Spirit and Scripture

By Thomas Clarkson (1806)

This spirit was not only given to man as a teacher, but as a primary and infallible guide—Hence the Scriptures are a subordinate or secondary guide—Quakers, however, do not undervalue them on this account—Their opinion concerning them.

The spirit of God, which we have seen to be thus given to men as a spiritual teacher, and to act in the ways described, the Quakers usually distinguish by the epithets of primary and infallible. But they have made another distinction with respect to the character of this spirit; for they have pronounced it to be the only infallible guide to men in their spiritual concerns. From this latter declaration the reader will naturally conclude, that the scriptures, which are the outward teachers of men, must be viewed by the Quakers in a secondary light. This conclusion has indeed been adopted as a proposition in the Quaker theology; or, in other words, it is a doctrine of the society, that the spirit of God is the primary and only infallible, and the scriptures but a subordinate or secondary guide.

This proposition the Quakers usually make out in the following manner:

It is, in the first place, admitted by all Christians, that the scriptures were given by inspiration, or that those who originally delivered or wrote the several parts of them, gave them forth by means of that spirit, which was given to them by God. Now in the same manner as streams, or rivulets of water, are subordinate to the fountains which produce them; so those streams or rivulets of light must be subordinate to the great light from whence they originally sprung. “We cannot, says Barclay, call the scriptures the principal fountain of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the first adequate rule of faith and manners; because the principal fountain of truth must be the truth itself, that is, whose certainty and authority depend not upon another.”

The scriptures are subordinate or secondary, again, in other points of view. First, because, though they are placed before us, we can only know or understand them by the testimony of the spirit. Secondly, because there is no virtue or power in them of themselves, but in the spirit from whence they came.

They are, again, but a secondary guide; because “that, says Barclay, cannot be the only and principal guide, which doth not universally reach every individual that needeth it.” But the scriptures do not teach deaf persons, nor children, nor idiots, nor an immense number of people, more than half the Globe, who never yet saw or heard of them. These, therefore, if they are to be saved like others, must have a different or a more universal rule to guide them, or be taught from another source.

They are only a secondary guide, again, for another reason. It is an acknowledged axiom among Christians, that the spirit of God is a perfect spirit, and that it can never err. But the scriptures are neither perfect of themselves as a collection, nor are they perfect in their verbal parts. Many of them have been lost. Concerning those which have survived, there have been great disputes. Certain parts of these, which one Christian council received in the early times of the church, were rejected as not canonical by another. Add to this, that none of the originals are extant. And of the copies, some have suffered by transcription, others by translation, and others by willful mutilation, to support human notions of religion; so that there are various readings of the same passage, and various views of the same thing. “Now what, says Barclay, would become of Christians, if they had not received that spirit and those spiritual senses, by which they know how to discover the true from the false? It is the privilege of Christ’s sheep, indeed, that they hear his voice, and refuse that of the stranger; which, privilege being taken away, we are left a prey to all manner of wolves.” The scriptures, therefore, in consequence of the state in which they have come down to us, cannot, the Quakers say, be considered to be a guide as entirely perfect as the internal testimony of their great author, the spirit of God.

But though the Quakers have thought it right, in submitting their religious creed to the world on this subject, to be so guarded in the wording of it as to make the distinction described, they are far from undervaluing the scriptures on that account. They believe, on the other hand, whatever mutilations they may have suffered, that they contain sufficient to guide men in belief and practice; and that all internal emotions, which are contrary to the declaration of these, are wholly inadmissible. “Moreover, says Barclay, because the scriptures are commonly acknowledged by all to have been written by the dictates of the holy spirit, and that the errors, which may be supposed by the injury of time to have slipped in, are not such but there is a sufficient clear testimony left to all the essentials of the Christian faith, we do look upon them as the only fit outward judge of controversies among Christians, and that whatsoever doctrine is contrary to their testimony, may therefore justly be rejected as false.”

The Quakers believe also, that as God gave a portion of his spirit to man to assist him inwardly, so he gave the holy scriptures to assist him outwardly in his spiritual concerns. Hence the latter, coming by inspiration, are the most precious of all books that ever were written, and the best outward guide. And hence the things contained in them, ought to be read, and, as far as possible, fulfilled.

They believe, with the apostle Paul, that the scriptures are highly useful, “so that, through patience and comfort of them, they may have hope; and also that they are profitable for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness:” that in the same manner as land, highly prepared and dressed by the husbandman, becomes fit for the reception and for the promotion of the growth of the seed that is to be placed in it, so the scriptures turn the attention of man towards God, and by means of the exhortations, reproofs, promises, and threatenings, contained in them, prepare the mind for the reception and growth of the seed of the Holy Spirit.

They believe, again, that the same scriptures show more of the particulars of God’s will with respect to man, and of the scheme of the Gospel-dispensation, than any ordinary portion of his spirit, as usually given to man, would have enabled him to discover. They discover that  “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ:”  “That Jesus Christ was set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God;” that “he tasted death for every man;” that he was “delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification;” that “he is set down at the right hand of the throne of God;”  “and ever liveth to make intercession for us; and, that he is the substance of all the types and figures under the Levitical priesthood,  being the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”

They believe, again, that, in consequence of these various revelations, as contained in the scriptures, they have inestimable advantages over the Heathen nations, or over those, where the gospel-sun has never yet shone; and that, as their advantages are greater, so more will be required of them, or their condemnation will be greater, if they fail to attend to those things which are clearly revealed.

They maintain, again, that their discipline is founded on the rules of the gospel; and that in consequence of giving an interpretation different from that of many others, to some of the expressions of Jesus Christ, by which they conceive they make his kingdom more pure and heavenly, they undergo persecution from the world—so that they confirm their attachment to the scriptures by the best of all credible testimonies, the seal of their own sufferings.




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