Chapter 7: History and the Individual
The title of this chapter suggests a problem which we are bound to raise at this stage of our study. We have surveyed the biblical literature as a record of many centuries of history. Now history consists of public events, events which have significance for whole communities, and in the last resort for the entire human race. The biblical history is in this sense public. It forms part of the history of mankind. It is a fait accompli, standing there, unalterable. In this biblical history we are to find a revelation of God, in a sense which I have tried to explain. I have also tried to show that it can be so understood as to give meaning to history in our own time.
All through I have deliberately laid emphasis upon this public, ‘objective’ character of the biblical revelation. Yet the human race, and all historical communities, consist of individual selves. Each of us has responsibilities to bear, and decisions to make, which go to the shaping of an individual character, personality, and destiny. However our lives may be knit up with society, the point comes at which we must stand alone --unless God is with us. God, we say, has given a public, historical revelation of Himself in the Bible. But it cannot be effectively a revelation for us, unless that which is public becomes private; unless history becomes personal to ourselves. There lies our problem. Where is the passage from the Bible as public history to the Bible as a personal revelation of God to those who seek Him?
There is a strong temptation to short-circuit this problem by suggesting that the historical study of the Bible is something quite apart from its ‘devotional’ study. ‘All these critical and historical questions’ (some would say) ‘no doubt have their place and their importance for the specialist, but for personal religion they do not matter. You may leave them aside. It is the immediate suggestiveness of the Bible to your mind and heart that will be of benefit to you. That is how God speaks to you.’
It is certainly true that the historical study of the Bible has sometimes worn the appearance of a cold-blooded antiquarianism, with no obvious relevance to the spiritual needs of the individual. It is also true that it belongs to all great literature, and not least to the Bible, to evoke in the mind of the reader meanings and associations which may have nothing to do with the circumstances of its origin, or the intentions of its writers, and yet may bring genuine illumination and enrichment to the mind. A literature which draws from such profound depths as the Bible does cannot but possess this suggestive or evocative power in a high degree. We shall have to lay ourselves open to it, by meditation and a receptive patience, if we are to receive what the Bible is designed to give us. But that is not all. There are other great religious books which possess this power. I am told that in some churches you may be served with Selections from Great Authors in place of readings from the Scriptures. I have no doubt that they stir devout feelings and high aspirations. But these ‘subjective’ moods are not the same thing as God’s revelation of Himself to us.
The Bible differs from other religious literature in that it stakes everything upon the assumption that God really did reveal Himself in particular, recorded, public events. Unless we take this assumption seriously, the Bible hardly makes sense as a whole, whatever spiritual stimulus we may receive from selected portions. The facts of history -- that is, the things that happened, with the meanings they bore for those who experienced them -- are something given. Whatever response the words of Scripture may evoke in our minds, through meditation and waiting upon the truth, must submit to control by the facts. Otherwise we are in danger of taking ‘autosuggestion’ for the Word of God, and missing something that might tear to pieces the fantasies we have woven, and tell us truths about ourselves that we never suspected. Consequently there ought to be no separation between the ‘historical’ and the ‘devotional’ study of the Bible.
The question, however, remains, how we are to bridge the gap between history and the experience of the individual. Let us turn again to the Bible itself for an approach to the answer.
We have already observed that at a certain point in the Old Testament there is a change of emphasis. In the earlier parts the emphasis is upon the community; in the later parts the individual is more directly in view. The change is pretty clearly marked by the work of Jeremiah, especially his conception of a ‘new covenant’ under which the Law of God is to be ‘written on the heart’, and every individual for himself is to ‘know the Lord’. Jeremiah’s successor, Ezekiel, as we saw, emphasizes the moral responsibility of the individual almost to exaggeration. In the characteristic literature of the period after the return from Exile, the individual note is well marked, if not predominant. The Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus are in large part manuals of individual conduct and piety. The Book of Job deals with the problem of undeserved suffering, no longer in terms of national calamity, but entirely from the point of view of the individual. Ecclesiastes is haunted by the apparent futility of life as it is experienced by individual men and women. The Psalms are a treasury of personal devotion. It is in this period, and notably in the ‘apocalyptic’ literature beginning with the Book of Daniel, that the idea of personal immortality begins to play a significant part; and this in itself attests a new value attached to the individual.
In some sense this later literature, subsequent to the extinction of the kingdom of Judah, represents the entry of the individual into the field of religion. We might compare with it the way in which in Greek history the individual came into his own after the old city states lost their freedom and importance.
