The catalyst for this post was An Evangelical Manifesto, which I reflected upon in my last post. And my perspective on the subject is deeply informed by two traditions/movements within the Christian church with which I have been heavily involved. One is Quakerism in which I spent much of my life. Another is what is often referred to as the Emerging Church conversation or movement. While I have only formally been a member of an Emerging Church for three years, I was part of a group which had much of the same perspective long before the term Emerging Church had been dreamed of. That little spiritual community which became known as Friends in Christ melded Quaker and what now would be called Emerging Church perspectives in a way that could be called an early precursor of the loose Convergent Friends movement of today. Here I will note that in the long list of Manifesto signatories I could not identify any Quakers or any of the prominent public faces in the Emerging Church conversation.
As I indicated in my earlier post, I fully identify with the definition in An Evangelical Manifesto: “Evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.” Playing off that document’s insistence on capitalizing Evangelical, I am saying I am evangelical in terms of the root meaning of that word expressed in that Manifesto definition, but I’m not comfortable with some other aspects of the description of Evangelical, in which the Manifesto is faithful to the tradition of that part of the Christian church. That leads me to seeing myself as fitting the term if left lower case, but not really accurately defined when it is upper case.
The Bible and Authority
The Manifesto, and here it is indeed representative of Evangelicalism, refers to sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), the “supreme authority of the Bible,” and “the Scriptures our final rule for faith and practice.” It claims this is shown by “Jesus’ own teaching and his attitude.” This is a Manifesto, not an apology, and it doesn’t do references, so I’m not sure what they rely on for that.
I find Jesus saying in scripture that I am the way and the truth and the life. (John 14:6, NIV) This is a radical statement, and one hard for us humans to accept because we want to be able to package up truth in a neat, rational box. Jesus tells us this impulse is wrong. The people that he had such conflict with are precisely the religious leaders of his day who wanted to tie up faith in a neat little box. Relying on purely the written word of the Bible as the Truth doesn’t really quite succeed in achieving the goal of the neat little box, but the urge to make the book supreme is an attempt to move in that direction. Evangelicals also proclaim Christ is Lord, but their emphasis on the written word as the sole determiner of Truth tends to contradict that. I am not an Evangelical because, in the end, I’m not sure that Evangelicalism is really centered on Jesus Christ.
I believe the premier Quaker apologist, Robert Barclay, put this question of authority well in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity. He states that the scriptures do contain revelations of God to the saints, but notes that, “because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.” Barclay notes “that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth” and goes on to make this key argument:
If by the Spirit we can only come to the true knowledge of God; if by the Spirit we are to be led into all Truth, and so be taught of all things; then the Spirit, and not the Scriptures, is the foundation and ground of all Truth and knowledge, and the primary rule of faith and manners
I find Barclay’s arguments convincing. (See also Friends (Quakers) and the Bible.)
My immersion into the Emerging Church conversation has provided me with further insights into understanding the scriptures. I have learned about narrative theology. To me, this provides a way to better explore the richness of the scriptures than a doctrinally centered theology. I can observe that Jesus taught largely by telling stories, and by the story of what he did. Looking at the whole Bible, I can see that it is predominantly stories. By taking the narrative approach rather than a literalist approach, we are better able to explore the many facets of the stories in the scripture and to translate them into lessons for how we can live more faithfully.
The narrative approach sees the narrative as continuing, not stopped at some point in time with what’s in the canon, which is consistent with the early Quaker reluctance to embrace the idea of a fixed canon. When I participated in the Journey Seminar, the membership class for Cedar Ridge Community Church, I appreciated the approach of a journey which included what was recorded in scripture, the history of the Christian church in its many variations, and the life of this particular local faith community. It gave me both a sense of the “cloud of witnesses” and of the importance of the continuing spiritual journey in which I can participate. At the end, to become a member, I signed a sheet of paper that was committing myself to principles of living out the journey with Christ within the context of this particular community, but did not contain doctrinal propositions. This felt right to me.
While what I have just written about is the primary reason for my reluctance to consider myself an Evangelical, there is another (albeit related) concern. Evangelicals hold strongly to being Protestant, in contrast with the alternatives of being Catholic or Orthodox. I feel a reluctance to limit my Christian understanding to just one of the main divisions of the Christian church. This view, too, has been heavily impacted by my involvement in both Quakerism and the Emerging Church conversation.
There has been a debate about whether or not Quakers are Protestants. (See Are Quakers Protestant?) Early Quakers contrasted themselves with both Catholics and Protestants (Orthodox were simply not a part of the religious conversation in 17th century Britain where the Quaker movement started, but I’m sure Quakers would also have contrasted themselves with the Orthodox if they had been), essentially regarding both streams as apostate. In some areas, they saw Protestants as having moved from part of the errors of Catholicism, but not all the way. As regards the scriptures, their argument was in fact primarily with Protestantism.
While identifying with the Quaker reluctance to put themselves in one of the big boxes of Christianity, I became increasingly reluctant to see that solely as rejecting those major streams. My participation (1993-94) in the Spiritual Nurturer Program of the School of the Spirit greatly contributed to that. While the Program was Quaker, the majority of the readings were from the monastic tradition, which has been writing in depth about spiritual nurture for many centuries. I found that I really identified with most of what I read from the monastic tradition. That did not make me want to convert to Catholicism, but it did result in a great appreciation for the spiritual richness within that tradition.
At Cedar Ridge, the teachings and practices draw from all three major divisions of the Christian church. All are seen as part of the story in which we see ourselves. While in the Emerging Church conversation we recognize many ways in which all three traditions have gone astray at various points in history, we don’t have the unrelenting negativism towards them that marked the early Quakers. We also see a lot of spiritual vitality in all of these streams of Christianity. I identify with this perspective.
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This post may be too long, but I hope it gave you some food for thought. I would welcome comments on it.