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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: God Has Spoken to Us

Don Stewart :: How Has God's Existence Become Known through Unwritten Tradition?

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How Has God’s Existence Become Known through Unwritten Tradition?

God Has Spoken to Us – Question 9

The word “tradition” has the idea of something being passed down from one generation to the next. Some of the events that were recorded in Scripture were also passed down to others by means of unwritten tradition. Others events, in which God directly intervened, were not recorded in Scripture but nevertheless were passed down to others. What are we to make of all of this?

There are a number of points that need to be made about this subject. They include the following:

1. God Has Revealed Himself to Humanity from the Beginning

The Bible says that, in the beginning, God talked face to face with Adam and Eve. We read the following in the Book of Genesis:

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” The man replied, “I heard you moving about in the orchard, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” And the Lord God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:9-11 NET)

Adam and Eve in turn, would have related to their children what God had told them. Each generation after that would receive the oral report from the previous generation of how God spoke and dealt with certain humans. As God continued to reveal Himself to others, the same type of relating of the story would occur from generation to generation.

The problem that arises with this sort of transmission of stories is that things tended to be added and deleted as accounts continue to be told. The genuine history eventually turns into myths. While these myths have a historical basis, they cannot be relied upon to give an accurate explanation of what happened. Tradition, therefore, is not a reliable guide to what actually occurred.

2. Other Revelations of God Have Been Passed Down

There is something else that should be considered. We should not assume that everything God said or did has been recorded in Scripture. In fact, we know that the Bible only selectively records God’s words and deeds in history. Consequently, there are things that He both said and did that we know nothing about seeing that it has not been recorded.

However, we should assume that people would have passed on the things God said to them, as well as the deeds of God they observed. Others, in turn, would have also retold what was told them. Thus, there are some unwritten traditions about God and His deeds that have a basis in truth. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what they are, or how accurate they have been passed down to us.

3. Biblical Stories Have Been Distorted When Passed Down through Oral Tradition

Examples of a distortion of Bible events can be seen in the many creation and flood stories that are found in the various cultures around the world. While they are all different, they usually have a number of things in common. These facts point to an original source from which all of them are derived. This source is the Scripture.

4. A Biblical Example of Oral Tradition as an Unreliable Guide: The Discovery of the Book of the Law

We have an example in Scripture about the unreliability of oral tradition. We are told that the Book of the Law was rediscovered in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah. The Bible records the episode as follows:

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the LORD and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. (2 Kings 22:8-11 NIV)

The nation had forgotten the teachings of the Lord. When King Josiah realized this he then said to the High Priest,

“Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us. (2 Kings 22:13 NIV)

This illustrates an important point. The people had forgotten how to behave—their unwritten tradition had not helped in this case. They needed God’s written revelation.

Consequently, any abiding form of revelation from God must be written not spoken. The spoken word cannot be infallibly transmitted from generation to generation.

Summary – Question 9
How Has God’s Existence Become Known through Unwritten Tradition?

Unwritten human tradition is a source of general revelation. At the very beginning, God spoke to our first parents, Adam and Eve. He then continued to reveal Himself to others. While the things God said to them would have been passed down from generation to generation, they would have become muddled by this type of oral transmission.

This is why we find numerous creation and flood stories in cultures around the world. While they differ in details, they do testify to these things actually occurring sometime in the distant past.

We also have a biblical example of the problem of oral tradition. Because the people neglected the Scriptures, they ceased to observe the things God had commanded.

Whatever oral tradition existed at that time did not cause the people to obey the Law of the Lord. It was only when the written Scriptures were found that the people realized that they had disobeyed the Lord. This again points to the fact that unwritten tradition is insufficient.

How Does Providence Testify to God's Existence? ← Prior Section
How Has God's Dealings with the Nations of the World Demonstrated His Existence? Next Section →
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