Scriptures of the Bible as Living Traditions
With the knowledge we have today from the natural world and historical inquiry we can no longer just look on the bible as many part generations did. We want to affirm the content of scripture as still having a primary authority but we also need a critical approach to the bible texts that provides for historical contexts in which specific revelation from God was received, carried in oral traditions and then written at later dates.
The bible is a product of community professions, first Hebrew and Jewish and then Christian. They all wrote within the limitations of their knowledge and experiences of life and God. Discerning a historical situation for the original texts and development of tradition may help us deal with “problem” texts like violence and apparent clashes with modern scientific views of the world.
Rather than a static view of the bible as some infallible word dictated from heaven, the bible should instead lead us a dynamic view of God’s interactions with people and society. Taking into account historial contexts the bible remains a Word for today when the Holy Spirit helps us make connections in the present moment to what we have read of the past.
Human society does not always advance with religious revelation and conviction. The self -revelation from God is open to being erroneously received and deviated from its true intention by the failure of human intellect and will.
Beyond Natural and Scientific Knowledge
Scotus in his inquiry into our knowledge of God argues that although we may determine some things about God from what is revealed by nature and applied thought about the world this is not enought. We cannot fully know God unless God is self-revealing and gives us some additional knowledge by means of special revelation. In concurrence with this John Haught writes that “nature is not enough” and a purely physical and natural view of the world from the sciences is also not enough for our fullest understanding of the world and the cosmos.
The testimony of Christian traditions is that indeed God has provided such an additional revelation of the divine nature and the relations of God to the cosmos and indeed our own lives and way that we should be. The nature of God is self-revealed first in the Hebrew Scriptures making up the Old Testament and then with a greater vision and finality in the record of life of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament, who is testified as The Messiah (the Christ), and The Most Beloved Son in whom all things find a significant focus and purpose.
Thus we come to a consideration of what the Bible is all about and in what ways it is reliable and how we overcome difficulities of time and cultural views.
A critical approach to scripture
That the bible is the source of Christian beliefs and origin of Christian doctrines beyond the natural world is self- evident. In almost all Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions it is believed and honoured to be in some way a written “Word of God”. It is in some way a specific revelation or set of revelations from God, given to humanity to reveal God’s will and purpose and direction for living and the showing the freely offered Salvation, with specific reference to the special revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth who is called “Christ” and “Son of God”.
Long before Darwin published his ideas about the evolution of life on earth the Bible had already faced historical textural analysis comparing it with other Near Eastern religious texts and critical theories about the origins of the biblical texts, casting doubt on what had appeared to be the historical content of the bible and how it should be received. Evolution and other critical studies before and after Darwin have bid implications about how awe view the bible as a revealed “Word from God” within specific times and places. Today the bible texts should be seen as something revealed and developed from situations and experiences first received by some original persons as they experienced and knew the world. They passed that received Revelation from their experience into other contexts and times and others revised and built on it for new generation and situations. We may no longer know the complete circumstances of the original experiences that are recorded in sacred texts but only what was transmitted to later generations by interpreters and guardians of tradition.
This is particularly true of the Old Testament where stories are related long times after the events were thought to occur. The OT is a collection of varied traditions from different times and purposes, faithfully expounding what others had found before and commenting on those events as lessons for their time. They may have made use of other older myths and legends, but adapted them to a new purposes. The selection and preservation of that “word” in traditions became Living when it had an impact on the lives of new hearers and enabled an appropriate personal response to what had been received.
Dynamic Living Word
In a similar way the written texts of the bible now becomes a dynamic and “Living Word” to us again when by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to make use of current knowledge and new circumstances and make new connections with the Word from the past, to make it live and guide our thoughts and actions in our present. Such an approach makes the Bible into something that is Living and dynamic, not because everything written in it is reliable history or completely accurate in a fully historical sense, but because the Spirit uses that past revelations for us in our present, with our knowledge and very different circumstances and cultural situation. The bible is made of up professions of faith and not always a historical document with things that can be verified. When we get away from forms of historical literalism there is no longer a clash with modern scientific views of the world. The ancient words can still connect with us personally in new ways. Therefore today we do not completely reject the past traditions nor hold them as some inerrant words that cannot be doubted, but bring such texts together with new knowledge to make a dynamic Word for the present that can speak to us in a relevant way for our modern lives.
The advantage of taking such a critical and dynamic view seems to me more helpful in dealing with some of the more controversial areas of the bible such as the injunctions to Holy War and apparent commands of what today we may consider genocidal. The original situations and word may be lost to us, coloured by other later community needs. If therefore the God of the Old Testament in places seems tribal and not the God of the grace of Jesus Christ it is because of incompleteness of the revelation that was received and interpreted in former situations prior to the fullest advent of the Word in Jesus Christ.
