Quaker View of Holy Scripture

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism, Volume II.]

Neither can a man, except he has a portion of the same spirit which Jesus and the Apostles and the Prophets had, know spirituality that the scriptures are of divine authority, or spiritually understand them—Explanation of these tenets—Objection, that these tenets set aside human reason—Reply of the Quakers— Observations of Luther—Calvin—Owen—Archbishop Usher—Archbishop Sandys—Milton--Bishop Taylor.

As a man cannot know spiritual things but through the medium of the spirit of God; or except he has a portion of the same spirit, which Jesus and the Prophets and the Apostles had, so neither can he, except he has a portion of the same spirit, either spiritually know that the writings or sayings of these holy persons are of divine authority, or read or understand them, to the promotion of his spiritual interests.

These two tenets are but deductions from that in the former chapter, and may be thus explained.

A man, the Quakers say, may examine the holy scriptures, and may deduce their divine origin from the prophecies they contain, of which many have been since accomplished; from the superiority of their doctrines beyond those in any other book which is the work of man; from the miraculous preservation of them for so many ages; from the harmony of all their parts, and from many other circumstances which might be mentioned. But this, after all, will be but an historical, literal, or outward proof of their origin, resulting from his reason or his judgment. It will be no spiritual proof, having a spiritual influence on his heart; for this proof of the divine origin of the scriptures can only be had from the spirit of God. Thus, when the Apostle Paul preached to several women by the river side near Philippi, it is said of Lydia only, “the Lord opened her heart, that she attended to the things that were spoken by Paul.” The other women undoubtedly heard the gospel of Paul with their outward ears, but it does not appear that their hearts were in such a spiritual state, that they felt its divine authority; for it is not said of them, as of Lydia, that their hearts were opened to understand spiritually that this gospel was of God. Again, when Jesus Christ preached to the Jews in the temple, many believed on him, but others believed not, but were so enraged that they took up stones to cast at him. It appears that they all heard his doctrine with their outward ears, in which he particularly stated that he was from above; but they did not receive the truth of his origin in their hearts, because they were not in a state to receive that faith which cometh from the spirit of God. In the same manner persons hear sermon after sermon at the present day, but find no spiritual benefit in their hearts.

Again—a man, by comparing passages of scripture with other passages, and by considering the use and acceptation of words in these, may arrive at a knowledge of their literal meaning. He may obtain also, by perusing the scriptures, a knowledge of some of the attributes of God. He may discover a part of the plan of his providence. He may collect purer moral truths than from any other source. But no literal reading of the scriptures can give him that spiritual knowledge of divine things, which leads to eternal life. The scriptures, if literally read, will give him a literal or corresponding knowledge, but it is only the spiritual monitor within, who can apply them to his feelings; who can tell him “thou art the man; this is thy state: this is that which thou oughtest or oughtest not to have done;” so that he sees spiritually, (the spirit of God bearing witness with his own spirit) that his own situation has been described. Indeed, if the scriptures were sufficient of themselves for this latter purpose, the Quakers say that the knowledge of spiritual things would consist in the knowledge of words. They, who were to get most of the divine writings by heart, would know spiritually the most of divine truths. The man of the best understanding, or of the most cultivated mind, would be the best proficient in vital religion. But this is contrary to fact. For men of deep learning know frequently less of spiritual Christianity, than those of the poor, who are scarcely able to read the scriptures. They contend also, that if the scriptures were the most vitally understood by those of the most learning, then the dispensations of God would be partial, inasmuch as he would have excluded the poor from the highest enjoyments of which the nature of man is susceptible, and from the means of their eternal salvation.

These tenets, which are thus adopted by the Quakers, are considered by many of the moderns as objectionable, inasmuch as they make reason, at least in theology, a useless gift. The Quakers, however, contend that they consider reason as one of the inestimable gifts of God. They value it highly in its proper province. They do not exclude it from religion.  Men, by means of it, may correct literal errors in the scriptures; may restore texts, may refute doctrines inconsistent with the attributes of the Almighty. The apology of Robert Barclay, which is a chain of reasoning of this kind from the beginning to the end, is a proof that they do not undervalue the powers of the mind. But they dare not ascribe to human reason that power, which they believe to be exclusively vested in the spirit of God.

They say, moreover, that these tenets are neither new nor peculiar to themselves as a society. They were the doctrines of the primitive Fathers. They. were the doctrines also of the protestant reformers. And though many at the present day consider that scripture, interpreted by reason, is the religion of protestants, yet it was the general belief of these reformers, that the teaching of the Holy spirit was necessary to the spiritual understanding of the scriptures, as well as to the spiritual establishment of their divine origin.