This change of emphasis was made much of by an influential school of writers and preachers in the recent past. It was obviously congenial to the highly individualist climate of the nineteenth century. How welcome was the discovery that the ‘progressive revelation’ in the Bible led away from a primitive collectivism to an enlightened individualism! But the change was certainly exaggerated. The case is not so simple.
In particular, it would be untrue and misleading to suggest that the New Testament represents the culmination of a development in the direction of individualism. It is of course true that the religious and moral significance of the individual is asserted by New Testament writers at least as firmly as by Jeremiah; but on the other hand the conception of an organic solidarity of the people of God reaches its fullest expression in the New Testament idea of the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’.
The comparison, which I suggested above, with the development of Greek thought aptly illustrates the point. There is no mistaking the thoroughgoing individualism of the Hellenistic world in the New Testament period. It found its highest expression in the Stoic philosophy, which, for all its efforts to call men to the service of humanity, had for its aim the ‘self-sufficiency’ of the individual (his ‘autarky’, as the newspapers now say, adopting a word from the vocabulary of Stoicism, but usually misspelling it). In contrast, anyone can see that Christianity brought into that world a new idea, and practice, of community.
But even in the Old Testament the break which we have noted at the time of Jeremiah is not nearly so complete as might appear on the surface. All through the Bible the individual is contemplated in the context of the community, though the emphasis shifts to some extent. In Jeremiah and his followers the individual acquires new significance, but the sense of the solidarity of the people of God persists, and comes into full view again in the New Testament. On the other hand, the rôle of the individual is more significant in the earlier literature than has sometimes been recognized.
Let us examine the literature again, from this point of view. The earlier books in general certainly betray a very vivid sense of the solidarity of the nation, so much so that the community can be addressed, or spoken of, as if it were one person ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn’, says the Book of Exodus. (Exodus 4:22) ‘I taught Ephraim to walk’, says Hosea. (Hosea 11:3) God is Father of the nation rather than of the individual Israelite. In the precepts of the Law and the prophets alike the second person singular ‘thou shalt’ alternates with the second person plural ‘ye shall’ in a way which often makes it difficult to say whether ‘thou’ means the people as a ‘corporate personality’, or the individual member of the community considered with regard to his station in the religious society.
There are long passages where the history of the people through a whole period is told as if it were the biography of an individual.
Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God hath led thee these forty years in the wilderness. . . .Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years. (Deuteronomy 8:2, 4. There is an extraordinary passage in Ezekiel 16, where the history of Israel is told in the form of a romantic tale about a foundling child who was adopted into a rich family and then went to the bad.)
Is it the individual Israelite who wore one suit of clothes for forty years, and avoided footsoreness during a long trek? Or is this a way of saying that the nation passed through a period of nomadic existence without sustaining damage? Read the whole of the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy. and decide.
Again, it is held by many critics, with great probability, that some of the stories of the patriarchs are actually accounts of the movements and actions of whole tribes, given as if they were adventures of individual persons. In the Book of Judges we read:
Judah said unto Simeon his brother, Come up with me into my lot, that we may fight against the Canaanites, and I likewise will go with thee into thy lot. So Simeon went with him. And Judah went up, and the Lord delivered the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand. (Judges 1:3-4)
Pretty clearly that means that there was an alliance between the tribes of Judah and Simeon against the neighbouring tribes of Palestine. (The sons of Jacob, according to the chronology of the Old Testament, belong to a period at least 400 years before the conquest of Canaan.) Thus far the Book of Judges. But in Genesis 34 we have a circumstantial narrative according to which ‘two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi’, slew ‘Hamor and Shechem his son’, in revenge for an insult to their ‘sister’ Dinah. Does that mean that the tribes of Simeon and Levi in alliance sacked the city of Shechem, in revenge for an attack upon a kindred tribe called Dinah? It seems quite plausible. If we are unable to decide the question dogmatically, that in itself shows how unstable, at this stage of Hebrew thought, was the distinction between individual and corporate personality.
And yet, during the period when the sense of community seems at times to eclipse the individual, outstanding personalities count. It is not only that the earlier prophets whose writings we possess -- Amos, Hosea, Isaiah -- have as strongly marked individuality as any of their successors. Before their time, right back to the ‘heroic age’, the course of history often turns upon the influence of great men, rooted always in their personal relations with God. (Their exploits may at times have been magnified by legend, but the very fact that legends gathered about them is proof of their outstanding influence. The Exodus from Egypt may have been in one sense a mass-movement, but it is impossible to mistake the extent to which it depended upon Moses, with his conviction of a divine call. Even in the dim patriarchal age, while it may be true that some of the narratives really refer to tribal movements, there are others which lay all the stress upon religious experience of a strongly individual kind. The strange legend of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain has its vital centre in Abraham’s encounter with God. ‘Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes. . . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:22-33) It might come out of the Book of Job, though it was written some centuries earlier. The story of Jacob’s wrestling at the ford with a nameless Adversary (Genesis 32:24-31) is primitive, almost barbaric; but it convincingly represents the loneliness of the human soul at grips with the unseen Powers.
Clearly it would be over-simplifying the facts to say that the pre-exilic period is the age of corporate religion and the post-exilic period the age of personal religion. And we may suspect that the curious hesitation between individual and corporate personality is something more than a weakness of early Hebrew thought. This is confirmed when we find it apparently recurring in one of the most profound of all the biblical writers, the so-called ‘Second Isaiah’, whose work closes the classical period of prophecy.
His prophecies are dominated by the conception of the ‘Servant of the Lord’, a figure embodying the ideal of absolute devotion to God in service, suffering and sacrifice. If we ask whether the Servant is an individual or a group or the nation as a whole, we shall find apparently contradictory answers. (See, e.g., Isaiah 41:8, 42:6-7, 18-19, 43:10, 49:1-6) We can only conclude that in the mind of this prophet the nation is worthy to be called God’s servant only when it is so entirely united in devotion to Him that it renders Him service as one man; and no man, however great and wise and good, is God’s servant in the fullest sense unless he transcends his individual self and lives in and for his people in the service of their God. We can recognize an approach to this ideal in several of the great figures of the Old Testament. Christian instinct has not been at fault in looking for its complete fulfillment to Jesus Christ. But in itself the idea of the Servant of the Lord throws light upon the peculiar interpenetration of individual and corporate conceptions of religion in the Bible.
We now turn to the later portions of the Old Testament. Here the emphasis, as we have seen, falls largely upon the individual aspect of religion. There are however in this period no more of those outstanding personalities who dominate the earlier scene. The prophets after the Exile are of a lesser breed, and most of the authors of the period are anonymous members of the community who give expression to a wide range of religious experience as it comes to individuals living within the framework of a religious society.
This is especially true of the Psalms. (If a considerable number of Psalms go back to the prophetic period or earlier, as some modern critics hold (in opposition to the view which prevailed thirty years ago), then there is additional support for the view that there was no such radical change from collective to individual conceptions at the Exile as has often been asserted. But the Psalter seems to be substantially post-exilic). No attentive reader of this collection of religious poetry can fail to notice how much of it is written in the first person singular. If, however, we reflect, it is not always clear who this ‘I’ may be. Commentators often discuss the question whether the ‘I’, in a given passage, is really the individual poet, or whether he is speaking for a group or for the people as a whole. Let us take some examples:
Hear my prayer, 0 Lord,
And let my cry come unto thee. . . .
My heart is smitten like grass, and withered;
For I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning
My bones cleave to my flesh. . .
I wake and am become
Like a sparrow that is alone upon the housetop. . .
My days are like a shadow that declineth,
And I am withered like grass. (Psalm 102:1, 4-5, 7, 11)
The poet, it appears, is suffering from a wasting sickness. He has no appetite; he lies awake at night; he is losing flesh. In his trouble he turns to God:
But thou, 0 Lord, shalt abide for ever;
And thy memorial unto all generations.
Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion;
For it is time to have mercy upon her;
Yea, the set time is come....
For the Lord hath built up Zion,
He hath appeared in his glory...
That men may declare the name of the Lord in Zion,
And his praise in Jerusalem;
When the peoples are gathered together,
And the kingdoms, to serve the Lord. (Psalm 102:12-13,16, 21-22)
There is not a word here of the poet’s recovery from sickness. It is all about God’s deliverance of His people and the coming of His Kingdom. Then were we mistaken in supposing that the ‘I’ of the earlier verses was the individual poet, and is he really speaking all through of the troubles of Israel, under the figure of sickness?
Or consider the De Profundis: (Psalm 130)
Out of the depths have I cried unto thee,
O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.
Let thine ears be attentive
To the voice of my supplications.
If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities,
O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with thee,
That thou mayest be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait,
And in his word do I hope.
My soul looketh for the Lord,
More than watchmen wait for the morning;
Yea, more than watchmen for the morning.
Could there be any more moving expression of personal dependence upon God? But the poet continues:
O Israel, hope in the Lord;
For with the Lord there is mercy,
And with him is plenteous redemption.
And he shall redeem Israel
From all his iniquities.
Then is the Psalm after all a confession of national sins, and an appeal for national deliverance?
Take, again, the greatest of the so-called ‘penitential Psalms’, the fifty-first -- the classical expression, in all literature, of a soul burdened with a sense of sin. It should be read as a whole. Nothing, it seems, could be more deeply individual --
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity
And in sin did my mother conceive me -- (Psalm 51:5)
Yet it leads up to the petition,
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion,
Build thou the walls of Jerusalem. (Psalm 51:18)
Should we then conclude that the ‘I’ of the Psalm is really the nation corporately, repentant of its unfaithfulness to God’s covenant, and pleading for restoration?
It is surely clear that first impressions are not to be trusted to give us a firm answer to the question whether the piety of the Psalms is individual or corporate. The twenty-third Psalm (‘The Lord is my shepherd’) can be read all through as a confession of God’s care for the individual, but it cannot properly be separated from the eightieth (‘Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel ‘), and many other passages which speak of the people collectively as God’s flock. Again, Psalm 106 is a poetical survey of the history of Israel from the Exodus to the Babylonian captivity; yet its interest is not purely historical, for the poet prays ‘Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people’ (v. 4). He is laying claim to his birthright as a member of God’s people, and wishes to experience for himself the mercy of God as it is exhibited in the history of Israel.
Here is a clue to the real character of this religious poetry. The Psalmists are not outstanding personalities, like prophets and leaders of the past, who out of the exceptional depth of their own experience initiated great movements in history. They are lay members of the community, who share intimately in its corporate memories and hopes. God’s dealings with His people in history enter into their own souls. For them public facts have become private experience. As members of the people of God they are made free of all that the history of that people has revealed of the ways of God with men. (There is a traditional rule of the Church that the Psalms as used in worship should not be considered as expressing, directly, the experience of the individual worshipper, but referred to Christ and the Church, the individual entering into them as a member of the Church. In the light of what is said in the following pages, it is clear that this rule has an historical basis. It cannot readily be applied everywhere, but it goes a long way).
Here we have again, from a somewhat different point of view, that interpenetration of individual and corporate elements in religion which we noted in the earlier literature. It is in fact typical of the Bible as a whole. It is clarified and placed on a reasoned basis in the New Testament doctrine of the Church.
The solidarity of the Church is set forth in expressive metaphors. The Church is a body. ‘As we have many members in one body,’ writes Paul, ‘and all the members have not the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ.’ (Romans12:4-5) Again, he compares the people of God to an olive-tree. Men and women are slips ‘grafted’ into the stock, and so are nourished by its sap. (Romans 11:17) Similarly in the Gospel according to John, Christians are like the branches of a vine, drawing life from the parent stem. (John 15:1-6) The Vine is Christ, for the Church is what it is solely through dependence on Him. So, too, in Paul’s metaphor of the body, Christ is the Head, and we the members. (Ephesians 1:22-23; cf. also I Corinthians 12:12) Thus the individual’s relation to Christ is given in his relation to the Church which is the Body of Christ. ‘Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it’, (Ephesians 5:25) he writes, and also (and therefore) ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me’. (Galatians 2:20) The one Body is inhabited by one Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ, and in consequence the gifts of the Spirit are imparted to each individual member ‘in the inner man’. (Ephesians 4:1-7, 3:16) On the other side, when a member of the Church has to suffer for the good cause, he can say ‘I am making up what is lacking of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of His body, which is the Church’. (Colosssians 1:24)
If now we recall that the Church, by virtue of its origin, is the heir of the whole history of God’s dealings with His people, we are in a position to draw from the Bible itself a solution of the problem posed in this chapter. For its writers the public, ‘objective’, revelation of God in history is also a revelation of His ways with each of us. There is a famous passage in the Republic of Plato where the philosopher is discussing the nature of justice, or righteousness. We find ourselves in difficulties, he suggests, if we attempt to arrive at a definition directly from an analysis of the individual soul. But in the community, the difference between justice and injustice is written ‘in large letters’ which our myopic minds can read, and then we shall be able to recognize justice in the soul. We may borrow his image, and say that the Bible depicts God’s ways with man in the ‘large letters’ of the history of a community. If we can spell them out, we shall read also His ways with us individually. It is a matter of ‘living ourselves into’ the biblical history, which is the story of Everyman -- and therefore of each of us.
