Bible is, besides "Holy Scriptures," the most commonly used name of the Word of God, the collection of the canonical writings in the Old and New Testaments. The word "Bible" is derived from the Greek biblia, books; the popular, customary explanation of the word, "book of books," or "the book" is therefore correct.
From the court records of the Anabaptists who were seized at the beginning of the Reformation era it is at once evident that they possessed an amazing knowledge of the Bible. Many see evidence in this fact that they are derived from the Waldenses. In so short a time, it is argued, they would not have been able to acquire it (Müller, Berner Täufer, 54); they must have been familiar with the Scriptures from childhood, and this could have been the case only among the Waldenses, for in the Catholic Church it had been forbidden the laity to possess a Bible in the vernacular after the Council of Toulouse in 1229. In order to prevent doctrinal disputes the laity were not permitted to read the Bible; its use was limited to the priests. But among the Waldenses it was considered the right and the duty of all Christians to read the Bible. It was the only norm, the sole rule and guide of faith and life. Every doctrine and every ecclesiastical regulation must be proved from the Bible.
The Anabaptists took the same attitude toward the Bible. For them too it alone was authoritative for doctrine and life, for all worship and activity, for all church regulations and discipline. That all members should read the Bible was to them a self-evident duty, and it was often the only book in the home that was steadily used. Through independent study of the Bible, the members soon acquired an astonishing familiarity with it and a surprising understanding of it. This was characteristic of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement down until the 20th century, and was still true to a large extent. The Anabaptists' knowledge of the Bible in the Reformation period is not evidence, however, that they came from the Waldenses; for such knowledge can be acquired in a short time. Examples of new converts in all periods of the Christian church prove this.
Some Anabaptists seem to have given the Apocrypha almost equal authority with the canonical books. The Old Order Amish preachers of North America still regularly take the text for the wedding sermon from the apocryphal book of Tobit. To be sure, the printed Bibles of the Reformation period, whether Luther (German), Froschauer (Swiss), Biestkens (Dutch), etc., all included the apocryphal books, and the Roman Catholic Bible always included the Apocrypha as canonical. The reformers, however, did not rate the apocryphal books as of equal authority with the canonical books.
The principle of the sole authority of the Bible for faith and life was not an exclusive Anabaptist possession, but rather a foundation principle of all Protestantism beginning with Luther himself, and was established against the Roman Catholic principle that the Bible and the tradition of the church together constituted the authoritative norm. The reformers, however, although emphatically proclaiming the principle, were not uniformly consistent in applying it, being led at times by theological and practical considerations to depart from the strict teaching of Scripture. The Anabaptists, being Biblicists and usually unsophisticated readers of the Bible, not trained theologians or scholars, and having made a more complete break with tradition than the reformers, were more radical and consistent in their application of the principle of sole Scriptural authority. They sought to obey the Bible in simple faith, without calculation of consequences for the socio-political or ecclesiastical order.
A striking characteristic of the Anabaptists' attitude toward the Bible was their principle of the supremacy of the New Testament. For them the Old Testament was not binding in the same sense, and in so far as it disagreed with the New it was superseded and abrogated. (See Old Testament for a full discussion of this point.)
The Anabaptists and Mennonites were been described as Biblical literalists. If this means that they tried to obey the commands of Christ and teachings of the New Testament literally, e.g., nonresistance, nonswearing of oaths, feetwashing, etc., this is an accurate statement for most of Anabaptist-Mennonite history, though it no longer applied to all modern groups, particularly in Holland and Germany. If by "literalism" is meant a type of naive legalistic and externalistic use of the Bible without regard for its essentially spiritual character, and without finding in it great controlling principles, then that description is not historically valid, although occasionally an extreme and painful literalism has been followed. For a careful discussion of the Anabaptist attitude on this question see the article, Bible: Inner and Outer Word.
The doctrine of Scripture was not theoretically expressed in the earlier confessions of faith of the Anabaptists and Mennonites in the first two centuries. The Schleitheim Confession (1527), the Concept of Cologne (1591), the Confession of Hans de Ries and Lubbert Gerritsz (1610), the Dordrecht Confession (1632), and all other confessions of this general period had no article on the Bible. Peter Riedemann's Rechenschaft (1545), the great Hutterite statement, did not treat the Bible as such, although it dealt specifically with the old and new covenants. The first case of a direct article on the Bible was the 1659 Confession drafted by van Aldendorp, van Heuven, Andries, and van Maurik, and printed at Utrecht under the title Een Belijdenisse. The Cornelis Ris Confession of 1766 (Hoorn, Holland) contained such an article. Only under the influence of 18th-century German Orthodoxy, which first developed a detailed doctrine of Scripture particularly with regard to inspiration and infallibility, did Mennonite statements of faith begin to become more specific on these points. A second wave of influence in this direction came in the 20th century from the defensive reaction of American evangelical Protestantism against 19th-century liberal theology and Biblical criticism, particularly in the Fundamentalist movement. The article on the Bible in the 1921 statement of Christian Fundamentals adopted by the Mennonite Church (MC) of North America was illustrative of this influence.
