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, June 06, 2007

Barclay and the Bible, Part 3: So what are the Scriptures for, anyway?

In the last part of his discussion of Proposition 3, Barclay turns to the right use of the scripture and the value that it has. This proposition actually makes two points. The first, which I have explored in the first two parts, is that the Bible is a secondary source. It is a witness to the Spirit, but the primary source of knowledge of God is the direct experience of the Spirit. The second point is that, although it is secondary, the Scriptures are very important. The first point would still be a matter of controversy for Fundamentalist Christians (and some other Protestants) who place the Bible at the center of their faith. The second point is controversial to some liberal Friends who would reject the Bible.

Barclay finds the Bible important as a source of comfort and teaching. While God is our primary teacher and comforter, sometimes it suits God's purposes to raise up people to speak words of instruction or comfort in a timely manner. Likewise, God raises up teachers and pastors among the people. God has used the written word in Scripture is a similar way to which God has used the spoken word.
This is the great work of the Scriptures, and their service to us, that we may witness them fulfilled in us, and so discern the stamp of God's spirit and ways upon them, by the inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and work in our hearts.
In this way, we become ourselves the witnesses to God and God's work in us. We come to join the cloud of witnesses, which includes the writers of the Scriptures and all of the people who have come before us and who have lived faithful and Spirit filled lives.

Barclay goes on to discuss how Quakers are willing to have their doctrines tested against Scripture, but I have already discussed this in Part 1 of this series. I will only add this one last comment from Barclay:
So we distinguish betwixt a revelation of a new gospel, and new doctrines, and a new revelation of the good old Gospel and doctrines; the last we plead for, but the first we utterly deny.
But we should perhaps also remember that the Good Old Gospel that the early Quakers plead for seemed very radical and new to the Christians of their day and it also seems rather odd to come Christians of this day as well. This is one reason why I think that liberal Friends who wish to reject Christianity need to look to see if their objections are to Christianity as understood by Quakerism or to Christianity as practiced and understood by some other Christian group. I have just read C. Wess Daniels' blog on the need for Quakers to do theology. I want to add another reason for doing theology, to help us distinguish babies from bathwater.

Finally, before I leave this examination of the Barclay and the Bible, I want to add a little bit about what George Fox had to say. This is not more theology. This is more of a way of reading the Bible that he was advocating.
And I saw the state of those, both priests and people, who in reading the Scriptures, cry out much against Cain, Esau, and Judas, and other wicked men of former times, mentioned in the Holy Scriptures; but do not see the nature of Cain, of Esau, of Judas, and those others in themselves. And these said it was they, they, they, that were the bad people; putting it off from themselves: but when some of these came, with the light and spirit of Truth, to see into themselves, then they came to say, ‘I, I, I, it is I myself that have been the Ishmael, and the Esau’, etc. For then they came to see the nature of wild Ishmael in themselves, the nature of Cain, of Esau, of Korah, of Balaam and of the son of perdition in themselves, sitting above all that is called God in them.
Journal of George Fox, (Nickalls edition) p 30

This way of reading the Bible is to look at all of the characters and find them in ourselves. For a long time I found myself strongly identifying with the Israelites in the Bible stories. They were led out of Egypt by God and the first thing they did was to make a golden calf and worship it. God told them to do one thing and they did another. This was behavior I could relate to. I think that I am doing a little better on faithfulness but it is still only a matter of degree. But behind the story of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites is the continuing story of the faithfulness of God. No matter what the Israelites did, and how bad a mess they made of things, God was still looking out for them and when they turned back to God, God always came through for them as well. I can draw comfort from that.

Fox goes on to say:
And I saw that none could read John[ the Baptist]’s words aright and with a true understanding of them, but in and with the same divine Spirit by which John spoke them, and by his burning, shining light, which is sent from God. For by that Spirit their crooked natures might be made straight, and their rough natures smooth, and the exacter and violent doer in them might be thrown out, and they that had been hypocrites might come to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, and their mountain of sin and earthliness might be laid low in them, and their valley exalted in them, that there might be a way prepared for the Lord in them; and then the least in the kingdom is greater than John. But all must first know the voice crying in the wilderness, in their hearts, which through transgression were become as a wilderness.
Journal of George Fox, p32

This then is the true value of the Scriptures, that we may read them and through them come to know the Spirit that inspired them so that we may be purified and transformed by the Spirit as well.


Blogger forrest said...

Both Jews and the liturgical churches have regular patterns of reading aloud from their particular series of scriptures in a group. If the members of the group can comment and question freely, being attentive to whatever inspiration they might receive in the process, (as with the Jewish Renewal synagogue Anne and I attended in Philadelphia, or the gospels classes at Pendle Hill, or the Bible study sessions at our yearly meeting) this can lead to an intense experience of being led into whole new understandings, not just of what a text means, but of what God is like. This is entirely different from the sort of "Bible study" where the conclusions have already been stuffed and mounted, or from reading by myself.

If all the Bible can do is to confirm what someone already knows, there is little reason to read it. It provides a handy text for thumping one's adversaries, but that doesn't work unless said adversaries consider the Bible as authoritative, which is increasingly less common--and particularly so within a LiberalFriendian meeting. Besides, I don't really believe that the Bible is meant to be used (or interpreted) in such a manner.

Since my whole life is a lesson from God, I don't need to put the Bible in a privileged position--but the Bible has been a potent instrument for that lesson. It's been one big messy koan, you might say--Turning out to have been no more valid as a history text than it was as a source of astronomy or geology or biology, having been used to grind axes for the ancient Jewish monarchy and many odd causes since then--but still pointing clearly to God despite all that.

The notion that God chose the Jews so the whole world could know him better...seems true, the catch being that Jewish history shows us the very same mistakes we goyim would have made if it had been us! (The history of Christianity... I rest my case!)

We humans, I mean to say, have a strong built-in resistance to certain messages God keeps trying to teach us. Even the fact that God is the real power in the universe, that our fears and our pride are neither-of-them justified, leading only to one sort of idolatry or another. Particularly the fact that we should see the poor and the outcast as human beings like ourselves, not only as people who matter equally to God but as people who might see some things better than we do... (Sometimes the poor are "just playing the same games for smaller stakes," and sometimes they are far more aware than other people, how much they need God's help and how much God has helped them!) The various implications of God's love...

June 13, 2007 12:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You write, "... I think that liberal Friends who wish to reject Christianity need to look to see if their objections are to Christianity as understood by Quakerism or to Christianity as practiced and understood by some other Christian group."

I couldn't agree more with you on the need for all of us to be precise in discussing what it is that we are supporting or rejecting. Quakerism was and continues to be a radical and different form of Christianinty, and so it is the pecular theology of Quakerism on which we should be basing our discussion of who is and who isn't a Quaker or what Quakerism is or isn't about.

In my experience, when you get people beyond the labels (especially loaded labels like christo-centric or atheist) the level of agreement on what Quakerism is all about increases dramatically. And as to the current "convergence" movement -- to my sense if convergence is to occur in more than words and blog entries, it will require that we move the conversation beyond labels and focus on the actual peculiar theology and practice of Quakerism. Of course, we must actually have the hope/motivation for a convergence and an unearthing of our similarities and commonalities, rather than a emphasis on labeling our differences.

John Helding
San Francisco Monthly Meeting

June 13, 2007 12:26 PM  

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