August 20, 2012

Little children, love one another

A story of John that fits his epistles well.

When the holy Evangelist John had lived to extreme old age in Ephesus, he could be carried only with difficulty by the hands of the disciples, and as he was not able to pronounce more words, he was accustomed to say at every assembly, "Little children, love one another."

At length the disciples and brethren who were present became tired of hearing always the same thing and said: "Master, why do you always say this?" Thereupon John gave an answer worthy of himself: "Because this is the commandment of the Lord, and if it is observed then is it enough."

-In Jerome's Commentary on Galatians, cited in Period I, § 3(b) of A Source Book for Ancient Church History, by Joseph Cullen Ayer, Jr.

July 2, 2012

Experiencing odor

Once upon a time the world was full of fragrance, and fragrance was valued. The powerful had their rose gardens and their personal perfumers, while the poor made do with easier flowers and the scents of the world.

Not all smells were equally wonderful, as everyone acknowledged, but the roles of sewage, vomits, and skunks were treated as philosophical discussions complicated by the challenges of the widely-recognized use of musk in perfume and the gentler smells of pastures and barns.

The Perfumers' Guild had great power, dispensing fragrance to all once a week while their most devoted adherents gathered to focus exclusively on producing the strongest and best smells.

There were a few people who said they couldn't smell the difference, but no one trusted them. There were also a few very sad people who were surrounded by wonderful fragrances but couldn't detect them, and suffered through a strange life of hiding their nasal dysfunction.

And, of course, there were a few people who overdosed, losing themselves completely in the fragrances and leaving behind the concerns of the world. There were heresies - the Cult of the Free Odor, which claimed that all the world had a smell, and that all the world should enjoy smells.

Over time, the abuses of the Perfumers' Guild and even dissension among the Perfumers over how best to approach the difficult subject of 'fragrance' grew doubts among the people. Those who hadn't had a great sense of smell came out and said so. Allergies were no longer a subject of scorn, and many even turned to habits - notably tobacco - that dulled their sense of smell.

Smells were difficult to explain. Opponents leaped on the common challenges of explaining exactly what a smell was like to another person, on subtleties that different people, even experts, might interpret differently. Sides formed, with different groups accusing each other of misinterpreting the meaning or even the value of smell.

Centuries of warfare, whole populations moving on the basis of fragrance, and what seemed like infinite argument finally subsided. There were still perfumers, still people gardening to produce their own fragrances and even essential oils, and a large group of people who considered fragrances useful medicinally.

There were still tensions, though. The "live and let live" attitudes were hard to maintain when proposals for adding congestants and histamines to public water supplies came up. Burning incense in public schools leds to lawsuits, and a series of broken bottles of essential oils across several cities led to riots.

My parents' families were fond of fragrance, but I grew up in a house that was free of it. We tried to preserve the best of what we'd learned, but without the constant smells and accompanying bells.

I, of course, found my way back into the rose garden. A quiet rose garden, but one full of fragrance I found difficult to explain to my family and friends.

February 5, 2012

Aspiring to be Quaker

It's been a powerful week of Quaker provocation. Maggie Harrison opened with YOU ARE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one) (live version here). Micah Bales followed up with Who is a Quaker, which on the surface sounds gentler but is maybe even a stronger call to action - "she has not gone far enough".

Stop for a moment and read them both, then pause for a moment over Bales' description of the past and present:

Maggie's essay cries out for a sanctification of Quakerism, calling the Religious Society of Friends back to its roots in spiritual transformation by Christ's light. The Quaker church began as a radical movement of prophetic faithfulness to God's living Word (the Risen Lord Jesus), and was far more concerned with embodying and proclaiming that message than it was with buildings and endowments; history and Nobel prizes...

You are not a Quaker. Neither is Maggie. Nor am I. We are nothing like Quakers. We are pale shadows of those charismatic extremists of the early Quaker movement, who shook the earth for ten miles around when they preached. It is a mockery for us to claim to be one of them....

... But we are frauds. Quakers do not exist anymore. Three hundred and fifty years was a good run, but it is over now; and the longer we pretend to be something we are not, the more we disgrace a once-proud people.

I sympathize with both of these, as I frequently dream of a more focused fellowship more willing to cut to the bone, or "GET NAKED" as Harrison puts it. I dream of pushing myself ever further that direction as well. I've spent a lot of time here talking about concepts like deification that really push the "why can't go farther?" question to the limit, and asked if early Quakers thought that was what they were doing.

At the same time, however, I draw back a little because I know Quakers who are, as Bales says, "called to so much more than secure lives in the lap of Empire," or as Harrison puts it, "are committed to the process of gettin' naked as a step in the longer path of being clothed in righteousness, which means a return to right order, or the Gospel Order, or the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Garden or Eden, or total Liberation, or WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL IT."

There are many levels of commitment to such change in Quakerism (and elsewhere), many people with different levels of such commitment helping each other toward it. Even those with the least commitment can be helps, not hindrances, to those with the most commitment. Commitment can, as I wrote recently, come to us, not the other way around.

Reading early Quaker history, it is hard not to be struck not only by the commitment of the Valiant Sixty but by the number of people who were interested in the message but didn't stay around. Reading Pennsylvania history, it's hard not to notice Quakerism falling off over the generations because the appeal of worldly things - fashion, slaves, and many kinds of business - had a greater appeal than the Quaker message. Waves of Quaker revival (and associated conflict) brought in new people, and drove others out.

In a world full of churches that call themselves Christian but really contain people aspiring to be Christian, it is not surprising that a world full of meetinghouses contains people aspiring to be Quaker. We call ourselves Quakers and Christians, but because that is the path, not a destination we've reached.

(Okay, some people think they've reached the destination, but that's a separate conversation.)

So yes, it's critical to focus on "real radical transformation.... we ARE about something." Something is happening, something is here - as these two and many others demonstrate.

At the same time, we need to remember that we are walking a difficult path that requires leading. We are not there yet, any of us. This piece from a Presbyterian service I was at this morning reminded me of that:

Not because we have made peace this day. Not because we have treated the other as ourself. Not because we have walked the earth with reverence today, but because there is mercy, because there is grace, because your Spirit has not been taken from us. We come still thirsting for peace, still longing to love, still hungering for wholeness. Amen.

The surprising part to me was that that was the Assurance of Forgiveness.

January 4, 2009

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

Carole Dale Spencer manages, in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, to describe early Quakerism as a largely coherent whole whose later schisms reflect emphasis on some components and the loss of others. While it's definitely an academic book, it is still a compelling read, and I hope this story will be told widely in more accessible forms over the years to come.

Before continuing with the review, I should note that Spencer plays to practically every bias and opinion I hold regarding Quakerism up through about the 1840s, and frequently thereafter. It's strange to me to be reading interpretive Quaker history, especially history that looks beyond the first generation, and not be spending a fair amount of time arguing with the author in my head. I find her telling of the early Quakers compelling, as well as her case for the Quietists as something better than a terrible decline. While I'm not as convinced by her doubts about Elias Hicks personally, her overall take on Hicksites makes sense to me, as do her doubts about how close Joseph John Gurney was to the heart of Quakerism. I think she's correct that John Wilbur was, as he claimed, much closer.

Where I start having doubts is in the second half of the 19th century, when the Holiness Movement per se comes through. There's a conversation worth having about forms of Quaker worship, hinted at here, but not really explored. I return pretty easily though, in her discussion of the 20th century, and overall I'm kind of dazed to agree with so much of a single telling of Quaker history, especially at this level of depth.

I suspect some potential readers will bounce off the word "Holiness", thinking that this is a plea for revival meetings. They shouldn't. Spencer's use of holiness certainly includes revival meetings (including, I think, the earliest Quaker gatherings), but it's a much richer use than that. Her use of holiness derives from the early Christian fathers, a group whose thought (as she points out) regularly parallels that of early Quakers. She emphasizes eight aspects, which she sees as integrated in early Quaker thought:

  • Scripture
  • Eschatology
  • Conversion
  • Charisma (Spirit)
  • Evangelism
  • Mysticism
  • Suffering
  • Perfection

Obviously, not all of those aspects resonate with all Quakers today, and the details of many of them changed over the course of 350 years, sometimes repeatedly. I remember being blown away by Apocalypse of the Word, largely because it was startling to me that eschatology was central to early Quakers. Talking about "perfection" seems to instantly raise alarms, whether with Quakers or with, well, practically anyone, but Spencer weaves it tightly into the story.

I'll be writing more about the book for a while to come - there are lots and lots of pieces worth pursuing, even pieces I hope someone will take up and turn into complete books of their own.

Yes, it's written academically, and can be very dense, but the content is excellent. My one real complaint (and maybe this is only my copy) is that the type seems excessively light. It's all there, but reading it seems trickier than it should be. The price ($41) isn't cheap, but fortunately it's not as astronomical as some academic publishing.

I can't recommend it as light reading, but if you're up for a detailed and valuably opinionated journey through Quaker history, it's an excellent telling.

(It's also worth noting that the latest issue of Quaker Religious Thought, #110, includes reviews by Stephen Angell, Margery Post Abbott, and Jim Le Shana, with replies from Spencer.)

March 7, 2008

Orthodox deification in depth - and Quakerism

I wrote a lot here over the holidays about parallels between early Quakers and Orthodox deification ideas, but I've been quiet for a while. Why? Well, Angelika got me the incredibly rich The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, Norman Russell's dense but powerful survey of the development of Orthodox views.

It's not easy reading - there's just too much going on. While Russell provides a lot of background on theological and philosophical issues contributing to the story, it's simply a lot to take in. Russell's own perspective as author is sometime a bit confusing as well, as he sounds relieved (to me) when he discusses deification as a metaphor rather than reality, but also sounds very excited when he reaches the conclusion, discussing deification in the work of Maximus the Confessor and very briefly in Gregory Palamas. Given the contentious nature of the subject, however, that doesn't seem particularly troubling.

Over the course of reading, it became pretty clear that while there are parallels between Orthodox thought and Quaker thought, there are also strong divergences. The main practical barrier is, I think, the Orthodox emphasis on the sacraments - baptism and the eucharist especially - as critical means toward connecting with Christ and with God. Quakerism's non-sacramental approach would simply be a non-starter for most of this theology.

I do think that, while the Orthodox writers and Russell would probably disagree, Quakers could consider convincement parallel to baptism, and gathered meeting parallel to the eucharist. However, I'm not sure how far that can be pushed without breaking.

The other major barrier is that the Orthodox approach depends strongly on a very well-developed Christology, a Christology honed by years of contention with Arians, Gnostics, Nestorians, Monophysites, Muslims, and many others. These writers are either part of the conversation which led to the development of the Trinity or building on that conversation explicitly. Quakers, on the other hand, didn't spend a huge amount of effort in this space, and their contemporaries often accused them of confusing God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

As those two pieces are pretty much the foundation of Orthodox thought on the subject, there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn. However, it does seem clear that these writers and early Quakers drew on similar verses in similar ways, and I'll use some quotes from Russell to suggest paths worth exploring in Quakerism.

I'll start with something Russell says about an earlier writer on the subject:

Gross... denied that deification was an importation from Hellenism, claiming instead that it was a biblical idea in Greek dress, the equivalent of the Western doctrine of sanctifying grace... he saw the doctrine of deification fundamentally as the re-expression by the Greek Fathers in the language of their own culture of two themes already present in the New Testament, namely, the Pauline teaching on mystical incorporation into Christ, and the Johannine idea of the incarnate Logos as the source of divine life. (5-6)

This story strikes me as one with deep parallels to the early Quaker experience. Yes, even the early Quakers were much later, and responding in some ways against the existing Christianity of their day. (In that, though, they're not too different from the Greek fathers, who were often also writing in opposition.) The early Quakers' quest for "Primitive Christianity Revived" is in some ways similar to the Orthodox avoidance of innovation. Fox and other Quakers practically breathed the language of the Bible and spoke it back out, constantly seeking inspiration from Scripture and finding in it a promise of further inspiration from the Light.

There's an open question of whether Orthodox or Quaker beliefs come directly from the Bible, something that Russell asks:

Did Paul have an idea of deification? He uses various expressions for participatory union - 'in Christ', 'with Christ', 'Christ in us', 'sons of God', and so on, but does not isolate 'participation' for special consideration. Moreover, these expressions are images. 'Deification' as a technical term only emerged later when Paul's metaphorical images were re-expressed in conceptual language. The same may be said with regard to the Johannine writings, which reveal an approach to participatory union with Christ not unlike that of Paul. (11)

My reading, as I've said before, is that the New Testament lights up in a very different way when I read it now, seeing many more connections between humans and God (and Christ, and the Holy Spirit) than I'd seen previously. God remains unknowable, transcendent - but at the same time can be approached, transforming us.

