Perspectives

The Healthy Church: Embodying Scripture

D. Brent Laytham


The Cartesian legacy continues to haunt the church’s encounter with Scripture. His anthropological reduction of the human to a “ghost in the machine” entails a correlate hermeneutical reduction of the Bible to a “message in the bottle.” The result is devastating: We read Scripture as if bodies do not matter.

In what follows, I offer seven theses on scriptural embodiment that are suggested by a theological reading of Acts 2. The first six are presented as mutually reciprocal pairs. The final thesis both concludes and grounds the entire argument.

Jesus Embodies Scripture

Scripture is not one thing and Jesus another. Rather, Scripture writes his body and Jesus incarnates its story. Peter’s Pentecost sermon hinges on the question of the body of Jesus, something we easily overlook. His key claim is that this body, this Jesus, has been raised (v 32), startling good news about one whose bodily life brought the dishonor of crucifixion (v 23), the defeat of death and burial (v 29). Resurrection can only mean that Jesus embodied and embodies Scripture. Peter’s “God has made him both Lord and Christ” (v 36) claims that Jesus is Scripture’s lex in flesh, its telos incarnate. We gesture toward this when we read the OT and Epistle before Gospel, when we stand for the Gospel lesson, when we acclaim the Gospel reading with “Praise to you, Lord Christ” (see D.S. Yeago, “The Bible,” in Knowing the Triune God [ed. J.J. Buckley and D.S. Yeago; Eerdmans, 2001] 54-55, 79).

To claim that Jesus Christ is the telos of the scriptural story entails a second thesis:

Scripture Intends a Body

Scripture is, from beginning to end, the story of God’s quest for embodiment in Israel and Christ and church (see G. Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? [Liturgical, 1999]). Scripture does not merely report that quest, but participates in it. This is obvious for particular biblical genres. For example, note the intention of the Decalogue to embody God’s character in the social life of Israel, or the intention of the Sermon on the Mount to embody God’s will in the discipleship of the church. What is less obvious, but even more crucial, is the divine appropriation of the whole canon for the purpose of embodiment. Thus Scripture is not only witness to, but agent of, God’s embodying work.

God’s embodying work occurs in time. Peter’s sermon points to a present embodiment of Scripture as the accomplishment of the past prophetic word spoken by both David and the prophet Joel. The scriptural word, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2), requires the ecclesial body, “this is what was spoken” (Acts 2:16). The scriptural word, “nor did his flesh experience corruption” (Ps 16), requires the eschatological body, “this Jesus God raised up” (Acts 2:32).

Where Scripture is not yet embodied we “live in hope” (v 26). Where Scripture is already embodied, it seeks an ever more inclusive scope (“for you, for your children, and for all,” v 39) and an ever more intensive depth (note the trajectory of devotion in vv 44-47).

The Church Embodies Scripture

This third thesis runs the risk of what S. Hauerwas calls the “conjunctive heresy.” He usually deploys it as a critique of the notion that Christians first have beliefs (theology) on which they subsequently act (ethics). But another version of the conjunctive heresy would see Scripture as a discursive content that is first understood and then embodied. Thus body-soul dualism is reproduced as a dualism of text and interpreter (see Hauerwas, “Sanctified Body,” in Embodied Holiness [ed. S.M. Powell; InterVarsity, 1999]), which necessitates a further distinction between meaning and embodiment.

Yet before Scripture is a text it is a telling, an embodied telling. Peter tells the scriptural story “standing with the eleven” (v 14), gesturing toward the community as a whole that had been “speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v 11). The “this” Peter tells (v 14) is the true story of “these [who] are not drunk” (v 15 clearly indicates all 120 persons). He claims that “this that you [scoffers] see and hear” (v 33) is “this [that] was spoken through the prophet Joel” (v 16). This visible and audible community embodies the fulfillment of the prophetic word that death will be overpowered and the Spirit poured out on all flesh. The church embodies the truth of the apostles’ teaching (v 42) that “God raised up this Jesus” (v 32).

Moreover, the church is Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12). Therefore, as Christ embodies Scripture, so do we, not first by an imitation of his bodily deeds of power (Acts 2:22) or his crucified flesh, but by a bodily participation in him. We participate in and through the practices of ecclesial life that Luke summarizes as the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers (v 42). These practices are never mere extrinsic means to embodiment, but rather are necessarily intrinsic means of embodiment.

There are three subpoints to this third thesis. First, our embodiment is logically prior to my embodiment of Scripture. The primary pronoun of scriptural embodiment is first person plural. The early Christian practice of being “all together” and having “all things in common” (v 44) embodies this very scriptural subordination of individual to community. Our contemporary gap between gathering and sharing significantly emaciates our embodiment. Second, scriptural embodiment privileges neither male nor female bodies. Note the way Acts 2:18 expands Joel 2:29 by adding explicitly that servants and handmaids will prophesy (see G. Lohfink, Jesus and Community [Fortress, 1984] 88). Is this claim undercut by apostolic maleness? No. Their maleness is entirely contingent on their specific role as signs that God is reconstituting eschatological Israel. Third, scriptural embodiment does involve divergent roles, but not in ways that deny or diminish the truth of preceding two subpoints. In this regard, the present practice of Methodists and Presbyterians to discern vocations to ordained ministry embodied in women as well as men for the good of the ecclesial body is a more faithful embodiment of Scripture than the subsequent account in Acts itself (e.g., witness the exclusively male identity of the deacons in Acts 6).

