I’m taking a 2-week class in Richmond, Indiana: Quakers and the Bible. This post was submitted as a “paper.” The task was to compare the opinions of Samuel Fisher and John Owen on when & whether revelation occurred or stopped, how it affected their ideas of whether the Bible is a closed work or not, and who won the debate. We had to read an essay outlining their positions by each author. It seems that talking trash isn’t that new a thing. They knew how to sling mud in 1652.
John Owen and Samuel Fisher find themselves about as close to opposite on most theological issues as it is possible to be. This brief comparison of Owen’s Biblical Theology and Fisher’s Rusticus ad Ademicos will attempt to assess their ideas about when/where/whether revelation began and ceased, the effects on canonical development, and who won the match.
To begin with, Owen is handicapped by an extra fifty pounds represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith. While he may largely agree with its provisions, it greatly reduces his agility because it limits what he can and can’t agree to. Fisher is actually twenty pounds lighter, if you get my drift, powered by the inner light. He is able to move freely about both within and without scripture, racking up points wherever revelation can be found. Owen finds this reprehensible. Revelation ceased, he says, with Ezra nearly 400 years before JC showed up on the scene. When Jesus began his ministry, God opened the revelation faucet for Him, and poured it all over the disciples, too. But that was the end of it. Since then, the town’s been dry.
John has had to admit that there may have been an error mistake or two in translation, and that sort of maybe led to the occasional inconsistency. But hey. Interpretation: that’s what it’s for. When the texts fail to agree, it’s the job of interpretation to reconcile them. And be sure of this: interpretation is for old knowledge. This new-fangled revelation stuff Fisher spouts is for the birds. Talk about leading the sheep out to pasture. More like over a cliff, if you want to know what I think (quoth he).
Fisher is quick to come back. What about the apocryphal writings? What about the lost books? What about the stuff like Philemon that made the cut and shouldn’t have? What about the stuff that should have made the cut and didn’t? I suppose you’re going to tell me that Jeremiah wrote his own obit about how much Israel grieved his death. Really. And you’re going to tell me that scripture is perfect? In whose world? And that gap between Ezra & Christ. Do you seriously expect me to believe that God was silent for 400 years, or that he hasn’t said a peep since the apostles?
JO comes right back. He claims the Quakers invented the inner light as a way to twist scripture to fit their heretical agenda. He states that there are two kinds of light: natural, like from the sun, and divine coming from God as he sees fit. And He hasn’t seen fit since the apostles left this earth. The only divine light left in humans since the fall is just a little flicker that’s not enough to see a keyhole with, much less fuel a revelation. And whatever little bit of light it is, it’s not Christ, so it can’t save and you still can’t see the keyhole. Owen says the Holy Spirit will distribute gifts as it sees fit: some folks just don’t qualify. That shoots a big ol’ hole in your revelation-for-all-because-everyone’s-got-the-inner-light balloon, Sammy-boy. And furthermore, missing books or not, scripture is complete just the way it stands and has everything in it anyone could ever need to get their soul saved and that’s what it’s all about anyway so why do you need more revelation to muddy things up and can’t you JUST LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE!?
Tell me this, JO, says Fisher. Who closed the Canon? Was it God, or was it man? I didn’t quite catch JO’s answer. There was some sputtering, and it’s clear that JO thinks the canon is closed. Like the Groucho Marx question about whether you’ve quit beating your wife, it’s not a question Owen can win by answering. While I’d say Fisher is resigned to the canon as it exists, it’s clear that there are other writings he thinks are at least as credible as those already included.
To be sure, Owen makes some good points. Who regulates the things the inner light reveals? Here we have James Naylor riding into Bristol on a white horse doing a reenactment of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem. These wacky Quakers do have a knack for the unconventional, and it seems like sometimes they just push it a little too far. What is needed here is a little balance. But when the score is racked up point for point, I’ll say the match has to go to Fisher. His continuing revelation pinned JO’s ossified theology. Fisher’s theology is agile and adaptable, able to answer the questions “What is God doing now, and what does She want us to do about it?