Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How Samuel Fisher Knew that God Was Still Speaking

Message delivered by Stephen W. Angell at Earlham School of Religion Worship Service, September 19, 2013:

“While remaining in herself, [Wisdom] renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets.” 
Wisdom of Solomon 7:27

This verse was a favorite of the seventeenth-century English theologian, Samuel Fisher.
Who was Samuel Fisher?
Fisher was one of the most learned theologians of his time, taking both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Oxford University. He had an interesting spiritual journey, beginning his ministerial career as a Congregationalist Puritan, and having a comfortable living, first as a chaplain to one of the leading Puritan politicians, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, and later becoming minister of the Church of England at Kent, in the southeastern part of England. He married a woman named Elizabeth, and had three children, two of which survived infancy. When he was 38 years old, the English Civil War began. Six years later, Fisher had a conversion experience and became a Baptist. He was a very vigorous debater on behalf of Baptist theological tenets.
In 1655, when he was fifty, Fisher met with traveling Quaker ministers Will Caton (19 years old), John Stubbs (37), Ambrose Rigge (20), and George Fox (31). These persuasive young adult Friends had a striking effect on, let’s call him, a mature adult, Fisher. As a result, Fisher became a convinced Friend, and he was just as avid a debater on behalf of Quakers as he had been earlier on behalf of Baptists. He traveled with Stubbs far and wide to spread the Quaker message, visiting Heidelberg, Venice, and Rome.
Fisher had not lost track of events at his alma mater, Oxford. In 1654, a year prior to his convincement, two young Quaker women, Elizabeth Fletcher (17) and Elizabeth Leavens, were the first Quakers to preach at Oxford. They were treated abominably. Overnight, they were placed in a cage reserved for evildoers. The next day, Vice-Chancellor John Owen ordered them whipped out of town as vagrants. After that happened, some Oxford students assaulted them, dragging them back into Oxford, where they were tied back-to-back and had water pumped on them, almost drowning them. Then Fletcher was violently thrust by an Oxford woman on a gravestone, inflicting an injury of which Fletcher died some years later.
In 1659, John Owen, theologian and former Vice-Chancellor, published a defense of the Bible as the Word of God. He pointedly denounced Quakers for their belief in immediate revelation and what he saw as their insufficient regard for the Bible. The attack on the Quakers, intended for Owen’s university students, was written in Latin. Owen also intended that the unlearned Quakers would not be able to respond to his attacks, since his work was not written in English, but Fisher would be up to the task. He published his defense of Quakers against the criticisms of Owen and other Puritans in his most important work, Rusticus ad Academicos: Or, a Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies.
One of Fisher’s concerns was: How should we as Friends read the Bible? What should be our view of the Bible’s authority?

One thing to notice is that there was as much diversity on Quakers in the 17th century on that question as there is today in the 21st century.  Not all Friends read the Bible in the same way, nor do we have the same estimate of the Bible’s worth.
One 17th century Quaker, George Whitefield, expressed his view on the subject in the following manner: “The Scriptures . . . were given forth by the Spirit of God, and no whit altered by translation, they are a perfect Testimony of God . . . whatsoever is written ought to be believed and received for Truth.”
Fisher, on the other hand, was not at all convinced of the Bible’s perfection. In regard to the texts of books of Scripture and their transmission, Fisher believed that the Scripture text that we have is fallible; there have been mistakes by copyists; there are mistakes when translating from the original languages; the Scripture as we possess it is “uncertain.” We certainly do not have the autographs, or original texts as written down by prophets and apostles. Among all the available choices, scholars make subjective choices, only utilizing the translations and texts that each one likes.
Fisher also devoted his critical eye to matters of the Scriptural canon. He is not at all convinced that the canon of Scriptures handed down to him (and us) is the proper canon. He notes that there are many texts that are mentioned as inspired in the Bible that we do not have; there are others reputed to be written by the same authors which survive in some form, but have not been included (e.g., Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans).  He believes that what was canonized decided in a rather haphazard or arbitrary fashion. He wonders whether there some writings included, such as private letters (Paul’s letter to Philemon), that actually would have been better left out of the canon. Also, when one compares Catholics to Protestants, one finds that these two branches of Christianity have differing canons. The Catholics include the Apocrypha, or intertestamental works, but Protestants do not. Yet there are many good insights in the Apocrypha. One is the verse we have under consideration today, Wisdom of Solomon 7:27.
In Rusticus, in typically convoluted but penetrating prose, Samuel Fisher asks the following, very pertinent question to John Owen:
“Why do you say, downward to the consignation and bounding of the canon in Ezra’s days, as if between his days and the days of Christ’s flesh, the Spirit of the Lord was straitened (as it never is, see Micah 2) and God had limited and bound up himself from manifesting his Mind out of his Mouth to any men at all, for so many hundred years together, because some prophets had been moved to commit to writing, or at least to permit to be written by others, some few of those things they saw and said concerning partly their own, and partly the after times, and other Nations? Does not Wisdom say of herself, That in all ages entering into holy souls she makes them Friends of God, and prophets? Wisd. 7.27. And there were no holy men of God in those days, wherein ye imagine all God’s speaking in and by any prophets then was ceased, in and by whom he manifested his mind as he moved them to speak and write, as immediately as he had done others before them?”
Fisher here depicts Puritans like Owen of dividing all of human history into four or five dispensations. From the time of Moses (perhaps 1200 BC) until the time of Ezra (perhaps 400 BC) God revealed God-self to human beings, and these revelations were written down in a book that we call the Old Testament. From the time of Ezra until the time of Jesus, there was no revelations by God at all. From the time of  Jesus until the time of John of the book of Revelation, there was another time when God revealed God-self to human beings, and again these revelations were written down and bound into a book. Then from the time of John forevermore, God has ceased to reveal God-self, and we have no authentic revelations from God.
To demonstrate the fallacy of Owen’s thinking, Fisher slyly quotes from the “Wisdom of Solomon,” a deuterocanonical text that was probably written between 100 and 50 BC. The Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical works, were generally integrated into the Old Testament, until Martin Luther, citing Jerome, published Old Testament books with Greek originals into a separate book. The translators of the Geneva Bible, favored by the Puritans, said of the Apocrypha that they were “books which were not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church, neither yet served to prove any point of Christian religion, save inasmuch as they had the consent of the other Scriptures called canonical to confirm the same.” Owen held this dim view of their authority. Fisher, on the other hand, sought to establish the broadest possible view of the Biblical canon, and he was prepared to accept as Scripture any book that was mentioned in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as themselves Scripture. His broader point is that Revelation flowed freely in the 400 years between Ezra and Jesus. Wisdom had found its way into holy souls in those four centuries, too, and had transformed them into friends of God, and prophets.

What about the final dispensation after the completion of the book of Revelation? Fisher’s point is that God is still speaking, to borrow a phrase from a recent advertising campaign. God tries to reach us in all times and in all places. God can do a new thing. Now it shall spring forth, shall ye not know it? (Isaiah 43:19) What Fisher knew experimentally is that the Quaker movement of his lifetime was a brilliant manifestation of God’s immediate, or continuing, revelation. God is still trying to find a way into our souls. That’s Fisher’s message.  God is still trying to find a way into our souls, because it is still God’s great desire to turn us into the paths of holiness. In every generation, God is seeking friends. God is still raising up prophets. That is the message that Fisher was devoting his enormous erudition to developing while he was alive. And if Samuel Fisher could be with us today, in this place, at this hour, I have every confidence that is what he would still be saying to us. Let us listen to what God has to say to us. If God is calling any of us to be prophets, may we be faithful to God’s call.

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