Article 1: God

What does Mennonite Brethren theology have in common with that of other Christian denominations? And what are the distinctive emphases of Mennonite Brethren theology? Our Confession of Faith is a short document, informed by Scripture, that names the perspectives through which we read God’s Word in order to live as Christ’s followers. This is the first article in a series by the Board of Faith and Life exploring the 18 articles of this formative document. 

Article 1:
God

Thirty years ago, Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten became a worldwide bestseller. Its premise is that the elemental truths of life are far more basic and understandable than sophisticated adults are inclined to admit.

There is an elegant truth in Rev. Fulghum’s advice that parallels the start of the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith. Despite life’s complexities, there are elemental truths that ground and orient us, enabling us to live with hope and power in a world full of despair. The Confession begins with an article summarizing our convictions about the God we serve. It is short and uncomplicated. But it forms the basis of everything else that we believe.

Unlike many statements of faith, the Mennonite Brethren Confession begins not with the Bible, but with God. The foundation of our faith is the living God of heaven and earth. Scripture reveals God, but is secondary to God. The Bible is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That is why we talk about God first.

Our commitment to knowing God in light of God’s self-revelation is seen in the biblical language used to describe Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe the best starting point for talking about God is to refer to the terms and metaphors that God has inspired. We talk about God first the way God talks about himself.

In the article about God, we see profound truths that inform and direct our lives.

We read that God is the source of all that is, all life and all of reality. We are reminded that God does not simply fit into reality; God defines reality. No matter how chaotic life seems in light of political and other events, God is still the sovereign who rules over all things. We have unshakeable hope because of who God is. Do our lives demonstrate this hope?

We read that God’s disposition toward the humans God has created is loving, nurturing and disciplining. God’s desire for close relationship with us is evident in his actions in human history because God loves us. What, ultimately, does God’s love look like? What, tangibly, is God like? The answer is simple: God looks like Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh. Because of Jesus, we can know what Good News looks like, and show others. Do others see Jesus in us?

Jesus is the pattern for us to follow as we live our lives. We are called to be like Jesus. Our Confession describes, in elemental terms, what that means. Jesus shows us what true worship is, what Christian mission looks like and how to live lives of true love by living for others. Jesus reminds us through the cross that worship involves self-sacrifice. But Jesus also demonstrates that suffering yields the promise of glory. A bit is revealed now, but we will see far more in eternity in God’s immediate presence.

All of this is relatively easy to understand, but hard to put into practice. Our Confession reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit, God in us, that enables us to do the things we know we should do – the things we want to do, but cannot on our own. We are not left to our own power or wisdom to live our Christian faith. God provides all that we need – the transformation, the enabling and the direction.

We can be who we are called to be because of who God is, and what God has done and revealed in Jesus Christ. The basis for all we believe – and the reason we are motivated to say and do more – rests on these elemental truths.

[Brian Cooper is the BFL representative from the B.C. provincial conference. He has recently resumed the spiritual practice of bodily discipline on his cross-country ski machine, and he longs for the resurrection.

10 Comments on “Article 1: God

  1. “Unlike many statements of faith, the Mennonite Brethren Confession begins not with the Bible, but with God. The foundation of our faith is the living God of heaven and earth. Scripture reveals God, but is secondary to God. The Bible is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That is why we talk about God first.”

    Wow! What a putdown for the Bible. When I read Psalm 119, or when I read the eighty-plus statements by the Lord Jesus Christ that exhibit his view of the authority, authenticity, and historicity of God’s written Word, I don’t get any sense that the Bible is to be regarded as “secondary.” There is no “competition” between God and his Word. (Read Psalm 138:2 in whichever translation you like!)

    Where do we get our information about “our faith” if not from the Bible? SInce it’s logically foundational, that would be why it’s generally mentioned first. So maybe all those other statements of faith have something instructive to say to Mennonites.

    • Richard, you are certainly right to say that there is no competition between God and his Word. God’s self-revelation allows us to know about Him, and provides a foundation for our theological reflection. But Scripture is intended to lead us to faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for their preoccupation with the written word in John 5:39. They know a lot about God, but they failed to recognize God Incarnate. What a tragedy.

      It would be theologically irresponsible to suggest that Christians try to build our faith apart from Scripture. But it is equally foolish to try to convince ourselves that the goal of the Christian life is simply to know what the Scriptures say about Christ. Rather, our aim, like that of Paul, is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3:10). I don’t think we actually disagree on this, because I don’t think you are suggesting that anyone emphasize Scripture to the neglect of Christ.

      But in terms of our confession, that is why we talk of God first.

      Brian

      • “Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for their preoccupation with the written word in John 5:39.”

        Brian, this is surely a miscasting of the nature of Jesus’ rebuke. In John 5:31-40, Jesus is speaking of various entities that testify to him, including John the Baptizer, Jesus’ own works, the Father, and the Scriptures. His opponents do not have the Father’s word abiding in them, even though they search the Scriptures. Jesus’ rebuke is not for their searching of the Scriptures per se, but for their ironic failure to follow what the Scriptures are telling them as they point to Jesus.

        Jesus fully upheld the truth, the authority, and the importance of God’s written Word. The Scriptures were his weapon against Satan (Matthew 4:4-10), and he regarded ignorance of the Scriptures as a cause of grievous error (Matthew 22:29-32). Jesus firmly endorsed even those parts of Scripture that are most heavily criticized today, such as the creation account (Matthew 19:4-9), Noah’s ark (Luke 17:26-32), and the history of Jonah (Matthew 12:39-42). He regarded it as “foolish” not to believe what was written in the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-49).

