Scripture, Anabaptist Understandings of

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Authority of Scripture and a Pluralistic Understanding of Scripture

In addition to “sola gratia” (by grace alone) and “sola fide” (by faith alone), the relevant slogans of the Reformation also included “sola scriptura” (Scripture alone). Behind this claim, was the conviction that only the texts of the Old and New Testaments can provide insights about the salvation that God has granted humanity and continues to grant. No other source is available. With absolute clarity, Martin Luther rejected the claim of the Roman Catholic clergy that they were the guardians of the correct interpretation of Scripture and that the authority for their interpretations could be found in the tradition of ecclesiastical dogma and doctrinal formulations. Scripture does not need a magisterial office or a tradition in order to be rightly interpreted; rather, scripture interprets itself (sui ipsius interpres). This principle became increasingly clear in a debate among theologians of the late Middle Ages, so that it is rightly said, “The manner in which the controversial theological topic of Scripture and tradition is discussed in modern times was a consequence, not a precondition, of the Reformation.”[1] In the early church and the medieval church, the authority of Scripture was unchallenged and the relationship between Scripture and tradition was not regarded as a problem. Only when the interpretation of Scripture was did the relationship between Scripture and tradition become a problem, as in the Leipzig Disputation of 1519 between Luther and Johannes Eck which focused explicitly on the authority of Scripture and concluded indecisively.

Within the anticlerical atmosphere of the time, the laity perceived the challenge to the clerical monopoly of biblical interpretation as a liberation. Wherever Scripture was used to expose abuses in Christendom caused by the clergy, lay people were emboldened to take Scripture into their own hands, to read it, to apply it to their religious life, and very soon, to also apply it to their social circumstances. No special ordination or scholarly expertise was needed to encounter the Scriptures. Every righteous and pious layperson who was serious about their faith could understand the text for it expressed “clearly” the fundamental truths of faith regarding Jesus Christ—Luther referred to this as the “core” of Scripture—and, in this sense, Scripture interpreted itself. “Scripture is by itself quite clear,” Luther wrote, “very easily understood, completely self-evident; it is its own interpreter, able to examine, judge, and enlighten everything altogether.[2] The fact that Luther withdrew the authority to interpret Scriptures from the clergy and transferred it to the congregation (1523) vastly increased the enthusiasm of the “common man” for reform. On a different note, however, Luther soon rejected the capacity of lay people to adequately interpret Scripture. Luther, perhaps, recognized with increasing clarity a difference between the sheep being able to recognize the voice of their Master and the fact that some in the church were called to interpret and preach the Word of God.[3]

However clearly the reformers emphasized the authority of Scripture, their own approach to Scripture by no means led to a shared interpretation. Instead, it gave rise to a multiplicity of possible interpretations. Thus, Andreas Karlstadt understood Scripture differently than Luther; Thomas Müntzer read the text differently than the Anabaptists; and the Spiritualists differently than the rebellious peasants whose demands on their feudal lords and sovereigns were based on Scripture. It is true that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura focused greater attention on reading the Scriptures than had previously been the case. With new translations of the Bible available in German, the principle clearly helped to ensure that large numbers of people had intensive contact with Scripture. But it also gave rise to pluralistic understandings of the Bible and sparked new controversies about the central foundational truths of the Christian faith. The Reformers accused their radical followers of mishandling Scripture, while the radicals regarded them as condemnable “scribes” and new popes.

The radicals themselves also dealt with Scripture in different ways—some were more spiritualistic, minimizing the letter of Scripture in favor of the Spirit; others were more legalistic, in that they understood and applied the words of Scripture “literally.” Their interpretations began to fluctuate between these two poles. Luther had broken with the approach to Scripture in which biblical texts were interpreted according to multiple levels of meaning (e.g., the medieval fourfold sense of Scripture as allegorical, historical, anagogical, and ethical). Instead, he insisted on the literal sense, which alone revealed the truth of the biblical text. In addition, Luther created room for different interpretations by arguing that Scripture was not identical with the Word of God; instead, Scripture witnessed to the Word of God and helped to illuminate it. Luther also had not taken into account that extra-theological circumstances of life, different backgrounds, and the reader’s own questions and interests were woven into every interpretation of Scripture and could give very different perspectives to a Reformation that was allegedly guided by Scripture alone. This was true not only of the Reformation movements that gradually gave rise to Protestant denominations,,ref>R. Gerald Hobbs, Pluriformity, 453-511.</ref> but also of traditions like the polygenetic Anabaptist movement that pursued the path of radical nonconformity.

