Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Monday, April 30, 2007

A Birthday; and Back to Barclay on the Bible

Today Growing Together in the Light is one year old. It has been quite a year for me. I have found myself stretched just by the process of writing somewhat regularly and by the effort of reporting as accurately as I can on events that I have been a part of. I have tried to be respectful of everyone and to avoid personal attacks and I have been gratified to see that on the whole this has been the case with the comments here as well. I am human and sometimes my emotions may have given my words more of an edge than I would have wanted if I had been writing in a cooler frame of mind. To anyone I have hurt because of my failings in this regard, I apologize. I find some satisfaction in seeing that this place has been a place where we have had meaningful discussions across some of the divisions of Friends. I am also pleased to hear that other Friends have found it useful to help them understand the issues.

So now I want to go back to Barclay. This actually is somewhat timely. Where we come back to is Proposition 3, Concerning the Scriptures. I will look at what Barclay says and, in light of recent events, compare it with the Richmond Declaration.

So here is the text to Barclay's Third Proposition:
From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints, have proceeded the scriptures of truth, which contain, 1. A faithful historical account of the actings of God's people in divers ages, with many singular and remarkable providences attending them. 2. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come. 3. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ, held forth in divers precious declarations, exhortations, and sentences, which, by the moving of God's Spirit, were at several times, and upon sundry occasions, spoken and written unto some churches and their pastors: nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Nevertheless, as that which giveth a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty; for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that guide by which the saints are led into all truth: therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader. And seeing we do therefore receive and believe the scriptures, because they proceed from the Spirit; therefore also the Spirit is more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale. Englished thus: "That for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such."

Barclay's entire discussion of this proposition can be found here.

Thus Barclay is saying that the Spirit is above the Scripture because the Spirit gave forth the Scripture and that it is only by the Spirit that one can truly understand the Scriptures.

But Barclay goes on to say:

We shall also be very willing to admit it as a positive certain maxim, That whatsoever any do, pretending to the Spirit, which is contrary to the Scriptures, be accounted and reckoned a delusion of the devil. For as we never lay claim to the Spirit's leadings that we may cover ourselves in anything that is evil; so we know that as every evil contradicts the Scriptures so it doth also the Spirit in the first place, from which the Scriptures came and whose motions can never contradict one another, though they may appear sometimes to be contradictory to the blind eye of the natural man, as Paul and James seem to contradict one another.

This is how the Richmond Declaration's section on the Bible begins:

It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. "These are written so that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name." (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized record of the doctrines which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion.

Now in all fairness, this section of the Richmond Declaration ends with this:

The great Inspirer of Scripture is ever its true Interpreter. He performs this office in condescending love, not by superseding our understandings, but by renewing and enlightening them. Where Christ presides, idle speculation is hushed; His doctrine is learned in the doing of His will, and all knowledge ripens into a deeper and richer experience of His truth and love.

Some liberal Friends may find this idea of testing all ideas against the Scriptures as quaint or anachronistic. But it follows from a basic understanding of the nature of God, which is that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. This idea is expressed in the letter to King Charles II which we sometimes refer to as the Peace Testimony:

That the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing a evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.
[Journal of George Fox, Nickalls Edition, p399-400]

It appears to me that many liberal Friends think that continuing revelation means that God will provide us with a whole new revelation that can cause us to abandon what has come before. But that is not how God has acted in the past. Even the new gospel of Christ was also the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. The old was not discarded. In fact, in 2 Timothy, the Hebrew Scriptures are commended as being inspired and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness...” [2 Timothy 3:16] Many Friends today find that studying the Jewish context of Jesus and the early church enriches and deepens their faith. Continuing revelation means that God continues to reveal the Divine Self to us and that over time we come to know more and more about what that means. The original version of Quakerism was radically conservative. It was based on the sense that the new work of God in the 17th century was to recreate the original Christian church.

