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David Alexander 1

16th Century Anabaptist Hermeneutics and 21st Century Asian Christians

David B. Alexander, M.A. Tainan Theological College and Seminary
Many Asian Christians and their churches live confined within Western theological
methods and models. Some are unable, and many are unwilling to break through conceptual
and ideological walls to gain a vision of the breadth of God’s revelation. Many Western
theological patterns and norms give Asian Christians and churches a sense of security. These
ancient patterns survived the 16th Century European Reformation and are present in Asian
churches, including the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, which trace their roots to are rooted
in European Reformation traditions.
Churches of Reformed and Lutheran Theology formed the mainstream of the
Reformation. The Roman Catholic Counter-reformation became its “right wing”. These
retained much from patristic and medieval theology and ecclesiology. The “left wing of the
reformation” (the Anabaptists) made a clearer break with the past. This break serves as a
model for 21st Century Asian Christians and churches dealing with their confinement in
Western theological legacies.
This article does not advocate that Asian Christians and churches should become
Anabaptists. It holds up the courage of the 16th Century European Anabaptists who stood for
methods and visions that were alternative to the mainstream in their time and place.
May Asian Christians and Churches, including those which are included among 21st
century Anabaptists, similarly view the legacy we have been presented, and break through the
walls to a clearer vision of the reign of God among us.

The Medieval Legacy at the Beginning of the Reformation
Medieval interpreters, though diverging little from the lead given by early church
fathers, advocated an extreme form of the hermeneutics of faith, insisting that a Bible
reader must be in a right spiritual frame of mind and spirit before reading the sacred
text.1 For Aquinas, “reason” meant “thinking in conformity with the mind of God.” In
his theological work biblical texts were to be read literally so that they could become
proofs of theological claims.2 In contrast was Meister Eckhart whose eisegesis began
with speculation, doctrine and moral teaching, and brought these to the text, reading
them into it, in order to test them.3 Thomas a Kempis stressed simplicity and literal
reading rather than allegorical or difficult interpretation. His hermeneutic was that of
an individual listening with humble simplicity to the word of God in Scripture. In this
way he anticipated the Protestant reformers who came after him.4
On the cusp of the Reformation, Erasmus shifted the emphasis from Scripture as

