‘That of God’ – Lewis Benson and the ‘new interpretation’

November 15, 2010 § 21 Comments

I said in the post that opened this thread on ‘that of God in every person’ that I had discovered new light on Fox’s meaning of the phrase when looking for the source in Rufus Jones’s work for the modern mystical meaning of a divine spark, or some quality of the divine that humans share. I was then already reading but had not yet finished Lewis Benson’s wonderful essay in Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970).  Benson (1906 – 1986) was a life-long student of Fox’s work, the inspiration for the New Foundation Fellowship, and a “champion of a forgotten faith”—the Quakerism of George Fox and early Friends. In addition to his own books, he created a massively thorough concordance of Fox’s works that is an indispensible tool for later students of our prophet founder. Pendle Hill’s library has a copy.

In this issue of QRT, Benson answers my quest for the source in Rufus Jones: he cites Jones’s “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903 (George Fox, An Autobiography, 1919 edition, pp. 28 & 29), as the earliest instance of the revived use of ‘that of God’. Jones reiterates this theme, Benson says, the next year in Social Law in the Spiritual World (p. 5). Here is Jones from this latter work, as quoted by Benson:

What was the Inner Light? The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul.

Note that Jones has divorced the Inner Light from the Light of Christ and made it universal and ‘generic’, if you will, a generally mystical ‘something’ no longer associated with the particular presence of the unique Christ. Benson goes on to say:

As a consequence of statements like these, the phrase “that of God in every man” began to acquire a meaning for twentieth century Friends that it did not have for Fox. The new “interpretation” made “that of God in man” the central conception around which everything else in Quakerism revolves.

Between 1700 and 1900, Benson says, “‘that of God in every man’ [had] virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary.” But after Jones and also A. Neave Brayshaw introduced this Neo-Platonist interpretation, a “torrent of promotional literature and other publications” flowed from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service Committee spreading the doctrine throughout the Society of Friends. He goes on: “The elevation of “that of God in every man” to the status of root principle (emphasis his) has affected Quaker life in several areas, namely: the peace testimony, social testimonies, the meaning of membership, and missions.”

Lewis Benson was not happy about this. He writes:

We know that it is the policy of some Monthly Meetings to make belief in “that of God in every man,” which has been called “the Quaker’s creed,” a primary and essential condition of membership, whereas faith in Christ is regarded as a secondary and non-essential factor in examining prospective members. I maintain that this meaning and use of “that of God in every man” has no connection with its meaning and use in the writings of Fox. There is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.

Benson ends his essay thus:

There can be no full understanding of Fox and his message apart from a knowledge of what he meant by “that of God in every man.” However, when we jump to the conclusion that “that of God” is the central truth of the Quaker message, then we cut ourselves off from that which Fox made central; namely, the message about Jesus Christ and how he saves men. If we make “that of God in man” the basis of our peace testimony and other testimonies then they become an inference from a theory about the nature of man rather than a response to a divine command, and our witness loses its prophetic impact. While we are under the spell of the “that of God” theory we cannot make the witness for the distinctive interpretation of Christianity which is the special task for which we were called to be a people, and the inner life of our Society becomes confused and at war with itself. The irony of our present situation is that any plea to seek the unity that is received from Christ is bound to be regarded in some quarters as a breach of the truce between divergent opinions that we have come to regard as the highest measure of unity of which we are capable. This false peace must be broken before we can enjoy the unity in Christ which God intends for us.

Benson wrote this in 1970 (which perhaps helps us forgive his sexist language, which was nearly universal at the time). Since then the triumph of the “new interpretation” of the phrase over (liberal) Quaker life has only become more entrenched and the drift away from the Christ-centered message and mission of Friends that it enables and Benson describes has become more pronounced and less likely to be noticed, let alone questioned.

