Monday, April 24, 2006

early friends and the bible

Over on the blog Quaker Glimmerings there is a great discussion going based on the post entitled "Why Quakerism isn't Evangelical Christianity." I think QuakerK, the author of Quaker Glimmerings, makes some excellent points, and although I grew up in an evangelical Friends community, I too sometimes wonder if one can concurrently be evangelical (as it is known today) and Quaker. However, I think Quakerism and Christianity definitely go together, and the early Friends were Christians in a form of radical discipleship few are willing to follow.

QuakerK suggests several points, so I will focus on the first today.

1. Early Quakers did not stress the Bible. Quite the contrary, they stressed that the scriptures were not the Word of God, but rather that Jesus was--and they got a lot of flack for this, too.

In some ways this statement is true: Quakers stressed that it is Jesus who was (and is) the Word of God, present and revealing truth to them through the Spirit. Christ as present teacher is more important than the Bible, but the Bible to the early Friends was still the Word of God, and the Word of God who is Christ and the written Word wouldn't contradict one another. Sometimes we don't understand the appropriate reading of a text and so the Spirit illumines it for us, interprets what is meant for one cultural setting but not our own, or helps us understand something which has been misunderstood for centuries (e.g. slavery). The Bible isn't God, but it is a record of people's experiences of God throughout history, and I think a majority of early Friends would have agreed that God somehow speaks through this text in a way that is unique from how God speaks through other texts.

I don't see it as true that early Friends didn't stress the Bible, however. It is said that George Fox practically had the Bible memorized. He read it often and used its principles in his teaching and preaching. The beginning of Quakerism, as I said in my initial comment to the Quaker Glimmerings post, was when Fox heard God speak to him, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition." I think if I heard this I would start reading everything I could find about this "Christ Jesus" person, and texts that told me about him would tend to be fairly important to me. And I think that was true for Fox. As I read the Journal I see biblical references interspersed throughout the entire thing. Even when he doesn't quote the Bible directly he makes allusions to biblical concepts, stories and persons.

The same can be said for most other early Quaker authors. In college for my History and Doctrine of Friends class I read part of William Penn's "No Cross, No Crown," and could hardly wade through it because of all the quotations from the Bible. I also took a Quaker Seminar on early female Friends authors, and we read many of their pamphlets and journals, collected in a book called "Hidden in Plain Sight," compiled and edited at Earlham School of Religion. In all of these there are massive amounts of quotes and paraphrases of Bible verses. It is almost as if the early Friends who wrote these pieces knew the Bible so well that it was just a part of their everyday language. They don't stop to say, "This is from Matthew 5:9," because it's also from their heart and soul. It's a part of who they are.

And yet, at the same time, I think evangelical Friends today could do well to remember that the Bible IS NOT God. The Bible isn't revelation, it isn't God incarnate, it isn't the Spirit, it's just a book. It's a book like any other book--except maybe more dangerous than most--unless it is read through the illumination of the Spirit. God uses it to speak to us still today, but it is only one way God can speak. The people who wrote it down were human, the people who copied it were human, the people who decided which books and which versions of books to canonize were human, the people who translate them for us are human...and yet amazingly, through all this, God can still use it as God's Word! But it isn't God's only Word, or even God's most important Word--just a witness to the Word who is Jesus.

If my theology professors saw this they would cringe--so I guess Quakers are still getting a lot of flack for this idea that Jesus, as the true Word of God, can speak to us in other ways than through the Bible.

QuakerK, thanks so much for your post! It's a great discussion starter, with lots of good points to consider.

Coming up: Quakers and universalism, physical resurrection of Jesus, atonement theories, and "tone" of early Friends vs. any Friends today. I'm looking forward to this! =)


Joe G. said...

I'm looking forward to it, too! Nice start! I think it makes some good distinctions that confront contemporary Friends of all stripes. For example, the Bible was not considered the "word of God" (Evangelical Friends). But, neither was the Bible ignored or de-emphasized (liberal Friends). Groovy! Thanks for your writing!

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Cherice, this is a fine posting. Nearly all of what you say here I gladly affirm & concur with.

I would like to make a minor correction, though, regarding your statement that "...the Bible to the early Friends was still the Word of God...." There are many places in the writings of leading early Friends where they state explicitly that the Bible is not the Word of God. For example:

They asked me whether the Scripture was the word of God; I said God was the word, and the Scriptures were writings; and the word was before writings were, which word did fulfill them. (George Fox, the "Short Journal", describing experiences in 1653)

The Scriptures are not that living Word, which is appointed by God to be the rule of a Christian; but they contain words spoken by the spirit of God, testifying of that Word, and pointing to that Word which is to be the rule. (Isaac Penington, The Way of Life and Death Made Manifest and Set Before Men... [1658])

...We own not the said alterable and much altered outward text, but the holy truth and inward light and spirit to be the Word of God, which is living [and] the true touchstone....
(Samuel Fisher, "Preface to the Reader", Rusticus ad Academicos ... The Rustick's Alarm to the Rabbies, Or The Country Correcting the University and Clergy... [1660])

QuakerK said...

It is very true that early Quaker writings are rife with Biblical allusions. I've read the Bible, in fact read it regularly, but I don't get half, or probably even a quarter, of the references. But what strikes me about the way early Quakers used the Bible is something you refer to as well, Cherice: that they had in a sense internalized it. It was not an external guide to be refered to; they had, in a sense, absorbed it into themselves so they could now live it rather than quote it. How typical that was for the time, I don't know (I don't mean familiarity with the Bible, which was obviously very common, I mean the way it was used). And whether that is "typical" of evangelical Christianity today I am also perhaps not qualified to say, although the bits I've read and the services I've attended tended to me to stress the "Bible as authoritative text" model rather than the "Bible as lived experience" model. But certainly, given the Quaker emphasis on the Living Spirit, and the Spirit as lived, internalizing the Bible and making it part of your own identity, as it were, makes sense from a Quaker perspective.

I'm looking forward to your future posts, Cherice.


Albion said...

So....."Early Friends did not stress the Bible"......WOW.

I've lately read an awful lot of George Fox, Margaret Fell (Fox), William Penn, and other 'weighty Friends' and ALL of them quoted the Bible extensively.

They (the early Friends) were living in 16th and 17th Century Britian, a place of Bible literacy for sure.

It was almost like speaking a second language for them, they knew it (the Bible) intimately, and they used it constantly.

They were, after all, Followers of Jesus the Christ, and believed in Him as the Living Word.....but they knew that his earthly life lived out in ancient Palestine, was right the Bible.

And they successfuly quoted the Old Testament, as well as the New (Testament).

These were people who were deeply steeped in the Bible, and if you want my opinion, so should we be.

QuakerK needs to visit the New Foundation Fellowship website...and take a new look at Early Friends.

In the Light of Christ, Albion