Sufficiency of Scripture

I examine what Duns Scotus writes about scripture being “sufficient” for salvation and how these various aspects are still relevant today with some critical modification.

For me critically devotional use of scripture reveals what we are and what we may be. It reveals individuals and society and points to the specific revelation of ourselves with a better future in union with Jesus the Christ. In that respect scripture is indeed sufficient to its purpose for leading us to salvation. 

Scotus question on Sufficiency

 In the second part of the Prologue of “Ordinatio” Duns Scotus asks:

“There is asked whether the supernatural cognition necessary to the wayfarer IS sufficiently handed down in Sacred Scripture

The question relates to the biblical texts providing a “sufficiency” as something that is handed down in scripture to help us develop our grasp of supernatural things beyond our normal reasoning. In our modern era we may want to ask that question in another way:

Does the bible help to lead us to a new and necessary state of being that is appropriate for modern humanity in need of rectifying all our worst excesses that do ourselves and society harm?

Perhaps with some modifications with critical inquiry Duns Scotus can help us to answer that question with a positive affirmation.  Scotus of course wrote in what we would now consider a pre-critical era and we would expect a conservative view of scripture and its purpose for us. But in considering what he wrote we may still find things still relevant in a more critical era.

Ceremonies and rituals

He starts by considering the ceremonies and rituals that he naturally attributes to Moses that Christians are no longer bound by. Such things do not seem any longer necessary for salvation or for our moral and ethical development. They are surpassed by knowledge of Jesus Christ.

From a purely natural and reasoned origin rituals and ceremonies are not necessary but have been revealed as part of the need of individual and community relations to God. They have been surpassed by other developments, principally with regard to Jesus Christ. Yet the former ceremonies and rituals can be understood for what they were intended to be as means of approaching and being directed to God. Once we grasp their intention we may still find some value in the underlying principles even if we now express their content in a new way. Every religion has its rituals for approaching the deity and forming devotional focus for inclusion and practice of the religion. While modern liturgical practices and ceremonies are not sufficient means for complete salvation they help point beyond themselves to the greater reality of God, and focus our individual minds and community relations. Through them something may be impressed upon our minds that brings us wanting and desiring that deeper communion with God that we vaguely glimpse through ritual performance.

Problems with the Old Testament

Duns Scotus criticises some well -known “heresies” of his day, which are in fact other religions. He is very antagonistic to Jews and Muslims because of their rejecting the content of the New Testament and as such he is a child of his time. He is also critical of the Manicheans who opposed much of the Old Testament and said it was an evil principle. However the Manicheans are not only group in history who have seen in the Old Testament views of God at variance with the great grace we seen in the New Testament. Even today some would want to do away with the Old Testament altogether, as if God shown there is quite another entity and in conflict with the Father revealed by Jesus.  Well, let’s face it there may be parts of the OT that we too find an embarrassment to faith and wish were not there considered as holy writ.

I think that the problem of certain views of God only arises if the Old Testament (OT) is given some kind of equal status as the New and we do not see in Jesus a new and radical revelation and re-interpretation of God and the OT. I take a point here from James Dunn I read many years ago that our views of God as Christians must by their nature be seen as Post- Christ, After God in Christ we have the fuller expression of the hidden nature of God, only partly known before. Indeed both Scotus and Bonaventure would say that Jesus was the true Exemplar of God and the nature of God.

Many of our problems with the OT and its sometimes warlike and violent images of God, as others have found before, are partly solved when what we read about God we find in the Old is radically re-interpreted by what we find fulfilled in the life and teaching of the Son Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and when we view all the Old in this later and fuller Light and Word, and self-emptying Love and Sacrifice of Himself for the world. The dominant view of God after the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the supreme Love that stands as a corrective to all other views of God that appear lesser, tribal, morally dubious or awful, and the acceptance that former views are now obsolete because they did not fully know the greater reality of God in Christ.  Many of the things of the Old Testament are indications of what we are and some of its famous persons not very good role models. It continually points to the necessity of our need of change of heart that is only fully answered in the coming of Christ.

Elements that make for Sufficiency

In his discussion of scripture Duns Scotus proposes the following elements of scripture as making up the authority and sufficiency of scripture for us and our guidance.

The prediction of the prophets

The concordance of the Scriptures,

The authority of writers,

The diligence of those who received them,

The reasonableness of the contents

The unreasonableness of each of the heretical errors,

The stability of the Church,

The limpidity of miracles

I proceed with analysis of these elements in turn.

On the prediction of the prophets

In Scotus view God does and was able to know the future and revealed it to certain chosen individuals and that ability gave a certitude when the future predictions were fulfilled, in particular in relation to Jesus Christ. As I also write elsewhere under Prophets there may be problems with this simple idea of fulfilment today. We may observe that certain prophesies were used in a somewhat creative manner by the church out of the original context of the prophet’s own history and time and applied to Jesus. It may be legitimate in some views but it is not always apparent that the original writer’s context foresaw Christ in the way that he came to be viewed in His time and ministry.

