From its very beginning the Christian church has been faced with a dilemma in its use of the Old Testament. As long as the apostles were alive their authority was accepted on an equal status with the writings of the Old Testament, but when the church began to wrestle with the formation of a canon of New Testament Scriptures, the problem of authority and place of the Old Testament became acute. Jesus, in His teachings, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, had made His position clear. Paul, following Jesus, used the Old Testament freely, but also went beyond it to show that Christ's fulfillment of the Old Testament was complete.
The most drastic solution to the problem of the Old Testament was advocated by Marcion in the second century, who not only rejected the Old Testament entirely, but also expurgated those sections of the New Testament which had a strong Jewish background. All that was left in his New Testament was a drastically revised Luke-Acts, and an "edited" Pauline corpus. Needless to say, the church rejected Marcion as a heretic. Marcion, however, made a contribution by calling attention to the lack of a clearly defined position with respect to the Old Testament. The Epistle of Barnabas and the Clementine literature were extremely allegorical in dealing with the Old Testament and this Marcion rightly rejected. It remained therefore for Irenaeus to develop a "Biblical theology" which took account of the fact that God worked both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The theology of Irenaeus represented the first conscious attempt to define the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament on a historical and not allegorical basis, although the recently discovered Homily on the Passions by Melito of Sardis shows that individual preachers had used certain motifs to bridge the gap between two Testaments, rather than succumbing to abstruse allegory.
Adolf Harnack states that the retention of the Old Testament in the church's canon was justified in the early church, but a mere historical accident in the time of the Reformation. Any student of the Reformation will hardly agree with this statement, since in many ways the battles of the first two centuries were again taken up in the 16th. Certainly this is true with respect to the Old Testament. The Reformers were faced with the problem of the Old Testament repeatedly, and part of the reason was that the Anabaptists were critical of the degree of authority given to the Old Testament by the Reformers. Unfortunately the issue was obscured by Thomas Müntzer, who breathed deeply from the apocalyptic and vindictive sections of the Old Testament, thus misreading its true intent, and by the Münsterites who patterned their kingdom at Münster upon the Old Testament, instituting polygamy, royalty, etc. These events had little to do with the essential development of Anabaptism, but served to obscure the true Anabaptists. At Münster the daily Scripture reading was taken from the Old Testament, generally from the Prophets. This Old Testament Biblicism was criticized by Corvinus, who tried to define the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament in his attack against Münster.
The Anabaptist estimate of the Old Testament was a result of their discussions with the Reformers. It is significant that at each major disputation (e.g., Frankenthal) the problem of Old Testament authority was discussed at length, especially with reference to its relation to the New Testament. As far as the records indicate, the Reformers made no original contribution in these discussions and their solutions have not been accepted by Protestantism. It is quite clear that their arguments about Old Testament authority are colored by their desire to retain infant baptism and the state church, as well as to weaken the Anabaptist position on the oath, etc. Roland Bainton has shown that with regard to the problem of the immoral deeds of the patriarchs the exegetes of the Reformation developed a number of interesting techniques to justify them, but the end result of this kind of exegesis, seen most clearly in Luther's defense of Philip's bigamy, is that the Old Testament can be used as an attenuating ethical standard. On this point the Anabaptists had a much more consistent and clearly defined position.
The enemies of the early Swiss Anabaptists charged them with rejecting the Old Testament. Bullinger wrote: "The Anabaptists believe that [in regard to salvation] one should not prove anything from the Old Testament; the transactions of the Old Testament are finished and do not concern us"(Ursprung: 73). Zwingli wrote in his Elenchus of 1527: "In this country they deny the entire Old Testament, which I have seen with my own eyes. For they wrote to our magistrate that the Old Testament has been done away with." Schwenckfeld accused the Anabaptists of living only in the New Testament and disregarding the Old Testament. Gast, in his Exordio of 1544 (33), attacked the Anabaptist position on the Old Testament. Wigand, in his De Anabaptismo of 1582, put these words into their mouth: "The Old Testament cannot in all respects be held equal to the New Testament, but only where it agrees with the New." Since then others have repeated the charge, calling the Anabaptists Marcionites, at least in tendency. An investigation of the sources does not, however, support this charge.
