Chapter: 7. A New View of Scripture
The title page of the standard version of the Bible in Kannada, the language of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, with a literary history of about one thousand five hundred years, describes the Bible on the title page as ‘the True Veda’, Satya Veda. The 1865 edition was printed in England, but when an edition was printed in India in 1951, the title page was unchanged. The implication was that the Bible was true and the scriptures or Vedas of the Hindus were false. Commenting on this, Stanley Samartha writes, ‘To Christians it is astonishing that neighbours of other faiths also have written scriptures. The notion that the Bible is ‘true’ scripture and all other scriptures are ‘false’ is so stamped in the mind of many Christians that any discussion on scriptural authority becomes almost impossible.’
Quite quickly as I began to read Hindu and other scriptures, I found passages that were ‘inspiring’. What do I mean by inspiring, which is a vague phrase? Perhaps some passage which kindles my love of God and lifts my heart towards heaven. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge early in the nineteenth century suggested that the divinity of the Bible rested not ‘in the infallibility of its statements, but in its power to evoke faith and penitence and hope and adoration.’ He agreed that other books were inspiring, but not as much so as the Bible. John Hick as early as 1973, in his God and the Universe of Faiths, quoted from prayers from a number of religions to show that in these ‘we meet again and again the overlap and confluence of faiths.’ A growing number of people have by now found inspiration in the sacred scriptures of the world and have been willing to join together in prayer with members of different religions.
This, however, implies a new view of the authority of scripture. The traditional Christian belief was that the Bible was literally the word of God, dictated to the evangelists and other authors by the Holy Spirit. This traditional view was challenged in the nineteenth century but it can still be controversial even today to question the authority of scripture. At the beginning of the week in which I wrote this chapter The Times had a headline, ‘Canon is banned for saying Bible is not the word of God.’ A senior clergyman is reported as having said in a sermon that ‘the elevation of the Bible to close on divine status has done more damage to the Christian message than all the slings and arrows of the sceptics. The Bible helps to point to the Word of God [the Logos] but it is not the word of God.’
Traditionally, the divine authorship of the Bible was thought to ensure that it was free from error. This accounts for the ecclesiastical opposition to Charles Darwin’s work on evolution and to the arguments of critical Biblical scholars, which implied that not all statements in scripture were factually correct. Further, revelation was thought of in propositional terms as true statements about God. H L Mansel in his 1858 Bampton Lectures, for example, said that the Bible supplied ‘regulative truths’. F D Maurice, a professor at King’s College, London in contrast argued that revelation was participation in the very life of God. Likewise, William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-4, said ‘that what is offered to man’s apprehension in any specific revelation is not truth concerning God, but the living God Himself’. Revelation is personal experience of the graciousness of God. Scripture, therefore, has a secondary authority -- it points beyond itself to the self-expression of God in Jesus Christ. This means that historical inaccuracies are less important. Biblical writers communicate their experiences of God so that the reader can make those experiences his or her own. John, towards the end of his Gospel, writes, ‘These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’
My early studies of Hinduism suggested that a similar change has been taking place in the Hindu view of the authority of the Vedas -- indeed it was this study that helped me recognise the change in Christian thinking. Although, the various orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy have different views about the nature of Vedic revelation, they accept the authority of the Vedas and claim that that their thinking is based on these scriptures. The Vedanta school, for example, says its source is God, but also affirms that the Veda is eternal, which suggests that the Veda is free from historical conditioning and is therefore infallible. Some modern Hindu writers, however, take a different approach. Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), leader of the Brahmo Samaj, found himself in disagreement with the Upanishads about the nature of the self’s relationship to the Ultimate. He therefore rejected the infallibility of the scriptures. It was agreed in the Samaj that ‘the Vedas, the Upanishads and other ancient writings were not to be accepted as infallible guides, that reason and conscience were to be the supreme authority and the teachings of the scriptures were to be accepted only insofar as they harmonised with the light within us.’ The inner light became the authority of the Samaj. ‘I came to see’, said Debendranath, ‘that the Pure Heart filled with the light of intuitive knowledge -- this was its basis. Brahma reigned in the pure heart alone... The rishi of old... records his experience, "The pure in spirit enlightened by wisdom sees the Holy God by means of worship and meditation." (Mundaka III, 1-8). These words accorded with the experience of my own heart, hence I accepted them.’ Dr S Radhakrishnan, however, adds that ‘The rishis are not so much the authors of the truths recorded in the Vedas as the seers who were able to discern the eternal truths by raising their life spirit to the plane of the universal spirit.’
This change of perspective in both Christianity and Hinduism means that the scriptures, instead of being an infallible authority which tells us what to do and to believe, become as it were spiritual guide-books to help us on our journey towards God. In our reading of them, we are enriched and corrected by the insights of thousands of other people who have been inspired by them. Our own experience of God confirms them as authentic and authoritative.