However, the absence of a theoretical statement on the Scriptures in the earlier Mennonite confessions should not be taken in any sense as evidence of an absence of belief in the authority of the Scriptures. On the contrary, the evidence of the Anabaptist position on this point was overwhelming. While no comprehensive study has been published, several authors have assembled a great amount of evidence, e.g., John Horsch in the chapter on "Authority of the Scriptures" in his Mennonites in Europe (1942, pp. 350-358), and Gordon Kaufman in his article, "Some Theological Emphases of the Early Swiss Anabaptists" (MQR XXV, 1951, pp. 75-99, section on "The Scriptures," pp. 81-87). See also C. Krahn, "Mennos Christozentrische Schriftverständnis," in his Menno Simons (1936, pp. 107-110), and Ellis Graber, "Menno Simons and the Scriptures" (an unpublished manuscript), who stated that Menno Simons quotes the Old Testament 290 times, and the New Testament 740 times in the first part (285 pp.) of his Complete Works.
The following selections from these two sources will serve to illustrate the evidence.
Conrad Grebel wrote in 1525: "We would ask you to discard the old ordinances of Antichrist and hold to the Word of God alone and be guided by it." The Brethren wrote in 1525 to the Zürich city council: "If it be found then by divine Scripture that we err, we shall gladly accept correction. . . . We desire nothing upon earth but to have these things decided according to the Word of God."
Michaei Sattler wrote in 1527: "Let no one cause you to depart from the standard that is laid through the letter of Scripture which is sealed by the blood of Christ and of many witnesses of Jesus." At his trial in 1527 Sattler said: "Ye ministers of God, if you have neither heard nor read the Word of God, we would suggest that you send for the most learned men and for the book of the divine Scriptures, and that they with us weigh these things in the light of the Word of God. If they show us from Holy Scripture that we err and are in the wrong, we shall gladly be taught."
In the great debates of the Swiss Brethren with the representatives of the Zwinglian state church, held at Zofingen in 1532 and at Bern in 1538, the Brethren speakers continually appealed to the Scriptures and demanded that their opponents abide by it. They said: "We hold that all things should be proven to ascertain what is founded on the holy Word of God, for this will stand when heaven and earth pass away, as Christ Himself said."
Pilgram Marpeck wrote concerning the Scriptures and their authority in 1544: "We would sincerely admonish every Christian to be on the alert and personally study the Scriptures, and have a care lest he permit himself to be easily moved and led away from the Scripture and apostolic doctrine by strange teaching and understanding; but let everyone, in accordance with the Scripture and apostolic teaching, strive with great diligence to do God's will, seeing that the Word of truth could not fail us nor mislead us."
Menno Simons wrote in 1550: "My dear brethren, I for myself confess that I would rather die than to believe and teach to my brethren a single word concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, at variance with the express testimony of God's Word, as it is so clearly given through the mouth of the prophets, evangelists, and apostles." Again in 1554 Menno said: "But that Gellius appeals to Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine, my reply is, first, if these writers can support their teachings with the Word and command of God, we will admit that they are right. If not, then it is a doctrine of men and accursed according to the Scriptures."
Mennonites have remained throughout their history a people of the Bible, emphasizing "Bible doctrine" rather than theology, except in those places where advanced theological training or higher education has made preacher or people or both more theological and philosophical than Biblical.
Graber, Ellis. "Menno Simons and the Scriptures." Unpublished paper, 1944. Copy available at Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, IN)
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 215.
Horsch, John. Mennonites in Europe. Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942: 350-358.
Kaufman, Gordon. "Some Theological Emphases of the Early Swiss Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1951): 81-87.
Krahn, Cornelius. Menno Simons, 1496-1561: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und Theologie der Taufgesinnten. Kaulsruhe i. B. : H. Schneider, 1936: 107-110.
Müller, Ernst. Geschichte der Bernischen Täufer. Frauenfeld: Huber, 1895. Reprinted Nieuwkoop : B. de Graaf, 1972: 54.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 322-324. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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