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Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit

I've been reading a lot about the history of Christianity lately, and also following various threads in Quaker blogs and message boards about a number of tensions people see in Quakerism. The tensions in Quakerism echo those through Christian history: some folks are most interested in Tradition, some are most interested in Scripture, and others are most interested in Spirit. Most everyone values all three of those on some level, but the prioritization is often very different.

(Yes, this three-part division is abstract, though I still find it helpful.)

Looking back over the grand divisions of Christianity, and oversimplifying drastically, the Catholic and Orthodox approaches have explicitly valued Apostolic Tradition, though built on Scripture and with room for Spirit. In the Protestant Reformation the reformers catapulted Scripture to the top, then divided amongst themselves over how much Tradition to retain and what Scripture actually meant. Spirit is still present, though often the Word (per John 1 and elsewhere) seems to be treated as the Word of Scripture, and Spirit often primarily validates Scripture.

I see Quakerism as having followed the third path, emphasizing Spirit. Early Friends were steeped in Scripture, but more willing than the Anglicans or even the Puritans to jettison existing church Traditions. They did, of course, develop their own new Traditions quite quickly after throwing off the old.

None of these religious groups completely excludes Tradition, Scripture, or Spirit; it's more about which gets priority when. Quakerism, while it is likely best defined by the priority it gives the Spirit, still contains Tradition and Scripture.

Within Quakerism - surfacing in the Quaker messageboard and blogs I follow, more than in the Meeting I attend - people seem to be fighting over the proper relation of these three components. To over-generalize once again:

  • Some people see the Spirit, the Light, as the key feature of Quakerism, and the notion that the Light is Christ or is connected to Scripture is just unfortunate Tradition.

  • Some people see the Light as dimmed terribly when removed from the Scriptures, and some of those people add Tradition and doctrine from more other Protestant perspectives as well. (Some people also want to subtract existing Quaker Tradition.)

  • Some people value Quaker Tradition and practice, but have less interest in the possibilities the Light opens, while others see Tradition as a barrier to fruitful connection with the Spirit. (The latter seem better represented on blogs, and I doubt anyone is completely uninterested in the Light anyway.)

Personally, I see all three of these pieces working together, with the Spirit mediating Scripture and Tradition. I enjoy reading the early Quakers' works and watching them figure out how these three pieces fit together, and how to live by that. Their direct dealing with all of these tensions created a group that has survived three and a half centuries so far, despite the tremendous potential for splits and schisms that always seems to be created by humans' difficulties in discerning the Spirit.

Maybe it's just the nature of blogging and messageboards, but it feels like a lot of people despair about the current state of Quakerism, since it doesn't meet their expectations of what it should be. My own perspective is that it should - and can - be a lot of different things.

Balancing these three pieces in their myriad facets is never an easy thing, and as Quakerism in key ways abolished the laity, we all - as ministers - have to work through them, hopefully with guidance from the Light.



I appreciate the way you lay out the three different emphases in Christianity. They're certainly a helpful framework, perhaps more so than the "liberal/nurturant // conservative/strict" frame that Borg (theology) or Lakoff (politics) use. Having only two categories risks falling into dualism and scapegoating the "other."

That said, your use of the word "fighting" to describe the discussions on Quaker blogs stood out to me. I would call it more often discussion, and sometimes argument. On the blogs, at least, the conversations tend to be very respectful. I have noticed, maybe especially so on Brooklyn Quaker, that if people react to something with hurt feelings, then the original poster makes an effort to tease out the original point. (I don't read the boards much so I won't generalize there.) There may still be disagreement and conflict, but my impression is that it's about honestly working to understand divergent viewpoints, rather than fighting.

I'm glad you like the three-part division. I think part of what drove writing it is that I don't find the liberal / conservative distinction particularly meaningful in a religious context. These categories aren't that much more nuanced, but the three pieces can combine in more ways than the two.

On the 'fighting', I agree that most of the conversation on blogs is respectful even in controversy. (Hopefully it will stay that way here, too.) The boards are generally more fiery, despite the best efforts of their owner/moderators, and mailing lists often seem to have similar issues.

Today I heard someone say that tension is a sign that something is *happening*: we often want it to go away because it's uncomfortable, but if we can live in that tension, we'll see God move in amazing ways. Isn't it interesting to see the tension rising on the blogosphere? I wonder if it's the same in our meetings: I know my meeitng's a bit unsettled - people seem to be antsy for the Spirit!

A helpful analogy for me is a three-legged stool with the legs being personal experience with God, scriptural experience with God, and community experience with God. If one of them is emphasized more (i.e. a longer leg), then the stool is lopsided. If I were handy with tools and such, I could probably talk about how hard it is to build something that's level, but I write, so I'll leave that up to folks at the Yankee Workshop. :)

It is written that good things (or is it bad?) come in threes. That is certainly what my mother used to tell me while telling me that she learned it from her own mother. And so it seems to be opened to me.

Nice work, Simon.

Timothy Travis
Bridge City Friends Meeting
Portland, Oregon

It is indeed unfortunate what the orthodox church has come too, by rejecting the word of God and using the tradition cover-up, this church has long been dead and incorporated all kinds of gross heretical idolatry and blinded the gospel from it's people.

The only authority and seed by which men grow in the fullness and stature of Christ is Gods word, which in its original autographs are the absolute exact word for word, letter for letter, intentional written document by the God himself, as he used his holy prophets to do so. This canon of truth comprised within the current 66 books of the bible is the only authority within the christian church, and by which the holy spirit builds up the believer to whom salvation is already given.