A Quaker Invitation to the Bibleby Susan S. Smith, Rockingham Monthly Meeting, Ohio Yearly Meeting
Quaker Faith Biblically BasedThere is no doubt that George Fox and the other first-generation Friends were well acquainted with the Bible. Wilmer Cooper writes that George Fox "and other Friends were not only familiar with the Bible, but took it seriously as a religious guide for their lives." (A Living Faith, p. 20) As T. Canby Jones notes in his introduction to Fox's pastoral letters, "George Fox knew the Bible so well the vast majority of things he expressed were in the language and style of Scriptures....The number of allusions to Scripture and the paraphrases of it [in Fox's writings] is enormous." (The Power of the Lord Is Over All, p. iv.) According to Dean Freiday, early Friends expected those allusions "to have a mnemonic effect, and not only to bring to mind the full text [of the scripture passage] but to bring a whole range of associations into the consciousness of [their] hearers." (Nothing without Christ, p. 66) George Keith, a 17th century associate of Robert Barclay's, wrote: "We have a two-fold evidence, which no heretic can justly lay claim to, The one is the inward evidence of the Spirit of God....The other is the Testimony of the Scriptures, which I affirm in the name of the people called Quakers, is the best external and outward evidence and rule that can be given." (in R. Barclay Works, p. 576, quoted in Freiday, p. 68) Early Friends were comfortable and familiar with the Bible.
Many modern Friends also claim the Bible as an important part of their religious experience. For most Friends in the Evangelical tradition, and for many Conservative Friends, "the Bible is very important in teaching, public ministry, personal growth, and guidance for everyday living. [These Friends] insist that God has been so engaged in the origin and transmission of the Bible that it reveals God's character and purposes....It may be fully human, but it is not merely human." (Howard Macy, at the 1997 FWCC consultation at Woodbrooke, England) Furthermore, the last few years have seen an increased participation in Bible workshops among liberal Friends, especially in some American yearly meetings.
Some Friends' Difficulties with the BibleNevertheless, many Friends, most of them from liberal yearly meetings, are unfamiliar with or critical of the Bible. Some Friends are bothered by the apparent inconsistencies between different passages in the Bible, or between events in the Bible and their own values. To others the Bible seems rather irrelevant, no more than a chronicle of ancient events in a faraway land. Some Friends cite earlier personal experiences in which they were hurt by biblical quotations being used as criticism of them. These various difficulties present significant problems and need to be addressed.
There are some Biblical stories which seem foreign or even repulsive to many Friends. We may be glad that the Israelites escaped from bondage in Egypt, but can we rejoice at the deaths of all of Pharaoh's chariot drivers and horsemen (Exodus 14)? Can we be pleased that Joshua's men destroyed with the edge of the sword all that was within the city of Jericho (Joshua 6)? What about the curses and requests for vengeance in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 109)? How do we deal with passages in the Bible that conflict with each other or with our own values, practices, and testimonies?
An exercise conducted with an interest group on the Bible, held during the 1997 FWCC Triennial, provided some intriguing answers to what Friends do when Biblical passages conflict with their testimonies. Group participants were asked what Bible passages related to the Friends' peace testimony. In response, a number of passages supporting non-violence were cited, such as "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9); "And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other" (Luke 6:29); "These things I command you, that you love one another" (John 15:17); "Put your sword back into its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matthew 26:52); and Isaiah's prophecy that "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). In contrast, scripture passages which apparently contradict non-violence were also mentioned: the various Old Testament episodes in which God commanded fighting and even provided for the deaths of many people; the destruction of Babylon in Revelation (Ch. 18); Jesus's own statement, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword," (Matthew 10:34) and his driving the merchants out of the temple (John 2:15).
What would Friends do with the evidence of conflict both within the Bible and between some scripture passages and Friends' dearly held peace testimony? Logic allows several ways to resolve a conflict. If A conflicts with B, one can change A to agree with B; change B to agree with A; or change both A and B to a third position.
As the group considered the peace testimony in light of those Biblical passages, only the first of those three ways of resolving conflict was evidenced. Several suggestions involved changing A, that is, reinterpreting a "violent" scripture passage to reduce its harshness. For example, it was suggested that Jesus didn't actually use the scourge he made when he drove the money-changers from the temple, or that he used it gently. Similarly, the destruction of Babylon was described as an allegory about what might happen spiritually, rather than as the physical deaths of real people. No Friend in that discussion suggested that the peace testimony should be abandoned, nor did anyone offer a reinterpretation of any passages which promote peace, although Christians in other groups have resolved that scriptural inconsistency by interpreting some passages to support violent conflict. Changing both violence and non-violence to a third position seems logically impossible and was not attempted.
