A Little Anabaptist Ambivalence about Scripture

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a chapel service at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, one of two graduate schools owned and operated by Mennonite Church USA. For this service, six individuals stood up to read a scripture passage that had been formative in their life, and to offer a short 2-3 sentence reflection on why this text was important to them. There were some lovely, poignant reflections, and after each speaker, we in the congregation would respond by singing the stanza, “The word of God is solid ground, our constant firm confession.”

At the end of this service, prior to the benediction, the worship leader asked us to take some time to meditate on our own formative scriptures and to share them with the person sitting next to us. This question stopped me in my tracks. A few scattered verses ran through my head, but I couldn’t help but feel ambivalent about sharing any of them.

You see, I’m ambivalent about scripture. I know this is nothing new, and it’s an anxiety that many people share, but it’s something I usually stay quiet about. Indeed, as a good Anabaptist Mennonite, shouldn’t I really love the Bible and see it as a keystone text?

Indeed, the recent Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says, in the article on scripture, “We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life…We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship.” And this is not a new belief. From its founding in the 16th century, Anabaptist confessions like the Schleitheim Brotherly Union statement in 1527 and the Dordrecht Confession in 1632 use effusive scripture quotations to undergird their statements and actions. Taking scripture seriously is part of the legacy that I’ve inherited.

And I’ve taken biblical studies classes, and learned how to see the Bible in context and as a historical text. I’ve written a few (not many) exegetical papers, and I’ve written many sermons that draw on scripture as their basis. But I’ve found that I prefer to come to scripture with my own agenda, and to make the text work for me, rather than letting it take on a life of its own.

Because, you see, part of the legacy with scripture that I’ve inherited has also been painful. I recall a letter that I received from a well-loved Sunday school teacher, carefully and kindly written, but hurtful nonetheless, citing scripture and letting me know that it would be unfaithful to affirm my mother as a pastor. There were people who threw out verses about God’s perfect plan for the world as my best friend was struggling with brain cancer in high school. There are the scriptures that are constantly pulled out and cited in order to bar LGBTQUI individuals from participating fully in church. In each of these instances, I hated scripture and it did not ring true to me.

I also hate to be drawn into debates about the Bible, where people try to “one up” each other by proof-texting back and forth. It feels meaningless, frustrating and futile to me more often than not. Rather than using the Bible to build each other up or buttress their life together as a community, I’ve seen people use it as a weapon to beat each other over the head.

I carry this baggage with me, and it makes me ambivalent towards allowing scripture to speak too loudly in my life. I have long felt more at home within the warm embrace of theological discourse. For me, it’s easier to wrestle with questions about God in community and drawing from lived experience and the broad narrative and movement that Jesus Christ represents.

But there is another legacy that I’ve inherited from my Anabaptist forbearers, too: the belief that scripture is meant to be tested, interpreted and wrestled with in community, and that its pages are full and limber enough to change and guide us over time and across diverse contexts. The 1995 Confession of Faith states, “We participate in the church’s task of interpreting the Bible and discerning what God is saying in our time by examining all things in light of the Scripture. Insights and understandings which we bring to the interpretation of the Scripture are to be tested in the faith community.”

I often wish that we would pay more attention to this advice than to questions of infallibility. If we took this seriously, than we would need to understand that reading the Bible is a process that cannot, by its very nature, be about exclusion or pinpointing one clear cut truth. It’s a collaborative, challenging and ever-changing process that shapes who we become as a church. We can’t not bring our own agendas to bear on scripture, and we shouldn’t try to read the Bible without them. In the same way, our corporate and personal experiences of God and the world also serve as sources for our theological trajectories and community life.

So, yesterday, as I continued to reflect on the question of scriptures that have been formative to me, Jeremiah 29:11 came to mind, which reads, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” This scripture was offered to me time and again throughout college and the years right after, by key members of the communities that I was (and still am) a part of. This scripture became important because of who it came from, and although it can often be (wrongly, in my opinion) interpreted as determinism, it has been helpful to me to know that, although God’s plans for me are not set in stone, they are moving alongside the world and pointed towards hope and well-being. 

16 Comments

Filed under Church, Sacred Texts

16 Responses to A Little Anabaptist Ambivalence about Scripture

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. You made some excellent, well-reasoned points. You are not alone in this regard. As I approach my 65th birthday, I’m right there with you.

    Blessings,

    Bruce

  2. Mo

    Thanks for your open and honest reflection. I have recently been thinking a lot about scripture and the seemingly diminishing role of importance it seems to play in my daily spiritual discipline. I find myself meditating on other readings and spiritual offerings instead of just verses, which causes guilt for me. But your explanation of the misuses of scriptures eloquently describes why I feel as I do. Thanks. I have really enjoyed reading your blog after stumbling onto it a few months back!