There is often a certain creative tension between the historical prophetic text and tradition on one hand and its actual working out and fulfilment in some more symbolic way in the life of Jesus or the future community in which it seemed to come to some fruition.  There was an original historical context to all the Prophesies that were later applied to Christ but they are not always fulfilled by Him in the direct way the prophet envisaged. Perhaps the best we can say is that the prophetic visions set up some hopes for the future that were realised in special ways in the life of Jesus and which seem to fit the special divine intention in a most wonderful and remarkable way. The prophets do point to Christ but not always in the direct ways that their prior history points. It is a matter of faith and renewed vision today that helps us make the links in the prophetic tradition and all their hopes with Christ and the world we know now.

On the concordance of the Scriptures

Scotus points to the fact that different parts of scripture, from different authors, and dealing with different things and traditions, have a common accord between them. Here he seems to agree with Bonaventure. Although from divergent times and places and people there is an underlying essential story of God revealed in relationships with the people of Israel, Jesus and his disciples and apostles. This may has come from some process of collection and editing.

Scotus wants to contrast this with philosophers who argued with their own teachers while the biblical authors seem keen to preserve what they have received as truth. However it is not always the case that there is no argument within scripture on various subjects because some parts of scripture do seem to take different views on things and there is hence a kind of dialogue and critique within scripture itself. To give one example there seems to be a difference of opinion over whether the monarchy in Israel was a good thing or bad thing. Samuel warns the people of what a monarch may do with their sons and daughters (1 Sam 8:10-18). On the other hand although some of these dire predictions appear to come true God seems to uphold the monarchy of David’s line despite its shortcomings and failures until the Exile in 597BC. Secondly there is also a  great debate about the reason for suffering in Job that may represent different traditional points of view. Jobs friends imply and easy answer of suffering coming as punishment while Job maintains this is not always the case and certainly not with him.

Scotus wants to argue that different authors were in accord from diverse circumstances because of their common inspiration from God who showed the same truth to them. This may have something to do with the religious leaders and those who preserved and edited the traditions that drew out such shared vision and traditions. Yet where there are differences in tradition and such differences may still be regarded as God- given for the historical moment with helpful parallels with some present realities if we would take time to seen them. The diverse circumstances are still good for informing our minds and spiritual attitudes towards our God and our intended nature as we face even more diverse circumstance of our own and may find parts of scripture, but not critically understood for our time and place.


On the authority of writers

There is much in last few hundred years of biblical scholarship that casts doubts on the original authorship of specific books, and may date them and link them to other persons or traditions different to what the text appears to say. Even in the time of Scotus there was some question marks over authorship of certain books of the bible.

To the conservative mind any renaming of biblical books with some-one other than the original named person in the text is considered some form of fraud intended to deceive and thus rendering the book suspect. However the use of Pseudo authorship may have been more common than we realise and was not intended as any great form of deception.  The Pseudo name links them to an accepted authority (a prophetic or apostolic person) but it may be quite clear that other reasons can be given for a different date and situation of the named author.

Does these differences in authorship invalidate that authority of the writing? Have they erred and tried to lead people astray? Are they still reliable of they cam from some other pen different to tradition? Supposing the real author intends not to misguide but to lead his readers in a good way perfectly consistent with former traditions. Such authorship claims the hearing and recognition precisely because it honours what has gone before, although setting it in a new context for the later hearers. Later authors felt themselves part of the original tradition and new and true expression of it. Such texts still  carry authority still because of the former canonical links and the content it expounds even if different to the named author.


Concerning the diligence of the recipients

This has connections with what has gone before and the point of this is that the canon of scripture was provided by honest people and not by some trickery, and hence reliable and should be received by us in the same manner.

I understand this argument but do not think it would need to oppose some other means where honest people transmitted it in another way than traditionally understood. The value of the biblical tradition is in the words contained therein rather than assumed persons who wrote them.

Scotus states that so great was the “solicitude” (care or concern) among the Jews concerning the books to be held in the Canon, and so similarly among the Christians concerning the books to be received as authentic that they may be trusted as the conveyors of the things necessary to guide in receiving the revelation and guidance in them. Both Jews and Christians who received the various biblical books and held them as sacred and true received the content in good faith and handed it on as the authority we should also receive for ourselves. We are to receive such texts in similar open faith as a way of authority for us for our direction and purpose.

I have written above that in modern times some of the bible is seen to be difficult to receive as divinely inspired and had we been making the selection we may have come to different conclusions. We would rather wish that certain bits were not there. On the other hand if we have also a historical critical understanding of the why and how those things arose they may still have valuable lessons to teach us about ourselves and society, if not the precise wording and implied teaching they previously had.


On the reasonableness of the contents

Scotus states that many things that are written in the scriptures are eminently reasonable and shown to be so, and therefore to be accepted because of this. This includes the reasonableness of loving God above all and loving our neighbours. It concerns things credibly known of God in divine perfection and that they are not incredible.