There is first of all the work done by Hans Denck and the marginal Anabaptist Ludwig Haetzer in translating the prophets from the Hebrew into German at the very outset of the Anabaptist movement. Hans Leupold, of Augsburg, at his hearing in 1527 asserted that at their meetings the Anabaptists considered God's Word, principally the Gospels and the Prophets. Leonhard Schiemer urges his flock to gather together often and to read mainly from the New Testament and the Psalms. The hidden things of the Old Testament will be plain to them in the New Testament. It should be noted that Schiemer does not tell his people that they should ignore the Old Testament, but only urges them to read the Old Testament (called shadow) through the eyes of the New Testament (called light). He feels that the Psalms contain everything in the Old Testament but that the books of the Kings and the Pentateuch could also be read with profit. However, all things are contained in the New Testament, for the apostles are the summary (Auszug) of all the prophets.
The influence of Schiemer continued in the Marpeck brotherhood, which was the only group among the Anabaptists to work extensively on the relation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In several aspects of its position the Marpeck group differed from other Anabaptists. This is particularly true of certain exaggerations made by Marpeck in order to establish his point. Already in his confession of 1532, Marpeck referred repeatedly to the difference between the Old Covenant, a covenant of servitude, and the New Covenant, a covenant of sonship. This same distinction appears at some length in the Anabaptist tract of unknown authorship or origin, Von zweierlei gehorsam, and shows that the Anabaptists were interested in a responsible type of Christianity which was not compelled by legalism, but rather based on a vital relationship of sonship. This was viewed as the basic distinction between the two Testaments. In his two booklets of 1531 Marpeck uses the Old Testament extensively, explaining that he was compelled to do so because the false prophets whom he was opposing used it wrongly. One of the false prophets was Bunderlin, who repeatedly rejected historical exegesis, explicitly condemning the Antiochian school of exegesis. The alternative that he suggested is an elaborate allegory influenced by neoplatonic values. The same is true of Schwenckfeld, but to a lesser degree. In contrast, Marpeck restricted his use of allegory to examples of allegory in the Bible itself, e.g., Hagar and Sarah, and the Song of Solomon. The historical material was always treated as historical by him, and his greatest objection to both Schwenckfeld's and the Reformers' treatment of the Old Testament is that the historical lines of distinction are not observed. He begins with the book of Hebrews and insists that the shadows have now been driven away and the essence has come. The essence, however, is not defined in Platonic terms, but always as a historical person, Jesus Christ. The difference between the two Testaments lies in the Incarnation. The pre-existent Christ was present in the Old Testament, but not in such a way as to give man the benefits which the New Testament saints experienced. To place the Old Testament saints on the same level as those of the New, seemed to Marpeck a blasphemy on the work of Christ as found in the New Testament. This theme is most fully elaborated in the Testamenterleutterung.
Beyond and behind the theological issue stood the ethical issue. In the Clare verantwurtung Marpeck makes it clear that while the Old Testament tolerated revenge, the New definitely forbids it, and that the law of love controls the behavior of the Christian. This same principle was carried into the discussion of the oath when the Reformers insisted on the oath because it was tolerated in the Old Testament. Over against this the Anabaptists had the clear word of Christ which insisted that the Christian should not swear. The Anabaptist attitude toward the Old Testament can be described as desiring above all to give Christ the honor due Him, and not stressing the Old Testament revelation except where it is in accord with the New. Darkness is not used to interpret light, but rather light is used to interpret darkness.
Studies of both Marpeck and Menno Simons indicate that they used the Old Testament extensively; it is out of the question to consider them Marcionite even in tendency. Their use of the Old Testament was, however, such as to draw inspiration from the acts of God in the history of His people, and not to draw an ethic from a time when God's fullest revelation had not yet appeared. The extensive use of the Old Testament Scriptures is seen especially in the Ausbund, the Codex Geiser, Riedemann's Rechenschaft, and in the devotional literature, particularly that which had a strong martyrological strain. At a time when they themselves were asked to lay down their lives, the Anabaptists drew inspiration and comfort from the sufferings of the people of God in the past, and were sustained by the conviction that the same God who had worked His purpose through His people in the past would also fulfill it in them, no matter how dark the days in which they lived at the time.
