Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
March 25, 2013
This is the fifth 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. Part 4 is here.
Quakers have settled into an unconstructive, grumpy disagreement about the Bible. Especially among FGC meetings, some Friends pay little attention to the Bible, some even finding its mention unwelcome. Others, especially those that consider themselves evangelical Friends, cling tenaciously to the Bible as the ultimate source. Neither side wants to talk much about how and why the Bible should be accorded the status it has; both just stubbornly insist on their view of the Scriptures.
My hope is for more thoughtful discussion among us – even across the schisms – regarding how we understand the Bible. (I wrote about this a few months ago in an article in Friends Journal entitled “Homosexuality: A Plea to Read the Bible Together.”) One place to start a real dialogue is to consider how we came to have the Bible in the first place and why it comes to have authority. John Punshon steps up to that challenge.
The Bible didn’t just drop from the sky. We tell ourselves no story that the Bible was engraved by an angel on golden tablets, then buried, waiting to be found. We tell ourselves no story that it was all dictated by God with perfection to one person. No, we all agree that the Bible has multiple authors, and that it was assembled a few centuries after Jesus’s crucifixion. Where we disagree is about how inspired its authors were by the Holy Spirit and whether it contains God’s most definitive or final words to us.
“It is hard for us to think back to a time before the canon of the New Testament was closed,” acknowledges Punshon (p 129). “The church believed the Holy Spirit guided in making this selection” of which books were included and which were not. “We need to understand the implications of the fact that the Bible does not tell us what books are inspired,” Punshon continues. “That knowledge comes from somewhere else.”
He articulates three criteria the church used (“perhaps not formally, but in effect”) to include a candidate book. A book “had to have been written by, or in association with, an apostle.” It needed “congruity with the tradition.” And there “had to be general acceptance” for it to be included (pp 131-2). Especially with the latter two, Punshon is saying that a church is a living community whose members discern the truth together. He acknowledges there were disagreements over what should be included. “Out of the process emerged orthodoxy, heresy and schism,” and “the process obviously reflects power struggles and conflicting personalities” (p 130). Nevertheless, he insists, “the formation of the canon in the early centuries of Christianity came about precisely because the Holy Spirit led the Church into this understanding” (p 119).
Thus, Punshon is also arguing that there must have been divine guidance not found in the Bible itself for the selection. And thus, Punshon is saying that other evangelicals have something to learn from Friends’ (that is to say, Barclay’s) teaching on the Bible “Evangelicals need to grasp the extent to which their belief in the authority of scripture rests on the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Unless there were revelations outside the canon of the scripture, that canon would never have come into being” (p 131). Put another way: it makes no sense to insist on the Bible as the sole, definitive source, or else we would never have the Bible.
In the end, what makes the Bible especially important is that this is where we find “those truths necessary for salvation,” what he terms “special revelation” (p 122).
We cannot do without the Bible, but at the same time there must be more than the Bible. There is the ongoing, available guidance of the Holy Spirit. There also is our capacity for intellect or reason. “Knowledge of God requires more than intellectual apprehension,” Punshon asserts, but he also affirms its importance. “An incarnational religion like Christianity must be willing to stand on the principle that we know God with the same minds that give us knowledge of the beauty of the landscape, the love of family, or the proof of the theorem of Pythagoras” (p 125).
At the end of his discussion of scripture in chapter 4, Punshon takes up “the question of inerrancy,” which he takes to be the question of fundamentalism (pp 147-152). He takes the scriptures to be infallible (errors we think we see are our errors of interpretation, not errors of revelation), but he does not then embrace the doctrine of inerrancy. Punshon does not accept the view that “our only access to Christ is through the scriptures and that we have no other guide to the truth but the written word.” He adds, pointedly, “This is itself contrary to the scriptures,” citing John 5:39.
“The Spirit guides us into the truth, but sometimes over considerable periods of time” (p149), he acknowledges, noting the example of the slowly unfolding recognition that slavery is “incompatible with the faith.” He adds, “As the world changes and develops, there is a constant need to formulate and test what we think scripture is saying to us.”
In rejecting inerrancy, Punshon draws a line within the Friends Church between those he calls fundamentalists and those he calls evangelicals – that is, non-fundamentalist evangelicals. (This is a different line than the one that separates liberal Friends from the Friends Church.) He hits the nail on the head when he says “Reservations about total inerrancy are an inevitable element in any form of evangelicalism that gives due weight to the activity of the Holy Spirit and emphasizes Christ, rather than a text, as the source of meaning in the Christian religion.” The source of the evangelical integrity of the Friends Church, he asserts, is trust in Christ, “the Word made flesh.”
Punshon is tender to the claims of fundamentalist Friends, for reasons that escape me. “Some Friends will wish to adopt fundamentalist principles and other Friends will not, and our understanding of the freedom of the gospel ought to allow us to live with this situation,” he says (p 152). But he has already made crystal clear why fundamentalist/inerrantist beliefs are wrong.
Speaking for myself, I am a big-tent Quaker; I want to make common cause with all true seekers. Nevertheless, I am hard pressed to be comfortable with fundamentalist (inerrantist) understandings of the Bible. Fundamentalism is a doctrine, a rigid one as well as a mistaken one. And as Punshon says, “Historically, Friends have always believed that preoccupation with the niceties of doctrine leads smoothly to a coercive and persecuting spirit“ (p 36). That is where fundamentalism leads, I believe.
Also posted on River View Friend.