Biblical Interpretation In The Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977)

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Biblical Interpretation In The Life of the Church (Mennonite Church, 1977)

Biblical Interpretation In The Life of the Church

A Summary Statement Adopted by Mennonite General Assembly June 18-24, 1977, Estes Park, Colorado

1. Principles of Biblical Interpretation

A. The Origin of the Bible

The Bible is God's gift to mankind through divine revelation and inspiration. We believe that God was at work over the centuries through the process by which the books of the Bible were inspired, written, collected, and recognized as authoritative. What we call the Old Testament was accepted by Israel as the standard for faith and practice, that is, canonized, in three stages: first the law, then the prophets, and finally the writings. These three sections make up the Hebrew Bible used by Jesus and His disciples (Luke 24:44), and by the synagogue and the church today.

Additional books, known as the Apocrypha and included in the Greek Old Testament, are used by some parts of the Christian church. These books provide help for understanding the period between the Testaments.

The books in the New Testament were inspired and written basically within the first century in response to the new covenant and the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ. The four Gospels, the Pauline letters, and more gradually the remaining parts of the New Testament were given a place of authority equal and ultimately superior to that of the Old Testament. By the end of the second century a book was recognized as canonical when it was commonly read in the worship services. Although certain books were "disputed" for centuries, eventually recognition of the twenty-seven now in the New Testament grew from the grass roots upward and were widely supported by church leaders by the fourth century. These books served to preserve the basic gospel of Jesus Christ and the earliest apostolic witness against the distortions of legalism and heresies.

B. The Bible and the Believing Community

The Bible is the Book of the people of God. It is the testimony of God's people to the prophetic Word and historic events. Through this Word and these events God created a special people with a peculiar political shape among the nations. Their unique testimony finds understanding and credibility in the ongoing community of faith. The Bible is truly at home within the believing community which gave the Bible its shape. The Bible in turn has shaped the people of God. Thus, it is from the perspective of the faith and life of this community of God's people that the Bible can be interpreted and applied to today's world.

The at-homeness of the Bible in the community of faith speaks to the issue of biblical authority. Unfortunately, the Bible and the church are often seen as contrasting authorities. The unique authority and rule of God in Christ which is set forth in the Bible can become apparent only in the voluntary faith and obedience of the responding community.

The believing community is an interpreting community. This means that the community will have students who give themselves to the study and teaching of the Bible. The task of such students is not to dominate the process of interpreting the Word, but to exercise leadership in this area. It is the task of each member to participate in the interpretation of the Bible. We believe that God gives special insight to individuals as they read and study the Bible. These insights are to be tested in the community (1 Corinthians 14:29; 2 Peter 1:20, 21). This testing of interpretations ultimately needs to involve the whole people of God -- individuals, study groups, congregations, conferences, denominations, and wider church.

Through interpretation of the Bible the church finds direction for its life according to God's will. The written Word points to the living Word, Jesus Christ (John 5:38-40). Where Christians are committed to Christ, biblical teaching, and to each other, binding and loosing decisions can be made for obedient life together (Matthew 18:18). God's people can find their way to belief and behavior acceptable to God, thus becoming "living epistles, known and read by all men" (2 Corinthians 3:2).

God's people also interpret the Bible in order to communicate its message faithfully to the world. The church is in mission. This means that the church must understand both the Bible and the modern world, and must know how to mediate the message of the Bible to that world. Examples of how this may be done are found within the Bible itself, especially in such writings as the preaching of Hosea, as he tried to reach the Baalists, and in the letters of Paul, as he reached out to the Greeks.

The believing community has more than the Bible. Jesus, our risen Lord, is with us through the Holy Spirit. The Bible itself is a gift of the Spirit through inspiration. The community is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16), who enables God's people to grasp the truth of the biblical revelation. The Spirit makes the written Word active in our lives and in the world.

