For five pages three professors from Denver Theological Seminary in their book Intro to Biblical Interpretation write about the interpretive methods of the Reformation and gave a one paragraph, misinformed view of the Anabaptists while largely missing how their interpretations actually are the most influential in America’s Evangelical church scene and America’s form of government that has spread throughout the world.
Here is what they said:
“Indeed, like most movements, the Reformation also birthed a more extreme expression- the so-called “Radical Reformation”. In hermeneutics, groups like the Anabaptists and Mennonites took seriously the Reformation principles of sola scriptura and of the perspicacity of Scripture, although they applied them in ways that other Reformers strongly opposed. They gave priority to the NT, which they read literally, appealing to the Holy Spirit for illumination, and they sought to establish relatively autonomous Christian communities patterned after the NT church. They only baptized adults by immersion, appointed Spirit-led lay leaders, seperated themselves from both the world and the established churches, and refused to pay taxes or serve as soldiers. Thought rebellious and seditious by other Christians at the time, thousands of them were cruelly martyred- in retrospect truly a dark day for the Reformation. They bequeathed to Christendom, however, a vibrant fifth stream of western Bible interpretation and Christian community alongside the more established Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican ones. More importantly, they put the Bible and its interpretation in the hands of lay leadership and, through the groups’ community gatherings, made the Bible and ongoing part of the lives of ordinary Christians.”
They end their section on Reformation interpretation with this line:
As a result, from the momentous events of the sixteenth century flowed two distinct streams of biblical interpretation, one Protestant and one Catholic. Nearly four centuries would pass before their approaches drew closer together again.
Let me point out how they misunderstand, misrepresent, and discount the Anabaptist influence and methods of Bible interpretation:
1. Like most movements, the Reformation also birthed a more extreme expression- the so-called “Radical Reformation”– This sentence is disguised to say: The Reformers were the real movement, the Anabaptists were an extreme offshoot of the real thing.
2. They gave priority to the NT, which they read literally- This is a misrepresentation. They, of course, did not read every verse of the NT literally. They only read the literal portions literally. This misrepresentation is a guise to group the Biblical Anabaptists like Manz, Hubmaier, and Simons with the other so-called Anabaptists denounced by the real Anabaptists who interpreted figurative passages literally and convinced themselves that they were kings and needed to set up kingdoms on this earth in places like Munster where they had sexual orgies and were eventually slaughtered by the Catholics.
3. They refused to pay taxes or serve as soldiers– Some refused to pay taxes. Others, like Balthasar Hubmaier called the Theologian of the Anabaptists, wrote the first books on the relationship between church and state as separate, God-ordained entities. His book called “On the Sword” defended the right of the government to fulfill their God-given duty of law making and encouraged Christians to involve themselves in civic responsibilities. This book would influence the English Seperatists and Baptists who were instrumental influencers in the writing the the American Constitution two centuries later which gave these Protestant professors the right to write and publish their book. Click here to read more about that.
4. …in retrospect truly a dark day for the Reformation- The murder of the Anabaptists (who Luther said “were fit for fire”) did not happen in an isolated “day” of the Reformation but was a vital part of the Reformation from its inception until the taming of the Protestants in the American poly-religious landscape. The authors make it seem like a small blurp on the timeline of the Protestants. Also, it does not take retrospect to see this. It could be seen as it took place. In fact, Hubmaier wrote a book called “On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them” during the days that they were burning and drowning Anabaptists. They could have easily read this excellent piece of biblical interpretation to find that they had no biblical basis for killing those who disagreed with their interpretation.
This sentence seems to excuse the oversight of murdering thousands as if it were a clerical error that they made and not burning and drowning believers for their courage to act on Biblical interpretation.
5. The final sentence of the section on that time period of biblical interpretation confirms for the reader that the Anabaptists were side players on the actually important scene of history. The evangelical churches today: Baptists, Brethren, Bible and Community Churches, and all Free Churches that are not tied to the mainline Protestant denominations are their children (not physically but doctrinally and in terms of interpretation of Scripture). These churches happen to be the fastest growing, most missionary sending, most prolific in their writing, and most faithful to the biblical, Christo-centric, textual, and historical interpretation of the Bible today. It is interesting that somehow they get cut out of the equation quite easily.
Be careful how you let the biblical interpreters interpret Reformation history for you. Be careful who you call your heroes. The Reformers are not our heroes. The Anabaptists like Graebel, Manz, Hubmaier, Blaurock, Simons, and Sattler who all died as martyrs are our heroes.