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.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Bible is not the Word of God

The title of this post might seem shocking to some, but it is standard Quaker theology. One traditional formulation of this is that Christ is the Word of God and the Bible is the words of God. The Bible provides a history of God's working with people in the past and so is instructive to us as we try to make sense of how God is working with us today. Barclay discusses this issue at length in his 3'rd Proposition. I have already discussed this here  and here.  The Barclays full text on the subject can be found here

Today I would like to focus on 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, in order that the person of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

I would like to point out what this passage doesn't say. It does not say that Scripture was written by God. It does not say that it is infallible or inerrant. It says that it was inspired by God, which means that it was written by humans who were inspired. From which one can conclude, in fact, that there is also a human element in scripture as well. Quakers, at least unprogrammed Quakers, have experience with the differing degrees of the divine and the human elements in the inspired messages they receive each Sunday. We need to listen to the Bible with the same discerning ear we use in Meeting for Worship.

Secondly, it is important to understand what Paul meant by Scripture. He was not referring to what we now call the Bible, since it had not all been written at the time. Those parts of the Christian Testament that had been written would not be assembled until several hundred years later. Scripture, for Paul and other early Christians, would have meant what we call the Hebrew Testament. This is significant because this contains the Law of Moses. Paul elsewhere says that following the law does not lead to salvation. So Paul is not saying that Scripture is a rule to live by. He certainly is not saying that what he writes in his letters should be used to create a new set of rules to govern Christian behavior. All he is saying is that study of scripture is useful for preparing a Christian to be competent and equipped for the work to which they are called.

There are many Christian writers and teachers who quote Paul extensively to crate a rule of morality for people to follow. This seems to be applied in particular to areas of sexual morality and the role of women in the church and society. For example in Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul says:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

This is often used to justify the position that wives should be submissive their husbands. But that was not what I think Paul was really about here. I think that he was trying to paint a vision of what the Kingdom of God would look like. He is presenting a radical and revolutionary vision of marriage as a relationship of love and respect and saying that this is the model for living in the Kingdom of God. This applies both to the family and to the church and its relationship with God. Paul is saying that our personal relationships need to mirror our relationship with God. This remains a radical and counter-cultural vision. To turn it into a set of rules that limit the role of women is in fact to turn the meaning of this passage on its head.

The Bible provides us with stories of how God has worked in the lives of people and peoples in the past. It provides us with a vision of what is possible if we have faith in the voice of God as we experience it. It provides us with reason to trust in the love of God for us and for all humanity. There are times in our spiritual development where having a clear set of directions as to how to live our lives is important, but this is not what God is calling us to. In 2 Timothy 3:5, Paul warns about those who are “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” We are called to follow the law of God that is written on our hearts, and not in books. We are called to be friends of God and not servants. We are called to be sons and daughters and not slaves. We are called to live in the transforming power of God's love. We need to have faith in God and trust the freedom that is being offered to us.


Will T

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Blogger Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Will,

Good points.

If we were to take the Bible literally and inerrantly, we would still have slaves, still live under a king, etc.

The wonder of Friendly prophets such as Woolman and Mott is they could at times "see" in the inspired words of the N.T. the blessed vision of which biblical writers glimpsed.

Doesn't it seem like human nature, or at least a common affliction of most seekers including Friends, that we fall down either side of sharp truth--either treating the Bible legalistically (some Evangelical Friends)or tending to neglect it's central truths (some other Friends)?

In the Light,
Daniel Wilcox

November 17, 2011 2:18 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

I'm still in that process (called "life"?) of negotiating what it means to be "a Friend of God." Not annihilation, not separation. Remembering to Ask, when I do remember. Doing what feels right, even knowing I can make mistakes... because God puts those to use also. (Anne's music teacher, telling her class: "If you're going to make a mistake, make it an honest mistake!")

I really didn't think I had anything to say about your piece except: "Thanks, this is good!" But "prophet" is not a status; it's an ongoing activity that everyone can practice...

November 17, 2011 3:38 PM  
Anonymous Robert Barclay said...

Because they are commonly acknowledged by all, to have been written by the Dictates of the Holy Spirit, and that the Errors, which may be supposed by the Injury of Times to have slipt in, are not such, but that there is a sufficient clear Testimony left to all the Essentials of the Christian Faith, we do look upon them, as the only fit outward Judge of Controversies among Christians; and that whatsoever Doctrine is contrary unto their Testimony, may therefore justly be rejected as False. And for our parts, we are very willing, that all our Doctrines and Practices be tryed by them; which we never refused, nor ever shall, in all Controversies with our Adversaries, as the Judge and Test. 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 our selves in any thing 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.