We deny the integrity of knowledge that is not obedient. The failure of the community in relation to interpretation is not so much that we have had the wrong methods or conclusions, but that repentance and obedience often do not follow. Knowledge without obedience is twisted and distorted, even as knowledge without love is blind and dark (1 John 2:3-11; 1 John 4:6-21; John 14:15-24). Love is necessary to know the mind of Jesus. Obedience and love open the door to interpretive insight. He who wills to do God's will shall know the doctrine (John 7:17). For the believers' church, biblical knowledge apart from the loving obedience of the community of faith is alien and idolatrous (2 Corinthians 10:5).

The community which lives under the authority of the Word and Spirit is entered by mature choice, marked by conviction and commitment. Who belongs to the community of faith is not determined by accidents of birth, geography, race, or sex. The community does not depend on its children for its existence in the next generation, but introduces them to the same Lord of whom it witnesses to the world. This matter of mature commitment is the community's safeguard of the freedom to respond in radical obedience to its Lord, even at the risk of death.

Discussion: In Part 2, section A, several obstacles to faithful interpretation are noted. Note in what ways these obstacles hinder the insight, obedience, and freedom of God's people in understanding the Bible.

C. Interpreting the Bible

The ultimate goal in interpretation is to allow the Bible to speak its own message with a view to worship and obedience. In many cases what a passage says is clear. Then, the task of interpretation is concerned with discerning at what points the message touches life. However, in some cases the meaning of the passage must first be determined by careful study.

Letting the Bible speak for itself under the guidance of the Spirit is not all that easy. Tendencies to impose our ideas and biases need to be set aside. For example, middle-class North Americans find it easy to disregard the perspective of any other racial, cultural, or economic view of the Scriptures. Although we will always read and study the Bible from our own point of view, knowing interpretations of others will aid responsible interpretation. While it is important, therefore, to both seek the guidance of the Spirit and consider insights of others, personal Bible study will make use of the following sound methods:

1. Observe carefully what the text says.

This approach to Bible study is known as the inductive method of Bible study. Essentially this means paying careful attention to both the literary structure and context of a passage. This approach involves looking at words, sentences, paragraphs, and larger blocks of material, and asking questions such as who? what? where? when? and why? It means noting recurring themes, causes and effects, and relationships within the passage, as well as similarities and differences from other passages of the Bible. This approach to the Bible allows the conclusions to grow out of the text.

2. Be sensitive to different literary forms.

Because the Bible is made up of a variety of literary forms, responsible interpretation must respect the differences between narrative, parable, poetry, and discourse. Careful study will recognize the Bible's use of symbolism and imagery, striving to get the basic message without making it say more or less than it was intended to say. As various literary forms and images are understood, the puzzling features of the Bible often begin to make sense (as in the apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation). Thus, the Bible is seen as a living document bound up with the people of God and, as such, it is the message of God to and through His people.

3. Study the historical and cultural contexts of the passage.

It is necessary for us to take seriously the historical context of any given passage and the Bible as a whole. God revealed Himself in history to a particular people over a period of many centuries. The written Word reflects the process of God's revelation of Himself. Hence, faithful interpretation requires careful consideration of the historical context of any given passage. Much misinterpretation has resulted from disregard for the historical context of the passage being interpreted. A study of the Bible is always a study of a people. It is necessary therefore to enter the world of the Hebrew people and the people of the early church. This includes understanding their ways of thinking, their cultural pattern, and their distinctiveness amid the surrounding cultures and nations.

When we do that we can expect to experience a degree of cultural shock, just as we experience when we cross cultural barriers today. The ability to cross such barriers is one of the callings of the Christian, both to understand the Bible and to communicate it to other cultures of the present day. In order to understand the cultural, historical, and linguistic contexts of a given Scripture, the various tools of biblical criticism may be helpful. (See the discussion on biblical criticism in Part 2, Section B, and on the social sciences, Part 2, C.)

4. Make wise use of various translations.

In addition to taking seriously the cultural context of the Bible we must understand the language itself. Today we read the Bible in our native language. The Bible, however, was written mostly in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). In recent years many translations and paraphrases of the Bible have become available. These attempt to use contemporary English and some take account of better knowledge of ancient languages and manuscripts. A comparison of alternate renderings of a passage may lead to a clearer understanding of the biblical text. A knowledge of the biblical languages is necessary to evaluate the different translations of a verse. In general, versions made by committees (such as KJV, ASV, RSV, NEB, NIV, NASB, JB, TEV -- Good News Bible) are more accurate and reliable than are translations and paraphrases made by individuals (such as Weymouth, Moffatt, Phillips, The Living Bible). Most paraphrases are so free that they are unreliable for serious Bible study. The use of a variety of translations by the congregation probably means that worship aids are needed (such as the Scripture texts printed in The Mennonite Hymnal). It would seem good to choose a committee-produced version for memory work and curriculum materials.

5. Consider how the text has been interpreted by others.

The endeavors of the early church, the medieval church, the Reformers, and contemporary Christians to understand the Bible will be instructive to us. Bible commentaries and Bible dictionaries can be valuable resources. A study of how the New Testament interpreted the Old Testament will also be helpful. As Mennonites, the impact of the biblical message upon the Anabaptists will be crucial to our own understandings. (See Section D below.) By considering how other Christians throughout history have interpreted the Bible, we may be able to understand it more clearly.

6. Consider the message of the Bible as a whole.

One of the major errors in biblical interpretation is failure to relate a given passage of Scripture to the overall message of Scripture. It is therefore necessary to take seriously the message of the Bible as a whole and compare Scripture with Scripture. This requires acquaintance with the unfolding drama of the Bible, its major themes, and how the various themes are related and integrated into a whole. The meaning of any part cannot be arrived at apart from the message of the whole. The theological views discussed in Section D below are crucial points in understanding how the entire Bible fits together.

7. Meditate upon the Word in the spirit of prayer.

As we learn what the passage says and means, we should meditate upon its message. We should ask ourselves: In what way does this Scripture speak to my life and our lives? How does it instruct me and my fellow believers? How does it teach, correct, reprove, and train in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:15-17)? Some specific topics of the Bible may not apply directly to us today, although they may be pertinent to Christians in other cultures; examples are circumcision, eating meat offered to idols, and the Christian's relation to the ceremonial practices in the Old Testament. However, the manner in which God's people of the New Testament worked through these issues will be instructive to us today.

8. Listen for the guidance of the Spirit, individually and congregationally.

The Spirit gives life to the written Word. The Spirit uses the Word to convict of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11). The Spirit likewise leads us into the truth, guiding our perception of the written words (John 16:13). As new insights and convictions come through personal study, we should share and test them with other Christian brothers and sisters who are listening to the Spirit. The experience of the Spirit, the interpretation of the Word, and the understanding of the church should agree.

9. Respond obediently to the Bible's message.

Interpretation of the Bible must include our own response to its message. The response may be praise or repentance, thanksgiving or confession, examination of inner attitudes or restitution to one wronged. The Scripture speaks to us only if we are open to its message. Sin in our lives, such as malice toward other people, hinders us from wanting to know and hear the Scripture message (1 John 2:4-6; John 8:31 ff.; cf. Matthew 5:22, 23). Lack of love and commitment to one another will also hinder believers in their effort to arrive at unity in their understanding of the Bible. Through faithful response to the Word, we discover the power of the biblical message to upbuild the interpreting community -- " to break and to heal, to wound and to cure."

D. Historical and Anabaptist-Mennonite Points of Consensus on the Bible

1. Old and New as promise and fulfillment.

The Bible is the story of Cod and His people. The covenant/ testament which God made with the Israelites at Sinai was based on His saving action and the willing response of the people. This covenant was good. It prepared for the new covenant based on God's new and decisive act in Christ (Jeremiah 31:31; Mark 14:24; Hebrews 7:22). The Old Testament gives to us an understanding of God, creation, sin, and redemption, which is essential for the understanding of the New Testament.