More critical readings today may say that the miracles in the bible are far from reasonable to believe or again that certain moral content is today not only unreasonable but downright awful. Perhaps here we have to remember some time-related developments and the potential for developments in scripture and subsequent history that may help us to see the more controversial things in another light. The whole collected revelation and what is contained may be seen as reasonable in regard to the better elements, but also realistic when it comes to those things which today we morally dubious. Its reasonable that people do actually behave that way. It is reasonable to draw lessons from how they behaved even if what we observe may lead us in a different direction.

The irrationality of heretical views and Concerning the stability of the Church

These are two linked topics. Scotus condemns several heretical groups for not having read the bible properly and rejecting their versions of belief and spirituality. These heresies he believes do not contain the evident reasonableness to which the scriptures point in Jesus Christ. Also such heretical views cannot survive compared to the reasonableness that gives stability to the church.

In regard to the reasonableness and rightness of scripture, this is upheld by the church and its members and thus gives the church a stability that the other heresies do not. He thinks the Jews have no future because of it. He also thought the sect of Islam would also die out because it was heretical. Both have of course survived, which has obvious implications against his argument. In places in the west, for all its alleged “reasonableness” the church and the bible is under attack and also in decline. The argued reasonableness of scripture is not a complete guarantee for the church’s strength in numbers and survival.

While we may have sympathy with his idealized view that scripture is reasonable and heresies are not Scotus is perhaps a child of his time in the way that he strides into a condemnation of those who do not hold orthodox Christian views like his own and attempts to show that their errors are unreasonable in contrast to the reasonableness of Christian doctrine and use of scripture. Today we may have more nuanced and open hearted debate and discussion with those of other faiths and even see some reasonableness in parts of what they have received and have passed on, while maintaining some sense of rightness for our own faith and practice. Other religions may have a degree of reasonableness as they touch on our perceptions of the world and offer quite reasonable options for lifestyle in conformity with perceived needs of individuals and society. Of course we hold to our belief that Christian faith offers the best solution to perceived problems but that should no lead us to unfairly denigrate the sincerely held beliefs and perceptions of others.

We may therefore experience and need a greater level of generosity in sharing what the scripture and the creeds maintain compared to other faith traditions. We may even be aided by some coincidence of commonly held values, while also wanting to retain what we see as the most important parts of our faith traditions that are both unique and important for our profession and spiritual development. So therefore today we have to find a variety of new ways of application of the biblical texts to show their abiding resonance and need among modern and skeptical cultures and in a global religious market place of faith and ideals.

Concerning the clarity of miracles.

In Scotus view the miracles recorded in the bible bear testimony to God and to Jesus Christ as His Son. This touches on the biblical miracles that are said to point to Christ and with which some people find difficulty and would seem unreasonable. Yet I think that what Scotus implies is that some have cast doubt upon the validity of miracles in the scriptures and it is therefore interesting that this note of scepticism is so old even though it seems new to us!

We should note that some scepticism is found in the scriptures themselves when those who did not want to accept the authority of Jesus, or of those who preached in his name. People derided such claims of divine signs. In the modern world atheists and those who only accept certain material proofs will claim that all the miracles are unprovable beliefs and contrary to what we know of the physical laws of the cosmos that we know about. However I think that this begs the question of a prior view of the world that prejudges what may or may not potentially happen in the world. It seeks to circumscribe the scriptural witness of what may have been some extraordinary events that lay outside of the ordinary. If God was in Christ and wished to demonstrate a special existence of Divine Presence dwelling in the world, beyond the material fabric of the world, I see no reason why that would not have been possible, even if in the course of ordinary events such interventions are rare. It is a rigid mechanistic view of the world that rules out the “supernatural” element within scripture but that mechanistic view is most certainly wrong and the world is more fluid and open to divine action what may in other respects be extraordinary.

 On the promises of efficacy

Scotus thinks that scripture hands on to us those things that are necessary for us to know about our end in God and the way and direction of our entering into that end.

I think that in the past that salvation was seen as merely escaping divine condemnation and entering “heaven” beyond our earthly and troubled existence in a fallen world. Today I think we need to see the efficacy of scripture in much wider context as a direction away from our individual evolution tainted self into the fullness of our Intended Beings in Communion and also to see it in the context of the ultimate destiny for the whole cosmos.

Although there are often arguments regarding the perceived historical or scientific inaccuracies that may be found in scripture still today we should hold in mind that scripture does still does convey some necessary pointers to what we are now, what we are intended to be and how we may come to such a blessed and good state of existence and being.

In a similar way whatever historical and scientific arguments that may be used against scripture, things that may keep us away from our intended state of being are still displayed in scripture in story, law and prophecy and in the words and actions of the Incarnate Word in Christ. The efficacy of scripture is still to point these out and lead us back to the fuller vision and set right what has and is going wrong with us and the world. When scripture touches us in this way it’s worth and efficacy is proved in practice.