Last week, in a comment on my post called “Order or Disorder?“, Jonas mentioned the term Sitzerrecht and the book The Radical Reformation by George Huntston Williams. The seminary library had this book, so I checked it out and have been looking through it for information concerning Sitzerrecht. I thought some of my readers would be interested in what Williams says about this topic.
First, in definition, Sitzerrecht (German) is also called lex sedentium (Latin) and the Rule of Paul. Specifically, it has less to do with interrupting a speaker – although it is certainly related. Instead, Sitzerrecht is a hermeneutical priciple. Here is how Williams explains this topic in the context of tongues and prophecy (by the way, he lists several different understandings of “prophet” and “prophecy” held by the magisterial reformers and the radical reformers):
Freedom of prophecy, in any case, anchored in 1 Cor. 14:29-31, became in the sixteenth century the scriptural sanction for committed inquiry into the meaning of Scripture over against the magisterium of the papal Church – the right of those duly converted and seated in the expectancy of guidance from the Holy Spirit to judge the meaning of disputed texts.
Paul, in 1 Cor. 14:29-34, facing the phenomenon of the gift of tongues, declared: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation [clarification] is made to another sitting (sedenti), let the first be silent.” Eventually the rule for speaking up in conventicle or synod in the face of opened Scripture would be called lex sedentium, in German: Sitzerrecht. Paul was, in this pericope, sorting out the rules for prophetic glossolalia and the proper order for congregational (or synodal) interpretation of the meaning of Scripture… The first to use the pericope as the basis of common prophecy (prophetia communis) or “prophesying” (the later English Puritan term) was evidently Zwingli. (518-519)
Yes, apparently the magesterial reformers as well as the radical reformers held a view of Sitzerrecht (the rights of the one seated) at first. In another part of the book, Williams explains the importance of this concept to Luther:
Pastors and teachers therefore should at all times be subject to hearers, for, citing 1 Thess. 5:21 about testing all things and holding fast to the good, Luther says that things must first be declared by teachers if they are to be tested by hearers, for Christians, unlike worldlings who command, in their mutuality are subject to each other, everyone the other’s judge (Matt. 20:26). Christian hearers not only have the power and right to judge, but they are also, he went on, under threat of forfeiting their favor with God if they do not do so. Luther cites here the warning about the false Christ, Matt. 24:4, “Take heed that no man deceive you”. Therefore, the congregation at Leisnig, and every true congregation (which is so because it has the Gospel), has the right and power, indeed bounden duty through baptism, to judge teaching, to identify the false prophet (preacher), and either flee from him or to dismiss him… [E]very Christian indeed has the obligation to confess, preach, and spread [the Word] in one of two ways: where there are no other true Christians, any Christian is bound to proclaim the good news; where, however, there are other Christians who have the same power and right, a person should not “thrust himself forward,” but should “let himself be called and drawn forth.” Luther attaches importance to a text soon to become very important among Anabaptists and other radicals (1 Cor. 11:4b), the scriptural locus for Sitzerrecht (lex sedentium), 1 Cor 14:30, “If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.” In other words, let the teacher be silent and a hearer rise to make an assessment. The layman may do this, Luther says, “Even without a call, because necessity knows no law,” observing further that if such is true for an individual Christian, how much more for an entire congregation. (145-146)
So, for Luther, while Sitzerrecht (lex sedentium) has application while a teacher is speaking, the primary application of this term is in understanding and applying Scripture – hermeneutics. For Luther, and Zwingli above, and most of the Anabaptists and other radical reformers, Sitzerrecht is a principle that teaches that all believers have the ability to understand Scripture and to weigh what another says concerning Scripture, even if that “other” is a teacher or preacher.
The question is, “Who determines what Scripture means?” Certainly, all would say that God determines the final meaning, but how do we understand this meaning? During the sixteenth century, there were three answers to this question: 1) the pope through the Roman Church, 2) the religious professional, and 3) the Christian congregation. The principle of Sitzerrecht puts the burder of understanind Scripture squarely in the domain of the congregation – with the assumption that the individuals assembled are indwelled by the Holy Spirit:
[These] appealed to what they and the radicals generally thought of as they Rule of Paul or the lex sedentium (Sitzerrecht), based on 1 Cor. 14:23ff. and with some support from 2 Pet. 1:19ff., namely the right of the whole Christian congregation, the laity with the divines [religous professionals], to judge difficult passages of Scripture together, not individually or professionally. The principle of inspired corporate interpretation of the Bible was the presupposition of much of the committed conversation within Anabaptism… as well as in magisterial Protestantism, but this interesting theological formulation would be eventually routinized or abandoned. (1256-1257)
Discussing the abandonment of Sitzerrecht by the magisterial reformers, Williams quotes an article by John H. Yoder (“The Hermeneutics of the Anabaptists,” MQR 41 (1967): 291-308):
He [Yoder] contrasts them [Anabaptists and other radical reformers] here with the other Reformers, who “abandoned their initial vision of the [Reformed] visible church, the hermeneutic community, and were obliged to shift the locus of infallibility to the inspired text and the technically qualified theological expert.” (1257)
Sometime during the 1500’s the magesterial reformers abandoned the idea of Sitzerrecht – that all believers have the right and duty to test teachers and determine the meaning of Scripture together – and embraced the principle that only a “technically qualified theological expert” could properly interpret Scripture for a gathered group of believers.
The idea that only a qualified expert can exegete and explain Scripture today is embraced by most congregations – even if it is not voiced as a hermeneutical principle by those same congregations. For this reason, the “sermon” and the “pulpit” are placed in a superior position to any other type of communication between believers. Since the sermon is now in a superior position – for many a sacrosanct or even sacramental position – Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 14:26ff. concerning interrupting a speaker are considered to not apply to sermons.
I agree that in many of today’s churches it would be distracting and not edifying to interrupt a teacher or preacher. I do not question whether or not this is socially or culturally acceptable. I still wonder, however, why interrupting a speaker – even a preacher – would not be considered scripturally acceptable.
Is there any indication in Scripture that the sermon should be immune from Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 14?
Why do you think the magesterial reformers abandoned the idea of Sitzerrecht – that any congregation of believers has the obligation to weigh teaching and interpret Scriptures?