The Old Testament tells us of covenants of promise (Genesis 12:13; Exodus 19:5, 6; Ephesians 2:12). The New Testament tells of the fulfillment of the promise (Matthew 5:17). The Bible, then, witnesses to the whole historical drama of God acting to call, save, and preserve a people for Himself. While the Old Testament provides the theological setting and is essential to the understanding of the New Testament, the New Testament explains and fulfills, but does not destroy the Old Testament. We read the Old Testament from our position as servants of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6), with Jesus as Lord.

The relation of the Testaments was frequently referred to by Anabaptist leaders as one of promise and fulfillment. Some of them saw the Old Testament as a challenge to a worldly concept of political power, in its rejection of human kingship. Thanks to archaeology and progress in ancient Near Eastern studies, much more is known about the Old Testament today than in the sixteenth century or even in the first century. These new understandings can help us see that the insights of Jesus (as He clashed with the Zealots and others of His day in the interpretation of the Old Testament in regard to His messiahship) were not arbitrary interpretations which moved off in a new direction. Rather, Jesus shows us the true intent and direction of the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament.

As Anabaptists recognized, there is both a close connection and a difference between the Testaments. The two Testaments are more at home with each other than either is at home with the literature produced by their environments. The discontinuity of the New Testament with the Old is most evident at the points where the people of God did not live up to the best of the old covenant. Because of this disobedience, a new act of God was necessary to write a new covenant on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1 Corinthians 11:25; Hebrews 8:8-13). The detour into kingship "to be like the nations" is one example of the effect of environment on God's people which helped to distort their expectations of the Messiah and His kingdom.

2. The kingdom of God.

The people of God in the Old Testament, with God as King (Judges 3:22, 23; 1 Samuel 8:7), were experiencing something of the kingdom of God. Jesus the Messiah came to establish a new phase of God's kingdom on earth. Jesus spoke repeatedly of the kingdom of God, which He said was near at hand (Mark 1:15), or had already broken in upon them (Luke 11:20).

Christ's kingdom has a spiritual and a social character. Through His Word God rules the new community, begotten by the power of the Spirit. The ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom is yet to come, but Christ is Lord now in the life of believers (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 15:24; Revelation 11:15).

The Anabaptist-Mennonites spoke of two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. These two kingdoms are separate and distinct. The believer belongs to Christ's kingdom. His loyalty to this kingdom is absolute, making him a stranger and a pilgrim in this world. The kingdom of this world is ruled by worldly wisdom and force, the kingdom of God by the Spirit of Jesus and love. The kingdom of God endures forever; the other is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31).

Positions of responsibility in Christ's kingdom are not positions of authority over men but opportunities for service (Luke 22:25, 26). Disciples are sent into the world (John 17:18) to share the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ. This servanthood may lead to suffering and to the cross (Mark 8:35).

Because Jesus teaches love, even for enemies, His followers cannot use weapons of force, either to punish evil or defend the good (John 18:36; 2 Corinthians 10:4). Christians are called to be guided by the confident hope that God's kingdom will triumph through the loving words and deeds of the suffering Christ, the Lamb (Revelation 5), and believers who suffer with Him (Mark 8:34-9:1; Romans 8:17).

3. Jesus, the Lord of Scripture.

Jesus Christ is confessed to be the Lord of Scripture. What He said and did carries divine authority. Jesus opens our eyes to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45) because He revealed the will of God. His life, obedient suffering, death, and resurrection are our guide for interpreting the Bible. All the writers of the New Testament witness to the saving event of Jesus Christ and the creation and growth of His church. The Gospels are testimonies to the ministry of Jesus and the whole New Testament is a response to this unique event. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an important summary of what it means to be disciples of our Lord. Nevertheless, we hear Jesus speaking through the Spirit and the church in every chapter of the New Testament.

