Hermeneutics of Word and Spirit -- By: Dale R. Stoffer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 045:1 (NA 2013)
Article: Hermeneutics of Word and Spirit
Author: Dale R. Stoffer

Hermeneutics of Word and Spirit

Dale R. Stoffer*


When the established churches of the Protestant Reformation identified the distinguishing features of their ecclesiology or doctrine of the church, they invariably underscored the Word and Sacrament. Both the Lutheran and Reformed churches maintained that the twofold marks of the true church were the proper preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the Sacraments. This emphasis on the Word and Sacrament yielded an approach to the doctrine of the church and even to the doctrine of salvation that would be in sharp contrast to both Anabaptist and Pietist ecclesiology and soteriology.

The Reformation brought some sharp differences of opinion over what authorities should guide the church in its discernment of truth. In one of the more colorful exchanges, the spiritualist, Thomas Muntzer, engaged in a spirited debate with Martin Luther over the priority of the Word or Spirit in issues of Christian practice. Following Luther’s ouster of a group of Spiritualists from Wittenberg, Muntzer was reported to have said that he would not trust Luther even if he swallowed a dozen Bibles, to which Luther replied that he would not trust Muntzer either, even if he had swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all. Though neither Luther nor Muntzer would reflect the position held by the Anabaptists, Pietists, or Brethren regarding the role of the Word and Spirit, this exchange does illustrate the debate that occurred within Protestant ranks about the relative weight accorded to the Word and Spirit in the discernment of truth.

In this presentation I would like to consider how both Anabaptism and Pietism viewed the roles of the Word and Spirit in the discernment of truth (hermeneutics) and in guiding the individual and corporate lives of believers. I will then observe how these perspectives influenced the early Brethren. I will not survey the terrain extensively in this investigation but give a general overview of the subject, citing, where appropriate, some of the writings of individuals who would hold representative views on the subject at hand. I also want to weigh in on some of the ongoing discussions that have occurred in Brethren circles for which this investigation may provide more insight.

Word and Spirit in Anabaptist Thought

C. Arnold Snyder has observed that there is a “fundamental ‘inner/outer’ tension in the core Anabaptist principles.”1 This tension derived from two convictions. First, at the heart of the tension was a recognition of the unique and indispensable roles played by the Spirit and Word (Scripture) in the Chris...

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