The first few chapters of the book are excellent reading for anyone approaching these questions, whether or not they are interested in the Orthodox formulation specifically. The section on deification and the Greeks has some fine moments, my favorite of which is Roman Emperor Vespasian's deathbed quote, "'Vae, puto deus fio' ('Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god')". The section on Judaism has a fascinating look at Enochic Judaism, a branch best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also accessible through 1 Enoch and the canonical letter of Jude.

The section on early Christianity is fascinating, starting with Paul and then looking at Jewish and Johannine Christianity. While Paul seems less and less popular a figure these days, the language of participation he uses throughout his letters (and which the pseudo-Pauline letters emulate) is a central discussion of Christ's transformation of the believer. The section on Jewish Christianity focuses on Hebrews, a book I was surprised to find George Fox used regularly in his writings. Johannine Christianity came with a story I hadn't realized, though perhaps one that adds flavor to the description of John as "the Quaker Gospel":

The pre-Gospel community had strong Palestinian connections rooted in the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved Disciple. The Gospel was written in about 90 CE, when the community had been expelled from the synagogues (John 9:22), the 'Jews' were its opponents, and 'the world' stood for those who preferred darkness to light.

The divided Johannine community portrayed in the Epistles belongs to a third stage. There were now two groups who were interpreting the christology and ethics of the Gospel differently. The secessionists drew on the Fourth Gospel's high christology, with its emphasis on the pre-existence of God's son. They were convinced they were sinless and already enjoyed intimacy with God.

As a corrective, the author of 1 John stresses the need for ethical behavior and for following the teaching of the earthly Jesus. His pessimistic remark that the world is paying heed to his opponents (1 John 4:5) suggests that the secessionists were enjoying greater success.

Finally the Johannine community was dissolved. The secessionists moved in the direction of Gnosticism, taking the Fourth Gospel with them, while the remainder was absorbed into the Great Church.... With the corrective of 1 John, the Gospel was accepted early into the canon of the New Testament... (87-8)

The secessionists sound much like the Ranters early Quakers opposed, though the charges leveled against them also echo the charges leveled against Quakers.

Other early Christians developed these ideas in ways that connect to other aspects of Quakerism:

In both Justin [Martyr] and Irenaeus becoming a 'god' is a way of expressing a realized and internalized eschatology. Participation in immortality and incorruption is not postponed to the eschaton but attained in principle as a result of the believer's incorporation into Christ through baptism. (113)

It's not a simple match for Fox's "Christ is come to teach his people himself," but it's not that far a leap from it. (Now I need to re-read Apocalypse of the Word again!)

One final point I'd like to make before leaving Russell hinges on the basic question of the Incarnation: why did Christ come? That basic question gets thousands of variations in answer, but in this context there are some interesting options:

We see Irenaeus moving towards the tantum-quantum or 'exchange' formula, namely, that the Son of God 'became what we are in order to make us what he is himself. (106)

The 'exchange' formula has its roots in Pauline thinking: though Christ was rich, 'yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich' (2 Cor 8:9; cf Phil 2:6-8). The 'exchange' signifies precisely that: an exchange of properties, not the establishment of an identity of essence. He who was Son of God by nature became a man in order to make us sons by adoption (AH 3. 19. 1). Our sonship by adoption, which is effected by baptism, endows us with one supreme property in particular: the Son's immortality and incorruption.

There is nothing automatic, however, about our progress towards incorruption and immortality. It depends on our moral behaviour and on our participation in the sacraments, which together attain the divine likeness, morality being linked with the freedom and the sacraments with the life of the divine likeness.... (108-9)

Irenaeus... holds that God himself has intervened directly in human life through the Incarnation in order to bring the created realm into a close relationship with the divine. The sons of the Most High who are 'gods' are those who have received the grace of adoption. This is then used by Irenaeus to support the reality of the Incarnation. If Christ had not really become human, there could be no true baptism with its bestowal of incorruption and immortality. The inward renewal and transformation of the Christian was only possible if the Incarnation was real....

The notion if not the language of participation... is fundamental to him. For Irenaeus, created things are fundamentally inferior to the Creator. But in Christ the created is united with the uncreated, and we in turn are related to the uncreated through Christ. The Incarnation is part of a larger economy that enables us to participate in the divine attributes of immortality and incorruption and attain the telos which had been intended for Adam. (112-3)

There's a lot there to consider - and I think the early Quakers were asking these kinds of questions, much to their peers' discomfort. They may not have started with an intricate theological framework, but they came to similar places by reading the same Scripture and following slightly different paths.

I suspect that readers with an interest in deification per se will be vastly better served by reading Russell's works than my excerpts and thoughts, but at the same time I think I've only just started on a path that proved very fruitful for the founders of Quakerism.

(And no, I don't expect to convert to Orthodoxy, despite my enjoyment of their ideas. The overlaps are fascinating, but the difference are also very real.)

January 25, 2008

More exalted language, to and from Fox

Last night, re-reading Douglas Gwyn's excellent Seekers Found, I found yet more "exalted language" about Fox and other early Quakers.

First, people writing to George Fox and Margaret Fell:

Dorothy Howgill (wife of Francis) wrote to Fox... She recalls Fox telling her that "a pure light was arising in me... yet I could not believe because I felt no such think... but now I know thou hast the anoynting of the Holy one and thou knowes all things... thou art my own heart and my soule lyes in thy bosom."

Exalted language like this was commonly directed by Friends toward those who had convinced them, and most of all toward George Fox and James Nayler. Shortly after her convicement, Fel and her children wrote to Fox as:

Our dear father in the Lord... We are your babes. Take pity on us, whom you have nursed up with the breasts of consolation... Oh, our dear nursing father, we hope you will not leave us comfortless, but will come again... My own dear heart... you know that we have received you into our hearts...

Mary Howgill addressed Fox as "Dear Life" in a 1656 letter. Such letters were also addressed to Fell. For example, John Audland wrote to Fell, exclaiming that she "inhabits eternity," finding her countenance "more bright than the sun." He went on to confess that his soul was refreshed by her and that by God's power he was "kept bold to declare the way of salvation." (240)

A few paragraphs later, Gwyn presents some of Fox's own claims. Some pieces of this story are familiar from the Journal and other letters, but Gwyn presents a letter (published earlier by Larry Ingle) that pushes the story a bit further.

Most disturbing to Puritan authorities were Fox's sporadic claims to be "the Son of God," which continued as late as 1661. This issue had arisen as early as his Derby arrest in 1650. During his interrogation, his claims to perfection led straight to his assertion of Christ's indwelling. Asked if he or his associates were themselves Christ, he answered "Nay, we are nothing, Christ is all." During a trial at Lancaster late in 1652, Fox was charged with claiming to be equal with God. He denied making such a claim, but countered that "he that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one in the Father and the Son and that ye are the sons of God. The Father and the Son are one, and we of his flesh and of his bone" (Heb. 2:11, Eph. 5:31). In 1653, Fox wrote a letter "to Margaret Fell and to every other friend who is raised to discerning." Apparently aiming to clarify his own words and speculations upon them, Fox did not back away from his earlier affirmations:

Accordinge to the spirit I am the sonne of God and according to the flesh I am the seed of Abraham which seed is Christ which seed is but one in all his saints.... Accordinge to the spirit I am the sonne of God before Abraham was... the same which doth descend, the same doth ascend and all the promises of God are yea come out of time from god, into time to that which is captivated in the earth in time, and to it the seed which is Christ, they are all yea and amen fetched up out of him, where there is noe time... and as many received the word, I say unto ye: yee are gods, as it is written in your law [John 10:34].... Now waite all to have these things fulfilled in ye, if it never be so little a measure waite in it, that ye may grow to a perfect man in Christ Jesus.

This passage is not terribly coherent. But it shows that Fox claimed sonship, though in a way that could be claimed by others who wait faithfully upon the Lord and grow into perfection in Christ. Those who had gone through the harrowing convincement process of death to the self had found a "measure" of freedom from captivity in earthly time and its realm of cause and effect. Thus, to be a child of God in the Spirit was to be "before Abraham was." To have Christ within was to be of Christ's flesh and bone, eating it and becoming the same substance with it. (241-2)

I'm guessing that such claims helped keep this letter from finding home in the Epistles that became part of Fox's Works.

This is strong reinforcement for the hypothesis that early Quakerism wasn't merely about following God, it was about uniting with God. The Inward Light, "Christ is come to teach his people himself", pointing toward union rather than reflection.

I wonder whether Fox himself ever abandoned that set of ideas, even if he did write much more cautiously after the 1650s, and edited earlier letters. I'm guessing that he didn't, though such a guess is hard to substantiate.

January 1, 2008

Some last qualifiers on Orthodox deification

Before I return to Quaker writers specifically, I'd like to note Timothy Ware's list of "six points... to prevent misinterpretation." These are just the opening sentences of paragraphs from pages 236-8 of The Orthodox Way.

First, deification is not something reserved for a few select initiates, but something intended for all alike. The Orthodox Church believes that it is is the normal goal for every Christian without exception....

Secondly, the fact that a person is being deified does not mean that she or he ceases to be conscious of sin. On the contrary, deification always presupposes a continued act of repentance....

In the third place, these is nothing esoteric or extraordinary about the methods which we must follow in order to be deified. If someone asks 'How can I become God?' the answer is very simple: go to church, receive the sacraments, regularly, pray to God 'in spirit and in truth', read the Gospels, follow the commandments....

Fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a 'social' process...

Fifthly, love of God and of our fellow humans must be practical. Orthodoxy rejects all forms of Quietism, all types of love which do not issue in action....

Finally, deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments. Theosis according to the likeness of the Trinity involves a common life, and it is only within the fellowship of the Church that this common life of coinherence can be properly realized. Church and sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby we may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness. (236-8)

While I suspect that Quakers would read "Church" and "sacraments" very differently from the Orthodox, and I can imagine George Fox muttering about steeplehouses and their outwardness just thinking about it, there's a lot here shared in common - in my own words:

  • This is a path for everyone, not just a spiritual elite.

  • This path keeps its participants on a moral path, without the Ranting Fox and other early Quakers deplored. Repentance is always central.

  • There are no obscure techniques required.

  • People should share this path with others, not just wander by themselves.

  • Love leads to action.

As before, I strongly encourage visitors to this site to track down a copy of Ware's book and consider its message beyond what I'm able to excerpt here.

(I'm not sure what Ware's aside about Quietism is about, but I'm thinking more and more that the word has multiple meanings, not all of which apply to Quaker or even Catholic Quietism.)

December 28, 2007

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.

December 23, 2007

Reading Fox in the light of deification

I've been speculating about what seems to me a likely connection between Early Quakers' perspectives on salvation and the Eastern Orthodox description of deification. It seems to explain some of Fox and Nayler's harder-to-comprehend moments, and may also correspond to what their followers believed of them, but it's less clear that Fox and Nayler specifically saw deification as the path to salvation.

I've been reading Volume I of Fox's Epistles (Volume 7 of the Works). It's interesting to see how much of Fox's prose seems to me to fit beautifully with the framework of deification - though at the same time these same phrasings have been interpreted by Quakers for centuries without considering that framework.

Here, for example, is a letter from 1653. I've highlighted the language that seems potentially to refer to deification.

XLII.-- To Friends, concerning the light, in which they may see their saviour, and the deceivers.

To all Friends every where, scattered abroad: in the light dwell which comes from Christ, that with it ye may see Christ your saviour; that ye may grow up in him. For they who are in him, are new creatures; and ‘old things are passed away, and all things are become new.’ And who are in him, are led by the spirit, to them there is no condemnation; but they dwell in that which doth condemn the world, and with the light see the deceivers, and the antichrists, which are entered into the world. And such teachers as bear rule by their means; and such as seek for the fleece, and make a prey upon the people, and are hirelings, and such as go in the way of Cain, and run greedily after the error of Balaam; and such as are called of men master, and stand praying in the synagogues, and have the chief seats in the assemblies, all which are in the world, who by those that dwelt in the light, were cried against; for it did them condemn, and all such as speak a divination of their own brain, and are filthy dreamers, who use their tongues, and steal the words from their neighbours; with the light, the world and all these aforesaid are comprehended, and all that is in it; and all they that hate it, and all the antichrists that oppose it, and all the false prophets and deceivers, that are turned from it, with the light are comprehended, and with the light are condemned, and all that are turned from it and hate it.

