A guest post by Robert Martin
The Buttress at Guildford Cathedral
Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:14-15 NIV
I was listening to Bruxy Cavey‘s “Drive Home” podcast from their current Modern Family series. Now, Bruxy, if you’re reading this, you promised a Drive Home for every week… so far, only week 1 is up… what gives?
In any case, in listening to this podcast and in thinking about a challenge from Geoff Holsclaw about other traditions “losing their memory” I got to thinking, especially in light of the passage from 1 Timothy above. And I’m thinking,”Isn’t that, really, where Mennonites have lost some of their Anabaptist memory?”
Some time ago, I started a series of reflections on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and in that series I managed to get around to discussing scripture in a post I titled “The Breath of God“. In that article, I kind of go along with what Bruxy was saying in his commentary on that 1 Timothy passage. We cannot ignore that the whole reason why we have the body of texts we call the Bible now is because it was given to us by the church as the “canon” of texts to use for teaching and growth. But that body of texts is not necessarily the “foundation” of our faith. It is certainly “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training”, but the foundation is other than the written texts. After all, when Paul wrote that letter to Timothy, there was no “canon” of Christian texts, only oral tradition, a few circulated letters, and the scattered collections of Jewish scriptures. So, how did the church continue to function without a Bible?
This is where the loss of memory has hit the Mennonite church, I feel. And it is on both the side of the more conservative congregations as well as on the more progressive, but with different characteristics.
The Lost Memory of Conservative Mennonites
One of the things that I pointed out in my previous commentary on the Confession of Faith was how the official Mennonite position is that scripture is to be discussed, discerned, interpreted and applied in a communal setting. Even if someone is reading something on their own, it is tested against the community. The more conservative evangelical strains of Christianity have very strongly come down on the idea of “sola scriptura”. The only thing that anyone needs to understand God is the Bible, nothing else. This gives rise, as Bruxy points out in his podcast, to the idea for Christians that all they need is the Bible and they can do Christianity on their own. Additionally, there is a great deal of suspicion among folks with that sense of anything of the historical church traditions and teachings. Why listen to what the church said 1000 years ago? We have the Bible, that’s all we need.
But the Anabaptist position where Mennonites get their roots wasn’t about that. That was a part of the Protestant Reformation but Anabaptists recognized the need for community, the need for remembering what the church has taught, and for maintaining a sense of historical orthodoxy. Unfortunately, some of the more conservative Mennonite congregations have found a rooting within the Biblicist mindset of conservative evangelicalism. “The Bible says it, I believe it”. This is a “loss of memory” for conservative Mennonites. There is 2000+ years of history of wrestling with the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New and Old Testament where people have lived in community and struggled to work things out. To set aside historical traditions is to ignore and give a dishonor to those who have gone before and their faithfulness in following Christ. This is not to say all historical traditions are “right and good” (e.g, the whole “indulgences” thing that kind of sparked the Reformation in the first place). But the Bible was put together by the church, written by the church, inspired within the context of the church, given importance by the church. To set the Bible apart from the church is to take it out of the context of where it was birthed. The church is the foundation, Jesus is the cornerstone, and the Bible gives witness to this. Without the church, and Jesus at the center, the Bible is nothing but a set of old letters and scrolls.
Conservative Mennonites need to regain this sense of a living, breathing community of God which gives the Bible it’s meaning. This does not reduce the importance of the Bible. Quite the opposite. The deep history of the church is what gives the Bible its importance and value. It starts with Jesus, Jesus built the church, and the Bible informs it of its identity and witness.
The Lost Memory of Progressive Mennonites
The nuance for Progressive Mennonites is a bit different. For them, it seems the biblicist position is not a point of danger. They certainly don’t hold to the idea that the Bible is something to be held in a near-idolatrous reverence. Cultural context plays a large role in the interpretation of the scriptures when it comes to how the church lives with the Bible, both in the context of the original writers as well as in the context of the current readers. The idea of “praxis”, of how the truths found in scripture are lived out, is also important.
The memory loss for Progressive Mennonites is a little more subtle. It seems that they are trapped in reactionary mode to the more strict “sola scriptura” of the conservative groups, both Mennonites and otherwise, almost to the point where the Bible doesn’t matter so much. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t matter at all, but it seems, in some ways, that it is given a much lesser role in more progressive congregations. Sermons sound a lot more like self-help meditations, devotionals that you might find in “Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul”, rather than teachings that are grounded in the written witness. Community does play a huge role in these congregations. Love and acceptance and a building of strong, healthy relationships is very important. And, honestly, I have nothing bad to say about that.
However, by reducing the importance of the Bible in the church is to reduce the importance of the church itself. It is the church, the community of believers, that gave us the collection of texts we call the Bible. If we set aside the Bible as something to turn to, then we are saying that the 2000 years of history of the church wrestling and struggling with the teachings is meaningless. Notice that this is very much the same as with the conservative groups. The church gave the Bible its meaning, but the Bible is also how the church knows its identity and purpose. To set aside the Bible means that the church loses the primary witness that spans the centuries as what the church is. And if the foundation of the faith, the church, doesn’t know who it is, then it cannot be a good foundation.
Progressive Mennonites need to recover the sense of history that is encountered within the dusty pages of an old book. There is a sense of awe and reverence of how this book has shaped the church over the years and how much good has been done because of what is written there. By remembering the importance of the Bible, the church can recover its distinctive identity that sets it apart from other movements in our world.
A Slap in the Face
As pacifist as I may be, I sometimes think that the Mennonite church needs a collective wake up by a slap in the face. The two factions described above describe the extreme ends of the spectrum of Mennonites in the USA but I believe that they are pretty accurate descriptions of the problems we face. Essentially, in these two problems, I don’t see the Mennonite church really being Anabaptist any more. Either we’ve gone the way of the more conservative evangelical churches or we’ve stepped into the world of the more mainline liberal churches. We’ve lost that distinctive flavor and salt. We are no longer, really, Mennonites. And that’s sad.
We need other Christian groups and interactions with them to help us recover our collective memory. There are people outside of the Mennonite church who have rediscovered the radical reformation and, because of their fresh perspective, can help us restore some of what we’ve lost. But beyond these Neo-Anabaptists, we can look to groups like the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lutheran groups, the Pentecostals, and the Roman Catholic church to inform us of some of those parts of our faith that we may have lost in the process. The church is something that is beyond the denominational boundaries that we’ve set up. We can learn from all of these groups, and they from us, what it means to live within that historical stream, to recover that sense of community, and to restore our reverence for those things that have been passed down to us over history, especially this collection of writings we call the Bible. We’ll know more about why the Bible is such a central piece of our faith while we recover the identity to which the Bible itself points.