March 21, 2013
John Punshon’s Reasons for Hope is unabashedly an argument. Those who are uncomfortable with arguments may not warm to this book, but they will miss something special. In making his argument, Punshon isn’t trying to put anyone down or sow unnecessary divisions among us. Instead, he is trying to think things through clearly, and to say carefully what he believes and hopes we will believe. We should welcome arguments like that.
He doesn’t spend a great deal of time saying what he is against, but he does say a great deal about why he thinks Friends – Evangelical Friends – should understand their church, their faith and their practice in a certain way. More specifically, he wants us to understand that, as Evangelicals, we fall within a broad tradition – a family – of beliefs that we should embrace. Moreover, he wants us to understand that, as Friends, we have a distinctive niche, a potentially vital one, within the broad Evangelical current.
Early Friends, he argues, came upon arresting understandings of God, worship, church governance, discipleship and much more. When the tradition of early Friends turned inward and grew stale, Evangelical thought revitalized Quakerism. Now Punshon is trying to see how the marriage of Quakerism and Evangelical Christianity can be coherent and fruitful.
His larger argument is mostly sustained in the first and tenth (last) chapters of the book. In chapters 2 through 9, he takes up important specific aspects of the religious life and tries to show three things about each: first, that Friends have a distinctive approach to this matter; second, that the current best beliefs or practices of the Friends Church in this regard are sound both scripturally and theologically; and third, that these distinctive approaches of Friends fall comfortably (even if occasionally innovatively) within the broader current of Evangelical belief and practice.
In chapter 2, for example, he discusses what most Evangelicals call “conversion,” and shows that what Quakers call “convincement” is essentially the same thing. To take another example, in chapter 6 concerning worship Punshon focuses on why open worship (expectant waiting) is an unusual practice of Friends but one that satisfies the same purposes as worship in other evangelical denominations. In other chapters Punshon discusses faith, the Bible, living a moral life, and end times. A Quaker could read Punshon’s book as a comprehensive and sophisticated overview of evangelical beliefs in the Quaker manner, though some prior familiarity with Quaker beliefs is needed to fully understand his argument.
Central to all of Punshon’s discussions of these various topics is the Quaker idea of the Light Within. That Quaker doctrine – if doctrine is the right word – emerges as the essential idea that ties the Friends Church to Evangelical Christianity because it provides assurance of personal experience of Jesus Christ.
Probably the most interesting discussion, for me, is Punshon’s treatment of the Bible in chapter 4. “For Evangelicals,” Punshon writes, “scripture is the authority from which there is no appeal.” But Friends, following Robert Barclay, take scripture as “a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself.” “On the surface,” acknowledges Punshon, “these two positions look as if they are mutually exclusive” (p 118). But Punshon thinks that is too superficial a view; he has an argument that he thinks resolves the contradiction.
That will be the subject of my fourth post on Reasons for Hope.