March 22, 2013
John Punshon begins his discussion of the Bible by acknowledging that Friends have been divided before on how to view the Bible. “In the early nineteenth century,” he says, “when evangelical ideas began to exercise a strong influence on Friends, there was a bitter controversy over the nature of the Bible and the way the authority of Scripture was understood and applied” (p 117).
The controversy concerns what we take to be the ultimate authority, the Bible or the Holy Spirit. “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).
Punshon believes that a deeper understanding of scripture and a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit can dissolve this contradiction. Put another way, he endeavors to rebuild Barclay’s view of the Bible that takes it to be both (a) authoritative and (b) not the ultimate source – not displacing the Holy Spirit. He notes that Barclay also says “Because the Spirit of God is the fountain of all truth and sound reason, therefore…it cannot contradict either the testimony of the scripture or of right reason” (p 141).
I found his discussion very illuminating and helpful, but I also found it somewhat tortured and not wholly convincing.
If we think we see a contradiction between the words of the Bible and the leadings of the Holy Spirit, do we take that to be an indication that the Bible is in error or that our reading of the Bible is in error? Punshon suggests the latter, and that provides one simple insight into how he seeks to resolve the contradiction.
Punshon invites us to consider “the twin concepts” of “revelation” and “inspiration” to understand the Bible. Both involve the workings of the Holy Spirit. Revelation is the means by which the Bible was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Inspiration is how we as readers find meaning in the Bible again under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When tension appears between the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we should assume the error is in us, not in the Bible.
Punshon devotes several pages each to unpacking “revelation” and “inspiration” (pp 120-140), and these are worth reading with care. At the end, though, seeing these clearly may be satisfying at a general level, but less helpful in specific circumstances. How do we know we are reading the Bible correctly? Punshon acknowledges that there are some difficult issues on which this question may arise.
“Inerrancy, predestination, slavery, episcopacy, war and peace are all matters where the churches, in possession of one Bible, have come to very different conclusions on the basis of the same Bible’s authority. How can this be possible?” (p 136). I would certainly add homosexuality to that list. Punshon discusses none of these difficult issues, however. I wish he had explored at least one.
He does add this: “One answer is that where the scriptures appear to support a number of equally well-considered possibilities, there is no scripturally convincing reason for preferring one possibility to another. If this is so, the right course must be to approach the question spiritually rather than exegetically, in other words to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (p 137).
Again, helpful; and again, not completely satisfying. Suppose we disagree among ourselves about whether there is a “scripturally convincing reason for preferring one possibility to another?” A century and a half ago, that was the situation regarding slavery, and the resultant Civil War divided faithful Christians. Today that is the situation regarding homosexuality.
One thing I especially appreciated about Punshon’s chapter on the Bible is his discussion of how the Bible came to be written and how this bears on the book’s authority. I’ll focus on this subject in my fifth post on Reasons for Hope, and I will also focus on Punshon’s view of Bible inerrancy.