Quakerism and the Bible

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The view of Quakers towards the Bible has varied considerably throughout time and throughout various Quaker traditions. The position of early Quakers, and large groups of Quakers today, including the Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and to a lesser extent liberal groups, is that the guidance of Christ Within supersedes the written scriptures, which nonetheless serve as a secondary law.

Early Friends

The great Quaker theologian Robert Barclay famously summarized this view of the role of the Bible in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity.

Nevertheless, because [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.

Isaac Penington, another early Quaker, echoed this interpretation.

The scriptures were generally given forth to the people of God; part to the Jews, part to the Christians. He that is born of the life, hath a right unto them, and can read and understand them in the spirit which dwells in the life. But he that is not born of the spirit is but an intruder, and doth but steal other men's light, and other men's conditions and experiences into his carnal understanding; for which they were never intended, but only to be read and seen in that light which wrote them. And all these carnal apprehensions of his (with all the faith, hope, love, knowledge, exercises, &c., which he hath gained into his spirit hereby; with all his prayers, tears, and fasts, and other imitations), will become loss to him (for he must be stripped of them all, and become so much the more naked), when God recovers his scriptures from man's dark spirit (which hath torn them, and exceedingly profaned them with his conceivings, guessings, and imaginings), and restores them again to his people.

George Fox himself stated:

"Now the Lord's power was so mighty upon me, and so strong in me, that I could not hold, but was made to cry out and say, "Oh! no; it is not the scriptures;" and told them it was the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions, and judgments were to be tried; for it led into all Truth, and so gave the knowledge of all Truth." —from the Journal of George Fox.[1]

Modern Quakerism

Elias Hicks, namesake of the Hicksite Quakerism, also valued the Bible, and was known to quote it extensively from memory when preaching. Of it, he wrote,

As to the Scriptures of Truth, as recorded in the book called the Bible, I have ever believed that all parts of them that could not be known but by revelation, were written by holy men as they were inspired by the Holy Ghost, and could not be known through any other medium, and they are profitable for our encouragement, comfort and instruction, in the very way that the apostle testifies; and I have always accounted them, when rightly understood, as the best of books extant. [...] But at the same time, I prize that from whence they have derived their origin, much higher than I do them; as I 'that for which a thing is such, the thing itself is more such.' And no man, I conceive, can know and rightly profit by them, but by the opening of the same inspiring spirit by which they were written; and I apprehend I have read them as much as most other men, and few, I believe, have derived more profit from them than I have.

This view has remained widespread among many groups of liberal Quakers, although the most liberal denominations now place the scriptures of other religions on equal ground, and affirm that they too are a reflection of the inner light in other peoples. At the other extreme, evangelical Quaker groups (including those associated with Evangelical Friends International) take a literalist view towards the Bible largely identical with that of other evangelical denominations.
  1. George Fox's Teaching on the Place of Scripture (qis.net)