Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
We've had some talk recently about distinctively "Quaker" ways of interpreting the Bible.
So far as I understand it, this suggests the following model of the situation: 1) Early Friends were inspired by the Spirit to read the Christian Bible as a source of insights for furthering their quests to find and keep personal salvation. Among the doctrines they found it supporting was this: that the natural condition and faculties of human beings were innately corrupt -- a state of affairs which could only be remedied by Christ -- conceived-of as being entirely outside and alien-to their personal minds and inclinations.
People who favor this view naturally feel that 1) Early Friends must have been right in their approach to Biblical interpretation and 2) their model of human nature must therefore be correct.
I say instead that early Friends' interpretations of the Bible were appropriate to their time and place, an advance on how most people had understood it previously -- but that the associated view of the Divine/human connection is a half-truth at best: a view that describes much human conduct all too well, but is wrong about people's actual spritual configuration.
The fact that most of humanity has not spontaneously embraced Quakerism, and the fact that many of our traditions have been (apparently) languishing even among ourselves (if we're willing to include all of us as being (somehow) "real" Quakers) -- These things suggest that either:
a) Human beings are very, very corrupt, or
b) We really haven't gotten it right yet!
Assuming the Bible's description of the world as God's Creation -- and the Bible itself as an element of that Creation, intended for our good, then
How else might we be reading the Bible? What else is in there for us?
I think that it is easy to reify, and oversimplify, aspects of the Quaker faith tradition. Several years ago someone in Ohio Yearly Meeting alluded to "the Quaker way of interpreting the Bible" in a discussion. Someone else responded by asking "what is the Quaker approach to interpreting the Bible," and claimed that there is no single, consensual Quaker hermeneutic. I understand that the discussion ended right there.
Surely, Friends have historically relied on some hermeneutical ideas more than others, and entertained some characteristic hermeneutical approaches more than others, but I doubt that there was a single acceptable approach to Biblical interpretation. To illustrate, one Friend challenged the idea that the early Friends never proof-texted. She claimed that they often did so. History is invariably messier than we might wish it were!!
I look forward to Vail Palmer's study of early Quaker Biblical interpretation, the first volume of which is forthcoming from Barclay Press. Surely, it will shed some light on "distinctively 'Quaker' ways of interpreting the Bible."
In the meantime, I personally welcome insights into the Bible and how to interpret it, whatever tradition(s) those insights come from. That they might not carry a "Quaker-made label" would not deter me from learning from them!
There were indeed some aspects of how early Quakers read Scripture were rooted in their times. That would be to be expected. We all tend to live where we are planted.
A significant aspect of how Early Friends read Scripture was the use of something called typology. Typology is traditionally seen as interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New. An example might be where in the Gospel of John Jesus refers to the brazen snake raised up by Moses as prefiguring his own crucifixion.
To the extent that First Friends departed from the usual method of reading Scripture I would suggests is they took that typological reading further by one step. Both old and new are fulfilled in their current lived experience. Furthermore salvation history — when scripture speaks of the whole (i.e. Israel, humanity) the Quakers would without any qualms apply this to the individual spiritual path. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — no longer acceptable in biology, but acceptable to the first generation of Quakers in a spiritual way.
I think you are right Forrest that some of these approaches no longer fit the modern mind set. We know too much about how Scripture was constructed. That doesn't mean that the historical critics are in fact write about the "real meaning of Scripture" but their insights do make it very difficult for us to naïvely implement the old reading protocols.
To whatever extent that's happened here and there, to whatever extent I've simply overreacted -- What made this question seem pursuing is that I've always been curious and ambivalent as to what the Bible "means" -- ie sure of at least two slightly contradictory things about it:
that it doesn't "mean" anything in the sense of being the vehicle of any narrow interpretation -- but at the same time means a great deal that people need to know, and are often afraid to believe these days.
It definitely points to the Spirit of God as both present and accessible... which might imply that it's an unnecessary intermediary. Then again, God seems to have spoken to me most effectively by leaving messages and messengers in my path, by guiding me to information rather than thundering, "Now hear this!" at me.
I've described 'Revelation' as like a powerful symbolic dream.
Suppose we consider the Bible as like a powerful collective dream? A large and significant chunk of the human population has 'dreamed' this book, has found various interpretations, or (sometimes) has dismissed it like 'too much cabbage the night before' (which it clearly is not!) This viewpoint does have the virtue of not reducing the Bible to anyone's literal face-value meaning, while still allowing for the fact that dreams can have simple, literal meanings (like those dreams where you're trying to find a bathroom?) as well as complex & elusive ones.
Does this look like a hopeful direction? What other ways come to mind?
David, I was hoping you'd show up for this one!
Yes, it isn't 'just about' our personal salvation -- but early Friends weren't necessarily wrong about God sending them valid and useful messages through that lens. It's what programmers call a 'heuristic' approach: a method that isn't always valid but often brings out good solutions to be tried.
We can ignore the fact that we know things about history that our spiritual ancestors didn't; but we do find people who've ignored those considerations yet pulled profound and illuminating insights out of their hats.
