Choosing a biblical decoder sleeve

Photo: Aaron Burden, Unsplash.

When I was a child, one of my favorite word games involved sliding a card into a sleeve that had a red cellophane window. At first glance, the scrambled words on the card were unreadable, a tangle of red and black lines. But when viewed through the window on the sleeve, a word appeared, clear and legible. 

I’ve thought about that game in my work as general editor of the Anabaptist Community Bible, a study Bible that will appear in early 2025 as part of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500 project.  

The Anabaptist movement emerged in the 16th century out of a new and exhilarating encounter with the Bible. In 1516 the Dutch scholar Erasmus published a critical edition of the New Testament that was clearly closer to the original manuscripts than the authoritative Catholic Bible. 

Based on this new edition, Martin Luther and others translated the Bible into the language of the people. For the first time, ordinary people — including the early Anabaptists — were reading the Bible as if God was speaking to them directly, bypassing the interpretation of theologians and the weight of Catholic tradition. 

Yet amid the thrill of this new accessibility to Scripture came the inevitable discord of diverse interpretations. Contrary to Luther’s confident assertion, Scripture does not interpret itself. It requires a filter, a lens — a sleeve with a red cellophane window — for its words to become understandable. 

Luther settled on law and gospel as his interpretive key. John Calvin -focused on covenant and the sovereignty of God. 

For Anabaptists, the decoder sleeve was the life and teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.

Such is the price of making Scripture accessible to all. Interpreting God’s will in the Bible is made more complicated by the fact that we have two Testaments, both telling a deeply connected story but separated by God’s revelation in Jesus. 

The Bible contains numerous genres, with each book situated in a distinctive context. And, to a degree that Christians can scarcely comprehend, the Bible is a deeply Jewish text. Every reading of Scripture is a cross-cultural encounter. 

So it’s not surprising that Anabaptist Christians have brought different lenses to this sacred text. We often assume that we read the “plain words” of Scripture, while others read through the distortions of their biases and prejudices. 

Recently, for example, the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia, the world’s largest Anabaptist conference, has struggled to clarify its understanding of apostolic ministry (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11), particularly in response to self-proclaimed prophets with private revelations. 

In a recent visit to the Mennonite conferences in Brazil, I became aware of a movement, originating in the United States, that regards the gifts of the Spirit described in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 as essential markers of the church today. 

Some Mennonite groups in other parts of the world have been unsettled by teachings that differentiate the baptism of John, the baptism of Jesus and the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Here in North America we are acutely aware of the turmoil around specific biblical references to sexual practices. 

In each of these instances, cultural contexts have given rise to a focus on particular texts, read through a lens that makes the meaning of Scripture seem absolutely clear. 

How do we honor the living relevance — the authority — of the Bible while also recognizing that we always read Scripture through the filter of our own issues, anxieties and concerns? 

One response, favored in the Anabaptist tradition, is to read the Bible in community, attentive to all the voices in the rooms — even those that challenge received truth. This process calls for patience, humility and an attentiveness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Even if it leads to a clear decision, it will do so humbly, recognizing the possibility of a fresh revelation of the Spirit in a new context. 

The commentary in the Anabaptist Community Bible will draw on the expertise of more than 60 Anabaptist biblical scholars, the insights of dozens of 16th-century Anabaptists and the reflections of some 593 lay Bible study groups representing a diverse cross-section of Anabaptist faith communities. The result will not be a new Anabaptist orthodoxy but an invitation to participate in a 500-year-old conversation, attentive to the voices of tradition, biblical scholarship, a -diverse community and fresh winds of the Spirit.  

John D. Roth

John D. Roth is project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500.

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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