Some years ago in a lecture series on the Bible given at Pendle Hill, a speaker urged Friends to take back the Bible from the fundamentalists.With more than a decade having passed since that time, Quakers, for the most part, continue to forfeit our responsibility to interpret Scriptures in our particular way, through waiting for guidance from the same Spirit that brought them forth. For too long we have discounted the Scriptures’ use as a reality check for our theological meanderings. We have abandoned their use as a gathering and educating tool to be exercised in our communities, as well as an aid in our worship. We have spoken disparagingly of the Bible: “Anything can be inferred from the Bible.” “I don’t know why anyone reads it anymore.” These words were spoken at Quaker gatherings. Devaluation of the Bible is commonplace among us, and what has led to this devaluation is a loss of vision. Yet occasionally, we see in liberal yearly meetings that Friends are beginning to pick up the threads of our frayed heritage, sensing the Truth from which it has been woven. We as the Religious Society of Friends have a tremendous legacy and mission to claim yet once more.

The Scriptures are a gift. They map out the terrain we are bidden to travel on this most highly fraught spiritual adventure of humankind, providing signposts in an otherwise uncharted land. The land to be traveled is within, and like the wise men of the Christmas story, we move forward when we follow the star, that light of heaven that shines in the darkness. Through imagery drawn from unchanging nature, the Scriptures speak to us as they have spoken to generations before - of direction to take, of dangers to avoid and hardships to endure, of insights that are our provisions, and of that glorious completion toward which we move.

The misreading and misuse of Scriptures both within and without the Religious Society of Friends has often been the result of literal interpretation – by both liberals and evangelicals. When the Scriptures are valued, they are seen as a guide to ethical behavior or the center of blind “faith.” We have forgotten our original Quaker way of looking at Scriptures, and we read them “without a right sense of them” (Journal, 31). Isaac Penington wrote:

The Scriptures contain messages concerning God, concerning Christ, concerning the Spirit, the end whereof is to turn men and women to the power and life… (1:131).

By looking at passages from the 20th chapter of John, we can receive information about Christ as he is: risen and active among us today. We can also see how a flat, literal approach to this chapter obscures the information that is offered. Through examining the puzzles, those parts that defy reasonable explanation, we enter into the fruitful area where the devotion of a trusted writer and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit lead us into understanding.

One of the puzzling parts of this chapter is the inability of Mary Magdalene and the disciples to recognize the Lord when he first appears.

…she…saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master (14-16).

Why is Mary unable at first to recognize Jesus? In life, she knew him well. One could reason that Jesus’ face was altered by the ordeal of his crucifixion, or perhaps that her fear and sorrow interfered with her perception. These explanations make the events of the story conform to our experience of what is possible in the world; it is a mistake of literalism and stands in the way of receiving the message intended.

Inexplicable events are not hurdles to our faith; rather they are flashing signals to look closely for here the writer has an intent that breaks through the framework of realistic narrative with the power of meaning. Mary, looking at Christ, at first believes him to be the gardener. Only after hearing him say her name does she recognize him for who he truly is. This event tells us that there is now a new and different way to know the Lord.

Knowing Christ will no longer be done outwardly and visually, but hence forward inwardly at hearing one’s name (that is, oneself) called. Mary responds, “Rabboni!” which is Hebrew for “Teacher.” She acknowledges the nature of this relationship; he is to guide and teach; she is to hear and learn. The value of this story lies not in its factual veracity, nor because it portrays an event in the life of Jesus whom we revere. Its value, from a Quaker standpoint, is in its revealing something to us of ourselves and our movement toward a higher state of being than that which we now accept despairingly as the inevitable condition of human nature.

Fox reminds us that people read the Scriptures “without duly applying them to their own states” (Journal, 31). This scene in John is an outward depiction of an inward spiritual state known to Friends. The living Christ has called and continues to call the spirit of humankind to an exalted place where he is seen and recognized, a place he has prepared for us so that where he is in his understanding and power, there we may be also. It is a place to which we rise from meaningless, death-centered, grappling existence to exultant, abundant Life. Christ has come to teach his people himself. This is the continuing revelation we, as Quakers, have insisted is so.

Note that it is not a natural, spiritual essence that Mary experiences, but an interaction with one who is other than herself. This is a great difference between the Light of Christ as revealed to early Friends and the Inner Light as spoken of by modern Friends. God is not only immanent but transcendent as well.

The risen Lord appears twice more in this chapter. His disciples recognize him only after having seen his wounds.

Then…came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord (19-20).

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them; then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God (26-28).

