í«Lead me in thy truth.í»

A research into the hermeneutics of the Anabaptists and John Calvin.

 

Summary of Drs. Thesis.

 

L. Terpstra

 

 

This research paper is based on the presupposition that the main difference between the Anabaptists and Calvin can be found in their hermeneutics. This last term can cause confusion. Here we mean the process that the spoken Word (Scripture) is being interpreted (among others exegesis) en is being translated to the time and situation of the reader and/or hearer.

The presupposition leads to the following research questions: How do the hermeneutics of the Anabaptists and Calvin relate to each other? On which points do they correspond, on which do they differ and is it consequently possible to locate the breaking point between both.

To answer these questions, we outline the hermeneutics of both in the first chapter. The field has been explored using seven subjects of which we here present the conclusions.

 

Chapter One: The field of hermeneutics

 


1.1.    The use of the Scripture

Both the Anabaptists and Calvin agree with the parole í«sola Scripturaí». It is the starting point of the hermeneutics of both. They differ on the view how the Bible can be put to practice in daily life. For the Anabaptists, the directives from the Scripture apply only for the individual believer and the own church community. In that, perfection is the goal. It also means for them a separation from the world (for example: they did not want a function in the government).

Calvin rejects both the aiming for perfection and the separation from the world. He states that the Bible must also be used in public life and society. Although church and state are separate, the government has to listen to the church and has to obey the directives of Scripture.

 

1.2.    Word and Spirit

The views on the relation between Word and Spirit of most of the Anabaptists and of Calvin show great similarities. They agree that the Word of the Scripture and the Word of the Holy Spirit may not be separated. The latter is the author of the former. In addition, revelations outside the Bible must be judged by the words of the Scripture, and interpreting the Bible well is impossible without the Spirit.

Most of the Reformers thought that the Anabaptists placed the Spirit above the Scripture. Some did, but they were a minority and are mostly to be found in the first generation of Anabaptists (until 1525). It is striking that Calvin is aware of the different views of the relation between Word and Spirit in the Anabaptist movement.

 


 

1.3.    Christocentrism

For the Anabaptists and Calvin, Christ is the centre of the Bible. However, they explain this principle in different ways.

For the Anabaptists it means that Christ, as the ultimate revelation of God, is the criterion for both the explanation of Scripture and daily life. This christocentric reading implicates that the New Testament, which contains the life and deeds of Jesus, is more important to them than the Old Testament. So for example when Jesus forbids swearing, the old-testament guidelines for oaths are surpassed. Christ as standard for daily life implies that His example must be followed, because He has shown Godí»s will.

For Calvin, Christ is the scopus of Scripture because man can obtain knowledge of de merciful will of God only through Him. Man can only be redeemed through Christ. The knowledge of Godí»s virtues, will and promises must be the focus in the interpretation of the Bible. Because they can only be known through Christ, He must be the scopus.

While the Anabaptists stress the Christum exemplum, for Calvin the most important aspect is that Christ is the Giver of knowledge of Godí»s promises, which he calls í«knowledge of the heartí».

 

1.4.    Regeneration, obedience and discipleship

According to the Anabaptists, discipleship is necessary for understanding Scripture. Calvin also states that obedience leads to true knowledge of God. However, for Calvin obedience is a result of the slow renewing process that leads to the restoration of the imago Dei in man.

Therefore, we can conclude that for both the Anabaptists and Calvin discipleship and regeneration lead to a true understanding of Scripture. However, the differences between them must be kept in mind. Therefore, we must look at the place of regeneration and discipleship in their theological system.

For the Anabaptists, discipleship is the free choice of the believer who wants to follow Jesus Christ. A person who makes this choice receives the grace of God and is regenerated. For Calvin, regeneration and discipleship result from faith, which is a gift from God.

In other words, Calvin emphasises the gift-character, the fact that man himself is not able to choose for discipleship and regeneration. Both are given. For the Anabaptists, discipleship is the result of a free choice of man and through the Holy Spirit it leads to regeneration.

 

1.5.    The relation between the Old and the New Testament

Between the views of the Anabaptists and Calvin on the relationship between the Old and the New Testament, there are clear differences. Although both use the same images (for example shadow–light) to describe the relationship, the concept behind these images differs.

The Anabaptists believe in a continuing revelation, the content of which increases through time. Thus, they see a development in history of which Jesus is the centre. He is the turning point between the time of promise (OT) and of fulfilment (NT).

Calvin also sees a continual revelation, but only in form. The content of the revelation stays the same. The form changes because God accommodates Himself to man, so that they can understand Him. With this thought Calvin stresses the unity of Scripture.