It is a gross exaggeration that contains a kernel of truth, but it would seem that liberal Friends want to give primacy to the Spirit and ignore the Bible while evangelical Friends would give primacy to the Bible and ignore the Spirit. As a result our disagreements turn into essentially unresolvable disputes about the source of spiritual authority. This is unfortunate because strong Biblical arguments can be made in support of the liberal position, as well as the Guerneyite position, if the liberals would just engage in the work. The whole point of Barclay's endeavor with his Apology, is to provide a Biblical backing for all of the parts of Quakerism that were contrary to the common understanding of the Bible in the 17th century. This included not only Quaker positions on baptism, communion and the nature of worship, it also extended to their views on the role of women in ministry, perfection, and a number of other matters. Both Barclay and the Richmond Declaration assume that proper attention to the Christ or the Holy Spirit will lead all Friends to a common understanding of Scripture. Even if this is a long and slow process it would not hurt for us to be having the discussion in a common language.

Both liberal and Evangelical Friends have been strongly influenced by religious and cultural movements that have arisen since the early days of Quakerism. Liberal Friends have been influenced by modernism and the evangelicals have been influenced by the reaction against modernism. I do not think that the way towards renewal of the Society of Friends lies in following either of these paths. I think that it the Society of Friends will be renewed by our seeking after the transforming power of God that was found by the early Friends and the early church. I would expect such a transformation would be nourished by the words of early Friends and by the words of the Bible but it would be driven by the Holy Spirit blowing new through ourselves today.

This is already getting rather long. Next time I will look some more at Barclay's elaboration on this proposition.


Blogger Paul L said...

Will -- Thank you for a thoughtful and useful post.

You write: It appears to me that many liberal Friends think that continuing revelation means that God will provide us with a whole new revelation that can cause us to abandon what has come before.

This is an accurate summary of how I hear most liberal Quakers talk about continuing revelation, though some would choke on the word "abandon"; they would strain to find continuity but won't consider it essential. This was essentially my position as well (though I wouldn't have given up on finding continuity as quickly as others seem to), until I actually began to read and contemplate what Fox, Barclay, et al. meant when they spoke about continuing revelation.

But now I understand and agree that your exposition is much closer tot he mark, and much more powerful explanation of the Quakers' unique place in history than the modern liberal narrative.

I also want to affirm your statement: I think that it the Society of Friends will be renewed by our seeking after the transforming power of God that was found by the early Friends and the early church. I would expect such a transformation would be nourished by the words of early Friends and by the words of the Bible but it would be driven by the Holy Spirit blowing new through ourselves today..


Oh yes, and Happy Birthday.

May 02, 2007 12:38 PM  
Blogger Zach A said...

It seems you are forgetting that revelation has two parts: (1) What God's will is, or as over the years I've come to substitute, what the "good" is all things considered, and secondly (2) Our fallible attempts to discern it.

Early Friends generally didn't take pains to separate the two, because like most pre-modern people, they had an underdeveloped sense of their own fallibility (post-conversion at least). Given that, their emphasis on the unchangingness of God's will -- which is not objectionable in itself -- results in the elevation of their own fallible discernment of God's will as simply God's will, the thing itself. In traditional language, this is idolatry.

This is why liberal Quakers believe in continuing revelation that may, in fact, have substantially breaks with past tradition. It does not necessarily mean we think God's will/etc. is changing, but that we're learning that we (or someone else in our tradition) seem to have had it wrong before.

In this fuller context, your suggestion that Friends reject modernism does not amount to affirming the unchangingness of God's will, but denying the fallibility of human discernment of it -- an unwise path to follow.

Warm regards,
Zach A / The Seed Lifting Up

May 02, 2007 4:49 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

My reading of early Friends and the ministers of the later period indicate to me that they were quite aware of the possibility of getting their discernment wrong. This is what all of the talk of "getting low" or "resigning themselves to God" or whatever other term they used. They were struggling to get their ego and their notions out of the picture so that the pure streams of Gospel ministry could flow forth.

In addition, Quakerism itself was a significant break from past tradition. But rather than reject the Bible, they turned to the Bible and found, at least to their eyes, that their experience of God was consistent with the experiences recorded in the Bible.

Early Friends were extremely concerned about avoiding pride in all of it's forms. For all of the ways in which the world has changed, the basic nature of people has not changed in the last several thousand years. It seems to me that the notion that we can break with our tradition and create a new and better spiritual reality smacks of pride. Even though their language was different and they lacked our psychological language, do you think that we have a better understanding of people's spiritual condition than the Apostles or the early Friends? It is precisely the awareness of my own fallibility that leads me to root my spirituality in the Christian/Quaker tradition.


