Towards a Quaker Theology

I love my Quaker tradition. Most of all, I love our mysticism—how a direct experience of God is more important to us than ‘notions’ about God.

Yet, I worry that we have given up too much by giving up on theology.

I was bothered by this a great deal as we argued about homosexuality in Kenya, at the World Conference. Evangelical  Friends have a very clearly constructed idea of why homosexuality is wrong, and this idea is closely tied to their theology. The Bible is the inspired Word of God; we are meant to read the Bible for the “plain meaning” of the words; Paul says “man should not lie with man as he lies with woman; it is an abomination;” homosexuality is an abomination. Q.E.D.

In response to this, liberal Friends would typically say, “You’re wrong!” and offer an argument from experience.

I am extremely sympathetic to an argument from experience. After all, that’s how I personally came to believe that homosexual relationships are equally blessed by God. When the argument from experience is the only argument we use, though, I have the distinct feeling that we come across as unconvincing—and worse, rather arrogant.

From the perspective of an Evangelical Friend, this is saying that we are putting our own opinion above the revealed Word of God. Changing our perspective and looking at this in a context of race relations rather than theology, this might be taken as saying, “I'm a well-educated white person, and you, a less well-educated black person, are wrong because I say so.”

And honestly? Without a clear theology of what the Inward Light actually is, without an alternative Biblical hermeneutic on offer, without some kind of framework in which to place our religious experiences, I don't think we can effectively argue against that perception.

I read a lot of religious bloggers from different traditions than my own. Particularly, I love reading religious bloggers who are more conservative than I. It makes me think, widens my perspective, and exposes me to some very intellectually impressive scholarship. All that to say, I really enjoyed this post from Roger E. Olson (excerpted below), “What I admire about Calvinists.” (Olson himself is an Arminian.)

“I admire how MOST evangelical Calvinist churches teach theology/doctrine and how to integrate that into everyday spirituality and ordinary life. That kind of integration of theology/doctrine with practice is too rare in non-Calvinist churches . . . They [non-Calvinists] have picked up pieces of this and that (theologies) and pasted them together in ways that seem good to them without any real reflection on the outcome . . . They [Calvinists] always seem to have a ready answer to questions about practical matters such as preaching, praying, worshiping, witnessing, etc., and how those are affected by their Calvinism. . . .”

In the same way, Quakers need to be able to articulate our answers to practical questions such as how to discern whether or not to speak in unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, how to discern whether someone else was truly led during worship or whether they outran their guide (and how to deal with it if they did), how to lift up and nurture ministers, how to support leadings, what we mean when we talk about “holding someone in the light” (is that intercessory prayer?), how to defend same gender marriages, what support and advice to offer people going through difficult times (“my daughter is dying—where is God in this?”), and how those practices and beliefs are grounded in our Quakerism.

Personally, as a liberal Quaker and as a Christian (in my heart I'm a Conservative Friend in a liberal Yearly Meeting), my response to the homosexuality debate is roughly as follows: The Bible is not the Word of God; Christ, who is the Word of God, taught us that to love God and love our neighbor is the first commandment, on which hang all the other laws; we must always interpret the Bible by that commandment; if a verse in the Bible cannot be reconciled with the Love of Christ (which we experience internally as the Inward Light) then between the verse and Christ we must pick Christ.

I'm not saying that liberal Quakers everywhere must become Christian. What I am saying is that unless we engage more deeply in our traditions, and in some serious religious thought, we risk becoming unable to communicate with other faith traditions, with the religious seekers we want so much to welcome, and even with those who think differently in the wider family of Friends. We weaken our ability to be truly Quaker.


  1. Interesting link to the quote about Calvinism. I like religious movements where the faith and practice link together into a unified whole--there's a sort of elegance to them. Lloyd Lee Wilson described our version of it the "Quaker Gestalt."

    I came to Quakers as a spiritual-but-not-religious peace activist who sensed there was more to their social witness than anything I myself could articulate. When we focus too much on one side of the faith vs practice balance we risk dogmatism and in-groupism. I'm glad to see you trying to bridge them again.

    1. I honestly hadn't thought of it in terms of a faith vs. practice balance, but now that you said it, I can tilt my metaphorical head a little and see it that way, too. Thank you for that!

  2. I wonder if you're familiar with the work of Ben Pink Dandelion? The Liturgies of Quakerism may especially interest. http://www.quakerbooks.org/BenPink-Dandelion. I'm especially appreciative of your discernment of the risk of seeming (or indeed being) arrogant...

