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Don’t squint – use the proper lenses

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Part III in the series exploring MB identity

On a shelf above my desk sits a relic of a bygone era. It is The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). There was a time when the OED was the required reference for anyone needing reliable English etymology. The “uncompact” edition is 17 large volumes – fit only for libraries. And so for students like myself, a compressed 2-volume set was produced.

But alas, compression has its price and so an important tool was added – a little drawer built into the case that houses a magnifying lens designed for reading its miniscule text. To the naked eye, the compact OED is virtually useless. The magnifying lens brings it to life.

Before instant access to online resources, I spent many hours squinting at the large pages of my OED through that lens. The process was both exhilarating and agonizing.

As I mentioned last time, we are people of the Book. Our reference text is the Bible – the Words of God. This is a powerful presupposition with far-reaching implications. But it is the beginning, not the end. To properly read our Book we need special lenses. The formal way to describe this is “hermeneutics.”

From the beginning the church was self-conscious of this and studied the Scriptures, as conscious of the need for lenses as I was when I read my OED. The New Testament identifies four primary ones.

The Lens of the Gospel.

“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” (Hebrews 1:1-2). While all Christians use the same Bible with an Old and a New Testament, the understanding of the “gospel lens” varies greatly. The theological stream we are part of was very aware that the New Covenant is indeed new.

The Lens of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture is that which, “…prophets spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). This is not an ordinary book whose meaning is simply extracted by skilled exegetes. It is a divinely authored book. To this Jesus adds, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit… will teach you all things” (John 14:26). All of this leads to Jesus’ stunning statement that God’s words are hidden from the wise and learned, and revealed to children (Luke 10:21), something that could only be accomplished by God’s Spirit.

The Lens of the Community.

The Scriptures are given to the people of God and as they gather and study his Word, it comes to life. Submission to the community is a hermeneutical prerequisite – especially in the challenge of discerning the overlap and contrast of the two covenants. In the first great test of the limits of the Old Covenant, the community gathered, studied, concluded, and then prefaced their conclusion with – “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28). For a fuller discussion on the Holy Spirit and community, see Wally Unger’s article “Thinking clearly about the Holy Spirit: What do Mennonite Brethren believe?” (MB Herald Mar. 2008).

Theology on the Run.

I first heard this phrase as a defence of the Anabaptists’ lack of systematic theology. As a systematic thinker, Anabaptists frustrate me. “Why can’t they get their ducks in row?” The answer seemed to be, “They were too busy running.”

But there are more important reasons why the “ducks” won’t line up and why tensions exist in our theological understanding. How do we view the vast scope of creation? The corruption of sin? The complete “otherness” of God that the Hebrews understood and the Greeks didn’t? It all adds up to the fact that the best we can do is see dimly. Hard light for lining up ducks.

But there is more to “theology on the run” than the limits of human knowledge. It is also a lens through which the Scriptures are read. “Pure and faultless religion” (James 1:27) is not about theories – it’s about lives transformed. The Bible is not designed to be turned into commentaries, theological treatises, or even sermons – it is the Word of God designed to pierce the hearts of his people and change lives.

Reading my OED through the magnifying lens was hard work. The focal points are narrow, and frankly, it’s often easier to read with one eye closed. Worst of all it’s impossible to get a view of even one complete page.

The Compact OED is obsolete and I never again need to squint at its pages through the magnifying glass. The Scriptures however will always require lenses to understand. The questions remain – do we know what they are and do we use them?

Next month – We Are A “People”

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

Part I: Who’s your mother?

Part II: We are a biblical people

Part III: Don’t squint – use the proper lenses

Part IV: A people live and die together

Part V: We are a separated people

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