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April 30, 2006

Reading Scriptures in the Spirit

When biblical literalists question Quakers about how they read the Bible, a common response is to cite Robert Barclay's Apology's third proposition, where Barclay declares that:

Nevertheless, because [the Scriptures] 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.

While I find "only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself" to be a useful description, Barclay's presentation is very theological, and sometimes feels, well, remote. Fox's Journal offers a much more detailed explanation of the hazards of reading scripture without the Spirit:

I saw the state of those, both priests and people, who, in reading the scriptures, cry out much against Cain, Esau, 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. 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, the Esau, &c. For then they saw the nature of wild Ishmael in themselves; the nature of Cain, Easu, Corah, Balaam, and of the son of perdition in themselves, sitting about all that is called God in them.

So I saw, it was the fallen man that was got up into the scriptures, and was finding fault with those before mentioned; and with the backsliding Jews, calling them the sturdy oaks, tall cedars, fat bulls of Bashan, wild heifers, vipers, serpents, &c. and charging them, that it was they that closed their eyes, stopped their ears, hardened their hearts, and were dull of hearing; that it was they that hated the light, rebelled against it, quenched the spirit, vexed and grieved it, walked despitefully against the spirit of grace, and turned the grace of God into wantonness; that it was they that resisted the holy ghost, got the form of godliness, and turned against the power; and that they were the inwardly ravening wolves who had got the sheep's clothing; and that they were the wells without water, clouds without rain, trees without fruit, &c. But when these, who were so much taken up with finding fault in others, and thought themselves clear from these things, came to look into themselves, and with the light of Christ thoroughly to look into themselves, and with the light of Christ thoroughly to search themselves, they might see enough of this in themselves; then the cry could not be, it is he or they, but I and we are found in these conditions.

I saw also how people read the scriptures without a right sense of them, and without duly applying them to their own states. For when they read, that death reigned from Adam to Moses; that the law and the prophets were until John; and that the least in the kingdom is greater than John; they read these things without them, and applied them to others, (and the things were true of others,) but they did not turn in to find the truth of these things in themselves. As these things were opened in me, I saw death reigned over them from Adam to Moses; from the entrance into transgression, till they came to the ministration of condemnation, which restrains people from sin that brings death. When the ministration of Moses is passed through, the ministry of the prophets comes to be read and understood, which reaches through the figures, types, and shadows into John, the greatest prophet born of a woman; whose ministration prepares the way of the Lord, by bringing down the exalted mountains, and making straight paths. As this ministration is passed through, an entrace comes to be known into the everlasting kingdom.

I saw plainly, that none could read Moses aright without Moses's spirit, by which he saw how man was in the image of God in paradise, how he fell, how death came over him, and how all men have been under this death. I saw how Moses received the pure law, that went over all transgressors; and how the clean beasts, which were the figures and types, were offered up, when the people were come into the righteous law that went over the first transgression.

I saw that none could read John's words aright, and with a true understanding of them, but in and with the same divine spirit by which John spake them; and by his burning, shining light which is sent from God. For by that spirit their crooked natures might be made straight, their rough natures, smooth, and the exacter and violent doer in them might be cast out; and those that had been hypocrites might come to bring forth fruits meet for repentance, and their mountain of sin and earthliness might be laid low, 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 wilderness in their hearts, which through transgression were to become a wilderness. Thus I saw it was an easy matter to say, death reigned from Adam to Moses; and that the law and the prophets were until John; and that the least in the kingdom is greater than John; but none could know how death reigned from Adam to Moses &c. but by the same holy spirit which Moses, the prophets, and John were in.

They could not know the spiritual meaning of Moses, the prophets, and John's words, nor see their path and travels, much less to see through them, and to the end of them into the kingdom, unless they had the spirit and light of Jesus; nor could they know the words of Christ and his apostles without his spirit. But as man comes through by the spirit and power of God to Christ, (who fulfils the types, figures, shadows, promises, and prophecies that were of him,) and is led by the holy ghost into the truth and substance of the scriptures, sitting down in him who is the author and end of them, then they are read and understood with profit and delight.