    1. The only Ben Pink Dandelion I've read is "The Quakers- A Very Short Introduction," as it was in our 'gift bag' for FWCC gathering 2012. Speaking of arrogance, I must admit I have been turned off because his name is . . . Ben Pink Dandelion. I need to get over myself.

      I just looked up the book on liturgies, and it does indeed look excellent. My reading list just got longer . . .

  3. That's actually a quote from Leviticus, not Paul. It says something closer to "man will not have sex with man in lyings of women. It is an abomination." Several important things to remember here. One, that phrasing barely makes any sense and could really easily mean "don't bring your boyfriend into your wife's bed." Two, Leviticus is the holiness code for Jews. It's the Kosher laws. The old Covenant is gone. Three, that part of Leviticus is *more* specifically the holiness code for the Jewish *priesthood*, the Kohenim. The Kohenim was disbanded centuries ago. There are still people who claim the lineage (it was inherited father to son), and you'll see that in the Jewish surname Cohen, but the priesthood is no more. Feel free to ask a Rabbi about that one (and Rabbis are teachers, not priests).

    What Paul says is that in a certain city men turned to "unnatural" desires for each other and likewise the women had "unnatural" desires for each other. What gets lost in translating that as "unnatural" is that the specific Greek word used should be interpreted as "uncharacteristic" rather than "against the laws of Nature." God himself is described with the exact same Greek word later in that same epistle.


    Biblical interpretation nitpicking aside: I agree that Jesus specifically saying that love is the highest law is the way to answer any attacks on LGBTQ folks.

    1. You're totally correct; I quoted from memory and didn't look it up as I usually do. Eek! I have learned my lesson: always. check. citations!

      Yes, I agree that there is a totally different angle if Leviticus is being used as the clobber verse. I'm tempted to edit to fix my error but I will let it stand!

      Thanks for your comment, generally. :-)

    2. The local Friends Center in my area (William Penn House) hosted an evening discussing the "clobber passages" a while back. It was based around this page, which I read several years ago and made sure to learn well enough to actually use. http://www.religioustolerance.org/homglance.htm

    3. Thanks for the shout out, Mackenzie! That was a good night. We had 2 or 3 gay men who were Pentecostals and had done a lot of hard work and study to try and understand those passages and reconcile them with their experience.

      Rosemary, I think that's where I get a little uncomfortable with the choice you set up between the Bible and Christ (or our current experience of him). I has my interpretation of scripture challenge by the faithful and spirit-filled gay and lesbian people around me in college. I had to live for several year in that tension between the interpretation of the Bible I had been taught in my Evangelical Friends upbringing and what I saw in the church community around me, and sometimes still find myself there.

      However, the choice is not between my current experience of Jesus and his love and the Bible. The same Spirit that speaks to me today spoke to the writers of the New Testament. The church, guided by that same Spirit has affirmed those writings. If experience, tradition and the scriptures don't line up, I must either bring them into alinement by changing my view of one or all of them, or I must continue to live in the tension until I have some new understanding. Chucking one or the other is just too easy and treads to close to allowing me to make God in my own image and to my own preferences.

    4. Faith, I think I was trying to say something like you said in your third paragraph, only you said it better. I really loved what you said about "living in the tension," and your concern about making God in our own image speaks to me also. I do have a very liberal view of scripture, and sometimes I blur the line between altering my view of the thing and chucking the verse, as it were. Thank you, you made me think!

  4. There's a real problem as to how we're supposed to use the Bible, not just "how our tradition views it" etc.

    In view of the (actually settled) question of whether the Bible can claim to be even approximately factual, there is bound to be friction between people who see it as a sourcebook of God's rules for human life, and people who see it as a relic, treasured or otherwise.

    I'm hoping that more people can value it -- not as an explicit and perfect communication from God, but as a product of God's ongoing conversation with humanity, reflecting the errors and misunderstanding that accompany that process -- as well as the fact that this process is real and we are the heirs of those who preceded us in it.

    Which is how I'm understanding the excerpt from NT Wright here:

    1. Have you read his whole lecture? It's here http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm and it's awfully interesting.

      This is my favorite passage:

      "Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

      Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted ‘authority’ for the task in hand. That is, anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This ‘authority’ of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency."

