As United Methodists, we have an obligation to bear a faithful Christian witness to Jesus Christ, the living reality at the center of the Church’s life and witness. To fulfill this obligation, we reflect critically on our biblical and theological inheritance, striving to express faithfully the witness we make in our own time.
Who God is
When we say the Apostles’ Creed, we join with millions of Christians through the ages in an understanding of God as a Trinity—three persons in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From early in our Judaic roots we’ve affirmed that God is one and indivisible, yet God is revealed in three distinct ways. “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” is one way of speaking about the several ways we experience God.
We also try to find adjectives that describe the divine nature: God is transcendent (over and beyond all that is), yet at the same time immanent (present in everything). God is omnipresent (everywhere at once), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omniscient (all-knowing). God is absolute, infinite, righteous, just, loving, merciful…and more. Because we cannot speak literally about God, we use metaphors: God is a Shepherd, a Bridegroom, a Judge. God is Love or Light or Truth.
Our Christian Roots: Jesus
In trying to find words to express their faith in Jesus, the New Testament writers gave him various names. Jesus was Master, Rabbi, Teacher. He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He was the Doorway to the sheepfold, the Light of the world, the Prince of Peace, and more. In the church’s long tradition, scores of other names or titles have been given. Let’s look at five of the most central biblical names for Jesus:
Son of God
We believe in Jesus as God’s special child. We call this the Incarnation, meaning that God was in the world in the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers explain this in different ways. In Mark, Jesus seems to be adopted as God’s Son at his baptism. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus is God’s pre-existing Word who “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). However this mystery occurred, we affirm that God is wholly present in Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is God’s present activity in our midst. When we sense God’s leading, God’s challenge, or God’s support or comfort, we say that it’s the Holy Spirit at work.
In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God’s activity among them, the ancients were saying that it was like God’s breath, like a sacred wind. It could not be seen or held: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). But the effect of God’s Spirit, like the wind, could be felt and know
Our Christian Roots: The Bible
We say that the Bible is vital to our faith and life, but what exactly is the Bible? Here are four ways to view it:
The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books, thirty-nine in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) and twenty-seven in the New Testament. These books were written over a one-thousand-year period in three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), and Greek.
The books are of different lengths and different literary styles. In the Hebrew Bible we find legends, histories, liturgies for community worship, songs, proverbs, sermons, even a poetic drama (Job). In the New Testament are Gospels, a history, many letters, and an apocalypse (Revelation). Yet through it all the Bible is the story of the one God, who stands in a covenant relationship with the people of God.
In early times and over many generations, the sixty-six books were thoughtfully used by faithful people. In the process their merits were weighed, and the community of believers finally gave them special authority. Tested by faith, proven by experience, these books have become sacred; they’ve become our rule for faith and practice.
In Israel the Book of Deuteronomy was adopted as the Word of God about 621 B.C. The Torah, or Law (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), assumed authority around 400 B.C.; the Prophets about 200 B.C.; and the Writings about 100 B.C. After a struggle the Christians determined that the Hebrew Bible was Scripture for them as well. The New Testament as we know it was formed and adopted by church councils between A.D. 200 and A.D. 400.
We say that God speaks to us through the Bible, that it’s God’s Word. This authority derives from three sources:
- We hold that the writers of the Bible were inspired, that they were filled with God’s Spirit as they wrote the truth to the best of their knowledge.
- We hold that God was at work in the process of canonization, during which only the most faithful and useful books were adopted as Scripture.
- We hold that the Holy Spirit works today in our thoughtful study of the Scriptures, especially as we study them together, seeking to relate the old words to life’s present realities.
The Bible’s authority is, therefore, nothing magical. For example, we do not open the text at random to discover God’s will. The authority of Scripture derives from the movement of God’s Spirit in times past and in our reading of it today.
A guide to faith and life
We United Methodists put the Bible to work. In congregational worship we read from the Bible. Through preaching, we interpret its message for our lives. It forms the background of most of our hymns and liturgy. It’s the foundation of our church school curriculum. Many of us use it in our individual devotional lives, praying through its implications day by day. However, we admit that there’s still vast “biblical illiteracy” in our denomination. We need to help one another open the Bible and use it.
Perhaps the Bible is best put to use when we seriously answer these four questions about a given text: (1) What did this passage mean to its original hearers? (2) What part does it play in the Bible’s total witness? (3) What does God seem to be saying to my life, my community, my world, through this passage? and (4) What changes should I consider making as a result of my study?
From United Methodist Member’s Handbook, Revised by George Koehler (Discipleship Resources, 2006), pp. 80-81. Used by permission.