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.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Christian Freedom

I have been thinking about Christian freedom lately and pondering what it means. I have been reading Paul's letter to the Galatians and thinking about it in terms of what I have just written about Barclay and the Scriptures. I would like to share with you what has come to me.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law.
Galatians 2:15-16

If I read this in the mind of Fox or the early Friends, I will read this to refer to the Inward Christ. So we are justified by having faith in the words of Christ in our heart and following them. We are not justified by following the Law of Moses or any other outward code of conduct. This is because no one is able to follow an external code of conduct perfectly. As long as the focus is on the outward law, no matter how scrupulous we are in following it, we are only changing our behavior and not changing our heart. It is only by changing our heart that we can be justified, that is to be made just. It is only by having faith in the inward voice of Christ, and following that, that our heart is changed. As we are faithful to that voice in small things, we are strengthened and guided to be faithful in larger things.
Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to follow the entire law. You who what to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Galatians 5:2-6

Paul says, in response to the conflict in the Church over whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, that if you require circumcision, then you have to require following the entire law. You cannot pick and choose the parts of the law that you will require. And, if you pick the Law, you are rejecting Christ. I would say that if Christians today were to require any piece of the law as being binding on Christians, then they need to require the whole Law, including circumcision. And if they do that, they are also rejecting Christ.

Likewise, if you say that Scripture itself is the ultimate guide to be followed, you are setting Scripture up as a new Law. When people do this, they are usually not setting Scripture itself up as their guide but a specific interpretation of Scripture. If Scripture is to be a rule book to be followed, then we have merely replaced the Law of Moses with the Law of Paul or the Law of Oral Roberts, or whoever's interpretation we have adopted. This makes faithfulness a matter of external obedience and cuts us off from learning to hear the Shepherd's voice inwardly. It keeps us from being justified by the transforming work of obedience to the inward voice of Christ in our heart.

So does this mean that Christian freedom is license to do anything we please? Of course not. Christ says that not all that say “Lord,Lord” are his followers. We are to test ourselves and the spirits by the fruit that they yield.
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the Law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:16-21

So if enmities, strife jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions are the fruits of the flesh, what does this say about the spirit that has been active in the Society of Friends for the past 180 years? What does it say about what spirit is active among Friends today?
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5:22-26

My hope is that Friends of all varieties can find the Spirit that can lead us out of our quarrels, dissensions and factions and back into the unity of love, peace, patience and kindness.

Now does this mean that there is no place for Scripture? No, there is a place. It provides a guide to follow as we are learning to hear the voice of the Inward Teacher. It helps us to identify which voice we are hearing at any given time. As it says in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Note, all of these uses of Scripture involve training in the Christian life. They are an aid in discernment. It is an acknowledgment of the responsibility to provide guidance to people new to Quakerism or Christianity. If you will, they are the training wheels of the Life of the Spirit. They are not to be a rigid rule to follow. One of the basic tenets of Quaker belief is that God is not changeable, leading us one way on one day and another way on another. So the leadings of the Spirit should be consistent with the teachings in the Bible. If there appears to be an inconsistency it is an indication that we need to discern harder. Are we being led by the Spirit of Christ or is it one of the other spirits of the world? Do we fully understand the Bible? Perhaps we need to wait for God to open more fully this area of scripture to us. Whatever the case, we need to give up our impatience and leave this up to God in God's time.


Blogger James Riemermann said...

I appreciate the focus on the spirit over scripture here. Yet when you write:

So the leadings of the Spirit should be consistent with the teachings in the Bible. If there appears to be an inconsistency it is an indication that we need to discern harder. Are we being led by the Spirit of Christ or is it one of the other spirits of the world? Do we fully understand the Bible?

and this seems to imply biblical inerrancy. Is this your view? Is it not possible that, when the leadings of the spirit seem to contradict something in the Bible, that contradiction is genuine, and the Bible contains some plainly bad advice?

