Bible: Inner and Outer Word

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The terms "inner Word" and "outer Word" were once used to designate the written and unwritten Word of God. In the place of "inner Word" the terms "illumination" or "inner voice" were often used.

These expressions are by no means an invention of the Anabaptists or Spiritualists of the Reformation period. They appear in Augustine's book Tolle Lege, from which a Pietist of the 18th century quoted, "The sound of our word strikes your ears, but the Master is within you" (Braun, 97 ff.). Likewise the medieval mystics, Bernhard, Tauler, Thomas à Kempis, Ruysbroeck, Gerhard Groote, Catherine of Siena, etc., heard the inner and immediate voice of God in the stillness. A "Friend of God" called the attention of the "pious, gentle" Tauler, who "possessed a good knowledge of the Bible," to the fact that "he did not yet possess and live by the light of the grace of God and was therefore a Pharisee" (Tränendorf-Metzer, 127). Thomas à Kempis in his Imitatio also spoke of "inner illumination," though he did not at all despise the "outer Word." He had the courage, in defiance of the pope, to recommend the Bible as the highest light to those who would be happy. He made four copies of the Bible for distribution (Werner, 127). Bishop Berthold Pirstinger, the author of Deutsche Theologie, also had much to say about "inner illumination" or the "true light," especially in chapters 39-44. Luther rated this booklet very high. Peter Chelcicky's Net of Faith spoke of the divine light that is lighted in us through the Holy Spirit: "Faith is a light that God lights in the heart." In this way only did "the birth of God in the depths of the soul" occur. Luther, as Karl Holl remarked, at times stressed the need for the Holy Spirit so strongly that his expressions "seem to approach fanaticism when he says, for instance, 'Everyone shall therefore believe that it is the Word of God when he feels within him that the Bible is true. The heart speaks: this is true, even if I should die one hundred deaths for it.'" It was therefore his idea "that basically every outward authority that seeks to be accepted inwardly needs an inner organ in man that convinces him of the truth of what is offered, the witness of the Holy Spirit" (Holl, 248). Luther based this concept in part on the verse in the Psalms, "I will hear what God Himself speaks in me." "It could not be comprehended by anyone but such a quiet, reflecting spirit" (Mitteilungen aus der Studentenbewegung, 1927-28, No. 1, p. 4). This indicated that for Luther, who was strongly influenced by the mystics on this point, experience was the beginning of the knowledge of the divine character of the Scripture. On the other hand, his opposition to the "enthusiasts," who strongly emphasized the "inner light" or "inner Word," led him to protest against their view that God gave His Spirit in other ways than through the "outer Word." Word and Spirit he put on the same level. God worked with man only through the word of Scripture (Luthers Werke III, 68 f.; VI, 395). Luther thereby began the chorus of voices who to our very day have charged that the Anabaptists disavowed the written Word of God, expecting everything of the "inner Word," or that they "want to be sharp judges between the Spirit and the letter," or "they valued the inner Word at the expense of the written Word." Melanchthon said at the close of his Verlegung etlicher unchristlicher Artikel, welche die Wiedertäufer für geben (1536), "Disregard for the outer Word and the Scripture is blasphemy. . . . Therefore the temporal arm of government shall watch here too and not tolerate this blasphemy, but earnestly resist and punish it." Justus Menius in his book, Der Wiedertäufer Lehre und Geheimnis (1530), made a similar statement. The theologians of the university of Marburg asserted that the Anabaptist preacher Melchior Rinck held a doctrine of disparagement of the written Word as a spiritless literalism, common to the sectarians (Wappler, 54). The 1527 booklet, Getreue Warnung der Prediger des Evangeliums zu Strassburg, so Jakob Kautz, Prediger zu Worms, hat ausgehen lassen, said, "All their teaching leads to the idea that the Scripture is of no account" (Moravian archives at Brno, Beck copy 76, p. 15). Urbanus Rhegius in his 1527 book, Warnung wider den neuen Tauforden (bl. B), accused Hans Denck and his group of unwillingness to submit to the Scripture: ("thus he lies in the mud. Summa: Anabaptists cannot and will not endure the Scripture"). The Bedenken der Wiedertäufer halben, which is identical with Prozess, wie es soll gehalten werden mit den Widertäufern (1557), said, "Fourth error: God makes Himself known without consideration of the outer Word and without the sacrament." In the early 20th century it was especially Karl Holl, H. Böhmer, and Lydia Müller, who revived the assertion that the Anabaptists were the spiritual descendants of Thomas Müntzer, that the Spirit rather than the written Word was the highest authority for them, that they believed that revelations in addition to the Scripture were needed and that the spiritual man could therefore dispense with the Bible.