Calviní»s main charges against the Anabaptist – i.e. childrení»s baptism, the government, the oath –, result from different views about the relationship between the two testaments. Therefore it is clear that these views – i.e. Calvin stressing the unity of the two testaments and the Anabaptist the differences – are decisive for their interpretation of Scripture.

 

1.6.    Scripture enlightens itself

Both the Anabaptists and Calvin point to the fact that Scripture is clear. For Calvin the principle of clearness of Scripture influences his views on interpreting Scripture, in which briefness and clarity are the main points. The Genevan reformer uses grammar and rhetoric in as far as they can help to interpret Scripture.

On this point another difference with the Anabaptists becomes clear, particularly with the second generation of Anabaptists. They saw these scientific methods as means that darken the true meaning of Scripture. The bible itself is clear and obscure biblical texts can be enlightened with the help of other passages. The only condition for the right explanation of Scripture is the enlightenment by the Holy Spirit.

 

1.7.    The role of the community

Also on the role of the community in the explanation of the Scriptures, the Anabaptists and Calvin disagree. The Anabaptists are of the opinion that a visible, pure church exists, which therefore can also be a decisive factor in the interpretation of the Bible. For Calvin such an ideal is unthinkable. The church is a mixed community of elected and non-elected people. Therefore it can make mistakes. To lead the church, God has given offices in the church. The preacher plays an important role in interpreting Scripture. He needs a proper education; for example, he must be able to read the Bible in its original languages Hebrew and Greek. This thorough education and the Holy Spirit will lead to a right interpretation.

 


 

2. Conclusion

 

It has become clear that there are similarities and differences in the hermeneutics of the Anabaptists and Calvin. The similarities are:

- The parole sola Scriptura is the starting point for both (1).

- Without the Holy Spirit, a right explanation of the Bible is impossible (2).

To the question what is the main difference it can be answered that the Anabaptists stress the imitation of Christ whereas Calvin points at the knowledge of the heart, which is offered only by Christ. From this other differences can be explained.

- We will start with the Anabaptist view.

- Only one who is obedient to Christ and follows Him can truly interpret the Bible (4).

- Christ as the centre of the Scriptures means a placing of the New Testament above the Old (5).

- Even without a proper education one can interpret the Scriptures rightly, because Scripture is clear in itself. Education can even be an obstacle (6).

- The thought that Christ can be perfectly followed also leads to the thought that there can be a pure church, which can play a decisive role in the explanation of Scripture (7).

For Calvin the following applies:

- The knowledge given by Christ results in obedience and regeneration (4). The content of this knowledge (i.e. Godí»s promises of forgiveness and His taking care for us as His children) is the same in the Old and New Testament. Only the form of the message differs (5).

That God takes care for us, He shows by giving us the church. Although it is a mixed body, God chooses people who hold the offices of preacher and doctor. They preach the pure gospel and interpret Scripture right (7). For that purpose God has also given scientific methods (for example exegesis and knowledge of the languages Hebrew and Greek) to ensure that the Bible will be interpreted rightly (6).

 

Chapter 2: A concrete example. The exposition of Psalm 25 from Menno Simons and John Calvin

 

In the second chapter we have compared a bible exposition of Calvin and an important Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons, who was born in the Netherlands. After the Münster disaster - the Anabaptist ruled this city for a short time, but they were brutally murdered after the city was captured by Lutherans - Menno Simons became the leader of the moovement. From that time they became known as very peaceful, although they were persecuted.

The chosen Bible verse is Psalm 25, one of the view bible expositions from Anabaptists known. With this comparison we wanted to see if the conclusions from the first chapter become visible in their expositions.

In short we her present the results.

Both Menno Simons and Calvin read the Psalm christocentric, but in its content they differ.

Menno points all the time to the teaching and ordination of Jesus Christ and His apostles. He prays continuously for instruction in Jesusí» words and mentality. These are the norm for the believerí»s new life. In Mennoí»s view it must be visible on the outside that the believer has been made righteous.

Calvin does not mention the name of Jesus in his exposition. The trust in Godí»s promises has the central place. This trust can be called as í«knowledge of the heartí». It proceeds from the knowledge that God will always show the people His goodness, as He has always done and of which Scripture witnesses. This promise man can only receive through Christ. In this way Christ has still become the scopus of the Psalm. If a person wants to receive the promise of justification and sanctification - the first and second grace - he must be brought under the cross.

We can conclude that the expositions of Menno Simons and John Calvin confirm the results of the first chapter. Menno emphasises the imitation of Christ and the fruits of faith. Calvin places the knowledge of the heart in front, i.e. the confidence in Godí»s promises.

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