May 02, 2007 9:15 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

For an in-depth look at early Friends and the Bible, take a look here. T. Vail Palmer, Jr. has a three chapter discussion of this topic.
Will T.

May 02, 2007 9:54 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

I think early Friends were more aware of the need to put the ego to one side and not confuse self with God. Pride, along with passion, are two greatest spiritual dangers and pride is more dangerous because it masquerades as virtue.

So thinking we can do better than those who have gone before should always raise a red flag--is this pride speaking? That said I think in all humility we should not give in to fear and say "Well, it's safer to just believe whatever our ilustrious ancestors thought." Faith casts out fear. Our ancestors were human too and surely they saw "as in a glass darkly." The whole JudeoChristian tradition is one of internal arguments about who God is and what he wants for us and different ways of understanding his will. The Bible as a whole does not speak with a simple uniform voice--it is in fact a lively debate. And we in the 21st century have an obligation to participate in that debate and at times to disagree with some of the things respected members of our community have said and believed.

May 02, 2007 10:02 PM  
Blogger Zach A said...

Will and Richard,
I realize that early Friends were aware of their own limitations, but unlike us (let's be honest), they seem to have believed that their limitations were eradicable, eliminable. If only they could "get low" enough, they could hear God and be certain of what he was saying. This is reflected in your statement Will that "the pure streams of Gospel ministry could flow forth."

But this is an illusion – a pre-critical worldview from a pre-critical time. There are no "pure streams," and there is no perfection, neither for us, nor early Friends, nor early Christians, nor anyone else.

That means we should be humble, and learn from wherever we can, including the Bible. (In fact, I would probably write a lot more about the Bible if I weren't a part of a community where the Bible is so charged with internal politics.) But it also means we shouldn't idolize anyone else. Ultimately I am the one living me life, and Paul of Tarsus or Jesus or James are not, nor am I sure they could (from the 1st century) fully understand it. Human nature hasn't radically changed, but it may well have changed some, and the world most certainly has changed. For this reason I see outsourcing one's discernment to the 1st or 17th centuries as not so much humility but a step away from the responsibility to be attentive to our own condition and our own leadings.

May 03, 2007 11:58 AM  
Anonymous Doug Shoemaker said...


Thank you for this fair and evenhanded discussion on Friends and the Bible. You write:

It is a gross exaggeration that contains a kernel of truth, but it would seem that liberal Friends want to give primacy to the Spirit and ignore the Bible while evangelical Friends would give primacy to the Bible and ignore the Spirit.

While this exageration accurately describes how I have perceived the approach of liberal Friends, I was taken aback by the description of the approach of evangelical Friends. If this accurately describes how we evangelicals come across we need to examin ourselves closely. My hope is to be able to embrace both the Bible and the Spirit - and our understanding is that in doing so we will not find contradiction.

May 03, 2007 1:14 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

First of all, my plug for

I'm happy to see more good people commenting there, & if studying scriptures together is a worthwhile practice, as I've found, and as this discussion suggests, I expect to see all of you doing the same!!! (The Bible is not "the answers at the back of the book;" it's a study that draws our attention back to God.)

We don't need to see Fox, or even the scripture writers, as always normative for us or immune to errors of discernment. "Inspiration" is not dictation; it is not about "infallibility," but about connection to our Teacher.

The authors of the Bible made some of the same kinds of mistakes we do, often for the same reasons. And they were also getting valid messages from God, recorded as faithfully as they could understand. All this was happening because God truly works to communicate with us, so far as our capacity develops.

It isn't so much that we need a doctrine of "Continuing Revelation;" we need the continuing experience of revelation. The rub for Liberalfriendists comes in needing to recognize that God does, and did reveal significant capital-T Truth to us.

There is not Quaker Truth or Buddhist Truth or Islamic Truth, only Truth. I am a Quaker because I see the Truth I know at the root of that tradition. There's a tension between those statements, which can't be resolved by returning to our past or by ignoring it or by using it to thump one another. What it requires is to practice waiting on the Lord, and studying the past in that same light.

And then that "whole new revelation" may very well turn out to have been there all along.

May 03, 2007 5:40 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Welcome to my blog, I am glad to see you commenting here. I hope that you will continue to find your way here. You say, "My hope is to be able to embrace both the Bible and the Spirit - and our understanding is that in doing so we will not find contradiction." That is my hope as well.


May 03, 2007 8:34 PM  

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