The study of the Bible was a focal activity of early Anabaptist gatherings. This focus was due to several interlocking aspects of their beliefs. First was their contention that the Bible, not the central institutions of state and established church, was the ultimate authority for Christian people. They counterbalanced the demands of these institutions with those of the Bible. In this strategy the early Anabaptists were themselves in continuation with other reformers. "We do not admit that we have acted counter to the imperial mandates; for it says that one should not adhere to the Lutheran doctrine and sedition, but only to the gospel and the Word of God; this we have held to. Counter to the gospel and the Word of God I do not know that I have done anything; in witness thereto I appeal to the words of Christ " (Michael Sattler, CRR 1:93).
Second, the Bible must be taught and studied in the church so that its members can know true faith and experience God: "Since all people by nature do not understand the things of God they are taught the true faith and knowledge of God through the Word. Moreover the Scriptures offer us no other way. Therefore the first thing which all people, and each one in particular, who are to be brought into the knowledge of God and the holy church of God (so far as it is proper for us to judge this) must encounter is the preaching and hearing of the divine word " (Bernhard Rothmann, CRR 3:105).
Third, the true church is the church which knows the Bible and follows it as a guide in faith and life. Especially this last aspect was stressed as the true mark of the church; the true church is the church which ". . . holds only to [God's] words and seeks to fulfill his whole will and his commandments. A gathering thus constituted is truly a congregation of Christ " (CRR 3:106). This was not a form of works righteousness, as if reading and knowing the Bible alone were sufficient. Rather, Bible study was to lead to a transformation of the person through meeting God, who stood behind the Scriptures. As Ulrich Stadler writes, "I value the Holy Scriptures above all human treasures but not as high as the Word of God, which is living, powerful and eternal, and which is free and unencumbered by all the elements of this world. For insofar as it is God Himself it is spirit and no letter, written without pen and paper that it may never be expunged. Therefore also salvation cannot be tied to the Scriptures, however important and good they may be with respect to it. The cause is that it is not possible for the Scriptures to improve an evil heart even if it is highly learned. A pious heart, however, that is a heart in which there is a true spark of godly zeal, will be improved through all things" (CRR 3:142).
In Anabaptist meetings, much time was given over to Bible study and exposition. It was said of their meetings that, "They have not special gathering places. When there is peace and unity and when none of those who have been baptized are scattered they come together wherever the people are. They send messages to each other by a boy or girl. When they have come together they teach one another the divine Word " (CRR 3:124). The process of study is described by Michael Sattler, "When brothers and sisters are together, they shall take up something to read together. The one to whom God has given the best understanding shall explain it, the others should be still and listen, so that there are not two or three carrying on a private conversation, bothering the others. The Psalter shall be read daily at home" (CRR 1:44). These meetings might go on for some time. In a description of a night meeting it is reported that five leaders took their place in the center of the group. "Each one in turn read a passage from the New Testament and then preached for about 15 minutes. Prayer then followed these five sermons, lasting for about 30 minutes. Then there was a call for those who did not understand to come and be instructed by the elders. Or if God 's Spirit led, one could address the whole group " (Schad, "True Account " 292-95).
In the first generation of Anabaptists, the leaders who were educated could lead Bible studies from the biblical text itself, rather than from a translation; e.g., Felix Manz taught from the Hebrew text and Conrad Grebel from the Greek. Other Anabaptists emphasized lay Bible study and preaching under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which drew a vehement response from Ulrich Zwingli (CRR 4:385-409). With persecution, leaders conversant with Greek and Hebrew passed from the scene, and the movement became more rural and underground. In this circumstance, since their opponents also affirmed the Scriptures as the sole authority (sola scriptura), the early Anabaptists developed a suspicion of scholars learned in Scripture. These scholars seemed to twist things to suit their needs and thereby take the "sting" out of it. Thus Mennonite Bible study became characterized by a literalistic reading and understanding of the text. In this situation a great gap developed between study in the church and the study of the Bible in the academic community.
Because of this emphasis on Bible study, the early Mennonites, although often not as educated as their opponents, showed an astonishing grasp of the contents of Scripture. This tradition of Bible study in the congregation continued in the 17th and 18th centuries, at least among the Dutch, who had regular Bible study hours in the congregation.
In Russia, the Bible study movement, fostered by Pietism, found its way into Mennonite life by 1815. Through this development Pietist writings became widely known among Mennonite writers, and there was a reawakening of Bible study. Bible conferences also came to be held in local churches, but usually Bible studies were conducted in homes by the pastor of the congregation.
In North America, when a renewed interest in Bible study appeared, it took the form of Winter Bible Schools, Young People 's Bible Meeting, Bible conferences, and Bible institutes. Winter Bible Schools began in North America at the turn of the century, the first being held at Elkhart Institute (later to become Goshen College) beginning 24 January 1900. These Bible schools were held for a term of 2 to 12 weeks, with 4 and 6 week terms being the most popular. At one time or another these Bible schools were held in all sections of the Mennonite Church (MC). The earliest ones were sponsored by conferences or districts, but later individual congregations held their own schools, usually for a two-week period when a visiting teacher would come and give classes. These were especially promoted by Sanford Shetler in the 1930s, when about a dozen such congregational programs were begun.
