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"If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." (Luke 9:23)

Christ's Word

by J. C. Wenger

Plenary Authority

The entire Protestant Reformation rested on the doctrine of the full inspiration and authority of the Holy Scriptures. And yet in actual practice, tradition was sometimes allowed to stand in the way of a full obedience to the Word of God. The Anabaptists felt that Luther had no right to speak disparagingly of the Epistle of James - Luther did so because James condemned any professed "faith" which did not issue in a life of obedience and good works. Menno called Luther's remarks "bold folly."

Apart from a few liberal Dutch Mennonite theologians after 1860, when the Amsterdam seminary ceased to be fully sound, all theological writers in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition from Conrad Grebel (d. 1526) to Harold S. Bender (d. 1962) held to a high view of the Scriptures. The theologians of other traditions were either puzzled or annoyed at the utter simplicity which dared to take in simple faith such "hard sayings" of Christ and His apostles as not to lay up treasures on earth, not to resist an evil man, not to go to law to achieve one s rights, not to swear an oath, and not to use such titles of religious honor as "Father."

Conrad Grebel, the founder of Swiss Anabaptism, declared that he believed the Word "simply out of grace and not from learning." In a letter of 1524 he set the tone for his future church program: he exhorted Muentzer "to seek earnestly to preach only the divine Word and unafraid, to set up and defend only divine rites, to esteem as right and good only what is found in crystal-clear Scripture, to reject, hate, and curse all proposals, words, rites, and opinions of all men, even your own." Again, "Operate only according to the Word, and draw and establish from the Word the rites of the apostles." It was Grebel's conviction that "it is far preferable that a few be rightly instructed in the Word of God . . . than that many through adulterated doctrine falsely and deceitfully 'believe.'" "Press forward with the Word and create a Christian church with the help of Christ and His rule as we find it instituted in Matthew 18 and practiced in the epistles." In brief, "Hold to the Word alone...." " Set up and teach only the clear Word and rites of God, together with the rule of Christ [Matthew 18]."

Similar statements are found in the writings and testimonies of all the major Anabaptist figures: Michael Sattler, Leopold Scharnschlager, Pilgram Marpeck, Dirck Philips, Thomas van Imbroich, and Menno Simons. In defending his Trinitarian faith Menno declared: "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 [Gospel writers], and apostles." (See also "Bible" in the Mennonite Encyclopedia.)

Holy Spirit Witness

The Free Churchmen took seriously the teaching of the New Testament on the depravity of human nature. They believed that until the Holy Spirit brought conviction for sin to the heart of a person, there was no hope of his becoming a Christian believer. Only the Holy Spirit can bring the individual to repentance and faith. The conversion of everyone coming into the church is a testimony to the effective work of the Holy Spirit in witnessing to the truth of the gospel and the saviorhood of Jesus Christ.

In a similar way, the Holy Scriptures in themselves are unable to bring the sinner to penitence and faith. The entire Bible is, to be sure, the inspired Word of God. But the Holy Spirit needs to operate in the heart and mind of the non-Christian as he encounters the Word either in its preached or written form - so that it "comes alive" as the living and powerful Word of God, convicting of sin and pointing to the Savior of the world. In no sense is this a depreciation of the written Scriptures; the lack is not in the Bible. The block is in the cold heart of the unregenerated person reading or hearing the Word. It is the Holy Spirit who gives the "ring of truth" to the Scriptures. This position is set forth in passages such as 1 Corinthians 2 and 2 Corinthians 3. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 we read that we all, as persons having spiritual sight because of the blessed work of the Spirit of God in opening our eyes, beholding the glory of the Lord Jesus on the pages of Holy Writ, are being changed into His spiritual image by the glorious Lord who is [no longer "flesh" but] Spirit. (Compare various versions of the passage.)

Finality of the New Testament

Everybody knows that the Bible has two major parts, the Old Testament which was written prior to the time of our Lord Jesus on earth, and the New Testament which was written after His atoning death and victorious resurrection, and after the ascended Lord had "baptized" His waiting disciples with the fullness of Holy Spirit blessings, beginning at Pentecost. Christians believe that the Old Covenant, made through the instrumentality of Moses, involved holy days, ceremonially clean and unclean foods, animal sacrifices for sin, a priesthood, the rite of circumcision for the covenant people, and the like. The New Covenant dropped the Jewish ritualistic regulations on food, clothing, and holy days; abolished circumcision as a required rite, did away with animal sacrifices and a special priesthood for God's people, instituted water baptism for Christian converts, and set up the Lord's Supper to commemorate the atoning death of the Savior. But the Free Churchmen- in contrast with the state church reformers, Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed - also understood the New Testament to abolish the swearing of oaths, to call for the nonuse of civil courts to achieve one's rights, and even called for meekness in unjust suffering, including the rejection of force and violence in human relations. In common with the Christians of the first centuries, they refused to serve in the military. (See C. J. Cadoux, The Early Church and the World, Scribners, 1925.) These attitudes were commonly regarded in the sixteenth century as pure fanaticism, even a dangerous heresy, for if enough people followed such an ethic, what would happen to organized society? The fact that some of the Anabaptists condemned capital punishment made them still more odious.

