Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Whether the Writings of the Old Testament Are as Valid for Christians as Those of the New": Swiss Brethren Perspectives

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

"Whether the Writings of the Old Testament Are as Valid for Christians as Those of the New": Swiss Brethren Perspectives

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

In 1571 leading theologians of the Reformed Church in the Palatinate met with representatives of the Swiss Brethren in Frankenthal for a disputation on the theological differences that divided the two groups. The proceedings of this disputation were published by the established church later that same year.(1)

Central to the whole debate--implicit if not explicit in all of the thirteen articles--was the relationship of the Old Testament to the New.(2) The question had been at the heart of Reformed dialogues with the Anabaptists for decades. When, for example, Berthold Haller, city pastor and leading Protestant reformer of Bern, was preparing for a disputation with the Anabaptists in the spring of 1532, he wrote to his colleague Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich that a main tactic of the Anabaptists was "to reject the Old Testament and to distort the New with unique cunning."(3) In reply, Bullinger insisted that this point--the Anabaptist understanding of Scripture and specifically the relationship of the Old Testament to the New--was of paramount importance. "What counts," Bullinger wrote, "is to define at the very beginning with what weapons the battle is to be waged, lest in the midst of the proceedings things which should have been taken care of. . . rise up to obscure and confuse completely what is being discussed." It is crucial, he continued, that other points of discussion not be pursued until the Anabaptists agree that whenever "conflicts arise between Christians concerning matters of faith, they should be decided and clarified with Holy Scripture of Old and New Testament." This way you can "wring it out of them if anywhere there lurks a negation of the Old Testament."(4)

For the reformers, at stake in defining the relationship of the Old Testament to the New was not merely abstract theological questions regarding the sovereignty of God or the meaning of the incarnation, but the very foundation of Christian ethics and the orderly authority they regarded as essential to a stable society. Similarly, for the Anabaptists, the ultimate authority of the New Testament went to the heart of their radical dissent--it was the basis for virtually all of their distinctive teachings on such matters as baptism, the sword, the oath, and the Christian magistracy. Thus, it was not surprising that the first article debated at Frankenthal in 1571 should have focused on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New.

Apparently, however, the responses of the Anabaptist representatives at Frankenthal did not fully satisfy several of the Swiss Brethren leaders. Thus, several years later, probably around 1573, an anonymous Swiss Brethren writer--or more likely, writers--composed a lengthy review of the thirteen articles debated at Frankenthal that elaborated on the Anabaptist position in greater detail. Embedded in a 366-page manuscript that included several additional texts, the response bore the title: "A short, simple discourse on the thirteen articles that were debated in 1572 [sic]5 at Frankenthal in the Palatinate, composed for all those to consider and pass judgment on, who, beloved by God, desire the truth and want to be without human bias; also written as a justifiable warning, founded upon God's Word, to all magistrates who claim for themselves the Gospel and the name, Christian, yet who attempt at the same time through coercion to force and compel people against their wills into faith."

Clearly, one central concern of the writer was a plea for the freedom of religion and conscience--a plea reiterated near the beginning of the first article, that the claim of the law find its fulfillment "not by means of pressure and coercion, but through the power of his Holy Spirit, and that this is called a new law."[degrees] But the primary concern of the opening two articles of the 1573 manuscript focused on biblical hermeneutics and, specifically, on the question of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. …

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