The Young People's Bible Meeting along with Youth Endeavor sprang up in various places, beginning in the 1870s. These meetings were a regular part of the congregation's Sunday program and provided an opportunity for study, reflection, and articulation of beliefs by lay people. The "young" in the name of these groups is misleading because members of all ages participated in these sessions. This program played an important role in the ongoing Bible study taking place within Mennonite congregations.
Church colleges were also founded at this time, Bethel College in Kansas being the earliest (1887). Bible courses were an integral part of the curriculum of these schools. Here Bible teachers, who had pursued academic study of the Bible, began teaching some of the findings of biblical scholarship in their courses. With the rise of Mennonite seminaries (1930s), this development increased in strength.
This development brought tensions between the churches and the colleges, with faculty members becoming casualties; some were dismissed or left because of pressures brought to bear on the schools. By the 1970s, however, the academic study of the Bible was widely accepted in most Mennonite schools of higher education and with it the use of historical-linguistic tools of study, commonly called "higher criticism." However, the study of the Bible in the congregations largely proceeded along traditional lines.
As a result of the rise of colleges and seminaries, Mennonite Bible scholars in North America are beginning to contribute to the broader, ecumenical world of biblical studies. This has been true in the area of biblical theology, e.g., Elmer Martens and Ben Ollenburger, to name two scholars. In the area of exegetical and general studies one might name others, including Clarence Bauman, John W. Miller, Waldemar Janzen, David Schroeder, William Klassen, Devon Wiens, and Willard Swartley.
In addition, the Institute of Mennonite Studies at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (Elkhart, Indiana) has supported biblical studies. The institute has begun a Shalom Biblical Theology and Ethics research seminar in which several biblical scholars gather for the month of June to work on research related to this theme. Further, an editorial council has been appointed to oversee the publication of monographs on biblical topics which can contribute to the wider scholarly community.
In conjunction with this project, the Institute of Mennonite Studies has sponsored a meeting of Mennonite biblical scholars in conjunction with annual professional meetings (Society of Biblical Literature). These sessions have attracted 25-40 people yearly since they began in 1983. This is in contrast to the small number of Mennonite scholars who attended the annual meetings until the mid-1970s.
While in North America scholarly work in biblical studies is fairly recent, in The Netherlands, Mennonite scholars have been making a contribution for much of the church's history, and the church has been in touch with contemporary study of the Bible. Pieter Jansz Twisck published a concordance of the Bible in 1648. In the 19th cenury Harting and Hertog, among others, were active. From the 20th century one can name F. van der Wissel, E. J. Elhorst, and F. Dijkema.
In addition to scholarly activities Mennonites have also been active in translation projects. To mention only a few, Rudolphe Petter was a pioneer in the analysis of the Cheyenne language and translation of parts of the Bible into Cheyenne. In Africa the tireless efforts of Agnes Sprunger resulted in the translation of the Bible into Gipende (Kipende). Jacob Loewen worked extensively as an anthropology and linguistic consultant for Bible translation projects in many countries.
"AIMM Notes 50th Anniversary of Gipende New Testament in Zaire." Mennonite Weekly Review (12 September 1985): 7.
Berg, Kenneth H. "Case Studies in Hermeneutics." Direction 6 (1977): 32-35.
Fretz, Clarence. "A History of Winter Bible Schools in the Mennonite Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 16 (1942): 51-81, 178-95.
Harder, Leland, ed. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents. Classics of the Radical Reformation 4. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985: 385-409.
Hertzler, Silas. "Early Mennonite Sunday Schools." Mennonite Quarterly Review 2 (1928):123-24, 205.
Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources. Classics of the Radical Reformation 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981; Spanish translation by C. Arnold Snyder, Selecciones Teológicas Anabautistas. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985; all citations are to the English edition: 105, 124, 142.
Klassen, A. J. "The Bible in the Mennonite Brethren Church." Direction 2 (1973): 34-57.
Lederach, Paul M. "The History of the Young People's Bible Meeting in the Mennonite Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 26 (1952): 216-231.
Ollenburger, Ben. "The Hermeneutics of Obedience: A Study of Anabaptist Hermeneutics." Direction 6 (1977): 19 - 31.
Schad, Elias M[aster]. "True Account of an Anabaptist Meeting at Night in a Forest and a Debate Held There with Them." trans. Elizabeth Bender, Mennonite Quarterly Review 58 (1984): 292-295.
Wiens, Devon. "Biblical Criticism: Historical and Personal Reflections." Direction 1 (1972): 107-111.
Swartley, Willard M. Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 1983, proposes guidelines for personal and scholarly Bible study.
Yoder, John H., ed. and trans. The Legacy of Michael Sattler. Classics of the Radical Reformation 1. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973: 44, 93.
Yoder, Perry. From Word to Life: A Guide to the Art of Bible Study. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982.
Gospel Herald (26 January 1988): 52-58, regarding a lay-oriented approach to the use of Greek in Bible study.
For numerous other articles, see Springer, Nelson and Klassen, A. J., compilers. Mennonite Bibliography, 1631-1961, 2 vols. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1977, II: 538-540.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 79-80. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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