But these charges made against the Anabaptists by no means correspond to the facts of history. The Biblical Anabaptists never despised the written Word or overemphasized the "inner Word" at the expense of historical revelation. They did not at all desire to be "sharp judges between the spirit and the letter," as Luther charged. This is easy to show from the writings of the Anabaptists. Müntzer and the Münsterites, the Puschhamer and other small groups, did not enter the picture for the Anabaptists kept their distance from them, as many important historians and even the contemporary government of Ulrich of Württemberg recognized (Bossert XI and No. 69, 79). Hubmaier's (d. 1528) high estimation of the Scripture was well known. In his Preislied des göttlichen Wortes each of the 18 stanzas contained the phrase, "For God's Word will stand forever." The Holy Scripture was for him the touchstone by which all spiritual matters should be decided. God's Word alone should be the judge. "Nothing should be added to or subtracted from the word of Christ." "I consider the Scripture to be a Hercules." "I call upon Heaven and earth to bear witness that I have faithfully said, cursed is he who dissolves the slightest word and does not say amen to it." "The Word of God stands firm as a stone wall." "The Scripture is the friend of God in which Jesus lives, dwells, and rests; there is no spot in it." In his Christliche Lehrtafel Hubmaier spoke of the "inner and outer drawing by God." He did not put them side by side independent of each other, but made the one the result of the other. The "outer drawing" preceded; it took place through the public proclamation of the written Word. From it came the "inner drawing": Thus God enlightened man also inwardly in his soul, "that it may understand the irresistible truth, convinced by the Spirit of God and the spoken Word, so that one must in his own conscience confess that it is true and that it cannot be otherwise." "The Word of God is water to all those who thirst for salvation and is made alive in us through the Spirit of God, without whose work it is only a dead letter." "Do you have Zwingli's word, we want God's Word!" was the cry of the Zürich Anabaptists according to Kessler (Burkhardt, 43). In Augsburg about 60 Anabaptists sat together in a cellar, listening to Hans Leupold and Jörg von Passau read the Bible and explain what they read (Wiswedel II, 62). Hans Schlaffer, a former priest, declared at his trial, "So I say and swear like Paul: 'God is my witness in my conscience that . . . I hold the written Gospel of faith in Christ in high esteem'" (Wiswedel II, 194). Veit Grünberger, a Hutterite missionary, remarked in a letter to Peter Walpot, "I hope to be able to learn 100 chapters of the Testament by heart. If I had had the Testament before, I have no doubt that I would know it from memory. Temptation makes one pay attention to the Word" (Codex Michnay, Pressburg, fol. 514). Thomas von Imbroich said in his confession before the court at Cologne (ca. 1556), "The Scripture cannot be broken, nor shall anything be added to or subtracted from the Word. It is God's Word, which remains in eternity" (Mart. Mir. E 367). Matthias Servaes wrote in prison to a brother asking him to send his wife, who was not yet in prison, a Dutch New Testament, since she was unable to read German (Mart. Mir. E 692). Johannes Bair of Lichtenfels, who was held in the Bamberg prison 23 years until he died, asked his brethren to send him a Bible, for he had lacked a Bible for many years and had a great thirst for the Word (Wiswedel I, 130). Wolfgang Vogel, a former priest in Eltersdorf near Erlangen, was deprived of his Bible when he was imprisoned in a Nürnberg tower (Wiswedel I, 159). Paul Glock passed the time of his 19-year imprisonment in careful Bible study (Blätter für Württem. Kirchengesch., 1929, 29). A familiar statement of Menno Simons was, "Our council (Konzilium) is the Scripture."

