The Bern Debate of 1538: Christ the Center of Scripture

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The Bern Debate of 1538: Christ the Center of Scripture

Walter Klaassen§

→106# Sometime in late 1537 or early 1538 a handful of people sat together in the rectory of the church of Gross Hönstetten some twelve miles east of Bern in Switzerland. It was a group of men talking to the village pastor, Johannes Giner, about the possibility of a theological debate between them and the clergy of the established church in Bern. They were anxious that it be clearly understood that the debate was to be conducted strictly on the basis of the Bible, and that no appeals to other sources of authority be allowed. The men with pastor Giner were Anabaptists who had withdrawn from the established Reformed Church to form a church of their own, but for whom Giner was held responsible because they lived in his parish.[1]

For the thirteen years of their life as a church in the Bern country they had been harried and persecuted. In 1531 a mandate had been issued that everyone must attend church regularly or be punished, at first with a warning, and upon further offense, with exile. In 1534 a second mandate required every person to go to communion three times a year or face unpleasant consequences.[2] These mandates were designed to expose the Anabaptists since on the whole they refused to attend the services of the established church. Some of their number had already been exiled. Perhaps they came to Giner with the request for a debate because they felt that one more attempt to clarify their views might lead to greater understanding of their position and easing of the oppressive measures against them.

The request was forwarded by Giner to the Bernese authorities who agreed to permit and to participate in such a debate, and the preparations began. These preparations revealed that the Anabaptist brethren had some conditions to meet before a debate could be allowed. Only five of their number could be from foreign parts; the rest must be the citizens of Bern. Furthermore they must agree in advance that the debate be conducted on the basis of both the New and Old Testaments, and recognize that every magistrate was insti- →107 tuted by God to reward the good and punish the evil. To these conditions the Brethren could agree with a good conscience. All Anabaptist participants would be given safe conduct to and from the debate.[3]

On Sunday evening, March 10, 1538, the Anabaptists, as well as many pastors of the established church, arrived at Bern and made for their respective places of lodging. Some of the Anabaptists had travelled far. Hans Hotz came from Grüningen, southeast of Zürich. Michel Ut and Georg Träffer traveled at least 160 miles from Stams in the Inn Valley of Austria and Ammergau in Bavaria, which meant coming over high and dangerous Alpine passes when the snow still lay deep on the mountains and in the valleys.[4] As they came into the city across the Nydegg bridge they may have heard the clock on the now famous Zeitglockenturm strike the hour. It was new then, having been installed only eight years before. Their footsteps echoed along the arcaded walks of the Gerechtigkeitsgasse, which were then already a century old.

The clergymen of Bern, Sebastian Meyer, Peter Kunz, and Erasmus Ritter, were all prepared for the debate. After all, they had established the agenda, the most important feature of which was that the article on the relative value and authority of the Old and New Testaments was placed at the beginning. The importance of this procedure had been amply demonstrated in two earlier debates. The first took place in Bern on April 18, 1531, between the Bernese clergy and Hans Pfistermeyer, an Anabaptist leader.[5] One of the principles upon which the clergy proceeded in that conversation was that Old and New Testaments were of equal authority in the argument. This proved so successful a procedure[6] that it logically became mandatory to use it for the second debate, at Zofingen in the Bern country, in 1532. Heinrich Bullinger, the Zürich leader after Zwingli’s death, wrote a letter to the Bernese clergy prior to that debate strongly advising that agreement on this point be the first concern. If such agreement could be achieved all other Anabaptist arguments could easily be taken care of.[7] In fact, one gets the impression from the minutes of our debate that the Bernese clergy had carefully →108 studied Bullinger’s letter of six years earlier, and that their rigid adherence to the principles of interpretation which he outlined there made it impossible for them really to enter into serious conversation with the Anabaptists. It may be that the earlier successes made them ready to agree to this new debate, expecting that it might produce major results in the conversion of Anabaptists. In any case the method and not the desire to arrive at true understanding appears to have dominated the debate, and it is this that gives the whole affair the marks of artificiality.

Perhaps it is therefore not accidental that the original minutes are catalogued in the Bern state archives as part of Volume 80 of Useless Papers.[8] One cannot avoid a feeling of complete futility and disappointment before one has read very far, and the temptation to give up, or to skip paragraphs because of the endless repetition, is hard to resist. To judge from the results of the debate one would gladly concur with the designation “useless papers.” However, the document is of immense value in recovering the view of the Swiss Brethren on the various matters on the agenda. Our concern here is, however, not to discuss the individual points of the debate, but to look at their view and interpretation of the Bible as reflected in the minutes.