(Nickalls, 30-32; Works, Volume I, 87-89.)

The words on the page are not, by themselves, enough to enlighten us, however much we may hope for that. We must instead allow ourselves to be led by the spirit - a spirit separate from our fallen nature, the same spirit which animated the writing of scripture - as we read the scriptures. Reading and study will take people into the words, but not into "the light of Christ thoroughly to look into themselves". With the spirit, however, the scriptures "are read and understood with profit and delight."

George Fox's Journal

There are several editions of George Fox's Journal available. I mentioned the one in the Works of George Fox, which is substantially similar to the one published by Penguin. A version of the Journal edited by Rufus Jones is available online.

I'm generally using John L. Nickalls' edition of the Journal of George Fox, which includes a lot of material that was left out of the earlier editions, and marks where material was added.

April 26, 2006

Letter from Worcester Prison

Fox wrote letters long and short, and reading them in series often finds me falling into patterns as his thoughts echo back and forth. Here's a short and general one, connecting many common threads of his thought, written from prison in 1673.

Dear friends,—All be faithful in the eternal power of God that is over all; I say, keep in this power of God, that you may answer that of God in all, and not that which is contrary; for the kingdom standeth in power, and in righteousness, and joy in the holy ghost: so that which doth not live in the power, and righteousness, and joy in the holy ghost, cometh not into the kingdom. So this kingdom, and power, and righteousness, and holy ghost, in which is the joy, is over all; and this kingdom standeth not in word, but in power. So know one another in the power, and in the spirit of God, (who is a spirit,) know and confess Christ in his death and sufferings, and in his resurrection. So no more but my love in him. G. F. Worcester Prison, the 21st of the 9th month, 1673.

(From Volume VIII of the Works, page 54, letter CCCIII.)

April 22, 2006

Fixing the Spirit

I've been reading Paul Tillich's A History of Christian Thought. I'm not reading it to learn about Quakerism specifically, but every now and then Quakerism comes up. It's not always flattering, but it's certainly provocative. Take, for example, this passage from page 40:

The Montanists believed that they represented the period of the Paraclete [Holy Spirit], following the periods of the Father and the Son. The sectarian revolutionary movements in the church have generally made the same claim; they represent the age of the Spirit.

It happens, however, that when the attempt is made to fix the content of what the Spirit teaches, the result is extreme poverty. This happened, for example, to the Quakers after their initial ecstatic period. When the content is fixed it turns out that there is nothing new, or what is new is more or less some form of rational moralism. This happened to George Fox and his followers, and to all ecstatic sects. In the second generation, they become rational, moralistic, and legalistic; the ecstatic element disappears; not much remains that is creative compared to the classical period of apostolic Christianity.

Some of that isn't very friendly, or Friendly, yet there is some degree of truth to it, if not "extreme poverty". Quakerism has certainly changed since its earliest proclamations during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. Frederick Tolles' Meetinghouse and Countinghouse documents declining fervor in Philadelphia as Friends became more wrapped up in the world, though many returned to a more religious focus as they retreated from public life.

There are certainly people who gratefully view Quakerism as rational religion they can embrace despite their lack of interest in religious ecstasy, and who embrace silent meeting as a place of shared meditation more than worship.

And yet... there's definitely more still going on, and many Quakers who take the ecstatic side, the connection to the Spirit, very seriously, and not as a historic relic given only to the founders. Perhaps Quakers' general refusal to create easily documented and understood creeds - thereby not "fixing the content" - is part of why that aspect survives. Recent years have seen more interest in the ecstatic side of Fox and other early Quakers, especially as more complete versions of Fox's Journal have emerged to replace the somewhat rationalized version released by Fox's successors.

While I don't find Tillich's description adequate to describe the reasons I find Quakerism so compelling, it certainly provides a conversation starter that many Quakers may want to contemplate as a query, not an answer.