‘I am the light of the world,’ saith Christ, and he doth enlighten every one that cometh into the world; and he that loves the light, and walks in the light, receives the light of life: and the other, he hates the light, because his deeds are evil, and the light doth reprove him. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, in which light, they that love it, walk; which is the condemnation of him that hates it. And all the antichrists, and all the false prophets, and all the deceivers, the beast, and the well-favoured harlot, all these are seen with the light to be in that nature, acting contrary to the light; and with the light are they comprehended, and by the light condemned.

For he is not an antichrist, that walks in the light that comes from Christ; he is no deceiver, that walks in the light that comes from Christ. Many deceivers are entered into the world. The world hates the light, and deceivers are turned from the light, and the antichrists they are turned from the light, therefore they oppose it, and some of them call it a natural conscience, a natural light; and such put the letter for the light. But with the light, which never changes, (which was before the world was,) are these deceivers seen, where they enter into the world. For many deceivers are entered into the world, and the false prophets are entered into the world; the world hates the light, and if it were possible, they would deceive the elect. But in the light the elect do dwell, which the antichrists, deceivers, and false prophets are turned from, into the world, that hate the light: that light which they do hate, the children of light dwell in, the elect. So it is not possible, that the antichrists and deceivers, that are entered into the world, that hate the light, should deceive the elect, who dwell in the light which they hate; which light doth them all comprehend, and the world; which light was before the world was, and is the world’s condemnation; in which light the elect walk. And here it is not possible, that they that dwell in the light should be deceived, which comprehends the world, and is the world’s condemnation. Which light shall bring every tongue to confess, and every knee to bow: when the judgments of God come upon them, it shall make them confess, that the judgments of God are just.

G. F. (50-1, 1653)

It all depends, however, on how we read "dwell in the light". If "dwelling in the light" is being a nice person, following God's commands, and otherwise being respectful of a power that is completely separate from us (though found inwardly) - then this is not a text about deification.

This light seems, however, to be transforming - which suggests great change inside of us, 'the elect', we who "may grow up in him," "be in him", as "new creatures."

There are many many more of these possibly relevant epistles, but for now, I'll pause here.

December 19, 2007

Limits of the union

Immediately after describing deification, Ware adds two key clarifications. The first distinction makes clear that the Orthodox view of deification does not create many gods with equal standing to God:

The idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God's essence and His energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence: the Orthodox Church, while speaking of deification and union, rejects all forms of pantheism. (232)

This distinction is not one I've found in Fox's writings, though I've only begun to look for it specifically. Perhaps, though, this distinction is one that had never particularly been emphasized in the British Isles, or dismissed as a purely scholarly theological matter. Ware explains the distinction - and what it means for our ability to approach God - earlier in the chapter:

(1) God is absolutely transcendent. 'No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it.' (Gregory Palamas) This absolute transcendence Orthodoxy safeguards by its emphatic use of the 'way of negation', of 'apophatic' theology. Positive or 'cataphatic' theology - the 'way of affirmation' must always be balanced and corrected by the employment of negative language. Our positive statements about God - that He is good, wise, just, and so on - are true as far as they go, yet they cannot adequately describe the inner nature of the deity...

(2) God, although absolutely transcendent, is not cut off from the world which He has made. God is above and outside His creation, yet He also exists within it. As a much used Orthodox prayer put it, God is 'everywhere present and filling all things'. Orthodoxy therefore distinguishes between God's essence and His energies, thus safeguarding both divine transcendence and divine immanence: God's essence remains unapproachable, but His energies come down to us. God's energies, which are God himself, permeate all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light. Truly our God is a God who hides Himself, yet he is also a God who acts - the God of History, intervening directly in concrete situations. (208-9, emphasis in original)

God is here with us, we can partake of God's energies, and even become divine - but we cannot encounter God's essence directly. Christ's incarnation, of course, was a coming of God's essence to his creation, and that is why the faith is Christian specifically. This perspective, however, while recognizing that God is around us, available to us, capable of deifying us, also keeps us separate from God, partaking of the divine nature and becoming divine without becoming God.

Ware's next paragraph on deification provides more description of the limits this creates:

Closely related to this is another point of equal importance. The mystical union between God and humans is a true union, yet in this union Creator and creature do not become fused into a single being. Unlike the eastern religions which teach that humans are swallowed up in the deity, Orthodox mystical theology has always insisted that we humans, however closely linked to God, retain our full person integrity. The human person, when deified, remains distinct (though not separate) from God.

The mystery of the Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity, and those who express the Trinity in themselves do not sacrifice their personal characteristics. When St. Maximus wrote 'God and those who are worthy of God have one and the same energy,' he did not means that the saints lose their free will, but that when deified they voluntarily and in love conform their will to the will of God. Nor does the human person, when 'it becomes god', cease to be human: 'We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation.' The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a 'created god', a god by grace or by status. (232)

This seems to me to fill a gap in early Quaker conversations - taking the Trinity, which Quakers acknowledged, though briefly, as a foundation for explaining that the boundaries between God and humans is blurred, while also using it as a line. We can't join the Trinity ourselves, but we can partake in the joining of humans and the divine that Christ's incarnation demonstrates. It also fits well with the Biblical references Fox used.

To put it to a harder test, though, did early Quakers share that rough understanding, especially the boundary between the divinity that we can achieve and the divinity of God and Christ?

It may seem pretty clear to us today that George Fox and James Nayler remained humans, however tightly bonded to God they may have been, but it seems to have been unclear to their followers. At the same time, though, their actions in retrospect suggest that even if Fox and Nayler weren't certain of their distinct position as individuals in the period from 1652 to 1656, they were certainly very aware of it afterwards. Douglas Gwyn explores Nayler's testimony and that of his followers after they had re-enacted Christ's entry into Jerusalem in Naylor's entry into Bristol:

In his interrogations at Bristol and before Parliament, Nayler made it clear that he did not confuse the indwelling Christ with his own creaturely person. He explained that he had performed the sign by God's leading, which he could not refuse. As for the exalted language applied to him in the procession, he stated,

I do abhor that any honors due God should be given to me as I am a creature, but it pleased the Lord to set me up as a sign of the coming of the righteous one.... I was commanded by the power of the Lord to suffer it to be done to the outward man as a sign, but I abhor any honor as a creature.

Unfortunately, Nayler's own clarity did not speak for the thoughts and motives of those who had led him through the performance. Indeed, the testimony of his followers indicated real confusion between the sign and the person of James Nayler. The Strangers viewed Nayler as the "Prince of Peace." Dorcas Erbury testified that Nayler was "the only begotten Son of God," and that she "knew no other Jesus" and "no other Saviour." She also claimed that Nayler had raised her from the dead. Martha Simmonds was less blatant; she testified to "the seed born in him" but later added that "when the new life should be born in James Nayler, then he will be Jesus." (Douglas Gwyn, The Covenant Crucified, 167-8)

The testimony presented in the Quakerpedia entry on Nayler conveys rather less of a sense of separation, but his later writings seem to make clear that he no longer sees himself as Christ, if he ever did.

In Fox's case, it's somewhat more complicated. He never had a moment like Nayler's entry into Bristol, though his statements in other trials leave the question open. Again, though, his later actions suggest that whatever his position in 1652 to 1656, he could not in the end accept the many accolades of his followers, including phrases like "the first and the last", which he personally crossed out, with Margaret Fell likely removing more. His Journal, written from the later perspective, leaves us asking just how far he went.

It's hard to know just how much of early Quaker belief was lost in the aftermath of the Nayler trial and the continuing challenge of surviving in a Protestant world that was largely hostile to claims of direct inspiration. I do think, however, that there are still powerful echoes, a transforming (even deifying) Inner Light rather than a merely informing one.

In future posts, I'll take a look at how this perspective can suggest different meanings in early Quaker writings, and examine the Bible itself in this light.

December 15, 2007

Partakers of the divine

I'm going to spend a few posts exploring the Eastern Orthodox idea of "deification" to see how it is similar to - and where it differs from - early Quaker beliefs. For this part of the discussion, I'll be using Timothy Ware's excellent The Orthodox Church as a more detailed source of broad information on Orthodoxy.

The opening of his section on 'Partakers of the Divine Nature' is a reasonably clear explanation of the foundations of deification:

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god. 'In My kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods.' Such, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, is the final goal at which every Christian must aim: to become god, to attain theosis, 'deification' or 'divination'. For Orthodoxy our salvation and redemption mean our deification.

Behind the doctrine of deification there lies the idea of the human person made according to the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity. 'May they all be one,' Christ prayed at the Last Supper; 'as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, so also may they be in us. (John xvii, 21). Just as the three persons of the Trinity 'dwell' in one another in an unceasing movement of love, so we humans, made in the image of the Trinity, are called to 'dwell' in the Trinitarian God. Christ prays that we may share in the life of the Trinity, in the movement of love which passes between the divine persons; He prays that we may be taken up into the Godhead. The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves.

The idea of a personal and organic union between God and humans - God dwelling in us, and we in Him - is a constant theme in St. John's Gospel; it is also a constant theme in the Epistles of St. Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life 'in Christ'. The same idea recurs in the famous text of 2 Peter: 'Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature (i, 4).

It is important to keep this New Testament background in mind. The Orthodox doctrine of deification, so far from being unscriptural (as is sometimes thought), has a solid Biblical basis, not only in 2 Peter, but in Paul and the Fourth Gospel. (231-2, paragraph breaks added)

Quakers haven't spent that much time discussing the Trinity, though Fox wrote a bit about it. I doubt that the early Quakers had as developed a theological argument for their claims of unity with the divine, though they did cite many of the same verses, and the Gospel of John is sometimes called the "Quaker Gospel".

There's much here that's similar to (early) Quakerism, but also the beginnings of divergence.

November 23, 2007

Other perspectives on deification and Quakerism

I'm far from the first person to write about possible connections between Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism.

Carole D. Spencer, in The Creation of Quaker Theory: New Perspectives, an unfortunately expensive book (with some fascinating pieces in Google Books, fortunately!), writes on The Essentially Orthodox Nature of Quaker Holiness:

The concept of deification, unio mystica, a participation in God through Christ, is the foundational experience of all Christian mystics and has always existed within, and alongside, the dogmatic, liturgical, and institutional faith. This mystical aspect of faith, as divine union, biblically expressed as 'partakers of the divine nature', (KJV, 2 Peter 1:4) was so central to the beginnings of early Quakerism that one leader, Richard Farnworth, actually made it into a ditty, "Written by one whom the world called a Quaker, but is of the divine nature a partaker."

This experience-based faith was anchored to (and indeed could not be understood apart from) the mystery of the Trinity. Fox cared nothing for the dogmatic formulations, but the experience of the three persons, God, Christ, and Spirit, and the ultimate unity in the diversity of persons was paramount. This experience-based faith was also anchored in the doctrine of the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, and the atonement, Christ's offering on the cross. The key biblical text for Quakers, John 1:9, 'the true Light that enlightens everyone' could not be understood apart from the incarnation, because the true Light was the Word become flesh. And Fox, like the Greek fathers, did not stop there, but recognized the inverse as well, that transfiguration was a two-way process. Since Word (God) became flesh, flesh could also become God-like (deified, perfect)....

Fox understood perfection as the return to the original God-likeness in which humanity was created, which Christ had restored through his incarnation and atonement. This concept of perfection as restoration and earthly glorification, rather than a glorification only to be experienced in eternity, is common to Christian antiquity and continues to be the traditional understanding of holiness in the Eastern Orthodox Church. (160-1, emphasis mine)

(Update: I knew I'd seen Carole Spencer's name before, and I probably found myself on this track because of her writing in George Fox's Legacy, where she discusses similar themes of Orthodox deification before looking at more specifically Quaker holiness, starting from Hannah Whitall Smith.)

In the blogging world, Larry at Reflections of a Happy Old Man wrote on deification and Orthodoxy in 2005, and Johan Maurer writes about Orthodoxy periodically.

And for a different take, see John Oliver's From Reason to Truth to Mystery: An Odyssey to Orthodoxy follows the writer's path from Presbyterianism to Evangelical Quakerism to Orthodoxy. There's an interesting if brief anecdote near the start:

At first blush, Quakers and Eastern Orthodox seem to have little in common. Yet here, as in other matters, I was light years behind Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who, placed at a conference with representatives of liturgical traditions, said "Oh no. Orthodox belong next to the Friends."

