Children, the Word and the Church

Uriesou Brito links to a brief article from Alexander Schmemann on his new blog. The following is a brief quote from Schmemann’s article:—

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, all of this presupposes the rich liturgy of Orthodox worship. The claim that the worship of the Church is the place where the Word of God is in ‘its own element’ is simple yet profound. The common idea that our encounter with the Word of God is primarily about reading the text of the Bible, enclosed between two covers, falls far short of the reality of Christian engagement with Scripture for so many reasons.

The story of the Scriptures is a story of progressive incarnation. When the Word becomes flesh He does not merely take a body created out nothing, but a body that has been being prepared for Him since the beginning of creation. He does not merely come as a generic individual human being, but as one who takes the flesh of Israel as has own. The Word does not merely take a biological and Adamic body to Himself, but, as the Messiah, He takes a particular body politic also. This body politic had been formed by the spoken Word of God in successive stages, something that Douglas Knight helpfully compares to the gradual assembling of computer circuitry. The rituals and ceremonies of the OT Law, the worship of the psalms, the structures of the Tabernacle and the Temple: all of these are ways in which God prepares a body for His Son.

The Scriptures create a world through story, symbol, ritual and worship, a world that the people of God are called to live out of. God’s world does not come all at once, but is gradually moulded and developed over time. The Word of God in Scripture is a world-creating Word, no less than the Word of God in Genesis 1. Unfortunately, if our encounter with the Word of God is limited to reading a book the idea that the Scripture creates a world (indeed, is a world) seems a bit far-fetched.

Within the new covenant there is a movement beyond inscription of the Word to incarnation of the Word, not just in Christ, but in the Church, which lives out of Christ’s humanity. This should decisively shape our understanding of the relationship between the Scripture and the ethical life of the Christian community. In the various OT prophecies of the new covenant, great emphasis is put on the fact that the Law of God will now be written on the heart, and not merely on tablets of stone. The initially ‘external’ Law will gradually be consumed into the life of the community until there is no remainder.

In the old covenant the people of God had the tablets of stone at their heart. The new covenant people of God are reconstituted around the risen Christ—the Heart of Flesh. At Pentecost, with the gift of the Spirit, the Church grows out of the resurrected humanity of the Word, as the totus Christus. The telos of Scripture is such incarnation, making us participants in the life of Christ. The Word now indwells us in a living form, by the Spirit. In the OT the Word of God formed the world that the people of God inhabited; in the NT the Word of God is the world that the people of God embody in Christ.

The fact that the transformed community—the totus Christus—is the telos of the text determines our hermeneutical posture. The text can only be properly understood when it is related to this telos. True interpretation of the text both presupposes and results in moral transformation. There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community. The Scriptures can only be properly understood from within the community of faith, in the context of their public performance; outside of the community of faith the text has a veil over it.

This is one of the reasons why the proper context of Scripture reading and study is the life of the Church. Far too much Protestant worship is even less ‘incarnational’ than OT worship. When we read the Scripture we are giving voice to the life that we embody in Christ. The world and the Word that creates and gives voice to that world are mutually interpretative. Reading the Bible apart from the context of the Church is like reading a book describing an alien world. No matter how wise and learned you are, you will know less of this world than a simple child who has lived in this world for a few years (this illustration originates with T.F. Torrance, if I remember correctly), even if they have no idea of the science of their world.

As people reject the sacramental life and community of discipleship of the Church the Scriptures will become darkened to them, a fog of obscure teachings. This is one of the reasons why I continually stress the importance of encountering the Scriptures, not primarily as ‘the Bible’, but as the texts which form the life of the Church through their performance in the liturgy, sacrament and proclamation and as the Word that we embody in Christ.

Let me give just one small example of how this connection between the Church as world and the Scriptures as the Word of that world can empower the proclamation of the Word to a young child. I still remember from my childhood occasionally attending the local Church of Ireland around Christmas time. The thing that really spoke to me was the Church calendar and Advent in particular. I had heard the story of Christmas many times before, but in the worship of Advent and the various readings running up to Christmas I began to live in the story. I began to hear the story as a story of hope, remembrance and anticipation, a story in which I was personally involved. I was feeling hope and anticipation; I was not merely reading about hope and anticipation. The Christmas story opened up to me as never before. I reread the story from within, as it were. Reading from within: this is what Christian encounter with the Scriptures is all about.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, The Church, The Sacraments, Theological, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Children, the Word and the Church

  1. Uri Brito says:

    Thanks for linking Alastair. Excellent insights as always. My favorite quote: There is no division between hermeneutics and ethics. The renewed community helps us to read the text properly and the text reads us into the renewed community.

  2. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

  3. Scott says:

    Ha. I know this Uri. I go to school with him. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Alexander Schmemann gets it… « Stop reading this…get back to work!

  5. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

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