It may be telling that the first comprehensive, synthetic treatment of biblical interpretation among Anabaptists comes from beyond North America and from outside Mennonite academic circles. Its author, Stuart Murray, is the Director of Church Planting and Evangelism at Spurgeon’s College, in London. Murray writes as a not entirely uncritical evangelist of biblical interpretation as practiced among or commended by the Anabaptists for the renewal of the church. The publication of his book by Pandora Press, in Ontario, has the effect of re-evangelizing North American Mennonites.
That effect is indirect, since the book does not address Mennonites and only rarely (and then incidentally) even refers to Mennonites. Instead, Murray is convinced of the ecumenical potential of
Anabaptist hermeneutics, which he hopes to rehabilitate for
post-Constantinian interpreters in the wake of Christendom’s demise, the alienating complexity of modern biblical criticism, and the concomitant control of biblical interpretation by scholars. By way of justifying his own
intrusion into the existing welter of interpretive approaches, Murray argues that Anabaptist hermeneutics provides an alternative—a salutary alternative, especially for marginalized groups and actual congregations—to a lingering Contantinianism and its symptoms. Those symptoms include the predominance of historical-critical methods and the dislocation of biblical interpretation in seminaries and/or among scholars. Since these have their proximate source among
the Reformers, Murray is keen to draw contrasts between the magisterial Reformers and their Anabaptist contemporaries. Especially in re-locating biblical interpretation in the congregation and among all of its members, stressing the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, giving priority to the New Testament, and insisting on obedience as a hermeneutical principle, the Anabaptists differed from the Reformers and offer a viable alternative for today. So argues Murray.
He conducts his argument in six chapters that form the heart of the book. These bear the titles,
The Bible as Self-Interpreting,
The Two Testaments,
Spirit and Word,
Congregational Hermeneutics, and
Hermeneutics of Obedience. As Murray acknowledges, these topics will be familiar even to casual students of Anabaptism. Further, many of readers of Mennonite Life will be familiar with the sources and authorities on which Murray relies, such as Walter Klaassen’s Anabaptism in Outline. This is no criticism of Murray, who has read very widely and well in both the (translated) primary sources and in a diverse secondary literature, as the book’s many hundreds of endnotes attest. He has as his goal, not to produce fresh readings of the sources, but to offer an account of the coherence of Anabaptist hermeneutics and of its distinctiveness. He sees both of these exemplified in the topics that serve as the titles of his six central chapters. Anabaptist hermeneutics coheres around those integrated topics, and part of its coherence consists in its distinctiveness over against Catholic but especially Lutheran and Reformed alternatives.
The Anabaptist movement was diverse. Murray does not deny the diversity but mitigates it. Occasionally, he identifies extreme views and then concludes that most, or at least many, Anabaptists held to an attractive medium. For example, some Anabaptists were given to a wooden literalism and legalism, while others denigrated reason and relied entirely on the Spirit; but
most struck a healthy balance (p. 141). Or he finds in one Anabaptist leader, or among
ordinary Anabaptists, a mediating view that he endorses. For example, in the controversies over
Spirit and Word, or inner and outer word, Murray finds (as have others)
the attractive mediating option expressed in the writings of Pilgram Marpeck (p. 136). Murray also finds attractive the views of Hans Denck on the same issues, suggesting that Denck was no farther removed from
the centre of Anabaptism on the spiritualistic side than Grebel and Mantz were on the literalistic side (p. 152).
When he identifies a
centre of Anabaptism by which to measure both Denck and Grebel, is Murray making a theological or a historical judgment? There is nothing wrong or even problematic in preferring one or more Anabaptists to others, or in concluding that some of, say, David Joris’s views continue to merit our consideration—that they remain true, let us say—while others do not. But these are theological assessments, not historical ones. On the other hand, that
ordinary Anabaptists believed this or that is a historical claim. Of course, any theological assessment of a historical movement will include historical judgments and claims, but Murray sometimes blurs the distinction between these. This sort of blurring seems to follow from the twin convictions that a movement characterized by diversity nonetheless displays an identifiable, distinctive coherence; and that precisely this identifiable, distinctive coherence recommends itself to us on theological and hermeneutical grounds—grounds that the distinctive coherence itself provides. In other words, the Anabaptists’ views, as Murray describes and adjudicates them, themselves constitute the persuasive arguments on their own behalf. They do so, Murray expects, especially if we are post-Constantinian and post-Christendom, and perhaps post-modern.