Since the Swiss Brethren views emerge clearly only by contrast with the views of their opponents, we will bow first toward the Bernese clergy, for they set the stage for the debate; they knew what they were after and how they meant to achieve it. What is said here about the Reformed clergy and the Swiss Brethren is based completely on the minutes of the debates.

The hermeneutical principles of the clergy are easily discoverable. First of all, Old and New Testaments are of equal validity and authority in debate. For example, the argument from Old Testament circumcision to infant baptism, and the Bernese position on the relation of church and civil government rested on the assumption that the Old Testament is of equal authority with the New.

Secondly, the clearer passage interprets the ambiguous passage. This was a principle accepted by all Protestants, by the Swiss Brethren no less than by the Bernese clergy. It sounds simple enough in the abstract; it becomes more ambiguous in the specific. Who, for instance, decides whether a passage is clear or ambiguous? For Luther the saying of Jesus “This is my body” was clear and simple; for Zwingli and the Bernese clergy it was not.[9]

→109 Thirdly, faith and love reveal the intention of Scripture and may in fact overrule the letter of Scripture.[10] In the discussion of the ban the clergy admitted, for example, that church discipline among them was not what it should be, and tacitly acknowledged that they were not following the command of Christ literally. However, they said, faith and love must be applied here, since the practical social situation in Bern made a strict application of the rule of Christ impossible at this time. [11]

In addition to this the clergy used the devices of formal logic such as syllogisms and the Aristotelian laws of logic governing the validity of syllogistic conclusions[12] to interpret Scripture. In the argument about infant baptism the clergy employed the following syllogism:

All who belong to God have the Holy Spirit.
Children belong to God.
Therefore children have the Holy Spirit.

There is no doubt that the syllogism is valid; the trouble is that the New Testament does not arrive at conclusions in that manner. However, at least in this debate the clergy assumed that because the syllogism was valid, it was also true and so they pressed their advantage. Since children thus have the Holy Spirit, they continued, they should be baptized according to Acts 10:47 where Peter says: “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit?” From this then follows the clincher to their arguments that children should be baptized. Since they have the Holy Spirit they also have faith. And if the baptizing Brethren now asked where it says that children should be baptized they replied that it was included in the command to baptize all those who have faith.[13]

The clergy also appealed to the writings of the Church Fathers such as Lactantius, Origen, and Augustine as proof of the intention of the New Testament writers. These fathers all say that the practice of infant baptism was received from the apostles. Consequently the apostles must have baptized infants.[14]

Finally, the clergy claimed that it was impossible really to understand the Bible or to interpret it properly unless one had knowledge of the original biblical languages as well as of Latin. Uneducated people just did not have the equipment nor the ability to interpret Scripture and ought to leave it to the experts, namely themselves.[15]

→110 All of these principles and devices conform with the view of the Bible with which the clergy worked. For them it was a unitary body of divine revelation equally authoritative in all its parts excepting the ceremonial and dietary laws of the Old Testament. They believed that it was possible to get at its meaning and demand through application of these principles. Their basis then was sola scriptura with a vengeance. In fact it was so sola that Jesus Christ becomes for them little more than an incident, albeit an important one, among other incidents related in the Bible. He had next to no significance for individual and church, since everything of importance was present before Christ appeared. One is forced to the conclusion here that the clergy regarded the Bible as God’s revelation rather than Christ, and all of their talk about salvation through Christ alone has a hollow ring. If this is a caricature of the Reformed position it is so only because on this occasion at least its representatives presented it thus.See also the argument of Pilgram Marpeck with Martin Bucer, in Quellen zur Geschichte der Taufer: Elsass, I. Teil, Stadt Strassburg 1522-1532, edited by M. Krebs and H. G. Rott (Gütersloh, 1959) 416-527.</ref> It should, however, also be recognized that in bitter controversy views tend to be expressed in extreme form. The clergy were clearly concerned to convince these separatists of their error and to restore the unity of the church. The lofty aim apparently justified the means they employed to attain it.

The Swiss Brethren also held to the principle of sola scriptura but their use of it differed widely from that of the Bernese clergy. This emerges clearly from the repeated charge of the clergy that the Brethren were literalists; they “hang on the letter too much.”[16] If their insistence on the importance of the words of the Bible had been tied to the view of the Bible the clergy held the charge would have had more validity. Certainly the clergy themselves were not free of it.[17] The Swiss Brethren view of the Bible and its interpretation makes the charge of literalism something less than plausible.

