I preached this message in 2015. Here’s a link to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective article.
Almost 500 years ago, the Anabaptist movement had it’s start in Europe. Mennonites are descended from the Anabaptist movement and from our beginning, scripture has formed a core part of our character.
What makes Anabaptists and Mennonites unique in our faith is how we interpret scripture, using Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as a guide to interpret all of scripture and to do this in community. For example, we take the scripture seriously when it says that Jesus told us to “Love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” and as a community, we’ve taken this to mean that we do not participate in war or go to war.
Something very important existed 500 years ago that enabled the Anabaptist movement to grow: The printing press. A rebellious group of people started printing scriptures on the printing press, and what was more serious of a crime, they were printing it in the German language, so that more people could understand what they were reading.
At the time, the authority for understanding and interpreting scripture came from the Pope and was given through the church’s leaders. Bibles were not common because they were normally transcribed by hand and the only language that could be used to read and write scripture was Latin. When people heard scripture on Sunday, they couldn’t understand it because most people didn’t understand Latin. All power belonged to the religious elite who held scripture and it’s interpretation in their hands.
With the printing press came the first mass produced Bibles, printed in the language of the people. Anyone who could read German and afford to buy a Bible could now access the scriptures directly, without relying on a religious scholar trained in Latin. This changed everything, because now the power rested more firmly in the words in scripture.
Instead of Papal authority, we now had scriptural authority. And so the Anabaptist movement grew and the Mennonite Church grew out of that movement and today, a core part of our character is based on scriptural authority.
With such high esteem for scripture, it’s no wonder that the 4th article in our confession of faith is titled “Scripture”. Mennonites are good at teaching the Bible, it’s at the core of who we are.
Both in High School and in Sunday School, my teachers worked hard to impress on me the stories in the Bible. When I was 16 and decided to work at summer camp I made the choice to read the Bible on my own. My teachers did a good job, but it was when I took scripture into my own hands and started reading it for myself that I found joy in reading the Bible. I have read the Bible almost daily since then and I enjoy reading it to this day.
The mysteries of Scripture
The Bible is full of mysteries. Scripture itself is mysterious. Most of us understand a good deal about the Bible, the story that it tells and the history it talks about, but there is a lot we don’t know which only scholars fully understand. And then there are things that even scholars don’t know.
When we see the Bible, we see a book, but it is really a collection of writings. The writings include many topics like History, Poetry, Songs, Letters, and Prophesy. Scripture, in it’s original form, would’ve been written in 3 languages: Ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Our Bible has two basic parts: The first part is the Old Testament, which are books from the Jewish scripture which we’ve adopted into our Bible and the second half is the New Testament, which are writings from Jesus’ time and on, including the 4 Gospels, and many letters. All of the New Testament was written after Jesus’ resurrection and the Gospels were likely written only after the destruction of Jerusalem around 70 years after Jesus’ birth.
The Bible has many authors spanning thousands of years. What we consider the Bible today was mostly formed almost 400 years after Jesus’ birth. The best scholars of that time worked hard to decide which books to include in the Bible.
Most of our modern Bible is based on manuscripts that are dated up to 1000 years ago. In those ancient days, they didn’t have photocopiers. People had to manually transcribe scripture and you couldn’t make many copies. As manuscripts became old they were replaced with newer copies.
As you read the Bible, you will notice many clues about it’s history. For example, in the Old Testament, whenever you read the phrase “… and it is still there …” like in Judges 15:19, this tells us that a later generation had added a comment to the story and it is this later version that has become part of our Bible. Some of you will have Bibles with foot notes in them, often times the foot note will explain an alternate translation of the phrase from a different source manuscript. Mark 1:41 is such a phrase that seems to have changed preference in versions of the NIV. It is hard for some to understand why scripture might change, even in a small way, but that is all part of the mystery.
We choose how we react to the truth of scripture and to it’s mysteries, to believe it in faith or not to believe it.
As scholars peel away some of the mysteries of scriptures, some people become disillusioned and feel that the power of scripture is removed, but for others, this peeling away of mysteries reveals a deeper and more profound meaning and more mysteries which only God knows the answers to.
In Numbers there is a story about how the Israelites, during their 40 year journey in the desert, rebelled against God. So God sent snakes which bit the people. Then the people repented and God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. People could look at this snake and be healed.
It is an odd story because normally God is against making images of anything. It seems like people would treat this image as a god and worship it. True enough, hundreds of years later, people were worshiping the bronze snake and calling it Nehushtan. King Hezekiah, a good king, obedient to God, destroyed the bronze snake that God commanded Moses to make because it had become an idol. I wonder how long it remained an idol before Hezekiah had the courage to destroy it?
In the same way, scripture presents us with this one temptation: to become itself an object of worship. A god that cannot be challenged. The foundation of church itself. Where church is more about reading the Bible than being obedient to Jesus and salvation comes from reading scripture instead of being filled by the Spirit of God.
The Bible is a core part of the Mennonite church, but not our foundation. Jesus is our foundation.
As Millie and I were talking about this, Millie told me what one of her professors said: He believed that God intentionally made it so that we didn’t have any of the original manuscripts that make up our Bible, because if we did, we would worship the manuscripts.
The bronze snake is mentioned one more time in scripture, in the Gospel of John. Jesus talks about the original intent of the bronze snake on the pole, saying that just like the snake healed people, Jesus would be lifted up and people would be saved by looking to him.
In the same way, the Bible is not to be worshiped, but it’s intent is to point us to the one we do worship.
Inspired by God, Spirit led and Jesus focused
The first 2 paragraphs of article 4 describe scripture for us. Everyone who has ever had a hand in writing, translating or transcribing scripture throughout history have all been led by God’s Spirit to do this work. And while all these people themselves are imperfect the result of all this work over time is God’s message to us, words that are made holy by God’s Spirit working through people.
Trustworthy and reliable: The word become flesh
Paragraph 3 tells us that we fully trust the scripture as reliable. This is a theme repeated in our confession and therefore, it’s important to us. God has given humanity messages through prophets, but these messages were limited by the strength and power of human words to describe God’s heart. That is why God sent his one and only son Jesus into the world. Jesus is God’s word made flesh. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection tells us how we interpret all of scripture.
Scriptural authority was a new thing when the Anabaptist movement started and it threatened the Catholic Church’s authority. The reaction was persecution.
When we, as a church, need to make decisions, we go to scripture. When we write documents, like this confession of faith, we base it on scripture. When we try to understand our culture, we look to scripture.
Core to our faith community
The Bible is the only necessary book for our church. Scriptural authority is important, but to understand scripture, we need to work through scripture as a church family.
I found this billboard on a Google images search: “Slaves, obey your masters.” Colossians 3:22. By American Athiests and PA Non Believers. This lesson in Bronze Age ethics brought to you by THE YEAR OF THE BIBLE and the House of Representatives.
This billboard was on display near Harrisburg PA for a short while either in 2014 or 2015. How does this billboard make you feel? How would Jesus want you to respond to it?
Culture over the last several decades has become increasingly hostile to the idea of scriptural authority, rejecting the idea of absolute truths preferring, instead, the idea of personal truths. Media like this billboard is designed to create a strong emotional response.
The church is affected by the underlying philosophy and this has caused churches to become quick to adopt new cultural trends without taking time to consider what scripture tells us.
Another challenge to our Mennonite tradition is lack of scriptural discernment in community. More and more, church members put more priority on scriptural messages from radio, TV and the Internet rather than working through scripture with the church family. As a result, the church family becomes more polarized around cultural and political issues.
What is the best way to respond to these challenges? How do we invite people who don’t take scripture seriously to start reading scripture? How do we invite people into discerning scripture as a community?
And what other challenges does the church face with regards to scripture?