The Anabaptists in Switzerland: “With Clear Speech and Examples”

Clearly, Andreas Karlstadt, Thomas Müntzer, and some of the Spiritualists influenced the emergence and development of the various Anabaptist movements. But even more decisive for the self-understanding of many Anabaptists was the fact that they were introduced to the Bible by Martin Luther or Ulrich Zwingli. The proto-Anabaptists who gathered around Conrad Grebel in Zurich, for example, believed that although the evangelical preachers had shown them the way to the gospel in Scripture, their preaching did not yet fully correspond to God’s word. Grebel and his followers became aware of this error when they took the Bible into their own hands and asked God to “lead them out of the destruction of all godly wisdom and out of human error, and come into the true faith and practice of God.[4] As with Luther, reading Scripture in the sense of sola scriptura became a source of religious renewal for the Anabaptists. This experience was profound and led them initially to the conviction that only that which explicitly commanded in Scripture was valid—what was not taught with “clear words and examples” should be forbidden.[5] These proto-Anabaptists had likely already read something similar in Karlstadt’s writings;[6] and Balthasar Hubmaier argued along these lines as well. For Hubmaier the Scriptures were “bright,” “clear,” “plain,” and “simple,” so that “nothing—not the least letter or heading—can be changed or diminished from it.”[7] On the one hand, such a perspective could open the door to a legalistic interpretation and application of Scripture to the life of the individual believer and the church. On the other hand, it also helps to explain why the Anabaptists placed more emphasis on Christian practice and on the practices of the church (Ordnung), and on relationships within the church (e.g., Communion, the ban, Christian fellowship), and less on doctrine. If the Reformers gave particular emphasis to salvation, the focus of their attention was more on the transformation that took place in people by the power of the Holy Spirit, both in the church and in the world. The Anabaptists sought answers to these questions in Scripture.

In the course of this search, the Swiss Anabaptists identified clusters of texts that they associated together, read repeatedly, and quoted mindfully. To instill a deeper understanding of such texts, they occasionally compiled concordances, such as Hans Krüsi’s “Booklet on Faith and Baptism” (1525) or the Concordantz vnd zeyger der namhafftigsten Sprüch aller biblischen bücher alts vnd news Testaments (c. 1540). These concordances were memorized and then applied in conversations among themselves, in disputes with their opponents, and in court settings. The reputation that preceded many Anabaptists of being diligent readers of the Bible was often a result of their use of such concordances. Although the observation is certainly correct that they engaged in conversations among themselves in order to discover the truth of Scripture together, and that they counseled with each other about the practical application of Scripture, these were never truly open-ended conversations.[8] Instead, the discussions were focused on specific passages of Scripture about which nothing more needed to be said. The “hermeneutical community,” as theologian and historian John Howard Yoder described the congregation, remained more a principle or an ideal than a reality among Anabaptists and often led to a predetermined outcome.[9]

From the very beginning there was also a consensus among the Anabaptists that New Testament texts were more binding in their authority than those from the Old Testament. In their disputations with Reformed theologians, they had learned that the only way to reject the justification of infant baptism, which Zwingli and his followers defended with Old Testament passages, was by appealing exclusively to New Testament passages. For the Anabaptists, God’s intentions for his people were still partially veiled in the Old Testament and only fully revealed in the New Testament. This was why they did not turn to the Old Testament as the final authority in matters of faith or, as Hubmaier wrote, “as for the ceremonies of the Old Testament, God himself has done away with them.”[10] Nevertheless, they also did not reject the Old Testament outright, but referred to it frequently in their concordances, for example, to supplement New Testament texts. The Swiss Anabaptists interpreted the Old Testament in a figurative or allegorical way, and occasionally countered Reformed arguments for infant baptism by arguing that it was not circumcision in the Old Testament that prefigured the salvific power of baptism in the New Testament, but rather the story of Noah’s Ark.[11] Werner Packull has also suggested that the Anabaptists preferred the New Testament because initially this was the only portion of the Bible available to them in German (1522/1524) and so their biblical understanding had developed through the concrete handling of this part of Scripture.[12]

Stuart Murray has confirmed this observation, adding that Zwingli also initially argued only with the New Testament; it was Zwingli who set the Anabaptists on the path of their “Christocentrism” and the source for their argument regarding the discontinuity of the two Testaments.[13] Yoder had earlier identified another aspect along these lines, noting that the distinctive understanding of Scripture of the early Swiss Anabaptists is not revealed in the sources as an alternative between Spiritualism and biblical literalism. This alternative, he argued, was not up for debate. To be sure, the Spirit opens up the Scriptures, but by the same token it also is bound to Scripture since Spirit-inspired interpretations must always be tested. In this sense, Spirit and Scripture could not be distinguished from each other in the manner of late medieval Augustinian spiritualism.[14] Hubmaier had also appealed to this unity.[15] These efforts were successful, however, first among the Anabaptists in Upper Germany.

