This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s #BeTransformed series.
For many years (1985-2022), John D. Roth was a professor of history at Goshen College, where he also served as director of the Mennonite Historical Library and editor of The Mennonite Quarterly Review. John has published widely on topics related to Anabaptist-Mennonite history and church life. He is also the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College and secretary of the Mennonite World Conference Faith and Life Commission. In July 2022, John accepted a new position with MennoMedia as project director of the “Anabaptism at 500” initiative. John and his wife, Ruth, are the parents of four adult children and grandparents to five grandchildren. They are active members of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen, Indiana.
I vividly recall attending a Sunday evening service at a rural Mennonite congregation in Ohio when I was 10 or 12 years old. The featured speaker — an itinerant evangelist — focused on the end times. What especially captured my attention that evening was a large cloth “scroll,” unfurled so that it stretched across nearly the full length of the small sanctuary. There, mapped out in great detail, were the “seven ages” of the church described in the Revelation of John. According to the preacher, each age, or dispensation, correlated with a specific portion of the Bible.
I don’t think the technical side of the presentation made a huge impact on the attendees. We likely left with a renewed commitment to be vigilant in our Christian lives, not wanting to be caught unprepared at the Lord’s return.
But the presentation affected me in a different way. It was the first time I realized that the Bible was not a simple or straightforward text, that it might contain meanings that required active interpretation. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the preacher that evening was instructing us in a “hermeneutic” —a particular lens for understanding Scripture — in this case, one introduced by Cyrus I. Scofield in a version of the Bible that he introduced in 1909.
In itself, there is nothing unusual about this. As “people of the book,” Jews and Christians have a long and rich history of engaging Scripture from a variety of perspectives. The Jewish tradition of Midrash, for example, assumes that reading Scripture will be accompanied by vigorous debate — wrestling, poking, prodding at the text, seeking new insights, always assuming that the meaning of the text is up for ongoing debate.
Modern Christians, however, have a harder time with biblical interpretation.
Some are inclined to use Scripture as a way of ending conversations, by pointing triumphantly to single verse — “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” At the other extreme — the option chosen by large numbers of young people — is to simply walk away from the discussion: the Bible is an archaic book, full of bizarre claims and is irrelevant to modern life. All this leaves a lot of the rest of us feeling like we are somewhere in between … and we are often confused. We are uncomfortable with the white-knuckled, fear-driven, claims of the fundamentalists; but we aren’t ready to dismiss the Bible altogether. So we read it occasionally, pick and choose the texts that seem to make sense, while remaining uncertain about the Bible’s actual authority. Rarely do we assume that we will discover something new, fresh or earthshaking in the text.
But it doesn’t have to be this way!
Deeply embedded in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition is a way of reading Scripture — a hermeneutic — that has the potential of making the text truly come alive. At the heart of the Anabaptist approach to Scripture — the decoder ring that makes the text shimmer with meaning — is the conviction that God has been revealed to us most fully in the person of Jesus. “In the past,” the author of Hebrews writes, “God spoke through the prophets … in these final days, though, [God] spoke to us through a Son.” Jesus, the writer continues, “is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:1-3 CEB).
Like the early Christians, the Anabaptists assumed that the primary purpose of Scripture is to point us to Jesus — to a living relationship with the Messiah.
What’s more, that encounter with Jesus in the biblical text transforms us, as individuals and communities, empowering us, through the Spirit, to change our lives, to follow in the way of Jesus.
In 2025, as part of the 500th anniversary commemoration of the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement, MennoMedia will publish the first-ever Anabaptist Bible. The Bible is an effort to help readers understand what it means to read Scripture through the distinctive “Christ-centered” lens of the Anabaptist tradition. Brief introductions to the books of the Bible will describe how each book fits into the broader narrative of God’s story. But the truly distinctive aspect of the Anabaptist Bible will be the thousands of marginal notes that reflect the perspectives, insights and questions from 500 study groups from a broad spectrum of Anabaptist faith communities. While drawing on the work of scholars, the Anabaptist Bible is unique in the trust it places in the collective wisdom of lay readers from many different Anabaptist groups, who, guided by the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ, earnestly engage Scripture in their own cultural settings.
A renewed excitement about Scripture was crucial to the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century. Could it be that a re-engagement with Scripture — from a Christ-centered perspective — would lead to the renewal of the Anabaptist tradition 500 years later?
We hope so! And we want you to be part of that process.
Any individual or congregation interested in participating in this unique project can do so by forming a study group and registering their interest on our webpage. We have divided the Bible into 500 clusters of texts. Once you have filled out the form, your study group will be assigned three biblical passages. Following the directions provided by Anabaptism at 500, your group will meet regularly (usually four times) for conversation and reading Scripture in a Christ-centered way. Someone in your group will, then, compile and submit your reflections, insights and questions in the form of annotations to the relevant verse(s). Those annotations, along with other materials compiled by the editors, will become the core content of the Anabaptist Bible. Congregations may decide to participate with more than one Bible study group; or a Sunday School class or small group may choose to take on the assignment.
We invite you to join in this once-in-a-generation project! Take part in the renewal of this 500-year-old tradition!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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