by Jack Smith, Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) 2007
“The Word Of God” — The various meanings of this important phrase illustrate the range of theological diversity that exists among those who call themselves Friends or Quakers.
Universalist Friends do not even agree that there is a Word of God, with some of these Friends denying its. reality altogether. The use of the Bible is much reduced among these Friends and even suppressed in some ways.
Evangelical Friends insist that the Bible is the Word of God, making it the final authority for all matters of faith. This is the position of all Protestant denominations. English Friend Joseph John Gurney in the mid 19th century had a major role in its acceptance among some Friends. As these Friends accepted this understanding, it was the source of considerable change in the faith and practice of those groups influenced by it, resulting in the introduction of a paid clergy, a programmed worship service with the preaching from the Word (the Bible) as they understood it, Sunday Schools where there was teaching about the Bible etc.
Conservative Friends resisted these changes in belief and practice, preferring to continue the faith and practices that had come down to them over the centuries largely intact. Conservative Friends, like the original Friends, believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God and that this Word inspired the writers of the Bible. We feel comfortable with the theology of Barclay’s Apology, including his section on the Bible. We note that the word “Bible” does not occur anywhere between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21 but that word used for these writings is “Scriptures” which term is what Jesus also used.
To further explore our topic, we can first examine what George Fox wrote about this topic followed by a bit from William Penn. Then we can spend some time on Barclay’s Apology before moving on to the understanding and use of the Bible among Conservative Friends today.
Early Friends’ Understanding Of The Scriptures
George Fox. Although a greatly capable, intelligent and gifted person, George Fox, as most people in his era, only had a rudimentary education compared to modern standards. Yet he has left behind extensive writings in eight volumes from which his beliefs can be determined. William Penn is the opposite, being relatively well educated for his day. He wrote a little volume entitled “Rise and Progress of the People called Quakers”. After describing Friends’ distinctives in the first half of the book, Penn turns to Fox, leaving the most comprehensive narrative describing him, based on what Penn describes as a “long and most inward converse and intimate knowledge of him.” (p. 62) Penn conveys that Fox “had an extraordinary gift in opening the Scriptures. He would go to the marrow of things, and show the mind, harmony and fulfilling of them with much plainness, and to much comfort and edification.” (p. 71) Frequent themes for Fox that Penn notes were “the mystery of the first and second Adam, of the fall and restoration, of the law and the gospel, of shadows and substance, of the servants and son’s state and the fulfilling of the scriptures in Christ and by Christ, the true Light”. (p. 71) Fox was very knowledgeable of the Scriptures, It was said that were the Scriptures lost, they could be recovered from Fox’s memory of them. Fox used the King James Version, which was recent in Fox’s day, and also used the older Geneva Bible.
To begin our investigation of Fox’s understanding of the Scriptures, it is clear that Fox considered Jesus Christ to be the Word of God and not the Bible. In Fox’s Epistle 249 written in 1667, Fox says “for the Scriptures of Truth are the words of God and the words of Christ,….so the Word was in the beginning, and Christ’s name is called the Word of God. But Christ is neither called scripture nor writings, for scriptures signify writings.” In Epistle 313, written in 1674, Fox quotes 2nd Timothy 3:16-7. In Epistle 316 (1675) he states, “and faith comes by hearing of the Word, by which all things were made and created, by which all things are upheld….which Word was in the beginning with God and God was the Word. Which Word became flesh and dwelt among us, who beheld his Glory, the Glory…of the only begotten Son of God, who is risen, whom you now come to hear and see; and not only so, but come to be partakers of his Glory and of his resurrection.”
In Douglas Gwyn’s important text Apocalypse of the Word he states, “It is perhaps Fox’s most valuable contribution that he rejoins the Spirit and the Word in prophetic experience of the risen Christ. While he presents Jesus Christ as the one Word of God, present and teaching by his Spirit, he places scripture, the historical record of the Word’s work, as the words of God. The true Word is the Christ who is speaking now.”
While Fox makes this witness with searing polemics against his Puritan opponents, we should not gather that he belittles scripture. He records in his journal that ‘I had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, but they were very precious to me, for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth, and what the Lord opened in me I later found was agreeable to them’. His knowledge of scripture was legendary; when he preached hearers said’ they had never heard the scriptures so clearly opened before, for said they ‘he hath them at his fingers’ ends as if a man should read them in a book and hold it open before him.”
Conservative Friends continue to believe as Fox did concerning the Word of God and the words of God and the use of Scripture. Fox wrote in his Journal “And I saw that none could read John’s words aright 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.”
