Testing New Revelation

December 11, 2019 § 1 Comment

Sometime in the late 1980s, when New York Yearly Meeting was struggling over a revision of its book of discipline, Joshua Brown, who was then pastor of Adirondack Meeting, wrote a short essay on testing new revelation. At the time, the “new revelation” being tested was the move toward marrying same sex couples, though this concern carried the greater weight of challenges to the authority of scripture and, even more deeply, whether we would be a Christ-centered or more universalist community.

As I remember it, Joshua Brown proposed that new leadings should be tested against the testimony of four things: scripture, tradition, natural reasoning and common sense, and most importantly, the Holy Spirit, the sense of the meeting when gathered under the guidance of God’s guiding Spirit.

Some Friends, as you can imagine, questioned whether the Bible deserved its role as a touchstone. This nervousness bled over into questions about the authority of tradition, as well, since, in many ways, the Bible is the foundation of our tradition.

But I have two reasons for reaffirming the value of both the Bible and tradition. First, scripture has always been a fountain of new revelation itself, from the way it inspired George Fox to the way it inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. and liberation theology in general. Second, biblical interpretation and the traditions it supports have themselves always been evolving. Think of Margaret Fell’s pamphlet on women’s call to vocal ministry or the critical revisiting of those passages in scripture that seem to prohibit same-sex marriage—the current crisis, whatever it is, and the prophetic voices that rise in response to it prompt deeper engagement with scripture and tradition, and new truths. I capsulate this dynamic by saying that we should hold ourselves responsible for the tradition, but not necessarily responsible to it.

Joshua Brown’s four test framework has stuck in my mind all these decades, obviously, and I keep returning to it. Out of my contemplation, two other tests have presented themselves.

First, I believe we should also test new revelation against the testimony of our prophets, those whom God has called into service as voices of renewal and revelation. For that’s how it works: each new revelation comes to us through some good news first expressed by someone in our midst, just as the revelation of the Light of Christ was brought to England and the world originally by George Fox.

This of course begs the question of how you test the prophet. Here we return to Joshua’s fourth test, the gathered meeting, the Holy Spirit. So this test is not an injunction to heed every new voice or idea, but that we listen to new voices and messages, listen for the feel of Truth, listen to discern the spirit of the message, and submit it, ultimately, to the sense of the gathered meeting.

Which brings me to my second addition to Joshua’s four tests—the testimony of the lives of those Friends who are already living under the guidance of the new revelation. For instance, do the lives of married same-sex couples, or same-sex couples living together in the spirit of marriage as a sacred covenant, manifest love and truth? Not perfection, but the same spirit of shared care, respect, and responsibility that we hope for in married heterosexual couples.

Or, to use the test that Jesus gave us for prophets, we will know them by their fruits.

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