The Word and the Spirit: Scripture and Context in Theology

"The principle source of truth must be the Truth itself. When we trace a stream to the place where it gushes from the Earth we can go no farther. The wellspring has to be considered the source, for the interior of the Earth cannot be plumbed and its ramifications are inscrutible."
—Robert Barclay, Apology (1678)

I will always remember the day when I was forced to admit I needed reading glasses. Like so many changes in midlife, it seemed an illusion at first. I hoped that the blurred markings on the page would eventually become clear if I simply rested my eyes. But the words didn’t become clearer. The loss of my perfect vision was something to grieve about. I could no longer be certain that my eyes were not deceiving me. Furthermore, when I finally accepted my condition and was fitted with the appropriate lenses, I realized that if I wore them all the time, even when I was not reading, my vision of things more than a few feet away became unfocused. I needed to accept my limitations, and to learn to adjust my remaining faculties to changing circumstances—trusting that the truth was something greater than what I perceived it to be at any given moment.

Robert Barclay (1648-1690), was the first, and some may argue the only, systematic theologian in the history of the Religious Society of Friends. He wrote his profound and influential Apology at a time when Friends were recovering from persecution by the secular and religious establishment of England. The early movement was sufficiently motivated by the unmediated revelation of the Spirit within, as opposed to theological doctrine and ecclesiastical authority. But, with the advent of the age of the Enlightenment, many Friends felt there was a need to face their detractors in more formal debate. The continuing growth of the Religious Society depended on defensible rational grounds for its version of primitive Christianity—a faith closer to the original (spontaneous and oral) teachings of Jesus and to the experience of the earliest church community.

While Robert Barclay’s work has never been accepted as a definitive statement of Quaker belief, it is true to Friends’ conviction of a personal faith, inspired from within and confirmed by Scripture and group unity within their historical context. For Robert Barclay, it has been described as a "thinking through" from the strict Calvinism of his youth, to the Roman Catholicism of his education, and finally to his Quaker convincement. The contemporary editor of Barclay’s Apology, Dean Freiday, maintains that through this work, Quakers made a 200-year leap into the future. As opposed to literal, proof-text interpretations, they adopted a synoptic and situational approach. In the first instance, all biblical statements on a certain subject had to be harmonized. There was no patience with isolated proof texts.

In the second instance, the truth needed to be tested against the situational context in which they were written and in which the readers found themselves. Robert Barclay agreed with the Protestant reformers who felt that the authority of the Scriptures did not depend on the approval or authority of any church—nor were they subject to corruption by human reason. But, he wrote, "We cannot go to the length of those Protestants who derive their authority from the virtue and power that is in the writings themselves. We desire to ascribe everything to the Spirit from which they came."

In his preamble to the discussion of Scripture he wrote, "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."

This is a very familiar position, considering that it later became a key element in liberal Protestantism. While it continues to arouse vehement opposition from the more literalist theologians, it has also proven to be an effective defense against theological hardening of the arteries. I have always been attracted to the more liberal school of interpretation myself. But, I confess, I am often tempted to take the easy route of fundamentalism. In a world of so many changes and relativistic theories, I know what it is to hunger for an infallible source of assurance.

At present, the best I can do is to accept Scripture as a unique, or incomparable, approach to the truth. For the Christian theologian, it is the primary witness to the historical revelation through Jesus. The theologian receives this message through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (a phrase that always seems to require more elaboration), and interprets it in the language of rational discourse—translating the message into a systematic form that can be used by people in their daily search for understanding.

Systematic theology is, to begin with, Christ-centered. The historical specificity of the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus attests to the fact that we are not dealing with an abstraction, but a series of remarkable events in the history of the world that continues to be a leavening agent today. The Bible in which we read the story of Jesus is the closest historical evidence of its truth.

Modern developments in biblical criticism have enabled us to reaffirm our dependence on this incomparable resource. We now have the tools to relate specific texts and passages to the whole content of Scripture, and to allow the whole content of Scripture to be illuminated by critical evaluation of specific texts. With such tools, contextual questions may be raised. We are alerted to the "settings-in-life" of particular extracts, the cultural and social biases of individual authors, and related influences that remind us of the fallibility of human understanding.

