« Reading Fox in the light of deification | Main | Some last qualifiers on Orthodox deification »

Sanctification, deification, and Quakers old and new

The responses to my last piece on deification make me think that it's time to back up a bit, and look at how and why I came to be telling this story. It's been a long journey, and the individual pieces lack some of the background that makes the story as a whole fit together.

I first started writing about gradual sanctification - as distinct from salvation followed by sanctification - last August, citing this from Thomas Hamm:

For generations, Friends had embraced a view of the nature of religious life that was peculiar to them. In this vision, all people possessed a certain divine seed or Light. Obedience to this Light and to other revelations from God, through Scripture and directly, nurtured it and caused it to grow. As it grew, it gradually sanctified the believer. Ultimately, it would bring the believer to a state of holiness that justified and fitted him or her for heaven. Thus in Quaker eyes, justification and sanctification were inseparable and gradual.

But Gurney, like many contemporary non-Quaker evangelicals, argued that Friends had this wrong.... Justification, or salvation, came through a simple act of faith, believing in the efficacy of the Atoning Blood of Christ shed on the Cross. Thus it could come instantaneously. Sanctification followed as a second experience, also the fruit of faith, but gradually, probably lifelong after conversion. (56)

The Quaker gradualist view seems closer to the Orthodox views I've been discussing, even before we get to the question of deification or sanctification. Right after posting that piece on sanctification, though, I posted this lengthy piece of Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.

12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.
13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.

20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
24 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?
25 But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

I've bolded the text where it seems to clearly point to humans becoming one with the spirit, "children of God", "joint-heirs with Christ" - language that people read regularly but don't necessarily take literally. (Update: I forgot to add a link to a collection of similar citations from the New Testament.)

Early Quakers did, I think, take these sections very literally. (Given that much of Fox's prose is an extended selection and repetition of King James Bible quotes, assembled to emphasize particular themes, it's not surprising.) Calling themselves "Children of Light", Quakers were regularly accused by their contemporaries of confusing themselves with God, and it seems clear (from both Larry Ingle's writing and Richard Bailey's), that it wasn't just James Nayler receiving Christ-like tribute from his followers:

For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)

My current best guess is that George Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" was not just apocalyptic, but about the nature of salvation: Christ comes not just as a visitor, but as a permanent and growing part of us. This message cuts through the despair of Puritans questioning whether or not they were elected by a distant God, energizes groups of people who were drifting in mystical directions anyway, and describes a partnership between God and humans that fits well with the often titanic internal struggles of those coming to be with God.

While it's hard - perhaps impossible - to prove conclusively (or at least to the satisfaction of historians) that this was the core message of early Quakerism, the fire that fueled its stupendous rise and its followers' willingness to suffer persecution, it can explain a lot. It certainly explains the regular accusations by the persecutors that the Quakers blurred the boundaries between God and humans, it explains why the Inner Light is something much more powerful than mere human conscience, and it explains why, even after early Quakers toned themselves down, they still found themselves in a theological position very different from most of the Protestant world.

Eventually I think I'll have to go look at the original manuscripts. Larry Ingle reported that he had to cut the pages on a huge number of previously unread pamphlets, and it seems clear that even the censored correspondence can teach about when and where these dangerous sentiments were uttered. I'm also very curious to see what Quaker Heritage Press has in its Works of James Nayler, as they're attempting to be more complete than earlier editions. (They seem to have found only a little censorship, though some may be connected to these questions.)

Finally, there's an important question that I haven't previously attempted to answer. Why does this matter? It's an interesting football for historians, but does it have immediate relevance for modern Quakerism?

The "Inner Light" has remained at the heart of most varieties of Quakerism, and its transforming power is the story we tell. Even though the Light is found inside of us, though, many descriptions still hold it merely as a guide to something distant. Even though the Light is a guide to something more than us, many descriptions hold it merely as a part of us. The deification story, despite the overwhelming name, manages to bring both of those stories together. The Light is inside of us, a connection to God that is itself divine, uniting us with God.


Hi Simon: have you read Pink Dandelion's new book "An Introduction to Quakerism"? I'm half-way through it now. I'm not sure it's a good introduction, as it gets pretty deep into theology, but it does talk about the changing understanding of the relationship of God, humans and "the world" as Quakerism evolved into a denomination. As I understand it, he too argues that in that first decade Friends were full of second-coming imagery, with Christ-in-us a powerful idea.

What does it mean that I find this very early Quaker notion of time and mission more interesting than a lot of what goes on in our meetinghouses and churches today? We've become a very settled people indeed. In an age where religion has almost ceased to matter (and where no blasphemy trials are to be expected), is it possible that Friends, or some Friends, might return to some of these themes? Wishful thinking perhaps!

