March 22, 2013

Fourth of a series of posts on John Punshon’s Reasons for Hope: The Future of the Friends Church. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

John Punshon begins his discussion of the Bible by acknowledging that Friends have been divided before on how to view the Bible. “In the early nineteenth century,” he says, “when evangelical ideas began to exercise a strong influence on Friends, there was a bitter controversy over the nature of the Bible and the way the authority of Scripture was understood and applied” (p 117). 

The controversy concerns what we take to be the ultimate authority, the Bible or the Holy Spirit. “For Evangelicals,” Punshon writes, “scripture is the authority from which there is no appeal.” But Friends, following Robert Barclay, take scripture as “a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself.” “On the surface,” acknowledges Punshon, “these two positions look as if they are mutually exclusive” (p 118).

Punshon believes that a deeper understanding of scripture and a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit can dissolve this contradiction.  Put another way, he endeavors to rebuild Barclay’s view of the Bible that takes it to be both (a) authoritative and (b) not the ultimate source – not displacing the Holy Spirit. He notes that Barclay also says “Because the Spirit of God is the fountain of all truth and sound reason, therefore…it cannot contradict either the testimony of the scripture or of right reason” (p 141).

I found his discussion very illuminating and helpful, but I also found it somewhat tortured and not wholly convincing. 

If we think we see a contradiction between the words of the Bible and the leadings of the Holy Spirit, do we take that to be an indication that the Bible is in error or that our reading of the Bible is in error? Punshon suggests the latter, and that provides one simple insight into how he seeks to resolve the contradiction. 

Punshon invites us to consider “the twin concepts” of “revelation” and “inspiration” to understand the Bible. Both involve the workings of the Holy Spirit. Revelation is the means by which the Bible was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Inspiration is how we as readers find meaning in the Bible again under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When tension appears between the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we should assume the error is in us, not in the Bible.

Punshon devotes several pages each to unpacking “revelation” and “inspiration” (pp 120-140), and these are worth reading with care. At the end, though, seeing these clearly may be satisfying at a general level, but less helpful in specific circumstances. How do we know we are reading the Bible correctly? Punshon acknowledges that there are some difficult issues on which this question may arise.

“Inerrancy, predestination, slavery, episcopacy, war and peace are all matters where the churches, in possession of one Bible, have come to very different conclusions on the basis of the same Bible’s authority. How can this be possible?” (p 136).  I would certainly add homosexuality to that list. Punshon discusses none of these difficult issues, however. I wish he had explored at least one.

He does add this: “One answer is that where the scriptures appear to support a number of equally well-considered possibilities, there is no scripturally convincing reason for preferring one possibility to another. If this is so, the right course must be to approach the question spiritually rather than exegetically, in other words to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (p 137).

Again, helpful; and again, not completely satisfying. Suppose we disagree among ourselves about whether there is a “scripturally convincing reason for preferring one possibility to another?” A century and a half ago, that was the situation regarding slavery, and the resultant Civil War divided faithful Christians. Today that is the situation regarding homosexuality.

One thing I especially appreciated about Punshon’s chapter on the Bible is his discussion of how the Bible came to be written and how this bears on the book’s authority. I’ll focus on this subject in my fifth post on Reasons for Hope, and I will also focus on Punshon’s view of Bible inerrancy. 

Also posted on River View Friend.

Views: 120

Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 3rd mo. 23, 2013 at 6:04pm

Given the general Christian understanding/belief that the New Testament corrected/perfected the Old Testament, that love fulfills/completes Law, and that universal truth supercedes particular truths, Inerrancy would seem to be a continuing(unfinished?) pursuit, like revelation itself.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 3rd mo. 23, 2013 at 6:12pm

Indeed. But Friends have had a particular strong message in this regard, beginning with Fox's epiphany that Jesus has come to teach His people Himself. I'll have more to say about this anon.


You need to be a member of QuakerQuaker to add comments!

Join QuakerQuaker

Support Us

Did you know that QuakerQuaker is 100% reader supported? If you think this kind of outreach and conversation is important, please support it with a monthly subscription or one-time gift.

You can also make a one-time donation.

Latest Activity

Kirby Urner posted a blog post

A Campus Curriculum

I'm reaching out to Friends in higher education with my recent Youtubes, which I'm free to…See More
4th month 13
Keith Saylor posted a blog post


Iconography: The process of guiding and informing human relationships and interactions through…See More
4th month 10
Patricia Dallmann posted a blog post

New essay at Abiding Quaker: "A Colony of Heaven"

The following excerpt is from a new post titled "A Colony of Heaven" which can be found at…See More
4th month 6
Mike Shell posted a discussion
4th month 4
Patty Quinn liked Mike Shell's discussion Weekly Online Worship with Quaker Universalist Fellowship
4th month 2
Patty Quinn liked Kirby Urner's discussion Quakerism and Religious Freedom
4th month 2
Kirby Urner posted a discussion

Quakerism and Religious Freedom

I've only recently learned what a lot of people already know:  the well-advertised Shen Yun dance…See More
4th month 2
Jonathan Smith liked Mike Shell's discussion Weekly Online Worship with Quaker Universalist Fellowship
4th month 1

© 2019   Created by QuakerQuaker.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service