It is significant that it was an Anabaptist who in 1531 complained that the Strasbourg preachers were not preaching the Law (Old Testament) before preaching the Gospel, and that in the 16th century the Anabaptists rejected the virtual identification of the two covenants seen in Zwingli, Bucer, and Bullinger. In doing so they were ahead of their time in seeing elements of continuity and discontinuity in the two covenants. Perhaps they were inclined to see too clearly the elements of discontinuity, but they did so because they saw what a virtual identification of the two covenants leads to in the area of ethics, and what happens to groups who seek to base a social order on the Old Testament. Lydia Müller's assertion that the Anabaptists lived strongly in the New Testament must be correctly understood. It was for them literature of edification (Erbauung), but the standards of the Christian life were to be drawn from the New Testament. Related to this was the conviction that the power to live the Christian life had come only with the New Covenant. Jacques d'Auchy, a Dutch martyr of 1559, is a good example, in saying that "we are no longer under the law, but under the gospel" (Mart. Mir. E 904) and declaring that the Old Testament is to be valued only as it is understood by Christ and the apostles. Conrad Grebel had already declared in his letter to Müntzer in 1524, "We are no longer under the Old Covenant." Hans Denck said in his Von der wahren Liebe: "It stands thus with the teaching and work of Moses, David, and the Fathers: wherever love, i.e., Jesus, has surpassed them with something better, one must for the sake of the better consider them bad."
In later years descendants of the Anabaptists have not always taken a wholesome view of the Old Testament. Legalism, expressed in terms of restrictions on women's dress (not wearing men's clothes) and the beard, has been drawn from the Old Testament apparently not aware that such arguments run directly counter to the essential Anabaptist position. The difficulty some recent Mennonite theologians have had in reconciling the Old Testament ethic with a non-resistant ethic has led to a disparagement of the Old Testament, while some Mennonite educators even advocate not telling children the story of Goliath because of what it may do to them. These approaches fail to see the essential nature of these narratives, and do little to assist Mennonites in forming a positive opinion of the Old Testament in the future. There is no doubt that the Old Testament confronts the Christian church with some gnawing problems, but they are not overcome by relegating the Old Testament to an irrelevant position. Rather, the church, from Irenaeus through the Reformation even to our time, has seen that the best approach is a historical one in which God is progressively working through His people, preparing them for the fullness of revelation. The Old Testament stands as a brilliant testimony to God's working in history to fulfill His purpose among men who yield themselves to His plan. His ways of working have changed, but He still seeks to gather a people around His name. The New Testament insists that everything in the Old Testament must be judged in the light of Christ. It is a testimony to the Anabaptist devotion to Christ that they saw this point clearly and insisted on it with courage and steadfastness.
Bainton, Roland. "The Immoralities of the Patriarchs According to the Exegesis of the Late Middle Ages and of the Reformation." Harvard Theological Journal 23 (1930): 39-49.
Bullinger, Heinrich. Der Widertoeufferen Ursprung.
Bullinger, Heinrich. Von dem einigen vnnd ewigen Testament Oder Pundt Gottes. s.l, 1534.
Corpus Schwenckfeld: VIII, 221:10 ff.; X, 925.
Gastius, J. De anabaplismi exordio. Basel, 1544.
Gerdes, Hayo. Lutkers Streit mil den Schwarmern um das rechte Verstundnis des Gesetzes Mose. 1955.
Harnack, Adolf. Marcion, Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott. Leipzig, 1921: 248 f.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 40.
Klassen, W. "Pilgram Marpeck's Hermeneutics with Special Reference to His Understanding of the Old Testament." Unpublished doctoral dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary, 1959.
Müller, Lydia. Glaubenszeugnisse oberdeutscher Taufgesinnter I (Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte, Band XX). M. Heinsius Nachfolger, 1938: 45 (Schiemer).
Müller, Lydia. Der Kommunismus der mahrischen Wiedertaufer. Liepzig, 1927: 25.
Wigand, J. De anabaptismo. Leipzig, 1582.
Zwingli, H. In catabaptistarum strophas elenchus. Zurich, 1527.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 49-52. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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