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Anabaptist hermeneutics and Theological education.

Abstract: Although some Christian traditions reserve the interpretation of scripture to a professional carps of ministers, the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition stresses the active role of the whole Christian community in understanding the sacred texts. The resulting hermeneutical process is Christocentric, based on a following of Jesus understood in terms of the language of love more than the language of ethics. Hermeneutical authority resides in the community over which Jesus exercises his lordship directly. Theological specialists minister to such a community not as mediators but as servants The Anabaptist conception of church emerging from his process offers a genuine alternative to the idea of church as centralized organization. The reign of God becomes manifest through a fraternal network of communities gathered around Jesus, and a new Christian identity emerges, one that rejects unjust power structures and expresses an eschatological hope for the radical renewal of all of creation


The word "hermeneutics" in Spanish means the "art of interpreting texts, especially sacred texts." (1) Etymologically the expression derives from the Greek word [TEXT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] meaning interpreter or translator. Hermeneutics may have been associated originally with Hermes, the messenger of the gods, dispenser of literary genius, patron of orators, god of travelers and protector of those who cross borders.

These origins of hermeneutics reveal a certain specialized character. Not everybody is able to translate. Translators have a more than ordinary knowledge of another language, a knowledge that allows them to serve as interpreters between their own people and a foreign group. Normally the interpreter is not a volunteer, but someone who earns a living by means of translations. Of course, such professional specialization of the interpreter does not in principle indicate any originality. The interpreter or translator is not the bearer of his own message, but rather someone who transmits the message of others, in the same way that the god Hermes transmitted the messages of the gods. Nevertheless, the translator may also always be a traitor (traduttore tradittore is the Italian phrase), someone who distorts the message in the service of other interests. For that reason the god Hermes was not only the patron of merchants and poets, but also the inspirer of thieves and liars.

Theological hermeneutics may sometimes bear a resemblance to these origins of ancient hermeneutics. The theologian or the exegete might be understood as someone out of the ordinary, a person who possesses the special ability to understand the divine messages written in the Sacred Books and to transmit them to people who do not possess the same kinds of knowledge. In such a perspective, theological education may be understood as a process of religious initiation that trains certain persons to become authorized, professional interpreters of the sacred books. Theological education would thus require a separation of the future hermeneutist from the believing community. In the course of that separation, during his stay in a center that specializes in theological studies, he would acquire certain sacred characteristics that would enable him to transmit to the faithful the correct interpretation of the biblical texts. It is no wonder that Hermes, the messenger of the gods, was also a god.

We are well aware that even today such an understanding of theological education is current in many seminaries and theological faculties. We are also quite conscious of how dangerous it can be. The sanctified interpreter, separated from his community, is a "pastor" or "priest" who has his own personal, professional and corporate interests to consider. His "translation" of sacred texts for the people of God may also be a sort of "treason," in which the true interests of the Christian community are betrayed. At the same time, the specialization and the professionalization that the interpreter undergoes may result in a language that is alien to that of his community and difficult for them to understand. Let us not forget that the god Hermes was associated not only with hermeneutics, but also with "hermetics," a term used to designate obscure and esoteric doctrines that were suitable only for a select group of initiates. (2) And all of us, of course, have occasionally heard sermons that are truly "hermetic" (or impenetrable, in Spanish).


It would be very easy at this point to give ourselves over to a certain anti-intellectualism, claiming simply that for the sixteenth-century Anabaptists the true subject of biblical interpretation was the Christian community, without any need of priests or professional theologians. As soon as we go deeper into this question, however, we become aware that things are not that simple. On the one hand, we may suspect that a lack of theological training could have occasioned some of the exaggerations into which certain Anabaptist groups fell. Think, for example, of those sixteenth century Anabaptists who, to "become like children" (Mt. 18:3), used to crawl about on the ground and babble like babies. (3) Other problems, such as the tendency toward legalism or the mutual excommunications among later Anabaptists, may have had as a backdrop, among other factors, a certain naivete in how the Bible was read. On the other hand, we also place great value on the writings of those sixteenth century Anabaptists who, because they had a sturdier theological culture, have bequeathed to us profound reflections that continue to be relevant for our own time. Thanks to them we can better understand the original meaning of Anabaptism and its contribution to contemporary Christianity. If our desire is to present the Christian message to a culturally complex world and to dialogue with Christians of different traditions, then it seems that we cannot do without theological training. But then how are we to understand theological training from an Anabaptist perspective, a perspective that gives priority to the Christian community in interpreting the Bible?

Let us begin by saying that, for Anabaptists, the Christian community was understood as a community of the Spirit. Like other reformers, the Anabaptists began by emphasizing the prominence of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation. For them, authentic interpretation of the Scriptures was a spiritual happening that made it possible to see from the viewpoint of the divine Author; the faithful could thus better understand both tire original meaning of the Scriptures and how they were, to be applied to the present. Obviously, this emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical interpretation docs not fully explain why the Anabaptists came to understand biblical interpretation as a community process, in contrast to other sixteenth-century movements that also insisted on the guidance of the Holy Spirit Nor were the Anabaptists the only reformers who held the idea of the universal priesthood of all Christians, or the resulting idea that every believer, guided by the Holy Spirit, could understand biblical texts directly, given the clarity and universal accessibility (perspicuitas) that the texts possessed. These same principles did not lead other Protestant reformers to a systematic development of the process of community biblical interpretation, although the idea crossed the minds of some of them. (4) In practice, the movements coming out of the Reformation oscillated between the magisterial interpretations of the church-designated theologians and the individualism of private interpretations. By contrast, in the sixteenth-century Anabaptist context, the professional pastor disappeared, and preaching included the participation of the whole body of the faithful as interpreters of the word of God. As a result the monologue of the priest or the pastor was replaced by a true dialogue among all the believers. (5)

