Douglas Koskella: "The Bible ultimately serves a transformative purpose."
The Bible as Sacrament
By Douglas M. Koskela,
Assistant Professor of Theology
When we consider the Bible in sacramental terms, we use a
metaphor that helps us to understand the function of Scripture within the life of the church. Both Scripture and the sacraments are central elements of the “canonical heritage” of the church —those materials and practices that serve as means of grace in the Christian life. Indeed, they are very different pieces of the Christian heritage and are employed in distinct ways by the community of faith. By reflecting on certain dimensions of the nature and function of the sacraments, however, we can illuminate several features of the Bible’s formative role.
To borrow from St. Augustine, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In a similar fashion, the Bible mediates God’s grace to us by means of the “stuff” of this world. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, human words to God and to each other — a narrative told by the Chronicler, a prayer of a psalmist, an exhortation from the Apostle Paul to a fledgling congregation — become God’s word to us. Through the church’s practice of proclaiming and hearing this word, God graciously challenges, inspires, teaches, and sustains his people.
The Christian tradition has long recognized one of the sacraments, holy communion, as a crucial practice that nourishes and awakens believers. By regularly partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, God’s people are “fed” for the purpose of their spiritual growth. Likewise, the Bible ultimately serves a transformative purpose within the community of faith. While we recognize that God’s nature and purposes are revealed in and through Scripture, biblical texts provide far more than just information. The Bible teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains us in righteousness so that we might be “proficient” and “equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The church’s canon of Scripture helps us not only to know more but also — and perhaps more important — to be formed in the likeness of Christ.
As a congregation celebrates the sacraments, its collective vision is oriented toward the actions of God in the past and the promises of God for the future. Holy communion, for example, recalls the sacrifice of the crucified Christ in a manner that brings the saving power of Christ into the present. That same meal simultaneously serves as a “foretaste” of the kingdom of God as believers anticipate the full realization of God’s reign. Scripture also serves to orient our vision toward God’s saving action in the past and God’s promises for the future. The church continually remembers the biblical witness to God’s gracious work and to the promises that this work will be fulfilled (Philippians 1:6). Such an embrace of Scripture yields hope, meaning, and encouragement for the community of faith in the present.
By definition, a sacrament is a communal practice. One cannot, for example, baptize oneself or partake in holy communion alone. While the practice of reading Scripture on one’s own is deeply valuable — some would say crucial —in the Christian life, significant problems emerge when one’s reading of the Bible is disconnected from the community of faith. Just as the sacraments are celebrated in community, the practice of reading Scripture is most faithfully carried out in conversation with other Christians of the present and past. The church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the ultimate context for the reception, interpretation, and proclamation of the Bible. Not only does this go a long way toward preventing the misappropriation of biblical texts, but congregational practices of studying the Bible together safeguard the gifts, graces, and experience of the entire body of Christ.
Finally, the sacraments are always characterized by an element of mystery. While the material elements of the sacraments make visible the “inward and spiritual grace” of God, the celebration of the sacraments never exhausts the reality of that grace. There is always more to recognize and there is always more to receive, even from a sacrament that is administered only once to each person. While an individual is baptized only once, for example, one’s entire life is a practice of “living into” one’s baptism. The Bible also reveals or “makes visible” the gracious and saving work of God. Yet the practice of reading Scripture also involves an encounter with an inexhaustible mystery (1 Corinthians 13:
9–12). This mystery draws us in and provokes us to return continually to the sacramental practice of reading the Bible with an eye to our life with God and each other.
Photos by Mike Siegel
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