I'll have more on the Orthodox side up next.

November 16, 2007

Orthodox salvation

Yesterday, I thought I was posting some of George Fox's hardest-to-accept moments, but judging by the comments, it sounds like people would like to see more of the same.

I don't have more of Fox right now, but I do have some related ideas that come from a very different place, focused on the nature of salvation.

I won't attempt to claim that there's a direct line between Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism as others have tried to claim for Quakerism and various mystical traditions. The Orthodox emphasis on changelessness, going back to the apostles, and the Quaker idea of Primitive Christianity Revived may have brought them to similar places, however different they appear on the surface. They both emphasize at their foundations a particular stream of New Testament thought that seems to have largely disappeared in Western Christianity. (I'll talk more about why that may have happened later.)

In The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, Jaroslav Pelikan outlines briefly how this doctrine looked in the time of Maximus the Confessor, under the headline "The Changeless Truth of Salvation":

"The chief idea of St. Maximus, as of all Eastern theology, [was] the idea of deification." Like all of his theological ideas, it had come down to him from Christian antiquity and had been formulated by the Greek fathers. Salvation defined as deification was the theme of Christian faith and of the biblical message. The purpose of the Lord's Prayer was to point to the mystery of deification. Baptism was "in the name of the life-giving and deifying Trinity." When the guests at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, as described in the Gospel of John (John 2:10), said that their host had "kept the good wine until now," they were referring to the word of God, saved for the last, by which men were made divine. When, in the epistles of the same apostle John, "the Theologian," it was said that "it does not yet appear what we shall be," (1 John 3:2) this was a reference to "the future deification of those who have now been made children of God." When the apostle Paul spoke of "the riches" of the saints, this too, meant deification.

But there were two principal passages of the Bible in which the definition of salvation as deification was set forth: the declaration of the psalm, "I say, 'You are gods,'" which was quoted in the New Testament (Ps. 82:6; John 10:34); and the promise of the New Testament that believers would "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

The first of these meant that righteous men and angels would become divine, the second that "being united with Christ" was the means of deification. For similarity to Christ was a deifying force, making men divine. Greek paganism had already known that one should rise from the active life to the contemplative, but Greek Christianity discovered that there was a third step beyond both of these, when one was taken up and was made divine. From the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite the devotees of contemplation had learned that God was not only beyond all existing realities, but beyond essence itself; and thus they had come to the true meaning of deification.

The presupposition of salvation as deification was the incarnation of the Logos of God, for "the purpose of the Lord's becoming man was our salvation." (10, paragraph breaks added.)

There are some clear differences between this set of beliefs and that of the early Quakers, most notably baptism - but at the same time this fits extremely well with the message that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" and with Fox's moving through England as a holy man.

This is just the beginning, but it's already a lot to digest. If you'd like more on "deification", or theosis, this Wikipedia article seems like a good place to start. It's also interesting to go back with this in mind and re-examine Romans 8, which I wrote about earlier.

November 15, 2007

An embarrassing enthusiasm?

George Fox spent a substantial part of his early career facing down blasphemy charges. Perhaps more important, later Quakers (including Fox, to some extent) played down some of the things Fox said that got him into this trouble in the first place. Perhaps the strongest example, which was left out of the original Journal, is this in Carlisle:

And one sware one thing and another sware another thing against me. And they asked if I were the son of God. I said "Yes."

They asked me if I had seen God's face. I said "Yes."

They asked me whether I had the spirit of discernment. I said "Yes, I discerned him that spoke to me."

They asked me whether the scripture was the word of God. I said, "God was the word, and the scriptures were writings, and the word was before writings were, which word did fulfill them."

And so they sent me to prison. (Braithwaite, Beginnings of Quakerism, 117.)

Braithwaite, writing of an earlier but similar case, says that Fox's words are "open to misconstruction:"

Fox replies to the more serious charges, as he had done at the quarter sessions, by denying that he had ever made such statements in the sense that George Fox was equal with God or George Fox was Christ, but he insists that the new life, the spiritual man, is the Lord from heaven and that Christ is one in all His saints. Fox's words, even in this answer, are open to misconstruction. The following especially was laid hold of:

Where He [that is, Christ Jesus] is made manifest, the works of the devil are destroyed and there He speaks and is king, and is the way, and is the truth, and is the life... and he that hath the same spirit that raised up Jesus Christ is equal with God. And the scripture saith that God will dwell in man and walk in man. As Jesus Christ, which is the mystery, hath passed before, so the same spirit takes upon it the same seed and is the same where it is made manifest. According to the flesh I am the son of Abraham, according to the the Spirit the Son of God, saith Christ.

Fox, and others of the early Friends, had a vivid sense of personal union with their living Lord, but they coupled this experience of the indwelling Christ with a doctrine of perfection that betrayed them, during the first exhiliration of the experience, into extremes of identification with the Divine. They believed that inspiration gave infallibility, a belief that men have often held with respect to the writers of scripture, and they had to learn, with the help of some painful lessons, what we are learning to-day about the writers of scripture, that the inspired servant of God remains a man, liable to much of human error and weakness. (109)

One especially interesting edit of these stories comes in the Quaker Reader, which leaps on page 77 from Fox's telling in the Journal of these events to a citation in The Great Mystery which makes similar claims in somewhat more cautious language:

Object. 1. 'That he did affirm that he had the divinity essentially inside him.'

Answer. For the word essential, it is an expression of their own: but that the saints are the temples of God, and God doth dwell in them, that the scriptures do witness, 2 Cor. vi. 1. Eph. iv. 6. 2 Pet. i. 4. And if God dwell in them, then the divinity dwells in them; and the scripture saith, ye shall be partakers of the divine nature; and this I witness: but where this is not, they cannot witness it.

...O. 4. 'That he was equal with God.'

A. That was not so spoken; but that 'He that sanctifieth, and they that are sanctified, are of one,' Heb. ii. 11. and the saints are all one in the Father and the son, of his flesh and of his bone; this the scripture doth witness. And 'ye are the sons of God,' and the Father and the Son are one; and 'they that are joined to the Lord, are one spirit, and they that are joined to a harlot are one flesh.'

...O. 'That he was the judge of the world.'

A. That 'the saints shall judge the world,' the scripture witnesseth it, 1 Cor. vi. 2, 3. wherefore I am one, and I witness the scripture fulfilled.

O. 'That he was as upright as Christ.'

A. Those words were not so spoken by me; but that 'as he is so are we in this present world.' 1 John iv. 17. That the saints are made 'the righteousness of God;' that the saints are one in the Father and the son; that we shall be like him, 1 John iii. 2. and that all teaching which is given forth by Christ, is to bring the saints to perfection, even to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: this the scripture doth witness, and this I witness. Where Christ dwells, must not he speak in his temple? (594-5)

Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" comes with more to it than people standing on a hillside and listening to Christ - it's more a matter of being possessed by Christ. Richard Bailey, in his essay in New Light on George Fox, writes of "celestial inhabitation," and writes:

The belief that the ordinary person became Christ, in some sense, was fundamental to early Quakerism. It explains Fox's high language, and the charismatic deportment of his followers appears less excessive and immature. His opponents accused him of claiming to be a god while his followers actually called him one. What is remarkable is that these were not isolated cases on either side, and we are able to determine this even though much of the exalted language directed toward Fox has been heavily censored. (113)

Bailey finds this hard for modern readers to deal with, and Braithwaite's comments on the writers of scripture suggest that it was hard in 1912 as well. I don't think it was all that much easier for most people in 1650s England, either, and the Nayler trial doubtless brought the question to an unpleasant head. Quakers backed away from the more extreme statements, though they certainly retained the idea of direct contact with an Inner Light.

However, that doesn't mean that this is genuinely unorthodox, and I've found some fascinating reflections on other aspects of Christian tradition that take these questions very seriously. I'll have more on that in future posts.

September 14, 2007

Waiting to surrender

I'm not sure where I first heard the term "waiting worship" - maybe in a blog post, maybe in Lloyd Lee Wilson's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. I definitely remember the "aha" moment when I heard it, feeling words finally start to capture what my experience of silent worship in Quaker meetings had been.

While there are days when I fear that some people waiting in meeting are waiting for the end of the meeting (as people in churches often seem to wait for the end of the sermon), "waiting worship" describes both a longing for God and an understanding that God, the Light, isn't always just there when we turn around, ready to provide guidance and support. God, the Light, is always there - but we're not always so close.

"What are we waiting for?"

God. Silent contemplation is an opportunity for us to clear ourselves of the barriers we place between ourselves and God, to listen to the Light and let ourselves be lifted.

A recent post by Robin reminded me that this basic message seems to have survived the various changes to Quakerism over the centuries:

It is our job to trust that God will transform us into what or whom we are called to be. It is God's job to do the transforming.

George Fox and James Nayler preached transformation and submission to God, letting God work through us. So did the Quietist Quakers who came after them, and so did 19th-century revivalists like Hannah Whitall Smith, whose The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life inspired Robin's post. I'd suggest that most modern Quakers, whatever the details, still keep a similar thread near the heart of their worship.

Following this path is more difficult than contemplating quietly in meeting - it means letting God lead, a terrifying prospect that puts all we have at risk. (One of Quakerism's wisest aspects, it seems to me, is providing a framework for when we seek the help of others to discern what leadings came from the Light, and which came from the confusion of our own wants and needs.)

Letting God lead seems, however, to be the path to peace, both inward peace and outward peace. Our greatest strength lies in surrendering our strength to God's strength, leading when called to lead, serving when called to serve.

"Giving your life to God," in this context, doesn't necessarily mean becoming a monk or a nun or a priest or a missionary, but rather listening to God, discerning what God wants in your life and following that leading. It might even suggest a path forward with that most challenging bit of scripture, Matthew 5:48:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

"We can't be perfect," people complain; "Why does God have to be so demanding?" And the imperfection of humans seems to be widely accepted, even by George Fox. Where then, can this perfection come from?

From God - if we listen, and follow.

September 3, 2007

How much leading?

I know Quakers have developed a framework for testing leadings, and that there seem to be many distinctions among leadings, but I tripped over the words to a popular Christian song this weekend because it suddenly didn't seem right. I've sung it many times before, and like it, and hope not to make a mountain of a molehill here, but:

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go, Lord. If You lead me.
I will hold, Your people in my heart.

You can find the whole song, "Here I am Lord," at many places on the Web. Dan Schutte (who appears to be a Jesuit priest from St.Louis, among "the fathers of contemporary American liturgical music") wrote it in 1981, and I sang it Sunday in a Methodist Church in western New York. We've also sung it at Cornell International Christian Fellowship many times.

The part that struck me was one word in this line:

I will go, Lord. If You lead me.

Shouldn't that If be a When? Or are leadings really that unusual? (I could make up an extra but inappropriate verse: "If you don't lead me / I will wander / I will backslide / I will live a worldly life" - which sounds kind of like we're telling God to lead, instead of ourselves to listen.)

To be fair, I can read the song as being about leadings to serve on foreign missions, and those may well be rarer, but that's not the context I usually think about it in.

April 15, 2007

It's the end of the world as we know it

After the introduction, the first 'real' chapter in Apocalypse of the Word is a 20-page introduction to the strange world of England in the 1640s and 1650s. It relies fairly heavily on historian Christopher Hill's many works, which I enjoy tremendously, but it's hard to capture just how wrenching those decades were.


  • Years of bad harvests, with famine throughout the land.

  • Eleven years when the king refused to call Parliament into session, bottling up frustrations ever more powerful.

  • Continuous religious conflict and persecution between the state church and its many opponents.

  • A constant trickle of radical (often Anabaptist) religious ideas coming in from the continent.

  • An emerging but hardly stable middle(ish) class that didn't fit well into a world of nobles and not-nobles.

  • Troubles in Ireland and Scotland, with their own religious and social issues.

  • Enclosures and drainage programs that threw poor people off the land, leaving them to survive as well as they could.

That's just the buildup - the explosions of the 1640s were devastating:

  • Open warfare between Parliament (finally called into session) and the King's forces, with armies moving across the country.

  • The sudden development of a new kind of army (the New Model Army), with ranks assigned by performance rather than social status.

  • Freedom of the press that let radical ideas accumulated for years reach much larger audiences.

  • An agreement with the Scots that might have turned all of England Presbyterian - except that there was enough resistance to halt it.

  • Ministers travelling with and generally radicalizing the Army.

  • A Parliament that doesn't really want to pay the Army, leading to all kinds of standoffs and uncertainty.

  • The creation of "agitators" representing the military ranks promoting a "Leveller" agenda.

  • Ever-shifting alliances between Parliamentary factions, the generals, the lower ranks of the Army, and sometimes the King.

  • The execution of the King.

The regicide, the execution of Charles I on authority given by the House of Commons, was a moment in history whose importance is hard to explain many revolutions later. The social, military, and religious powers that had held England together were destroyed or in flight; anything could happen next.

In this swirling chaos, people lost their familiar moorings. Reading Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down or Gwyn's Seekers Found, it's clear that people had good reason for thinking the world was coming to an end: the recognizable world was indeed coming to an end.

While the King's Cavaliers despaired, much of England hoped for a Parliament of Saints, a hope that took a long time to go away. The late 1640s saw a huge buildup of milennial hopes - that King Charles would be replaced by King Jesus - that weren't fulfilled. Instead, Protestants spent years tearing each other apart, while some Protestants moved ever further into doubt. Anglicans became Presbyterians, then joined Independent churches, then became Baptists, and some of those churches 'shattered' to leave their members looking, searching, waiting:

The state of radical Puritanism by 1652 is best defined by a group known as the Seekers. The Seeker phenomenon was not a sect - in fact, it defined itself in opposition to sects by stressing more what it had not found than what it had found. It was made up of thousands who had fitfully passed from one movement to another, finding a fleeting satisfaction, but no lasting peace or unity.

Unlike the Ranters, the Seekers still diligently searched for the path of true righteousness. They denied not only the state church in its episcopal and Presybterian orders, but also the hireling ministry and its sacraments. They began to meet in silence, praying aloud or witnessing as moved by the Spirit.

Though the spiritual life of the Seekers was rich, and many of their leaders were extremely gifted, they felt that they had come to the end of a long and painful road of false gatherings. Together they would wait in patience, "Expecting a further Manifestation." (19-20, paragraph breaks added)

Those Seekers, were, of course, the audience readiest to receive George Fox's message.

Before looking at how Gwyn sees Fox himself catalyzing those Seekers to create Quakers, I'd like to pause for a moment to consider the phenomenon of "Seeking" today. I visited San Francisco Friends' Meeting this morning, which has explicit "Seeker's Packets" in its library for prospective Quakers. I think it's a good idea, but it left me thinking about a fundamental change in our religious outlook.

It's hard to imagine groups of Seekers gathering in America today, to "wait in patience" while supporting each other. Instead, we seem to have shifted to an approach where those not bonded to a particular church either worship (or don't) privately, or attend a church but stay on its edges without diving into religious commitments. I wonder if this is different because current Seekers seem produced by slow erosion rather than radical shifts across the entire culture.

The more I think about it, the more I am impressed by (if not personally interested in) Zach's call to create a place where spiritual practice is taken seriously but without boundaries. I feel that my own seeking is becoming arriving, but looking back I wonder how different it could have been working in community.

April 12, 2007

Present parousia

While Apocalypse of the Word is a rare non-fiction book, one with suspense built into it, it's not because Douglas Gwyn keeps the ending a surprise. After talking a bit about the problem of the parousia, Christ's return, that is always to come soon in the New Testament but for which we still wait, Gwyn argues that Fox's preaching changes the entire shape of such discussion:

In preaching Christ's return as a presently unfolding reality, Fox recovers the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith, shattering the perceived problem of a "delay" or "non-occurrence" of the parousia. He does this as he witnesses to the second advent of Christ in the same terms that the gospels use to witness to the first advent. The problem in both cases is with the expectation and perception of the people, together with the vested interests of human authority. The "messianic secret", the scandal that Jesus was not recognized as Messiah by the Jews, is relived in the drama of Christian disbelief in his return and his present power to save from sin, rather than in sin. In his first advent, Christ was revealed in a carpenter's son from Nazareth; in his second advent, he is revealed in a universally bestowed light. In both cases, his commonness is a stumbling block to the pious. (xxii)

This casts the Puritans more or less in the position of the Jews of the New Testament, whose beliefs about the coming Messiah didn't mesh with what they saw. (For more on those Jews' point of view, I strongly recommend Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. In this context, it might lead to more sympathy for Fox's Puritan opponents.) This telling makes me think I need to reread a lot of Fox's challenges to the Puritans; while I saw the parallel Fox draws, this adds layers of meaning to it.

Meanwhile, this return to "the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith" combines the "Primitive Christianity Revived" story with the Second Coming story, making it easier to see how this approach includes much more of the New Testament than Revelation. As later generations took a less eschatological approach, they might well find different messages in the same statements. This combination makes it easier to read a lot of Fox's statements in a de-eschatologized way.

Fox's use of revelation also changes the way we look at that word, bringing it back to its original meaning in Greek:

Fox's preaching that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" therefore connects the hope of the parousia with the question of Christian knowledge. In other words, apocalypse and revelation are reunited in the basic sense of the Greek word apokalupsis as it is used in the New Testament. For example, the Apocalypse of John is the revelation of the end given him by Christ. Apocalypse as revelation itself leads us to conclude that Christian apocalyptic is most basically a matter of present experience, rather than speculation upon the future, as scholars have often assumed. (xxii)

This is a theme Gwyn will repeat throughout the book, structuring chapters around particular 'apocalypses', revelations Fox reported and preached. At the same time, he ties that preaching to Fox's distinctive eschatology and specifically (at times) to Revelation.

Before I move into the main body of the book, there's one more paragraph in the preface I'd like to highlight, as it suggests something of where this approach leads, and how it differs from Puritan and other traditionally Protestant perspectives:

Justification and sanctification become one continuous work of God in Fox's preaching that "Jesus Christ is come to teach his people himself." There is neither a retreat to metaphysics nor a resort to the interim ethic and government of the institutional church. Christ is come by his Spirit to judge, to empower, to war against Satan, and to rule among his people. The kingdom of God is revealed concretely on earth now. Fox comes to these conclusions without falling into the trap of spiritual enthusiasm or privatism. Unlike Paul's opponents at Corinth and Philippi, Fox by no means underestimates the problem of sin, but witnesses to the greater power of the risen Lord to save and gather his people. The cross relentlessly maintains its central position in Fox's writings. (xxi-xxii)

I've written a bit about the earlier Quaker position on justification (and later rejection of that position by the Gurneyite Orthodox), but hadn't thought deeply about where it came from, though I did test it against Romans 8. This piece (which I had read before I wrote all that, but apparently forgotten) fits that space of the Quaker puzzle neatly. It explains a divergence from other Protestants well.

As I noted before, there's still a dramatic tension in Gwyn's book. How much explanatory power does this perspective have? The preface is promising, the thesis interesting, but the bulk of the book will fill it out.

April 5, 2007

Looking to the Alpha and the Omega

I first read Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word a couple of years ago, and it dramatically deepened my interest in early Quakerism. I've been very cautious in writing about it, however. It's not an easy book to excerpt without losing critical context and meaning, and even the title can be read in multiple meanings, which resolve over the course of the book. (Is Apocalypse the end of the world, or revelation? Is the Word "In the beginning was the Word", or scripture, or something else?)

Gwyn's book was a surprise to me, because up until I found it I was much more accustomed to thinking of Quakerism as Primitive Christianity Revived, to use William Penn's classic title. Quakers (at least in my experience) often described themselves as going back to the beginnings of Christianity, when the message was clear but hadn't been codified into hierarchies and scriptures. George Fox was difficult to understand in this context, as he doesn't seem like, well, a church historian. Fox's classic message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" sounds somewhat like a return to those early days when Christ taught in person, but also raises all the questions inherent in discussions of the second coming.

Gwyn focuses squarely on the eschatological aspects of Fox's writings, finding motivation there for Quaker beliefs and practices. At the same time, however, he differentiates them from other approaches to the same issues - approaches I think may have made Quakers less eager to acknowledge the importance of these angles on early Quakerism:

The key issue... which will dominate my investigation will be that of eschatology - the belief in end-times, the return of Christ, the coming of the kingdom of God. End-time language and expectation shaped and gave a particular energy to the socio-political struggles of both Puritans and Quakers.

In the case of Puritanism, this line of thought tended to be mainly a speculative, political ideology, based on apocalyptic books of the BIble, such as Daniel and Revelation. Texts were employed in order to identify certain political figures with the antichrist, to calculate the end of the world, or to make messianic claims for political agendas. Such speculation mobilized great political and military energies.

On the other hand, Quaker preaching, while sharing some of these characteristics, will be seen to lay primary emphasis on apocalypse in its literal sense of revelation. Geo-political speculation gave way to a knowledge of Christ's return in personal experience. This approach created much less political ideology... yet it generated a movement with dynamic social and economic reordering and a powerful political witness that far outdistanced the Puritan efforts. What we find in Fox's preaching are the same hopes shared by his Puritan contemporaries, yet a new basis for these hopes in a radically personal spirituality. It is an experience of apocalypse like that described in John 3:19 - "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world...." (3)

It seems that Fox captured the spiritual side of earlier eschatology without getting trapped in the challenges of setting dates for the end of the world. Fox's eschatology isn't speculation about the future - it's present eschatology, and Christ is here, with us, now.

I'll have a lot more to say about this book, though I don't plan to go through it page by page. I'm certainly not going to explain it any better than Gwyn already does. Still, I hope to bring forward some pieces that raise questions worth exploring, and see where they lead. This book already had a profound influence on my experience and views of Quakerism, and has been a quiet undercurrent in the writing of this weblog.

Next, I'll be looking at some criticisms of this book and its eschatological perspective. Was this Fox's view consistently? Which other early Quakers shared it? How necessary is it to an understanding of Quakerism then and today? (I don't promise answers on that last one.)

March 30, 2007

The importance of apocalypse

Whenever someone brings up Revelation, and starts telling it as a story tied to the present, I tend to worry. I've seen too many TV preachers forecasting the end-times, read too many of Fred Clark's reviews of Left Behind, and marveled at things like the Millerites announcing that the world would end on October 22, 1844.

I've come to think, however, that I've been wrong in writing off millenarianism as strange and destructive, and especially wrong in thinking it inherently conservative. The more I've learned about Quakerism, and more broadly about Christianity, the more that final book of the Bible seems critical.

Theologian Paul Tillich, in his A History of Christian Thought, draws some connections between the Spiritual Franciscans of the 14th century, their fondness for Joachim of Floris [Fiore]'s Revelation-fueled visions of a new age, Quakers, and the rationalists who followed:

It is entirely wrong to place the rationalism of the Enlightenment in contradiction to pietistic mysticism.. It is popular nonsense that reason and mysticism are the two great opposites. Historically, Pietism and the Enlightenment both fought against Orthodoxy.

The subjectivity of Pietism, or the doctrine of the "inner light" in Quakerism and other ecstatic movements, has the character of immediacy or autonomy against the authority of the church. To put it more sharply, modern rational autonomy is a child of the mystical autonomy of the doctrine of the inner light.

The doctrine of the inner light is very old; we have it in the Franciscan theology of the Middle Ages, in some of the radical sects (especially the later Franciscans), in many sects of the Reformation period, in the transition from spiritualism to rationalism, from the belief in the Spirit as the autonomous guide of every individual to the rational guidance which everybody has by his autonomous reason.

From another historical perspective, the third stage of Joachim of Floris, the stage of the Holy Spirit, is behind the idea among the bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment that they have reached the third stage, the age of reason, in which every individual is taught directly. They go back to the prophecy of Joel, in which every maid or servant is taught directly by the Holy Spirit, and no one is dependent on anybody else for the Spirit.

Thus we can say that rationalism is not opposed to mysticism, if by mysticism we mean the presence of the Spirit in the depths of the human soul. Rationalism is the child of mysticism, and both of them are opposed to authoritarian Orthodoxy. (286-7, paragraph breaks added)

I'll connect this back to Quakerism in some posts to come on Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word, but first I'd like to explore Joachim of Floris and the worlds Umberto Eco presented in The Name of the Rose.

So, to get started, what does Joachim of Floris sound like? Here's a sample from Apocalyptic Spirituality, in full detailing-the-end mode:

Then the commander of the army will be Gog, the final Antichrist. God will judge him and his army by fire and brimstone poured down from heaven. The devil who led men astray to do all these evil deeds will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the Beast and the False Prophet are (Apoc. 20:9-10). The Beast and the False Prophet (that is, the eleventh king mentioned in Daniel, along with his army) and the Seventh King written of above along with his group of false prophets are next thrown into the lake of fire. At the end Gog and his army will be judged; after them the devil and Gog himself will be cast into the lake of fire where the Beast and the False Prophet already are.