The theological rationale for involving the whole community in biblical interpretation is found in Anabaptist Christocentrism. Again, we should remember that this Christocentrism was clearly an emphasis characteristic of the whole sixteenth-century Reformation, not just Ana baptism. All the reformers stressed the centrality of Jesus as the only mediator in order to counter the role given to Mary and the other saints in medieval piety. Sixteenth-century reformers insisted that salvation came directly and gratuitously from God by means of his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus was seen primarily as the one who paid for our sins by means on the cross, and therefore also as the one to whom our faith is directed, by which faith we obtain justification. For the reformers this faith was also a hermeneutical principle, precisely because the history of sin and of redemption though Jesus Christ became the key for understanding the Scriptures as a whole. Justification by faith in Jesus Christ became the principle that structured the reading of the Bible and unified Scripture

The Anabaptists in no way denied the exclusive redeeming role of Jesus Christ or the gratuitous nature of salvation. Nevertheless, their Christocentrism had a different accent. In the Anabaptist perspective, the magisterial reformers, even though they stressed the centrality of Jesus in word, tended to ignore, his message in practice. Instead, they replaced that message with teachings taken from the Old Testament, as happened paradigmatically in the question of violence and in the creation of state churches. For the Anabaptists, Jesus was not just a general religious principle, but also a concrete person; therefore he could be truly known only through direct and effective contact with him. That meant that for the Anabaptists the following of Jesus took on a central role in their spirituality, their theology and their hermeneutics. As Hans Denck famously said; Christ can be known only by being followed in life. (6) The magisterial reformers often misunderstood the Anabaptist appeals to the following of Jesus, thinking that it was a way of reverting into the works-righteousness of the medieval church. For Anabaptists, however, the following of Jesus was not a way of getting to heaven by one's own efforts, but a grateful response that was made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit. For that reason they insisted on the need for a new birth, without which it was impossible to follow Jesus, and therefore to know him. Thus it becomes possible to understand what we might call the "hermeneutical circle" of Hans Denck, who claimed not only that Jesus cannot be known unless he is followed, but also that he cannot be followed unless he is first known. (7) And this "first knowledge" is that winch comes about when the believer is born again by the Holy Spirit.


All the foregoing shows us something very important for understanding the Anabaptist contribution to biblical hermeneutics The community of the Spirit, from the Anabaptist perspective, is not only a charismatic community, in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are made patent. The Christian community is also a community of following, because the work of the Spirit consists in making us capable of following Jesus. The fact of following Jesus is precisely what makes the church different from the world, because it is clear that not everybody follows Jesus or even wants to follow him freely. Yet it is the following of Jesus that creates the community that unites around him. The community of the Spirit is therefore a community of followers who walk with Jesus: Jesus is the one who walks in the lead, both making the way and being the way by which his disciples follow him. Such a stance is charged with hermeneutical consequences that differentiate the Anabaptists in significant ways from Protestantism in general.

Protestants descended from the magisterial Reformation normally have great difficulty in understanding what is specific in Anabaptist hermeneutics. More conservative Protestants frequently perceived Anabaptists as persons who did not take the Scriptures very seriously. In fact, the most frequent accusation that authors like Calvin made against the Anabaptists was of this nature. The Anabaptists were seen as Spiritualists or fanatics who slighted the letter for the sake of the Spirit. (8) On the other hand, in more recent epochs, more liberal Protestants often accuse the Anabaptists of being "biblicists," or even as being responsible for fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the historical record is clear: the principal representatives of modern fundamentalism have had (and in large measure still have) a Calvinist theological background, while most Anabaptists have remained on the sidelines of the arguments between liberals and fundamentalists. Normally, when a church of Anabaptist origin becomes fundamentalist or liberal, it experiences a significant distancing from its roots. The fact is, Anabaptism cannot be understood within the narrow categories of the polemics between liberals and fundamentalists, even though, unfortunately, these two simple, general coordinates continue to determine the way that most contemporary Protestants of all theological tendencies identify themselves.

To help us understand the impossibility of inserting the Anabaptists into these coordinates that are foreign to them, it may he useful to describe the approach to Scripture that we find in John Calvin. Calvin began his Institutes of the Christian Religion by stating that the height of wisdom is knowledge of God and of ourselves. These two kinds of knowledge are linked with one another, because in knowing God we know our own misery, and in knowing our own misery we acknowledge the greatness of God. For Calvin, knowledge of God consists not only in acknowledging God's existence, but also in realizing to what extent that knowledge is beneficial for us. In principle, knowledge of God is implanted naturally in the human mind, although sin corrupts that knowledge and makes way for every form of superstition and idolatry. Furthermore, every human being has access to knowledge of God in the simple contemplation of creation and the divine providence that watches over the world. Nevertheless, sins separates us from this knowledge and from all the benefits deriving from it. Now, according to Calvin, God has established another means for knowing him, one that makes possible a knowledge of Cod that leads us to salvation, and God bestows this knowledge on those whom he has decided to lead into a closer and more intimate relation with himself. This other means is nothing else but the Scriptures, which are therefore necessary in order to know the true characteristics of God as Creator and Redeemer, over against the collection of false gods that human beings have created for themselves. And what is needed to endow the Scriptures with their full authority is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, which confers validity on the Scriptures in their own right, without the Catholic Church having to vouch for their credibility. (9)

There are two elements in this argument of Calvin that immediately attract our attention. First, the function of the Scriptures seems to consist primarily in providing us with knowledge: it is a kind of knowledge we are not able to acquire by ourselves, and it is knowledge that is decisive because it leads to salvation. Second, the whole argument of Calvin may be pursued without any reference at all to a hermeneutical community. In fact, all reference to community is rejected since it is associated with claims that the authority of Scripture is derived from ecclesiastical authority. Given these premises, it becomes understandable how both fundamentalism and liberalism among Protestants have deep roots in the ecclesiastical currents deriving from these conceptions so characteristic of the magisterial Reformation. Modern liberalism can emphasize that contemporary science, both human and social, provides us with knowledge about ourselves and the world that on the one hand contradicts certain biblical statements, but that on the other suffices to produce for us the human fulfillment to which we aspire. From the liberal viewpoint, any pretension of salvation that can be found in the Scriptures would have to be reduced to the various ways in which the secular sciences toll us it is possible to achieve human plenitude.

For its part, fundamentalism reads by defending the permanent validity of the information provided by Scripture about human beings, society and nature. And it also insists on the necessity of such knowledge to obtain salvation. Now, in both cases the Scriptures are considered primarily as a source of information: more or less antiquated for one side, more or less infallible for the other.

The Anabaptist perspective is radically different from this primarily cognitive and doctrinal use of Scripture. For the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century the Scriptures were not primarily a source of information about God, the world or human beings. For them the Scriptures were above all a means for following Jesus and, in this way, knowing him personally. It was not a question of gaining knowledge about the structure of our salvation, but of entering into a personal bond with the Messiah. For that very reason, what was decisive was Jesus himself--the Scriptures were simply signposts indicating the way to follow him. According to the famous expression of Ulrich Stadler, the Scriptures could be understood in the same way as a sign indicating that in a certain inn there was wine. (10) The sign is essential, because it indicates the way to the wine, but the sign is not the wine. Jesus, as the Word of God par excellence, is the goal of the hermeneutical process, and the Scriptures are an instrument for going toward him. This does not mean ignoring the human need of salvation or our own fragility due to sin. To the contrary, the possibility of understanding the sign, and of desiring and receiving the wine, is without doubt the work of the Spirit that brings about in us a new birth. And that Spirit is none other than the Spirit of Jesus, who, instead of leading us down a solitary road, places us on a path being trod also by others who are following him. Precisely because of our smallness (including that of exegetes and theologians), our fellow believers are an indispensable aid, By insisting on the need for a communitarian hermeneutical process, the Anabaptists, in contrast to Protestants, implicitly acknowledged that the Scriptures were susceptible to different interpretations, some of which did not necessarily lead to following Jesus. For that reason, the initial clarity of the Scriptures yielded to a process that went beyond any individual reading, including that of a specialist

When some "sign" is subject Lo different interpretations, the presence of other persons, all impelled by the same Spirit and desiring to follow the same Lord, helps to prevent individuals from ignoring one another and following their own separate paths. It also thwarts attempts to impose one person's interpretation on everybody else. If we are all led by the same Spirit, and if we all desire to follow the same Lord--and so break with the criteria of the world--then it is worth our while to call a halt in our way and, among everybody, try to discern what direction we should follow. All of these--the activity of one and the same Spirit, the desire to follow one and the same Lord, and the rupture with the world expressed in baptism--are precisely what guarantee that the arduous attainment of unanimity in our prayerful search for the will of God will allow us to walk in the desired direction.

Even today the search for unanimity continues to characterize the decision-making processes in Anabaptist circles. In such cases, it is not a matter of being content with minimal levels of agreement imposing the will of the majority, or following the indications of the most influential personality. Rather, the aim is to seek out collectively what is indicated by the same Spirit that impels everyone to follow Jesus. The very existence of these difficult processes of communal seeking of God's will is what best guarantees that the "community" is not simply a cover for tyrannical domination by certain individuals or groups. In contrast to both Catholic institutional mediation and Protestant individualism, the Anabaptists understood that there existed a third possibility, one characterized precisely by the fact that the following of Jesus is a communitarian process, one in which a fraternal group, to which one belongs freely, relates itself to the Lord collectively and directly. (11)

We find an example of the essential difference between Anabaptist and Protestant hermeneutics in the way the Anabaptists treated the biblical canon. For the magisterial reformers, the delimitation of the authentic canon of the Scriptures was a central question, since it also meant the delimitation of the doctrines revealed by God. Thus, for example, the exclusion of the so-called "apocryphal writings" of the Old Testament helped to exclude the doctrine of purgatory, which the Catholics found in those texts. (12) Luther kept those "apocryphal" or "deutero-canonical" texts in his own edition of the Bible, even though he denied their inspired character and recommended them simply as texts that were beneficial to read. He also questioned the epistle of James since he thought it laid too much stress on works. The criterion used by Luther was no doubt Christocentric ("was Christus treibt"), but his Christocentrism did not simply refer to the person or the message of Jesus in general terms. In fact, the epistle of James contains many echoes of the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. For Luther, however, what was derisive was Jesus as the object of the faith that justifies us, apart from the works of the law. For his part, Calvin simply suppressed the deutero-canonical books, keeping only the texts that he considered truly inspired, and this is the option that most evangelicals have followed up to the present day.

Nonetheless, it is important to observe that we are not dealing simply with questions of the past or with discussions of interest only to conservative groups. In our days also there has appeared in liberal Protestant contexts the idea of a "canon within the canon." (13) What is at issue is precisely a distinction that allows for a doctrinal difference to be established between the central message of the Scriptures (for example, justification by faith or some more modern equivalent) and all the other elements that might be found in biblical texts that are derived from or secondary to this message., or even opposed to it. Thus, for example, some contemporary Christians have made a distinction between the pure, primitive kerygma as proclaimed in the authentic letters of Paul and the "proto-Catholicism" that appears in the other epistles.