November 18, 2011 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Bill Rushby said...

It is one of the perverse aspects of human nature to rail against what one most needs. IMHO Friends need a very heavy dose of Bible study and biblical understanding. Instead, we get endless discourses about the limitations of the Bible and why we can't trust its witness to the Gospel and the Son of God.

I think Robert Barclay has it right in the passage quoted here. I also believe that the Society of Friends would become more vigorous and spiritually robust if it dug deeply into the biblical witness.

I do not mean to offend Will Taber as a person, and I hope he will not take my comments that way.

November 19, 2011 10:29 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Bill Rushby,
I take no offense at your words. In fact I agree with you that Friends would be well served to study the Bible more and to come to a greater understanding of it. Unfortunately, many people come to Friends having experienced the Bible, not as a way into understanding God, but as a blunt instrument that has been used in support of a version of Christianity that is, in fact, not very Christian.

Even if they have not had direct experience of this, they often come assuming that Christianity and Bible Study is synonymous with Fundamentalism. The whole point of this series of posts is to provide hints towards an alternate understanding.

Will T

November 19, 2011 8:49 PM  
Anonymous Joe said...

Will - your link to the Barclay full text is broken (end of first paragraph)

I think Fox is a challenge to Quaker and non-quaker alike. To most steeple-house dwellers, he is a challenge because he calls them to trust in Jesus Christ as the Word rather than some text on a page. Which, as you say above, is pretty shocking to most Christians.

But he is also pretty shocking to many Quakers. Fox's understanding of Christ as word and the Kingdom dwelling within led him to diving further into scripture rather than ignoring it. And to that end, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge that would put most of us to shame.

And it strikes me that the true Christian is the one who has a deep reverence for scripture as being from God without being tempted to worship it or using it to drown out the still small voice of God within.

November 20, 2011 2:59 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you for pointing out the broken link. I have fixed it. I can also unite fully with your comment.

Will T

November 20, 2011 10:03 PM  
Blogger kevin roberts said...

you know, will, it's always worthwhile in discussions of the "word of god" to point out that christian scripture almost never uses the term for written texts. in the greek, "logos" refers to oral prophecy, oral recitation of written scripture, actual speech of god, or to the hellenistic logos of greek philosophy: in christianity, the Christ. perhaps twice in the NT, "logos" refers to a written particle of scripture.

there are other words used for "word of god," but logos is the one that appears in the important places:

John 1:14 And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

November 25, 2011 9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree wholly with Kevin Roberts's observations. I also think that views about what constitutes "standard" Quaker theology should be qualified in this instance. When Barclay asserts that the Scriptures are "the only fit outward judge for controversies among Christians" and asks that all Quaker beliefs be "tried" by them, he's clearly making an argument for biblical authority more forceful than even many of the Conservative branch of Quakerism would be comfortable with. And part of me thinks that Quakerism has been undermined by a sense that its beliefs and practices should not be put to the test Barclay proposes. I don't think that such a test is anything for Friends to be afraid of or otherwise shrink from. We've overlooked for too long the fact that early Friends based their innovations rather scrupulously on examples furnished by Scripture. This will be clear to anyone who reads the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example.

November 30, 2011 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Sean Riker said...

And the fight continues. There can be no reconciliation between fundamentalists and evidence-based science. The paradox? Those who are so strongly opposed to approaching origins scientifically will always seek out scientific medical treatment when they are the target of serious disease. Hypocritical?

February 26, 2013 10:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My thought on this line of thinking every time I hear or read about it is that we leave ourselves open to our own thoughts and those thoughts often are in conflict with the Bible. If my thoughts, leadings or interpretations are in conflict with the Bible then my question to you and other would be "Who is wrong, me or the Bible". We do have the Bible to guide and direct and I whole heartedly agree that without the Holy Spirit to interpret as Paul said we cannot understand it nor can we change ourselves it is the work of God. I have also seen many people take and twist the Bible to mean what they want so we do need to depend on the Holy Spirit and the Bible. Study of the Bible to understand and find God in ways that are true is essential and that study goes hand in hand with the Holy Spirit. You have to have them together.

January 12, 2015 9:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Good and amazing article, thanks for sharing your knowledge!
Grow Light

July 13, 2016 10:29 PM  

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