This claim that the church embodies Scripture entails a correlate claim that the Bible inscripts church.

Scripture Inscribes the Church in God’s Story

This claim moves beyond the trite truism that Scripture provides for the church a certain measure of self-understanding. I refer, rather, to the very identity of the church that is narratively given in the story that Scripture tells. Contemporary theorizing about the body contests the notion that the body is simply given, arguing instead that the body is in profound ways constructed discursively. That is to say, the body occupies not just the praxiological space of action (lived space), but also discursive space of narrative; that is, storied space (for reflections along these lines, cf. C.O. Schrag, The Self after Postmodernity [Yale University Press, 1999]).

The ecclesial body exists in the discursive space of God’s story, a story that is canonically given in Scripture and canonically construed in the church’s Rule of Faith. Peter’s scriptural telling inscribes the 120 in God’s story, a story told here as Israel’s hope fulfilled, as Christ’s presence realized, as the beginning of the end of God’s story marked precisely by the presence of the ecclesia of the risen one. The church is inscribed in this story precisely as the community created by the telling of the story of the risen one and created for the telling of that story. Weekly the church performs its own inclusion in God’s story as it reads and proclaims Scripture. As lection, song, and sermon, Scripture places the church in its narrative world and plotted story.

For many, on a monthly basis, the church performs its inclusion in God’s story by rehearsing the scriptural story in the Great Thanksgiving. The ecclesial “we” is inscribed in creation (“you formed us in your image”), in fall (“we turned away”), in deliverance, covenant, and canon (“you delivered us from captivity, made covenant to be our sovereign God, and spoke to us through the prophets”), and in Christ’s birthing of the church (“By the baptism of his suffering, death and resurrection you gave birth to your Church, delivered us…”). Here the church is not agent but patient, finding its life in what is done to it rather than in what it has done. The one moment of active agency in this story is precisely our turning away from life and love to death and desolation. The church’s embodiment by anamnesis and oblation (“remembering we offer”) is subsequent to, and consequent on, embodiment through inscript(ure)ing.

Scripture Invites Me into the Church’s Story

Our genuine encounter with Scripture—always Scripture embodied—requires something from us. Those who encounter Scripture embodied in Peter’s church and inscripted in Peter’s sermon ask, “What should we do?” (v 37). Scripture responds, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (v 38). Baptism is inescapably bodily even though it can, in memorialist theology, be understood in profoundly disembodying ways. It enacts the truth that Scripture requires our bodies, indeed, that Scripture requires my body.

But at the same time, this baptism places me “in” Christ’s body. Baptismal incorporation means that my body becomes a Christian body. Christ’s bodily destiny—resurrection—becomes the eschatological horizon of my bodily life. I embody this well or poorly, depending on my “embodied aptitudes” or “bodily competence.” That is to say, just as we might judge my bodily aptitude for carpentry or my bodily competence for fidelity, so the baptized body is meant to become a “taught body” (cf. T. Asad’s appropriation of M. Mauss in “Remarks on the Anthropology of the Body” in Religion and the Body [ed. S. Coakley; Cambridge University Press, 2000]). It is just such a taught body, and the process of the body’s habituation, that Rufinus describes in his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. When baptized in Aquileia, Rufinus was taught to make the sign of the cross on his forehead while professing belief “in the resurrection of this body.” Some will blanch at his crude literalism. But others will find here a wonderful example of the “taught body,” the Christian body habituated to identify its eschatological destiny by use of a gesture of present conformity to the cruciform pattern of Christ’s life!

I Embody Scripture

Well, most of the time I do not embody Scripture very well, though in good Wesleyan fashion, I press on. Meanwhile, false embodiment remains a possibility (Acts 5:1-11), and fully faithful embodiment an eschatological goal. My hope and my help is “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v 38).

The Holy Spirit Works Embodiment

Sarah Coakley refers to the wider culture’s “sweaty Pelagianism,” seeking to keep the body “alive, youthful, consuming, sexually active, and jogging on (literally), for as long as possible” (Powers and Submissions [Blackwell, 2002] 155). There can be no “sweaty Pelagianism” in scriptural embodiment. It is first to last God’s work. God brings forth the created body (Genesis 1-2), the resurrected body, the ecclesial body, the Christian body. This is triune work: the Son pours out the Spirit given by the Father (2:32-33). Even so, it is particularly appropriate to highlight the working of the Holy Spirit in the embodiment of Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the power (1:8) of scriptural embodiment (cf. R. Hutter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice [Eerdmans, 1999], and Buckley and Yeago, eds., Knowing the Triune God).

Methodists and Presbyterians are on their way to recovering a robust doctrine of the illumination of Scripture. Scriptural illumination is not a divine technology that extracts the message from the bottle, thereby reinstantiating the dualism of text and interpreter. It is the necessary coinherence of canon and community, of Bible and church, in the one Spirit. We cannot solve the question of which came first, Bible or church, because they either come together or not at all—the church embodying Scripture and Bible scripting church. Both are the work of the one Spirit in the one body of Christ.

Posted Nov 01, 2002       /      /   Google Plus    /