        I hope you will rethink your use of the word “secondary” when speaking of the Bible.

  2. Thanks for this debate. I enjoyed reading the exchange. In the course of the conversation it seems we’re already working our way towards article two of the confession, which states, “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice.” We’ll have to wait a couple months for the BFL article in the Herald, but I think the Bible is kept in appropriate perspective in our confession (and by Brian as well). As Mennonite Brethren, we are indeed “people of the book,” but I like the author of Hebrew’s approach when it comes to the Word:

    Hebrews 1:1-3: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

    Jesus’ words are certainly recorded in scripture, and we do well to live by them. But there is that broader sense of “the Word” that is more than just scripture. “The Word” being with God at the beginning of creation and becoming flesh, as John describes poignantly in the first chapter of his gospel.

    I don’t think the bible is secondary to a number of things, other books, for example, or my own words. I do however, agree with Brian, that the bible is indeed “secondary to God.” In one sense you could even say the Bible is secondary to the Word (Jesus) but I don’t know if saying that would help us get on the same page.

    Thanks for this dialogue!

    Kevin Koop
    Crestwood MB Church
    Medicine Hat, AB

  3. I understand where Brain is coming from but I believe the argument is scripture being secondary to God. I don`t believe it is fundamentally. Conceptually it may be but not in the literal sense according to context and exegesis.

    The Christian confession of God begins with the primary testimony of scripture, not an independent concept of God. Only then can one talk about God first. Menno Simons wrote, “For what the nature of God or Christ is, we may readily learn from the scriptures.”

    Jesus spoke of the primary importance of scripture in his day, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:46NIV).
    Jesus also said, “For it is written” (Matthew 4:10).
    Moses wrote, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut.18:15ESV).
    David the prophet wrote, “For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name” (Psalm 138:2KJV).The Apostle Paul wrote, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2NIV). Paul also wrote, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

    If you cannot first believe in the written words and testimony of Jesus, Moses, David, Paul and Menno Simons, a confession of faith and talking about God is irrelevant and meaningless. We talk about God first when we listen and know His word first. Otherwise, what is the point of talking about God without a context?

    Scripture is not secondary to God. It is primary to knowing and talking about God.

  4. Kevin, thanks for your comments. Richard, I think we are speaking past one another, and i can see how it is easy to do this. Yes, Jesus upheld the truth, the authority and the importance of God’s written Word. He affirmed this on multiple occasions. And yes, the reason for his rebuke is that his conversation partners failed to follow the Scriptures that pointed to Jesus.

    I think you have hit upon a key point in mentioning Jesus’ language about the Father’s word not abiding in the Jews whom Jesus is addressing. I think the pertinent question is to ask what Jesus is talking about when he rebukes the Jewish leaders on this basis. He is not talking about the OT Scriptures; they were well versed in them. The Jewish leaders were experts in the law, which indicates a command of the texts. But here, Jesus is talking not about the written words, he is talking about himself — the Living Word of God. I am sure you would agree that Jesus saw the shortcoming of the Jews’ theological understanding as bound up in their focus on the written word to the neglect of Jesus, the Living Word.

    On this point, Kevin, I think your words are aptly chosen. The Bible is not secondary to other books, or other words. It is secondary only to God himself. The written word testifies to the truth of the Living Word. We will not neglect the written word, the Bible, but understand it for the purpose for which it was revealed.

    BC

  5. Thanks for the interesting debate, everyone!

    Brian, you assert that when Jesus speaks of the Father’s word, he is not referring to Scripture. But I suggest that Jesus’ use of this language may very well refer to (or at least, need not exclude) Scripture in this context, for two reasons:

    (1) Within the same gospel, Jesus clearly equates “the word of God” with “Scripture” (John 10:35).

    (2) There is, arguably, a parallelism between the two consecutive statements of Jesus, in which “his [the Father’s] word” parallels “the Scriptures,” and “you do not believe the one whom he has sent” parallels “you refuse to come to me.”

    Here is the relevant text: “. . . you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:38-40)

    The fact that Jesus’ opponents were well-versed in the Scriptures (the word of God) intellectually does not entail that God’s truth was actually abiding in them in a meaningful way.

    • This is fun! As I read the thread I think there’s a lot more we have in common than not.

      Warren, re: your point “Scripture is not secondary to God. It is primary to knowing and talking about God.” Can something be secondary even if it is the starting point? I would agree that scripture is the best starting point to understanding who God is (though Paul’s point in Romans 1:20 is worth keeping in mind).

      Perhaps another way of framing the question, is a road map secondary to a destination? The map is the starting point, but really it’s just a tool to get us to where we need to go. What do you think?

      The other tricky thing is that even with a high view of scripture we very quickly equate our interpretation of scripture to have the same value as scripture itself. So, when we say “the bible is primary” we are actually saying “what I understand the bible to be saying is primary” and those are two very different things. I don’t hear that going on in this thread, but there certainly is that danger when take a bible first approach.

  6. Kevin Koop,

    I was addressing the initial statement “secondary” to talking about God, not the subsequent thread. There certainly is a danger to taking one`s personal concept of God as “primary,” in a vacuum apart from scripture, as a first approach as well.

    • Thanks for the clarification Warren. Greatly appreciated! I enjoyed the dialogue :)

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