No, I haven't read "An Introduction to Quakerism", though maybe I should. I did read Heaven on Earth, which he wrote with Douglas Gwyn and Timothy Peat, and I didn't find Pink Dandelion's sections particularly inspiring, but maybe I should go back...

Learning from the early Quakers seems to be a recurring theme of Quaker conversation, much as early Quakers talked about "Primitive Christianity Revived". That sets up some complicated dynamics, though, as different groups set out with their own agendas for mining past statements, often in pursuit of something they've already decided on.

I have hopes, though, that this kind of conversation can lead to much better answers to questions like "Why are you a Quaker?", "What do Quakers do?", and maybe get us to better conversations among ourselves generally.

I do worry about how this conversation will go with people who consider themselves to be "post-Christian" Quakers of various sorts. Non-theist and pagan Quakers don't seem like a promising audience for a theology based on the importance of the Incarnation. On the other hand, even Christian Quakers may find these ideas stray too far from what they think of as "Christian".

Right now, I'm excited to be pursuing ideas that seem both historically important and religiously relevant. Where they'll lead, and where I'll be led, I don't yet know.

I really don't believe that early Friends were quite as synergistic about salvation as we might be tempted to think. (Mind you, I say this as a Calvinist who's always looking for the divine side of the equation ;)

My hypothesis is that Gurney might have viewed himself as perhaps using language differently than early Friends in some respects with regard to the distinction between justification and sanctification. But, he didn't view himself as different from them in any essential or core teaching.

The early Friends, according to Gurney, believed that there was a punctiliar aspect to justification. See what he wrote about the subject in the following: http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qwhp/jjgcof.htm. Gurney just described the logical outworking of this in clearer terms.

It's very difficult to get around the legal aspect of justification in Scripture, which is why even the Roman Catholic Church is forced to concede that there is a point where someone is justified in this life. I find justification by faith alone and the corrolary of imputed righteousness to be very important to grasp to have any assurance of divine mercy. The Orthodox emphasis away from a legal emphasis (and, I would contend, a biblical emphasis) would, in my mind, account for their deficiency in making important theological distinctions.

John P -

While I'm glad that you continue to read, I'm not sure that there's much I can offer in response to your comments.

As a (non-professional, admittedly) historian I have a hard time accepting your insistence on reading early Quakers, and perhaps even Paul, through what you make very clear is the lens of later writers - Gurney in particular - looking for a specific set of religious views that match your own.

I can't claim to be perfectly impartial in my reading of the early Quakers, but I try to make sure that I'm looking at what they thought they were up to, not what we hope they were up to. Telling that story also means examining the reasons they had such conflict with the surrounding Puritan world.

It's always been difficult for me to understand why Quakers would be seen as such a threat by their neighbors - but more importantly, why Quakers would be willing to suffer the resulting persecution so steadfastly - if it was just a minor misunderstanding among Christians. This story may not be perfect, but it definitely has explanatory value. (It adds a lot of value, I think, to the last telling I'd settled upon.)

On the religious side, it's clear that we also have substantial differences.

To put it too simply, I'm not a Calvinist. I'm not at all surprised that the severe Calvinism of Stuart Puritanism led to such despair among a substantial group of deeply religious people that it created Seekers ready for the very different message the early Quakers brought. English Calvinism created the crucible in which early Quakers were formed and tested, but the result does not seem to me to have much in common with its ingredients.

I doubt very much that I'm the one to convince you of the value in looking at these issues from a different perspective, but I do have a suggestion that might interest you.

Read the early Quakers in the original. Read Fox's Journal, preferably the de-expurgated Nickalls version. Read Fox's Works, which are available in hardcover or online. Read Nayler and Penington, as well as Barclay, all available from Quaker Heritage Press.

And, of course, read the Bible along with these. I think you'll find over time that you'll see different things in those same verses, things that require re-examining your belief system.

(I never thought I'd be writing about deification, that's for certain.)

Thanks very much for your comments. I find your thoughts extremely interesting.

Even though I have biases (about which I sometimes jest), to clarify, I really do believe that the early Friends taught that there was a punctiliar aspect to the doctrine of justification.

I appreciate the fact that Hamm has underscored the role that Gurney played in clarifying certain evangelical beliefs among Friends, and wouldn't doubt Gurney's role in this endeavor. But, we ultimately do have to go back to what early Friends have written, and we each have to make our own judgement. It's my contention that they would have affirmed that people can know in this life that they are justified before God.