The Anabaptist perspective, centered on following Jesus, places the emphasis elsewhere. For one thing, the Anabaptists were much freer than the Protestants (and the Catholics after Trent) with regard to the canon of Scripture indeed, they never issued official decisions about the canon. They used both the shorter and the longer canons of the Old Testament, without being unduly concerned about certain doctrines presumably founded on them. Even the deutero-canonical book of Tobias constituted a common reading in Anabaptist weddings. Such freedom was possible for them because Old Testament texts were interpreted in light of following Jesus, and not merely as sources of doctrinal information. On the other hand, the Anabaptists were more radical than the Protestants in regard to the appropriation and application of those texts having to do with following Jesus. They read such texts "without gloss" (to use the expression of Francis of Assisi) (14)--that is, they tried to comply fully with Jesus' instructions concerning the common ownership of possessions, nonviolence, love of enemies, swearing oaths and the relationship to the state. Jesus was seen not simply as the key to the vault of a general theory of salvation or as a Gnostic master of higher knowledge. What was decisive for them was following Jesus in their lives, and by virtue of that following they could be "deliberately naive," practicing with regard to the biblical texts what Paul Ricoeur has called a "second naivete." (15)

It is important to have a good understanding of this second, deliberate type of naivete. For those who practice such "second" or "deliberate" naivete, radical obedience to the message of Jesus does not derive from a determined conception of biblical inspiration, as is the case in the "first" or "spontaneous" naivete of the fundamentalists. The second, deliberate naivete is based not on doctrinal considerations of the value of the biblical text or on a theory about inspiration and inerrancy, but on the desire to follow Jesus. From the Anabaptist perspective, what is decisive is not the way God inspired each word of the biblical text. Rather, what is decisive is that those words, mediated though they may be by the editorial processes of the New Testament, are the most precious indication that we have today for following Jesus in our lives. And it is precisely the desire Lo follow Jesus radically that joins the more educated readers together with the less educated ones in a single way of life with a single purpose. While in Protestantism the more educated believers and the less educated ones normally end up belonging to different churches, in Anabaptism theologians and peasant farmers have been joined together from the very beginning. From the Anabaptist perspective it is the following of Jesus and not doctrine that gives primary shape to the community and determines the different ministries within it.


The hermeneutical insights of Anabaptism coincide with some important developments in the broader contemporary field. (16) In contrast to the traditional idea of hermeneutics as simply a stock of methods that the specialized interpreter can use to find the true meaning of a text, contemporary philosophy understands hermeneutics to be a universal process in which we are all involved by the sheer fact of being human beings. Interpretation takes place even in our most modest perceptions, since any meaning we attribute to things already involves some interpretation of the things. But such interpretation is not done through the use of the static universal categories that every subject possesses qua subject. Rather, we are actually constituted as human by being inserted into a cultural, historical horizon, from which we receive the basic categories for understanding one another and the world that surrounds us. In this way, the horizon of modern subjectivity yields collective processes, in which our identity emerges and the inevitably social character of all our interpretations, from the most modest to the most elaborate, is made manifest. (17)

On the other hand, some tendencies of contemporary hermeneutics have realized that our insertion into the interpretative horizon is not something that happens simply in the world of ideas or in the sphere of linguistic meanings. The meaning of words is linked to their usage, and this usage occurs according to the rules proper to a "linguistic game." Now, contrary to what is usually believed, linguistic games are not just about language: they are primarily actions, that is, activities. Every linguistic game is part of a way of life, of a praxis, (18) and this praxis involves not just language, but also persons and activities. This is very important, because it shows us not only that our interpretations have a collective character, but also that they acquire their meaning in the context of a determined praxis. Frequently hermeneutics has paid more attention to the linguistic character of interpretations than to the way the interpretations are embedded in the concrete activity of a group. This is a matter of great relevance, for it shows that besides considering the linguistic horizon of a hermeneutic community, we must also refer that linguistic horizon to a praxis. To put it in theological terms, the community of the Spirit is also a community of followers, and following Jesus is the praxis of which the community's collective hermeneutical activity forms a part.

Contemporary hermeneutics is often understood as synonymous with postmodern relativism. Nevertheless, a few observations are in order. First, the postmodern trend is merely the superficial aspect of something much more profound, something of greater intellectual relevance. Postmodernism as a cultural theme began in the 1980s, but intellectual transformations signaling the overcoming of the modern "metaphysics of subjectivity" have been present at least since the end of the nineteenth century. Those transformations have evolved not only into more or less superficial types of relativism, but also into new ways of intellectually engaging the question of the absolute. Actually, every form of relativism relativizes, insofar as it establishes a relation with a term different from itself. That to which the relative becomes related becomes not a relativized principle, but a principle by which the relative is understood. Modern epistemology relativized what is known by referring it back to the knowing subject, which thus became a referential absolute, The theory of relativity refers all measurements back to the observer's state of movement, with respect to which they are therefore relative.

In this perspective, it is necessary to begin by saying that the existence of a multiplicity of interpretations refers back in principle to a multiplicity of hermeneutical communities, and this latter multiplicity refers back in turn to a multiplicity of ways of life, and these simply gives expression to the multiplicity of contemporary humanity. Of course, such multiplicity expresses not only the richness of those diverse ways of life, but also the profound economic, social and cultural divisions that divide humankind and that are directly linked with the oppression and the exclusion of those who are weakest.

