Radical Anabaptism and Radical Biblical Exegesis

I have much appreciation for the energy, honesty, courage and openess to address anabaptism past, presence and future. A question on “radical” Anabaptism has not been raised though — or raised sufficiently enough. For this takes much courage and honest. In all actuality, it takes the greatest amount possible — because it will hurt, and for some, it will be excruciating. Because if we desire to be “radical” we must address a radical understanding of the Bible. We must get at the root (’radix’) of what the Bible is. This is scary stuff! As Anabaptists we must be radical about the nature and character of the Bible. Every issue, every question, every statement that is being talked about here on the Radical Anabaptist blog is rooted (’radix’) in the Bible. The scriptures are the foundation for all of this. Thus, we must get to the root (’radix’) of the Bible itself. We cannot stay our hand, we must — for truth’s sake — (for God is spirit and truth ) take the scalpel and dig deep. We must exise to the very root of the matter. And this is the matter: increasingly, through the ever-expanding and developing research of biblical studies, we are discovering that the Bible, the Scriptures, are ultimately shaped and determined by its historical, social, cultural and literary context. Again, CONTEXT. It is increasingly being acknowledged in biblical research that the scriptures are not literal transcriptions from God but rather are very much the product of historical, cultural, social and literary factors. In other words, much of what is in the Bible is contigent and relative and very much conditioned by these very human historical-cultural factors. One must face up with this. The biblical authors were not puppets in which God pulled the strings. The biblical writers were not made senseless by the Spirit and taken over in a ventrilaquist manner. We cannot literally interpret the Bible as truth. The authors were human — all too human. And thus, the Bible itself, in its very nature, is HUMAN. In fact, one does not need to be a biblical scholar to see this. IF one is absolutely honest, then one has to face up to the fact and admit that the scriptures are full of human foibles, inconsistencies, mistakes, prejudices, ignorance, bigotry, hate and racism and violence. It is a very flawed work coming from flawed human beings just like you and me. Thus,the bible is not inerrant. The scriptures are not literally or verbally inspired. And, if we want to be people of truth, we must face up with that fact. We must be courageous and honest and confront the rigid, oppressive and suffocating dogma about the natrue of the Bible.This issue must be addressed before we address those rigid, oppressive and suffocating elements within our Anabaptist past and tradition.
We say that the Bible is “inspired”, but what does that mean? “Inspriation” is something of an entirely different nature and phenomenon in the bible than we have traditionally habitually and unthoughtfully believed. There is inspiration in the bible, and this is absolutely true. “Inspiration” is immanent though, that is to say, it come from within the heart, the spirit of the human being — it does not come from without. More specifically, what is reckoned as “inspiration” in the scriptures are those things that point to themes such as compassion, mercy, forgiveness, peace, lovingkindness, humility and the like. We as Christians acknowledge that it is these things which come from God. It are these that are of the character and nature of God. Thus, God is the author and “inspirer” of these qualities. They are “transcedent” in nature because they are eternal and everlasting. But they don’t come from the outside and go inside. They are innately and inherent within the human being — from birth — because we have been made in the image and likeness of God. Hence we can speak of “divine inspiration” in this way. Knowing all the long that this divine inspriation is mixed up with very flawed, broken, ignorant and limited human beings — persons, biblical authors who happened to get in touch with and become aware of those divine qualities, those God-given qualities that reside within us by nature and from the get-go..
So, we must come to grips with the fact that what is divinely inspired, what is ultimately true in the bible, and from God who is spirit and truth, is found within a heap of refuse. What we are able to discern to be from God in the bible, is like looking for diamonds in a dumpster, or nuggets of gold in a pile of cow dung. This is how we need to look at the scriptures and we should come to them and understand them in this way. This is the radicalization of scripture. It is a radical surgery, done by truthful, honest and courageous exising exegesis of the bible. And, in order to be “radical Anabaptists” is to not hold back and dogmatically protect the bible from our radical faith perspective. In this way we can address the various issues, questions and concerns that radically engage our radical anabaptism. The radical questioning of the Bible is fundamental to the radical questioning of our anabaptist faith and tradition, and promises and problems therein. Thus we must radically confront the bible for what it is and isn’t and from there we can radically confront our anabaptist and Christian faith and practice.

