[Book Review] Hermeneutics in the Anabaptist Tradition

Stuart Murray. Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000. 277 pp. $23.51 [Paperback]


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The book offers the hermeneutical background of Anabaptists according to its author. Stuart Murray Williams contends for the significance of Anabaptist contribution and influence in the Reformation. He has listed six hermeneutical principles of the Anabaptist tradition: (1) the Bible as self-interpreting, (2) Christocentricism, (3) the two testaments, (4) Spirit and Word, (5) congregational hermeneutics, (6) and the hermeneutics of obedience.

Murray explored the distinct perspectives of Anabaptist theologians, ministers, and personalities on each principle. However, unlike other Reformers with key theologians, the Anabaptist was much more complex. Murray points out that Genevan Church had John Calvin; the Swiss had Ulrich Zwingli; Germans had Martin Luther; and even in the next wave, Scots had John Knox and several English Puritans. In this context, Murray’s research effort is already commendable. Anabaptists are in distinct geographical locations in the European continent. Murray cited several representations: Balthasar Hubmaier, second generation, Dirk Philips, and Menno Simons. However, Murray’s use of primary sources falls short.

Murray is a professor in Bristol, UK, specializing in Anabaptist studies. Moreover, Murray’s interest in the Anabaptist tradition was due to his direct connection to Anabaptist Network in London. Besides this work and books on Anabaptist theological and historical studies, he authored several books and journal articles related to urban missions and church planting. The following section presents the six hermeneutical principles. Therefore, Murray attempts to systematize Anabaptist’s biblical interpretation, which he argues is a coherent hermeneutical method.

Grounding from the Reformer’s battle cry of sola scriptura, Anabaptists embraced and lived out this conviction. The goal is to liberate hermeneutics from oppressing and monopolizing ecclesiastical tradition (26) of the Roman Catholic church and several Protestant Reformers. Thus, the first principle of the Bible as self-interpreting became prominent for them. Anabaptists emphasized the clarity of the scripture. Creeds, confessions, and theological convictions offer a danger that leads to hermeneutical biases and ecclesiastical implementations.[1]

Related to the first principle is Christocentrism—the second principle. The scripture’s focal point is Christ. For Anabaptists, the key is to always start with Jesus regarding interpreting biblical passages (32). Though ecclesiastical authority is present, the Bible remains preeminent. Moving to the third principle, the Two Testaments; Old and New Testaments. Anabaptist perceives that NT is somehow more normative than OT. Further, within NT, the Gospels are supreme over other epistles. Although, it can posit a canon within a canon, which is challenging and problematic.

The fourth is Word and Spirit. The authority of scripture is evident in the Anabaptist tradition. However, in several cases and contexts, the relationship with the illumination and sensitivity of the Holy Spirit differs. The complexity of Anabaptists’ view of the Spirit opens some of their congregation to Quaker-like spiritualists (or inner light), while others with a strong sense of literalism and legalism, which needs careful attention. This Spirit’s movement is seen through the local church, which relates to the fifth principle, the congregational hermeneutics. This principle somehow affirms local church autonomy. Anyone can interpret the Bible. On an average day, anyone with an interpretation can stand and present their view after reading a passage during the Sunday service. In a radical sense, this principle defeats the purpose of the roles within the body of the church.

Moreover, there is a danger of relativism that can become a factor without proper guidance on doctrinal principles or a confessional statement. Still, a proper context is necessary here, and this principle sprouts from a more congregational interpretation of the academic or papal offerings. Lastly, the sixth principle is the hermeneutics of obedience. Faithful hermeneutics leads to submission and obedience to the authority and lordship of Christ. It is false spirituality, to say, for a Christian to only know and preach the gospel of Christ without compliance. For Anabaptists, one cannot disconnect hermeneutics from applied ethics. Again, without careful consideration, this principle can lead to legalistic applications (cf. 64).

Murray concluded about the essential use of Anabaptist hermeneutics in contemporary relevance. He perceives these six principles as interconnected that ought to be balanced. Murray says these hermeneutical principles can further the knowledge to interact with the Pentecostal movement and liberation theology. It is proper to note that Anabaptist’s theology, hermeneutics, and ecclesiastical practices did not come from academic presentations, scholarly meditation, or a seminary product. Their convictions were cultivated and crystalized amid persecutions, debates, threats, and life and death challenges (30).

Finally, Murray’s writing skill made it look natural that the Anabaptist was in conversation with the other Reformers. Indeed, Anabaptist belongs to Reformation, yet normally unheard of or ignored due to its relationship with the Munster controversy. Biblical Interpretation in Anabaptist Tradition is a well-informed book about the hermeneutical thoughts and contexts of the first Anabaptists. However, it lacks cited primary sources, yet this work can be an excellent secondary source conversant with other secondary sources on hermeneutics.

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[1] Murray cited samples like Reformer’s view of justification by faith. It is indeed biblical; however, this biblical view can mostly begin from “preexisting doctrinal assumption” (27) and theological conviction which can influence one’s hermeneutical study in the process.

*Image from Torture of teacher Ursula, Maastricht, 1570, detail of a copper engraving by Jan Luyken (1649-1712) from Martyrs Mirror. The original plate is signed “Ian Luyken invenit et fecit”. 1 January 1685


Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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