Forms of historical-critical approach to interpretation also help to deal with those passages such as the Noah flood story that may have had more ancient and non-Hebrew origins before being adapted by the communities of Israel. Sometimes we must realise that what at times seems to be a kind of history may be nothing of the sort. It is rather an interpretation of long remembered stories told for specific religions purposes that may have little to do with any original event. Inspired interpreted stories they may be but they may have unknown origin and original purposes lost to us. Yet even in these stories we learn something of the divine character and call upon us today.
There is today also another problem that between churches and within church communions there has not been, and still are not, complete agreements of interpretation of the biblical texts and in our time new divisions about culture, the relations between men and women and their positions in the church relating to leadership and ministry roles. Also today questions related to sexual matters, with homosexuality and transgender change. Within and between churches these things are causing further conflicts and disagreements. There are those who see the Bible as something written for all time with unchangeable revelation while others find reasons to re-interpret and make cases for new approaches to such issues. These may not easily resolved but as in all cases in the modern age churches need to find agreements though love and study together.
Some perspectives from Rahner
Some things I read in Karl Rahner’s “Foundations of Christian Faith” may also have some bearing on how we are to seen scripture today.
God’s transcendent grace, shown in the history of revelation is part of a whole in which God is revealed generally to the human mind and most specifically in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There is a spectrum of revelation of which the biblical revelation is most specific.
I see this in special relation to the Gospel John chapter 1 in that the Word has attempted to enlighten every man and woman and we find some kindred aspects of revelation in non-Jewish and non-Christian religions. There are law codes for societies before Moses (see my chapter on Law) and other aspects of religions that are at least partly in sympathy with biblical traditions even if differing in exact detail and doctrines. While having obvious various deviations in creed and practice we sometimes do find common and related elements of faith that really are not that far apart and in which we could say there is something of the pre-incarnate Word and light for human conscience to transcend the self and all its attractions and deviations.
We could for instance see the non-violence in Buddhism and parts of Hinduism that are in accord with Jesus call to love enemies and avoid violent retaliation. Or we can see the great analytical critique of human actions in relation to suffering that are also a strong component within Buddhism, but still is also evident revelation of the effects of our actions quite in accord with the words of Jesus. Is that not also complementary to the revelations of the sinfulness of humanity that is on view in the bible? What are these if not some other revelations of love and the love we ought to have for others and created things?
We can go even further back in time and see how some aspects of the divine were seen by much more primitive societies. There are ancient carvings and pictures made by early humans that show aspects of Transcendent experience perceived by humanity. This has a history (and one that precedes written scriptures and what we know as historical religion). These are also related to the human capacity to receive aspects of God’s own disclosure.
When viewing the history of religions there may sometimes seem to be a progress in God’s revelation and our capacity to receive it. Rahner thinks there is an irreversible direction to this. It depends what he means by progress. I think that humanity has the kind of self -deception that re-invents former old idols and forgets what may have already been disclosed as something better. Religious movements do not always go forward progressively and other generations forget and deny what has gone before.
Even within the bible there are the stories of forgetting the better elements of God’s revelation in the next generation and the constant call of the prophets to be faithful to what has been received. Furthermore, despite that in modern times there have elaborations of human rights, that surely come from God’s love, there are so often denials of these and the use of religious and cultural reasons to ignore them.
Human society does not always advance with religious revelation and conviction. The self -revelation from God is open to being erroneously received and deviated from its true intention by the failure of human intellect and will. Our reception of what God has been saying to us imay be distorted with selfish wish fulfilment, our own self- deception and so may distort our reception of God’s revelation and grace. God’s self- revelation may be misunderstood and misused and even distorted towards selfish and tribal ends. We find that even within the biblical texts.
Further things to follow
The further essays under this section of “Bible” will review some traditional Franciscan theology of the scripture and revelation viewed in the light of a more dynamic set of traditions and then also look at some other modern theologies of scripture and how they may help us continue to see the bible as special revelation and a basis for continued Christian faith and discipleship. I will then consider aspects of the Old Testament Law and the traditions of the Prophets.
My founding thesis in this is that God the Trinity has spoken through the experiences of Israel in particular to reveal what our old humanity has been and to lead us to our new and better being as a New Humanity. It is initiated in the life of the people of Israel but comes to the fullest focus in the newer and fuller reality of The Word lived out in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Messiah or Christ.
Help us to realise that behind the written words of scripture has been the influence of your Spirit
You revealed something of Your Most Divine Goodness and Most Gracious Will for us in specific times and places, and guarded and re-told in new ways to new generations.
So may we try to honour the intent of that Word once spoken and seek to discern that Word fresh for us in our present time and place.