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15 Responses to “Radical Anabaptism and Radical Biblical Exegesis”

  1. A Mennonite Theology of Culture » Young Anabaptist Radicals Says:

    […] These are thoughts which arose during that trip, but were most recently inspired by Edward Christian’s post on Radical Anabaptism and Radical Biblical Exegesis, as well as Nate Myers’ comments on FolkNotion’s post Is it really a sin?, but I thought they deserved their own post. I’ve done my best to keep up with YAR, but I’m sure these things have been said earlier by others (and probably in better ways), so I apologize for that. […]

  2. folknotions Says:

    Edward,

    Thank you for this. I agree with you, but need some clarification:

    “So, we must come to grips with the fact that what is divinely inspired, what is ultimately true in the bible, and from God who is spirit and truth, is found within a heap of refuse.”

    Now, I don’t think the Bible is well-served by a flat-book approach and giving everything the same credit; there are various revelations to serve many different audiences (as Sly Stone would say “different strokes for different folks”).

    However, and again i agree with you, but how do we decide what is the “heap of refuse”? This is not offered as critique, but sincere desire to know how to discern.

    Because historically much theology has been based on treating certain parts as “the spirit” while the rest is a heap - many of us here at YAR see that heap as the bigotry, violence, and racism. Constantine overlooked the pacifism of the NT. Mennonites get caught up in the purity of the church, overlooking that Jesus hung out with prostitutes and lepers to prove the inclusive nature of God’s love and as a witness to the oppressive character of Mosaic law (as it was understood by the religious establishment).

    Where is the spirit and truth we can find in the Bible?

  3. eric Says:

    Good stuff. In answer to your question: the spirit and truth can be found in Ruth chapter…

    Sorry. Dare I suggest you can’t have spirit and truth in the Bible without the heap of refuse? For me, the Bible finds its power in a refusal to be clean and perfect. I don’t think truth lives in clean, simple statements - but rather in jumbled collections of stories and arguments. People striving to sort through collected experiences and feelings. Anger, frustration, questions, challenges, joys and fears. We find the spirit in the mess?

    Can a radical re-understanding of the Bible leave us with more (and more-honest) respect for the book than a “literal inspiration” perspective?

  4. folknotions Says:

    Eric,

    Amen.

  5. edward christian Says:

    Good thinking. In short: still point towards universal ubiquitous human values of love, compassion, peace, kindness. God made man in his image and likeness. We believe God is these things: love, compassion, peace, kindness — this is the divine nature and the divine life understood. And these should be the standard of discerning what is “true” or “good” in the Bible…and thus what is true or good in our anabaptist tradition. Yet all these human (and divine) values are culturally framed and determined. For instance, Chinese conceptions and expressions of love and kindness in many ways — from my long experience — is different from Western concepts and expressions of love and kindness. There is an element of relativity here in regards “love”, “compassion”, “peace”, so forth.
    Anabaptist tradition puts a great deal of stress on the Sermon of the Mount to judge and discern what is good or not good in the Bible and in Christian faith. But the Sermon is just one element in the Gospels and in Jesus’ life, teachings and activity. How do we discern Jesus, who he was and what he was doing and what he was about? For example, many might argue that Jesus was not necessarily establishing the Sermon for the purpose of religious and social reform. That is, Jesus was by and large not concerned with reform, but the imminent and apocalyptic and supernatural coming of God’s kingdom on earth. That Jesus was strongly oriented towards an apocalyptic eschatology. Which was very pervasive throughout first cent. Judaism.
    About the Torah — and Judaism — being “oppressive”, belief is based on misinformed and quite frankly ignorant assumptions. It smacks of anti-Judaism,if not anti-semitism. And, its roots (radix) are found in the bigotry and virulent hostility of the New Testament authors themselves. Lets be radical, afterall. Judaism is not and has never been “oppressive”. The last fifty some years of the best of biblical research and scholarship clearly makes that apparent. I would suggest reading some of the most noted and world-renouned biblical scholars on this: Jacob Neusner, E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Amy-Jill Levine, John Meirs, N.T. Wright. To name a few. Judaism — let alone first cent. Judaism is anything but “oppressive”.

  6. edward christian Says:

    P.S., In light of all the biblical, archeological, anthropological, literary and historical studies of recent decades, one needs reassess — radically — Yoder’s classic ‘Politics of Jesus’. Was Jesus really a reformer? This is an essential and frank question. Are we prepared to radically assess Jesus himself? And, if so, how does that frame our questions as to Anabaptism and of the nature and direction of the Christian faith as a whole. One must do the hard and often painful work in this regards. Excising Jesus without anaesthesia. “I have not come to bring peace but a sword!”