One things is very, very clear to me--there's a great distinction between law and gospel in Fox's writings, a distinction that is even clearer in his writings than in some of the writings of Puritans. This distinction begs us to see Jesus as sufficient for our forgiveness, apart from our personal merit, good works, tithes, and anything else we can offer to God. He is our Priest, Teacher, Bishop, and our salvation.

I'm happy that Christians of different stripes began to get along better in Gurney's time. He was cordial to other Christians, and they toward Him. By that time Christians of different stripes realized more than they had before that they had Christ in common.

I'm sorry for being too rash in my critique of the Orthodox. There's a book by Zondervan with numerous contributers on evangelicalism's relationship to the Eastern Orthodox, and I've found it helpful even though I haven't read it in its entirety. (BTW-I saw the Russian Orthodox Church's patriarch on TV on a special called something like "In God's Name," and thought that he was probably more Christ-centered than most of the other church leaders on the program.)

There are things that I greatly appreciate in the Friends' tradition, which is why I identify with the tradition. I've seen aspects of those things I appreciate on this website. I've just been sharing my thoughts on the relationshiop to Orthodoxy because I've been interested in the Orthodox tradition even though I know there are areas where I disagree with them.

Thank you, Simon, for your posts on deification. I’m not a historian or scholar, but I am a Christian worshipping in the Quaker manner and trying (most of the time) to live faithfully, with help from the Scriptures, the early Quakers and anything else that comes along. This season has started me thinking again about the Incarnation, and what it means for us to be Christ-bearers, participants in the divine nature. I’ve found the posts on Quaker and Orthodox thought abut this very helpful. I’ve been reading Simon and John’s dialogue about justification and realize that I’m not clear about what difference the answer to this question makes in your lives. Would your work and worship be different, either of you, if you held the other person’s position about justification?

My best understanding now is that we participate in Christ in two senses. He is in us, somehow, whether we will it or not-- ‘the true light that gives light to every man who comes into the world’, as John has it; he is born, grows, suffers and dies in each of us, and suffers not only our pains and limitations but our lies and our willfulness; he is the light that keeps showing us our own darkness, the voice that keeps calling us back into the light. And when we heed the light and the voice we draw nearer and nearer to being wholly in him. So far as I can tell, becoming Christ in this life would mean becoming whole, undivided, integral; which could also be described as being wholly yielded to God. So the process of deification, as I see it now, is the process of laying aside everything else--for me, this especially means letting go of comforting lies and imaginary securities, and of my wish to be in control and make the world around me conform to my comfort. This is very different from trying to please a separate God, as a child might try to please a parent; or from drawing up a schedule of things forbidden and commanded and trying to be righteous according to these rules. I am constantly tempted to the latter because it seems a little easier than actually letting myself be transformed, seems to allow a little room for self-indulgence; but in fact I fail and become anxious and miserable . That kind of legalistic righteousness is both unhelpful and joy-killing, which yieldedness--or deification--is not. I think this is similar to Simon’s description of Quaker and Orthodox deification, but I am not sure I have understood rightly.

The language is so slippery--the temptation in the Garden of Eden was to ‘become like God’ or ‘like gods’, striving for godlike knowledge or power for our separate selves, and I wonder if that is the image that people find threatening in deification language; then there is becoming God, which seems to happen through yielding and through accepting limitation, as Jesus did. If I pay any attention at all I can see which of these things I am trying to do in my daily life. I don’t understand anything about what might happen in the next life; and if I did I don’t know how it would change what I need to do now.

Sorry for the length of this post. Feel free not to post it if it’s off-topic. I do appreciate the scholarly writing, and I also hunger to hear how it’s worked out in everyday life.


Thanks Simon and Joanna for wanting to discuss these issues.

Discussion about whether we're justified before God during our earthly life at a specific point in time versus over a long period of time affects our lives, but it's first necessary to consider how this doctrine relates to God.

If God is holy, He can only accept perfection. This poses a problem, of course, because we're unholy and imperfect. Even if someone says that earthly perfection is possible, it's admitted that imperfection precedes it.

The doctrine of justification shows how an imperfect person is made acceptable to God. This is by being "justified," which means to be declared righteous, innocent, or just. The discussion concerns whether we're justified by God declaring us righteous even though we're unrighteous (which is my belief) or whether God declares us righteous because we actually become righteous practically.

I believe that the Bible teaches that we're declared righteous through trusting in Jesus for our forgiveness (e.g., Rom. 4:1-5; 5:1-2; 8:1-2; Gal. 3:5-6). This happens at a specific point in time in this life regardless of whether we're consciously aware of that exact moment that this has occurred, and apart from good works or perfectly holy desires.