The Anabaptists in Central and Upper Germany: Letter and Spirit

Among the Anabaptists in Upper Germany, the decisive leadership came from Hans Hut, a disciple of Thomas Müntzer and a veteran of the Peasants’ War who was present at their defeat at the battle of Frankenhausen in Thuringia. Hut was active in central Germany and upper Germany, as far as Tyrol and Moravia. He brought a mystical doctrine of salvation adopted from Müntzer as well as his own interpretation of the End Times and the rule of the faithful in the peaceful kingdom of Jesus Christ. For Hut the Scriptures were not the revelation of God that generated faith, but only a “testimony” that revealed how humans could come to faith, could be tested, and endure the judgment of God at the end of days. But strictly speaking, Scripture was not the only testimony; it was preceded by the “gospel of all creatures” and the “example of the life of Jesus.” Nevertheless, insofar as Scripture contained and confirmed the substance of both these testimonies, it became the “main source of Hut’s preaching.”[16] First, Scripture testified to the “gospel of all creatures,” which revealed—independently of Scripture—how humans could already read God’s plan of salvation from creation, from the “book of creatures,” and how much humans has turned away from their Creator and fallen into dependence on the created order. Second, the “gospel of all creatures,” like Scripture itself, points to the suffering “by which man falls away from the created order and returns to the Creator.” If the “Gospel of all creatures” is hidden in the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, then the instruction regarding suffering is hidden in the second article—that is, the suffering of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Third, Scriptures speak of the “perfection” into which humans are led by the Holy Spirit. This, above everything else, was what made the Bible Hut’s “main source,” while also providing him with texts and images from which he constructed his understanding of the Last Judgment and the advent of the Kingdom of God.

Scripture is not only at the service of individual piety; its primary function is to describe the process that leads to faith. After the disappointing outcome of the Peasants’ War and the disappointed expectations of the Last Judgment, Scripture helped to reinterpret the times and to reorient the trajectory of world events toward the Kingdom of God. This was the key to Hut’s biblicism. However, Hut did not cling to the letter of Scripture. Rather, he sought the meaning behind the letter through the power of the divine Spirit, which expressed itself from the abyss of his soul in the process of salvation. Thus Hut remained committed to Müntzer’s mystical spiritualism. The letter itself is dead; it reveals itself only to those who are seized by the divine spirit. Hans Denck expressed himself similarly: “[They] search for light and find darkness, [they] seek life and find only death, not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New. This is the reason why the most learned are always the ones most likely to miss the truth—namely, they think that their understanding, which they have so wisely and carefully gleaned from the Holy Scriptures, will not fail them.”[17] This juxtaposition of Spirit and letter fuses the Old and New Testaments into a unity. It is the same Spirit that gives both Testaments their meaning. Hut recognized no difference between Moses, the prophets, evangelists and apostles. Thus, an apocalyptic sensibility could combine with the militancy of the Mosaic law and result in a call for the destruction of the ungodly.

If both Testaments are understood as a unity, the problem of inner contradictions in the Scriptures quickly emerges. Denck solved this problem by setting individual biblical passages alongside each other—that is, by assigning each a function in the process of salvation oriented to the Trinity of God and then combining them into a whole.[18] Hut also arranged clusters of Scripture alongside each other in a kind of concordance in order to emphasize these relationships to his followers.[19] Clearly, he did not devalue the word of Scripture in favor of the Spirit. Indeed, Denck expressed his esteem for the written Word explicitly: “I value Scripture above all human treasure.”[20] This was also the reason why he joined Ludwig Haetzer’s project in jointly translating the books of the Old Testament prophets in conversation with Jewish scholars in Worms. Haetzer also translated several of the apocryphal books after Denck’s death.