Reinterpreting one set of conflicting scripture passages or the other is not the only way to resolve this dilemma. Other approaches involve ignoring either A or B, or ignoring the conflict altogether; that is, one can block out the evidence which conflicts with one's practices, or one can acknowledge both sets of evidence and ignore the conflict itself. Various Friends in the interest group used each of those approaches. Some people, for instance, suggested that the Bible was not relevant to whether Friends upheld the peace testimony. Friends' tradition alone or Friends' immediate leadings are sufficient reason to promote non-violence. Why worry about Bible passages? Other Friends, who had previously affirmed that the Bible is important to them, did not enter into the implied challenge of resolving this logical dilemma. For them both trusting the Bible and the practice of non-violence are basic elements of Friends' faith. They affirmed the peace testimony as essential while simultaneously maintaining their trust in the entire Bible.
In summary, this exercise demonstrated a variety of ways in which Friends deal with Biblical inconsistencies. Friends interpret passages to match their beliefs; they disregard passages which conflict with their beliefs; they reject the relevance of the entire Bible; they ignore inconsistencies and respond through faith. Although one person could use a combination of these approaches, individuals tend to maintain one point of view, especially when considering a given conflict.
Because of individual Friends' proclivity to stick with their own approach, the variety of ways in which we integrate our beliefs about the Bible and our other convictions becomes a source of mutual frustration. Friends tend to associate with other Friends who use similar approaches to resolving Biblical conflicts and to question the validity of the approaches they and their group do not use. When we meet with Friends of various persuasions to consider the place of the Bible in our faith, we have difficulty understanding the basis of some other approaches. Our discussions are often little more than increasingly vigorous reiterations of the respective points of view of those people present.
The Bible's Intellectual RelevanceDiscussions about the Bible are more profitable when they address ways for relating positively to the scriptures. Even though the Bible is set in another era, it holds historical, cultural, and personal relevance today. The Bible records centuries of God's work with people, including the responses of countless men and women to each other and to the prompting of God.
Some of the record in the Bible is simple history, useful in understanding the long chain of events which connects the early Hebrew tribes, through the kings and prophets, Jesus and His disciples, and the apostolic church, with early and thus with modern Friends. Some Biblical history, like some secular history, involves wars and other atrocities which we would prefer not to claim and which we desire not to repeat. However, our moral objection to those events does not negate their occurrence, nor does it relieve us of the obligation to acknowledge that thread in the tapestry of our religious background.
The connection between Friends and the happenings in the Bible is not only historical; it is also cultural. Almost all of the authors of significant Friends' writings as well as most European and English-speaking Friends today are products of the Judeo-Christian culture. Western cultures assume a singular, omnipotent God, even when individuals or philosophies within the culture argue against that divinity. Allusions to Biblical events and symbols have meaning in secular life: fig leaf, Noah's ark, Ten Commandments, wisdom of Solomon, patience of Job, walk on water, the good Samaritan. Although some western Friends have added to their lives elements of other religions, none of us can escape the formative influence of the culture described in the Bible. Our understanding of our culture is not complete without some familiarity with the Bible.
In addition to providing an awareness of the basis of our Judeo-Christian culture, the Bible offers many examples of individual people reacting with various emotions in interpersonal situations with which we can identify. Joseph's brothers were jealous of their father's attention to him; they plotted to get rid of Joseph (Genesis 37). David looked with sexual desire at the attractive wife of another man.(2 Samuel 11). Zacheus was curious about the man (Jesus) attracting a lot of attention in town (Luke 19: 2-7). The good Samaritan reacted with loving care for an injured stranger (Luke 10: 29-37).
In each of these cases, and in many other stories, the Bible suggests a lesson about what happens when people act on their feelings in certain ways. Although the progression of history makes the details of some biblical settings unfamiliar to many Friends, human and cultural similarities prevail enough for most of us to apply these lessons to ourselves today. Letting jealousy or sexual desire be our primary motivation is likely to get us into trouble. Acting on curiosity can lead to unexpected experiences. Loving the unloved may not bring immediate reward and may even cost us something, but we uphold loving care as commendable.
The Bible also presents a number of episodes in which people reacted to an impersonal situation or to a leading from God. A woman was joyful when she found something special she had thought lost (Luke 15: 8-9). Another woman was hopeful that touching Jesus's cloak would stop her bleeding (Matthew 9: 20-22). Peter leaned on intellectual analysis to refute a leading from God (Acts 10:6-16). Ananias also argued briefly with God, but he soon found trust and went where he had been sent (Acts 9: 10-18). We can relate to hope and joy. Identifying with Peter and Ananias can help us be obedient to the leadings we are given. By exploring these incidents and many others in the Bible, we can find pieces of truth that connect to our own experience and encourage us to walk more closely with God.
Ways of Exploring the BibleA person may become more acquainted with the Bible in many ways. Although some people simply start at the beginning of the Bible and read straight through, one has to be quite dedicated to complete that task. A modification of that method, which allows some choice of order, is to choose and read through one book of the Bible at a time, starting with those books that promise to be the most interesting. Alternatively, published guides are available which offer daily selections of related passages, allowing one to read the entire Bible in some number of years. Another method, which gives the Holy Spirit more immediate influence, is to open the book with little or no planning, perhaps aiming for some section such as the Psalms or the New Testament, and then read what one sees. Various Friends have borne testimony to the amazing efficacy of this last method, as they have found encouragement or answers to immediate problems embedded within the passage to which they opened.
Any of those methods for individual reading can also be profitably used by more than one adult at home, among two or three close friends, or with a few co-workers during a break at work. Establishing a regular daily time for Bible reading helps ward off competing demands for one's attention. Depending on the people involved and the time available, discussing what has been read may or may not be helpful.
Parents sometimes inquire how they can share the Bible with their children. The method chosen depends, of course, on the children's reading and comprehension abilities. Including a book of children's Bible stories among the other books read to young children makes a natural beginning. Some such children's Bible books are more consistent with Friends' beliefs than others. When children reach school age, the family can join together to read aloud from the Bible itself. Everyone can take a turn in choosing a selection or reading verses. Talking about the meaning of the story read and its application to present situations adds life to the process.
In addition to reading the Bible privately, within the family, and with a few other people, Friends often appreciate reading the Bible as a meeting function. Again, there are various methods. Some groups choose a published guide to scripture study, which includes interpretive readings and questions for discussion. Other groups proceed more on their own, starting with one book of the Bible and taking turns reading aloud. Each reader stops after several verses, allowing opportunity for any Friends who feel so moved to tell what meaning those verses have for them. When discussion on one section seems finished, the next person reads another short section. A third method for group Bible reading involves no discussion at all, by-passing possibilities for contention and leaving the Holy Spirit to work within each person. In this way Friends gather in silence, as in an unprogrammed meeting for worship. As individual Friends feel led, various ones read aloud a passage they have found. Time is allowed between readers for silent consideration of what has been read.
The Bible's Spiritual ValueSome of the ways of reading the Bible emphasize intellectual analysis, while others use a more spiritual approach. Although academic discipline is useful in examination of religious scriptures and of our relationship to them, an entirely intellectual perspective on scripture blocks the spiritual dimension of the Bible. For those of us trained to rely on logical thinking, it is difficult to shift out of an intellectual frame of reference. Nevertheless, in order to make use of all that the Bible offers, we must be willing to be led beyond rational analysis into feeling the Bible's spiritual direction.
The true source of that spiritual direction, it should be noted, is not the pages of the Bible but rather God Almighty, through whose Holy Spirit the spiritual usefulness of the Bible has been established. Furthermore, the spiritual power within the Bible cannot be authentically tapped unless the person using the Bible is also, at that time, under the influence of God's Holy Spirit. Personal whim or an unholy spirit can appropriate passages for consideration, but the result will not be in harmony with God. When the Bible is used without the Holy Spirit's immediate guidance, spiritual growth will be absent and harm may be done, either to the person involved or to someone else. Any such hurt inflicted can be resolved not through rejection of either the harmful person or the Bible, but through returning to the renewing power of God.
There are many ways to strengthen one's connection with God. The words which George Fox heard centuries ago remain true for each of us today: "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition." God is ready at any time to enter into a seeker's heart and stay with him or her (see Revelation 3:20). Neither the Bible nor any other person is necessary for someone to know God. Nevertheless, God's inspiration coming through the Bible provides a way for many people to move closer to God.
One part of the Bible through which people often find a personal connection with God is the book of Psalms. Reading a favorite psalm or opening somewhere in that book and reading whatever appears can be a very effective beginning for a time of private devotion. Psalm 121, for example, establishes the importance of looking to God: "I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from God, who made heaven and earth...." Psalm 100 reminds us of God's goodness: "For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth continues to all generations." Woven throughout much of Psalms is an insistence that God alone be worshipped, and that trusting in other gods leads away from peace to confusion. (e.g. Psalm 97: 7) Depression and despair also find ample expression in the Psalms: "My heart is smitten and withered like grass, so that I forget to eat....I have mingled my drink with weeping. (Psalm 102: 4,9) However, the psalms continually affirm that God acts with mercy and love: "Praise the Lord, oh my soul, and forget not all God's benefits - who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with love and tender compassion. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love." (Psalm 103: 2, 4, 8)
Not only in Psalms but also throughout the rest of the Bible, passages reach beyond historical or doctrinal statements to give voice to the spiritual conditions and longings of each of us. Whether a particular passage has spiritual significance at a given time depends on the immediate state of the reader or hearer. A section that is meaningless one day may be deeply significant a few days later under different spiritual circumstances, or it may take years before one gains insight into its spiritual significance. Similarly, even a passage which means a lot at one reading can open into additional, entirely new dimensions later on.
Some passages which Friends have often found speaking their condition include:
O sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, all the earth...for the Lord is great and greatly to be praised....Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad. (Psalm 96: 1,4,11)
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. (Isaiah 55:1-2)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5: 4,5,7; also the other Beatitudes)
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.... They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain. (Isaiah 11:6,9)
I will praise you, O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. (Isaiah 12:1-2)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path. (Proverbs 3: 5-6)
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder. And his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
And this is God's command: to believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and to love one another. Those who obey God's commands live in God, and God lives in them. This is how we know: we know by the Spirit God gave us. (1 John 3: 23-24)
Familiarity with the scriptures does not happen all at once, but even a small beginning can have positive spiritual as well as cognitive effects. Internalizing those few verses from the 96th Psalm just listed, for example, provides a person with ready words of rejoicing and praise when even small blessings are encountered. Recalling a few phrases from the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want....") offers encouragement to trust God under stress. Living in and nurturing our own spiritual responsiveness in daily situations opens the door to God's work in our lives. In turn, as we allow God to work within us, we become more able to be tap into the resources for growth in both knowledge and faith which God has provided within the Bible. And, as we become more in tune with God's purposes, we are further enabled to reach out to others in ways pleasing to God.
ConclusionThe Bible, taken in its entirety, presents a description of God's call to humanity to listen to God and to respond with faith, to confess our human inabilities and to surrender to God's love, to recognize that God's love is made known to us through God's Son Jesus Christ, and then to share that love with our neighbors, wherever we find them. Although the essence of this message is simple, fully comprehending its complexities is beyond the ability of any individual person. Nevertheless, we are drawn by the power of God into faithfulness to God and thence into unity with each other. The Bible is a useful tool for directing our thoughts into a clearer understanding of God's purposes, for finding words to express our inherent spiritual desires, and for shaping our responses to God's work within us.
BibliographyCooper, Wilmer A. A Living Faith: An Historical Study of Quaker Beliefs. Friends United Press: Richmond, Indiana, 1990.
Freiday, Dean. Nothing without Christ. The Barclay Press: Newberg, Oregon, 1984.
Jones, T. Canby. The Power of the Lord Is Over All: The Pastoral Letters of George Fox. Friends United Press: Richmond, Indiana, 1989.
FRIENDS, Fear not the Powers of Darkness, but keep your Meetings, and meet in that which keeps you over them; and in the Power of God ye will have Unity. And Dwell in Love and Unity one with another, and know one another in the Power of an Endless Life, which doth not change. . . . And all Friends every where, be Faithful in the Life and Power of God, and keep your Meetings . . . in that which changes not, that nothing but Christ may reign among you. . . .
I am not Amish or Mennonite, but some people who come to my website are interested in knowing more about these groups. I can recommend these books as authoritative and relatively inexpensive sources of further information.