In the Hutterite catechism in the discussion of the Lord's Prayer we find in the margin no fewer than 131 Biblical references (Wiswedel in Archiv für Reformationsgesch., No. 37, pp. 38 ff.). "Grant us, Lord, to live in Thy Word and to keep Thy covenant," was the prayer of an Anabaptist poet. In a discussion with the Landmarshall in Vienna, the Anabaptists Max and Bernhard Klampferer read the Bible to him (Beck, 263). Again and again Anabaptist prisoners made it clear that they would recant if they could be shown something better from the Scriptures (see Wiswedel II, 89, 100, 104). The baptism of infants was rejected by the Anabaptists for the very reason that they found nothing in the New Testament about it, not because an inner voice urged them to do so. The preachers, known as Diener am Wort, on their journeys did not tell the people about their dreams and visions, but sought in the simplest way possible to impress the Word of salvation upon their hearts. Their letters, epistles, and confessions were filled with quotations from both the Old and New Testaments, with chapter and verse. In the writings of the shoemaker Peudler and in the Rechenschaft of Peter Riedemann verse after verse was quoted, connected by simple logic and explanation. "The Anabaptists wanted to be Bible Christians and they were precisely that for the most part" (W. Köhler). Also von Muralt confessed frankly that the Swiss Anabaptists were strict Biblicists. "The Anabaptists stand on the platform of the Scripture (Schriftprinzip)" (Zwingliana 1934, no. 2). Eduard Becker also mentioned their "extensive knowledge of the Bible." Likewise Bossert, Jr.: "They are the quiet in the land, they take their direction from the Bible in continuous Bible study" (Blätter f. Württ. Kirchengesch., 1939, 8). To be sure, some modern critics of the Anabaptists, such as Fritz Heyer, have asserted that the Anabaptists used the written Word in a rather legalistic way, but they have not offered proof.

In looking over the total Anabaptist literature, their confessions of faith, catechisms, Rechenschaften, letters, and the records of their cross-examinations, we find very little mention of the "inner light." Only a very few were influenced by the ancient mystics. One of these few was Hans Langenmantel. In his writings we read, "Luther says, he preaches the Gospel of Christ, and with his physical voice he brings Christ into the hearts of his hearers. But I (Langenmantel) say: there must first be something within us that can accept the physical voice inwardly" (Wiswedel II, 74, 75). Ambrosius Spittelmeyer declared before his judges, that it was not their intention to instigate revolt, but to learn and desire the divine Word, that all men might be led to the truth . . . and to pray for them that they might be enlightened with the divine light. But Spittelmeyer at once explained what he meant by divine light: not by visible visions, but by the Spirit of God Christ leads and teaches His church (Wiswedel II, 14). During the discussions with the Anabaptists imprisoned at Jena, when Melanchthon kept citing Scripture against them, Heinz Kraut declared, it was written in his heart as they had been taught by God. The devil could also write. Furthermore, Master Philip killed more people with his dead Scripture than all the hangmen (Wiswedel I, 75f.). The Anabaptist Umblauft in Regensburg said the Scriptures and the outer Word are merely the witness and lamp of the inner Word of God. Therefore a man could be saved without preaching and Scriptures. Proof: otherwise illiterates could not be saved. We understand God, our Redeemer, not through the dead letter, but through the indwelling of Christ. To the scribes and Pharisees the written Word was not a guide to Christ, but a hindrance and punishment. Furthermore all who did not hear the Word and all who lived before the written Word was given, from Adam to Moses, would be lost. Salvation shall be ascribed alone to the inner Word of God and not be bound to the outer Word, "however useful it may be if God reveals its meaning." The Bible was good for those who used it aright, but its misuse was the source of all heresy and unbelief.

Another Anabaptist of Regensburg confessed that knowledge of the truth did not come from human study, . . . it comes only to those to whom it is given by grace through the light of His Spirit (Nestler, 33). Michael Jungemann of Kürnbach in Württemberg considered the office of preaching a good Christian office if the Word was preached pure and unadulterated and if one lived accordingly. A preacher must be blameless. . . . Whatever God admonished and enlightened him to do, he wanted to follow in his life. Michel Humel's widow, 70 years old, was "unteachable" —she declared briefly and finally that she was adequately enlightened. Similar statements were made by a number of other Anabaptists of Württemberg (see Bossert, Index under Erleuchtung).