  3. Lee

    Well said, Hannah.

  4. VTbee

    Thank you, and amen.

  5. lori

    Thanks so much for this. I feel much the same way but could have never put it into words as well as you have.

  6. AED

    With much sadness, left Mennonite congregation after many years of watching the authority (and wisdom) of Scripture play second fiddle to psychology, political and financial pragmatism disguised as stewardship and secular peacemaking techniques. so glad to be part of a missionary alliance congregation that gets it right: trusting Scripture to be inspired by a loving and holy creator while practicing agape love toward those in and outside the congregation and making sure that under the headship of men, all women practice their gifts to the fullest, pastoral and preaching gifts included. Trust and obey and see how perfect are His laws.

  7. Clif Hostetler

    It’s interesting to recall that the Protestants thought they were getting away from the all too human origins of traditions developed by the Catholic Church when they insisted on “solo scriptura” (by scripture alone). The assumption behind that is that the early Christian church had it right, directly from the Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God. Their thinking was that the scriptures were divinely inspired and free of human taint. Unfortunately, modern scholarship has pulled back the veil on those early times and revealed plenty of human shortcomings involved in the development of the New Testament scriptures.
    The above is an excerpt from my review of the book, “Forged: Writing in the Name of God” by Bart D. Ehrman. Complete review at:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/162316905

  8. Hannah 2 :)

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. I really like what you say about scripture being meant to be interpreted and wrestled with in community. One of the things that I’ve missed about Bible studies–after not being involved for awhile (until this year!)–is how the Spirit can work to build unusually close relationships when people get together to discuss biblical texts in the hope that God will speak a word to us as we engage the text (even critically).
    And though I’m kind wary of confrontation about the issue of inerrancy and infallibility when participating in Bible studies, I’m often amazed at how responsive people are to the thought that the biblical authors wrote from their own particular perspective, and that we simply cannot escape the fact that we bring our own perspectives to the text, too. Even if we can’t get to objective truth, we can hear a word from God…And that’s all we really need, right? Okay, end of sermon. :) Thanks for the post.

    • admin

      Hannah, I think you are right. Bible studies can be key places to sort of wrestle together with the text. I think it only becomes problematic when we don’t “study” but just think we can read objectively

  9. Plainjane

    Thanks. I sometimes feel quilty because I do not hold scripture in high esteem; mainly because scripture is frequently used to prove some point. Some verses I love and live by, but the Bible as a whole does not speak to me in significant ways. I see and find God all around me and particularly in the people who encourage, inspire and surround me. Like Walt Whitman, I am on the Open Road with God messages everywhere!

    • admin

      Love the Whitman reference. I think it can be a great spiritual practice to cultivate awareness of God (the Divine) all around us.

  10. Blaine Detwiler

    I like your line ‘ …and that its pages are full and limber enough to change and guide us over time’ and think that it provides a more spacious engagement with scripture. I once read that the bible and the pope both reached their infallablity status during the same general time in history. Your blog reminded of an article that appeared in Theology Today by a Jewish scholar who noted that Christians and Jews have different scripture ‘expectancies.’ The gist of it being, Christians will open holy writ and say, ‘God has spoken.’ Whereas Jews will open holy writ and ask, ‘what is God doing.’ To that end, maybe our MCUSA project of tackling formative scriptures would be enhanced by tweaking the verb tense and ask what scripture is presently ‘forming’ me.

    • admin

      Blaine – This is a great distinction to make. I’m just learning more about the ways that Jewish scholars approach both the Bible and justice work, and I’ve found it a fascinating counterpoint to the ways that Christians have approached things.

  11. I recently discovered you blog and love it! I have started to read through the archives and am sure I will have thoughts on them as well, but in the meantime, thanks for your thoughts and openness. It makes me wish we had more conversations back at Bluffton.

    Hope you are well!

    Rochelle

  12. I am not menonite, although I was saved while attinding a baptist church with Landmark theology. Now I attend a local pentecostal church, who has breakfast one a month with the other churches in the small town I live in now… I take the stance that for now, we see through a glass dimly, but one day we will see face to face, and know fully, even as we are fully known. I would personally take my identity as a christian, period. To me, it seems that there have always been great people in christiadom for the last couple of mellinia of whom God had moved through, all of different traditions. I see that the mennonites are really into peace and negotiation. Now that is virtue put into action! I believe that if we are true born again cristians, we would each have our own area of impact in reaching the world for Christ, as well as a whole.

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