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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Friends (Quakers) and the Bible
by Bill Samuel
Originally published October 1, 1998 at

From the early days of the Religious Society of Friends in the 17th century, the Quaker approach towards the Bible has confused many and been controversial. It doesn't neatly fit the usual theological categories. Some charged that Quakers denied the authority of scripture, but Friends vigorously defended against that charge.

Barclay on the Scriptures

Most early Friends were not theologically trained. Robert Barclay was the notable exception. He wrote the premier theological work of early Friends, commonly known today simply as Barclay's Apology. As was the custom with theological works of that day, it was written in Latin and first published in 1676 as Theologiae verè Christianae Apologia. In 1678, it was published in English as An Apology For the True Christian Divinity, As the same is held forth, and preached by the People, Called, in Scorn, Quakers.

Barclay's Apology is organized around 15 propositions. Proposition 3 is on The Scriptures:

    From the revelations of the Spirit of God to the faithful have come the scriptures of Truth, which contain: (1) a faithful historical account of the behavior of God's people in various ages and of the many unusual and remarkable acts of God which they experienced, (2) a prophetic account of some things already past, and of others yet to come, (3) a full and adequate account of all of the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ which were spoken, or which were written, by the motions of God's Spirit at various times in treasured declarations, exhortations, and maxims which were given to certain churches and their pastors.
    Nevertheless, because the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself, they are not to be considered the principal foundation of all truth and knowledge. They are not even to be considered as the adequate primary rule of all faith and practice. Yet, because they give a true and faithful testimony of the source itself, they are and may be regarded as a secondary rule that is subordinate to the Spirit, from which they obtain all their excellence and certainty. We truly know them only by the inward testimony of the Spirit or, as the scriptures themselves say, the Spirit is the guide by which the faithful are led into all Truth (John 16:13). Therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader (Rom 8:14). Because we are receptive to the scriptures, as the product of the Spirit, it is for that very reason that the Spirit is the primary and principal rule of faith.

Key Points

The historical position of Friends (Quakers) regarding the Bible can be summarized in a few brief points:
  1. The primary authority is the Spirit of God rather than anything written.
  2. The Bible is a faithful declaration of the Spirit containing all the chief doctrines of Christianity, and thus can be relied upon as a secondary authority and a check as to whether claimed revelations of the Spirit are true revelations.
  3. The Bible can only be truly understood when we are in that Spirit which is its source.
  4. Jesus Christ is the true Word of God (John 1:14), but the Bible can be considered the words of God.

As a noncreedal, noncentralized faith, different groups of Friends have gone in different directions on this matter of faith as well as others. Some have gone more towards the standard evangelical approach, and may have greater emphasis on the authority of the Bible and less on the primacy of the Spirit. Others have gone in the opposite direction, being less clear that the Bible is a fully reliable authority. However, I think the traditional understanding is still close to the center of Quakerism today,

Web Sources

Here are some sources on the Web for more light into Friends and the Bible:

17th century documents 19th century documents 20th century documents 21st century documents
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.

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