A Quaker Approach to the Bible

Stephen Potthoff

The first Training and Recording Workshop for prospective Quaker ministers for 2020–2021 featured a presentation by Stephen Potthoff, Professor of Religion, Philosophy, and Peace Studies at Wilmington College. Stephen has been teaching there since 2003. His scholarly interests include early Christianity and ancient religion and archaeology. He writes and researches on a wide range of topics, including Native American spirituality, dreams, and near-death visionary experiences.

The topic for the session was how Quakers approach the Bible. Of course, a "Quaker approach" can vary depending on the kind of Quaker you are. Stephen made it clear that he does not speak from a kind of Quakerism heavily influenced by evangelical Protestantism.

Generally, he speaks from a tradition that extends back to the founders of the Religious Society of Friends. In this view, scripture is seen as an "ongoing conversation about fundamental tensions" in human existence. It is an ancient approach of reading scripture non-literally. For example, this approach historically applied an allegorical reading to the contradictory and violent passages. The tradition that Stephen represents is also  comfortable with a dialogue using knowledge gained from modern scientific and Biblical scholarship. This seems consistent with evolving Quaker thought related to a willingness to grow and change out of rigidly held beliefs, such as the defense of slavery or of the old law  of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

Because the Bible includes both primitive and more evolved material within its pages, naïve and unscrupulous readers can get attached to the levels of understanding that are superseded by representatives (even in the same Bible) of later prophetic and wisdom traditions. Stephen's  presentation made this point clear without being unkind to people and groups that have not always understood the point. His clarity and humility, which did not sacrifice his integrity about the importance of a good scholarly and pastoral approach to the Bible, was much appreciated.

In order to meet needs and to narrow the focus, the participants in this workshop were asked about our personal Biblical interests. One student wanted to look at the creation account in Genesis, while another asked for prophecy and wisdom literature. There is not enough space here for all the rich presentations that followed. Stephen highlighted the fact that many diverse creation stories exist in the Bible. I especially appreciated our contemplation of Proverbs 8:22–31 and its feminine contribution to our understanding of God’s relationship to creation.

I also appreciated the brief account of Paul’s religious experiences and his influence on the growing Gentile face of the Jesus movement. We heard how Jesus’ ministry was traceable to the Jewish prophetic tradition. One central feature of this tradition was its continuing conversation, again, with past understandings. Paul’s focus on the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus contrasts with this approach.

Stephen made it clear that non-evangelical Quakers do not dwell on the doctrine of original sin. This contrasts with much of Western Christianity, but it resonates with other traditions, including the rabbinical and the Eastern Orthodox, with its emphasis on what Matthew Fox calls our original blessing. I also appreciated Stephen's willingness to find value in other non-Christian faith traditions.

 Ray Geers is currently in the process of being recorded as a Quaker minister. He recently served as one of the worship leaders during Wilmington Yearly Meeting.

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