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.
Sola Apostolica & Divine Command Theory
Anabaptists derive all doctrine from the New Testament, though we hold the Old Testament to be Scripture as well. This view, which I call Sola Apostolica, is supported by my article on why we should follow the New Testament commands
Anabaptists also believe that what is moral consists of what God commands or condemns, as revealed in Scripture. This is an ethical theory known as “Divine Command Theory,” and is the traditional Christian position. Our view is nuanced by my article laying out what view of Divine Command Theory we should hold.
This works itself out in a further principle: that we should give the most weight to teachings that come directly from God, and use that to interpret the teachings that come from God’s servants. So we start with what Jesus himself said, who is the divine Son of God and God’s chosen messenger, rather than starting with theologies built from readings of Paul alone, and shoehorning Jesus into them.
The Principle of Straightforwardness
If a straightforward reading of the text seems in context to be 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.
By “straightforward,” I mean the face-value interpretation of a text, prior to bringing in one’s worldview commitments. If the most straightforward interpretation of a Scripture text is X, and there is no Scripture text with an equally straightforward interpretation of not-X, then we should believe X.
God himself superintended the teachings of the apostles and what found its way into Scripture. God himself also created humanity, and knows better than anyone else how to communicate with us. Since he wasn’t intending to communicate with “the wise and prudent,” but to regular people, we should adopt a hermeneutic of straightforwardness and simplicity, not a hermeneutic that requires a PhD to understand.1Inspired by an email interchange with Reed Merino
Are there exceptions that make this principle untenable? First, let’s look at Jesus’ statement to cut off your hand if it will cause you to sin (Matt 5:29-30). Isn’t the straightforward interpretation that we should cut off our hands? But this seems obviously hyperbole.
Let’s suppose it is hyperbole. Still, you can’t just dismiss the straightforward reading of every statement because one is hyperbole. You need to have criteria for telling which is and which isn’t (otherwise, how could you know that was hyperbole?)
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 and should be softened. 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, we see no evidence that such a principle is required or even allowed within the New Testament.
The apostolic faith, which is recorded in the New Testament, is one deposit. Therefore, we go by its entirety in understanding what the apostolic faith is, not by individual verses that may be nuanced by other passages.
Creative Distinctions and Special Pleading
One issue that can arise when people try to harmonize texts is when they find creative interpretations to try to fit their ideas into the text of Scripture. In a video, Jordan Cooper points out this tendency in Roman Catholic apologetics. However, as a Protestant, he considers one example of this to be the two-stage view of salvation, where we, as well as Catholics, harmonize the different statements in the New Testament about salvation by speaking in terms of initial salvation into the Kingdom, and final salvation on judgment day.
In cases like these, we need to see whether that harmonization can be drawn naturally from the text itself, and whether the text contains contradictions or is confusing without that harmonization. If so, the harmonization is justified. If instead, the harmonization is made necessary because the text wouldn’t otherwise mesh with a believe that the Roman Catholic Church holds hundreds of years later, the harmonization is instead special pleading.
The Ordinary Text Principle
Read Scripture like you would an ordinary 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.
Vs. Legal Precision
First, we shouldn’t treat Scripture like a legally precise text. 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.
Scripture was written in the language of the people, not in a special language. The words in the Bible, like grace, faith, righteousness, etc., don’t carry specially deep theological significance. They are ordinary words that were used in nonreligious life as well as religious life. We shouldn’t define them with lofty theological definitions, but with normal words, as much as possible.
For example, grace can typically also be translated as “favor.” Faith can mean belief, trust, or loyalty. And we can use other relationships besides our relationship with God for examples of these words in action. A king might show favor to someone who pleases him. We might show loyalty to our mother.
Biblical grace and faith do have aspects to them that are different from other forms—but not because it’s defining them differently, but because God is a different being than kings and mothers. But the fundamental meaning is the same.
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.
The Principle of Context
The surrounding context can shift the meaning of an individual statement. Also, the Scripture writers weren’t typically writing to us, but to people in their day. We need to ask, “Did they mean something different by this idiom back then?”
Do not allow theological presuppositions to change your reading. Note that biblical doctrines and themes are built from, and do not trump, individual statements. If you think you found a theme that contradicts clear statements, you should revise the theme, not the statements.
Here is the Anabaptist ruling principle that summarizes these points:
Christian morality consists in obeying a straightforward understanding of the totality of the relevant divine commands and their direct logical implications.
Applying the Principles
I would apply these principles in this order:
- Start building what you know to be true by the Son of God Principle, reading the Gospels first and giving Jesus’ statements significant weight.
- When you read a text in the genre of history or epistle, use the Principle of Straightforwardness, taking its literal meaning to be the intended meaning unless there are indications within that text itself that it is meant idiomatically or figuratively.
- Also, use the Ordinary Text Principle so as not to be led astray by statements that might literally mean one thing, but in normal conversation wouldn’t necessarily indicate that.
- If the interpretation you come up with seems strange or seems to contradict another text, then move to the rest. However, you have to be extremely careful that you don’t let your biases get in the way. Be careful not to interpret texts that were intended to be paradigm-shifting as mere hyperbole.
- Use the Principle of Harmonization to see if there are straightforward possible readings of this text that can mesh with straightforward possible readings of other texts.
- Use the Principle of Context to see if you missed something about the context that would indicate that the text shouldn’t be read the way it seems to be read.
- Use the Principle of Multiple Interpretations to ensure that you’re not interpreting a clear text by one that is less clear and could be interpreted multiple ways.
- Do not allow theological presuppositions to change your reading.
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.
- 1Inspired by an email interchange with Reed Merino