Continue reading "The importance of apocalypse" »

March 10, 2007

"minds.... turned toward God"

I wrote about humility a while ago, and the theme continues to reverberate. Early Quakers often talked about humility using a variety of descriptions, many of which are contained in this letter from George Fox:

Dear friends in the eternal truth of God, whose minds by the light of Jesus Christ are turned towards God, meet often together in the fear of the Lord, and to the light take heed, that with it all your minds may be kept up to God, from whence it comes.

And in all your meetings wait low in his fear, that ye may come to know the life and power of truth one in another. And all ye whom the Lord hath made overseers over his church in your several places, be faithful to the Lord, and watch over the flock of Christ with all diligence; ye which are strong watch over the weak, and stir up that which is pure on in another; see that all your meetings be kept in order.

Be faithful unto the Lord where he hath set you, and ye shall not lose your reward. Servants, be faithful unto your masters, not with eye service, serving them as men pleasers, but in singleness of heart, as unto the Lord; that ye may come to undo the heavy burdens; being faithful in your places, where the Lord hath set you, there is your right service.

And take heed of forward minds, and of running out before your guide, for that leads out into looseness; and such plead for liberty, and run out in their wills, and bring dishonour to the Lord; and the unbridled will gets at liberty, and an exalted spirit gets up, and pride, and haughtiness, and high words. And such are they who add to the burden, and do not take it off.

Therefore all wait low in the fear of the Lord, and be not hasty nor rash, but see the way be made clear; and as the Lord doth move you, so do, and return with speed, (when ye have done,) to the place where ye were abiding, and be faithful there; that the truth of God be not evil spoken of through you, as they speak of vagabonds and wanderers, that it may not be so among you. For such are vagabonds and wanderers, who run before their guide.

And masters rules over your servants in love, with all diligence and meekness, knowing that ye have one master in heaven.

And friends, in all places, where any go abroad, as they pass by examine them, whither they are going, and what about? And if they cannot give a good account, exhort them to return back and abide faithful in their places until they see their way made clear.

So farewell in the Lord. The eternal God of power and wisdom direct and guide you to his eternal praise, that his name may be honored and glorified in you and through you all! Be diligent every one in your places, where the Lord hath set you, for the work of the Lord is great; and God Almighty keep you to be faithful laborers in his work.

From one who is a lover of your souls, and whose care is over the church of God, that it may be kept in order, and that all, that are guided by his spirit, may be led into all good order. G. F. London, the 15th of the 3d month, 1655. (Works VII, page 94-5, Epistle LXXXIII, paragraph breaks added for readability.)

There's a lot going on in this early epistle of Fox's, one which warns of the dangers of pride and the disorder it brings. The opening discussion of fearing God may seem a little unusual to modern Quakers more familiar with the light as comforter and leader, but Fox's emphasis on the right relationship between worshipper and worshipped still leaves plenty of room for a life rightly led - "as the Lord doth move you."

It's also interesting to think about the "servants" and "masters" lines, as the divisions between those groups is less clear today than it was then. As consumers, we are encouraged to think "the customer is always right", placing us in the master role in many interactions, while we also act as servants much of the time. Be diligent in your work, faithful, with "singleness of heart", and masters must "rule... in love, with all diligence and meekness.

All of this is possible when we "to the light take heed."

January 23, 2007

A sense beyond the rational

[Based on a post of mine about a month ago on the Quaker-L mailing list.]

I didn't think any spiritual part of me had been dead or comatose until a few years ago, but gradually it dawned on me that I'd been missing something, looking in all the wrong places. Until you're using this sense, you may not notice its lack, or think the lack comes from other problems.

It's good to be in awe of the natural world, but it's not a substitute. The natural world, for all its virtues, is easier to approach, more tightly bound to the ways, for instance, that (most) schools train us to think and see. We can learn great lessons from the natural world, find great beauty in it, and enjoy its wonder. That doesn't mean, however, that the natural world is all there is.

I don't think it's easy to approach the Bible when we've been drenched in rational explanations of a complex world. It wasn't easy for me to approach the Bible, certainly. I'd always had one available as a reference, but didn't turn to it for inspiration. The first Bible I really read and enjoyed was the Jefferson Bible - Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste of the gospels, minus all the supernatural stuff he just didn't find plausible. "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," as Jefferson called it.

Over time, though, I found myself missing the stuff Jefferson didn't like, as Christ's message is difficult enough for humans that telling it as a simple set of morals we should follow is just, well, inadequate. That combined with other doubts I'd had about the sufficiency of a naturalist explanation of the world to make me look harder for other possibilities. Something was clearly missing.

I found those possibilities in Quaker meeting, of course. I'd been going on and off for a long time, but now I go regularly. There's still a lot of figuring out for me to do about how best to integrate this new sense into my life, but I'll get there, listening to this new sense. Mysticism without this sense never made much sense to me; now it feels complete, and completing.

As for the Bible itself, I still definitely veer more toward the New Testament than the Old, but I'm finding that yes, I can appreciate all of it. I certainly wouldn't have predicted this for myself fifteen or even ten years ago.

November 27, 2006

Quakers and Montanists

I wrote earlier about Paul Tillich's comments on Montanism, mystics, and Quakers, where Tillich speculated about the flames of ecstasy dwindling into rationalism. Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition doesn't compare Montanists and Quakers directly, but his description of this very early group (~150 AD) echoes the story of early Quakerism:

Nathanael Bonwetsch defined primitive Montanism as follows: "An effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the return of Christ, immediately at hand; to define the essence of true Christianity from this point of view; and to oppose everything by which conditions in the church were to acquire a permanent form for the purpose of entering upon a longer historical development...."

In the explication of his thesis, Bonwetsch placed the principal stress upon Montanism's attitude toward questions of the Christian life in relation to the world, and he saw it as the first outstanding movement to be called forth by a concern with these questions....

the explanation of the origins of Montanism lies in the fact that when the apocalyptic vision became less vivid and the church's polity more rigid, the extraordinary operations of the Spirit characteristic of the early church diminished in both frequency and intensity. The decline in the eschatological hope and the rise of the monarchical episcopate are closely interrelated phenomena worthy of special treatment; both indicate a process of settling already at work in the second-century church, and perhaps earlier, by which many Christians were beginning to adjust themselves to the possibility that the church might have to live in the world for a considerable time to come. Part of that process of settling was the gradual decline, both in intensity and in frequency, of the charismata that had been so prominent in the earlier stages of the Christian movement.... (98-99)

Reading this reminded me of the excitement Doug Gwyn conveys in Apocalypse of the Word when he talks about the impact of Fox's announcement that "Christ is come to teach His people himself", and the battles Fox had with those who by the 1650s seemed to reject 'charismata' completely, as something long since past. Early Christians didn't make that claim, particularly, against the Montanists.

It therefore seems to be correct to note that this type of prophetic speech was at home in the Montanist sect and in the greater church. But the tone of this insistence on the part of the critics of Montanism seems to indicate a certain amount of embarrassment on their part in practice if not in principle the charismata were becoming rarer and rarer. Despite their assertion of the theoretical possibility of prophecy in the church, the other guarantees of the presence and work of the Spirit in their midst were becoming so firm in their minds that when Montanism claimed to actuate this theoretical possibility with a vengeance, they were put to a severe test. (100)

Montanism laid claim to supernatural inspiration by the Holy Spirit as the source of its prophecy, and it pointed to the moral decline of the church as the main reason for having lost this power of the Spirit. Most orthodox writers in the second and even in the third century maintained that such inspiration by the Holy Spirit was not only possible, but present and active in the church. In meeting the challenge of Montanism, they could not, for the most part, take the approach that the age of supernatural inspiration had passed. Among the earliest critics of Montanism, there was no effort to discredit the supernatural character of the new prophecy. (105-6)

This is deeply different from most of the responses Fox received - by 1650 the focus was on scripture, even the old traditions of the church in various degrees cast off by reformers. Like Montanism's opponents, however, Quakerism's opponents found dark causes for Quaker inspiration:

Instead, these critics affirmed that the ecstatic seizures of the Montanists were indeed supernatural in origin, but claimed that the supernatural involved was not the Holy Spirit of God but demonic spirits.

I'll have more to say later on some of the connections between the areas that produced Quakerism and stories of witchcraft, but these kinds of questions still arise for any kind of supernatural message, along with the questions of insanity.

The impact of the Montanists would create problems for later mystics and prophets, however, as Hippolytus of Rome, first antipope but eventual saint, established a new path:

Yet the decline of genuine prophecy and of the extraordinary functioning of the Spirit among the ranks of the catholic church tended to reduce the effectiveness of this charge that the prophecy of the Montanists was a pseudoprophecy because its supernatural source was demonic.

There was another way to meet the doctrinal implications of the Montanist challenge, and in the long run that was the way orthodoxy took... [Hippolytus] recognized that the weakness which Montanism had discovered in the church lay in the church's concept of a continuing prophecy. This concept was of a piece with a vivid eschatology; for apocalyptic has always, as suggested by its very name, which means "revelatory", brought with it the notion of supplementary revelation, by which among other things, the apocalypticist is convinced that the end has truly come.

More consistently than most of the anti-Montanist writers were willing to do, Hippolytus subjected to question the very foundations of the Montanist movement. He was franker than most of his contemporaries in admitting that the church was not necessarily living in the last times, and in opposition to Montanism he defended the process by which the church was beginning to reconcile itself to the delay in the Lord's second coming.

As he pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of prophecy into the past. It had ended with the apostle John, whose Apocalypse Hippolytus maintained was the last valid prophecy to have come from the Holy Spirit. And though John was entitled to claim the inspiration of the Spirit for his prophetic work, later so-called prophets had no such right....

As Schepelern has summarized the situation, "A half century earlier such a movement could still count on ecclesiastical recognition. Between the preaching of judgment by John and that by Montanus, however, there lies the decisive phase in the development of the church's organization and ministry, and the free manifestations of the Spirit protest against their authority in vain"...

In this way, the apostles became a sort of spiritual aristocracy, and the first century a golden age of the Spirit's activity. The difference between the Spirit's activity in the days of the apostolic church and in the history of the church became a difference not only of degree but fundamentally of kind, and the promises of the New Testament on the coming of the Holy Spirit were referred primarily to the Pentecost event and only through that event, via the apostles, to the subsequent ages of the church.

The promise that the Spirit would lead into all truth, which figured prominently in Montanist doctrine, now meant principally, if not exclusively, that the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth as they composed the creed and books of the New Testament, and the church into all truth when it was build on their foundation. Here too, the transition was gradual, and it was not complete. The history of the church has never been altogether without the spontaneous gifts of the Holy Spirit, even where the authority of the apostolic norms has been most incontestable. In the experiences of monks and friars, of mystics and seers, as well as in the underground religion of many believers, the Montanist heresy has carried on a sort of unofficial existence. (106-8)

I'd always wondered why the sense I had of "church" felt so hard to square with what I actually read in the New Testament. The Gospels, Acts, and Letters describe people caught up in the Lord, experiencing Christ even when, as with Paul, they never actually met him in the flesh, but rather through the spirit. Hippolytus seems to be the writer who takes the (perhaps inevitable) step of declaring their experience completely different from ours, leaving us merely to be inspired by their writings but not to share the experience... that they invite us to share.

Though Quakerism (definitely) varies from Montanism in the details of what it finds in the Spirit, it's hard not to see the early Quakers rebelling not just against their fellow Protestants but against a line of argument that extends back to the second century. Early Quakers' fondness for "primitive Christianity" and their insistence on experience brings them back to expectations set before Hippolytus and a church that needed order.

Quakers have faced a similar problem of an end that hasn't arrived, and haven't spent much time as a movement proclaiming the nearness of the end since the 1650s, despite that perspective having helped define Quaker testimonies. 350 years later, however, Quakers still gather to listen for Christ, here to teach his people himself.

October 3, 2006

A stable definition of Quakerism

Just before I left for vacation, Marshall Massey gave me something to contemplate:

As I see it, the world surrounding Quakerism changed, from the time of the Puritan upheavals to the Toleration Act 1689, and what Quakers did had to change accordingly. But this did not mean that Quakerism itself changed.

