How did the Anabaptists come to such a different view of Christianity than the Roman Catholics and the Protestants came to? It stems directly from their way of reading the Bible. Here are some key principles that lead to the Anabaptist understanding of Scripture. Not all of these principles are or were used by every Anabaptist, but they are common-sense principles that show the straightforwardness of the Anabaptist view.
- The Son of God Principle: If God himself speaks, we should give first place to what he says, and use that to interpret what his servants say. So we start with what Jesus himself said, who is the divine Son of God and God’s chosen messenger.
- The Principle of Face Value: If a straightforward reading of the text seems the face value intention by the writer, take that meaning, even if it is radically life-changing. For example, if Jesus says to love your enemies, then love them and don’t kill them.
- Exception: Jesus’ statement to cut off your hand if it will cause you to sin (Matt 5:29-30). Should we take this literally?
- In one sense, yes. After all, if any of us had to choose between cutting off our hand and going to hell, we would choose the former, just as Jesus says. However, we know that our hands and eyes aren’t what really cause us to sin; it’s our lusts (James 1:14-15). So Jesus’ statement can be interpreted literally (we would really cut it off if it were causing us to lose our salvation) without needing to be afraid that people will start chopping off their hands. In context of all this, Jesus seems to be saying that we should separate ourselves from whatever causes us to sin, no matter how close to us it is.
- We should certainly be careful before we assume a saying is hyperbole. There are, however, several ways of telling whether a saying might be hyperbole. For example, if a seemingly impossible statement is reiterated as a command in different context or by a different person (Jesus’ command to nonviolence is reiterated throughout the New Testament), then it most likely is not hyperbole.
- The Principle of Harmonization: Harmonize Scripture rather than preferring one passage and ignoring the others. For example, in the case of Romans 4 and James 2, put together what Paul and James are saying rather than preferring Paul and forcing James to fit into a small box defined by a small understanding of Paul.
- Some groups are okay with contradictions between New Testament commands, since they believe that later New Testament teachings supersede earlier New Testament teachings. However, although Jesus’ teachings contradict and supersede the Old Testament teachings, within the New Testament, we see no evidence that such a principle is required or even allowed.
- The Ordinary Text Principle: Read Scripture like you would an ordinary text, not like a legally precise text. This is because the New Testament was mostly written as letters or stories, or delivered as speeches, typically to an audience of ordinary people. We can’t expect legal precision, but we can expect them to say what they mean in ordinary ways.
- To test an interpretation of a passage, take the same words and put them into a scenario you’re familiar with. For example, Mark 16:8, which states that the women at the tomb said nothing to anyone. This would be a contradiction, if Mark were writing a legally precise document. However, consider if Bob saw an event occur and ran to tell Jane about it, passing other people but not telling them. Would it make sense for him to say to her, “I said nothing to anyone”? Certainly.
- The Principle of Multiple Interpretations: If there are multiple possible interpretations of a passage that all have about the same amount of textual evidence, put less weight on that passage when trying to prove a point. Also, if your interpretation of the passage requires adding clarificatory ideas to that passage that are not in the context, typically put less weight on it.
- A possible exception is when parallel passages that contain more specific detail can give clarification to what is meant in that passage.
For further searching into the way Anabaptists approach Scripture, see How Anabaptists Understood Scripture Part 1 and Part 2 by Dan Ziegler and The Essence of Anabaptism, a video by Dean Taylor. To see some of the beliefs the Anabaptists have derived from Scripture, as well as reasons for holding to those beliefs, see my articles on Anabaptist beliefs. Ziegler also lists many Anabaptist beliefs in Part 1 of his article.
Here is a quote from the transcript of Taylor’s video, where he wrestles with the question of what makes the Anabaptist view of Scripture different:
What if we were to begin to ask “What if Jesus really meant every word He said?” If we were to go through the Sermon on the Mount and look at the issues Jesus addresses, such as the teachings on the permanence of marriage, on lawsuits, on our economics, on warfare . . .
How is the Anabaptist approach to these teachings different than say an Evangelical or a Catholic who would also claim that they have a strong allegiance to those teachings? Again, we’re not talking about a denomination. The Anabaptist worldview emphasizes a focus on the teachings of Jesus. The Catholics, even the Evangelicals would all agree that the Word of God is completely true. Pondering this difference, while not being judgmental on anyone else, I asked the question, “Can a person be a follower of Jesus without following Jesus?”
Some would say that, once you are saved and you become a follower of Christ, you don’t really have to be a follower as long as you are saying that you are identifying with Jesus. But are we living as followers as well?
It’s this emphasis on being an obedient follower that defines Anabaptism. Even though many people in other groups obey Christ, the Anabaptists consider that obedience of faith to be the center of Christianity.