William Penn wrote a little book called Advice to His Children, from which we can obtain a view into the attitudes of early Friends regarding many aspects of their life, including the use of Scripture. Penn states that from his youth he loved to read “the holy scriptures of Truth,” which “were blessed to me and which I charge you to read daily; the Old Testament for history chiefly, the psalms for meditation and devotion; the prophets for comfort and hope; but especially the new testament for doctrine, faith and worship.”
Robert Barclay. Barclay’s Apology was considered such a complete, well-developed theology by many generations of Friends that until recent times none have attempted to write a newer version. Plus, over the years Friends faith has had a strong experiential component that there has been a lesser interest in theology. This attitude has shifted in more recent times with a Friend, Wilmer Cooper, with Conservative Friends roots in this yearly meeting studying at Yale Divinity School and receiving a Ph. D. in theology. He was the founding Dean at ESR, and more recently in 1990 published a book, A Living Faith, that uses a theological framework to examine the various strands of faith among Friends. Let’s begin this section by looking at Barclay’s views about the Scriptures, drawing from his third section (or Proposition as he terms it), “Concerning the Scriptures”:
From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints, have proceeded the scriptures of truth, which contain,
I. A faithful historical account of the actings of God’s people in divers ages, with many singular and remarkable providences attending them.
II. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come
III. 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. Yet because they give 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 proceeded from the Spirit; therefore also the Spirit is more originally and principally the rule.
Although Barclay places the Spirit of Christ as the Source and therefore primary basis for our faith, it should not be concluded that Barclay undervalued or desired that the Scriptures be ignored. Quite the contrary. In answering the assertion that Friends consider the Scriptures “are uncertain or useless” he writes that “we affirm them” and “what high rate we value them, accounting them, without all deceit or equivocation, the most excellent writings in the world; to which not only no other writings are to be preferred, but even in diverse respects not comparable thereto.” Barclay considers “the use of them to be very comfortable and necessary to the church of Christ.” “The Scriptures authority and certainty depend upon the Spirit by which they were dictated.”
For Barclay, the Spirit of the Living Christ is the primary or principle source of our faith. As Conservative Friends, this differentiates us from other Christians. To make a very generalized statement to illustrate this, for the Roman Catholics and other Orthodox groups, Christ went to heaven and left behind an institution the Church as having primary authority on earth. For the Protestants, Christ went heaven and left a book, the Bible, behind which is the primary source of authority of earth. For present day Conservative Friends, like the early Friends, Christ is an ever-present reality to be experienced as the Living Presence among us and the foundation on which we build our faith.
However, Barclay does see Scripture as a source of authority among Friends, secondary but not in opposition to the Spirit of Christ. How does this play out? Because both the Scriptures and the divine revelations experienced by individuals and groups come from the same source, they are compatible and in unison. Barclay states” these divine and inward revelations do not and cannot contradict the Scriptures of Truth”. Further, concerning doctrines, Barclay states that “whatsoever doctrine is contrary to their testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false. And for our parts, we are very willing that all our doctrines and practices be tried by them”. In sum, Barclay affirms the great benefit for Friends in the ongoing use of Scriptures, as a resource for us as we seek to know and follow the presence of the Living Word of God.
The Bible Among Conservative Friends
It is now time to further consider how Conservative Friends have maintained this understanding and practice in an unbroken stream that goes back to the first generation Friends. Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline includes a set of advices, to which we pay attention. Advice #16 opens with “Be diligent in the reading of the Bible and other spiritually helpful writings.” Conservative Friends today continue to value and use the Bible in a variety of ways:
- Monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting business sessions begin with a period of waiting worship, followed by a reading from Scripture before the business is begun.
- Upon the conclusion of evening programs at yearly meeting, a chapter of Scripture is read, followed by a period of waiting worship.
- We understand our gathering together for worship to be times to collectively wait upon the Lord in expectant listening, for His moving among us. As any are moved to minister, they do so, often using Scripture as an aid to the spoken message to keep us on track and as an anchor to prevent us from drifting from what was given us to speak. Through the Scriptures Friends find the Scriptures of Truth to be an aid to our walk with the Lord, including in worship.
- We continue to practice a traditional type of group Bible reading, where we gather, as in meeting for worship, in the presence of the divine Inspiration that gave forth the Scriptures. As different Friends are moved to read from Scripture they do so, without introduction or explanation of what was read, allowing the Word present to minister to us about what has been read.
- Many individuals and families have a regular time for the daily reading of the Bible.
- Some Meetings have a Bible study group in which a passage is read together and then discussed.