from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel
I grew up non-Christian with only the broader culture’s familiarity with the Bible, which is to say, a jumbled mix of scraps that made no sense to me. Through Friends I have grown interested in learning about this part of our faith tradition and what it has to offer me. Marcus Borg has been an important guide along the way. And as I read this Pendle Hill Pamphlet about the amazing life of Henry Cadbury, this passage spoke to me about the meaning and role of the Bible today and through all time. It turned me back once more with fresh interest to my on-again, off-again exploration of this source of wisdom for so many Friends.
~ Lynn Drickamer
Henry Cadbury on Friends and the Bible
Henry Cadbury was often asked how Friends viewed the Bible, a question he had wrestled with since the 1920s. Over the years different branches of the Society of Friends regarded the Bible differently. Invited in 1953 by Guilford College, the Quaker school in Greensboro, North Carolina, to deliver the Fourth Annual Ward Lecture, he chose as his subject “A Quaker Approach to the Bible.”
In this lecture, Henry Cadbury argued that since early Friends believed that the same Holy Spirit spoke directly to them as had spoken to the ancient writers of the Scriptures, they felt that they should read the Bible in light of their own inner revelations and respond when the experiences and insights of the saints of old were the same as or “answered to” theirs. Robert Barclay, the theologian of early Quakerism, had called the Scriptures “a looking glass” in which this comparison between inner experience and biblical truth might be made. One might call the Bible “Operation Mirror.” Or another name might be “Operation Dictionary”:
The dictionary is not the authority that dictates how words ought to be used.
It is rather a record of how words are used and what they commonly mean.
In like manner the Bible is not the dictator of our conduct and faith. It is
rather the record of persons who exemplified faith and virtue. It does for
religion that which the dictionary does for speech. Its value consists of its
agreement with experience, or with Truth, as Friends used to use that word.
What is true in the Bible is there because it is true, not true because it is
there. Its experiences “answer” to ours – that is, they correspond with ours.
Friends, however, needed to be thoroughly familiar with the Bible as a whole, in Henry Cadbury’s view. And, although the literary translation of it, on which so much of his life had been spent, was important, it was the social translation – the translation of its truth into life – that was the more important business of Friends in the world.