From an Anabaptist perspective, the existence of a multiplicity of hermeneutical communities is a basic fact--the multiplicity is clearly presupposed in the decision of the Anabaptists to establish themselves as a fraternity that does not identify itself with society as a whole. No one is obligated to become part of one's own hermeneutical community. Their very existence as a voluntary community presupposes as a basic, elementary fact the existence of other groups different from their own. It is therefore no wonder that the Anabaptists were the first to defend freedom of conscience for all religious groups, including not only Christians, but also Muslims and Jews. (19) This was something quite different from, and much earlier than, the religious "tolerance" reluctantly granted much later by Protestant governments when pluralism became inevitable.

The existence of a multiplicity of hermeneutical communities did not mean that the Anabaptists considered their own perspective just as true--or, as the case may be, just as false as any other perspective. The Anabaptists were quite convinced of the truth of their position, to the point of being willing to risk their own life for that truth. And here we meet up with a characteristic that is proper to the hermeneutics of following Jesus. Contemporary hermeneutics speaks of a "fusion of horizons" (Horizontverschmelzung) (20) to refer to the unity that is produced in the hermeneutical process between the cultural horizon of the person interpreting a text and the horizon of the interpreted text. This dialogue is no doubt quite important, but in the following of Jesus we have something more, something that modern-day hermeneutics longs for. (21) In the hermeneutics of following we mm referred not to a mere text, but to a person. Following a person means leaving one's house, one's valley, one's horizon, in order to enter into unknown territories. In this following, our own interpretative horizon keeps shifting in relation to the person we are following. As a result, that horizon is not an absolute to which the person we are following has to adapt. It is not even an "absolute" that is "relative" to the pluralism of the multiple hermeneutical communities. Rather, the follower's linguistic and practical horizon is perceived as something secondary with respect to a reality that is neither cultural nor linguistic, but personal: the reality of Jesus. Contrary to what is usually thought in theology, the following of Jesus does not pertain primarily to the language of ethics, but to the language of love, as is so beautifully expressed in the Song of Songs. (22) For that very reason, in the following of Jesus, one's own person, one's own horizon, and even one's own life become relativized with respect to the person we are following. The relativism of this following is a dialogue that is not static, but rather dynamic. Truth does not become relative to my presumptions; rather, my presumptions become relative to a person, who may thus be understood as Truth, with a capital T.

From this perspective, it is no wonder that the sixteenth century Anabaptists defended a high Christology and that most of them had no difficulty accepting the classical creeds of Christianity. Contrary to what is ordinarily thought, this high Christology was not just a relic of the past. If it had been a relic of the past, then there would never have appeared the unilaterally and lopsidedly high Christologies such as the doctrine of Christ's celestial flesh. (23) As is well known, the Anabaptists, including Menno Simons, defended the thesis that the flesh of Jesus had been created expressly for him and therefore did not come from his mother. Fortunately, this doctrine did not gain historical longevity in Anabaptism, since it clashed with the characteristic Anabaptist emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. In fact, without the historical humanity of Jesus there could be no following of him, either in the past or in the present. All the same, a hermeneutics of following is inevitably accompanied by a high Christology, one that affirms the absolute character of Jesus. People do not put their lives on the line for half-truths or half-lies. Those who follow Jesus do so because they think that they have found a pearl of great value, not because they value it or the community thinks it is important, but because the pearl is valuable in itself. The pearl does not become relativized to my private or my community interests; rather, all the interests of the community of followers become relativized in function of the pearl, to the point of selling everything in order to obtain it (Mt. 13:46). In an Anabaptist context which is not primarily doctrinal the abandoning of such "high" statements about Jesus normally indicates that the following of Jesus has lost its absolute point of reference.

And this has still a further implication. In following Jesus there is a steadily mounting interest--one never satisfied in knowing the person who is being followed. What is sought is not primarily doctrinal knowledge about salvation, but rather an intimate knowledge of a person. The faith that impels us to follow Jesus needs to be constantly confirmed in the personal and inexhaustible knowledge of the one we are following. Precisely because we follow him, we can come Lo know him more, and precisely because we desire to know him more, we continue to follow him. It is often and rightly said that the sixteenth-century Anabaptists had no great theologians, none who bequeathed to us works comparable to those of Calvin or Melanchthon. But it is no less true that the Anabaptists held theological education in high esteem. Their "theological education," however, was a community happening, as evidenced by the fact that the Anabaptist communities quickly achieved full literacy of their members. Following Jesus in community did not require only that members of the Anabaptist groups be born again and freely decide to follow Jesus; all the members of the community--young and old, women and men--also had to be capable of taking an active part in the hermeneutical process. Instead of forming specialized pastors for the illiterate masses, the Anabaptists preferred to foster an educated community, one made up of members who were able to discern the signs of the Spirit and to interpret the Scriptures collectively, even if they could not produce great theological tomes. And this brings us back to the topic of theological education.


Throughout the history of the Christian church, theological education has basically been organized according to four great models: the catechetical model of the ancient church; the monastic and the scholastic models of the Middle Ages; and the seminary model of modern times. (24) Among the Anabaptists, theological training has traditionally borne some resemblance to the catechetical models of the ancient church, although starting in the twentieth century the Anabaptist churches began to create seminaries and biblical institutes similar to those of other Protestant denominations. These seminaries often had the objective of training professional pastors as demand for these rose in the Anabaptist churches during the twentieth century. It would be fair to say that seminaries today conform in large measure to the patterns to modernity. They attempt to provide future pastors with both theological learning and religious and moral formation. After receiving adequate training in a setting separated from the world pastors are supposed to be ready for their roles of instructing congregations about the doctrines proper to their denomination, maintaining a style of life in accord with their religious function, and watching over the discipline of their flock.

