The New Testament is not written to create the fellowship of the Spirit but to preserve it. Reading the New Testament, doing theology, worship, or prayer cannot create the koinonia but can help preserve it, appreciate it, inhabit it and celebrate it. The danger which the letters of the New Testament address is not that of failing to attain the bond of unity in the Spirit of Christ but of disrupting it through false teaching, poor behavior, or simple neglect. Every letter which Paul, along with the other writers of the New Testament, composes is aimed at preserving something which the churches already have but are in danger of losing. The fellowship of the saints, life in the Spirit in which they have come to experience a “one family” sort of relationship is threatened and the Apostles are set upon preserving the deposit of faith.
This simple fact is the beginning point of departure from a perverse Christianity and theology given over to the continual pursuit of authenticity, wholeness, and happiness, through beatific vision, charismatic sales preachers, or a theological pursuit of being. It is also a definitive turn from a dystopian Christianity which would tarry with the negative, live with brokenness, and glory in the abyss of seeming abandonment. The agape relationship made possible in the person and work of Christ renders the New Testament, theology, worship, and preaching meaningful. This love is that which renders the world itself meaningful. Where there is not an already existing koinonia – that is where there is no fellowship, no united family, no agape love – the point of the New Testament, theology, and Church is lost.
The pursuit of God (or the pursuit of happiness, wholeness, Being) can become a refusal to give way on desire and thus becomes the counter-dynamic to the freedom, peace, rest, and love of Christ, which is not attained but entered into. Here the Protestant turn to interiority and imagined refusal of works-righteousness may interfere with what is, in fact, the New Testament picture of entering an alternative community formed on the basis of a different set of practices – all aimed at preserving the bond of unity in Christ. Paul says, “I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15, NASB) The New Testament is written and theological understanding is imparted as part of a code of conduct for those who are initiated into this alternative community with its love-inspired practices. The New Temple communities in which God and man meet, while they are made up of flesh and blood human beings, share a new identity and a new way of being. This is only realized on the basis of a continuation of the incarnation-practices of the corporate body of Christ.
Reading the Bible In Church
Paul warns the Galatians not to turn from Christ so quickly. This is the perennial warning that addresses a continual temptation to give up the Christ we have – so as to not give up on desire. Christ is not the law; Christ is not a proposition; Christ is not in the grammar of the New Testament; Christ is not even teaching or preaching. Christ is not “it” in this sense. Each of these, in isolation, holds out the possibility of the object – the object-cause which would keep desire alive. Christ is a person made present to us through the Spirit in the Church. The Bible is to be read in the Church in the sense that this is the bond of unity it is aimed at preserving.
Where the teaching, doctrine, and study of the letters of the New Testament are separated from the body of Christ – the koinonia – the letter and Spirit are separated. Scholasticism is a by-product of this turn to reading Scripture – as Irenaeus pictured it, in and for the Church – to reading it as Aquinas did, in and for the academy. It is in the academy that the letter becomes a death-dealing reason which presumes Christ is made available through the powers of right thinking. Where the Bible is thought to be the container of Christ, the body of Christ is neatly disposed of and the propositions and doctrines of Scripture become another letter of the law. This is precisely the deception (you will not die, you will be like gods knowing good and evil) that the death of Christ overcame and defeated. Where we would have the power of the Spirit (life, the presence of God) apart from the Body, we would have the presence of God apart from the crucified Christ. We would have the presence of God through the power of the law or through the knowledge of good and evil (as in Genesis 3). This is what Paul is attempting to ward off in his warning that the letter kills. The letter kills because there is no life in the law and even the New Testament is reduced to a perverse sort of law when we would imagine that Christ is contained within it.
If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. If righteousness comes through a book, Christ died needlessly. If righteousness comes through a human word, Christ died needlessly. In each instance what is missed is the corporate or familial nature of righteousness. Righteousness, according to James Dunn, is not something which an individual has on his or her own; rather it is something one has in one’s relationships as a social being. Those incorporated into the body of Christ have attained the right relationship of a new family (Romans 8:29) and this is the point of departure from a perverse or dystopian Christianity.
To be continued.