4. Word and Spirit.

The Bible has been given to mankind through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit also enables the reader to understand the Word. The Spirit gives life to the written words. Only as the Word penetrates our lives, and its message is personally appropriated, does the text become living and powerful. It is then no longer a dead letter, but a life-giving Word. When a Scripture thus becomes a living truth, is related to other texts, and then is understood within the larger framework of the biblical message, the Bible has meaning and authority.

The aid of the Spirit is necessary, therefore, for proper interpretation and appropriation. The Spirit thus witnesses to the authority of Scripture. No congregation and no prophet may claim with authority to have heard the Spirit, unless in the testing of that Spirit, the insight is perceived to be in harmony with Scripture.

Discussion: Sections D and E in Part 2 describe several theological frameworks which differ from the Anabaptist-Mennonite approach to Scripture. By noting the points of difference, we can be more aware of the theological assumptions we bring to biblical interpretation.

2. Issues for Discussion

Issues A through E below identify areas which explain further points raised in Part 1. Each of these issues is referred to at some point in Part 1, the main statement on biblical interpretation.

Issues F and G are identified because they are both of high interest in the congregations and directly related to the way we interpret and obey biblical teaching. These two issues, therefore, are practical contexts into which we can apply what we've learned through the study on biblical interpretation.

On none of these issues -- A-G -- is the statement intended to be totally definitive but a guide to discussion and further study.

A. Obstacles to Faithful Interpretation

Various influences from our modern life and culture hinder faithful interpretation of the Bible. These are:

1. A pace of life so fast that we do not take time to study the Bible.

2. Culture and thought so heavily influenced by Western individualism that "private interpretations" become the norm, thus making testing by the community difficult.

3. Final appeal to individual human reason or personal private experience as the judge of truth, hence resisting the role of the community in the interpreting of the Bible.

4. National allegiances and/or concern for material security that makes us unwilling to freely respond to the Bible's call to faithful discipleship.

Reflection: Which of these obstacles most threatens your congregation's faithful interpretation of the Bible? How can these obstacles be overcome?

B. Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism is the effort to understand as accurately as possible the historical context and the literary history of both the Bible as a whole and the specific passages of Scripture. The meaning of the word "criticism," derived from the Greek word krisis, means judgment, in the sense of discernment or making a decision. All Christians make judgments when they interpret the Bible. Hence, biblical criticism is itself part of the process of biblical interpretation.

Biblical scholars speak of textual criticism and literary criticism. Textual criticism is the effort to determine the better reading of the Hebrew or Greek text where the available manuscripts have different readings. Literary criticism is also important in biblical interpretation, since its concern relates to matters of authorship, literary forms, and the literary origins of the various parts of Scripture. The attempts to decide who wrote the Book of Hebrews or which of the four Gospels was written first are examples of literary criticism. In its broader meaning, literary criticism may include study of the oral traditions which preceded the writing of Scripture in its present form. It may also include noting the distinctive emphases of the separate authors of Scripture.

One could fairly say that the practice of biblical criticism goes back to the early church, since even the first Christian readers of Scripture were making judgments in the process of interpreting the Bible. The term "biblical criticism" as it is used today, however, dates largely from the Age of Reason in the eighteenth century. The term has acquired negative meaning because the biblical scholars who studied the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible were regarded as threats to the view that held to a God-dictated, mechanical inspiration, a common view in 17th- and 18th-century Protestantism.

Furthermore, over the past two centuries biblical critics often tended to make human reason the judge of revelation. For example, miracles were explained rationally or, lacking a rational explanation, were discounted as impossible. In order to avoid rationalistic criticism, a trend developed in the twentieth century in conjunction with existentialist theology to make biblical truth simply a matter of subjective experience. These modern tendencies to divide sharply between objective and subjective truth, thus making either rationalism or personal experience the sole judge of truth, conflict with Scripture's own assumptions and are therefore dangers to be avoided.