1
David Jasper, A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics (Louisville: W/JK, 2004) p. 46.
2
Ibid. p. 47.
3
Ibid. p. 50.
4
Ibid. p. 51.
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“proof text” for theology and tradition to an acknowledgment of the importance of the
moment of exchange in the act of reading itself. His was an early form of “reader
response” criticism.5.
The mainstream Reformers moved gradually in their opposition to the Catholic
establishment, eventually securing support of political authorities and setting up
alternative expressions of Christendom that removed certain religious features but
maintained the basic Christendom framework.6 Though they introduced changes in
hermeneutic approaches, they did not escape the dominant biblical interpretation
mindset that accompanied Christendom. Their focus on Jesus as redeemer was not
matched by a similar centrality of Jesus for ethics. Their operative hermeneutic order
applied scripture to soteriological matters while remaining wary of interpretations that
might threaten the social, political and economic status quo.7
Martin Luther’s Hermeneutics
The hermeneutics of Martin Luther can be seen as a continuance of the tradition
of the medieval period. His difference from it is not in the matter of method, but in
authority. Many influences came to bear on the Reformers, William of Ockham (to
whose philosophy Luther subscribed) held that figurative interpretations are not useful
for theology,8 nevertheless, he stated that final authority in matters of interpretation
must be submitted to Rome.9 Nicholas of Lyra led Luther to pay particular attention to
languages and the text, while Faber Stapulensis emphasized the role of the Spirit in
interpretation, as well as attention to what the original author intended to say. Faber
said that the key to interpreting the Old Testament is the New Testament. He believed
that the Old Testament by itself was worth nothing for theology. Christ, speaking
through His Spirit, provides the correct interpretation.10 Lutheran Reformers were not
the first, nor were they alone in making the hermeneutical-exegetical decisions and
assertions: sola Scriptura, sensus literalis, and Scriptura sui ipsius interpres.11
From Luther onwards the Reformers insisted on replacing the authority of the
dogmatic systems of the church with the authority of scripture. Luther engaged in
biblical study apart from creedal determiners of meaning to arrive at a “plain sense”
reading of the text.12 His concern was to set the Bible free to interact with the
5
Ibid pp. 52-3.
6
Lewis W. Spitz, The Protestant Reformation: 1517-1559 (New York: Harper & Row, 1985) p. 167
AND Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol 2 (San Francisco: Harper, 1985) p. 56.
7
Robert Friedman, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973) p. 19
8
Ben C. Ollenburger, “The Hermeneutics of Obedience: A Study of Anabaptist Hermeneutics”
Direction Vol.6, No. 22, April 1977. pp. 19-31 AND Spitz, Op. Cit. p. 80.
9
Ockham was eventually excommunicated for defiance of Pope John XXII on the matter of Franciscan
poverty. After that time he became a rigorous defender of the separation of Church and State. (See the
Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford: OUP, 1995) p. 633.
10
Ollenburger, op. cit. .
11
Martin H. Franzmann, “Seven Theses on Reformation Hermeneutics” Concordia Theological
Monthly, April 1969
12
Spitz, Op. Cit. p. 84.
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subjective experience of the reader, not to substantiate the theology of the church. His
basic interest came to rest on the literal and moral sense of scripture.13 He claimed that
scripture was authoritative because its content was Christ. For Luther, anything, even
if it is in the Bible, which did not witness to Christ was not scripture. Biblical material
had “different levels”, distinguished by the quality of their witness to Christ.14
After Luther’s decisive break with the Roman Church he ceased to make use of
allegorizations and insisted on the necessity of “one simple solid sense” for the
arming of theologians. He admitted the existence of allegories in scripture only where
the various authors intended them. He called for exegetes to have a historical
understanding of the authors and of their times. This historical understanding, he said,
gives the primary meaning of the text. |But understanding of any one part must be
associated with knowledge of the scriptures as a whole, by means of which the
ordinary expressions and idioms of scripture could be grasped.15
For Luther, scripture interprets us as much as we interpret scripture.16 By “Word
of God” he meant more than merely scripture. He spoke of scripture as “the
swaddling clothes for the baby which is Christ.” clearly recognizing the normative
value of scripture’s witness to Christ as witness rather than as dogma.17
All Protestant Reformation groups stressed Christocentric interpretation, but the
outcome of this emphasis differed because of the way it was correlated with particular
doctrinal or ethical perceptions. Luther’s doctrinal priority for salvation by faith alone
resulted in comparative evaluations of Biblical literature, ranking most highly those
books which emphasize salvation by faith (Genesis, Psalms, Galatians and Romans
ranked more highly than Leviticus, Ezra-Nehemiah and James).18
Such regard as he held for the traditions of the church fathers was not because
they provided any authoritative or legal inheritance but only insofar as those church
fathers were themselves competent hermeneuts. All interpreters must acknowledge
their own limitations capacities for misunderstanding. What Luther offered was a way
to proceed more than a conclusive enterprise.19 Reading the scriptures by his “way”
begins with the literal sense and grows to spiritual understanding as the text discloses
or reveals the Word of God.20
John Calvin’s Hermeneutics
Calvin also advocated a “plain sense” reading of the text, but that did not mean
13
Jasper, Op. cit. p. 57.
14
Brian Gerrish, “Biblical Authority and the Continental Reformation” Scottish Journal of Theology
No. 10 (1957), p. 343.
15
Robert M. Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (New York: Macmillan, 1963) p.
131
16
Jasper, Op. Cit. pp59-60.
17
Ollenburger, Op. cit.
18
Gonzalez, Op. Cit. p. 30.
19
Jasper, Op. cit. p. 58.
20
Ibid. p. 59.
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quite the same thing to him as it does to modern advocates who equate “plain sense”
reading with virtually no biblical study. He took great care to do biblical study and
wrote detailed biblical commentaries. His “plain sense” stood against simply
accepting what the church had always said, which was the prevailing paradigm in the
Roman Church. Key to Calvin’s exegesis of Scripture is confirmation by the internal
testimony of the Holy Spirit.21
For Calvin, Bible reading had to be grounded in rational reflection, self-
understanding and common sense. His reader interprets within the context of society,
bringing to the text a personal and creative imagination.22 Beyond these, serious
consideration of the historical context of any writing requires readers to appreciate
their own minds as well as the very mind of the biblical author of the text BEFORE
going on to matters of theology and authority of the church.23
He claimed to be “objective”, holding scripture itself, rather than a biased
Christocentric interpretation of scripture, as the authority for Christian belief.24 In this
he succumbed to the hermeneutic of faith, which ultimately determines human
acceptance of the Bible. But because he noted that faith is not possessed by all, his
insistence on its primacy in exegesis opened the way for subjectivism even while he
tried to exclude it.25
16th Century Anabaptist Hermeneutics
The early Anabaptist movement, the radical fringe of the 16th century
Reformation in Europe, comprehensively rejected Christendom and its symbols.26 Its
adherents considered themselves called as Christians to live an alternative to
mainstream culture, even when that alternative threatened the social order. Their
conviction ultimately found expression in tightly knit, sectarian communities. They
submitted to worldly authorities only insofar as such submission did not contradict
obedience to God. Their ecclesiology of a visible church of committed disciples put
them outside of what was considered acceptable and led to brutal persecution and
martyrdom.27 Their biblical interpretation resembled that of mainstream Protestant
reformers in many ways, but also showed distinctive elements.28 Their rejection of
Christendom led to the development of an approach to biblical interpretation that
resembled pre-Christendom interpretations more than those of the Reformers or most
interpreters since Constantine, resulting in alternative perspectives on ethical issues