We read here how Everyman (and therefore you and I) was destined to wear the image and likeness of God, and how he has lost that likeness through egoism and disobedience (‘Each of us has been the Adam of his own soul’, said a Jewish writer[Apocalypse of Baruch 54:19]); how Everyman (you and I) is under God’s Law, but refractory to that law; how he wanders in the wilderness seeking for a ‘promised land’-- and perhaps when he gets there finds it disappointing, and must still seek the ‘city that hath foundations’. (Hebrews 11:10) We read how Everyman (you and I) is beset by hostile powers, against which he must strive on pain of extinction (‘There is no discharge in that war’). (Ecclesiastes 8:8) He goes after false gods, and courts disaster; but out of the disaster, under the providence of God, comes the opportunity of a fresh start. As we look down the vista -- whether of the history of the people of God or of our own lives -- it ends with inevitable death and a tomb; but beyond the tomb lies Easter Day.
There is here a history which we can ‘live ourselves into’, and in doing so, find the meaning of our own lives. I do not say that there is a kind of foreordained correspondence between the events of individual lives and the events of history; though it is certainly true that the hidden creative forces that mould individual lives are essentially the same as those which have moulded the lives of peoples and of the human race. Some psychologists report that their deep analysis of the Ego leads them back to a ‘racial unconscious’. But that is not the point here. What I suggest is, that that which gives meaning to the biblical history also gives meaning to our individual lives. The biblical history is meaningful, because of the interpretation of events supplied by the Word of God through prophetic men -- an interpretation which, as we have seen, is itself creative of events. The same interpretation applied to our lives will make them meaningful also. This interpretation always rests upon an encounter with God. As the story comes alive in us, we too encounter God, and our lives gain meaning.
We seem here to have arrived at a principle upon which we may make the passage from the revelation of God in the public facts of history to our own personal experience. The question, however, may be raised, whether there is not something arbitrary and even fanciful in this attempt to recognize ourselves (for that is what it comes to) in this piece of very ancient history. Granted that God revealed Himself in it, the revelation was after all addressed to a particular people at a particular period under particular conditions. What right have we to appropriate it to ourselves?
To this I should reply, first, that the biblical writers themselves have deliberately indicated that the revelation addressed to Israel and to the primitive Church was intended for all mankind. Here we see the importance of what I have called the universalizing framework in which the whole story is set. The story is about ‘Adam’, that is to say, Man. Every son of Adam, or in other words, every individual to whom the generic term ‘man’ applies, is concerned in it. The story culminates in a Last Judgement upon the quick and the dead, and of necessity we are all concerned in that. It is a logical corollary that in all that falls between these poles we each and all of us have a part.
While, however, the biblical history becomes in principle universal history through the framework in which it is set, it achieved effective universality only in the emergence of the Church as a ‘catholic’ body. Here for the first time we find in history a genuinely universal society. It has no qualification for entrance except that a man should freely accept God’s covenant upon God’s own terms. In its membership racial, national and social differences are irrelevant. A man stands before God simply as a man, a son of Adam, sharing Adam’s tragic fate, but entitled to a higher destiny in Christ, who is called the ‘second Adam’ (I Corinthians 15:45-49; cf. Romans 5:18-19) -- the Representative of man under God’s mercy as Adam represents him under God’s judgement. This catholic Church is, as we have seen, the final historical form of the people of God. And the Church is still here.
In the foregoing chapter I suggested that the Church (with all its imperfections on its head) is still in our time the place where history is being made, through the encounter of man with God. We may now ask whether we can learn, from the way the Church actually functions, anything which bears upon our present problem -- how the individual is to appropriate as personal experience that which is given to us in the Scriptures.
Among all the multiple activities of the Church there are two particular actions in which its true nature and function are disclosed. Whatever else it may do (which perhaps it ought not to have done), or leave undone (which perhaps it ought to have done), it declares the Gospel and it celebrates the Sacraments. Both are deeply rooted in the history out of which it emerged, and both have been characteristic of it in all periods of its existence.
