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July 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 3 · pp. 3–5 

Introductory Message to the Conference on Hermeneutics

John A. Toews

My concern as well as my aspirations for these days are expressed by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:1-16. Spiritual unity is both a divine gift and a human attainment. This passage speaks of a unity which is given (v. 3) and needs to be preserved and a unity which is to be attained (v. 13) through the exercise of the gifts of grace, especially through the gifts of leadership (v. 11, 12).

Permit me to reflect briefly on historical developments in our brotherhood and then to suggest some ground rules for our sessions at this conference.


The Anabaptist movement was characterized by a practical biblicism. C. A. Cornelius describes the Täufer as a “congregation of radical Bible readers.”

The Radical Reformers shared this emphasis on the authority of Scripture with the Magisterial Reformers. But the common emphasis on “Sola Scriptura” did not result in a common theology. The difference was due primarily to a difference in hermeneutics. This difference in interpretation of Scripture led to a complete separation between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. The differences between Luther and the Anabaptists were on an even deeper level because they were related to their understanding of the nature of the church and of the Christian life. We need to remind ourselves, however, that it is not the Word of God that divides sincere believers, but rather the frame of reference with which they approach the Scriptures. Luther approached the interpretation of Scripture with his primary hermeneutical principle: “justification by faith.” On the basis of this principle he almost succeeded in excluding some New Testament books from the Canon.

In our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition there has been a remarkable consensus in the interpretation of Scripture. The issue that led to the secession of our early Brethren in 1860 was not related to the authority, nor to the interpretation, of Scripture—it was primarily a matter of the {4} application of biblical truth. That this consensus has endured for more than one hundred years among the Mennonite Brethren is due to several important factors:

1. Our congregations lived in relatively closed and sheltered communities. The widespread use of the German language in both the European and American environments until World War II provided a certain “protection” against the inroads of foreign theological influences.

2. More important, perhaps, were the Bibelstunden of the early Brethren and the Bibelbesprechungen in later years. This practice forced them to interpret Scripture with Scripture and resulted in a relative unity of faith and practice.

3. Another significant influence in the preservation of the “unity of the spirit” was the work of the Reiseprediger. The itinerant ministry of leading brethren in all churches of the Conference contributed greatly to a common understanding of God’s Word.

4. Lastly, a wholesome aversion to dogmatism has played an important role in our brotherhood unity. Our forefathers preferred to express their understanding of truth in biblical rather than in theological or philosophical terms. This is true also of our confessions of faith. As a result, we have not capitulated to “isms,” such as an extreme Calvinism, a narrow Fundamentalism, or a Hyper-Dispensationalism.

As we discuss the problems of biblical interpretation, I trust that we do not have to begin with the ABCs of an Evangelical-Anabaptist hermeneutics. Historically, I think, we have generally agreed on the following:

1. The need for an historical-grammatical approach. The actual meaning of the text has to be ascertained, and that in a historical context.

2. The finality of the Revelation of God in the New Testament. We believe that God’s last Word and His most clear Word, has been spoken to us through Christ and his apostles. This emphasis on the finality of the New Testament is the Anabaptist’s greatest contribution to a proper hermeneutics.

3. A Christological interpretation of Scripture. Christ is central to our understanding of Divine Revelation. He is not only the subject, but also the sovereign Lord, of Scripture. Whatever is in disagreement with His Word, His Work, and His Person is provisional and not final. I trust we are all in basic agreement on these important assumptions. {5}


Permit me to suggest the following ground-rules for our discussions.

1. We have met here as those who accept the authority of the Bible for faith and life. We are committed to this authority by personal conviction and public confession.

2. We have met here as those who accept the inspiration of the Scriptures. We acknowledge the supernatural character of the Old and New Testament writings. Holy men of God spake and wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. Our problem thus is not one of authority, nor of inspiration, but of interpretation. Hence we need not engage in a “battle for the Bible.”

3. We have met here as those whose understanding of God’s Word is partial and imperfect. We know in part! This fact should be reflected in a deep humility and a genuine modesty as we share our insights. We have met here to learn! We should be willing to review, revise, and enlarge our understanding of Divine truth. In my personal theological pilgrimage I have greatly profited from new and corrective insights that have come to me in the common search for truth with other brethren.

4. We have met here as those who belong to the family of God. We are brothers who have a common spiritual heritage in the Mennonite Brethren family. As brothers we accept one another with gratitude, we listen to one another with appreciation, and we speak the truth to one another in love.

5. Finally, we have met here as those to whom God has given the responsibility of leadership. What we teach and preach today will affect our students, our churches, and our missionary outreach at home and abroad in the years to come. It is a solemn responsibility to give spiritual guidance to others (cf. James 3:1).

In view of this responsibility we want to give heed to Paul’s exhortation in 2 Tim. 2:15: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.”

Dr. Toews is moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and Professor of History and Bible at Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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