21
Jasper. Op. Cit. p. 61.
22
Ibid.
23
Ibid. p. 62.
24
Grant. Op. Cit. p. 133.
25
Ibid. p. 134.
26
W. R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Nashville: Broadman, 1963) p. 10 AND Gonzalez, Op.Cit. p. 56.
27
Friedman, Op. Cit. p. 118.
28
Gordon Rupp, Patterns of Reformation, (London, Epworth, 1969), p. 251.
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and ecclesiology.29
Anabaptist leaders agreed with mainstream Protestant reformers that the Bible
was the final authority. They too emphasized the literal-historical method of
interpretation. Like Luther, the Anabaptists held to a Christocentric hermeneutic and
used scripture to interpret scripture. Similar to Calvin’s insistence on the inner witness
of the Holy Spirit, Anabaptists often appealed to the Holy Spirit as the source of
insight and illumination in understanding scripture.30 Scripture was clear, they taught,
when it was read under the tuition of the Holy Spirit, but clarity could not be expected
by those who neglected the Spirit’s help. Many Anabaptists insisted that they relied on
the Holy Spirit as the interpreter who would lead believers into the truth and whose
teaching was more helpful than education or theological expertise.31
They disagreed with mainstream reformers in understandings of the relation
between the testaments32; the relation of the letter and spirit; and in the role of all
believers in interpretation and testing of interpretation. Perhaps most important of all,
they differed in the relation of discipleship and obedience to insight and knowledge.33
Calvin’s doctrinal priority of God’s sovereignty and elective purpose together
with his view that authority resides objectively in the text itself led him to emphasize
that all Scripture bears witness to the elective and salvific purpose of God.
Anabaptists, in contrast, believed that all Scripture culminates in the gospel story of
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection power.34 The centrality of Jesus in scripture was
foundational for Anabaptist hermeneutics and theology. He was regarded as the one to
whom all Scripture pointed and witnessed, and his words and deeds were authoritative
and normative.35 Like other movements in the Reformation, the Anabaptists used
medieval hermeneutic methods. Sometimes allegorizing, sometimes instating on
literalistic readings, sometimes mystic-spiritual, but they always maintained their
central thesis, which was “Nothing but Christ.”36
Anabaptists consciously rejected purely cognitive reading of the Bible performed
by experts. They believed the Bible belonged to the whole congregation, and any
believer, educated or uneducated, could read and hear God’s word through it.
Committed to the Rule of Paul, that “two or three prophets should speak, and the
others should weigh carefully what is said” (I Cor 14:29), Anabaptist leaders held that
Scripture was plain and understandable by the gathered believers.37 The conviction