Jakob Kautz, a former Lutheran preacher, said, "The Word that we speak outwardly with our mouth, hear with our physical ears, write and print with hands, is nothing living, nor the eternal Word of God, but only a witness or indication of the inner Word, so that the inner Word may be rightly understood. Nothing external, be it word, sign, sacrament, or promise, has power to reassure the inner man, comfort him, or make him certain." Scharnschlager objected to having the Scriptures called a dead letter, since it was given by the Holy Spirit through holy men of God. As often as he heard or read it, it was the same as if he heard the Lord and His apostles speak. Furthermore, everyone knew that the letters with which the Scriptures were written were in themselves dead ink and paper, but in the true understanding the Holy Scriptures were not dead ink and letters. If the Holy Scriptures in their meaning and understanding were not opened in the heart by the Holy Ghost, then not only the Holy Scriptures were dead, but Christ Himself with His teaching, His life, suffering, and death, yea even His resurrection were dead; they were of no use to a man to eternal life, even granted that he read and studied as long as he likes. He could then be called learned in the Scripture, but not taught by the Spirit. "In itself the Scriptures are the Word of God as it is learned, and therefore I should not call them a dead letter, but the Holy Scriptures, as they call themselves" (Ztscht des Vereins f. d. Gesch. Mährens und Schlesiens, 1928, 11). Ludwig Haetzer remarked, "He who goes only by the Scriptures receives knowledge, but a useless knowledge, which does not reform. No man, no matter how learned he may be, can understand the Scriptures unless he had experienced and learned them in the depth of his soul. Otherwise men speak of the matter like a blind man of color" (Hagen II, 288). In reply to Schwenckfeld's charge that the Anabaptists wanted to make "two words of God," the Swiss Brethren said, "We do not call ink and paper or the perishable part of the books of the Scripture God's Word, Spirit, and life, but we mean the meaning contained in what is composed, spoken, and written." In such a case it was simply a matter of faith, without which God's preached or written Word did not reach the heart and could not dwell therein to be spirit and life therein, as the Lord said, "The words that I speak are spirit and life, but there are some among you who do not believe." There were not two, but only one Word of God. The external truth was a co-witness and the same truth as the inner truth in the believing heart. When a man heard the Word of God and believed it, in his heart the Holy Spirit made it life. It was God's fixed ordinance, that He "saves and makes believers by means of external services" (Marpeck's Antwort auf Schwenckfeld's Beurteilung des Buches der Bundesbezeugung, 1542, pp. 149 f., 518 f., 521 f., 529f.).

In the booklet, Prozess, wie es soll gehalten werden mit den Wiedertäufern, the brethren made an unambiguous reply to the charge that they put the center of gravity on inner illumination and taught that God could make Himself known without the outer Word. They had no pleasure in opposing such defamatory lies, but for the sake of the Word of God one must not neglect to refute them and to put to shame these hairsplitting, sly opponents of the truth. They did not at all believe that God revealed Himself without the hearing of the preached Word, for that would mean an annulment of an ordinance established by Him. They affirmed the word of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 fully and completely. God could indeed have granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to a Saul and to a Cornelius without human mediation, but He considered it good to send them an Ananias and the Apostle Peter and to use their testimony to the end that they should receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Faith came from hearing, and Jesus Himself said, "Go ye into all the world." But the outer Word that was preached to the peoples was the image and the instruction in the inner Word, since the believer felt the grace and power of God in his heart and soul, which had been written there by the finger of the divine love of the Holy Spirit. And this was not that which was drawn upon paper or tables of stone, nor was it that which was heard outwardly, because it was not the hearers but the doers of works of piety of a heavenly life as the Scripture said, that were pleasing and acceptable to God (Handbüchlein, book 8). The Geschicht-Buch of the Hutterian Brethren reported that the brother Benjamin Kempel was expelled from the congregation at Sobotište because he would not recognize the service of preaching and the daily prayer meetings, and rejected baptism and communion and wished to recognize only teaching through the Holy Spirit. Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft said unequivocally that faith came from hearing the preaching of the Gospel as was written in Romans 10:17. When a man yielded to the Word, opened his heart, and believed, the Holy Spirit working upon the heart through hearing made His dwelling in the human heart. "Where the Spirit is not added to the Word, it cannot acquire the uprightness that is valid before God." Likewise Leonhard Schiemer declared that if one came to a knowledge of the truth it took place not alone through hearing the Word of God outwardly, but he must also have the light of the Holy Spirit in his heart. "For external learning is not sufficient except in so far as it is revealed inwardly in the heart" (Moravian archives at Brno, Beck collection 45, pp. 26-43).