The Anabaptists seem to have been the only Protestants in the sixteenth century who took a historical view of the Bible. They viewed the drama of God’s redemption as a process, initiated by God in particular with Abraham, and moving forward to a climax in Jesus Christ, in whom God would conclude human history. The Old Testament with its Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants they viewed as preparatory, as paving the way, for the final and complete revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament institutions and the understanding of God and his ways and will are seen as lacking finality; they are unfinished. Men there move →111 in a world of shadow in comparison with brightness of the world in which Christ is revealed.[18] It was therefore impossible for the Swiss Brethren to regard the Bible as being equally authoritative in all its parts. The earlier stands under the judgment of the later; the first word, the Old Testament, under the judgment of the last word, the New Testament.[19] It would be like a notice from the office of a company president which reads: “All previous directives are to be interpreted in terms of this last one.”

But neither were the Swiss Brethren guilty of “Marcionism”— that is, the rejection of the Old Testament and allowing only the New Testament. The Bible did not consist for them of two separate sections, one of which was rejected in toto and the other accepted in toto. They agreed at the beginning of the debate with the clergy that the Old Testament was also the Word of God, but with the one qualification; it is valid “where Christ has not suspended it.”[20]

Actually then it was not the New Testament as a book that provided the key to the Anabaptist understanding of the Old Testament, but the new Covenant or the new and final revelation of God in Christ. Christ was for them the center of Scripture. Any specific word in the Bible stands or falls depending upon whether it agrees with Jesus Christ or not. What God did in Christ is his final word to men, and therefore what Christ, who was perfectly obedient to the will of his Father, said and did, is simply God’s demand. Anything which stands in opposition to Christ’s word and life is not God’s word for Christians even if it is in the Bible. Certainly Christ’s words and life did not abrogate the whole of the Old Testament, but since in Old Testament times there was only a partial revelation the demand was not so high. There the rule of an eye for an eye was allowed because men were not able to rise higher; in Christ even such limited retaliation is forbidden. There men were allowed to divorce their wives; here it is forbidden except on one condition.

When therefore the Swiss Brethren were particular about following the demands of Christ in detail they were not being simply literalistic. In fact they openly rejected the charge of literalism for its own sake.[21] It was not an extreme veneration for the Bible itself that drove them to insist that when Jesus said “Swear not at all,” abstention from every and all oaths was their only possible response. Their concern for the specific instructions of Scripture was rooted in their concept of radical obedience. If Christ completely fulfilled the →112 will of his Father, then what he said and did carries divine authority. How can a word of Christ be called a dead letter?[22] And who are men even to ask questions about its validity?

This concern for obedience over against an anxious preoccupation with literal words is clearly demonstrated in the discussion about the ministry which was the second article on the agenda. The clergy insisted that the Swiss Brethren church was not a church because it did not stand in the true succession from the apostles through the papal church, and therefore their ministers were not truly called. Not standing in the true succession meant that they lacked the authority of God.[23] The reply of the Brethren to this at first reading suggests that they had not even listened to what the clergy had been saying. But a more careful reading reveals that they had heard well enough. Their reply clearly demonstrates their use of Scripture. They did not demand proof texts which clearly stated that they were not sent. They demanded to be shown that their church was not living according to the order of Christ. It was for them clearly not a question of outward succession, for they denied that the papal church was the church, and also that the established church in Bern was the church, because these churches did not live according to the order of Christ.[24] The order of Christ meant for the Brethren that only those belong to the church who have repented of their sins, confessed faith in Christ, and in baptism promised obedience to him. Over and over again this is said, as for example, in the following quotations:

However, this is the church which believes in Christ that he has redeemed her to abandon the fleshly life of desire. They are disciples, members of the body of Christ, who confess a changed life. In such the Christian life and the church begins. To them the practices of the church as baptism, ban, and breaking of bread pertain and to no one else upon earth. They have confessed their sin, show repentance and sorrow for it, walk in the fruits of the Holy Spirit and are sealed with the power of the Holy Spirit.[25]
One must act according to the rule which Christ and the apostles taught. Thus we have found our brethren; with teaching, life, faith, baptism, ban, breaking of bread. Such we recognize as Christian church, regardless of whether there be many or few.[26]

