28 September 2008
Scripture: Essential, or Not Essential?
I am often told by Christians of various sorts that the Bible is "essential" to the following of Christianity; that without the written Scriptures, you cannot be a Christian. This is certainly the explicit position of most Protestants, especially those who believe that the mouth of God is stopped shut, and that the written Scriptures are the only way in which he communicates with us today. This is an interesting belief, but one which was explicitly rejected by the founders of the Religious Society of Friends, who looked to a different Teacher for their primary guidance. Like those earlier Friends, I value the Scriptures highly, and I read something out of them most every day. I believe that the inspired Holy Scriptures are one of the ways that God communicates with His church, and are absolutely the best outward guide for obtaining right knowledge of God. But helpful as the Scriptures have always been, the foundational, original, and traditional Friends' faith and practice has never regarded having them as obligatory for maintaining right relationship with God, for Quakers or anyone else. The "sure foundation" of our Christian faith is not and has never been the Scriptures, but was and remains the Inward Light of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One who has come to teach His people Himself.
This is an important point because lots of Friends are muddle-headed about this. Sometimes they tell me that we shouldn't point this out, because other people will misunderstand the fine and subtle distinction we make, and be led astray. To which I start muttering under my breath, "So when did we become the smartest people in the world?"
Sometimes they tell me that we should be careful not to think about it much, because we might confuse ourselves and end up devaluing the Scriptures entirely in our efforts not to overemphasize them, and be led astray. Then I start muttering again: "So now we've become the dumbest people in the world, too?"
Mostly they just fret and chew their lips, because lots of times the truth is that they just don't much like the idea that such a convenient and commonly-accepted outward tool as Scripture might not be the central pillar of the Christian church. They've already been led astray, for crying out loud.
Mutter, mutter, mutter.
With respect to Holy Scripture, I suggest that the traditional words of the earliest Friends be kept in mind: Scripture is "not absolutely necessary." An excellent suggestion I read once was to describe Holy Scripture as "not of the essence." Another excellent summary was to simply state that they were "insufficient."
Robert Barclay was a 17th century Scottish Friend who wrote foundational works on doctrinal Quakerism that have never been equaled. He's often quoted for his statements about Scripture in his famous 1678 book, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. After describing the value of the Scriptures for history, prophecy, and Christian doctrine, Barclay's Third Proposition "Concerning the Scriptures" reads:
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 . . . therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.
So far, so good: very clear, and often quoted. Most all non-FUM/Evangelical Friends will agree with this foundational document of the Society that Scripture is useful and valuable and secondary to the Inward Light. (Conservative Friends will further specify it as the Inward Light of Jesus Christ.) But the devil is in the details, as the Frenchman said, and the biggest detail here is called "inessential." Because while our earliest generation of Christian Friends held that Scripture was valuable, and important, and contained highly useful truths, they were united in the idea that it was not essential to have it, read it, or understand it to be acceptable to the God who it was written about.
Don't misunderstand me here—I and those earliest Friends are in agreement that if the Scriptures have genuinely been made available by God to a person, then upon going through them the followers of Jesus Christ should recognize him there, no matter what they call him or what sort of strange rococo accompanies their worship. But many people have been exposed to interpretations of Scripture that talk about a Jesus Christ that I've never met—one who is completely unrecognizable to me. I know people who consider themselves doctrinal Christians who have very little of Christ in their beliefs. So please understand me when I say I'm not talking about that stuff. If you want to be a Christian, and the Scriptures are made available to you in a true and intelligible way, then you should certainly take full advantage of them in their supporting role.
But back to Barclay and whether Scripture is or is not "essential," please. The Scotsman had a lot to say about Scripture in his propositions on "Immediate Revelation" and "Universal Redemption by Christ" that wasn't contained in the one entitled "Concerning the Scriptures." More people quote Barclay briefly than read him carefully, but he had great insight on the subject. Please bear with me and slog through this hoary passage:
But if we shall make a right definition of a Christian, according to the Scripture, videlicit, That he is one that hath the spirit of Christ, and is led by it, how many Christians, yea, and of these great masters and doctors of Christianity, so accounted, shall we justly divest of that noble title? If then such as have all the other means of knowledge, and are sufficiently learned therein, whether it be the letter of the Scripture, the traditions of churches, or the works of creation and providence, whence they are able to deduce strong and undeniable arguments (which may be true in themselves), are yet not to be esteemed Christians, according to the certain and infalliable definition above mentioned; and if the inward and immediate revelation of God's Spirit in the heart, in such as have been altogether ignorant of some, and but very little skilled in others, of these means of attaining knowledge, hath brought them to salvation; then it will necessarily and evidently follow, that inward and immediate revelation is the only sure and certain way to attain the true and saving knowledge of God.
May I translate?
1) Scripture itself defines a true Christian to be a person who has the spirit of Christ, and is led by it.
2) Possession of the letter of Scripture and of tradition will not make a person a Christian, as many "great masters and doctors of Christianity" don't qualify for the honor.
3) People today and in the past who have experienced inward and immediate revelation of God's Spirit in the heart have been saved, even though they have been ignorant of or unlearned in Scripture and tradition.
In other words, Barclay's position is that first, merely possessing, studying, and learning the Bible and its doctrines does not ensure right relationship with God. Second, that people without Scripture but with inward revelation of God's spirit can and have achieved that relationship. And therefore, that inward and immediate revelation is "the only sure and certain way" of salvation. Scripture, according to Barclay, can't do it without inward revelation, but inward revelation can and does do it without Scripture.
Barclay goes on:
“NOT A QUESTION OF WHAT IS BENEFICIAL, BUT OF WHAT IS ESSENTIAL
IV. However, this should not be understood as a claim that the other means of knowledge of God are useless and of no service to man. This will be clear from what is said of the scriptures in the next proposition. The question is not what may be profitable or helpful, but what is absolutely necessary. [The bolding is mine, folks.] Many things may contribute to the furtherance of a work without being the essential thing that makes the work go on. In summary, what has been said amounts to stating that where true inward knowledge of God exists through the revelation of his Spirit, everything essential is there, and there is no absolute necessity for anything else. But where the best, highest, and most profound knowledge exists without the revelation of his Spirit, there is nothing, so far as the great object of salvation is concerned.
Barclay here says first, that Scripture is useful, and helpful (I agree), but "not absolutely necessary" to provide revelatory knowledge of God, which he has already said in the first passage is what brings people to salvation. He next says the revelation of the Spirit is sufficient, and nothing else is "absolutely necessary." Lastly he says that even where the best and highest knowledge exists (which will be Scripture) without the revelation of his Spirit, there is no salvation. Scripture, according to Robert Barclay, is "not absolutely necessary," but inward revelation alone, even without it, is absolutely certain. These are the Scotsman's words, not mine.
Early Friends were very concerned not to fall into a mistaken reliance only on Holy Scripture, which all their enemies were quoting against them, daily. They pointed out repeatedly that it was not “absolutely necessary,” and that “Christ was sufficient” without it. Read these short quotes from our human founders:
You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of light and hast thou walked in the light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God? Margaret Fell, on George Fox
For though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation, as he who hath the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his Son by his spirit. George Fox
And if there was no scripture for our men's and women's meetings, Christ is sufficient...he is our rock and our foundation to build upon. George Fox
I can declare unto you...that this gospel order...I neither received it of man neither was I taught it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. George Fox
But I looked upon the Scriptures to be my rule, and so would weigh the inward appearances of God to me by what was outwardly written; and durst not receive anything from God immediately, as it sprang from the fountain, but only in that mediate way. Herein did I limit the Holy One of Israel, and exceedingly hurt my own soul, as I afterwards felt, and came to understand. Isaac Penington
Christ has tasted death for every man, which knowledge we willingly confess to be very profitable and comfortable, but not absolutely needful unto such, from whom God himself hath withheld it. Robert Barclay
And although Scripture is extremely valuable to the daily functioning of our Christian body, here also we should not confuse what is absolutely helpful with what is absolutely necessary. With respect to Conservative Friends tradition, John Wilbur very early cautioned us not to rely on Holy Scripture for important details of our daily walk with God that the Holy Spirit expected us to receive from Him directly:
1st. Can the Scriptures, or did they ever, save anyone without the spirit?
2nd. Is a person called to do the work of the ministry by the Scriptures, or by the spirit of Jesus Christ?
3rd. Is a man brought under a concern to go from one place to another to preach the gospel, by the Scriptures, or by the constraining power of the spirit and love of Jesus Christ?
4th. And when he is arrived at the place assigned, and is assembled with the people, is it not the spirit of Christ that truly unfolds the Scriptures, and brings to view the state of men, either in the words of Scripture, or in some other suitable language?
5th. And when a professed minister preaches in any of our meetings, his doctrines not being repugnant to the letter of the Scriptures, are the elders or others to judge by the Scriptures, or by the Spirit of Truth, whether his ministry is from the right spring or not?
6th. Did not the Jews think they had eternal life in the Scriptures, and yet would not come unto Christ that they might have life?”
And our True Founder and True Guide, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, was quite emphatic about whether Scripture was of the essence, sufficient, or absolutely necessary:
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life: and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40.)
All these selections from the actual words of early Friends, John Wilbur, and that Jesus guy himself, indicate to me the nature of what early and traditional Friends have always believed. Christian Friends have always acknowledged that Scripture is helpful and important, and should never be ignored by those who have access to it and are willing to read it in the Spirit. But our Christian Society has understood and publicly held from the very beginning, not just that Scripture is secondary to the revelations of the Holy Spirit, but that first, Scripture alone is an insufficient guide to important--and essential--aspects of the daily life of a Christian, and second, that the Holy Spirit can choose to provide sufficient guidance to Christian living and ultimately to salvation, without Scripture. The possession, reading, study, and understanding of the Bible is recommended, but is not required by Jesus Christ as a precondition for turning to Him, being accepted, living as a Christian, growing towards perfection, and achieving salvation in His Light.
Mutter, mutter, mutter.