Christ, Canon and Confession: The Bible and the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective

By Zerbe, Gordon | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Christ, Canon and Confession: The Bible and the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective


Zerbe, Gordon, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: As an expression of Mennonite biblicism, the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective claims the living Word of God (Jesus Christ) and the written Word of God (Scripture) as the twofold authority for Christian faith and life, with a priority to the living Word and a written Word not very encumbered by human agency. The wording of the Confession is largely a pastiche of biblical phrases and sentences, properly expressing something of the directness and variety of biblical voices but within a harmonized doctrinal and topical scheme. What is lacking in the articles is largely compensated for by the corresponding commentaries published with the Confession. While it has played a decisive role in achieving denominational integration and in supporting catechism, its potential to separate may be increasingly manifested, its function to constrain biblical interpretation is doubtful, and its considerable length may be a limit to its longevity.

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The commentary to article 4 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective observes that "Mennonites have sought to be a biblical people" (comm. 4.4). (1) Understanding and explaining what it means for a people and its confession to be "biblical" is thus of no small consequence. Presumably, this biblicism would mean that the Bible is the abiding authority of the church for faith and life, to which the church must return in each generation. Insofar as the Confession is designed both as a summary of biblical teaching and as a guide to its interpretation (intro., p. 8), this essay addresses four related questions pertaining to the Bible and the Confession. (1) What is the nature of the biblicism formally presented in the Confession? (2) How does the Confession actually use the Bible? What is the shape of its practical biblicism? How does its appropriation of Scripture compare with earlier Mennonite confessions of faith? (3) Is the Confession an adequate and compelling summary statement of biblical teaching? (4) What is the role and status of the Confession of Faith in relation to its own promoted ecclesial biblicism?

THE CHARACTER OF THE BIBLICISM FORMALLY ASSERTED IN THE CONFESSION

First, then, what does the Confession assert explicitly about what the Bible is, what it does and how we should read it?

The Confession actually identifies a twofold authority and norm for ecclesial faith and life, both articulated as a consequence of God "having spoken." God and God's intention are known by revelation, (2) via two instrumental and norming media: first, Jesus Christ the living Word of God, and second, Scripture the Word of God written. This contrast between the living and the written Word of God is in fact anticipated in an earlier Mennonite confession (The Thirteen Articles of the Waterlander Mennonites, 1626). (3) The authority of these norming media and manifestations of divine revelation is grounded, then, in their source in God. How are each of these authorities explained in the Confession?

The Living Word

The Confession explicitly gives priority and primacy to the living Word, through claims such as the following in the opening articles [italics mine]: " ... God has spoken to humanity and related to us in many and various ways. We believe that God has spoken above all in the only Son, the Word who became flesh and revealed the divine being and character" (1.3). "God has spoken in many and various ways through the prophets and apostles. God has spoken above all in the living Word who became flesh and revealed the truth of God faithfully and without deception" (4.3). This revealing and thus norming character of the person and work of Jesus is expressed further: Jesus Christ "revealed the divine being and character" (1.3), "revealed the servant character of divine power" (2.2) and "revealed the truth of God faithfully and without deception" (4.3). The commentary on article 1 extends the claim of primacy in Jesus Christ: "What the Creator intends for human conduct has been most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. …

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