Pilgram Marpeck developed his own understanding of Scripture, which emerged out of a tension between Spiritualism and biblicism. On the one hand, Marpeck emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit, which initiates faith and illuminates Scripture. On the other hand, he believed that the Holy Spirit makes use of the written word to exert its influence on humans. The Holy Spirit is the decisive witness for humans with the written Word assisting as a “co-witness.”[21] Thus, Scripture bears a Spirit-infused character—Spirit and Scripture form a unity. This unity was rooted in the Incarnation of Christ, in which the external and the internal are connected. Thus, Marpeck found a middle way between Spiritualism and biblicism. He criticized the Spiritualism of Caspar von Schwenckfeld and Johannes Bünderlin as well as the legalism of Swiss Anabaptists or the Hutterite brothers. With his Interpretation of the Testaments [Testamenterleuterung], a concordance of Old and New Testament terms (e.g., faith, Spirit and its gifts, congregation, secular government, and the relationship of the Testaments to one another) written between 1544 and 1552, Marpeck rejected the understanding of Scripture of both the Lutheran theologians and of Schwenckfeld. Marpeck’s understanding of Scripture was not representative of Upper German Anabaptism, but was a short-lived independent development.

Anabaptists in the Netherlands and North Germany: From Appearance to Essence

A basic Spiritualist impulse was also at work in Low German or Dutch Anabaptism, which can be traced back to Melchior Hoffman. Already in his early Lutheran period, Hoffman believed that a deeper meaning was hidden beneath the letter of Scripture that could only be revealed to those who were guided by the Holy Spirit. As Klaus Deppermann has insightfully noted, Hoffman took up the symbols of the evangelists in his commentary on Daniel 12 (1529) and developed an allegorical schema of the divine Word: “In the Old Testament the ‘figures’ of the lion and the calf dominate. The lion is to be understood as the letter of the Mosaic law; the calf—clumsy and ridiculous in its gait—points to the rather crude and ridiculous symbols and prefigurings in the Old Testament that point to the later fulfillment of salvation history. In the New Testament the ‘human form,’ a symbol of the parables of Jesus that captivate human thinking, and the ‘eagle,’ a symbol of the unveiled spirit of God, prevail.”[22] This Spirit is evident in the three other forms of the divine Word, for the Word of God as a whole is interwoven with it, and it enables humans to be led into a step-by-step knowledge of the divine Spirit. Humans are not able to reach the level of the eagle. “Just as a soaring eagle cannot be surpassed by a bird, so also no human spirit can rise beyond the clear, true, and bright Word”[23] This was Hoffman’s way of appropriating the Reformation principle of “grace alone.”

Hoffman further developed this understanding of Scripture following his conversion to Anabaptism. Drawing on the typological and allegorical methods of interpretation, which he combined with a “figurative” interpretation, Hoffman moved from the literal text to the spiritual content of Scripture. To cite just one example, Hoffman identified the dragon of the Apocalypse with the Emperor Charles V. This was his way of enabling the biblical witness to speak into the present. This also explains why, despite his spiritualistic approach, Hoffman was more interested in exegetical work than Hut and Denck, and wrote extensive commentaries on Revelation (1530) and the Epistle to the Romans (1533). Exegesis alone, however, could not unlock the meaning of the “figure”; for that, the Spirit was needed. Without the Spirit nothing remained but the empty letter. Thus, in an idiosyncratic hermeneutical approach Hoffman connected letter and Spirit into an inseparable unity and had arrived at a solution similar to that of Marpeck.

The allegorical interpretation ensured that salvation history would be interpreted as a history that had not yet been completed and it made possible an apocalyptic diagnosis of one’s own time. This was the source of the apocalyptic framework that emerged in the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster (1534/35), into which perspectives from the Old and New Testaments could flow in the sense of promise and fulfillment that then extended into the present and future—from appearance to being, from shadow to light.

Bernhard Rothmann, the “king’s spokesman” at Münster, took up Hoffman’s understanding of Scripture and transformed it in the sense of pushing back on the figurative-spiritualistic interpretation of Old Testament scriptural passages in order not to spiritualize or devalue the Old Testament rationale, which allegedly justified many of the institutions and actions of the Anabaptist Kingdom (e.g., Davidic kingship, community of goods, polygamy, iconoclasm). The letter of Scripture now came into play more strongly than the Spirit.