Our point here is not to romanticize earlier models simply because they are from the past. Neither are we interested in rejecting the valuable contributions made by seminaries in the modern era or in declaring their demise. Nevertheless, it is still necessary to ask ourselves about the possibility of using the unique hermeneutical insights of the Anabaptists to help structure theological education in the twenty-first century. In this regard we must begin by emphasizing that the priority of theological education, seen from the Anabaptist perspective, lies in the theological training of the people of God, and not primarily in the training of leaders. All the institutions and programs, from the most basic to the most sophisticated, should have as their objective fostering the theological formation of all believers. If all the faithful are empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate in community discernment about the proper ways to follow Jesus, then theological training is a necessity for the people of God as a whole, and also for each person individually. What is at issue here is whether the entire community of the Spirit is to be fully empowered--not only spiritually and morally, but also theologically--to seek out collectively the will of God in a concrete situation.

This means that the usual conceptions about theological education will have to change. In a sense, all theological education of leaders has some repercussion on the theological education of the people of God. However, that repercussion usually has the structure of a mediation; first the specialist (theologian, pastor) is trained, and then that specialist becomes responsible for the education of the faithful. The Anabaptist conception changes the emphasis, insisting that the believing people are not a final or collateral objective of theological training, but the first objective.

Furthermore, in the Anabaptist perspective, the believing people are not just the object; but also the first agent of theological education. It is possible to wax rhetorical on this matter, but there are at least two elements that help concretize this statement First, the conception of the people of God as a hermeneutical community means that it is absolutely essential that the questions guiding the process of theological training be questions that come directly from the people of God, from their needs and their concerns. Theological training cannot consist of answers to questions that nobody asks. Even the most sophisticated theological questions derive, or should derive, from the crucial questions with which the faithful are confronted in their day-to-day activity. Second, theological education does not take place in the context of a people who might be considered "lay" or "untrained" due to their ignorance of theology. The believing people possess a spontaneous theological wisdom that they have steadily built up by their experience of following Jesus, by their spiritual dealing with God and by their reading of Scripture. This wisdom may be limited in many ways, but it is an inescapable starting point.

Ignorance of, contempt for or a denial of the theological wisdom of the believing community frustrate the hermeneutical experience, for they undermine its very starting point, which is the hermeneutical horizon of those who are interpreting. Without that starting point, educated individuals will experience something like a "brainwashing," which obliges them to situate themselves in a different intellectual horizon, one in which their categories stop functioning. In such a case, what is new finds no fertile soil in which to be sown, and normally it fails to grow. It matters little whether the categories by which the brainwashing takes place are conservative or progressive, fundamentalist or liberal. It can only result in some people imposing their ideas on others and in "lay people" being trained as intellectual clones of the theologians.

The root problem here is one of authority. From the Anabaptist viewpoint, hermeneutical authority does not reside in a priest or a pastor who is commissioned by some ecclesiastical institution or by some high authority to watch out for the true doctrine in a determined territory. Neither is it the case that authority resides simply in the hermeneutical community. Properly speaking, the authority resides in the risen and living Lord, whom the community desires to follow. What happens in the Anabaptist perspective is that Jesus exercises his lordship directly over the believing community and over each of its members. And it is precisely that structure of authority that prevents the establishment of mediators. As a result, theological specialists are not understood as mediators of divine authority, but rather as servants of a hermeneutical community whose theological wisdom is the inescapable starting point for every educational process. And this brings us to the question about the proper role of specialists in theological education.


In Matthew's Gospel we find the disconcerting command that we call no one rabbi or teacher; the reason given is that there is only one teacher, and all the members of God's people are brothers and sisters (Mt. 23:7-10). There is a literal, and perhaps naive, way of understanding this teaching, which simply replaces the words used by Jesus with others. Instead of teacher, for example, we might say doctor, reverend, professor or instructor, in which case the meaning of the command would not change significantly. We might also pay little heed to the teaching, taking it to be an example of Semitic hyperbole, one of many we find in the Gospels.

However, we could also go to the crux of the question, which is none other than how Jesus understood the reign of God and its deep roots in biblical history. And here we meet up with a curious delegitimizing structure in the Bible. When the Scriptures present God as assuming roles of domination, it means that those same roles have no place among the people of Cod: they are excluded or delegitimized for human beings. If God is king, then there is no need of other kings. If God is master then there is no need of other masters. If God is father, then there is no need of other fathers. Thus, the commands of Jesus mentioned above remind us of the basic brotherhood and sisterhood of the people of God, and these commands culminate with a call to humility (Mt. 23:1-12).

Of course this call to true fraternity does not mean that in the people of God there will not be persons especially gifted for study and teaching, as there are also for the exercise of leadership functions. Obviously, in a truly fraternal people, the limits on acquiring theological training should have nothing to do with economic means; rather, they should consider mainly intellectual talent and vocational inclination.

Certainly not everyone has those talents and inclinations. Now the question is: what is the function in the people of God of those who have such talents and inclinations? Certainly, the earliest writings of Christianity reveal that from the very beginning there were certain persons who exercised teaching functions. There is something very interesting to observe here, however. The role of those who were teaching was not necessarily linked to other gifts, such as those more associated with leadership or with care of souls--that is, the gifts of presbyters, pastors, deacons. The unification of the diverse gifts of teaching, leadership and care of souls into a single ministry represents an enormous oversimplification of the church's history. No doubt such gifts may be justifiably combined in certain persons, but it is also perfectly normal for those gifts to be found in different persons. (25) No doubt the institutional unification of these different roles in a single person has historically favored the view that the ministry of teaching should act as an authority that mediates between the Christian people and the divine authority or between the Christian people and the correct denominational interpretation of the Scriptures.

