Isaac Penington on Scripture: Two Excerpts

Isaac Penington (1616 - 1679) became a Quaker in 1658 and was a prolific and influential Quaker writer. The following are two excerpts that help convey his attitude toward scripture. Links to the full text from which each excerpt was taken are provided at the end of the excerpts.

Excerpt I

The promise of the new covenant is, "I will put my Spirit within them;" and this Spirit hath an inward law and testimony, which it writeth in the heart; which inward law and testimony is to be the rule of the heart... the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus revealed in them, and their minds and spirits subjected thereto: and this is near, bright, and powerful in those who receive the Spirit, and with him the law and power of the endless life.

The letter killeth: ...therefore the promise was, "I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh:" and because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son; and thou shalt hear a voice behind thee, saying, "This is the way, walk in it." And this voice is to be hearkened to; this prophet (which God raiseth up to the soul in the new covenant) is to be heard in all things: and he that hears his voice, and obeys, lives; and he that hears not is in death, even until now, profess what he will.

In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but the new creation; if any man walk according to this rule, peace be upon him, &c. What doth the apostle call the rule here? Oh! wait on the Lord to read in the Spirit, and rightly to understand.

If a man receive the Spirit, and walk in the newness of the light, and quickenings thereof every day, hath he not a rule which is certain and infallible? If any man be in Christ, there is a new creation; and the limits of that new creation (which is the light and power of the endless life, or of God's Holy Spirit dwelling within) are his rule. And within the bounds of that (within the bounds of his light, his life, his motions, his instructions) man never errs; but out of it, deceit and darkness and error are always at hand.

Yet, though we do own Christ to be the rule, we do not deny making use of the Scriptures to try doctrines and forms of religion by; but know that what is of God doth and will agree therewith, and what doth not agree therewith is not of God; and that our fore-fathers in the faith were led to batter the superstitions and idolatries of the Papists, by the testimony of the Scriptures. And we have also the testimony of the Scriptures with us, both to the light and Spirit within, and against forms formerly invented, or now practised, out of the life and power. But we believe the Spirit to be a touch-stone beyond the Scriptures, and to be that which giveth ability to try and discern, not only words, but spirits; whereas a man may hold the form of doctrine and godliness, and yet want the power: in which case, nothing can try such a spirit, but the Spirit of God, which is in the spiritual man. And for calling the Scriptures the Word of God, we cannot but look upon it as an improper expression, they being many words, not the one Word; and Christ is called in the scripture, not only the Word God, but the Word of God. And if, in the fear of the Lord, and true sense, we keep herein to the expressions of scripture, and its form of words, which is sound; surely we cannot justly be blamed for so doing.

But whereas ye affirm the scripture to be the rule; consider seriously, and answer me this question, How is it a rule? Whether it be a rule as it is literally understood, or whether it must not be interpreted before it can be understood as a rule? If it must be interpreted, what must be the interpreter, whether it be the Spirit of God, or a man's wisdom?

As to that question, Whether the writings of any now be of equal weight with the Scriptures; I have this to say:

The weight of the words which are from God's Spirit is according to the strength of life which he pleaseth to clothe them with. He sent forth Moses, the prophets, the Son in that body of flesh, the apostles in his name and authority; and the angel that he sends with the everlasting gospel, after the apostasy, to preach to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, he sends not without his authority; yea, the message that he thus sends in any age hath a peculiar reference to the state of the world, and the state of the people of God in that age; and none can slight it (whether it be signified by word or writing) without dashing against God's authority, and despising him that speaketh in these latter days. Yea, the immediate word of the Lord, spoken and declared at this day, by any man to whom it pleaseth the Lord to commit the same, is of no less authority, nor more to be slighted now, than it was in his servants in the days past, by whom the Scriptures were given forth.

Excerpt I is from Reply to Queries and Animadversions, 1667 {full text}

Excerpt II

The deep sense of this hath afflicted my soul from my tender years; the eternal witness awakening in me, and the eternal light manifesting the darkness all along unto me; though I knew not that it was the light, but went about to measure its appearances in me by words which itself had formerly spoken to others, and so set up my own understanding and comprehension as the measure, although I did not then perceive or think that I did so. Thus continually, through ignorance, I slew the life, and sold myself for a thing of nothing, even for such an appearance of life as my understanding part could judge most agreeable to scriptures....

Here was my standing when the Lord drew his sword upon me, and smote me in the very inmost of my soul; by which stroke (lying still a while under it) my eyes came to be opened; and then I saw the blindness of that eye which was able to see so far, and the narrowness of that heart and spirit which was so large and vast in comprehending: and my soul bowed down to the Lord to slay this, to starve this, to make a fool of this; yea, my desire was, to present sense, as great after the death of this, as after the enjoyment of life in the Lord.

And now this hath opened a fresh spring of sorrow in me, a mourning over the just One, which hath been slain by me. Oh how cruelly, how often have I murdered that which came to give me life! How often have I sought to have my own understanding, my own comprehension, my own will and affections in religion, live, and the righteous, pure, immortal principle die! though I did not then call it my own, as other men do not now; but took it to be of God, and to be the thing that was to live. For I also was deceived, and thought the bastard (which was a false conception) was to inherit; not knowing him to be the bastard, but taking him for the right heir. And my soul is exceedingly enlarged in me towards those who at this day lie under the power of the same deceit; who have slain the Lord of life as well as I, and in whom the contrary nature lives under a covering; who cannot possibly see that this, which now lives in them, is not the heir, until the same eye be opened in them.

...The scriptures were generally given forth to the people of God; part to the Jews, part to the Christians. He that is born of the life, hath a right unto them, and can read and understand them in the spirit which dwells in the life. But he that is not born of the spirit is but an intruder, and doth but steal other men's light, and other men's conditions and experiences into his carnal understanding; for which they were never intended, but only to be read and seen in that light which wrote them. And all these carnal apprehensions of his (with all the faith, hope, love, knowledge, exercises, &c., which he hath gained into his spirit hereby; with all his prayers, tears, and fasts, and other imitations), will become loss to him (for he must be stripped of them all, and become so much the more naked), when God recovers his scriptures from man's dark spirit (which hath torn them, and exceedingly profaned them with his conceivings, guessings, and imaginings), and restores them again to his people. The prophets and apostles, who wrote the scriptures, first had the life in them: and he who understands their words, must first have the life in him. He that understands the words of life, must first have life in himself. And the life, from which the words came, is the measurer of the words, and not the words of the life. And when the scripture is interpreted by the life and spirit which penned it, there is then no more jangling and contending about it: for all this is out of the life; from and in that spirit, nature, and mind, where the lust, the enmity, the contention are; and not the unity, the love, the peace. But this is it which undoeth all; the dead spirit of man reads scripture, and from that wisdom, which is in the death (not knowing the mind of the spirit), gives meanings: and from believing and practising the things there spoken of (which death may do, as well as speak of the same), gathers a hope that all shall be well at last for Christ's sake; though it feel not the purification, the cleansing, the circumcision, which cuts off the body of sin and death here (for it is not to be cut off hereafter), and so gives an entrance into the everlasting kingdom, where the King of Righteousness is seen, known, and worshipped in spirit.

Excerpt II is from The Scattered Sheep Sought After, 1659 {full text}

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