The reverse was the case with David Joris, the Dutch Anabaptist leader in the 1540s. In his spiritualization of Scripture, sacraments, church, and the Kingdom of God, Joris saw an opportunity to hold together the divergent Anabaptist groups after the collapse of Anabaptist rule in Münster and to secure his claim to leadership in Melchiorite Anabaptism (e.g., the meeting at Bocholt in 1536).

Menno Simons, who eventually assumed leadership of Dutch and North German Anabaptism, also closely followed the Melchiorite understanding of Scripture. He interpreted the Old Testament “figuratively” with all promises pointing to Jesus Christ. However, Menno avoided the “arbitrary proliferation of figurative interpretations,” understanding the Old Testament largely as a warning against transgressing the divine commandments and as an invitation to henceforth lead a better life.[24] Occasionally, he interpreted the New Testament as a “lex christi” or a “lex evangelicum”—that is, as a law that was still imperfect in the Old Testament and only fulfilled in the New Testament.[25] Menno was particularly clear in distinguishing himself from Rothmann, for whom the Old Testament had not yet been completely fulfilled in the New Testament, but would only be consummated fully in the present and future. Menno divided history into an era before the law, a time of the law, and a period of grace that had been given in Jesus Christ. After that, nothing new was to be expected. Thus, the normative power of the Old Testament was broken and the New Testament became the focus of scriptural understanding. Also, unlike David Joris, Menno regarded the time of the Holy Spirit not as a distinct period, but as the time of Christ’s grace. Thus, Jesus Christ became the “foundation of faith” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Throughout his life, Menno held the Melchiorite conviction that it was the Spirit who opened up Scripture; but the Christological focus of his thought eventually led him to identify the Word of Christ with the New Testament and a literal interpretation of Scripture. At first, Menno insisted that Scripture must be understood through the Spirit, but his later writings on the incarnation of Christ and church discipline “breathe not the spirit of Christ, but the spirit of legalism and right-mindedness.”[26] Clearly, Menno became a victim of his rigid perfectionism. He felt compelled to engage ever more precisely and consistently with the Spirit who was expressed for all time in a tangible form in Scripture.

Debates over the interpretation of Scripture died down in Mennonite congregations during the following centuries. A mild biblicism had prevailed, and only rarely was there an effort to align the message of Scripture with the language of a changing context. Where such efforts nevertheless did emerge—as, for example, with the historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture—they were the result of impulses that did not originate in theological work among Mennonites.

See also the earlier Mennonite Encyclopedia articles: Bible; Biblical Interpretation.

This article was originally published in 2012 in German for the Mennonitisches Lexikon (MennLex) and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at


  1. Bernhard Lohse, Einführung, 161.
  2. Luther, WA 7:97, lat.
  3. Luther, Dass eine Versammlung oder Gemeine Recht oder Macht habe, alle Lehre zu urteilen, 402-416; 409.
  4. TQ I: Zurich, 14.
  5. TQ, vol. 1: Schweiz, 14.
  6. Cf. Andrea Strübind, Eifriger als Zwingli, 220 f.
  7. Hubmaier, Schriften, 210.
  8. Yoder, Taeufertum und Reformation, 111-116.
  9. Cf., the social-historical point of view in John D. Roth, “Community as Conversation,” 35-47.
  10. B. Hubmaier, Schriften, 174.
  11. Roth, “Harmonizing the Scriptures,” 38 f.
  12. Packull, Die Hutterer in Tirol, 38 ff.
  13. Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation, 109.
  14. Yoder, Taeufertum und Reformation, 80-95.
  15. Goertz, Variationen, 203.
  16. Seebaß, Müntzer’s Erbe, 412.
  17. Denck, Schriften II, 59.
  18. Müller, Glaubenszeugnisse, 28.
  19. Seebaß, Müntzers Erbe, 502-504.
  20. Denck, Schriften II, 106.
  21. Pilgram Marpeck’s Reply, 112.
  22. Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman, 59.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Bornhäuser, Leben und Lehre Menno Simons’, 47
  25. Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden,” 306.
  26. Bornhäuser, Leben und Lehre Menno Simons’, 5 and 60.



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Author(s) Hans-Jürgen Goertz
Date Published May 2022

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Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. "Scripture, Anabaptist Understandings of." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. May 2022. Web. 19 Aug 2022.,_Anabaptist_Understandings_of&oldid=173841.

APA style

Goertz, Hans-Jürgen. (May 2022). Scripture, Anabaptist Understandings of. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 August 2022, from,_Anabaptist_Understandings_of&oldid=173841.

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