Anabaptism and Liberation Theology

Let us begin with the way we will end today. Please take three and a half minutes to view a Mennonite minister, Samual Adams, define Liberation Theology, which intersects at places with early Anabaptist beliefs and actions.

Summing up early Anabaptism:

According to Stuart Murray/Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, early Anabaptism followed diverse paths, but Murray says that a hermeneutic—the heavy word that means ‘the science of interpretation, especially of the Scriptures’—does survive. An Anabaptist hermeneutic can be accessed by pondering the early practices and assigning significance to them today:

  1. Scripture as self-interpreting: regular citizens could understand Scripture without the authorities, but in the presence of the Holy Spirit. A right attitude was necessary, as was obedience to Jesus’ words.
  2. Christocentrism provided the clearest approach to the Bible: all Scripture was about Jesus, his words and deeds.
  3. The Old Testament could be understood as predicting the coming of Jesus and the Gospels: the Bible had continuity, but the OT was not to be used to force everyone to be born into a State church.
  4. The Holy Spirit was present, as the spirit of Jesus: Anabaptists were not simply literalists or spiritualists. They believed that the words of Jesus were to be obeyed, not altered by those who wanted power; to them the Holy Spirit was a bringer of common sense as an approach to Scripture; and the Holy Spirit helped regular congregants come to consensus.
  5. It was in congregations, many of them small, that Scripture could best be studied and discerned: the universities, the established clergy, and even individuals were secondary to the fellowship of believers. Those who acted as Jesus’ words would have them do (the obedient, even unto death) were the best interpreters.
  6. Obedience was key: no ethical norm should be adopted apart from Christocentrism. Ethics should be considered, but the Anabaptists felt that the Scriptures were clear enough to stand up to ethical tests. They were naturally suspicious of clerical interpretations that pretended to be ethical but were designed to keep the authorities in power.
  7. Anabaptists did not have time in the early, especially creative years to sit down and develop a full hermeneutic: there was running to be done, dying to be done, and the splitting of groups to be endured. Each early group was often represented by educated, reformed clerics who felt that the Reformation had not followed Christ’s words in practice. Common folk recognized religious freedom and Christ’s power in this approach and took up the banner.

Although Anabaptists developed into a number of groups that put different emphases on literalism and spiritualism, there were areas in which they shared beliefs, particularly in social justice, believers’ community, and willingness to die for the Kingdom of God beyond this Earth.

Why was dying such a necessity? Murray explains that when the Church is hand-in-hand with the State, there is no definition for a church that lies beyond the State. Nobody knew what to do with the Anabaptists, and Luther & Zwingli were perhaps in great discomfort as they realized that their students were committed to walking into peril.  Luther and Zwingli made deals with the authorities to keep their Protestant movements alive. The Radical Reformation’s Anabaptists believed that they were simply the fulfillment of the Reformation itself.

Much study is required to understand the historical development of Anabaptism throughout the ages, mainly the divisions of fundamentalism and modernism in the early 20th Century. Debates still rage between camps on either side of LGBTQ concerns and church structure.

I will jump to Murray’s thoughts on what Anabaptism may be able to give to, and learn from, today’s Liberation Theology. Murray asserts: “[Anabaptism] offers fresh historical perspectives on issue that were debated in the sixteenth century but remain unresolved centuries later.”

Liberation Theology was begun by Catholic theologians and priests as a way to address the problems of poverty and lack of freedom in Latin America—and as a response to local groups that were already meeting to study the Bible and what it meant for justice. Many writers are known as liberation scholars, but one of the most famous is Gustavo Gutierrez, presented below in translation.

Murray outlines some points of possible intersection of Anabaptism and Liberation Theology:

  1. Each movement gave/gives power and respect to uneducated believers. Gutierrez says: “We too are God’s people. That is why it is so easy to grasp the meaning of the Bible.” He emphasizes freedom from biblical experts and feels that the poor need to enfranchise themselves to read and interpret Scripture.
  2. Each community assigned/assigns the most power to communal interpretation, with small local congregations as key. Calling these communities ‘base churches’, the liberationists have brought thousands of Latin Americans together to read the Bible and find meaning in their lives.
  3. Intellectual interpretation, although valued by both movements, is assigned less emphasis than the application of Scripture–the doing, not just the thinking, talking, or posturing. As Jon Sobrino said, “Following Jesus is the precondition for knowing Jesus.” This sounds like the early Anabaptists’ writings. Not just understanding texts for their historical value, but applying their suggestions, rules, and admonitions is central to both theologies.
  4. The ‘hermeneutics of Justice’ is more important than a ‘hermeneutics of Order.’ Social justice is more important than social stability. Individual change must lead to historical change.
  5. Each movement honors the Gospels and Jesus as a real, historical figure rather than only a mystical being. In Murray’s book, Leonardo Boff talks of  “the historical Jesus who was poor, weak, powerless, crucial of the social and religious status quo of his time.” Boff fears that religion has wrested the real Jesus from the common man and made a god of him, thus taking away Jesus’ power and message. Liberation theology is not as Jesus centered as the earlier Anabaptist movement was, but both theologies emphasize the story of Jesus and wish to lessen the impact of formal Catholic and Protestant religions on the divinity of Christ, fearing that it can distance him from human kind.

My thanks to AMBS and Loren L. Johns for a wonderful course, on understanding early Anabaptism and its approach to the Bible. My thanks to Stuart Murray and his book, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition. I understood only a modicum of the scholarly readings we did for the course, but with the help of good resources I’ve tried to share my thoughts in these recent posts. Perhaps, in these divisive times, and with the latest Mennonite World Review publishing of a survey by the Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Historical Society—a new census of Anabaptists—we can all benefit from revisiting our roots to see what we held dear in times past and may still believe in common today.

Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash


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{Thank you to my niece, Addie Liechty, for taking the picture that is this blog’s featured image. Her blog is:}

Best wishes and have a good week.




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Greta Holt

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