29
G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation,( Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962) p. 267. .
30
Ibid. pp 49, 51, 153 AND Friedman, Op. Cit. p. 20. .
31
Williams, Op. Cit., p. 153.
32
Ibid. p. 468.
33
Friedman, Op. Cit. pp. 28-29. .
34
Ibid. p. 149.
35
Williams, Op Cit. p. 153.
36
Ollenburger, Op. cit.
37
Ibid. p. 214.
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that the congregation, rather than the university, the preacher’s study or the mind of
the individual, was where Scripture should be interpreted, was significant in some
Anabaptist groups.38 By this hermeneutics process the obedient reader would come to
discover God’s will.39
Because mainstream reformers used arguments based in the Old Testament to
undercut Anabaptist arguments, Anabaptist interpreters lowered the force of the Old
Testament and made the New Testament normative over it. But their focus was on
obedience rather than methods. They called for the church to abandon structures,
doctrines and methods that impeded obedience. Congregations were to enter into
committed conversations (congregational hermeneutics), reading the Bible as
obedient people, using whatever methods are available to discern the shape of the
Kingdom and the pattern of obedience together heeding Christ’s call.40
Applicability to Asian Christians in the 21st Century
16th century Anabaptists reacted against dominant modes of social understanding
as they responded to scripture in gathered bodies, rather than as reasoning
individuals. Understandings were drawn in the contexts of community and practice,
not out of the interplay of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. These models may offer 21st
century Asian readers some ways to reconnect with truth that has been lost since the
Enlightenment.
“Christendom thought” has been shaking since the Enlightenment and has
become largely irrelevant in the West, yet authority and control over “younger
churches” in the global South is exercised by Western churches through theological,
denominational, cultural and economic links. Protestant and Catholic churches in Asia
depend on denominational, missionary and economic support of Western mother
churches to function and survive. Though Asian to their very core, these Asian
churches cannot easily wean themselves from the civilizational frame of the West.
They need to seek to express their identity as Asians.41 To be Christian on a continent
where Christians are a numerical minority and Asian in a global church where Asians
are a minority, Christians on and from this continent may find it useful to resort to
hermeneutic models that were forged apart from and even against the dominant
Christendom of the 16th century.
The 16th century Anabaptist hermeneutic model, like that of Martin Luther, was
consciously centered on Christ over against the prevailing one centered on the
doctrines and traditions of the Roman church. Centers can be chosen. In 1966 a CCA
consultation: Confessing the Faith in Asia Today, called for unity as the center.
38
Ibid. p. 829.
39
Kenneth H. Berg, “Case Studies on Hermeneutics” Direction Vol.6, No. 22, April 1977. pp. 32-35
40
Ollenburger. Op. Cit.
41
K.M. George, “Ecumenism in Asia: Some Theological Considerations” in Windows into Ecumenism
(Hong Kong, CCA, 2005) pp. 122-123.
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The fact that must be faced is that, while in the West the churches
drew up their historic confessions and adopted their various forms of
Church order in the light of the controversies that took place within
the church and within Christendom, the confessional need of the
churches in Asia is primarily in relation to their mission in the world.
The issues for them do not so much concern those things in which
the churches differ from one another as those things which Christians
together must confess before the world.42
A unity-centered hermeneutic, based on things which Christians can hold in common
with each other and even with people of other living faiths, may serve Asian
Christians, Asian Churches, and all Asian people better than one centered elsewhere,
even if that center is Christ.
The chosen hermeneutic community of the 16th century Anabaptists was the
gathered congregation. This was over against the clergy and scholar-centered
interpretative communities that prevailed in mainstream churches of Europe at that
time. Long before Christianity, the Buddha and his disciples experimented with a
“hospitality” model of propagating their religion. This Asian model is the hallmark of
the locus and the local church. As mutual openness, love, sharing of resources,
respect, receptivity and self-giving, it is the major element that creates the quality of
katholicity between local communities.43 Korean Minjung reading is a contemporary
example. Done through the eyes and experiences of the grassroots people of Korea
who suffer under oppression and exploitation, it rejects the style of Bible reading that
seeks to justify the powerful.44 The Minjung community has its core in the
relationship of solidarity among Minjung Christians, mission workers, congregation
pastors and theologians who are committed to serve their movement.45
Conclusion
Awareness of context, not only contemporary and local, but that which affected
the formation of models inherited from the past, may liberate 21st century Asian
Christians to be authentic within their own context. Conscious choices of centers
around which interpretations are made and by which they are judged may free 21st
century Asian Christians to speak to the needs of this locale at this time. The
interpretative community which gathers around a text and, through the give-and-take
of dialogue, listens to that text, has a strong effect on the interpretation which
emerges. These factors influenced the Anabaptist hermeneutic which emerged from

42
Confessing the Faith in Asia Today, Statement issued by the consultation convened by the East Asia
Christian Conference, Hong Kong, 1966. Epworth Press, Redfern Australia, 1967, p. 9.
43
K. M. George, Op. cit., p. 128.
44
Kim Yong-Bock, “The Bible Among the Minjung of Korea: Kairotic Listening and Reading of the
Bible” in Scripture, Community and Mission, Philip Wickeri, ed. (Hong Kong, CCA, 2003) p. 82. .
45
Ibid. p. 83.
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16th century Europe and which carries a legitimacy even today. The model may be of
use for 21st century Asians as well.