Hans Denck discussed the inner and outer Word extensively in three booklets. He did not discard the written Word; the preachers must present and divide Christ and His Word rightly: the Gospel of Christ: His incarnation, life, doctrine, and death, His resurrection, and ascension, the Gospel of His future kingdom and future judgment of His church, etc. Him who was upright God would illuminate and would draw him inwardly and grant him eternal life in His grace. Stadler discussed the same subject in his book, Vom lebendigen und geschriebenen Wort oder von dem äusserlichen und innerlichen Wort und ihrer Wirkung im Herzen. Unterschied und Bericht. He said that all creation and all creatures including the Holy Scriptures and the spoken and proclaimed Word were good, but they were not the living Word. One must distinguish between the two. The outer Word, as Christ commanded His apostles, was, preach the Gospel to every creature. Here preaching, believing, and baptism were understood and treated purely externally and were only symbols of the living Word, faith, and baptism, which God alone worked through His righteousness. A true preacher must accept the true Word of God in the depth of his soul; then it became the true Word of God in the depth of the soul. But that which was preached was only the witness or symbol of the true Word. The inner Word was not written, neither upon paper nor upon tables, it was not spoken nor preached; man was assured by it through God in the depth of his soul and it became engraved in a heart of flesh through the Spirit by the finger of God. The inner Word was witnessed by the outer, as the sign before an inn witnessed the wine in the keg, but the sign was not the wine; thus it was also with the divine order, that always the physical preceded the spiritual: the faith of hearing came before justification, after which the tested faith grew and worked powerfully toward God and all creation. But this did not happen as quickly as the scribes of our day said, who persuaded the poor people by saying, "Believe, believe!" Yea, this would soon become evident. Stadler then developed this presentation by Biblical examples. According to the divine plan, the inner Word followed the outer, and the preacher should admonish through the outer Word, that man should yield himself to God and listen to the inner instructor. One must not make the people depend on the outer Word, or one made an idol of the preacher, also of the Scriptures and the words. But they were merely an image or a sign or tool. It did no good, and was not sufficient to testify with the mouth, that Christ had come in the flesh; Christ must also become the flesh in us, in the Word and through the Spirit as Paul wrote in Galatians 2: "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." Thus whoever confesses Christ can boast of the living Word and can rightly witness to the truth. "Such preachers we want to expect from God."

From all these Anabaptist writings it is evident that the Anabaptists did not repudiate all historical, objective means of salvation, nor expect everything of "inner light" and the working of the Holy Spirit. But they believed that the working of the Holy Spirit directed upon the human heart must be added to the objective and preached Word. They did not separate the inner Word from the outer Word. The Spirit and the inner Word belong together. Word without Spirit is a dead letter to them. The life-giving Spirit of God turned the written and proclaimed Word into God's Word. The Word of God was the sword of the Holy Spirit; the two belonged inseparably together. This was well stated by Wolfgang Vogel, a former preacher in Eltersdorf: "The spirit clings and hangs alone to the noble, pure, tender, and the holy Word of God through a strong and firm faith." In Marpeck's book we read: "The outer, preached or written Word is one with the inner Word."

Thus the inner Word as used by the Anabaptists is not to be understood in the sense of an inner inspiration, which imparts new truths to man, but as the illuminating work of God. It was of course not to be denied that Denck, Kautz, and also Stadler were inclined to a strong spiritualization. But they were not subject to the danger of pantheism. They were strongly influenced by mysticism and especially by the Deutsche Theologie, as W. Köhler has clearly recognized, "but their speculation was turned toward Biblicism under the influence of Lutheran ideas."

Among the Dutch Mennonites the relation of the outer Word to the inner Word was a point of controversy between Nittert Obbes and Hans de Ries. Nittert Obbes accused de Ries of failing to give the written Word its due in his teaching that there are two kinds of the Word of God, and of attaching greater value to the inner Word than the written Word of God. Ries denied the charge, saying that the inner Word of God was not his imagination but was Christ Himself, who through His Holy Spirit within spoke to, taught, enlightened, saved, renewed, and regenerated us. Jost van den Vondel, the great Dutch poet, who did not have a clear understanding of the dispute, sided with Nittert Obbes in his poem Antidotum).

See also Bibelstunde, Bible, Bible Study, Bible Translations, Biblical Interpretation, Gespauwde Klauw, Old Testament, New Testament


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Author(s) Wilhelm Wiswedel
Date Published 1953

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Wiswedel, Wilhelm. "Bible: Inner and Outer Word." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 18 May 2024.

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Wiswedel, Wilhelm. (1953). Bible: Inner and Outer Word. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 324-328. All rights reserved.

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