To counter such tendencies it is important to emphasize that the theological specialist is a member of the people of God. This statement may seem a truism, but it takes on meaning when we express it in hermeneutical terms. Specifically, we are speaking of the insertion of the specialist in the way of life and the style of language of the people of God. While "conservatives" are scandalized because society as a whole does not take part in the church's way of life and style of language, and while "liberals" are scandalized because the church does not take part in the way of life and style of language of the society as a whole, what is truly scandalous, in the Anabaptist perspective, is not the existence of a multiplicity of forms of life or styles of language, but rather the fact that the churches can be led by persons who do not share the linguistic praxis of their own communities. Theological specialists will certainly be able to master many linguistic registers, but the decisive question is whether their primary reference is the way of life and the language of their people, as opposed to the way of life and the language of the clergy, or the theologians, or the elite groups of their society. Because., even if one understands many linguistic registers, there is only one that is basic and essential, namely, the one by which one's own life is structured and one's crucial decisions are made. When such is the case, then even the most highly specialized theologian can still be a member of the hermeneutical community, as a true "organic intellectual," vitally joined with the people of God.

As a member of the hermeneutical community, the specialist or the theologian is a servant. The ways appeals are made to service to disguise domination is no doubt a very hackneyed topic in the history of the Christian church, hut that does not mean that there do not exist criteria for evaluating whether we are dealing with true service. When the hermeneutical horizon of the believing community is negated, when its wisdom is despised, when its way of life is ignored and its experience ridiculed, then we have all the elements for suspecting that we are not dealing with service but with domination, or at least an attempt to dominate.

That does not mean, of course, that the way of life or the concrete wisdom of the community is an absolute. If the community is following in the way of the Messiah, it will be ready and willing to have its own hermeneutical horizon undergo transformations as it moves into new territories. The labor of the specialist is not to trace a path apart from the hermeneutical community, but to walk along with the community and place resources and talents at the service of that walking together. To return to the metaphors with which we began this reflection; Hermes was the Greek god of travelers and those who cross borders. When the onetime devotee of Hermes is called to the following of Jesus, his specialization as a hermeneutist does not make him, like Hermes, a mediator between the community and the gods. Rather, it is now Jesus who guides the whole community directly, by means of the Spirit who through his gifts becomes present in the midst of the community. The specialized interpreter is simply another member of the community, one who places translating ability at the service of the community's experience, which is the experience of the people as they follow along the way. And that interpreting service docs not consist in translating divine messages, thus arrogating to himself or herself alone the role of messenger of the gods; rather, it consists precisely in teaching the whole people to translate--and in learning oneself, along with the people, to translate ever more effectively.


Our now century provides us with important opportunities and challenges precisely in this direction. For one thing, the globalizing of human relationships points toward the establishment of a sort of worldwide society in which all the members of humankind will engage in interactions that have a planetary character. The dynamisms that are impelling this globalization of human relationships are basically economic, although they also involve the establishment of other global ties, such those of an ecological nature. Now, the process of globalization has been made possible by the establishment of wide-reaching information networks, especially the Internet and these networks are in turn driven by the globalizing process. In fact, our globalized world may be described as an information society, a society that functions through institutions that are structured in the form of networks. In a network there is no one center, instead, there are many centers that take the form of nodes linked with one another through reciprocal transmission of information. With networks there is not one transmitter and a whole bunch of receivers; rather there is a multiplicity of both transmitters and receivers. As a result, networks allow more flexibility and adaptability in the way we work, thus fomenting a culture of endless Reconstruction and construction, a politics that immediately processes new values and opinions, and a social organization that seeks to be independent of space and time. Such developments can be observed in formal and informal economies, in cultural and religious movements, and even in illegal armed organizations.

It would be naive to think that these processes are the same as democratization. Global power is still highly concentrated in the gigantic multinational corporations, which function in the economic network as nodes around which small and medium-size businesses group themselves. In these networks capital flows escape the control of individuals, and power takes on an anonymous character. Power often appears as a sort of "faceless collective capitalism," which is nevertheless decisive for the lives of millions of people. For individuals, the economic and financial networks seem to be in disorder; they appear as forces that are incomprehensible, out of control and threatening to their identity. And that question of identity has become a decisive one in our world today. The fact is that the great "network society" is unable to provide people with any more identity than that which derives from the worship of technology, the adoration of the power of capital and information flows, and the veneration of the logic of the markets.

As a result of all this, identities are now formed outside the institutions of civil society, by means of an alternative social logic, one that is independent of the principles prevailing in society as a whole. For that reason, the alternative powers engaging in conflict with the dominant logic in today's information society are being articulated precisely by those particular identities (national, religious sexual, ethnic, etc.). The classic conflict between capital and labor thus assumes the form of the conflict between anonymous flows of capital and the cultural values of people's daily experience. Of course, that does not mean that these resistance identities do not also have to organize themselves in the form of networks. (26)

In this kind of context the Anabaptist conception of church acquires a new relevance, unsuspected in recent centuries. The Christian church does not necessarily have to be a centralized organization, but can be a fraternal network of communities gathered around Jesus. The believing community, as a reality distinct from the world, is the domain in which a new identity is constituted, over against a society so reduced to material production that it is barely able to provide its members any identity at all. Nevertheless, the Christian identity is not a national, ethnic or tribal identity; rather, it is a global identity, one that gives rise to a fraternal people spread throughout the world. This identity expresses not only a rejection of the structures currently dominant on the planet, but also a hope for all humankind. It is an eschatological hope, which is able to discern, in the individual and collective transformations that are taking place in the people of God, the first fruits of God's project for all peoples, who are therefore not condemned to oppression, despair and meaninglessness, but are welcomed into a radical renewal of all of creation, until God is all in all.