This is important because if it's significance in God's overall redemptive plan. In justification, it's my belief that God gives the good of Jesus to cover our bad. In other words, God takes the perfect life that Jesus lived and covers my imperfect life, even as if I had lived it myself. Also, the death of Jesus has paid for my sins and His resurrection assures me of His promises, including the assurance of eternal life (John 3:16). God's justification of believers glorifies Him.

I also believe this is important because it affects whether I can have assurance of God's favor. I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, and this teaching has helped me to know that I'm accepted, forgiven, and embraced by God even though I'm imperfect. It's given me confidence in prayer and has made me much less anxious about my religious state.

Many modern-day evangelical Friends believe this teaching. As one Quaker minister's said, "God looks at us through Jesus-colored glasses." God sees me as righteous for Jesus' sake. Joseph John Gurney taught this doctrine and, as the link I included in a previous post shows, he believed that early Friends affirmed important aspects of this teaching too.

My view is that George Fox made a distinction between law (what God demands) and gospel (what God gives freely for Jesus sake) in his journal. I think that this corresponds well with my understanding of justification. One thing that I think that even people who might disagree with my understanding would admit, George was all about pointing people to Jesus' sufficiency as Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd.

Not all Christians believe this view of justification (which, to simplify, I call the "Protestant" view). Most Roman Catholics understand justification differently, as do many from the Orthodox tradition. What Simon and I have been discussing about deification addresses aspects of issues related to whether the Protestant view can be squared with early Quaker teachings.

I agree with John that the heart of these questions is "whether the Protestant view can be squared with early Quaker teachings." I don't believe that there is a simple answer to that - early Quaker writings have long been a well from which various strands of belief have found inspiration and justification.

I do, perhaps too obviously, lean toward the belief that early Quakerism took Protestantism to its logical extreme as far as the "priesthood of all believers" goes. Early Quakers found themselves as a result in a very different place theologically than Protestants who had not been willing to go so far, who had tempered their willingness to indulge the leadings of the Spirit with the need to preserve outward order and discipline.

Johanna brings the question to an important point by asking:

I’m not clear about what difference the answer to this question makes in your lives. Would your work and worship be different, either of you, if you held the other person’s position about justification?

The answer for me is a very simple yes. Legalistic views on salvation struck me as a terrible blow to the heart of Christ's message. Worse, the emphasis on salvation coming as one sudden rush after which the believer knows their fate had (and still has) no connection to my experience.

Fortunately, however, I've been able these last five years or so to find a path that leads to Christ and to God's love - without the tremendous paranoia early Puritans suffered in wondering about God's grace and their lives or a clear guarantee that I have crossed a line into safety.

(God knows where that line is and what it looks like, and trusting the Lord to lead me across seems a better way to focus on God than constantly asking whether I've crossed the line yet.)

I suspect that I find the early Quakers compelling because of my own experience of Seeking. Listening and hoping and realizing that it really isn't about me was a long slow road. Like the early Seekers, I found value in the shared waiting contemplation that became the practice in Quaker meetings.

So yes, these questions have immediate impacts in my work and worship. It's hard to know, but I don't think I'd have come here if I had held John P's perspective. I'd probably still be seeking or simply wandering.

I expect that I'll be thinking and writing a lot more about the questions of justification and sanctification, though I'll probably turn to Barclay for a while. He doesn't precisely represent the earliest Quaker views, which I've been trying to reach here, but does reflect where they landed, and it is simpler to extract a clear telling.

I found an interesting statement in George's Journal that leaves me to believe that he didn't appreciate when people claimed to be divine.

George wrote the following when he visited some prisoners: "At last, these prisoners began to rant, vapour, and blaspheme; at which my soul was greatly grieved. They said that they were God; but we could not bear such things" (The Journal of George Fox, ed by Rufus M. Jones [Richmond, IN: Friends United Meeting, 1976], p. 116).

Does anyone have any thoughts about this?

It sounds like that comes from the end of this piece of the Journal.

In this context, I'd guess that Fox grieved that such ranting blasphemers could say that they were God. As Joseph Salmon is named explicitly as one of them, they're plainly not Fox's friends, but rather people he both disapproved of and needed to separate himself from.

You might want to track down a copy of Douglas Gwyn's Seekers Found for a lot more on the Ranter-Quaker relationship. It's an excellent book, which I'll be writing more about soon.

(Also, it's worth remembering that the Journal tells a highly edited story. Fox tells the story from a much later perspective, when respectability mattered more, even to him. And then other editors descended after his death...)