The End of Words

Quaker theologian Isaac Penington once wrote:

And the end of words is to bring [humanity] to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter. So, learn of the Lord to make a right use of the Scriptures: which is by esteeming them in their right place, and prizing that above them which is above them.

This is one of the more powerful insights of the Quaker tradition. Our practice and worship are meant to bring us into the reality that lies beyond spoken word. Words can help in this process, they can be our guides, and can help frame what it is that we hear, but they are not the end in this process, only the means. And words can fall far short of the mystery of God as well. Words can harm, restrict, and dupe. Words can create new worlds both false and true. When we begin to explain, we can direct and we can also misguide. But to meet Christ, through however or whomever, is to begin to move beyond our mere utterings and encounter the mystery of God. God is within our words, as God is within our world. But God is also beyond them, and outside them.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

10 thoughts on “The End of Words”

  1. Hey Wess… it’s been a while! Hope you and the family are well.

    This is an interesting quotation, as is your comment on it, in part because it comes so very close to what historically would be the sacramental teaching of the Church, which is that our worship is centered not around words, but around the Eucharist. It is when we meet Christ in the Eucharist that we begin to truly encounter, in a tangible and visceral way, the mystery of God; and it is that encounter that we then take out into the world to be salt and light, and to encounter Christ again in the least ones around us.

    This is, of course, very Catholic of me. I am sometimes struck, though, how the Quaker tradition at times comes very close to articulating a Catholic theological (and social) vision. We have very much in common for all of our other, sometimes radical differences.

    1. Hey Scott! It has been a while. I hope you and Tracy are doing well. I think there is a very close connection between Quaker and Catholic theology in that both groups believe in the “Real” presence, we just think it’s in the communion of open/silent worship, where as you all see it in the Eucharist.

  2. The Penington quote draws a distinction between the knowledge that lies beyond words and words of Scripture. In Quaker faith we recognize a distinction between the words of Scripture and the Word of God. There is a distinct kind of utterance that we call Christ, the power and the Word of God. Says Fox: “I said if the power of God…spoke in man or woman it was Christ.” We also call this kind of utterance prophetic ministry, and it is the means by which the faith is actuated, if it is received. It is what Jesus identified as his purpose: to bear witness to the truth. Here Fox tells of the necessity and effect of this essential activity: This message of the glorious, everlasting gospel was I sent forth to declare and publish, and thousands by it are turned to God, having received it; and are come into subjection to it, and into the holy order of it. [I.304] Most – but not all – utterance is inadequate to the mystery.

  3. Pat

    Where is it that Fox says “I said if the power of God…spoke in man or woman it was Christ.”? What does “[I.304]” refer to?

    I like that quote a lot.

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Jay! I’m glad for your interest! The first quotation is on page 96 of The Journal of George Fox, 1985 Nickalls edition. It reads: “–and I said that if the power of God and the Seed spoke in man or woman it was Christ.” The second quotation is in Volume 1, page 304 [I.304]of The Works of George Fox. This 8 volume set is now out of print, but New Foundation Fellowship is working on a CD Rom of it, and I’m hoping we’ll have the first volume ready for sale sometime in the next few months. A couple of us are proofing and modernizing the punctuation of the 1831 version, which is a lot more fun than it sounds! Pat

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