Conservative Friends, like the original Friends, believe that Jesus Christ is the Word of God. We take seriously the verse in the Gospel of John that says, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us...” (John 1: 14) We also believe that the Word of God inspired the writers of the Bible. Conservative Friends, like earlier Friends, often refer to those writings as “scriptures,” the term used by Jesus and by New Testament writers.
Early Friends’ Understanding of the Scriptures
Although by modern standards George Fox had only a rudimentary education, he knew the Scriptures well and used them often in personal study and in his ministry. It is clear that Fox considered not the Bible but Jesus Christ to be the Word of God. In his Epistle 249 Fox declares, ”For the Scriptures of Truth are the words of God ... (T)he Word was in the beginning, and Christ’s name is called the Word of God. But Christ is neither called scripture nor writings ....” Douglas Gwyn, in his
Apocalypse of the Word, states, ”It is perhaps Fox’s most valuable contribution that he rejoins the Spirit and the Word in prophetic experience of the risen Christ. While he presents Jesus Christ as the one Word of God, present and teaching by his Spirit, he places scripture, the historical record of the Word’s work, as the words of God. The true Word is the Christ who is speaking now.”
We should not gather, however, that Fox belittled Scripture. He records in his Journal that “I had no slight esteem of the holy scriptures, but they were very precious to me, for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth, and what the Lord opened in me I later found was agreeable to them.” Likewise William Penn, in his Advice to His Children, writes “The holy scriptures of Truth were blessed to me.... I charge you to read (the scriptures) daily; the old testament for history chiefly, the psalms for meditation and devotion; the prophets for comfort and hope; but especially the new testament for doctrine, faith and worship.” In his Apology, Robert Barclay declares that Friends
“value (the scriptures), ... to which...no other writings are to be preferred.” They are “very comfortable and necessary to the church of Christ.”
Early Friends held, as Conservative Friends do now, that only through the work of Christ within them can people can understand the truth in Scripture. Referring to the Gospel of John, Fox wrote in his Journal, “And I saw that none could read John’s words aright with a true understanding of them, but [i.e., except] in and with the same divine Spirit by which John spoke them, and by his burning shining light which is sent from God.”
Friends can be differentiated from other Christians by where their primary religious authority on earth resides. For Catholics, the institution of the Church has primary authority on earth. For Protestants, the Bible is the primary authority, while for Friends the Spirit of the Living Christ has primary authority.
Barclay argues that Scripture also is a valid source of religious authority, secondary but not in opposition to the Spirit of Christ. Because both the Scriptures and the divine revelations experienced within come from Christ, they are compatible and in unison. Barclay insists that “divine and inward revelations do not and cannot contradict the Scriptures of Truth.” Similarly, “whatsoever doctrine is contrary to (the Scriptures’) testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false.” Barclay affirms that Scripture is of great benefit to Friends seeking to know and follow the Living Word of God. Conservative Friends have maintained that understanding in an unbroken stream from the first Friends.
The Bible Among Conservative Friends Today
For present day Conservative Friends, Jesus Christ is an ever-present reality experienced among us as the Living Presence; Christ is the foundation on which we build our faith. Because the Scriptures were inspired by Christ Himself and because Christ remains unchanging (Heb.13:8), the two must agree. Ohio Yearly Meeting Friends value the Scriptures. OYM’s Book of Discipline includes this Advice (#16): “Be diligent in the reading of the Bible and other spiritually helpful writings....” OYM Friends today use the Bible in many ways:
1. Business sessions begin with a period of waiting worship, followed by a reading from Scripture.
2. Upon the conclusion of each evening program at yearly meeting, a portion of Scripture is read aloud.
3. In our traditional Bible readings, we gather in the presence of the divine Inspiration that gave forth the Scriptures. As different Friends are moved, they select a passage of Scripture and read it aloud, without introduction or explanation, allowing the Word present to minister to us about what was just read.
4. Ministry in meeting for worship often includes Scripture as part of the spoken message.
5. Many individuals and families have a regular time for the daily reading of the Bible.
6. Some Meetings have a Bible study group in which a passage is read aloud and discussed a few verses at a time.
John C. Smith
John C. "Jack" Smith is a member of Rockingham MM, a recorded minister, pharmacist, and part-time university professor. He lives with his wife Susan on their farm near Harrisonburg, Virginia.