The New Testament is that collection of 27 writings which the Christian church added to the Hebrew Scriptures to make up the Christian Scriptures. The New Testament is unified by the conviction that in Jesus of Nazareth the fulfillment of the messianic hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures has taken place. Christians therefore refer to the earlier Scriptures as the Old Testament and to their own sacred writings as the New Testament -- the old has been superseded, but not completely replaced, by a new covenantal relationship between God and people.
The word testament is from the Latin translation of the biblical term for covenant. "New Testament" and "new covenant" are synonyms in Christian usage even though "testament" does not adequately express the meaning of covenant in biblical writings. Although the specific usage of "Old Testament" and "New Testament" dates only to the latter half of the 2nd century, the concept of new covenant is found in New Testament writings themselves. Paul cites Christ, at the Last Supper, as saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25 [RSV]). The idea of "old covenant" is expressed in 2 Corinthians 3:14 and Hebrews 8:13. Indeed, the earliest reference to a new covenant is made by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31ff.). The first Christians saw this as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
By the end of the 2nd century the form of the New Testament canon was largely determined. However, the final fixation of the canon took place near the end of the 4th century. At the time of the Reformation the shape of the New Testament was beyond serious debate. Martin Luther had questioned the inclusion of the book of James, calling it "a strawy epistle," because of its alleged "works righteousness" theology. His viewpoint did not affect the content of the canon; however, Luther's opinion does illustrate that his central focus on justification by faith became a guideline of interpretation by which to judge and relate the various parts of the New Testament. This hermeneutical assumption, or principle of biblical interpretation, in effect created a canon within the canon. Such a feature is not unique to Luther. All theological traditions demonstrate to one degree or another a hermeneutical frame of reference by which the New Testament, and the Old, are explained and proclaimed.
The Anabaptists approached the New Testament with certain clear assumptions which correlated with their theological views and distinguished them from other reformers. With other Christians they held to the centrality of Christ in understanding the Bible. However, a Christ-centered approach meant something different since they stressed the teaching and example of Jesus as much as his saving death and resurrection. Their emphasis on obedient following of Christ, i.e., discipleship, led them to uphold an ethical standard that superseded the standards of the Old Testament. The writings of the Anabaptists speak often of the greater status of the New Testament in relation to the Old. The two testaments were not on the same level of authority even though all Scripture is the Word of God. This principle became a key defense of their absolute nonviolence against the appeal of others to the practice of warfare described in the Old Testament.
Along with a hermeneutic of discipleship, the Anabaptists practiced a hermeneutic of restoration (restitutionism). This refers to the conviction that the church, as depicted in the New Testament, is the norm for all time. This biblicism, as it has been called, brought the Anabaptists in conflict with the established church. The church which they found in the New Testament was a church of true believers who stood over against a society outside the perfect will of Christ. This stance again could not accept any appeal to the Old Testament to limit or modify the direct application of New Testament teaching. Their hermeneutic rejected, for example, the support of infant baptism by analogy to circumcision in Israel. Anabaptists also found an appeal to the theocratic character of Israel as a nation to justify the union of church and state to be unconvincing.
Within the New Testament itself, the Anabaptists made no apparent distinction in terms of one part having more weight than another. It is true that the teaching of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount) has an especially crucial role in the definition of discipleship. The assumption is made, however, that the rest of the New Testament is consistent with that teaching and is an elaboration of it. The typical expression for the final norm in interpretation is "the life and doctrine of Christ and the apostles." Statistical information on citations from different books in the New Testament seems to indicate such a balance in their practice.
In recent years, Old Testament scholars in Mennonite circles have called for a corrective in Mennonite thinking about the Old Testament. The christocentric hermeneutic is affirmed but the critique is made that Mennonites are prone to miss the spiritual and theological contribution of the Old Testament on its own terms. Interestingly, the Old Testament has become important in the greater emphasis among Mennonites on issues of peace and justice and on the relevance of faith to the political and social questions of the present age. An important area of future work is to clarify the christocentric implications for the church's response to these issues.
Swartley, Willard, ed. Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984.
Augsburger, Myron S. Principles of Biblical Interpretation in Mennonite Theology. Scottdale, PA, 1967.
Wenger, John C. God's Word Written. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1966.
Klassen, William. Covenant and Community: the Life and Writings of Pilgram Marpeck. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.
Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: 140-61.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 625-626. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Brunk, George R, III. "New Testament." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/N498ME.html.
APA style: Brunk, George R, III. (1989). New Testament. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/N498ME.html.