  7. dave Says:

    In light of all the biblical, archeological, anthropological, literary and historical studies of recent decades, one needs reassess — radically — Yoder’s classic ‘Politics of Jesus’.

    Like what? What are all of these studies that force us to question whether or not Jesus was really a reformer?

  8. folknotions Says:

    edward,

    It would seem you are addressing my comments about oppression in the Mosaic Law. There is nothing about what I said which is anti-Semitic. If what I said was antisemitic, then Isaiah, Nehemiah, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus are all anti-Semites.

    However, I probably didn’t sufficiently explain what I was saying, which could be causing you to see what I said in that lens. I said that the Mosaic Law was oppressive as it was understood by the religious establishment. It became hollowed-out legalism while missing the point of what the law could do: bring justice, order, a call to love and faithfulness to God. I don’t need to quote the scriptural backing for this, as it can be found practically anywhere in the prophetic books and in the gospels. Biblical scholarship shows that Matthew’s gospel has Jewish-Christian roots, and it even addresses this situation in Judaism.

    And, indeed, this was the crisis addressed by Jesus.

    It was a crisis that was similarly faced by the Anabaptists, to which they called believers’ to not just take the sacraments and pay lip service to God while committing all kinds of injustices, but to live your life in Christ at all times.

    It is the same crisis today faced by conservaitve Mennonites who use the legalism of “humility” to ban people for buying white instead of black cars and all kinds of other nonsense.

    It is the same crisis faced by any denomination of Christians that have lost their calling to prophetic witness and social justice and instead spend their time on sexual morality and family values gospel.

    So the law, as it stands, was not oppressive. The way it became interpreted by the Pharisees, that was the problem. It became interpreted into oppressive legalism which forgot the point of why it followed the law.

  9. edward christian Says:

    Bravely said!

  10. TimN Says:

    Edward, you’ve raised a lot of important reminders in this thread about the history of antisemitism among Christians. Most of us grew up entirely ignorant of the pogroms and marginalization of Jewish people by Christians throughout history. For example, Mennonites grow up hearing about Luther’s persecution of our ancestors, but no one ever mentions that he saved his most venomous diatribes for Jews. For those unfamiliar with his work, On the Jews and their Lies, a look at the first paragraph of the wikipedia article on the book is enough to turn the stomach. The second paragraph is even more damning:

    The prevailing scholarly view[8] since the Second World War is that the treatise exercised a major and persistent influence on Germany’s attitude toward its Jewish citizens in the centuries between the Reformation and the Holocaust.

    Somehow, this part of the story was missed during the History of the Reformation classes we took. While Anabaptists might like to imagine we can distance ourselves from Luther, the reality is that we as Christians are part of an institution in which these types of attitudes were the norm rather than the exception.

    But fortunately, neither Judaism nor Christianity is monolithic. Both faiths have changed and adapted to different cultures and different settings. Edward, I would be a bit surprised to discover that Judaism, in all of history, has never been “oppressive”.

    While I’m only familiar with one of the scholars in your recommended reading list, I’m skeptical that they would endorse a monolithic view of Judaism either. I looked up the first author from your list, Jacob Neusner. According to the Wikipedia article on Neusner:

    Much of Neusner’s work has been to de-construct the prevailing approach viewing Rabbinic Judaism as a single religious movement within which the various Rabbinic texts were produced. In contrast, Neusner views each rabbinic document as an individual piece of evidence that can only shed light on the more local Judaisms of such specific document’s place of origin and the specific Judaism of the author.

    This seems to suggest, that, like Christianity, Judaism over history consists of a connected series of hundreds and thousands of local incarnations of Jewish theology and practice. Is it reasonable to suggest that, like Christianity, some of these incarnations were more perfect and some less?

  11. Brian Hamilton Says:

    Regarding exegesis, how about this suggestion from Augustine? Any interpretation is correct if it serves love (caritas) and/or condemns greed (cupiditas). We needn’t assign the title of ‘refuse’ to any part of the Bible, but simply read the whole according to the rule of love.

