Part II in the series exploring MB identity
Who are the Mennonite Brethren? There was a time when the question was mostly rhetorical, part of the formal and informal catechisms of the church family. We knew who we were – we just needed a reminder or two from time to time. But those days are gone. We are now part of the amorphous soup of Western Christianity.
Historically, we have our beginnings in the 16th-century Reformation and specifically in its quest to recover a faith unencumbered by centuries of traditions, rituals, and extraneous beliefs.
The defining principle of this quest was sola scriptura – Latin for “by Scripture alone.” This declaration set the Reformers apart from the Catholics.
But our predecessors were not satisfied with the Reformers’ conclusions. To them it seemed the Reformers were not prepared to live with the implications of their own principles. Where, they asked, does the baptism of infants find its source in Scripture?
None, they concluded. Those who would be followers of Jesus must obey the command to be baptized – upon confession of faith. And with that declaration they became “Anabaptist,” or re-baptizers. So who are we? We were not Anabaptists first – we were Biblicists first. We are people of the Book. We have heard it so often that it may seem self-evident, but it’s not. We were defined by our relationship to the Scriptures. And if we want to know who we are, we need to thoroughly understand what that relationship is.
Sola scriptura was the foundational argument against the claim that the Apostolic Church was the ultimate interpreter of Scripture. The debate on this single point was fierce and bitter because those on both sides knew it was critically important.
It was important then and it remains important now because it strikes at the core of everything we call knowledge – extending from grimy kindergarten playgrounds to the thin air of universities.
The simple question is, “How do you know that?” The erudite question is what they call epistemological. No matter who asks it, it’s still critical. Those who feel too advanced for a playground challenge and those too impatient for an academic debate have no defense against nonsense.
And what is our epistemological foundation? For Biblicists it is Scripture. This foundation puts us in a lineage that predates the Reformation by thousands of years and reaches back to the first words given and initially inscribed by God on the tablets of stone. It extends through the Law and the prophets, is identified by Jesus, and expanded on by the writers of the New Testament.
It is through the Scriptures that we learn about the revelation of God, the words of the prophets, and the declaration of the gospel. Everything we know about our faith we know through the Scriptures. The understanding of Scripture is the Biblicist’s epistemological foundation.
In the West, the battle engaged by Luther’s sola scriptura has been boiling over for a long time. There are a few relics of the past who still try to appeal to the apostolic authority of the church, but for the most part society, and even the Christian community, just ignores them.
But just because sola scriptura has become a truism does not mean that its principles automatically guide us. In fact, as the authority of the Apostolic Church faded in importance, another authority quietly took its place. That authority was humanism.
Humanism is a far more subtle and difficult challenge to Biblicists than apostolic authority. In its radical forms it is easy to identify. The pure secularist says, “The Bible is nothing but another collection of ancient writings. There is nothing sacred about it.” Even extreme Christian humanism, such as the infamous Jesus Seminar, is beyond the pale for most Christians.
But the Bible, understood to be Scripture – first as the words of God and second the product of human writers, culture, and history – is a very significant presupposition with deep implications.
Understanding the Scriptures to be God’s words is not itself a hermeneutical principle but defines something much deeper. To know who we are – we need to know how we know.
We are people of the Book, and that Book is the Bible.
Next month – the Gospel/Community Hermeneutic.