With the Bible in One Hand and Rebellion in the Other

With the Bible in One Hand, and Rebellion in the Other by Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett

Blogger at Basileus
Ben is an independent communications and strategy consultant to churches and social enterprises. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, his interests are asset-based community development, liberation theology, critical theory, Christian anarchism, trauma studies, and mountain biking. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife Candra and dog Winnie.
Ben Garrett

Latest posts by Ben Garrett (see all)

Today, we would not think of a book translation as an earth-shattering event, but in 1534, when Martin Luther translated the Bible from Greek to German, a new world was born. Prior to his translation, some Catholic thinkers, like Erasmus, wished for as many people as possible to get their hands on the Bible. Others, like Pope Innocent III, vehemently opposed “untrained minds” interpreting Scripture.[1] These concerns were largely abstract due to so few copies of the Bible existing in languages a common parishioner could read. Luther’s protest and access to the newly invented printing press forever put to an end the ability of a single authority to lay sole claim to knowing God’s will.

Growing up Protestant, specifically in the Lutheran church, I was taught that when the Catholic Church tried to prevent the Bible from being printed in the vernacular, it was a power play. Their arguments concerning the danger of Scripture being interpreted by average people was depicted as a thinly veiled attempt to maintain a monopoly on God’s voice. For most of my life I accepted this interpretation, until I learned about what happened in Münster in 1534.

The events now referred to as the Münster Rebellion took place in February of 1534 and continued until June 1535.[2] The initial leader of the rebellion, Jan Matthys, declared Münster the New Jerusalem, where the conflict to end the world would be centered. He summoned all the Anabaptists of Europe to join him in Münster to create an army to unleash upon the world. Matthys ordered for all of the non-Anabaptists of Munster to be exiled or killed. He decreed that all property should be held in common, though much of the property wound up controlled and used by Matthys’s inner circle. After his death, leading what he believed to be a God-ordained charge against the Catholic forces attempting to retake the city, Matthys was replaced by Jan van Leiden. Van Leiden declared himself to not only be the heir of Matthys but also the heir of David. He made polygamy legal and had every woman in Münster married, regardless of their willingness, to the adult men of the rebellion. Van Leiden was eventually executed when the forces of the Catholic Prince Bishop reclaimed the city in 1535.

Even in this incomplete description of the terrors that descended on Münster for two years, one can see it would have been hard for the Catholic Church to exaggerate how dangerous it is to let normal people read the Bible. I suspect, in their worst nightmares, they could not have dreamed up some of the actions taken in God’s name in Münster. This leaves us with a disturbing question. Was the Catholic Church right about who should be able to read the Bible? Did the brave reformers who risked their lives to translate the Bible into the common tongue unleash a violent, untameable force we can, thanks to digital technology, never control?

Perhaps we can say “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second. Despite what I have learned about the way the Bible has been used throughout history, I don’t believe speaking on behalf of God should be reserved for a select few. The Catholic Church itself had reformers who acknowledged the many errors made in the name of God by the Church.[3] The history of the pre-Reformation offers copious examples of the dangers that may occur when one claims to have a monopoly on the divine voice.

At the same time, that anyone (including me) can pick up a book and start talking about what God wants fills me with trepidation. That the Bible is the highest selling book of all time is perhaps the most terrifying fact of all time. Annie Dillard said we should all go to church with crash helmets on. Perhaps we share a room with the holy book at our peril.

Yet, the book has been opened—permanently. We can only ever move forward — but how? Specifically, since none of us speaks about God’s will in a vacuum, and every claim I make about the ultimate includes — implicitly — a claim that involves you, how can we move forward together?

I would like to put forward an old suggestion, a Catholic one in fact. In his book, On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine makes an interesting statement about how to test the validity of an interpretation of Scripture. He says, “So anyone who thinks that [they have] understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by [their] understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”[4]

Augustine argues the consequences of an interpretation are the test of its validity. He claims the point of human life is happiness,[5] and happiness is found in love of God and love of neighbor. The Bible is meant to instruct us on how to do this. Therefore any interpretation which does not help us do this cannot be right and must be refined. This is a truly radical idea, which would fundamentally change the way we interpret and interact with scripture.

To place the validity of interpretation in its potential for edification opens up what we might call an interpretive pragmatism. Coming from the American school of philosophy called “Pragmatism,” we can think about the difference between two interpretations of texts in terms of their different practical outcomes. This is approximate to the Pragmatist’s definition of meaning.[6] We can, as a result, test whether an interpretation is valid. Imagine, if you will, rather than being told by your pastor what the Bible says, you can rather go out into the world and test the interpretation. Does it help you draw closer to God? Are you better equipped to love the people around you because of it? If not, then Augustine suggests you have good reason to suspect the Scripture has not been interpreted properly.

I wish I could say this was a panacea for all of our authoritarian interpretative woes. However, this interpretive pragmatism cannot stand on its own as a liberating force. Indeed, if we can learn anything from sciences of the past (eugenics, for example), it is how oppressive truth can be when it is backed up by “empirical evidence.” Important questions remain. For instance, whose experience will count as evidence? Slave owners might point to how much easier it is to love their slaves when they accept the owner’s interpretation of, “Slaves obey your masters.” We might also wonder about the creation of a new inflexible orthodoxy, resting not upon tradition but upon evidence. How can we ensure our interpretative hypotheses leave room for further experiments rather than calcifying into a weapon that can be used to oppress?

A highly democratic approach would be required for this interpretive pragmatism to avoid simply functioning as another method of baptising oppression. We could not rule out anyone’s experience or context as evidence either for or against an interpretation. This includes future generations whose life experience may make our interpretation invalid. It also includes people of other religions. If our interpretations were preventing us from loving our neighbors of other faiths, we would need to change them. Interpretative pragmatism opens the door for cross-cultural and cross-religious possibilities of interpretive practice because it challenges us to share our interpretive work with as wide an audience as possible.

Of course, pointing out these dangers and suggestions to avoid them offers no guarantee against weaponizing this hermeneutic. The existence of any text which claims to articulate the will of God creates the possibility of monstrous abuses. We must always remember that, whenever we interpret a text, we are also implicitly saying we know the will of God. This should remind us to proclaim humbly. We must listen intently to our neighbors and how our interpretations shape their world. If the Münster Rebellion can teach us anything, it is that there is nothing more dangerous than an open Bible.




[1] See Erasmus’ introduction to his Greek New Testament and Pope Innocent’s letter, Cum ex Injuncto

[2] If you are interested in the details of this story, further information can be found in The Tailor King: The Rise and Fall of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster, by Anthony Arthur and in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast at http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-48-prophets-of-doom/

[3] Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly stands out as a great example of this inner, critical tradition and the Catholic Church seemed to quickly resign itself to the existence of the vernacular translations in The Council of Trent.

[4] Book I Paragraph 86 It is important to note that Augustine does not throw out authorial intent. However, he notes if a person goes against the obvious intent of the author but still lays out an interpretation which leads to love of God and neighbor they are simply to be shown that sticking with the author would have gotten them there anyway. For the contemporary reader this suggests we need not throw out historical-critical scholarship in order to adopt Augustine’s method.

[5] While happiness is the word translators use, it does not quite communicate what Augustine probably meant. Augustine was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, specifically Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s understanding of “happiness”, which Augustine is more than likely drawing on here, is much closer to our idea of contentment or well-being.

[6] Consider William James’s description of meaning: “to develop a thought’s meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce: that conduct is for us its sole significance. And that tangible fact at the root of all our thought-distinctions, however subtle, is that there is no one of them so fine as to consist in anything but a possible difference of practice…”