It would be convenient to discuss Quakerism as something stable, something that can be described once and reliably repeated. It is possible to develop a definition of Quakerism that holds from the beginning of Fox's ministry to the end of his life, and perhaps even to the present. William Penn gave it a try in 1696 in Primitive Christianity Revived:

That which the people call'd Quakers lay down, as a Main Fundamental in Religion, is this, That God, through Christ, hath placed a Principle in every Man, to inform him of his Duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that Live up to this Principle, are the People of God, and those that Live in Disobedience to it, are not God's People, whatever name they may bear, or Profession they may make of Religion. This is their Ancient, First, and Standing Testimony: With this they began, and this they bore, and do bear to the World. (Chapter 1)

Penn's definition does seem to hold from the origins of Quakerism, and holds for most Quakers today, though I'm sure there are exceptions. (Penn argued that his definition held from the origins of Christianity, a much broader conversation.)

That said, Penn's definition leaves out a tremendous collection of valuable aspects that are clearly Quaker as well, and includes many others. Penn's definition taken alone might well include many of the Spiritual Franciscans, the Familists, the Grindletonians, and a wide variety of other groups and individuals past and present.

It's possible to look for other definitions that define more of Quakerism, but as I'll write next time, many of Quakerism's distinctive features, including Meeting discipline and the Peace Testimony, developed after Quakerism had been around for a while. These affected more than "what Quakers did".

September 20, 2006

Early Quakers, Version III

The telling of Quaker history I presented yesterday, while maybe more interesting than "the early Quakers were great, but then..." story, is still a brilliance followed by decline story. I don't find that to be a fair appraisal.

While there was definitely a shift in Quaker views from the early enthusiasm to the developing sect, there's also a much larger perspective that needs to be considered, putting Quakerism into the context of Christian history, especially the Reformation that it was a late part of. Some of this reflects my earlier post on Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit, but it's worth considering how early Quakers achieved their unique synthesis.

So this version, which steps further back from the specifics of Quakerism, reads like:

Christianity in Western Europe had for centuries meant Catholicism, a single enormous Christian community that was organized around a strong Church. That Church mediated salvation for the many people under its care, managing their spiritual (and often other) parts of their lives. This large community included many strains of Christian thought, but the Church managed those strains, setting boundaries it deemed appropriate. The Church handled the processes leading to salvation, could grant exceptions, and dedicated parts of the community to a more holy lifestyle in order that these holy people could intercede for the rest.

As abuses of this system mounted, reformers shifted from wanting to remedy the abuses to questioning the entire system that had placed the human Church between people and their God. Luther, Calvin, and their many followers focused on a direct connection between the faith of the believer and his or her salvation by God's grace. Their churches were there to guide believers toward salvation, not to deliver holiness from cloistered groups or to manage sacraments that added up to salvation.

While the reformers described a very different approach to salvation, they weren't prepared to let go of the church's power and authority. Luther in particular held on to as much tradition as he could manage, but few (broadly successful) reformers were willing to discard the church as an organization, and replaced the authority of the hierarchy and tradition with the authority of Scripture. Luther and many of his fellow reformers were appalled by Anabaptists and others who took the call for reform more radically than most reformers, and Anabaptists remained outcasts even after the early violence settled.

England had had an especially slow reformation. Henry VIII cast off Rome, but largely so he could take control of the church's property and power. Succeeding monarchs oscillated between Catholic and Calvinist sympathies, though none of them went far enough for the English reformers to be happy until about 1688. Elizabeth I and James I fought to retain the powers of the hierarchy and the strength of central control, with the King James Version of the Bible a determined effort to rid the country of the Geneva Bible with its Calvinist commentary.

In the 1640s, this all came to a head in the English Civil War, and Charles I was executed by a Puritan parliament. Removing the king (and eventually replacing him with a Lord Protector) didn't take England along a clear path to a government of Saints, as many had hoped. Instead, it created a seething cauldron, a tremendous opening of divergent views and different practices. Anglicans became Presbyterians became Independents became Baptists became Seekers became...

Quakers. George Fox's message that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" completed the shift toward individual responsibility and away from a church that the reformers had started. It worked most powerfully with groups - Seekers, Ranters, "shattered Baptists" - who had already thrown off hope in institutions and their role in religion. Quakerism spoke powerfully to people who found ministers distant, who felt oppressed by tithes that forced them to support churches they couldn't in good faith attend, who knew that the old answers weren't working any more in this time of chaos.

Fox and his many supporters preached across the country, and were seen as a danger to both religious and civil order. Their message overthrew the many compromises reached by earlier reformers, challenging both doctrine and structure in the name of the Light, breaking that Light free of its limited use to validate Scripture. By rejecting the remaining "outward ordinances" of baptism and communion, and making them spiritual and inward, they removed the need for a formal church and its "hireling ministry" to administer them.

While these core views persisted for a few centuries with most Quakers, the costs of this approach became clear very early. Without a central authority or shared understanding of a writtten text (Scripture), pretty much anything could happen. Inspiration didn't strike everyone consistently, and power struggles ensued in disputes over whether particular views were inspired by the Light or were mere "Ranterism".

James Nayler's reenactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, staged in Bristol with himself as Christ, took early Quaker views of the relation of Christ and the believer to the breaking point. The many years of persecution required the group to hold together tightly, something that became more and more difficult as enthusiasts like John Perrot (who had gone to Rome to convert the Pope, after all!) insisted on a more individualist approach.

The genius of Quakerism lies not in its early enthusiasm, but rather in its having visited the brink of extreme religious individualism, gathering the fruits that lie there, and retreating to create a new system which encourages such gathering. The new system, meetings, supports its members in their communications with the Light, guiding the meeting to come together without establishing a formal creed and guidelines of right belief. Gathering as a group, and recognizing each other's varied capabilities for discernment helps everyone to distinguish what is the Light - which should be a shared, unified experience, even if individuals experience it differently - from false leadings and individual opinions.

Yes, Quakerism changed between 1656 and Fox's death, quite dramatically. Barclay and Penn reflect the later Quakerism more than the early Quakerism, the synthesis rather than the enthusiasm that led there. While I doubt Fox moderated his early beliefs substantially, he clearly changed his perspective on how to integrate them beyond the individual. He set up meeting structures designed both to nourish and contain the power of his core ideas, while managing to extract himself from their operation.

In this broader perspective, Quakerism completes the Reformation's stepping away from the power of the Church, more completely discarding traditional notions of the church and authority than other reformers. Rather than leading to complete anarchy, however, Quaker views on the importance of right discernment lead back into self-managing community.

That's probably too broad and sweeping, and certainly over-simplified, but it's a story that I think holds up pretty well, even when the synthesis breaks down and different branches of Quakerism emerge. The freedom Quakers gain from their direct individual connections to the Light lets them reconsider Christian doctrine in a way that isn't strictly Protestant or Catholic. This freedom is shared across a community, which reinforces both the possibilities of this approach and its boundaries.

The key word for me in all of this is discernment. Fox was renowned for his discernment, but a key question in making this work is our ability to discern the Light, to separate what it tells us from the many other voices leading us in other directions. Time and wisdom can help with discernment, but an active community sharing its strength can develop strength in discernment greater than that of its members. That seems to me to be at the heart of the Quaker approach to worship, respecting the contributions of its members but seeking for a whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

I'll have a lot more to say about this, but it feels right to have it out in summary form at least. (I doubt very much that I'm the first to say this, either.)

September 13, 2006

William Penn on salvation

Last week I started writing on early Quaker views of salvation, Thomas Hamm described differences between the earlier Quaker perspective and the more traditional Protestant view of Joseph John Gurney and Quakers who followed him, differences that aren't often described.

The early Quaker view is - rightly, I find - different, but it's also fascinating to see how Quakers came to that view while remaining within the framework of salvation by grace, with only Christ as saving. Direct access to the Inner Light changes the Quaker description of how salvation works while retaining the same recognition that Christ is saving.

In his introduction to Fox's Journal, William Penn gives a brief overview of how he saw this working in the 1690s:

Two things are to be briefly touched upon, the doctrine they taught, and the example they led among all people. I have already touched upon their fundamental principle, which is as the corner stone of their fabric; and indeed, to speak eminently and properly, their characteristic, or main distinguishing point or principle, viz. the light of Christ within, as God's gift for man's salvation. This, I say, is as the root of the goodly tree of doctrines that grew and branched out from it, which I shall now mention in their natural and experimental order.

The Light, unsurprisingly, is central to Penn's view of salvation. Next Penn describes the operation of that Light. Note the opening "repentance from dead works to serve the living God", clearly echoing Protestants since Luther, and "forgiveness of the sins that are past through Christ, the alone propitiation". Justification is here, but as a three-step process, with no statement that it happens just once as the believer accepts Christ.

First, repentance from dead works to serve the living God, which comprehends three operations. First, a sight of sin. Secondly, a sense and godly sorrow for it. Thirdly, an amendment for the time to come. This was the repentance they preached and pressed, and a natural result from the principle they turned all people unto. For of light came sight; and of sight came sense and sorrow; and of sense and sorrow came amendment of life. Which doctrine of repentance leads to justification; that is, forgiveness of the sins that are past through Christ, the alone propitiation; and the sanctification or purgation of the soul from the defiling nature and habits of sin present; which is justification in the complete sense of that word, comprehending both justification from the guilt of the sins that are past, as if they had never been committed, through the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus; and the creature's being made inwardly just through the cleansing and sanctifying power and spirit of Christ revealed in the soul, which is commonly called sanctification.

Sanctification, "being made inwardly just", is here connected to the process of justification. Sanctification for the early Quakers especially led to a further doctrine that didn't go over so well with their fellow Christians:

From hence sprang a second doctrine they were led to declare, as the mark of the prize of the high calling to all true christians, viz. perfection from sin, according to the scriptures of truth, which testify it to be the end of Christ's coming, and the nature of his kingdom, and for which his spirit was and is given. But they never held a perfection in wisdom and glory in this life, or from natural infirmities or death, as some have with a weak or ill mind imagined and insinuated against them.

This they called a redeemed state, regeneration, or the new birth, teaching every where, according to their foundation, that unless this work was known, there was no inheriting the kingdom of God.

A "born again" Quaker in this sense is not merely forgiven, but actually perfected, arriving in the kingdom of God, if not in this life. Penn's claim that "they never held a perfection in wisdom and glory in this life" probably doesn't stand up against Quaker claims in the 1650s, as Richard Bailey's "The Making and Unmaking of a God" in New Light on George Fox finds, but it does seem to accurately describe their position when Penn was writing.

Thirdly, this leads to an acknowledgment of eternal rewards and punishments, as they have good reason; for else of all people, certainly they must be the most miserable, who for above forty years have been exceeding great sufferers for their profession, and in some cases treated worse than the worst of men, yea, as the refuse and off-scouring of all things.

"Eternal rewards and punishments" aren't a common topic in Quaker discussions, but Penn acknowledges them here, without spending much time on it.

The last paragraph (before Penn starts describing doctrines more specific to the Quakers) makes clear that Penn sees this perspective as what Christians have believed to be true, but which was lost as they followed their own wills rather than the will of God or the mind of Christ.

This was the purport of their doctrine and ministry, which, for the most part, is what other professors of Christianity pretend to hold in words and forms, but not in the power of godliness, which, generally speaking, has been long lost by men's departing from that principle and seed of life that is in man, and which man has not regarded, but lost the sense of, and in and by which he can only be quickened in his mind to serve the living God in newness of life. For as the life of religion was lost, and the generality lived and worshipped God after their own wills, and not after the will of God, nor the mind of Christ, which stood in the works and fruits of the holy spirit; so that which they pressed was not notion but experience, nor formality but godliness; as being sensible in themselves, through the work of God's righteous judgments, that without holiness no man should ever see the Lord with comfort. (xiii-xiv)

That last phrase - "without holiness no man should ever see the Lord with comfort" - is an admonition both frightening and alluring. It's possible to read Penn here - like many of his Puritan contemporaries - as setting a high bar indeed for salvation. At the same time, though, I think his fellow Quakers, who had experienced the operation of the Light within themselves and its transforming power - would not likely be so worried.

September 8, 2006

From the Apostles to the Seekers

After telling of the dispensations and how God's interactions with humans have changed, William Penn's introduction to George Fox's Journal continues with a look at what has gone wrong in the current dispensation, the "falling away from the power of godliness."