The positive value of biblical criticism has been its contribution in vastly expanding our knowledge of the historical, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of the Bible. Our present knowledge of Israel's distinctiveness amidst its environment, the origin of the synoptic Gospels, and the religious environment of Paul's mission are all examples of our indebtedness to the fruits of biblical criticism. The type of contribution that biblical criticism makes to the study of a specific passage may be illustrated as follows. In Matthew 19:1-9 the Pharisees question Jesus about His position on divorce. They ask whether divorce is permitted for any cause. Study of the history and culture of that time has shown that the Pharisees were divided into two camps regarding divorce. Followers of Rabbi Shammai permitted divorce only for the cause of adultery. Followers of Rabbi Hillel permitted divorce for almost any reason at all. Hence the Pharisees were testing Jesus to see which side Jesus would support. But, as the text indicates, Jesus pointed beyond these Pharisaic interpretations to the original purpose of God (Matthew 19:6; Genesis 2:24). This insight of historical criticism enables us to see that Jesus transcended the "party-interpretations" of the Pharisees and affirmed the will of God for marriage.

We must recognize that although the biblical commands are imbedded in the history and culture of that time, the Scripture itself provides us with criteria for evaluating how the entire scripture should be applied to our lives and culture. Even though the Bible has been used to support differing positions on such issues as the Christians' participation in war, the Sabbath versus Lord's day observance, slavery, and the male/female relationship, we believe that there are principles (See Part 1, section D) which will give us helpful guidance on these issues. In this way the authority of the Bible as God's Word transcends the culture and history in which it was written.

It is important, therefore, to recognize that the function of biblical criticism is an ongoing task in which the church, by taking account of the historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary backgrounds of the Bible, seeks ever fuller knowledge of what the scripture means for the life of the church today.

The following responses to biblical criticism may serve as guidelines for our study of the Bible.

1. We should study the Bible on its own terms as much as possible, allowing the evidence from the Bible itself to speak to issues of authorship and date of composition.

2. Because God acted through a people, Israel, and in history, the Bible reflects both God's Word and the human, historical perception of that Word. This means:

a. That the Bible both reveals God's will and also shows man's disobedience to that will (as in Israel's rule by a king or permission for divorce).

b. That while the Bible enables us to know God and His self-revelation, we must still confess that "we see through a glass darkly" and "know in part" only (1 Corinthians 13:12).

c. That the Bible points us beyond itself to Christ, the incarnate revelation of God (John 5:39, 40); to God Himself, who is ever beyond man's comprehension (John 1:18; Romans 11:33), and to His Spirit who witnesses to the father and the Son (John 17:25; John 15:26).

3. We should learn as much as possible about the historical, cultural, and linguistic background of the narrative of the Bible. This knowledge should not diminish but increase the authority of the Bible in guiding our lives in accord with God's will.

4. We should not box God in by making philosophies, whether ancient or modern, the judges of truth. We should seek for wholeness of response in our study of the Bible, alert for ways in which the Scripture informs our thinking and experience. We should strive for knowledge and obedience.

5. Our guide through the maze of differing interpretations of various biblical teachings must be our faith in the power of the sovereign God, our confidence in the authority and reliability of the Bible, and our openness to other brothers and sisters to check our insights. Our model shall be the community of faith around the Word, guided by the Spirit, and under the lordship of Jesus Christ-so that we might become the faithful people of God.

Reflection: How can we utilize the positive values of biblical criticism for a clearer understanding of the Scripture's message for us today?

C. The Social Sciences

In the past few decades the social sciences have pioneered in methods of research which enable us to analyze and describe the way things are in human experience. The way things are, however, is often not the way things ought to be. Further, we believe that God's people can know God's will for human values and conduct. While the Bible may not speak directly to given contemporary issues, we believe that honest Bible study will provide perspectives for the constructive use of the findings of the social sciences.

Psychology and sociology may also provide descriptive analyses of various aspects of religious experience, e.g., conversion. Such analyses may aid our understanding of both ourselves and the experiences of others in that they show cause-and-effect relationships within a selected range of experience. But these analyses do not and cannot ultimately explain the experience, just as the natural and historical sciences have been unable to explain the ultimate origins of nature (space) and history (time).