It's as if God has left messages in there for everyone (including those people seeking reasons to call it all a crock!)
So here we are at the butt-end of the Eon after the one that ended in 1st Century Jerusalem... and now what? What to toss & what to keep, and how best to stir this stew?
Friends asserted that the meaning of Scriptures was accessible to those who knew the Spirit of Christ, the same Spirit in which they had been written. They did not confine knowledge of the Spirit of Christ to any particular time, nor should we. If the Bible is not understood, that is, if one's understanding of the meaning of its words, parables, images, narratives etc. differs from the meaning that Friends and apostles found in it, then, taking seriously their position that knowledge of the Spirit is required, we should question whether we ourselves are prepared to read these writings in that same Spirit. In short, do you know the Spirit of Christ? It is not the modern mindset that precludes understanding of scriptures; it is the lack of experiential knowledge of the Spirit of Christ; this is true in any age. Unity in Christ transcends time, place, and culture. Recall that the Friends were in unity with the apostles of a millennium and a half before their time, not with the Puritans of their own time and place.
David, your third paragraph was very good.
To be 'in the same Spirit' as the people who produced the Hebrew and Christian sacred writings -- is not at all the same thing as sharing their opinions.
It is to know God in the same way in which they knew God -- incompletely, but recognizing God's hand at work behind everything we know and experience. It means to be striving to understand with our merely human minds and limited experience, but with God guiding us like a parent whose child is learning to walk...
It isn't so much that the Bible "is not understood" by anyone (though there are certainly things various people get wrong); it's that there are many layers of meaning available through it. Some of these meanings are definitely there, are definitely intended for everyone who can accept them; and some are merely "the teachings of men" -- while God well sometimes use even misunderstandings to bring some particular person a message he needs at the time...
There is no "The Meaning." Yet there is clearly a pattern of meanings behind the details people argue about, far beyond the trivial ethical precepts some people would like to limit it to -- but if you tried to express that completely, even in a long and intricate book, you would eventually find something there you'd missed.
If you try to say that ~'There's exactly one meaning; and I and Fox and the apostles know what it is, no one else' -- Then you are as unsuited to finding other meanings as a clock whose hands have stopped. Yet Fox was continually arriving at new 'openings'.
Your idea of what it is to know God, Forrest, is just that...an idea, a human, intellectual construct, not revealed knowledge. Your idea arises from intellectual speculation, what the Friends disparagingly called "notional," metaphorically speaking: attempting to enter the sheepfold by climbing up "some other way" (Jn. 10:1). Rationalizing that the passing of several centuries is responsible for your disunity with early Friends masks the true cause of that disunity, which is that you remain yet in the "natural and corrupted state." "Man, therefore, as he is in this state, can know nothing aright; yea, his thoughts and conceptions concerning God and things spiritual, until he be disjoined from this evil seed, and united to the divine Light, are unprofitable both to himself and others" (Barclay, Fourth Proposition).
Friends didn't speculate or conceive notions about God and Christ; they called those who did "professors," people who professed Christ without possessing knowledge of him, knowledge in the sense of John 17:3. One of Fox's first openings was that spiritual knowledge could not be acquired through scholarly endeavors at Oxford or Cambridge. Just as the meaning of the words "eternal life" in that verse from John cannot be conceived with any accuracy, one cannot accurately speculate or conceive what it means to know the living God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Yet Friends found this verse (Jn. 17:3) so key to their purpose that Barclay puts it in his First Proposition. "The true Foundation of Knowledge" was core to the Friends, and they went to great pains to communicate that it was only through revelation (not speculation) that true knowledge of God can be had.
Rather than intellectualizing, "striving to understand with our merely human minds"(as you wrote), which will forever lead you up a blind alley, Forrest, it is more useful to partake of Christ's sufferings, as Paul advises in II Corinthians. George Fox had the scriptures, an intellectual interpretation of them, and the notions of his culture prior to his great opening; none of it was satisfactory, and he felt that absence of meaning and truth keenly: he suffered because he could not be satisfied with a second-hand faith or with a merely intellectually generated faith. He said that at the time he felt he was "in a measure sensible of Christ's sufferings, and what he went through." Those of us who have undergone the same baptism by fire and the holy Spirit, as did the early Friends, have found, surprisingly, that we have been given through revelation the same faith, the same understanding they were given, and the prophets before them: Christ Within. And we bear witness to the truth, because we know experientially that it is perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.
And since I'm referring to Barclay primarily in this comment, let me quote his statement on how the meaning of scriptures is discerned:
Nevertheless, as that which giveth a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they [Scriptures] 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 (Third Proposition).
"For as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them" confirms my testimony about the Scriptures: (1) that we are able to "truly know them," that is to say: to know their meaning, and (2) it is "the inward testimony of the Spirit" that "alone" allows us to know their meaning. I never said, Forrest, that Fox, the apostles and I "and no one else" know the meaning of Scriptures; you attributed words to me that I never wrote, and there's a word for that... There have been many who have understood the meaning of Scriptures, just as Barclay asserts; but as for the carnal-minded, the man of reprobate mind, there is no apprehension of the Scriptures, nor of Christ Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.
Thank you Patricia.
I approach this with a little more depth here:
Though it has been a VERY long time.
I don't need to quote precisely to be accurate about the train someone's thoughts are on: hauling doctrines bristly with dogmatic points to keep out anyone who disagrees.
That is not like the Spirit of Christ as I see it portrayed in the gospels; neither is it like God as I gradually came to know Him -- being at first repelled by nearly everything I found that was said to be "Christian", everything except that man in the gospels, who was clearly speaking from the spiritual vantage that others kept claiming to be their personal yapdog.
We might well accuse and counteraccuse until the world comes to an end (as seems likelier and likelier these days), without adding much to the blaze except whole pages of smoke and little bit more heat. The pamphlet wars of Fox's England were much like that, because they typically embodied a spirit very far removed from the one we hope to emulate.
Jesus told people to keep on a narrow, direct way -- but not to stand in the doorway, blocking others and [thereby] failing to enter, themselves.
I'm not asking anyone to wimp out on what they actually find in the Bible -- even though I often disagree with people taking some gristly bits for the true Message. I am seeking better ways of reading it than that too-familiar We're-In-And-They're-Out-ism. A great many people these days have been offered such readings, and rightly fled them. What else can we offer? -- Wait for them to drink themselves sick and at last get their religion from AA?
Early on in his wanderings George Fox found himself in Robin Hood country (Nottinghamshire) and had several openings about the way his contemporaries abused scripture and their more secular callings (lawyers, doctors and so-called divinities). If were going to talk about how Quakers read Scripture I think this might be a good place to start. At the heart of his comments Fox notes that when people read the narratives in Scripture and find bad people making bad choices and doing bad things, our basic tendency is to point our fingers at people who we don't like much and say, "you're like Cain, you're like Herod, you're like Esau you're like Judas". But that one of the features of reading in the spirit/light is to find the finger-pointing back at us. I think that observation can apply to how we read early Quaker literature just as easily.
Forrest, you asked what else do we have to offer other than the We're-In-And-They're-Out-ism?
Your question assumes there can be a different paradigm. There are many of us who have witnessed a way of being that is not of the outward nature. We have witnessed an existence wherein our conscious, conscience, meaning, purpose, and identity is established in imminent awareness itself in itself without regard to outward ideas, institutions, scriptures, persons, etc. To testify to this way of existence is not in itself an act of judgementalism. There is nothing wrong with testifing to a witness that is not witnessed by others. Even when I testify to the loss of consciousness upon the death of the physical body by those whose consciousness is anchored in the outward nature, I am testifying to a reality that can be tested on a personal level by anyone when they consider their selves without physical sight, physical hearing, physical smell, physical touch, physical taste, and physical brain to mirror ideas, emotions, and desires. They then ask the simple question: "What is left?" I there anything to hold on to? Is there awareness or consciousness? If their answer is no, we then testify to them that we have witnessed a way of being wherein awareness is no longer dependent upon the sensations, ideations, and will of the body or outward nature. We then testify that this way of awareness or being that sustains even upon the death of the body is open to anyone without regard to circumstance or condition and that in the act of imagining existence without the bodily or outward nature they have come right up against eternity. All they need do now is look at the hands they call their hands or the arms they call their arms and ask themselves you or what is looking at those hands or arms and that in the very act of experiencing that who or what they are experiencing or witnessing or in awareness of that which sustains upon the death of the physical body. The hands or arms you call your hands or arms are not truly you ... you are that which is looking at those hands or arms. When those hands or arms no longer function and decay ... that which is right now looking at them is your eternal nature. To live and move and have being and awareness in that which is looking at those hands is to come into eternity. Daily rest in the act a living in that which is looking at your hand and arms. Slowly, and in due time, you will begin to experience that which is looking at those hands when you are looking at your husband or wife or mother or father. You will then experience that which is looking at those hands when you look at trees, flowers, buildings, animals, doors, and when you are mopping the floor or reading scripture you will witness that which is looking at those hands or words. Then, in all things and circumstances, you will experience that which is looking at those hands.
Then, when you imagine being without eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, nose for smelling, tongue for taste, nerves for touch, and a brain for ideation, emotion, and will you will know and experience that which looks at eyes, nose, tongue, ears, nerves, brain is that which sustains even upon the loss of these upon physical death. For you will know and experience the being or awareness that is the withness or witness behind or before the bodily or outward nature.
The withness in all things and circumstances in daily life is the testimony of a Witness which is a new way of awareness or being and it is wonderful to live in the glory of this grace that is upon each and every one of us. It is just right there and all we do is take a moment and live in that which is doing the seeing, thinking, feeling, tasting, smelling, touching, hearing and to rest in that instead of a way of existence that is anchored in the outward manifestations like hands and arms.
Eternal life or awareness itself in itself is so close and it is upon each one of us ...