Quakers and the Bible scripture: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Let’s start by looking again at the passage from Second Timothy we read earlier. You can find it on the insert in your bulletin. First, notice the phrase that is in bold. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” That’s actually the entire 16th verse of the section from 3:14 through 4:5. This verse is the one that is used often (and loudly in my experience) when some of my more evangelical or fundamental Christian sisters and brothers are trying to prove scriptural inerrancy—or the belief that the Bible is the ultimate written spiritual authority, and is the sole and complete truth for any issues of faith and practice. As one local congregation says in their articles of faith, “The Bible is the written will of God”; totally and completely. It was interesting to me to discover that this verse as it relates to the passage that contains it, reveals a different lesson about the role of Scripture.

2 Timothy is written as the apostle Paul’s farewell address to his most devoted assistant Timothy. It contains the wisdom and special insight Paul has that he thinks will equip Timothy to face the hardships and opponents of the Way—the movement that has formed after the death and resurrection of Christ – in the days ahead after Paul is gone. These are the core beliefs and practices of the new faith that must be promoted and shared in order to prosper and grow it. If you read carefully the passage from this morning, it is clear that scripture—according to Paul –IS NOT the ultimate source of divine presence and power. The goal of Timothy and all believers should be to utilize the scripture as INSTRUCTION in the way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, which should be the goal of all believers. According to bible scholar Dirk Lange, “the descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The scripture invites us into a pattern on gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma…The goal of scripture is not to elicit correct answers from us…The passage in this Sunday’s epistle points us elsewhere. The teaching, admonition, and training lead us somewhere beyond the use of scripture or tradition as merely identity markers, boundary keepers, and ultimately means for self justification. The proper use of scripture and tradition leads us to ‘every good work’.

It leads us to a life that is lived in remembrance of Jesus Christ, a life that embodies this remembrance.”

It has also always been of interest to me that when I hear verse 16 used as a proof that all scripture is inerrant, most folks are of course thinking of the new testament—specifically the gospels. Of course, when this is written, there is no “new testament”. Scripture refers here to the Hebrew bible. Thus, then, in the video, when Paul Buckley talks about the way Quakers read the Bible; under the immediate direction of the Holy Spirit, I believe he is talking about a perspective that is more clearly called for within the Bible itself.

Additionally, Paul speaks about the situation he’s encountered where a lot of Quakers DON’T read the Bible. I think he’s speaking about the reality that exists for many Christians. It is important to realize that In earlier times—say the 1650’s when the culture gave rise to so many movements that were unhappy with the established church tradition—including Quakers—that the Bible was the most pre-eminent book in the English-speaking world. For many people, it was the only readily accessible book and it profoundly influenced views of life, society, history, politics, and the world. Fast forward 350 years into a reality where we are inundated with all sorts of written communications; newspapers, email, texting, eBooks, as well as the tons of conventional books published each year, and we can see why the bible occupies a diminished role. As Friends, whose faith and practice does not proclaim the bible as the inerrant word of God, there is more likelihood that the Bible is NOT a major focus of a Quaker’s faith life. I would agree with Paul that the Bible is often a lost resource for Friends.

However, if we jump back in time again to the day of George Fox and early Quakers, we would encounter a group—a movement who knew and used the Bible as a key element in their understanding of God, and in their expressions of faith. According to Wilmer Cooper in his book on Quaker faith and practice, “Early Friends immersed themselves in the Bible, which was so much a part of their religious culture that its authority was taken for granted. It was said of George Fox that were the Scriptures lost he could reconstruct them from memory. Whether or not this was true, it is clear that he and other Friends were not only familiar with the Bible, but took it seriously as a religious guide for their lives.” A look at Michael Birkel’s book “Engaging Scripture; reading the Bible with early Friends” discloses that Friends used the scriptural texts to symbolize and describe the circumstances that they themselves were encountering as they sought to share and spread their form of “primitive Christianity revived”. Their writings and letters are rife with biblical phrases, and references to biblical themes and experiences. For example hear the opening lines of George Fox’s epistle 227: “Sing and rejoice you children of the Day and of the Light. For the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt. Truth does flourish as the rose, the lilies do grow among the thorns, the plants a-top the hills, and upon them the lambs do skip and play.” Besides sounding biblical, EVERY WORD of that quote refers or suggests a key concept or quote from the Bible.

YES; the Bible was important to friends and continues to have the potential to affect our faith and practice in these days.

But, for Friends, it has ALWAYS been about where the scriptures LEAD; under the direct and inward influence of the Holy Spirit—from the very first generation of Quakers. In a section of his journal George Fox wrote:

“I was to direct people to the Spirit, that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all truth, and so up to Christ and God, as those had been who gave them forth. . . . These things I did not see by the help of man, nor by the letter, though they are written in the letter; but I saw them in the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, and by his immediate spirit and power, as did the holy men of God by whom the holy scriptures were written. Yet I had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, they were very precious to me; for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth; and what the Lord opened in me, I afterwards found was agreeable to them.”

As Quaker scholar Stephen Angel says, “According to Fox’s mystical understanding, the openings from the Spirit came first, and the consultation of the book later.” This is the foundation of the Friends core belief in immediate and direct revelation by the Holy Spirit, THROUGH the scriptures. Our own New York Yearly Meeting’s faith and practice describes this reality very well.

“Because the Bible expresses the work of the Spirit, its authority is dependent on the Spirit itself. The same Light that inspired the prophets and apostles can illumine anyone who seeks to understand the truth. Such illumination is itself the highest authority. It unites us in the gospel of forgiveness, love, and community taught and lived by Jesus, and draws us into his struggle to realize the Kingdom of God, a world brought into unity with God’s will.”

There are differences across the spectrum of Friends belief today that reflect the path Quakers have taken through history; as they were affected by the religious world around them, and the specific leadings that folks have understood to be divine insight regarding how the bible is treated. There are even Friends who would agree with the statement that I read from a local congregation concern the role of scripture in faith. The differences can divide and have separated us in the past, but I choose to utilize them to engage in scripture personally in ways that allow me to experience the direct presence of God.

How exciting it can be to open oneself to the reality and power of the divine through the Holy Spirit illuminating the words of the Bible. My best hope is that we all start or continue to explore the scriptures for ourselves as individuals and as a faith community. As you might imagine, there are several practices developed and utilized by Friends that encourage the Bible to come alive in our faith journeys. I look forward to sharing those with you during our discussion time and continuing this conversation with you about scripture and it’s role in our lives as Quakers.

Let us take some time now to listen for God’s word to us about the Bible and our lives in our waiting worship.


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