Page 575 and the Quaker Bible: Reading The New Cambridge History of the Bible

A new post on Quaker Universalist Conversations by Larry D. Spears


The New Cambridge History of the Bible: From 1450-1750 (Volume 3)
Edited by Euan Cameron (2016).

The New Cambridge History of the Bible is a four-volume scholarly project on the history of the use and abuse of the Bible. It is a model for how humans reflect and update their view of authority in their spiritual lives, a model which should be applied to all religious traditions.

Volume 3 of this project primarily covers the western Christian Church during the period of 1450 to 1750, from the end of the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment.

It incorporates the insights of new historical scholarship on those decades and the fruits of new methods in the study of the Christian Bible, and it reflects the broad perspectives of eminent scholars and the work of a careful editor, Euan Cameron, from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

This volume was widely anticipated by Quaker scholars, because it addresses the use of the Bible during the period that covers the innovation of the Quaker founders and the Quaker movement in its early years in the 1650s in Britain.

As a Quaker, I hoped for more than I received, but what I received was illuminating. I learned about the cultural imperialism of this period 1450-1750, reflecting the belief that the Christian message was the peculiar and special property of the peoples of Europe and, therefore, the motivation for spreading this property partnered with superior European culture.

Volume 3 focuses on the western Church’s recovery of the biblical text in its original languages, and its translation of those texts into various vernacular languages, mostly under the influence of the Protestant Reformation. While this translation process created controversies, it also helped the Church to understand the nuances of the prized texts.

My disappointment with this volume is that the whole Quaker movement is managed in one reference on one page. Actually, it is less than one page. Quakers receive this side comment as an illustration of the use of the Bible in worship as a preparation for spiritual worship. Here is the sole Quaker reference:

In England the late sixteenth century saw the rise of Independent or Separatist groups…. Here it would seem that Scripture reading was a preliminary to ‘spiritual worship,’ when all books, including the Bible itself, were laid aside. The logic of this type of thinking is seen in Quaker worship, where eventually the whole gathering is in silence, and the Bible read if the Spirit prompted a worshipper to read a passage. (p. 574-5)

This comment is authored by Bryan D. Spinks of Yale Divinity School in the chapter titled “The Bible in liturgy and worship, c. 1500-1750 (Chapter 24).”

Despite the short reference, the statement about Quaker use of the Bible is substantially true, if not complete. What is missing is clear acknowledgement of the particular innovation of Quakers, namely, the integration of the Bible not only into the larger Christian tradition, but also into a diversity of wider sources of spiritual authority along with experience and reason.

X says this. Y says that. What can you say from your experience?

The Quaker founders shifted the use of the Bible, letting it become their primary witness among several important sources of authority for understanding reality and guiding practice. Today, this Quaker contribution is mirrored in all Christian traditions.

In his Afterword, Editor Euan Cameron ends Volume 3 with this summary observation:

All these struggles testify that the Bible, wherever it was brought and however it was presented, confronted its hearers and its readers with deep challenges in faith and ethics. Many then and since have found themselves compelled to respond to those challenges. (p. 849)

The Quakers did and do also.

The New Cambridge History of the Bible is clearly the most authoritative treatment of the history of the Bible in our generation. It is also thoughtful and descriptive of the sweep of ideas and uses of the Bible, grander than you will find anywhere. The purchase price is not cheap, but the read is deeply edifying and sobering.

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