What does this problem with recognition tell us? Death to the worldly nature (wounds being the sign of that death) is the distinguishing mark of the risen Lord. To follow him, we too must essentially “keep in the daily cross,” as Fox exhorts. Becoming aware of the Christ Within, the new and living way, is such a radical change in sense of life, that only the death-followed-by-life metaphor will adequately describe it, and only the daily crucifying of the old worldly way of self-aggrandizement and egotism will precede it. Comparing this imagery, this language and vision, to that in Quakerism today, we ask: Does the life of our Meetings surpass the power presented in our biblical and early Quaker heritage? Is there not something deeper and more authentic generating the vision and language of our tradition than that which generates our contemporary practices? What excuse do we have for not availing ourselves of this gift of Scriptures?

Before Christ appears in this chapter, the disciples are disorderly and engaged in fruitless activity. Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, lack coordination in their approach to the tomb. Meaningless details of who arrives first, goes into the tomb first, believes first make this look like a petty competition between the two.

So they ran both together; and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulcher….Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie. …Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed….Then the disciples went away again unto their own home (4,6,8,10).

They do not find the Lord, and they exit, each to his own home. They become isolated individuals, unified only in their diversity. Does this lack of coordination, of shared vision and understanding, this forwarding of self-will and jockeying for position bear some resemblance to our experience in conducting business in our meetings? One thinks of the unity, the upright and generous spirit by which the early Friends were known, and one recalls: Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles (Mt. 7:16)?

In this chapter, Christ gathers the disciples to him and creates order among them with his words to Mary, “but go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (17). When he arrives in their midst, they are assembled as a unified group and receive from their Lord peace, guidance and the power of spiritual discernment (23); they receive the very thing we gather to receive in worship—the Holy Spirit.

Now they are fitted and ready to be sent out to do the work of convincing others of the presence and power of the living Christ among us. Thomas’s convincement, which immediately follows, shows them the work that lies ahead. The early Quaker community, unified and ordered under Christ their head, was guided and empowered to do this same work of convincing others. Their mission – above all else – was to publish the Truth to the world. What is our mission today? Our mission is the same – to preach the Gospel; to present the power of God to grieving, doubting Thomases and Marys who, if they do not harden their hearts, if they do not become insensitive, will feel inward confirmation when they are shown, when they have heard Christ, the Word of God, preached among us, preached by one who looks like you, or me or the gardener.

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Comment by David McKay on 4th mo. 3, 2016 at 5:21pm

Thank you for sharing this. Very early in my association with Friends (early 1980s) I noticed the intense use of scripture by Fox and the early Quakers and its neglect in the meeting that I was attending. I too noticed the tendency of Fox to map the narratives of scripture to the reader's spiritual condition, an aspect of scripture reading which even those of us in meeting who made Bible reading a part of our practice tend not to do.

I think it was my very first Yearly Meeting, and after a particularly difficult consideration on the floor, we were in worship together and I was moved to stand and open scripture to Revelation 8:1. I was somewhat anxious about this as I did not expect the Apocalypse to go down well in a mostly a liberal Quaker setting. I read, "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour" and then, closed my Bible and said, "When we gather in worship, we join our worship with the worship of heaven." And then I sat down. At the rise of meeting and became surrounded by three Young Friends who were all shocked that there was some support for waiting worship in Scripture. I showed them the passage, we had a brief conversation and then moved on to other things.

I think Friends are missing an opportunity here.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 1:19am

People do tend to see what they expect to see; and if they expect to find a parable disguised as a clumsy fictional touch, that may well be what they'll see here --

but this episode makes better sense as a simple consequence of the fact that people do see what they expect to see; and Jesus alive was very far from anything Mary Magdalene (or any of the other disciples) [intellectually ] believed was possible.

For her first to think merely: "That guy sure looks a lot like ___" would be natural; but after hearing his familiar voice speaking to her as her dead friend Jesus would have -- she would have been jarred out of the mindset that would initially have ruled his presence out.

I remember the day a guy I knew came into a room filled with other friends of his. As long as we'd known him he'd had a big bushy beard; but suddently he'd shaved it off. We all recognized him (though if we'd heard he was dead we might well not have) -- but nobody, at first, could say what was different about him. Human perception is weird sometimes!

As for how people perceive the Bible, it is probably much like the way people experience Quaker Meetings... People tend to see what they expect, yet this also tends to be what's appropriate and helpful for them at the time, whether or not that fits anyone else's overarching scheme.

