We can have confidence in the Bible
Struggling to believe that all the Bible's teachings are inspired by God?
Here are two observations that may make believing easier.

Harold N. Miller

We Mennonites are a "people of the Book." Every position our church has taken on matters of faith and life, we have taken because of teachings of the Bible.

We are also a community of the Spirit. As we gather, the Spirit builds within us a common witness as to God's will. We place much trust in this discernment of the Spirit's voice. Indeed, it gave us the Bible. Prophets and apostles, hearing the Spirit, chose certain words. And councils of the church, hearing the Spirit, chose certain books as a canon or standard against which all other books are measured.

Though we open ourselves to both Scripture and Spirit for direction as we live as the people of God, we tend to give one or the other priority. In conversations on faith and life some of us are concerned about what the Bible says on an issue and want to start there. Others are more likely to emphasize a need to be attentive to the Spirit, pointing out that it was Peter's witness of the Spirit's actions in the lives of Gentiles that was the turning point for the Jerusalem council as recorded in Acts 15.

At times we do manage to elevate both Scripture and Spirit. We accomplish the difficult balancing act of having two sources of revelation occupy the center of our faith. We have confidence in each, drink fully of each, and both receive our attention and are given authority.

But this balancing is difficult to do. Particularly when we have sincere questions about the Bible. Did the Old Testament prophets, though often offering refreshing draughts of the Spirit, at times miss the mark? Was the Apostle Paul occasionally prompted more by his rabbinical background than by the spirit of Jesus? All of us value Scripture and want our lives to reflect the major spirit and direction of the Bible. But when we are unsure that every passage is God-breathed, we tend to give priority to the church's discernment of what Spirit is saying today. Until one trusts the Bible, a biblical teaching must be confirmed by life experience or the Spirit before it can be given authority.

If the Scriptures are to guide our lives and give us direction, we must have confidence in them—confidence that they and the Spirit speak in harmony, that the Spirit will not lead today in some way that will invalidate any part of Scripture. The following observations help me to place trust in the Bible.

The Spirit has never led the church into some new understanding in our life and faith, without the Bible also leading in that understanding.

When the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 chose to include uncircumcised Gentiles in the people of God, they were led by Scripture as well as Spirit. At the conference James cited a prophecy of Amos that was one of many Old Testament passages containing seeds of the truth that God's purposes would one day encompass all peoples. Though many Hebrew Scriptures taught that uncircumcised persons could not be included in the people of God, the early church was still biblical when they affirmed the baptism of Cornelius because of the other group of passages James steered them to consider.

Our nonparticipation in war is also an example. There are passages in which God leads people into war and strengthens their hands for battle. But we still feel able to claim that we, a historic peace church, are a people of the Bible, for we see other passages that call the disciple of Jesus to a life of peace and doing good to all, even the enemy (e.g. Mt 5:43-45; Lk 6:27-36; Rom 12:19-21; 1 Pet 2:20-23; 1 Pet. 3:8,9).

A further example is the issue of women in church leadership. Some passages forbid women to teach men. But many passages give examples of women freed for ministry (eg. Judges 4:4-16; 2 Kings 22:14-20; Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:1-3; Phil. 4:2-3). And passages place women and men on even footing. In Christ there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female" (Gal. 3:28)—the first two realities certainly have social implications, and so should the third. Men and women alike share the gift of the Holy Spirit and prophecy (Acts 2:17,18).

Our denominational leaders take a stance of freeing women for ministry, not because we ignore Scripture or creatively look between the lines as we read it, but because there are Scripture passages that explicitly lead us.

Each teaching of the Bible—even one we no longer practice—may have been the best way possible at the time it was written to strengthen the people of God.

Time after time one can see glimmers of how an Old Testament teaching replaced by the gospel of Christ (like a Levitical law or an instruction for warfare) may have been the best for the people in the situation it was written. As such, it is not in error any more than we would say that the incomplete bud of a flower is in error, or that butterflies make the caterpillar and cocoon into errors.

Some assume that when a Bible passage does not give the most helpful instructions that could be given to us today, it therefore was not inspired by the Spirit of God. But we need not consider as "mistakes" the Bible passages down-played by Christ when he taught "love your enemies and do good to them that hate you" or by the early church when they accepted Gentiles without circumcision. Instead of being instructions that were not God-breathed, those teachings may have been part of the necessary progression of redemptive history. They were replaced, not because they were errors, but because they were "fulfilled."

The Levitical laws delivered by Moses are a major example of teachings that seem life-denying and contrary to the spirit of Jesus. They yielded a life lived according to an external law and in slavish fear. But this need not mean that Moses mixed his own muddled ideas with the ideas of God.

The laws and sacrifices were needed as our tutor to prepare us for the life that came in Christ (Gal. 3:24). When parents decide to give an adolescent more freedom, it does not mean they were wrong not to give that same freedom a few years earlier when the child was younger. Circumcision and the various codes of uncleanness built an identity that helped keep the people of Israel separate from their pagan neighbors and the influence of their idol worship.

Accounts of God leading the people into war are a second large class of biblical passages that are contrary to the spirit of Jesus. But God may nonetheless have led the people so. Did God's purposes on earth (for instance, the birth of Christ and the church) require the preservation of Israel as a nation? If so, any enemy of Israel was God's enemy, and Israel's wars could be "holy" wars.

As long as the people of God were a nation, God may have been limited to only giving hints that warfare was far below the ultimate intention, such as forbidding David to build the temple because he was a man of war and had shed blood (1 Chron. 28:3).

Another example of teachings which are seen as below what God intends for humanity are the passages that call the husband the "head" and ask the wife to submit (for instance, Eph. 5:22- 24). A gathering consensus in the church today says that God's intention for the woman-man relationship in a marriage is one where decisions are made mutually and responsibilities are assigned according to ability, not gender.

But the Apostle Paul may have been inspired by the Spirit of God when he did not straight-away advocate for marriages of equality but only (only!) instructed husbands to sacrifice themselves for their wives and to care for them "as their own bodies."

Why? This instruction moves marriage toward mutuality. Christ as head builds up the church that it might reign with him; a husband sacrificing himself for his wife will yield a similar result. Further, this instruction is a wise route toward mutuality when a husband and wife have few relational skills. When a couple tries to live as equals without first having the character and relational skills needed to give someone else equal say and value, often their marriage tears apart with profound scars that generations will bear. The pattern of the wife submitting and the husband as head serving her can be what Christ uses to develop the character and experience needed for a relationship of complete mutuality to be secure and long-lasting.

We have confidence in Scripture as we observe that it anticipated and even helped initiate the changes that the people of God have made in response to the gospel of Christ. And we trust the Bible as we see glimmers of how its teachings—even those with no gospel character— strengthened the community to whom they were given.

Believing that the Spirit has inspired all the teachings of Scripture leads us to care intensely whether our assessment of what the Spirit is saying to us today is in line with the written Word. Our trust that the whole Bible leads humanity in the way of health and shalom—as fast and wisely as possible—nudges us toward opening ourselves fully to receive from its pages.

It is good for us not to move on a matter facing the church unless our witness of the Spirit and our careful understanding of the thrust of Scripture both agree. Then the two occupy the center of our faith. And we can continue to be both a people of the Book and a community of the Spirit.

form of this article was printed in Mar. 19, 1996 Gospel Herald, weekly Mennonite magazine