Murray’s book qualifies this characterization in at least two interrelated respects. First, Murray entertains substantive criticisms of some Anabaptist views, such as their
Christocentrism. An exclusive focus on Jesus may implicitly deny the theocentricity of the Bible (and of Jesus! —p. 91). Murray mitigates this criticism, as he does others, by describing an only apparently one-sided conclusion as a corrective to prevailing views. Typically, and second, the views needing correction were those of the Reformers. So a part of the Anabaptists’ contemporary appeal lies in their contrast with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. While they provided or shared some of the rubrics under which Anabaptist hermeneutics operated (scripture as its own interpreter perhaps most obvious among them), they also share major responsibility for the hegemonic modernity to which Anabaptists proffer(ed) an alternative. The coherence of that alternative depends to a substantial degree on a contrast with other views.
This is perhaps the least satisfying feature of Murray’s book. While he insists that Anabaptist statements must be read in context (e. g., p. 148), he does not extend the same courtesy to others, whom he sometimes misrepresents. For example, Luther did not see the Old Testament simply
as Law (p. 118). He found the proper understanding of
the righteousness of God (Rom 1:17), and hence the gospel, preparing lectures on the Psalms. Thomas Aquinas did associate the
literal sense of scripture with the author’s intention, as Murray says (p. 27), but Thomas held that the author of scripture is God.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Murray’s book for readers of this journal will be its concluding chapter,
Anabaptism as a Conversation Partner. The partners he has principally in view are Pentecostalism and Latin American liberation theology. His remarks on both of these, in relation to Anabaptist hermeneutics, are provocative. Given Murray’s view that
the Anabaptists’ descendants have tended to err on the side of literalism and to denigrate the role of the Holy Spirit (p. 136), it is not surprising that he sees Pentecostalism as an appropriate conversation partner, or that he would be especially favorable to Hans Denck. But Murray’s remarks also address certain limitations of
the Anabaptist model itself (p. 250). In this vein, I endorse his suggestion that
the hermeneutic community should be a global and
trans-temporal community, inclusive of the Christian tradition. Such an inclusive community would refuse Constantine the power—even the ad hominem power—to decide its membership. It would also put Anabaptists into conversation with those, pre and post-Constantine, pre and post-Reformation, who first identified and subsequently engaged the very topics that provide the titles of Murray’s central chapters. And, of course, I endorse his recommendation that we
need not imitate Anabaptism in disregarding scholars.
To appreciate Murray’s book, which I hope will be both carefully read and appreciated, it may be necessary for North American Mennonites to regard the Anabaptists, with Murray, as representing a catalytic moment accessible now, rather than as fountainheads of a tradition. While Murray speaks, as we all tend to do, of
the Anabaptist tradition, he doesn’t describe a tradition; rather, he describes certain views of people who wrote in the brief period from 1525 to 1560. Following precedent, he describes their hermeneutics under a set of perennially controversial and, thus, still unresolved topics. The tradition will have taken its shape over time and in more routine ways, from the reading of scripture in worship, from preaching, from the singing of hymns, from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, from weddings and funerals, from festivals of the Christian year, from catechesis and baptism, from institutions of education and administration and mission, and from acts of witness and protest, evangelism and dissent. Murray doesn’t describe a tradition, but he does remind us that the reading and interpretation of scripture lies indispensably at the heart of all that we are and do as Christian congregations. His reminder, from England, may be a re-evangelization.
The book includes an extensive bibliography of works in English. The lack of any index is deeply regrettable.
Ben C. Ollenburger
Professor of Biblical Theology
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary