Biblical Interpretation

Jump to navigation Jump to search

Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is the task and process whereby Christians come to understand the Bible, accept its claims, and live according to its teachings. As stated in Biblical Interpretation In The Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977), (approved by the Mennonite Church [MC], 1977) "The ultimate goal in interpretation is to allow the Bible to speak its own message with a view to worship and obedience." The same statement emphasizes that the "Bible is the Book of the people of God," i.e., the understanding and credibility of its message are to be found in the community of faith. The statement also outlines in nine steps a method for interpretation and identifies four theological convictions which should guide Mennonite study of the Bible. An expanded set of theological assumptions and a method of study are described in Swartley, Slavery (1982), 215-228.

Interpretation of biblical tradition takes place already within the Bible itself, on a variety of levels: Isaiah's understanding and use of the exodus to describe God's new actions in history (43:15-21); Ezra's paraphrasing, presumably in Aramaic, of the Hebrew reading of the law so the people could understand (Nehemiah 8:8); four Gospel interpretations of the life and mission of Jesus; and 2 Peter's comment that some of Paul's writings are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16).

Biblical interpretation becomes important, especially in situations of religious pluralism when people become aware of differing and competing understandings of Scripture, both in belief and practice. While differences in interpretation were present in the 3rd- and 4th-century church, e.g., the Alexandrian allegorical method versus the Antiochian historical method, differences in interpretation during the Protestant Reformation produced more serious results since confessional identities were formed and defended by these differences.

The Reformation Era

Scripture interpretation among the Anabaptists resembled that of the other Protestant reformers in many ways, but also showed distinctive elements. All Protestant and Anabaptist leaders agreed that the Bible was the final authority; all emphasized the literal-historical method of interpretation -- in contrast to the allegorical method in use since the 2nd century A.D.; all followed the Christ-principle and used Scripture to interpret Scripture. Significant areas of disagreement were in the understandings of the relation between the testaments, which were correlated with the Christ-principle; in the relation of the letter and Spirit, and inner and outer word; in the role of all believers in interpretation and testing of interpretation (priesthood of all believers); and, perhaps most important of all, in the relation of discipleship and obedience to insight and knowledge.

While all the Protestant Reformation groups stressed christocentric interpretation, the outcome of this emphasis differed because of the way it was correlated with a particular doctrinal or ethical perception. Martin Luther's doctrinal priority of salvation by faith alone resulted in a comparative evaluation of biblical literature, ranking most highly those books which emphasize salvation by faith; thus Genesis, Psalms, Galatians, and Romans ranked more highly than Leviticus, Ezra-Nehemiah and James. John Calvin's doctrinal priority of God's sovereignty and elective purpose together with Calvin's view that authority resides objectively in the text itself led to the emphasis that all Scripture bears witness to the elective and salvific purpose of God. The Anabaptists stressed following the way of Jesus; they believed that all Scripture culminates in the gospel story, thus witnessing to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection power.

Seen within these theological distinctives, other differences in Scripture interpretation are readily understood. Accenting personal commitment to follow Jesus, Anabaptists held to believers baptism, refused participation in war on the basis of Jesus' teaching of nonresistance and "love of enemy," and practiced rigorous church discipline following Jesus' instructions on "binding and loosing" (Matthew 18:15-18). Because of differences between the testaments, especially in the divine sanctioning of believers' participation in war, the Anabaptists regarded the Old Testament as preparatory to the New Testament and characterized by pre-Christian practices. The fullness and completeness of revelation in and through Jesus Christ means a new time, a new reality, and a new possibility for living according to God's way. To describe the real differences in time and revelation, Pilgram Marpeck used the images of "summer and winter," "figure and essence." The extent of divine knowledge and saving faith in one time cannot he confused with that of another time. In the Old Testament Christ had not yet come, had not yet died for human sin, and had not yet brought the reality of the kingdom of God. In an 800-page treatise, Testamentserleutterung (Explanation of the Testaments, ca. 1544-50), Marpeck and his colleagues illustrated how the two testaments are to be understood in relation to each other.

Eight articles on Anabaptist hermeneutics, republished in Essays on Biblical Interpretation (1984), highlight several other distinctive emphases. Committed to the Rule of Paul (1 Corinthians 14:29), Anabaptist leaders held that Scripture was plain and that the gathered believers could understand the Scriptures. In debate against John Eck, Balthasar Hubmaier called for the gathered believers to decide who speaks more clearly the truth of the Scripture.  John Howard Yoder thus claimed, "It is a basic novelty in the discussion of hermeneutics to say that a text is best understood in a congregation" (Essays, 20-21). Accordingly, Anabaptist leaders generally criticized the "schoolmen" (although some of the Anabaptist leaders were themselves well educated as humanists, only Hubmaier had a scholastic theological education) for perverse interpretation, since with clever arguments they obscured and evaded the clear teaching of the word of God (Klaassen, Anabaptism: neither Catholic nor Protestant, 37-48).

Anabaptists would often appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of insight and illumination in understanding Scripture (Dyck in Essays, 35-38). Hans Denck more than other writers, stressed the primacy of "the inner word," referring to the testimony of the Spirit in illuminating the text and revealing the truth. In argument against Spiritualists, however, Marpeck upheld the primacy of Word over Spirit, the outer word over the inner; but in argument against legalists the same writers, e.g., Marpeck, would appeal to the Spirit over the letter (Klaassen in Essays, 81-87). On this particular point it is important to recognize significant diversity among the Anabaptist leaders and writers, occasioned often by the context of argument and issues put forth by their opponents.

Most distinctive was the strong position of Anabaptism on the connection between obedience and knowledge. As Denck put it, "No one can know Christ except by following him in life, and no one can follow him except by knowing him." Hence, only the person "who is committed to the direction of obedience can read the truth so as to interpret it in line with the direction of God's purposes" (Yoder in Essays, 27). This emphasis on obedience and discipleship, as necessary to understand the Word, has been described as an epistemological principle, a distinctive emphasis within the 16th century on the nature and method of knowing (I. B. Horst, Proposition V of the theses appended to his doctoral dissertation for its defence, later published, minus the theses, as The Radical Brethren: Anabaptism and the English Reformation to 1558 [Nieuwkoop: B. de Graaf, 1972]). This insight has much in common with current hermeneutical developments in liberation theology and more broadly in interpretation theory (Harder, "Hermeneutic Community"). A significant dimension of this hermeneutical insight was the conviction that biblical truth and believers' obedience to it must be applied to all dimensions of life (Ollenburger in Essays, 48). In contrast to positions taken by other Protestant reformers, the Anabaptists would not allow the civil magistrates to preempt the authority of the Word over their lives. Their understanding of Scripture required obedience in all spheres of their lives, even to the point of forbidding vocations which jeopardized obedient discipleship.

Aberrations within Anabaptism from the above hermeneutical characteristics must also be recognized. The shift from a nonresistant, peacemaking stance to a dominating, violent position in the city of Münster (1531-35) represents a deviant hermeneutical strand. Not unlike Marpeck's view that the conduct of God's people must accord with the distinctive time and content of divine revelation, the theological and political perception of the leaders at Münster (Melchior Hoffman's eschatology and Jan van Leyden's political ideology) shifted from nonresistance to violence because they regarded their time as the endtime, the time of God's wrath to be meted out upon the wicked -- and through them as God's agents. Hence this eschatological perception introduced a new hermeneutic, calling for Davidic-type kingship, rule by twelve elders, holy war, the death penalty, and polygamy.

Mennonite Biblical Interpretation

The chief influences upon later European and North American Mennonite interpretation of the Bible have been Pietism; European Protestant orthodoxy or scholasticism, which developed, in part, into later American Fundamentalism; and historical-critical methods of Bible interpretation, arising for the most part from universities where faith is not determinative for interpretation.

Pietism in its many expressions over the last four centuries influenced Mennonite faith in Europe, Russia, and North America through revivalism, emphasis on the devotional life, and in the tendency to give inner spirituality priority over ethical obedience in the public sphere. During the 18th and 19th centuries, conflict between the relative authority of tradition and Scripture influenced Mennonite thought, playing a role in the Oberholtzer schism of 1847 and in other schisms as well. The influence of Protestant orthodoxy and Fundamentalism, partly in reaction to liberal influences, introduced specific language about the authority of the Bible, such as "inerrant, infallible, plenary inspiration" (Kraus in Essays, 131-50). Through study at institutions of higher learning, both European and, then later, North American Mennonite leaders absorbed historical-critical views and approaches to the Bible. This diversity of influence has led to a common recognition that biblical interpretation has been the crux of many Mennonite church disputes in the 20th century. The inductive method of Bible study, which put more emphasis on direct study of the text than on the historical and cultural backgrounds, has been a mediating influence and has been employed widely in classroom instruction in Mennonite schools. From 1960 onward the number of North American Mennonites in doctoral-level biblical studies vastly increased (to more than 75 by 1986), so that a variety of methods (historical-critical, sociological, literary compositional, etc.) influenced Mennonite scholars as they became immersed in advanced biblical studies.

Mennonites beyond this Western circle of influence have reflected these trends in varying degrees through missionary teaching. African Mennonite use of the Bible shares in its African contextual reality, using allegorical interpretation in preaching and often spiritualizing Old Testament narratives in instruction. Mennonites in Latin America and other countries of the "two-thirds world" have been influenced by emphases from liberation hopes and theologies.

Recognizing the tensions produced by the liberal and Fundamentalist influences upon Mennonite teaching, especially at the seminary level, H. S. Bender wrote the booklet, Biblical revelation and inspiration (1958), to set a direction that affirms biblical authority and discriminatingly allows for some of the approaches of higher criticism. Similarly, in 1962 the General Conference Mennonite Church produced a statement, The authority of the Bible. In 1966 the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite churches produced a primer in Bible study for use in the congregations, Learning to Know the Bible, by David Schroeder. In the early 1960s the Conrad Grebel Lectureship Committee commissioned a series of lectures by J. C. Wenger (God's Word Written), and in the mid-1970s commissioned another series, utilizing a case-issue approach (Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, war and women). A year later the committee commissioned a companion series on Bible study method (Perry Yoder, From Word to life). In 1973 the Mennonite Church (MC) General Assembly commissioned and later adopted the statement, Biblical interpretation in the life of the Church (1977). In 1977 the Council of Mennonite Seminaries sponsored a consultation on biblical hermeneutics (most of the papers appear in Essays), in which the use of the historical-critical method was extensively examined. Numerous publications appeared on biblical interpretation in the 1980s, and churchwide consultations on biblical interpretation were held by the major bodies of North American Mennonites.

Throughout this period significant commentary work on the Bible appeared: two studies of the Sermon on the Mount: John W. Miller, The Christian way (Scottdale, 1969) and John Driver, Kingdom citizens (Scottdale, 1980); Willard M. Swartley, Mark: The Way for all nations (Scottdale, 1979); John W. Miller, Step by step through the parables (New York: Paulist, 1981); Myron Augsburger, Commentary on Matthew, Communicator's Commentary Series (Word: Waco, Tex.: 1982) and Elmer Martens, Jeremiah (Scottdale, 1986), the first volume in the Believers Church Bible Commentary project, sponsored by five Mennonite and related denominations Under the auspices of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (Elkhart), both a biblical monograph and essay series was begun in the late 1980s. Of note also are Elmer Martens, God's design: a focus on Old Testament theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981); Waldemar Janzen, Still in the Image: essays on Biblical theology and anthropology (Faith and Life, 1982), and David Ewert, From ancient tablets to modern translations: a general introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983). Specialized interpretive studies of selected parts of Scripture are Millard Lind's Yahweh is a warrior (Scottdale, 1980) and John Howard Yoder's The politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).

See also Bibelstunde, Bible, Bible Study, Gespauwde Klauw, Old Testament, New Testament


Biblical Interpretation In The Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977): a Summary Statement. Scottdale, 1977.

A Christian Declaration on the Authority of the Scriptures. Newton: GCMC, 1962.

Swartley, Willard M., ed. Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives.Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984. 

Eight essays on 16th-century Anabaptist hermeneutics, two on developments in Mennonite history, seven on Mennonite scholarly response to contemporary hermeneutical methods and trends, and three on the Bible's use in the congregation, plus a bibliography. 

Yoder, Perry. From Word to Life: a Guide to the Art of Bible Study. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1982.

Selects four biblical texts and shows how the main steps in the historical-critical method illumine these texts.

Schroeder, David.  Learning to Know the Bible. Newton and Scottdale, 1966.

Well-suited for congregational use.

Swartley, Willard M. Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. Scottdale, 1982.

Harder, Lydia. "Hermeneutic Community: a Study of the Contemporary Relevance of an Anabaptist-Mennonite Approach to Biblical Interpretation." ThM thesis, Newman Theological College, Edmonton, Alta. 1984.

Augsburger, Myron S. Principles of Biblical Interpretation in Mennonite Theology. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1967.

Klassen, William. Covenant and Community: the Life, Writings and Hermeneutics of Pilgram Marpeck. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.

Poettcker, Henry. "The Hermeneutics of Menno Simons: an Investigation of the Principles of Interpretation Which Menno Brought to his Study of Scripture." ThD diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1961.

Wenger, J. C. Essays on the Nature of Biblical Revelation, Inspiration and Authority. Scottdale, 1966.

Bender, Harold S. Biblical Revelation and Inspiration. Scottdale, 1959, repr. 1986.

Zehr, Paul M. Biblical Criticism in the Life of the Church. Scottdale, 1986.

Martin, John R. Keys to Successful Bible Study. Scottdale, 1981.

Holland, Robert Charles. The Hermeneutics of Peter Riedemann. Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt Kommission, 1970.

Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant. Waterloo, Ont.; Conrad Press, 1973: 37-47.

On Alexandrian and Antiochene Exegesis see James I. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986): 177-99.

Additional Information

Biblical Interpretation In The Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977) (Mennonite Church, 1977)

A Christian Declaration on the Authority of Scripture. Newton: GCMC, 1962.

Author(s) Willard M Swartley
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Swartley, Willard M. "Biblical Interpretation." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Jul 2022.

APA style

Swartley, Willard M. (1989). Biblical Interpretation. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 80-83. All rights reserved.

©1996-2022 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.