  5. The following paragraph from Penington describes where authority is to be found: not in precepts, nor in the individual's experience, but in the Lord who dwells in his temple.

    Now, to give forth precepts of holiness...before men's minds are turned to that which enlighteneth, and giveth power to believe and obey; that is not the way of the gospel; but the way of the gospel is to bring to the foundation of light and life in the particular, and so to dissettle the spirit from that which is dead, and found it upon that which is living; that a living building of pure life, of living materials, of living stones, may be raised up unto the Lord; in which temple he dwells and appears, exercising his authority and power (4:149).

    1. From where in Penington is that excerpt taken? I don't understand the citation, and it's lovely; I'd like to read more.

      On the other hand, while I agree with his precept here (sorry! couldn't help myself!) I'm still left wondering how we consistently discern when someone is speaking in this manner. For the most part I find we "just know," but is there more to it than that?

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    3. I think that there is more than "just knowing" to discernment. If there's a strong engagement with the tradition, a context and standard is available that otherwise would be missing. Engaging the tradition (pondering these things in our hearts) sensitizes us to truth, and we can more accurately hear it within as well as in others' ministry. The tradition also confirms or checks our discernment. In John 10, for example, Jesus gives a metaphor for what the "just knowing" is like: like sheep hearing/knowing their shepherd. Without the tradition, the ministry though felt to be authentic, will likely fall by the wayside or on stony ground (Mk.4:4). The tradition gives us a great deal: a sense "of direction to take, of dangers to avoid and hardships to endure, of insights that are our provisions, and of that glorious completion toward which we move."

      The Penington in the first post was from the The Works of Isaac Penington published by Quaker Heritage Press, and the excerpt was from a piece titled Concerning the Gospel Ministry, or right Way of teaching and learning the Mystery of Life and Salvation.

  6. I'm interested in how you feel about the existing Quaker theological resources and whether or not they address some of the questions you have raised. I am thinking of Barclay's 'Apology', or some of the less systematic works, like Shewen's 'Counsel to the Christian Traveller'? I think some of these early works do address, biblically, the reasons why the Quaker tradition tends to lean on the inner light. I believe Barclay directly addresses this kind of Question.

    I'm also wondering just how valuable a systematic response would be. The thing about interpretations that differ is that it is difficult to have some kind of objective criteria that favors one interpretation over another. One of the things about the Bible that I've discovered is that there is actually very little theology in it. There is some; Paul's letters have some. But even in Paul it is not what we today would call 'systematic'. Paul's letters are more responsive to particular situations that arose that he felt he needed to deal with.

    I sometimes compare theology to music theory. You don't need music theory to appreciate music or to be a musician. Similarly, I don't think you need theology to enter into the inner light.

    Just a few thoughts,

    Thy Friend Jim

    1. Hi Jim,
      I've certainly read Barclay's apology, and more than once. I like him, and I can agree with most (not all) of what he says, but I do find him frustratingly vague at points. For example, his position on the Bible was, as I understand, accepted by both Hicks and Gurney, but interpreted differently (obviously!)

      I totally agree that theology is like music theory, and you don't need to know it to appreciate God or music. But I think it's really, really helpful to know theology if you're going to "do" theology, as in carrying a concern for vocal ministry, or really any other ministerial concern.

      I also think Quakers could use a decent systematic. Wasn't it Barth who said that the best apologetic was a good systematic? I just love the RSoF so much, and don't want to see us die out because we're misunderstood . . . sometimes our lack of organized theological thought starts to feel like hiding our light under a bushel.

      Thank you for your thoughts and for your visit,

  7. It's just the same old Protestant stuff, over and over again.

    My "experience" is as unreliable a source of grounding and authority as the Bible is. Both lead me to draw my own inferences and then be guided by these rationalistic notions--instead of being guided, day by day, by what God is telling me directly.

    I have laid down both the Protestant notion of reasoning my way to righteousness from the Bible, and the "Quaker" notion of reasoning my way to righteousness from my own experience.

    Neither has or can improve my condition because both come down to worshipping and relying on my own reason.

    If I hear God and do as I am told then I am fine.

    It doesn't matter what I think the Inner Light is. What matters is that I follow where it leads me.

    It's all the theology I need. In fact, it's all the theology I can handle. Anything else just gets me in trouble.

  8. Rosemary, have you read Doug Bennett's article "Homosexuality: A Plea to Read the Bible Together" in the June/July Friends Journal?