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A Higher View of Scripture: The Word as Sacrament

There have been numerous discussions around the blogs of late regarding the authority, inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture.  I’ve weighed in on plenty of those, but what I really am interested in is constructive theological reflection on a theology of Scripture.   This is what I find lacking in so many discussions about the theological nature of the Bible.  While the nature of the connection between the biblical text and events to which they refer is incredibly important, it is not by any means the only subject to which a Christian should attend in their attempt to theologically understand the nature of the Bible

In wanting to contribute to that end, I would like to reflect on what it might mean to think of Scripture in a sacramental way.  The idea of a sacrament is utterly complex and contested, but I think most Christians can agree that a central aspect of what makes a sacrament is the fact in some way a sacrament mediates the presence of the Triune God.  Two aspects are central here, first sacraments are God’s mediated presence.  Second, sacraments are God’s mediated presence.  The sacraments are in fact a modality of divine action whereby God makes himself present in a way that is mediate rather than im-mediate.  As such sacraments are always God’s mode of being present-in-absence.

While churches stemming from the Reformation have always held that it was “Word and Sacrament” which constitutes the church, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the word of God mediated in the Scriptures is fundamentally different than the sacraments.  The word of God encountered in Scripture is profoundly sacramental in that it is in and through the viva vox dei which speaks therein that we are confronted with the continuing presence of the ascended Christ.  The Spirit, speaking through the Scriptures actually makes Christ present when those Scriptures are read.  This is what it means when we say that the Bible ‘becomes’ the word of God.  In the reading of the Scriptures, the Spirit mediates the very presence of Christ, the One to whom the Scriptures bear witness.  The Bible becomes the word of God when it is read and the presence of Christ is experienced anew by the community of disciples.

Scripture is not, properly speaking the codification of “God’s word” or a narrative of human responses to God in history, though both of these concepts of Scripture are partly right.  Rather, Scripture is a mode of God’s sacramental presence to his people through Christ in the Spirit.  What is remarkable about this understanding of the Scriptures is the manner in which is holds together the historical and existential.  The presence of Christ which is sacramentally mediated by the Spirit through the reading of the scriptures is the same Christ who is witnessed to in the historical narratives of the Bible.  The sacramentally mediated Christus praesens (the present Christ) is none other than the man from Nazareth whose story is told in the Bible.  A sacramental-historial theology of Scripture neither collapses Jesus into our existential encounter with God nor historicizes Jesus within an inerrant historical account from the past.  Rather, the historical and the existential coinhere as the Spirit sacramentally mediates to the church the very same Christ whose story is told in the narrative of Scripture.

I submit that this sacramental-historical view of Scripture is a higher view of Scripture than the liberal view of the Bible as a collection of human experiences of the divine or the fundamentalist view of the Bible as the inerrant codification of God’s words.  To understand Scripture as a sacrament is to recognizes its role in the Triune economy of salvation as a medium of God’s presence whereby we are brought, through the Spirit to be re-membered into the history of Jesus and thus to participate in the Triune life.  A view such as this recognizes that we cannot countence a formalized notion of the Scriptures, but rather must encounter and understand them as the community of faith which has its being in the economy of the Triune God’s providential and gracious action in creation and redemption. 

9 Comments

  1. vassilip wrote:

    dear Halden
    what i tried to pass in my comment on your 9th of July’s post, though my poor use of english language, has to do with what you say now. i will try to reform this comment:

    Bible is not (just) a document; first and formost, is a manifestation of God’s uncreated energy. and as such, he who “eats” that written word is participating (κοινωνει) in that energy, that is, is permiting Spirit to transform his human mortal nature into a human immortal one; because Word is life and abundance (περισσια) of life. so, we can say that koinonia of Word’s word is a sacrament, though not in a litourgical-ritual manner (though Bible’s reading is essential part in any rite): is a real presence, analogus to that of Holy Eucharist. (that this presence, both in Bible’s “eating” and Eucharist’s “knowing”, in order to be experienced by our fallen consciousness, needs some presupositions it is another, quite subtle, matter.)

    anyway, whenever we turn word’s logicality (from Logos) into mere rationality (ethical, historical, and so on) we not only lose its life, but, also, we debase it into a religious (ie, dominative) (sub-)structure: we turn it into the mythic origin of a holy state–a denial of the messianic character of Word’s incarnation.

    thanks for your patience
    /vassili

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    I submit that this sacramental-historical view of Scripture is a higher view of Scripture than the liberal view of the Bible as a collection of human experiences of the divine or the fundamentalist view of the Bible as the inerrant codification of God’s words. . . .

    First of all, Halden, great post and thoughts. Clarify something for me. When you speak of the liberal view of the Bible as a collection of human experiences, isn’t this the way Barth viewed scripture (and the way that those who follow Barth here, today, view scripture)?

    And I would submit that an inerrantist does not necessarily hold that the scriptures are nothing more than a “historical” record book–I don’t.

    I’ll be back, sorry for the terseness.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 3:49 am | Permalink
  3. jgoroncy wrote:

    Halden. Nice post. If you’re interested, I posted something similar a while back here:

    http://ptforsythfiles.blogspot.com/2006/09/biblical-critics-and-dogmaticians-in.html

    and here:

    http://ptforsythfiles.blogspot.com/2006/06/forsyth-on-bible-and-authority.html

    Thanks again…

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 5:14 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Bobby,

    No, I don’t think that’s Barth’s view. His veiw is that the Bible is the inspired witness to revelation that occured in history and that it becomes revelation itself when the Spirit speaks through it to the community of faith, thus revealing Jesus. Barth’s whole theology was a rejection of the liberal view of the Bible, where he discovered “the strange new world”.

    Also, I didn’t mean to say that inerrantists only think the Bible is a history textbook, I know they don’t. But, as far as conservative bibliologies go, the emphasis is always on establishing the Bible is historically and scientifically without error. So that seems to be the main thrust of that view. And also, I specifically said ‘fundamentalist’ rather than ‘evangelical’. I was more focusing on the strongly apologetic, rationalist strain of inerrantists within evangelicalism. Folks like Vanhoozer who would affirm a highly redefined idea of inerrancy certainly acknowledge the complexity of Scripture in ways that are similar to my own.

    Vassili,

    Thanks for your comments. The Orthodox angle that you put on this matter is very interesting, and I think quite paralell.

    -Halden

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  5. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Thanks, Halden.

    I knew that Barth’s view contra “liberal theology”–but for some reason I was under the impression that he still held to the “liberal” idea that scripture was merely man reflecting on who God is, which God then used as a witness to Christ—I’m glad I was wrong on that.

    I like Vanhoozer too.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    No indeed! If you read Barth’s essay “The Strange New World within the Bible”, he makes it absolutely clear that he rejects the liberal concept of the Bible as “man’s thoughts about God”. Rather, for Barth the Bible is explicitly where we encounter “God’s thoughts about man”.

    Friday, July 13, 2007 at 11:56 am | Permalink
  7. WTM wrote:

    Barth liked to talk about the Word (Scripture, preaching, Christ’s human nature) as sacramental. Indeed, I have seen him say things to the effect that what Protestants confess in preaching is nothing less than what Catholics confess in transubstantiation, and indeed, that it is more.

    Friday, July 20, 2007 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  8. Sean wrote:

    Hi Halden
    You may be interested to know that John Colwell has a chapter on Scripture as Sacrament in his book Promise and Presence.

    Friday, August 10, 2007 at 6:04 am | Permalink
  9. Richard wrote:

    Very good post!

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink

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