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.

We need to recognise that 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. Therefore instead of 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 us today when the Holy Spirit helps us make connections in the present moment to what we have read of the past.

We also need to recognise that human society does not always advance with religious revelation and conviction. The self -revelation from God is always open to being erroneously received and deviated from its true intention by the failure of human intellect and will.


Beyond Natural and Scientific Knowledge

Duns 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 enough. 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 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 big implications about how we 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 the stories , law and prophecies 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.

But we may also need to face the challenges that even the New Testament was written from specific circumstances and community needs different to our own and with world views that are also different. There have been questions about differences between the gospels and expectations of an immanent. return of Jesus to the world that has not occurred. Also questions related to miracles and some who dismiss certain things as ‘myth” rather than actual occurrence.


Richard Hooker – A Sufficient and reasonable review of Scripture 

Hooker was a major influence in forging Elizabethan Anglican theology as middle way between Catholicism and Reformation theology. His great work “Laws of Ecclesial Polity” commentated on various aspects of what was meant by revelation and a right use of scripture to inspire individuals and guide the life of the church. He rejected what he saw as some of the extremes of Puritan Reformation use of the bible and argued for a right use of reason with which to interpret the texts. Humans reason came from God as gift and we need it to interpret the texts in right way. 

Hooker set out a view of scripture that while acknowledging a special authority to which we should refer also needs current relevant interpretation in the new circumstances of life that we encounter in our time. Hooker is an example of the need to have a dynamic use of scripture to meet our situations to inspire us in tech present moment for ourselves and our society, not some unerring dictation from on high in the past.

Hooker argued that the scriptures give us a “sufficient” law. It contains much that is also found in natural law that others have found in history and so the bible acts as confirming testimony to what reason has already understood as good or bad for society. Even so the bible also points beyond natural law and reason. It is to reveal to us what natural reason could not give and is special revelation from God. 

Hooker also argued that the bible has not revealed everything as some unchangeable oracle and that the Church has needed to apply the content of scripture to new situations and the formation of helpful doctrines. Thus there is doctrinal formation that followed the completion of the bible as key interpreting its content. Included in this is that things in the Old Testament were linked with the person of Jesus Christ and that it all pints to Him. Society needs laws according to its time and circumstances and so we can change laws ro meet new needs. This may lead to interpretations of the bible and in what ways the bible is to be considered an authority that we must adapt and obey. Does authority mean that everything of the past need to be obeyed in the same way today as something dictated and having authority? Hooker denies such use of biblical authority and asserts a new need to find new wisdom from it to face new situations. What is needed is the pursuit of the divine glory in the present that is not just a blind obedience to the past. 

Charles Gore-  Criticism of the idea of an Infallible Book 

Moving forward in history, Gore was an Anglo-Catholic writing at a time of controversy in the Church of England about the place of Catholic traditions and rituals in the church and modern knowledge and challenges to received views about the bible. His article The Doctrine of the Infallible Book (ca 1924) was both an acceptance of new critical thinking about scripture but also an attempt to defend a reasonable view of scripture that enables scripture to be received with confidence. He again implies a dynamic view of scripture to be received as sonething living needing new interpretation related to the modern world. 

Gore argued that historical traditions contained in the Old Testament cannot always be relied upon as accurate; for example that the codes of law in the Pentateuch date from different epochs down to the return from the Captivity, though they were all traditionally ascribed to Moses.  Critics differ as to how much was actually directly from Moses. On the other hand, the conclusions of even moderate critics require a very thorough revision of our traditional estimates of the literature of the Old Testament.

With regard to the prophets from Amos to Malachi. Here, over a period of some three hundred years, we have a succession of men to whom the world is supremely indebted for the establishment of those fundamental beliefs about God and about man on which the Christian religion reposes. Long before the Babylonian Captivity there had been the remoulding of ancient folk law yet retaining the most profound truths about human nature. So what we have in the Old Testament is incomplete truths about God and our nature seen in the experiences of the people of Israel. 

Many of a conservative faith may argue that that Jesus seemed to take parts of the OT and quote them as things that literally happened and cited traditional authorship to the psalms etc. But Gore argues that Jesus aim in using the ancient texts was always to point to the more ethical aim of scripture rather than to confirm its literal content and He did so in a prophetic spirit. Jesus used those texts to speak to the future and about Himself and that Messianic hope was to be found in Him. Parts of scripture that showed holy suffering victims pointed to His own coming death. Therefore the belief in the inspiration of the prophets and the life of Israel in stories is compatible with critical methods of analysis, to bring out the spiritual rather than the literal details. 

The New Testament texts have also become subject to critical inquiry. Jesus did not trust Himself to a book but to a community to bear witness to Him. So the growing church looked to the Old Testament and the Apostolic teaching and traditions as their authority. Paul gives frequent allusions to the “tradition” which his converts when they first became Christians that had already heard from others too. There is knowledge that had been transmitted that is presupposed, including the threefold name and character of God and the doctrine of the incarnation, death and resurrection. 

Gore recognised that the miracles in the gospels are often questioned but argued that it is not possible to accept any merely humanitarian or non-miraculous estimate of Jesus, or to doubt that the faith in the incarnation of God which you find in St. Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews and in St. John.  The traditions enshrined in the creeds that stem from Scripture are genuine and true to history.

There is no doubt the Church that gathered the texts of the bible saw them as having a special level of inspiration even if not infallible in all detail but never sought to define it what that inspiration meant in practice. The early Church actually suggested a view of inspiration much more agreeable to the modern spirit.

There is a clear distinction between the Word of God, as God’s personal and saving declaration of His heart, and the Scriptures, which form the record in and through which this declaration is conveyed to us. If we read the Bible with faith, the Holy Spirit enables us to grasp the Word of God contained there as something in that way that is infallibly and authoritatively true for us. The Bible is the record of the redeeming love of God, because in the Bible alone we find God drawing near to man in Jesus Christ, and declaring to us in Him His will for our salvation. It may surprise many that both Luther and Calvin were compelled by facts to break away from the rigid dogma of verbal inspiration which they had inherited. They faced the undeniable truth that in conveying to us the gift of the Bible, as the adequate and enduring presentation of His redeeming love, God has employed a series of human agencies, and that in the working of these agencies He has not excluded slight human imperfections. So Luther and Calvin became, wittingly or not, the precursors of the modern critical study of the Bible. If they did so then so can we. 


The Bible as Dynamic Living Word

From what has been written above, the written texts of the bible should be seen as 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.

Problem texts

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 still 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.

Further things to follow

The further essays under this section of “Bible” will review some more perspectives about revelation and 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. Everything in scripture is related to Him in the most dynamic relational way and about our intended direction for being and living, rather than worrying about past historical details and traditions.


Lord 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.