Epiphany 8: letter and Spirit

Lesson 2: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6.

The last part of this passage is well-known to Quakers – or at least, it sort of is. It was quoted in 1656 by some Elders who met at Balby, and the paragraph containing that quotation (but not the rest of the text) now appears in the introduction to Advices and Queries. When a Friend today cites this, then, saying – of something or other as they are prone to do – “Well, I’m sure we can interpret this quite broadly; after all, the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life,” there are two ‘hidden’ texts to which they allude, and their audience may not have read either of them. (If you wish to do so, you can read the Epistle of the Elders at Balby online.)

Incidentally, I had occasion to read Alastair Heron’s 2001 pamphlet ‘The Future of British Quakers’ recently, and he has some pretty stiff things to say about Friends who – in his view mistakenly – take this quotation from the beginning of Advices and Queries and apply it to the whole of Quaker Faith and Practice, at least some of which should be prescriptive. I’m not sure this is as terrible as he makes it sound, but perhaps we are in need of some clarifications – either to accept the authority of Yearly Meeting or to acknowledge our tendency to a more area-based or even congregational model.

Returning to the Biblical text, it is immediately obvious that this familiar quotation is part of a much longer sentence which is actually talking about competence and ministry. God has made Paul and his companions – it’s not quite clear how broad the ‘we’ is meant to be – ministers of a new covenant which is not of the letter but of the spirit. The contrast here is with the previous covenant given to the people of Israel, a covenant known to the people of Paul’s time in a written form and unfortunately depicted by some, then and now, as at least dusty and dry and perhaps at worst dangerous to the spiritual life. The supercessionist and even anti-Semitic assumptions involved in that approach certainly make me want to question it.

One level on which Quakers specifically might want to ask those questions is about the relationship between the letter and the Spirit. When I taught Quaker Faith and Practice to undergraduates, I tried to explain how the book and the community – specifically, the Yearly Meeting – relate, and I ended up drawing a big circle of arrows on the whiteboard: the Yearly Meeting approves the book and all changes to the book, and the book tells you how to run the Yearly Meeting, which approves the changes to the book, which tells you how… you get the idea. But on what basis does the Yearly Meeting change the book? Well, it (and its many committees, several of which will have been involved in producing and recommending the change which is brought to the Yearly Meeting) uses the Quaker business method, in which discernment around an issue takes place in the context of worship, with the aim of discovering the will of God for us now – with the help of the Spirit.

Whatever we think of the status of Biblical texts (although I think it would be possible to hold a suitably adjusted version of the view which I am about to describe), the Quaker texts such as Advices and Queries quite distinctly claim to reflect a discernment process which incorporates the inspiration of the Spirit as She spoke to us. (Standard disclaimer: not all Friends would be comfortable with that language.) There is, therefore, no clear distinction between the ‘letter’ and the ‘Spirit’ – the letters which we have reflect the Spirit as our Meeting understood it, and perhaps life can be given through them.

Maybe a clearer understanding of this would even help with the problem Alastair Heron mentioned.

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