  12. Sean F Says:

    Sorry to resurrect an old thread, but I just read it for the first time and thought I’d make a couple of comments about hermeneutical (interpretive) approaches. I agree with Brian that a good starting place for any conversation about biblical interpretation is Augustine’s hermeneutical rule: our reading of a text is only correct if it advances our love for God and our neighbor. That’s simplistic, of course, and probably needs to be qualified, but it seems to fit. From this standpoint, it’s not about which texts have more authority or need to be thrown out; it does mean that if my interpretation doesn’t make me love God or the people around me more, I’ve got it wrong.

    It’s also definitely true that there are widely varying theologies within the canon, and it’s important to recognize that fact when we’re doing interpretation. Different authors had different understandings of the truth they were trying to communicate, and probably none of them had it completely right or wrong. This diversity of opinion gives us some wiggle room when we contextualize the biblical message. For example, certain texts forbid women to speak in churches, but others clearly state that women had significant leadership roles within the OT and NT communities. We can argue till we’re blue in the face about context and culture, but that’s mostly guess work. Instead, we can embrace the biblical diversity and take responsibility for making our own decisions.

    With that said, I think that we can detect certain trajectories within Scripture. For example, nowhere does Scripture mandate the complete emancipation of slaves (in fact, it explicitly supports slavery in places), but Christian abolitionists believed they were acting on biblical principles and we agree with them. Likewise, feminism can be seen as a biblical mandate not because there are oodles of texts supporting it, but because Scripture is pointing in that direction.

    I think this may be part of what Jesus had in mind when he said that he came to fulfill things. It’s not as though the Jews had it wrong or that Jesus was fixing what they screwed up (everything Jesus had to say fit very comfortably within Second Temple Judaism); rather, as a Pharisaical rabbi, he denounced certain abuses by his contemporaries and announced the beginning of the messianic age. I strongly disagree with Edward’s statement that the NT writers were bigoted or hostile to Judaism. They were Jews themselves and never renounced their Jewishness. They used Jewish categories and vocabulary to describe what they saw as the in-breaking of the Isaian eschatological messianic age. We tend to read the NT texts with the assumption that they were anti-Judaic, but only because that’s how we’ve been trained to read. I’d strongly recommend you pick up “God Crucified” by Richard Bauckham and/or Yoder’s “The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited” for more in-depth arguments.

    Okay, too long. I’ll shut up now.

  13. Jacob Getz Says:

    There are elements of the New Testament that do strike me as anti-Semitic, but I believe that this requires an extensive review of the complicated process of canonization via emerging church councils that were anti-Semitic.

    I believe that Supercessionism is at the heart of these issues and its continued existence seriously limits Christians from approaching the Biblical text with an understanding that Jews and hence Judaism approach the Biblical texts with unique ways of interpreting Scripture that range from the shape of letters and their numerical values, to a complex collection of lore derived from various sources stemming from the Second Temple period.

  14. David Says:

    Anabaptists down through history would not agree with this.
    “So, we must come to grips with the fact that what is divinely inspired, what is ultimately true in the bible, and from God who is spirit and truth, is found within a heap of refuse. What we are able to discern to be from God in the bible, is like looking for diamonds in a dumpster, or nuggets of gold in a pile of cow dung. This is how we need to look at the scriptures and we should come to them and understand them in this way. This is the radicalization of scripture.”

    2Ti 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

    You should take a deeper look at the historical root (radix)
    of anabaptism

  15. TimN Says:

    David,

    When you claim the Anabaptists as authority to back up your views on scripture, you’re trying to build your house on the sandy land. They were not all of one accord with your view of scripture. I think you’re the one that needs to do your research. Here are a few starting points:

    Hans Denck
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Denck

    “For Denck the living, inner word of God was more important than the letters of the Scripture. He thought of the Bible as a human product, the individual books being different witnesses of one truth. He did not value the scripture as the source of all true religious knowledge, but also the spirit that spoke from within each person.”

    David Joris
    http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D26801.html

    “Joris considered it a dead-letter faith to treat the Bible as the sole authority. Nothing definitive could be decided by the letter in religious disputes; it was necessary to look about for the “Son,” to whom alone it is revealed, and who, as Joris is said to have written for the Regensburg Disputation in 1541, was to come from the Netherlands, whose type was Egypt. Whereas on the whole the Anabaptists held to the Scriptures as a principle, Joris rejected them and made a principle of mystical experience. “To the mystic Joris historical revelation was merely a matter of the senses; his religious experience lay outside it” (Kühn, 300).”

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