The state churchmen stoutly defended the ethical acceptability of the civil oath, the legitimacy of the so-called "just war," and even insisted on the right of the state to crush such heretics as the Free Churchmen on the basis of Deuteronomy 13, which called for the extirpation of heresy by stoning the offenders. They also rejoiced when the Protestant princes of Germany set up territorial churches - a sys tem in which the state recognized one particular faith as "official," and persecuted dissenters. The Free Churchmen were much displeased with this system, a plan later summarized in Latin as Cujus regio, ejus religio (Whose the region, his the religion). The Free Churchmen insisted that in the Apostolic Church era, faith was an individual matter. The state ought not decide for or against any faith. There should simply be religious freedom and toleration. When the Word is proclaimed, some will respond. Those who are born again, "inwardly baptized" with the Holy Spirit, should then be baptized with water and received into the church. The state should neither encourage nor prevent this, but should mind its proper business of maintaining law and order (Romans 13).

The state churchmen recoiled in horror at such concepts and declared that since circumcision was performed on Israel's male infants and since "households" were baptized in the Apostolic Church, infant baptism was proper and right. They accused the Free Churchmen of damning the infants by refusing them water baptism - a charge totally rejected by the so called Anabaptists. They held, on the basis of Christ's Word, that infants were in the kingdom, indeed the greatest in the kingdom, apart from any ceremony (Matthew 18 and Luke 18). The state churchmen also "exorcised" infants - that is, they had a ceremony to drive demons out of them: a totally superfluous rite, said the Anabaptists. Indeed, the Free Churchmen held that whatever the state churchmen could not prove from the New Testament, they fell back to the Old Testament for, in farfetched analogies or unjustified conclusions - such as the justification of the oath, of infant baptism, of warfare, and of the persecution of religious dissenters. The state churchmen however, cried, "They are heretics! They reject the Old Testament."

When not in controversy, however, the leading clergymen of the state churches sometimes admitted that their chief differences with the Anabaptists involved such matters as to whether or not infants should be baptized and whether a Christian ought to serve as a magistrate (Zwingli). In 1615 J. J. Breitinger, then head of the Zurich state church, remarked that the Anabaptists "teach faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They do not hold errors which would cause a man to be lost, but such as have been taught by some of the old church fathers."

Christ the Key in Interpretation

The Swiss Brethren, the Austrian Hutterites, and the Dutch Mennonites had a Christ-centered Bible. The Lord Jesus was for them the most important theme of the Old Testament prophetic Scriptures - the Savior or "Messiah" which was to come - and was even more obviously the center of the New Testament Scriptures. On the Emmaus road the Lord Jesus began with Division I of the Old Testament, the writings of Moses; continued with Division II of the Jewish canon (Former Prophets - Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings; and Latter Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve); and finally went into Division III, which began with its largest book, the Psalms. In all these Scriptures He interpreted to them the things concerning Himself (Luke 24). Seeing Christ as the center of the entire Bible, and making Him the key to its proper interpretation, supported, the Free Churchmen believed, their basic theological and ethical convictions: the saved status of children; baptism as one's sign of commitment to Christian discipleship - indeed, a sort of ordination to serve as His witnesses; the ethic of peace, love, and nonresistance; the nonswearing of oaths; and the like. After sharply reminding one of his theological opponents how he teaches people to fight and retaliate, to imprison and destroy their enemies, "to sentence criminals regardless of whether they repent or not," and to swear according to the law of Moses, Menno asserted forcefully that he himself would teach people (Christians) to use no other sword than that of Christ and His apostles, i.e., the Word of God, to be merciful to penitent sinners, and "scrupulously to stand by their yea and nay," as Christ taught.

Such "christological" interpretation meant seeing the Lord Jesus as both key to, and "Lord" of, the canonical Scriptures. They all witness to Him, and if we are to be faithful we must teach from the entire Bible precisely what He taught. We must understand God's law as He understood it. We must be Christlike, in the power of His Spirit. We must stress what He stressed in theology and ethics. We must treat all people as persons who are precious to God. We must always relate to people, even wrong-doers, as He did: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Christ Himself left no writings, but He walked with and taught His chosen apostles for several years, baptized them with the Holy Spirit, and promised that He would endow them with "total recall" - so that they might rightly in the Spirit set forth and interpret His teaching, and His life, death, resurrection. Whatever from the Old Testament agreed with and supported the New, was regarded as normative and relevant by the Anabaptists. But whatever fell below the standard of Christ was regarded as pre-Christian, and not God's full and final revelation - such as warfare, divorce and remarriage, polygamy, the oath, deception, and lower status of women, and administration of civil justice by God's children.

The above is chapter 1 of Our Christ-Centered Faith by J. C. Wenger. Copyright 1973 by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 15683. All rights Reserved.