For several decades Mennonites have laid claim to a clear, incontrovertible hermeneutical method. The most difficult of scriptures must yield their meaning to the body of believers who function within what is called the hermeneutical community. (1) When compared with other denominations' hermeneutical patterns, this method surely should be considered to be as sound and potentially as accurate as any other.
But how do we explain the origin of this method? Mennonites claim to have inherited it from their religious forbears, the Anabaptists. But the sixteenth-century Anabaptist data for buttressing that claim is pitifully thin. Indirect evidence for that Anabaptist hermeneutical community as a singular functioning body seems more extensive than does direct evidence. At this juncture, one may fairly raise the question: How--if at all--did the earliest Anabaptists function as a hermeneutical community?
The question is rendered more problematical because the earliest Anabaptists had to forge some clear method from a bewildering array of options. All reform-minded Christians were compelled to find some pattern to replace the Roman Catholic practice of locking their own hermeneutical system securely within the institutionalized church. Lutherans, Zwinglians and later Reformed--and also Anabaptists--floundered to find a replacement. Since Lutherans and Reformed settled on bases for determining their ecclesiology relatively early, they could attack and resolve their hermeneutical problems within only a few years of the beginning of the Reformation. No such luck for the Anabaptists, whose succession of prophets, wild-eyed or sober, kept the hermeneutical pot roiling for many years. (2) All Anabaptists had to contend with varieties of chiliasms, either their own immediate ones or those imputed to all of them by the reckless machinations of Anabaptist communities such as the one at Munster in Westphalia. The reputation of Munster's Anabaptist Kingdom plagued all Anabaptists for decades. It was a terrible blow to the entire Anabaptist movement. Even widely read, intelligent people today, it remains the only memorable remnant of Anabaptism and still threatens to turn the entire Anabaptist movement into a raging spectacle of the absurd. (3)
Anabaptists could serve as a hermeneutical community by passing judgment on a sermon or admonition immediately after it was delivered. One method of reviewing a sermon freshly delivered was to rise and leave the room. No one could mistake that note of audacious disapproval. Augsburg Anabaptist leader Hans Leupold told his captors that he "with others" had used this maneuver to indicate their disapproval of Hans Hut's chiliastic views. (4)
A variation on the same pattern of serving as hermeneutical community was to subject a newly preached sermon to an instant scriptural review and evaluation. Did the preacher's words accord with an accurate interpretation of scripture? Some self-selected Anabaptists seem to have subjected a sermon to immediate scrutiny and then, on the spot, made that particular scriptural interpretation the topic of a lively conversation. Let us examine two pieces of evidence, all the more significant because they are so rare.
Hans Grad, one of the earliest indigenous leaders of Esslingen's Anabaptist congregation, seems to have referred to that form of immediate sermon review as settled Anabaptist practice. In March 1528 he tells us laconically that one of several of Anabaptist Hans Zuber's flaws was his utter unwillingness to submit his rambling efforts at preaching to scriptural analysis and approval by those present. Graci's offhand comment suggests that that congregation had developed a particular pattern of evaluating the scriptural validity of sermons, probably those of everyone who preached. Did they, in fact, have an early form of the "testimony" or Zeugnis immediately following a sermon--as exercised by Old Order Amish today and earlier by Mennonites as well--in which the "witness" would need to pass public judgment on the scriptural validity of the sermon? …