Can we say that any one scripture is more authoritative or inspiring than another? I do not see that one can do this on objective or independent grounds. The acceptance of a scripture as authoritative goes with adherence to a faith community. W. Cantwell Smith says that ‘On a close enquiry, it emerges that being scripture is not a quality inherent in a given text, or type of text, so much as an interactive relation between the text and a community of persons.’ It is the relationship to a community of faith which may make it difficult for a person of one faith to treat scriptures of another faith with the same authority as he or she accords to the scriptures of the faith community to which she or he belongs. Even so, other scriptures may also be a way in which God speaks to Christians.
It is worth noticing that different communities of faith have different understandings of the authority of scripture ‘To most Hindus’, writes Stanley Samartha, ‘the primary authority lies in that which is heard rather than in what is remembered and written down. To the Buddhists scripture has an instrumental authority, like that of a boat that helps one to cross the river, but which, after reaching the other shore, becomes unnecessary.’
Despite the difficulties, can a member of one religious tradition find inspiration in the scriptures of another? The Sikh scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, which was originally compiled by the 5th Guru, Guru Arjan in 1604 -- in the same year as work began on the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible -- contains devotional hymns by Hindu and Muslim poets and saints as well as by the Gurus. For example, poems by Kabir, the mystic and religious reformer are included -- as in these lines:
‘Says Kabir at the top of his voice:
There is but One and the Same God,
Both for Hindus and Muslims.’
Christians include the Hebrew Scriptures in their Bible. In India, at some Christian ashrams there may at the Eucharist be readings from Hindus scriptures as well as from the Bible. Should the reader at the end of the passage say,‘This is the Word of the Lord’ -- as would normally be said after a reading from the Bible?
A Consultation on this subject, held in Bangalore in 1988, made the following points. First, God’s Word is a greater reality than the scriptures themselves. God has spoken in different manners to a variety of human histories. Secondly, selective use of other scriptures is in tune with the Christian principle of selective use of Biblical texts. Many churches have chosen readings for particular Sundays and do not read the whole Bible in public worship. Thirdly, just as Christian scriptures are the gift of the Word of God offered by the Christian community as a record of its faith, so other scriptures can be considered also as a gift of the Word of God offered to Christians by members of other religious traditions. Nonetheless, fourthly, the Consultation recognised a phenomenon called ‘the historical divergence’ of God’s Word, whereby the Word of God of one community is enshrined by the cultural modes of a particular community.
The fourth point was to recognise the specific character of each religious tradition. Other scriptures need to be understood in their own context, not manipulated to confirm Christian beliefs, as so often Christians have misused the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. Yet the context of Christian worship in which a passage from another scripture is read may suggest a particular meaning or interpretation for the chosen passage. But then no text from scripture is univocal. Any verse is subject to different interpretations, depending on the background and outlook of the reader.
The Consultation recognized that reading from other scriptures during Christian worship may well be beneficial, provided it is not done to criticise those to whom the text belongs nor misused out of context to support Christian claims. It can help us see that God speaks to every faith community. The same is true of occasions when people of different faiths come together for prayer and the reading of passages from the scriptures of the world.
In our personal devotions also we can be enriched by the sacred texts of the world. Raimundo Panikkar in his great collection of Vedic texts for modern man or woman called The Vedic Experience, whilst recognising that the Vedas are ‘linked for ever to the particular religious sources from which they historically sprang’, also says that the Vedas are a monument of universal religion and therefore of deep significance for all people.
To recognise that every scripture is a gift of God for all humanity follows logically from recognising that each religion draws its inspiration from the One Divine Reality. Scriptures are sacred treasures held in trust by one community, but for the benefit of all people.
This further suggests that, whilst we are primarily nourished spiritually by the scriptures and teachings of the community of which we are a member, we can find inspiration in the writings of other traditions. This also means that a new approach to theology, sometimes called ‘global theology’ or ‘comparative theology’ becomes possible.
Traditionally theology has been reflection by members of one faith community on the meaning and implications of texts or scriptures, which are held to be authoritative. It has been an essentially confessional discipline. Now, however, as the scriptures of the world have been translated into English and many other western languages, we can draw upon the insights of the scriptures of the world for our theological reflection. Indeed, some twenty years ago, the distinguished scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote ‘henceforth the data for theology must be the data of the history of religions. The material on the basis of which a theological interpretation shall be proffered, of the world, man, the truth, and of salvation -- of God and His dealings with His world -- is to be the material that the study of the history of religion provides’.
The exciting possibility awaits us of seeing how this knowledge can increase and deepen our understanding of the Divine Mystery, which can never be fully grasped by one tradition alone.