The content of the Gospel as it was first proclaimed we have already studied. The Church re-interprets it in terms intelligible to successive periods, but its substance does not change. In declaring the Gospel, the Church recalls the great Event from which its own life began, and in doing so testifies out of a lengthening experience that this event really was a ‘mighty act’ of the living God, persisting in its consequences to this day. Like the first ‘announcers’ of the Gospel, it recognizes in this event the ‘fulfillment’ of the long-continued process by which the purpose of God worked in history. This is represented in the services of the Church by the regular reading of passages from the Old and New Testaments. These are read neither as ‘elegant extracts’, nor as merely historical information -- least of all as ‘pegs’ upon which a preacher may hang ideas of his own. They are read as the record of the Word of God embodied in an historical process which, in the context of the life -- of the Church, becomes contemporary. In hymns and prayers and preaching the living voice of the Church responds, and adds its testimony to the Word. Those who hear, in the setting of the Church’s corporate worship, are summoned, upon each particular occasion, to place themselves within the history which is God’s revelation, at the point where it culminates in Jesus Christ, and to lay themselves open to the Word of judgement and of renewal which is spoken there to every human being.
The manner of it becomes dearer when we consider the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist (the Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper, or, as it is called in some Western churches, the Mass). These are sometimes spoken of as ‘sacraments of the Gospel’; rightly, because they express in dramatic action the realities which the Gospel expresses in words. (In what follows, I am not attempting a ‘doctrine of the Sacraments’, but only calling attention to certain aspects of them which bear upon our present subject.)
1. In Baptism the individual is given, so to speak, the freedom of the city of God. He is incorporated in the historic community of God’s people. The significance of the action is thus described by Paul:
All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into a state of death, in order that, as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)
In other words, baptism signifies the re-enactment in the individual of the death and resurrection of Christ, in which the whole process of revelation in history came to a head. Let us recall that the Bible represents this fact of death-and-resurrection as giving the essential pattern of the entire history of man under the Word of God. When Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, he was renouncing one kind of life in order to enter upon a new life on terms of God’s covenant. When Israel went out of Egypt, they left a secure, though servile, way of life for the unknown perils and privations of the wilderness, in order that they might be fitted for new ways of life under God’s Law. At the Babylonian conquest they died as an independent nation, with political and military ambitions, to rise again as a community dedicated wholly (in intention) to the service of religion. This is the pattern on which the purpose of God shaped the history of His people. (This pattern is given a mythical form in the story of the Deluge and the covenant with Noah; and this story is in Church tradition, going back to I Peter 3: 20-21, used as a symbol of Baptism). In baptism the same pattern is applied, through Christ, to the history of the individual.
2. The Eucharist is a sacrament which expresses our solidarity in the Body of Christ. ‘We, who are many’, says Paul, are one body, because we all partake of the one bread. (I Corinthians 10:17) In performing this act of solidarity, we ‘proclaim the Lord’s death’ (I Corinthians 11:26) We rehearse the Gospel story, which has its crucial point in the death-and-resurrection of Christ. In most churches this act of ‘remembrance’ now takes the form of a comparatively brief and allusive summary recalling the essential facts. It was not always so. Some of the early liturgies of the Church contain a lengthy recital, summarizing not only the salient facts of the whole Gospel story, but also outstanding episodes of the Old Testament from the Creation onwards, and running to some pages in the service-book. I should not recommend the revival of this as a practical reform of our services; but the idea is perfectly sound. We ‘remember’ the Gospel facts in their total setting in the biblical history. Then, repeating what our Lord said and did on ‘the night in which He was betrayed’, we place ourselves within the history of our redemption at its crucial moment. It was there that the life of the Church began, and always begins anew. It is no longer past history. It is happening, and we are there. Then, by partaking in the Communion, we lay ourselves open individually to its whole meaning as the Word of God to us.
The Sacraments thus provide a pattern of the way in which the historical and corporate becomes individual and contemporary. I do not say that the Bible can speak to us effectively only within the Church. It would be rash to place any limits to its proved ability to appeal to men in the most varied circumstances, provided that they permit the impact of the biblical facts themselves upon the mind. But the Church is included among those facts. Church and Bible are so closely bound together in one historical complex that it is only common sense to expect the Bible to speak to us most clearly in the context of the continuing life of the Church. If we are to ‘live ourselves into’ the history which is God’s revelation of Himself to man, we have no need to take a flying leap into a remote and alien past. The Church is heir to that history and makes us free of it. What happens then lies between a man and his Maker.