A Bit of Quaker Bible Study Part III

In Part Two I spoke of the issue of who decides how the Bible is to be interpreted, which I call the Hermeneutical Issue of Power, or the HIP Question. Answers to the HIP Question have varied widely, but they can be arranged in a somewhat oversimplified but useful order like a pyramid:


In this pyramid, the P represents the Pope; in the Catholic system, all such issues were ultimately settled at the top, with the Pope having the final say.

The Bs stand for Bishops, who, as in the Anglican Church, replaced the Pope with an ecclesiastical aristocracy; it too decided matters of interpretation from the top down.

The Es stand for Elders, or church officials as in the Presbyterian system, who decided matters in a somewhat representative manner.

The Cs are Congregations, which, as in the Southern Baptist churches (at least, before the right-wing takeover in the 1980s), means such issues are decided strictly at the local church level, acknowledging no higher earthly authority.

The Is stand for Individuals, studying and interpreting the Bible for themselves, seeking divine assistance, and in voluntary fellowships with others, and for whom church structures are resources and servants, not authorities or masters.

Most unprogrammed Quakers today are good examples of this latter approach.

(Although at some times in the past, and in some places in the present, they have succumbed to rule by Es, or elders, including self-appointed ones. Let us hope that does not happen here, despite the presence of a number of aspirants to the role.)

Church hierarchs have taken the HIP matter very seriously. For as the answers to the HIP question have moved down from the top of the pyramid through history, drastic social upheavals, including not a few revolutions, have usually followed.

Often enough, answers to the HIP Question were a matter of life and death: people who questioned the right of the “official” interpreters to decide what the Bible “really” meant were branded heretics, as dangerous and subversive as liberals and terrorists are in our time, liable to the rack and the pyre.

A prime example of these hazards was the case of John Wycliffe, a key figure in the first translation of the Bible into English. Such a project was then considered a capital crime; the Pope called for Wycliffe’s arrest. Wycliffe managed to evade the church authorities, and died a natural death in 1384. However, the hierarchy was not to be denied its vengeance: In 1417 his bones were dug up, burned at the stake and tossed into a river, as a sign to other “heretics” who would dare make the Scriptures available to the common reader in the native tongue.

One hundred and forty years later, William Tyndale completed a similar translation project. But he was not as lucky as Wycliffe: Betrayed to church authorities, he was imprisoned, tortured for months, and finally executed in 1536.

Nor are such risks only ancient history: The modern martyrs of Central America, including Oscar Romero, the four Catholic church women, the Jesuits in El Salvador, and indeed tens of thousands of others, were killed in part because of their “unorthodox” understanding and use of the Bible.

These examples and others show me that the Quaker way of placing trust and responsibility for biblical interpretation in the individual seeker in voluntary asssociation with others, is both right religion and a force for social justice. They also serve as a warning that the spirit of authoritarianism and domination, using the Bible as a club, is still very much alive, and still needs to be resisted.

Texts to ponder: Matthew 20:20-28. NEXT TIME: Finally, something about sexism and Bible study.

The views expressed here are solely my own.
Copyright © 1995 by C. Fager. All rights reserved; fair use welcome.

Leave a comment