Fresh Words: Scripture as performance (2/2) by Alastair Roberts
This is the second part of Alastair Roberts’ guest contribution looking at a performance analogy of the bible. If you haven’t already, read the first part here.
Scripture as God’s Fresh Word
Reading the New Testament we can be struck by the manner in which Scripture is regarded as speaking with incredible directness to its hearers, even though they are far removed in time and context from those to whom it was originally addressed. Paul can take the record of the Exodus from Egypt in 1 Corinthians 10 and, with incredible hermeneutical boldness, relate it immediately to the Corinthians: ‘Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come.’ The Scripture is seen to transcend its original context, addressing us with no less force and immediacy than its original hearers.
The Scriptures are not only texts written for performance, they are also formative texts. While we are often inclined to think of the relationship between Scripture and our lives in terms of two different worlds, between which slender cables of moral parallels transport precious applications from the world of Scripture to the world of our lives, the relationship that Paul seems to envision for the Church is profoundly thicker than this. The Scriptures are to become and to form our world. Our lives are to be improvisations governed by the themes or symbolic matrix of the Scripture.
For Paul the story of the Scriptures and the story of the later Church belong together, like successive movements in a single symphony, bound together by the same themes and motifs. As we listen to the story of Israel, we hear that God has already introduced our theme! The story of Israel, while being about Israel, is also about us. It transcends its own historical moment in history to relate itself to our own. For Christ and the writers of the New Testament, the Scripture wasn’t merely a dead letter referring to a past time, but a figure, an ‘icon’, in which we can recognize the form of Christ and of ourselves as his body.
Christ perceived his vocation as a performance – as the Performance – of the Scriptures. All that he did was in accordance with them. Likewise, the Church is to perform the Scriptures and the gospel of Christ in a manner that leads to the discovery of our world within the figures of the text and Christ, to whom it witnesses, and to discover Christ within our world through the text’s contemporary performance. Performing the Scriptures as formative figures, rather than reading our Bibles for illustrative parallels, cuts our lives and world from the cloth of God’s Word.
The Scriptures Made Flesh
The Scriptures narrate a movement from inscripturation to incarnation, from the Word made script, to the Word made flesh. It is within the context of this truth that we are to understand the place and significance of the Scriptures in the life of the Church today.
The promise of the new covenant is that God will write his Law upon the hearts of his people. We see this promise realized in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life is the complete, consummate, and definitive Performance of the Scriptures. He is the fulfilment of the text. In Christ, the text that had suffered the resisting hardness of stony hearts for centuries, takes the form of a perfect lived existence. In Christ the purpose or end of the Scriptures is achieved.
However, the new covenant promise is not merely realized in Christ, but also in his body. In Christ, the Spirit is writing God’s Law – which is the form of Christ – onto the hearts of his people. Through this writing, in Christ our lives become part of the fulfilment of the text of Scripture. Christ is written into our lives and the Holy Spirit works out his Performance in us.
This is the message of 2 Corinthians 3. In Christ, in the life of his body, the veil that lies over the Scriptures is removed and we encounter Christ himself as they are read. We see the telos of the Scriptures – the Word made flesh – within the Word made script. As the veil is removed and we see the Word made flesh in the Scriptures – for they bear witness to him – we are, by the work of the Spirit, transformed into his image. Through this transformation the Word takes up residence in our flesh too. Through our engagement with the Scriptures as the body of Christ, we enter into Christ’s performance of/as the Father’s Word, through the direction of his Holy Spirit.
The key point to recognize here is that God’s writing hasn’t ceased. God continues to write his Word. However, in Christ this word is no longer in the form of texts standing outside of human communities, but in the form of performing communities, in whom the figures of Scripture are realized in beautifully variegated manners appropriate to historical, cultural, and personal context. God is writing his definitive Word – Jesus Christ – into a new humanity. Scripture is the DNA of the new creation in Christ.
An important biblical metaphor for our relationship with Scripture is that of ingestion. Scripture is something on which we ruminate and with which we are fed and edified. Scripture is something that can be hard to swallow or chew. It can burn our insides, as it did the prophet. It can feel bitter like the swallowed book of John in Revelation. Scripture is something outside of us that we must continually feed upon in order to live. As we digest it, it becomes part of us, but never in a way that negates our continued dependence upon it, or its otherness from us.
The reception of the Word is consummated as the reception of Christ himself, the one in whom they are fulfilled. In the sacrament, which is a performance of the Word (in the undiluted ambivalence of that expression), the reception of Christ as the Word and Bread of God is disclosed in our bodies, and through feeding on him our bodies as the communing Church are realized as word.
As we receive God’s Word in such a manner we grow into a deeper and fuller relationship with the Scriptures. Although their otherness is not extinguished, they also become part of us. There is a unity and continuity of being between us and the text, a unity most fully manifested in the Church’s public and diverse performances of Scripture in the many forms of its worship. In the new covenant Scripture can be recognized as our home, our world, our food, our life, our flesh. It is a word that is close to us, in our mouths and hearts. It is word that is living and active, discerning our thoughts and intents, and dividing us as a sword for living sacrifice. It is a word that speaks directly to us and our situations. It is a word that translates us into Christ, the one who speaks to us in them. Surely there can be no fresher word than this!
Alastair Roberts is a PhD student in Durham University, studying the place of biblical motifs in early church baptismal liturgies and theologies. His passions include studying the Bible, memorizing the Scrabble dictionary, knitting, and English cricket. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria.