Our Theological Illiteracy

We have heard a good deal of late about our theological illiteracy as Friends, and we are likely to hear a good deal more. The following observations are intended to touch upon only a part of the subject. One reason for the present interest is undoubtedly the contacts by some Friends in the ecumenical movement with theologically minded folks in other churches. Regret is expressed that Friends are so few of them qualified to understand the thinking of other Christians.

Highly trained theologians in the Society were, of course, for centuries almost nonexistent. In the first generation, when all Friends were convinced and none birthright, some university-trained scholars joined the Society, like George Keith (Aberdeen), Robert Barclay (Paris), and William Penn (Oxford, Saumur), and brought their education into the service of Quakerism. Except for sporadic educated converts from other churches and born Friends who applied themselves to become self-made theologians, like Joseph John Gurney, whole generations of Friends were without benefit of the information available to the trained clergy. Fox’s warning against studying for the ministry was literally followed.

The Present Century

In the present [20th] century the tide has turned. At least a scattering of Friends have been exposed to some features of technical theology. Probably they have no corresponding equals in any generation except the first. I have sometimes engaged in the pastime of drawing up on paper an all-Quaker theological faculty from this country, much as sports writers select what they call an “All-American” football team. We have had of late scholars adequate to hold the teaching berths necessary in a well-balanced faculty of religion. On this level Quakerism is not completely deficient. I was surprised not long ago in trying to assess the indebtedness of the Society to one of America’s centers of religious training to discover what Friends had secured from a single institution (Harvard) graduate education with degrees. The list included Rufus M. Jones, Howard Brinton, Douglas Steere, Clarence Pickett, Elton Trueblood, Thomas R. Kelly, Moses Brown, and others.

The complaint of our theological illiteracy is leveled probably not against such persons but against the generality of our members. There is a feeling that in some quarters we are altogether too indifferent to the logical expression of religion. We are hazy about the cardinal doctrines of historic Christianity. We are satisfied with reliance on a way of life rather than a way of thinking. We are content to follow Fox’s admonition, “Let your lives speak.”

An Unfortunate Confusion

Those who stress theology and those who do not both tend to identify it with a certain set of doctrines, the former to urge both understanding of them and conformity to them, the latter to fear all theology as dogmatic and ultraconservative. This confusion is unfortunate. Theology is not any one set of interpretations, no matter how “sound” or biblical. It is every intelligent and faithful attempt to phrase a form of belief. It need not be identified with traditional orthodox views. Indeed, the less orthodox views need quite as much a careful reasoned statement in order that they may be tested. The first Christians formulated their beliefs precisely in the areas where they differed from their religious predecessors, and so did the first Friends. Robert Barclay explained that he did not in his writings attempt to deal with ideas or practices which Friends shared with Christians generally. But now many persons seem to identify theology with the general Christian faith, as though it was once for all delivered to the saints.

Fresh Interpretation

Yet religious experience is not a static thing. It needs to be freshly interpreted. That interpretation, no matter how unconventional, is as much theology as are the formulas of the past. All of us are called upon to give the reasons for the faith that is in us. If we vary, if, like the New Testament writers, we express ourselves in individual terms, that will only make richer the facilities for others who try to penetrate to the truth as revealed to them. Like New Testament writers we may feel called upon to interpret experiences in terms particularly contemporary to ourselves.

Dangers of Theologizing

Theologizing has, of course, its dangers. It has been in the past a major source of unconstructive religious controversy, and it can be so again. Too easily does one come to feel that one’s way of constructing experience is the true way, and all others false. The fallacy that if x is right, y is wrong, and similarly that if x is wrong, y is right is recognized by logically minded persons oftener than by theologically minded ones.

Theologizing is sometimes an escape from other religious values. A crystallized theology deadens sensitiveness to the new appreciation of truths old and new. Only too often it is head knowledge, what Fox called “notions,” divorced from the commitment of the person to the whole of the Gospel. As Barclay said (Apology, xi. 7), “Though thousands should be convinced in their understanding of all the truths we maintain, yet if they are not sensible of inward life and their souls not changed from unrighteousness to righteousness they could add nothing to us.”

I have referred to Keith and Barclay, two outstanding Scotch Quaker theologicals of the first period. Keith’s career is well known. He ended by tearing down the very Quakerism he once faithfully built up. Robert Barclay with all his excellencies as a Quaker apologist has seemed to more than one type of present-day Friend to have outlived part of his usefulness because his way of explaining Quakerism is not relevant to the thought world of our time.

American Friends

Turning to American Friends, I may mention Anthony Benezet and John Woolman. The former in one of his notebooks wrote:
I know some think great advantage will arise from people’s having what are called right ideas of God; and that those opinions are productive of much tenderness and charity in the minds of those who adopt them. But has this indeed been the case? Have the meekness and gentleness of Christ been more apparent in those who have been zealous advocates for this opinion than in other people? Ideas, however exalted they may appear, except impressed on the mind by truth, are still but bare ideas, and can have no influence in subduing that love of the world, that carnality of mind, that obduracy of heart, and, principally, that poisonous idolatry of self, so apt under one subtle form or another to insinuate itself even into the hearts of such as have already made some good advances in religion.

John Woolman’s Journal is widely admired today by several types of persons within and without the Society of Friends. How its lack of theology was complained of a century ago is told by J.G. Whittier in the introduction to his edition:

In the preface to an English edition, published some years ago, it is intimated that objections had been raised to the Journal on the ground that it had so little to say of doctrines and so much of duties. One may easily understand that this objection might have been forcibly felt by the slaveholding religious professors of his day, and that it may still be entertained by a class of persons who, like Cabalists, attach a certain mystical significance to words, names and titles, and who, in consequence, question the piety which hesitates to flatter the Divine ear by “vain repetitions” and formal enumeration of sacred attributes, dignities and offices. . . . However, the intellect may criticize such a life, whatever defects it may present to the trained eyes of theological adepts, the heart has no questions to ask, but at once owns and reveres it.

Half a century after Woolman and Benezet came the Orthodox-Hicksite separation. Some interpreters of that event attribute it to too much theology; some, to too little. If similar defects are not to occur in future Quakerism, it may depend upon the right stressing and limiting of theological emphasis. Neither extreme can ignore the largely unexpressed trends in current Quakerism, both for and against the reversion of Friends from theological illiteracy.
This is the unrevised text of an article that appeared originally in Vol. I, No. 1 of Friends Journal on July 2, 1955.

Henry J. Cadbury

Henry J. Cadbury (1883-1974), a biblical scholar and peace activist, taught at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges and Harvard University, and served on the committee that developed the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.