These brief observations may also be relevant for an Anabaptist conception of theological education in the new century. The current social and cultural situation of our world perhaps opens up to us the possibility of setting forth on new paths. The information technologies offer new possibilities for transcending the traditional frameworks of classroom education and nationally organized institutions. Of course, just opting for new technologies will not be enough, for these require economic resources and types of linguistic and technical knowledge that are not within the reach of all. Furthermore, correspondence and online courses have high levels of desertion since not everybody has sufficient personal motivation and capacity to pursue disciplined private study. Nevertheless, the Internet does make it possible for certain people who are able to gain access to information to place themselves at the service of broader constituencies, in the form of groups organized for the purpose of theological training and reflection in the different communities. Such a procedure can be quite relevant for theological education in certain linguistic realms, such as Spanish. In Latin America there are a few Anabaptist seminaries, but they ran hardly satisfy the needs of all the churches on the continent. In Spain there is no specifically Anabaptist seminary. In such a context, would it not make sense to develop a true network of Anabaptist theological education in Spanish, one which uses as its nodes the various educational institutions that already exist and which places itself at the service of theological education geared to the local churches? Creating such a network would be a way of bringing about in a horizontal, fraternal manner, a renewal of the hermeneutical community for the needs of the twenty-first century.

(1.) This is the second definition of "hermeneutica" in the DRAE, the Dictionary of the Real Academia of Spain.

(2.) The term originally designated a complex of beliefs based on writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a sage or alchemist associated With the god Hermes.

(3.) Cf. G. H. Williams, La reforma radical (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1983), 915. Williams points out that serious exegetes such as Hubmeier, Marpeck or Menno Simons did well in warning the first Anabaptists concerning the dangers of eccentric literalism.

(4.) The idea of communitarian interpretation appeared in Zwingli before it did among the Anabaptists, but only the Anabaptists put it into practice.

(5.) Cf. "Interrogacion de Ambrosius Spitelmaier" (1527), in Selecciones teologicas anabaptistas, ed. Walter Klaassen (Guatemala City: Semilla, 1986), 94-95. Cf. also the text, "Algunos Hermanos Suizos" (1532-1540), 96-97.

6. Cf. H. Denk, "De lo que se pretende que digan las Eiscrituras," in Textos escogidos de la Reforma Radical, ed. John H. Yoder (Buenos Aires: Asociacion Editoral La Aurora, 1976), 206-229, specifically 224.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Cf. J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, chap. 9.

(9.) Ibid., chaps. 1-7.

(10.) Cf. Ulrich Stadler, "La palabra viviente y escrita" (1527), in Selecciones teologicas anabautistas, 112-116, esp. 112.

(11.) Robert Friedmann, Teologin del anabautismo. Una interpretacion (Guatemala City: Semilla, 1998), 62.

(12.) Cf. 2 Maccabees 12:38ff.

(13.) Cf. I. Lonning, Kanon im Kanon. Zum dogmatischen Grundlagenproblem des neutestamentlichen Kanons (Munchen: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1972).

(14.) Francis of Assisi, in his Testament, exhorts the monks to live the Franciscan rule simpliciter et sine glossa. In the case of the Anabaptists, the reference is the message of Jesus directly.

(15.) Cf. P. Ricoeur, Le conflict des interpretations. Essais d'hermeneutique (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969), 294. On the "deliberate" character of the naivete of the first Anabaptists, see John Driver, Contra corriente. Ensayo de eclesiologia radical, 3rd ed. (Guatemala City: Semilla, 1998), 1-15.

(16.) A perspective on postmodern hermeneutics can be found in H. de Wit, En la dispersion el texto es patria. Introduction a la hermeneutica clasica, moderna y posmoderna (San Jose: Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana, 2002).

(17.) Cf. Hans-G. Gadamer. Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzuge einer philosphischen Hermeneutik (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1990), 270-312; G. Vattimo, Mas alla del sujeto. Nietzsche, Heidegger y la hermeneutica (Barcelona: Paidos, 1989).

(18.) Cf. L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Untersuchungen (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1984), [section][section] 23, 241.

(19.) Cf. B. Hubmeier, "Sobre los herejes y los que los queman" (1524); H. Denk, "Comentario sobre Miqueas" (1527), in Selecciones teologicas anabautistas, 253.

(20.) Cf. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, 311-312.

(21.) Jaques Derrida is referring to something beyond deconstruction when he says that all deconstructive analysis "is done in the name of something, of something positively undeconstructable."--J. D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York; Fordham University Press, 1997), 128.

(22.) Cf. Song of Songs 3:1-5.

(23.) This is the theology that we find in Clement Ziegler and Melchor Hoffmann and that appears also in Menno Simons. --Williams, La Reforma Radical, 362-373.

(24.) Cf. S. Rooy, "Modelos historicos de la educacion teologica," in Nuevas alternativas de educacion teologica, ed. C. Rene Padilla (Buenos Aires: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 43-58.

(25.) Cf. John H. Yoder, El ministerio de todos. Creciendo hacia la plenitud de Cristo (Bogota: Semilla,1995).

(26.) Cf. M. Castells, La era de la information. Economia, sociedad y cultura, 3 vols. (Mexico City: Alianza, 1999).

(Translated by Joseph Owens)

* Antonio Gonzalez is Director de Estudios y Publicaciones de la Fundacion Xavier Zubiri (Madrid) and pastor of a Brethren in Christ Church in Hoyo de Manzanares (Madrid). This work originated as a Contribution to a consultation on theological education held at CEMTA, on the occasion of the World Mennonite Conference in Asuncion, Paraguay, in July 2009. I am grateful to Professor Rogelio Duarte and the other participants for all their comments which have been of much help to me in editing this final text.
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Author:Gonzalez, Antonio
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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