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What’s An Anabaptist? Part 3 – On Reading Scripture

As we explore the basics instincts (though not uniform beliefs) of Anabaptists, let’s pause for a moment to talk a little bit about the Schlietheim Confession and what it says about Anabaptists. During the Reformation and the Radical Reformation, three streams of Anabaptist believers came together in Switzerland to concretize a central set of beliefs and practices; practices which largely distinguished the Swiss Brethren (the other, non-pejorative name for Anabaptists) from the Reformers and the Catholic Church.

Among the items discussed were Baptism (to be administered to those who have chosen baptism for themselves); The Oath; The Sword; The Ban; Eucharist; piety and the role of Pastors. Having discussed baptism, we move on to The Oath.

The conversation regarding “The Oath” in Anabaptist traditions is simple: No oaths should be taken! While this has not historically included an orthodox confession of faith; “Jesus is Lord,” it has, to some degree or another included nearly every other oath imaginable – including the Apostle’s Creed, and, for some, oaths of office and giving civic testimony. There were two dominant reasons for the prohibition against oath-taking in Switzerland. For one, Anabaptists were reacting (rightly or wrongly) to a Catholic Church that insisted all kinds of oaths and verbal commitments and believed the Reformers intent to continue taking oaths to be a half-measures. The early Swiss Brethren, did not see this cacophony of oaths in the scriptures, and did not feel they were appropriate for Christians. Second, Anabaptists took literally Jesus’ command to assuage oath-taking (Matthew 5.34).

How Anabaptists determined what to do about oath taking reveals a significant theme in the religious life of Anabaptists. That theme is one of reading the scriptures free of traditionalism. While there are some difficulties in approaching the biblical text this way, the benefits, it seems, outweigh the deficits. Both the Catholic and the Reformed Tradition  in the 16th Century, as they do today, read the biblical text through the lens of the tradition itself. They are concerned with and give privilege to what others inside the tradition have written and said before (yes, I know this is an oversimplification). Anabaptists feel no compulsion to do so. While what Popes,  Martin Luther, John Calvin or Martin Lloyd Jones said about an issue might be good — or even right — Anabaptists do not appeal to them as being authoritative. Though most Christians do not think they read the Bible through a traditionist lens, Anabaptists have enshrined the value. Therefore, when a traditional belief or practice is questioned (take the traditional understanding of hell, for example), Anabaptists don’t feel a need to protect it, and would never refer to the “teaching of the church.”

Many times, new Christians or church members ask me, “What does your church believe about _______?” Typically my response goes something like this, “Well, people in our church believe a variety of things about ________.” This, I find, leaves people feeling dissatisfied. And many pastors, teachers and Christians within other traditions find this unbelievable. But nearly always, the questions people ask regard something non-essential, i.e. “Is this a Republican or Democrat church…?”

Anabaptists have always believed that thoughtful, spiritual people can come to their own conclusions about non-essential matters and, more importantly, we can lovingly coexists in disagreement. At the root of this is something many contemporary Christians refuse to believe: On some issues the Bible isn’t necessarily all that clear. In response, Anabaptists seek charity is non-essentials, which can only be done when believers rightly understand the place of tradition.

It is right and good to know what others have said and thought concerning the scriptures. These men and women should be both living and dead. The present moment is not privileged in BIble reading; we need to reflect upon and learn from our sisters and brothers. At the same time, Anabaptists know that God still speaks a fresh word, free from the constraints of other and older interpretations whose age or prominence does not necessarily equate to rightness.

  • Trey

    Sean, thanks for continuing these posts. I resonate with Anabaptist thought on a lot of fronts. For me, growing up in a tradition that behaved as if it knew exactly what every text meant for all time, their view of Scripture has been and continues to be a life-long process. Evangelicalism (admittedly that’s a large demographic with lots of views) would benefit from this perspective. Historically, when a movement’s dogma has held more weight than a willingness to listen to Scripture, this is when that movement lost its relevance.

    I’d be interested to know if (when) Anabaptist thought has tended towards the more dogmatic, and how that affected their ability to be transformative in their engagement with culture. For example, see the Amish.

  • Kraig

    I always make a point to check out your blog from time to time. The anabaptist series of posts has been, for me, the most interesting. I’ve enjoyed reading it, and I’ve learned. Thanks for writing it.

  • Darryl Willis

    I have long been fascinated (since at least the mid 90s) with the similarities between the anabaptists (Brethren, Mennonite, Amish–and I think even the Bruderhoff have some connection) and Churches of Christ. Makes me wonder if the Haldanes in Scotland shared a connection. Frankly, I would read Mennonite literature and think, “Wow, this really resonates!” Thanks for sharing, Sean!

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