The problems were seen almost from the beginning:

But alas! even in the apostles’ days, (those bright stars of the first magnitude of the gospel light,) some clouds (foretelling an eclipse of this primitive glory) began to appear, and several of them gave early caution of it to the Christians of their time; that even then there was, and yet would be, more and more, a falling away from the power of godliness, and the purity of that spiritual dispensation, by such as thought to make a fair show in the flesh, but with whom the offence of the cross ceased: yet with this comfortable conclusion, that they saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever, to the true church.

Though Penn isn't citing scripture explicitly here, but echoes warnings from the epistles of the New Testament, reflecting the challenges the church had even in Acts. The Apostles "saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever," after all of these problems were resolved, and the later parts of Penn's introductions suggest that Quakerism is bringing us closer to that time.

Next, Penn describes the deterioration, focusing (as he had in the dispensations on the substitution of outward observances for inward. From this stems worldliness, loss of contact with the spirit, strife, and opposition to the true church.

Continue reading "From the Apostles to the Seekers" »

September 7, 2006

Quaker dispensations

I normally think of dispensationalists as premillenialist Left Behind folks who jump back and forth between Revelation and Daniel with quotes from whatever other books they need to build an argument about who exactly is going to attack Israel and trigger the second coming.

The general notion of dispensations - different periods in God's relationship with humanity - is useful outside of that context, however. William Penn, in his introduction to Fox's Journal, talks about a number of different dispensations. (It's worth noting that this use of "dispensation" is different from the notion of dispensations granted by a bishop, and has nothing to do with the idea that the present age is some kind of parenthesis.)

At first I was inclined to skip this kind of thing, but the more I've read of Fox and the early Quakers, the clearer it becomes that their perspective on biblical dispensations and then church history (which I'll discuss later) are critical components of the way they look at key questions, not to mention defining components of the language they speak. This isn't Barclay's more formal theology, but rather a retelling of the Bible story that provides the foundation for Quaker perspectives.

(I think, though I'm not certain, that this telling works well both for the early enthusiastic Quaker writings of the 1650s and the later works of Fox, Penn, Barclay, and others in the more toned-down post-Restoration world.)

The first word, in a modern spelling, would be "diverse":

Divers have been the dispensations of God since the creation of the world, unto the sons of men; but the great end of all of them has been the renown of his own excellent name in the creation and restoration of man: man, the emblem of himself, as a god on earth, and the glory of all his works.

The world began with innocency: all was then good that the good God had made; and as he blessed the works of his hands, so their natures and harmony magnified him their Creator. Then the morning stars sang together for joy, and all parts of his works said Amen to his law. Not a jar in the whole frame, but man in paradise, the beasts in the field, the fowl in the air, the fish in the sea, the lights in the heavens, the fruits of the earth; yea, the air, the earth, the water, and fire worshipped, praised, and exalted his power, wisdom, and goodness. O holy sabbath! O holy day to the Lord!

Penn, like most others, opens with Eden, and innocence, before describing the paths that God offers back toward that state.

Continue reading "Quaker dispensations" »

August 31, 2006

Firstfruits of the Spirit

Yesterday I showed a constrast between a Quaker perspective of salvation through a long, gradual walk with the Light with a more traditional Protestant perspective of instantaneous justification followed by a long march toward sanctification. (Instantaneous sanctification comes up sometimes too, but for now...)

Today I'll look at a passage that can appeal to either perspective. Paul talks in Romans about coming closer to the Spirit. This, from Romans 8, is the promise, for "them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit":

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.

This follows on Paul's description in Chapter 7 of struggles with sin and the problems of the law. The Spirit is necessary - and separate from our 'carnal minds' - to free us from carnality and sin. Verse 9 appeals to Quakers, with its claim that "But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you," but the Spirit is still something distinct from our own selves. There is a clear break here, and it is the Spirit's impact that frees us, "whereby we cry, Abba, Father".

The next verses describe how God leads us to the Spirit. (God leads? Certainly - "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.") Note that the "Spirit...beareth witness with our spirit," 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." Hope is unseen, uncertain, "for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?"

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.

Some read this quotation as a description of the sanctification process, but it seems to me a more appropriate description of the journey after convincement, a process toward salvation rather than a process after it.

(And yes, I did stop short of verses 29 and 30, on predestination, a topic I'm not yet ready to discuss.)

August 29, 2006

Paths to salvation

In the essay "New Light on Old Ways": Gurneyites, Wilburites, and the Early Friends, in George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years, Thomas Hamm writes:

Finally, Gurney recast understandings of the nature of salvation and how Friends achieved it.

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. (I will leave it to those more knowledgeable to determine whether Gurney or his opponents were closer to Fox on this particular question.) 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 note points to Gurney's Essays on the Doctrines, Evidences, and Practical Operation of Christianity, pages 625-7 and 630-1 in the 1884 Philadelphia edition. Unfortunately, the version available online is from Gurney's Works, with different pagination. I'm guessing Hamm is citing section XI, where Gurney describes what sounds to me like the positive side of what Hamm describes. (I can't find any explicit disapproval of the Quaker position, though I believe Hamm is right that it's not very compatible.)

I'll be exploring this subject more in a series of posts, but this seems a good place to start, a marker of the divide that separated Quakers of the early 1800s (and likely before) from many of their fellow Protestants.

August 14, 2006

What canst thou hear?

Quakers are fond of "What canst thou say?", a question George Fox asked that was key to converting Margaret Fell, a powerful early Quaker and much later Fox's wife. It reminds us that we too are active participants, fitting tightly with Quakerism's abolition of the laity which makes us all ministers.

Sometimes I see it expanded further to:

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?

That seems to suggest an opening for anything, even potentially a rejection of the prior revelations on which early Quakers built their world. Going a step further, however, to explore the surrounding story in Fell's telling of her convincement, reveals that this is not a wholesale rejection. Instead, it is an enormous step toward inclusion and construction:

And so [Fox] went on, and said how that Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world, and that by this Light they might be gathered to God, etc. And I stood up in my pew, and I wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before.

And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord.

And said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a Child of Light, and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is inwardly from God, etc. ?"

This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart, and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly : and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have take the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves." (The Beginnings of Quakerism to 1660, 101, from Margaret Fell's account.)

"And what thou speakest is inwardly from God" clarifies what is to be spoken, what thou canst say. Speaking in this instance requires learning from the inward Light, listening before speaking. What "thou" says here isn't coming directly from "thou", but from "thou" with assistance from God.

Margaret Fell's reaction to Fox telling her this isn't relief that she can say whatever she likes, but rather the painful realization that she has been following the wrong path, and she weeps in her pew.

July 22, 2006

But it seems crazy...

In First Among Friends, Larry Ingle pointed to some comments by William James questioning George Fox's behavior. James first praises Quakerism, then looks at George Fox as psychopath, but near the end of the chapter comes around to suggest that we need to look at this from a perspective beyond just writing Fox off as a psychopath.

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric....

If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than... George Fox. The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gosel truth than men had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects today are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed. No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox's mind was unsound. Every one who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort:

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!'

Continue reading "But it seems crazy..." »

July 19, 2006

Spirit, truth, and history

The preface of Apocalypse of the Word reminded me of Albert Schweitzer's discussion of how the delay of Christ's return has affected the Christian church, and I went to read his classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. I'm still enjoying the book, which manages to make discussions of theological history quite lively, but the 1950 introduction had a few things to say which I think apply to Quakerism's history, and not only to early Christianity:

The present situation compels faith to distinguish between the essence and the form of religious truth. The ideas through which it finds expression may change as time goes on, without destroying its essence. Its brightness is not dimmed by what happens to it. Changing seems to make the ideas more transparent as means whereby the truth is revealed....

It may come as a stumbling-block to our faith to find that it was not Jesus himself who gave its perfect spiritual form to the truth which he brought into the world, but that it received this in the course of time through the working of the Spirit. But this is something which we have to overcome. The old saying still holds. 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.' (Isa. 55.8-9)

Historical truth not only creates difficulties for faith; it also enriches it, by compelling it to examine the importance of the work of the Spirit of Jesus for its origin and continuance. The gospel of Jesus cannot simply be taken over; it must be appropriated in his Spirit. What the Bible really offers us is his Spirit, as we find it in him and in those who first came under its power. Every conviction of faith must be tested by him. Truth in the highest sense is what is in the Spirit of Jesus. (xliv-xlv)

I'm fascinated by early Quaker history, and think the early Quakers did amazing things while grappling with the difficulties created by their finding Spirit above Scripture or Tradition. While I find their work inspiring, I don't think Quakerism today is or should be the movement as it was in 1655 or 1685.

It seems to me that change has been more or less continuous, from the cooling down of the initial enthusiasm after the Restoration in 1660 through the 'quietist' period (more on that to come) through the splits and schisms of the 19th century and the many changes of the 20th century.

To take just one example, it's fascinating to me how both Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers seemed to firmly believe themselves to be the true heirs of George Fox and his fellow founders. The Hicksites went so far as to reissue Fox's Works (for which I'm grateful), claiming Fox's mantle in ways I'm not sure he'd support, while the Orthodox certainly made their own (also problematic) claims about that same mantle. I suspect, however, that the problem wasn't that one group or the other was no longer true to Quakerism: it was that each group was heading in a new direction. From my uncertain vantage point, Hicksites seemed to be more willing to entertain that the Light might provide diverse perspectives, while the Orthodox were shifting toward more emphasis overall on Scripture and less emphasis on the Light.

Schweitzer's emphasis on - and acceptance of - the process of change as a key aspect of religious development seems as important today as it did in 1950 when he wrote those words. However much we try to lock ourselves into a fixed perspective on the past and a fixed understanding of the world, those perspectives and understandings will shift. If we listen to the Light as we carry on, those shifts may take us to new spiritual horizons, revealing new insights in what came before.

June 16, 2006

Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit

I've been reading a lot about the history of Christianity lately, and also following various threads in Quaker blogs and message boards about a number of tensions people see in Quakerism. The tensions in Quakerism echo those through Christian history: some folks are most interested in Tradition, some are most interested in Scripture, and others are most interested in Spirit. Most everyone values all three of those on some level, but the prioritization is often very different.

(Yes, this three-part division is abstract, though I still find it helpful.)

Looking back over the grand divisions of Christianity, and oversimplifying drastically, the Catholic and Orthodox approaches have explicitly valued Apostolic Tradition, though built on Scripture and with room for Spirit. In the Protestant Reformation the reformers catapulted Scripture to the top, then divided amongst themselves over how much Tradition to retain and what Scripture actually meant. Spirit is still present, though often the Word (per John 1 and elsewhere) seems to be treated as the Word of Scripture, and Spirit often primarily validates Scripture.

I see Quakerism as having followed the third path, emphasizing Spirit. Early Friends were steeped in Scripture, but more willing than the Anglicans or even the Puritans to jettison existing church Traditions. They did, of course, develop their own new Traditions quite quickly after throwing off the old.

None of these religious groups completely excludes Tradition, Scripture, or Spirit; it's more about which gets priority when. Quakerism, while it is likely best defined by the priority it gives the Spirit, still contains Tradition and Scripture.

Within Quakerism - surfacing in the Quaker messageboard and blogs I follow, more than in the Meeting I attend - people seem to be fighting over the proper relation of these three components. To over-generalize once again:

  • Some people see the Spirit, the Light, as the key feature of Quakerism, and the notion that the Light is Christ or is connected to Scripture is just unfortunate Tradition.

  • Some people see the Light as dimmed terribly when removed from the Scriptures, and some of those people add Tradition and doctrine from more other Protestant perspectives as well. (Some people also want to subtract existing Quaker Tradition.)

  • Some people value Quaker Tradition and practice, but have less interest in the possibilities the Light opens, while others see Tradition as a barrier to fruitful connection with the Spirit. (The latter seem better represented on blogs, and I doubt anyone is completely uninterested in the Light anyway.)

Personally, I see all three of these pieces working together, with the Spirit mediating Scripture and Tradition. I enjoy reading the early Quakers' works and watching them figure out how these three pieces fit together, and how to live by that. Their direct dealing with all of these tensions created a group that has survived three and a half centuries so far, despite the tremendous potential for splits and schisms that always seems to be created by humans' difficulties in discerning the Spirit.

Maybe it's just the nature of blogging and messageboards, but it feels like a lot of people despair about the current state of Quakerism, since it doesn't meet their expectations of what it should be. My own perspective is that it should - and can - be a lot of different things.

Balancing these three pieces in their myriad facets is never an easy thing, and as Quakerism in key ways abolished the laity, we all - as ministers - have to work through them, hopefully with guidance from the Light.