At the same time, interpretation of the text helps us to rediscover the meaning of the enormous event in which God walked among us, sharing even our confusion and suffering. To read the Scripture in this light is to read it in the same spirit that inspired the original authors and their communities. As Barclay affirmed, "It is the spiritual things that take place in the individual heart that are the life of Christianity." In this domain, we find the preliminary spadework of the theologian.

Christians have traditionally interpreted the whole of Scripture as witnessing to the single Christ event in the life of Jesus. But this only has enduring relevance in our day when, as theologian Frederick Herzog writes in Justice Church, "We are intimately involved in the same matrix of life in which Messiah Jesus incarnated God." The event witnessed in the past is one that continues to happen in the present, drawing us into the action. We have the same difficulties the early Christians had absorbing this insight. Moreover, contextual factors in our time are even more complex, leaving many in despair and retreating to the alleged certainties of fundamentalism. Yet, by changing lenses rather than confusing the stream of revelation with its mysterious source, we may yet experience God’s grace infusing our lives with love, hope, and understanding.

Participating in God’s redemptive act, the theologian explores the dialectic between what has been written and what can be experienced in the present moment. Being alert to possible distortions in understanding, our limitations may also be illuminated and transformed into real strengths. While many contextual distortions have become so embedded in our understanding through the centuries, our vastly improved lenses may help us to see beyond the words, to hear the original voices of expectation and despair that echo the human experience.

Scripture is a medium that reflects human limitations. This should alert the theologian to the fact that interpretion of the "good news" for our contemporaries is also subject to personal biases and social distortions. Testing our vision, changing and cleaning the lenses we wear every day is a continuing responsibility. Liberation theologies, for example, have helped us to appreciate the value of modern psychology, communications, and social and economic theory, to test and put to good use our perceptions of the truth as they have been handed down from previous generations. Feminism has exposed the patriarchal bias that has dominated Western culture for centuries—for even the most proximate witnesses to the Christ event were influenced by it. Feminist theologians have pointed out how our understanding of Scripture has been handicapped by the gender bias, a contextual perspective that is inconsistent with universal redemption. Fresh opportunities for doing theology are opening up for the whole community of believers. As Letty Russell has written in Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective: A Theology, "Everyone is to contribute to the meaning of faith from their own perspective."

This suggests that everyone who approaches life from a faith perspective has a vocation and a responsibility for doing theology. Living in an age of specialists, addressing one another in coded jargon and abstract theories, this has special relevance for us. While we do not all possess the tools for doing classical systematic theology, we may find assurance in the knowledge that Scripture speaks in different ways to different people—through our differently attuned faculties, interests, and needs. At the same time, acknowledgment of our individual gifts for understanding also leads us to a new level of interdependence and accountability.

The Christian community serves as a contextual frame of reference in itself—for it is within this that we struggle with our differences and diversity of insight. Christologies, theological interpretations, and transmission of the "good news" through innumerable languages and cultures are all done through a single normative community. Frederick Herzog calls it a "praxis community," reflecting on its dy-namic center of interaction and motivation for outreach. "Responsible Christian theology," he writes, "is always an effort to give an account of the continuing activity of the Messiah Jesus in his community." What that activity is cannot ultimately be settled by abstract theologians talking to each other, but by Christians struggling together "in the praxis of history."

We are called, as individuals in community, to "do theology" together. We listen to and dialogue with each other across the room and across the centuries, respecting and supporting one another in our weakness, seeking nourishment from the same well, and anticipating the final clearing of confusion and contextual bias that is what God’s intervention in human life is all about.

Robert Barclay understood the Scriptures to be an incomparable looking glass, "in which we can see the conditions and experiences of ancient believers." Finding our own experience to be analogous to theirs, we are comforted and strengthened in our hope for the same redemption they experienced. "Observing the providence that watched over them, and the snares which they encountered, and beholding the ways in which they were delivered, we may find ourselves directed toward salvation, and appropriately reproved, and instructed in righteousness."
© 2003 Keith R. Maddock

Keith R. Maddock

Keith R. Maddock, a member of Toronto (Ont.) Meeting, has studied theology and religious education at Emmanuel College in University of Toronto.