Luther observes—“It is not human reason, or wisdom, nor the law of God, but the work of divine grace freely bestowed upon me, that teacheth me and showeth me the gospel: and this gift of God I receive by faith alone.”

“The scriptures are not to be understood but by the same spirit by which they were written.”

“No man sees one jot or tittle in the scriptures, unless he has the spirit of God.”

“Profane men, says Calvin, desire to have it proved to them by reason, that Moses and the prophets spoke from God. And to such I answer, that the testimony of the spirit exceeds all reason. For as God alone is a sufficient witness of himself in his word, so will his word not find credit in the hearts of men, until it is sealed by the inward testimony of his spirit. It is therefore necessary, that the same spirit which spake by the mouth of the prophets, enter into our hearts to persuade us, that they faithfully declared what was commanded them by God.”

Again—“Unless we have the assurance which is better and more valid than any judgment of man, it will be in vain to go about to establish the authority of scripture, either by argument or the consent of the church; for except the foundation be laid, namely, that the certainty of its divine authority depends entirely upon the testimony of the spirit, it remains in perpetual suspense.” Again—“The spirit of God, from whom the doctrine of the Gospel proceeds, is the only true interpreter to open it to us.”

“Divines, says the learned Owen, at the first reformation, did generally resolve our faith of the divine authority of the scriptures, into the testimony of the Holy Spirit;” in which belief he joins himself, by stating that “it is the work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to believe the scripture to be the word of God.”

In another place he says, “our Divines have long since laid it down, that the only public, authentic, and infallible interpreter of the holy scriptures, is the author of them, from whose inspiration they receive all their truth, clearness, and authority. This author is the Holy Spirit.”

Archbishop Sandys, in one of his Sermons, preached before Queen Elizabeth, has the following observations:

“The outward reading of the word, without the inward working of the spirit, is nothing. The precise Pharisees, and the learned Scribes, read the scriptures over and over again. They not only read them in books, but wore them on their garments. They were not only taught, but were able themselves to teach others. But because this heavenly teacher had not instructed them, their understanding was darkened, and their knowledge was but vanity. They were ignorant altogether in that saving truth, which the prophet David was so desirous to learn. The mysteries of salvation were so hard to be conceived by the very apostles of Christ Jesus, that he was forced many times to rebuke them for their dullness, which unless he had removed by opening the eyes of their minds, they could never have attained to the knowledge of salvation in Christ Jesus.  The ears of that woman Lydia would have been as close shut against the preaching of Paul, as any others, if the finger of God had not touched and opened her heart. As many as learn, they are taught of God.”

Archbishop Usher, in his sum and substance of the Christian Religion, observes, “that it is required that we have the spirit of God, as well to open our eyes to see the light, as to seal up fully in our hearts that truth, which we can see with our eyes: for the same Holy Spirit that inspired the scripture, inclineth the hearts of God’s children to believe what is revealed in them, and inwardly assureth them, above all reasons and arguments, that these are the scriptures of God.” And farther on in the same work, he says, “the spirit of God alone is the certain interpreter of his word written by his Spirit; for no man knoweth the things pertaining to God, but the Spirit of God.”

Our great Milton also gives us a similar opinion in the following words, which are taken from his Paradise Lost:

----“but in their room----
Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,
Who all the sacred mysteries of Heaven
To their own vile advantages shall turn
Of lucre and ambition, and the truth
With superstition’s and tradition’s taint,
Left only in those written records pure,
Though not but by the spirit understood.”

Of the same mind was the learned bishop Taylor, as we collect from his sermon de Viâ Intelligentiae. “For although the scriptures, says he, are written by the spirit of God, yet they are written within and without.  And besides the light that shines upon the face of them, unless there be a light shining within our hearts, unfolding the leaves, and interpreting the mysterious sense of the spirit, convincing our consciences, and preaching to our hearts; to look for Christ in the leaves of the gospel, is to look for the living among the dead. There is a life in them; but that life is, according to St. Paul’s expression, ‘hid with Christ in God;’ and unless the spirit of God first draw it, we shall never draw it forth.”

“Human learning brings excellent ministries towards this. It is admirably useful for the reproof of heresies, for the detection of fallacies, for the letter of the scripture, for collateral testimonies, for exterior advantages; but there is something beyond this that human learning, without the addition of divine, can never reach. Moses was learned in all the learning of the Egyptians; and the holy men of God contemplated the glories of God in the admirable order, motion, and influences of the heaven; but, besides all this, they were taught something far beyond these prettinesses. Pythagoras read Moses’ books, and so did Plato, and yet they became not proselytes of the religion, though they were the learned scholars of such a master.”





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