Comment by Howard Brod on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 8:38am

What you point out Forrest is likely harmless, and potentially advantageous, for the person who has a heart grounded in divine love; the kind of love that makes them "perfect as their father in heaven is perfect". 

The problem comes on three fronts should one begin to worship the Bible.  First, they will begin to judge those who are not like-minded regarding the importance of the Bible as spiritually unequipped, or even worse, eternally damned.  Second, they may view themselves superior in biblical interpretation, creating fertile ground for spiritual disunity with others and eventual schisms.  Third, they may interpret the Bible in literal and harmful ways that adversely affect others.

Patricia touches on these pitfalls adequately.  And she expresses a lofty use of the Bible to point its reader to the Presence of Spirit/God within.  This TRUE friend, our essence, is a constant comforter and beacon for our very being.

The awe-inspiring reality of all of life is that every encounter, every experience, every relationship is there to point us each to the Presence of Spirit/God within.  God uses every and anything to bring us home - if we are only willing.

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 11:05am

With the discovery that Christ was alive, present, and teaching them his righteousness, Fox and the other seventeenth-century Friends found new meaning in Scriptures, and thus had new approaches and uses for them. It was a departure from the perspective of others around them, and thus their position and use becomes a major topic for Barclay in his Apology. 

I thought that the ministry was lovely that you gave in the yearly meeting. When I first read that verse in Revelation, I also thought of our Quaker way of worship, our waiting upon the Lord. We are united in heaven when we receive his presence; it is then "on earth as it is in heaven."


Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 11:09am

Forrest: "People seeing what they want to see" is what the early Friends called "carnal apprehension." They were lifted out of that chaotic incoherence - both personal and social - by their hunger and thirst after righteousness, and they were filled with the Spirit of Christ, the Lord our Righteousness. Quakers made a clear distinction between themselves and Ranters, in the seventeenth century. 

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 11:12am

Howard: I'm glad that you see a difference between the way Quakers have approached the Bible and the way others have. As I wrote in the comment to David, Barclay describes the Quaker understanding of right use of Scriptures. 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 11:18am

Something happened on the way to bury Jesus that blew out everybody's sense of what's possible in the world. You don't need to be perfect, to worship the Bible, to take it all literally, believe it happened 'just like He wrote'--  to consider that significant.

A fairly large part of the Bible's many messages is: ~Things happen that have no place in our socially-acceptable world view.

Yes, you can derive  many messages more relevant to how people treat each other, an aspect of life God is quite concerned about,  just to make human life endurable for human beings...

but if the Bible is more than a heap of inspirational fiction, it's also a sharp challenge to currrent assumptions as to how the world works, disturbing as that may be.

But then, by current assumptions, human life has no future. People can live with the currently-accepted worldview, can be noble and likable and do admirable (though ultimately futile) works within it; but the kind thing, if we can do so, is to help them escape from it. That's hardly possible without God's help; but then, God is not only transcendent but immanent as well.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 11:54am

Thanks, Patricia, for this beautiful post.  I found it inspiring.  I recently did some research on the continental Quietists, particularly Madame Guyon.  One of the things I discovered about her was that she used scripture in the way your are describing.  This was a primary reason why she got into trouble with authorities and why in their interrogations of her she and the Inquisition often seemed to be talking past each other.  For Guyon, the entire Bible is a vast allegory for turning inward to the Presence of Christ.  I am using 'allegory' loosely; she doesn't actually use that word.  But I found a strong resonance with how Guyon views scripture and with how Barclay views scripture.  For Guyon, the inward experience of the Presence of Christ unlocks the meaning of the scriptures; only then can someone clearly comprehend them.  

Thanks again for the post.

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 4:46pm

Thanks, Jim. I'm so glad you found the post useful and appreciate your kind words. I haven't read Madame Guyon, Fenelon, or Molinos for a couple of decades but remember feeling the wisdom and authenticity in their writings. I'm thinking I'd like to read Guyon's autobiography, at this point in my life wanting to see how others have coped. Have you read it?

That she saw the inward Christ unlocking the meaning of Scriptures is in keeping with all the early Friends understanding of that prerequisite. Fox early on in his Journal says "as man comes through by the Spirit and power of God to Christ...and is led by the Holy Ghost into the truth and substance of the Scriptures...then are they read and understood with profit and great delight" (Nickalls, 32). [Emphasis mine.]

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 4, 2016 at 8:08pm

Is this as much a limited scheme of salvation as it seems, with room for traditional Quakers and other contemplative s (& those they convince) to 'get it', the rest to wander cluelessly into what?

Was George Fox born to gather 'a great people', or merely 'a pretty good sect'?


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