Kingdom of God is not. They missed the full implications of profound shift of the New Covenant- in Anabaptist view.

        March 13, 2010
      • Ken #

        James, thank you. That helps me understand. Although I think protestants and Catholics today agree that the NT Kingdom of God is different from the physical land and king of Israel, I assume there must be a distinction somehow related to this in the meaning of the NT Kingdom of God to which you are referring. Is that right?

        Jamie, yes I accidentally wrote Jamie instead of James before the first quote.

        Here is the difference that I see in your words and Ryan’s. He wrote, “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. ” And he writes, “Jesus is a fuller representation of who God is than we have in, say, Leviticus.” This is quite different from the way I read the Bible.

        You wrote, “for myself, I read the Gospel’s significantly through the lens of the Old Testament too. However, I also read the OT back through the lens of Christ insofar as the conviction that the OT was always pointing towards Christ. It is a bidirectional reading.” That sounds a lot like the way I read scripture. You could say that and be ordained a Presbyterian pastor!

        I hear a lot more emphasis on Jesus in Ryan’s expression than I do in yours. For example, he says, “Jesus … is the pattern for interpreting scripture.” You say, “I read the Gospel’s significantly through the lens of the Old Testament.” So, it confused me when you wrote, “I would affirm Ryan’s presentation, noting that (obviously) a comment leaves a lot unqualified.” If you agree with Ryan’s statement that I quoted above, I guess there must be a lot of meaning stored in your words “a comment leaves a lot unqualified.”

        But if you agree with Ryan’s words, then I will assume that Ryan has accurately described the Anabaptist view.

        BTW, many Protestants and Catholics agree with Ryan’s position, notwithstanding the disparaging words that they must have used to describe Anabaptists. Clearly, as James as explained, it is absurd and insulting to equate the Anabaptist emphasis on Christ and the related way of reading scripture with Marcion.

        March 13, 2010
      • Ken, it could be that I am assuming (incorrectly) about some of Ryan’s convictions in this respect. I will leave that up to him to say. As my comment suggested, both “directions” of my reading between the OT & NT are significantly (though not exclusively) Christological. Unless I am mistaken, that is what Ryan is suggesting. Again, I will have to leave that to him.

        Peace,
        Jamie

        March 13, 2010
  5. Wow, miss a day miss a lot! It’s late, and I’m dreading setting the clock ahead an hour for daylight savings time tonight, so I can’t possibly respond to everything that’s been said on this thread. Nonetheless, I will at least express my surprise at being lumped in the Marcionite camp.

    I don’t really see how my comments could have led to that impression. I stand by my assertion that Anabaptists have uniquely emphasized the life and teaching of Jesus as not only the pattern for Christian living but also for interpreting Scripture and that Jesus is a fuller representation of who God is than we have in Leviticus. I don’t think either of these claims make me a Marcionite. I think I am fairly squarely under the big tent of Christian orthodoxy when I say that it is in Jesus that God is most fully revealed. That doesn’t meant that a different God was revealed in the OT (as Marcion seems to have held). It simply means that it was an earlier part of the story and that God’s self-disclosure was different at that point.

    I don’t see any contradiction whatsoever between Jamie’s comments and mine. I happily affirm his statement:

    I read the Gospel’s significantly through the lens of the Old Testament too. However, I also read the OT back through the lens of Christ insofar as the conviction that the OT was always pointing towards Christ. It is a bidirectional reading.

    I hope that helps. If not, perhaps I can clarify further.

    March 13, 2010
    • Ken #

      It does not sound like further clarification is possible or needed.

      My impression at this point is that there is no significant distinction between the way Anabaptists read the Bible and the way Protestants and Catholics read the Bible. Almost all Christians seem to read the Bible the same, emphasizing one aspect or another of the New Testament and emphasizing the New Testament over the Old Testament, and believing there is an important difference between the two, even while maintaining rhetorical distance from the great heretic Marcion.

      My suggestion is that if we read the Bible as literature, rather than as scripture through a religious tradition, the alleged differences between the Hebrew Bible and the “New Testament” are not found. Instead one sees the gospels as claims that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies and that Paul’s letters were just that – letters. They were letters from an evangelist to gentiles that he converted to his new religion, a kind of new age version of Judaism.

      I think I’ll enjoy atheism today.

      March 14, 2010
    • I would like to think that my distance from Marcion is theological as opposed to rhetorical, but I won’t belabor this any longer. My apologies for whatever contribution I made to your enjoyment of atheism today, Ken :).

      March 14, 2010
  6. James #

    Nothing like theological discussions to drive us all to atheism 🙂 My version of atheism is the opening text of today’s sermon- “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12
    Have a great day, Ken!

    March 14, 2010

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