Reflection: How can we help each other to use the insights of the social sciences in such a way as to strengthen Christian faith?

D. Fundamentalism and Liberalism

Much of conservative Christianity is characterized by a theology and a mood often labeled as "fundamentalistic." In biblical interpretation, the fundamentalists tend to follow a "flat book" approach to the Bible, taking all parts of the Old and New Testaments as equally binding for the Christian and often ignoring historical contexts. By reading the Bible in this way, fundamentalists often use the Old Testament to uphold participation in war. Fundamentalists are committed to "literal" interpretation. If a particular part of the New Testament is not taken seriously for our day (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount), it is usually because of prior theological consideration (i.e., these passages do not apply to the present age) and not because of a refusal to read them literally. They are often accused by others of "prooftexting," rather than basing their conclusions on the whole tenor of Scripture. From the start fundamentalists opposed most forms of biblical criticism, because they believed it threatened the authority of an inerrant Bible.

The theological liberalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the movement to which fundamentalism reacted. Liberalism tended to make human reason the judge of truth. Liberalism transformed biblical salvation history into intuition, symbolism, and moral action. As a result of the conflict between fundamentalism and liberalism, there has been a tendency for evangelism and social ethics to become separated from each other. "Conservative" Christianity has tended to emphasize the conversion of individuals and to ignore social problems. "Liberal" Christianity has de-emphasized the conversion of individuals and has tried to reform the old structures of this world in line with a more equitable social policy.

In the Bible this is not so. The Bible emphasizes both the conversion of the individual and God's creation of a new social order with its revolutionary social ethic in Christ. Faithfulness to the Bible does not permit us to evangelize individuals without discipling them in the new order. Faithfulness does not permit us to evangelize only the individual or to stress only the reformation of the old order. We must seek divine guidance in understanding how to be faithful kingdom citizens in the midst of the old economic and political-social structures of our day.

Reflection: To what extent has fundamentalism or liberalism influenced Mennonite congregations in their understanding of the Bible?

E. Dispensationalism

The attempt has often been made to divide history into a series of "dispensations," most fundamentally in the division between the Old and New Testaments, but often in other ways as well. Fundamentalism and much of evangelicalism has been characterized by a form of dispensationalism which links together the nation of Israel, the thousand-year reign of Christ, and a quite literal reading of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel to describe end-time events. The Scofield Reference Bible is one example of this kind of biblical interpretation. Some of these beliefs, however, are held by nondispensationalists.

Dispensationalism emphasizes God's future activity (as well as present) on this earth, rather than in a timeless eternity. Dispensationalism tends to see the kingdom of God not as a community of love ruled by the cross, but as a kingdom in which Jesus Himself becomes a state ruler, ruling by the sword. There are also other weaknesses such as considering God's purpose as twofold-the church living under grace, the Jews and Jesus living under law and not recognizing the reality and importance of the church's earthly existence in God's plan for the ages.

Reflection: How can we sort out such influences upon us as we study the Bible?

F. Family and Authority

Perhaps none of our social institutions has been subjected to more destructive forces than has the family. The revolutions in technology and transportation have largely replaced the older extended family with a smaller nuclear family. As older ethnic and communal patterns fade away, the factors which contribute to family stability are fewer and family breakdown by divorce has become more and more frequent.

Attempts are being made from within and without our brotherhood to prepare the family for its challenges and to strengthen its life as a basic building block of the church. For some, a part of the solution seems to be to reorient our attitudes toward male and female roles, resulting in "liberation" of both partners and negotiation of a family system suitable to them. For others, the solution seems to lie in the direction of clarifying the lines of obedience and love in the context of the more traditional authoritarian patriarchal family. For both, there is a strong appeal to the Bible as the basis for direction.

Reflection: How can we interpret the Bible with faithfulness in relation to these issues?