I understand that there was something like a modified sort of Biblical inerrancy in the first Quakers' understanding (of a sort that nonetheless placed the inward light in a superior position to scripture). But my question is for 21st Century Quakerism, not 17th Century Quakerism.

I also do not intend this as a wholesale dismissal of the Bible--many of its finest books and passages have been enormously moving and instructive to me. Among the passages that don't speak t me, I certainly may be missing something--surely I am in some cases. But I'm pretty sure there's some real poison in there with the gold, and doing theological somersaults to interpret the poison as gold doesn't strike me as particularly fruitful.

Am I wrong?

July 24, 2007 2:08 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 24, 2007 4:44 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Given a vast collection of texts with multibiguous meanings... It makes more sense to search for whatever wisdom you can find there, rather than how much foolishness.

We know two things about the Bible: 1) inspired by God and 2) written by human beings.

So, much of the wisdom you can learn from the Bible is: how human beings get things wrong in the process of learning from God. You find, over and over, people enthralled by some idea that has taken the place of God in their minds and hearts--hearing what they want to be true about it and thinking they've got eternal truth by the tail at last!

This goes on still, now that our Bible-writing days are done; there are still those same temptations-- to reduce everything to What We Already Know, to use God as a club for thumping inconvenient humans into submission, to set up some safe idol rather than face The Boss in an encounter where we don't know the rules...

A contradiction between how we see things now, and how our predecessors on this path saw things... does not imply either that we should subjugate our minds to theirs, or that we necessarily know better. It means that we have something to think about, and to ask for guidance about.

The Bible is useless as a collection of words on paper, no matter how true they might be. To use it as a pointer to God, we need to read it in a state of worship. We may find Answers in the back, but what we really need is to work the problems until we start to see...

July 24, 2007 4:47 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

No I do hold to biblical inerrancy and I do not think that it follows from my position. Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible is without error. There are enough places in the Bible where the facts are wrong or where there are contradictory accounts of the same events that I cannot accept that view at all.

My argument is somewhat more subtle. It derives in part from the statement in Fox's letter to King Charles that is an early statement of the peace testimony. It says something to the effect of "The spirit of Christ by which we are led is not changeable so as to at one time lead us in one direction and on another day in a different direction." So if we are being led by the same spirit that gave forth the gospels, and if we are living in that life and power, we should not be led in ways that contradict the Bible. In other words, if someone were to claim a leading to start offering child sacrifices it would be simple to show that this leading contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible and would be suspect.

What I have tried to do in the previous series of posts on gays and the Bible was to test that hypothesis with a current controversy where Biblical arguments are common on one side. I am satisfied with the results but it is up to others as to whether they find the arguments persuasive.

Even more fallible than the Bible is the unchecked promptings of an individual. In the spiritual life, in fact, in any part of life, it is easy enough to go off into serious error if you only follow what seems right at the time. Having a spiritual tradition, and the Bible is a portion of the Christian tradition, is valuable as a check and a guide, to perhaps server as a reminder of what we should do, even if it isn't what we want to do.

The Bible is inspired. It was also written by humans. So it does need to be approached with the same discernment that one would give to a message in Meeting for Worship.

I hope this clarifies things.



July 24, 2007 9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, folks.

I think maybe we need a clarification of terms.

There are two different terms used by traditional Christians in their discussions of the Bible: "inerrant" and "infallible". These are not synonyms.

"Inerrant" means free of factual error. In other words, if the Bible says the world was created in a literal seven days, that must be the truth.

"Infallible" means free of theological, moral and disciplinary error. In other words, if the Bible says God exists as three Persons, that must be the truth; if Paul says homosexuality is absolutely wrong, that must be the truth; and if Christ commanded water baptism, then we must practice water baptism.

In the modern U.S., fundamentalist Christians hold that the Bible is both infallible and inerrant; evangelical Protestants, and many mainline Christians as well, hold that the Bible is infallible but not necessarily inerrant; liberal Christians hold that the Bible is neither infallible nor inerrant.