If it could be shown, the Brethren said repeatedly, that they were not obedient to Christ, they would immediately recognize that their commission was not valid. This was the kind of argument the clergy found extremely difficult to refute and it was at another point →113 in the debate that, all other means having failed to convince the Brethren that their church was not the true church, they introduced a syllogism to end the argument:

Whoever severs himself from the true church commits the sin against the Holy Spirit.
You say that severance from your church is not the sin against the Holy Spirit.
Therefore your church is not the true church.[27]

The Brethren, however, were not taken in by this kind of scriptural interpretation and stuck to their point about unquestioned obedience to Christ as Lord.[28]

And this is also the answer to the claim of the clergy that faith and love be used to interpret the Scriptures rather than to insist upon the words themselves. The Brethren agreed that love is the norm, but love is precisely that which drives men to take the literal commands seriously, for to love God is precisely to obey his commandments.[29]

Even though the insistence of the Swiss Brethren on obedience to the literal commands cannot be characterized as literalism for its own sake, the dangers inherent in their position should be clearly recognized. Among them it easily turned to legalism, and Pilgram Marpeck’s correspondence with the Swiss Brethren on the subject of making precipitate judgments indicates that it had happened. [30] Furthermore their restitutionist claims involved them in obvious contradictions. While they acknowledged having been taught by the Reformed clergy, they asserted that neither the papal church nor the Reformed church was the church.

As indicated at the beginning, this conversation was not a true debate, because the one side held the power of life and death over the other. In order that the Brethren should not forget this the clergy and council told them on Friday that if they would change their minds and accept the instruction of the clergy they would be lenient with them.[31] When it appeared at the end that the Brethren had not been convinced, the discipline of the Bern church was set in motion. It never seems to have occurred to the clergy that their criticism of the unloving church discipline practices of the Brethren stood at some variance with their own practice of church discipline with respect to these Brethren. All who refused to recant, the Breth- →114 ren were told on Sunday morning, were to be safely conducted to the frontier and were forbidden ever again to set foot on Bernese territory. This applied to both citizens and non-citizens. If they ever returned they would be executed with the sword.[32]


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 106-114. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.

  1. Imaginary reconstruction around the basic facts that the request for the debate was relayed to the Bern authorities by Giner, pastor of Gross Hönstetten. Acta des gespraechs zwueschen predicannten Unnd Tauffbrüderen Erganngen, Inn der Statt Bernn von xja Mertzenns, biss uf de xuija Desselben Monats Im M.D. XXXVIIIten Jar. Hereafter referred to as Acta. The author used a microfilm of a typewritten copy of the minutes which is located in the Goshen College Historical Library.
  2. Mennonite Encyclopedia 1:289.
  3. Acta, 8.
  4. Hans Hotz, Mathis Wiser from Bremgarten, and Georg Träffer were the main spokesmen for the Anabaptists. Acta, 2.
  5. Ein Christenlich Gespräch, gehalten zu Bern zwischen den Predicanten and Hansen Pfister Meyer von Arouw
  6. Pfister Meyer recanted and left the Anabaptist fellowship. He was present at the debate of 1538.
  7. Heinold Fast and John H. Yoder, “How to Deal with Anabaptists: An Unpublished Letter of Heinrich Bullinger,” MQR 33 (April 1959): 83-95. The minutes of the Zofingen debate were published under the title Handlungen oder Acta gehaltener Disputation und Gerpräch zu Zoffingen mit den Widertöufferen.
  8. Acta, 304-5.
  9. Fast and Yoder, op. cit., 94.
  10. Acta, 271-72.
  11. Acta, 282, 278, 287.
  12. A universal conclusion may not follow a particular premise. Acta, 166.
  13. Acta, 169-70.
  14. Acta, 169-70.
  15. Acta, 119-20, 206, 299.
  16. Acta, 200, 210-11, 223, 274-75, 277, 291.
  17. Acta, 253, 259, 195.
  18. Acta, 59, 220, 227, 228.
  19. Acta, 19.
  20. Acta, 22.
  21. Acta, 290-91.
  22. Acta, 277; cf. 223.
  23. Acta, 28-29.
  24. Acta, 33, 35, 41, 44, 52, 64-66, 81, 121.
  25. Acta, 54-55.
  26. Acta, 67; cf. 30, 36, 43.
  27. Acta, 118.
  28. Acta, 121-22.
  29. Acta, 273.
  30. Several letters in the Kunstbuch deal with the problem of making harsh, precipitate and unloving judgments on members of the brotherhood.
  31. Acta, 224.
  32. Acta, 303-4.