G. View of Wealth

If the Bible can be understood only by an obedient community, then living in an affluent society which is surrounded by a hungry world becomes a problem. Can we live on a poverty level and still function effectively in an affluent society? On the other hand, to live on a moderate level within the affluent society appears to be living in luxury by those who are in a less-advantaged economic situation. By and large, the Mennonite Church is not facing up to hard sayings of Jesus in regard to increasing wealth (Luke 12:33; Luke 14:33; etc.). Can we understand the Bible adequately until we learn obedience?

Reflection: Will we use the Bible, to try to defend our lifestyle or let our lifestyle be determined by the New Testament?

3. Conclusions

A. The Bible is to be interpreted within the context of the believing, obedient community, as that community seeks to communicate its message to the world. The authority of the Bible becomes evident within the covenant relationships of the believing community as it is led by the Spirit, who was sent forth by the victorious Christ.

B. The Bible should be interpreted within the historical context of any given passage, and in the light of the message of the Bible as a whole. This demands that we move backward across the cultural boundaries of the ancient world so that we might understand the gospel in its original context, and that we move forward across the various cultural boundaries of the modern world so that we might proclaim its message meaningfully to all peoples.

C. The Bible should not be interpreted as a flat book, but in the light of the Christ-event witnessed to in both Testaments. For a faithful witness to that event and its meaning, both Testaments must be kept together where the church has placed them. The relationship of the two Testaments is a historical one in which promise and fulfillment is emphasized by both. The Testaments belong together, with the New Testament interpreting and fulfilling Old Testament.

D. The Bible is not to be interpreted legalistically or magically; it is a dynamic resource to guide kingdom citizens in their encounters with the kingdom of this world. The kingdom of God is His rule of love, even toward His enemies. The followers of Jesus cannot use weapons of force, but must also rely upon the Word of God and obedience, which may involve suffering, to overcome the evil of this world. The gospel moves forth not by force but by the persuasive power of the Word of the Lord.

E. The same Spirit of God who inspired the writing and ruled over the making and transmission of the Bible also guides and rewards the readers and students of the Bible, and the interpreting community of faith. The Bible has the authority of Christ. It is relevant to the lives of believers individually and corporately. It must be interpreted with integrity and applied faithfully. The Scriptures are ours that we may be instructed for "salvation through faith in Christ." They are given that we may know what to believe and what not to believe, and know how not to behave and how to behave, for they are "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:15-17 ).

Context of this Statement

The Mennonite Church General Board in 1974 appointed a task force to give attention to the question of biblical interpretation in the life of the church. This task force prepared a Study Report for presentation to and review by the General Assembly convened at Eureka, Illinois, on August 5-10, 1975. Following the Assembly a study guide was prepared and widely used throughout the church.

A gratifying number of congregations submitted counsel, suggestions, and responses as a result of their study experience. These insights were then reviewed by the task force and incorporated into a document for presentation to the Mennonite Church General Assembly convened at Estes Park, June 18-24, 1977.

The delegates to the General Assembly reviewed the material, made additional suggestions, and then acted to approve the document as a Summary Statement.

The six-member task force that prepared the final document was chaired by Willard Swartley. S. David Garber, pastor of the Hawkesville Mennonite Church in Ontario, served on the committee.

Statements by the Mennonite Church General Assembly state the understanding of the Mennonite Church at the time of the action. Statements have informal authority and influence in the denomination; they have formal authority as confirmed or endorsed by area Mennonite Church area conferences and/or congregations.


North, Wayne and S. David Garber. Biblical Interpretation in the Life of the Church [study report and study guide]. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Publishing House, 1976.

Assembly Workbook, Mennonite Church General Assembly, June 18-24, 1977. Lombard, Ill. : Mennonite Church General Assembly, 1977: 64-81.

Biblical Interpretation in the Life of the Church : a Summary Statement. Scottdale, Pa. : Mennonite Publishing House, 1977.

Additional Information

Olive Tree Bible Versions