As the passage James zeroes in on shows, Barclay, like early Friends generally, seems to have held that the Bible was infallible. But that doesn't mean the early Friends saw it as inerrant; and as a matter of fact there is other evidence -- which I won't go into here, though Will might want to talk about it -- that shows that they probably did not regard it as inerrant.

My impression is that Will himself is not even absolutely committed to the Bible's infallibility. Have I got that right, Will?

July 25, 2007 6:22 AM  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

Tentatively accepting Marshall's distinction between inerrancy and infallibility, it seems I was speaking of infallibility. And my own sense is that the Bible is neither inerrant nor infallible. Not inerrant in that it includes assertions that are incorrect. Some of these incorrect statements--like the Genesis story--were probably not first written to be understood as history, although they were read as such by a great many believers, certainly in the mid-17th Century. Others of these incorrect statement really did reflect a mistaken understanding of the world on the part of the writers.

Infallibility, as you characterize it, is also complicated. There are countless stories in the Bible, descriptions of human behavior, that were not intended to be read as ideal models. The error is not in the story itself, but in reading a description as if it were a prescription. But there are other places where prescriptions are most definitely issued, and words are put in God's mouth that are foolish, silly, and in some cases outright abominable. Slay the Midianites, for example, or the silliness that comprises so much of Deutoronomy, or various racist, sexist and anti-gay prescriptions scattered throughout the Bible.

So, Will, it is one thing to say that the spirit of Christ is not changeable, and quite another to say that the Gospels, or the Bible overall, accurately and consistently reflects the spirit of Christ. If it sometimes does not reflect that spirit--my view--then we most certainly can be genuinely led in ways that contradict the teachings of the Bible. I think it is much better and more honest to admit that we disagree with certain Biblical teachings, rather than to radically reinterpret them in ways that distort the original intent.

July 25, 2007 9:19 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

Marshall, you understand my position. I do not believe in inerrancy and I am not committed to infallibility. What I have been doing in the last several posts has been to examine the Bible, and in particular the teachings on homosexuality, as if it were infallible. I did this for a number of reasons. One is that arguments from liberal social and religious perspective are not persuasive to Friends who base their faith on the Bible. So I wanted to present the case in those terms so that it might be heard by those Friends. It was an exercise in speaking in a different language. Secondly, I wanted to see if such an argument was possible. I found that it was although I do not know if it convincing to others. Finally I wanted demonstrate to liberal Friends that you can approach the Bible seriously and not have to acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Personally, I approach the Bible more as a rather disordered storeroom than a hard and fast rule book. I draw from it what I need. There are some things I have found to be helpful and I know where they are and can draw them out easily. There are other things that I stumble across by accident or when I am looking for something else and I say, "Hey that is neat." and I take it out and ponder it. And there are some parts that do nothing for me and which I just leave alone. The slaying of the Midianites is a case of the latter. George Fox referred often to having the Bible opened to him about some topic or another. There are many portions of the Bible that have not been opened to me, and I am perfectly willing to leave them there until such time as God chooses to open them for me. It's not like I am lacking in other spiritual work to do. :^)


July 26, 2007 9:32 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

The real issue we need to confront among (us) liberal Friends: Is the Bible a worthwhile source of spiritual truth?

With some liberal Friends, we're even back to a basic square one argument, one of asking: "Is spiritual truth of any importance in this world of physical limitations, injustice, and unhealed pains?"

Certainly we can't prove anything to such people by thumping them with our bibles.

If you study the Bible (or other scriptures!) in a group, hearing what meanings other people will see in a passage, hearing how people's lives may illustrate or parallel what they find there... in my experience, you learn far more than anything an individual study will show you. It's a self-confirming process, like science (though not necessarily hostile to it! What does turn out useless are such questions as "Does this prove anything? Couldn't we find another explanation?" Because we come to see: No, we can't prove it but neither can we truly go on doubting.)

August 05, 2007 5:23 PM  

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