My own ministry concerning the phrase has focused on raising the questions: What do we mean when we use it? (What do you mean when you use it?) Is this meaning faithful to Friends’ traditions? If it isn’t, what then? More importantly, is it the Truth? When did we decide that it was the Truth, and how? Did we decide at all? If not, how shall we decide whether our ‘new’ meaning (it’s already a hundred years old) is the Truth, and when will we do it? Should we distill 350 years of rich tradition down to just this one phrase at all, whatever we mean by it? How shall we treat it going forward, when, for instance, we next revise our books of discipline or the text on our websites?

Some of these questions are rhetorical, of course. We never have ‘decided’ to abandon Fox’s meaning or early Friends’ mission, not in good gospel order, anyway, by which I mean with worship and prayer and spirit-led corporate discernment. We just drifted, unconscious of our path, ignorant of our past. And of course I feel that we should recover the full breadth of our tradition; we have so much more to say than that we believe that there is that of God in every person—assuming that ‘we’ do believe that.

So—what do we say? Well, more in later posts. . .



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§ 21 Responses to ‘That of God’ – Lewis Benson and the ‘new interpretation’

  • […] Lewis Benson on the phrase, part one. Lewis Benson wrote a piece for Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970). In this post, I review some of Benson’s discussion in that article, mostly about his analysis and critique of how the phrase has come to take over liberal Quaker culture. […]

  • […] from quite different perspectives: George Ammos in “The Postmodern Quaker”, and Steve Davison in “throughtheflamingsword.” But they don’t address the central point that concerns me […]

  • Wonderful site. A lot of helpful information here.
    I’m sending it to several friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you in your sweat!

  • […] worship and… Nov 16th, 2010 by Martin Kelley. // nRelate.domain = "www.quakerranter.org"; //Steven Davison: Lewis Benson and the “new interpretation” /**/ Share this:EmailFacebookPosted in: misc. ← It is God’s use of us combined with […]

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    Benson recovered from earliest Quakerism the understanding of Christ as prophet, just as Fox had recovered this understanding of Christ from apostolic Christianity and Peter had recovered it from Moses(Acts 3:22). From page 9 of Benson’s booklet “What did George Fox teach about Christ?” comes this passage:

    Now Fox believed, and I believe, that God wants us to understand who Christ is in the context of the history of prophecy. God is coming to us in Christ in the way he came to the Hebrew people through the prophets. He is coming to us through Christ to teach us what is right and what is wrong, and to give us the power to do the right and reject the wrong, and to gather us into a community that learns together, obeys together and suffers together. Without Christ the heavenly teacher and prophet we do not have this kind of community and we do not have this kind of moral strength and certainty. Therefore, it seems to me that Fox’s recovery of the prophetic element in the earliest apostolic teaching is a tremendously important event in the history of Chritian life, faith and thought.

  • Hugh Barbour says:

    Dear Steven Davison,
    Janet Hough told me about your essay, so I will try to forward my reply also
    to her. I am glad someone has tackled the misuse of the “That of God” phrase
    as the essence of Quakerism. The issue cam up in or Chappaqua Meeting
    just in the last months. i am a retired Professor of Quaker History, Church History, and Biblical History, and my first book on “The Quakers in Puritan England” set our what seemed to me crucial. that “the Lamb’s War” was against all personal and social evil, but reflected an affirmation that each person has Light enough to see evil, so it is not an affirmation of Original Sin as such. Christ atoned for our past sins, according to Fox, but gives us power to see and overcome preset evils. When I used to dialogue with Lewis Benson in the pages of Quaker religious Thought,
    I discussed his tendency, like the Mennonites, to identify the inner Christ only with
    the Law-giver of the Sermon on the Mount. So I am glad you introduced Arthur
    Roberts’ “Flaming Sword” You may know that he and I collaborated on the volume
    of “Early Quaker Writings” which is still in print. He is more “Christ exclusive” than I
    mainly because I have to ask, like William Penn, whether the “universality” of Christ
    excludes such people as Gandhi. the Buddha, or Jeremiah who had no reason to use the name of Jesus or such people nowadays:Friends seek moral perfection,
    but I am not even claiming it for any of them or us. My vision of Jesus is about
    God’s dynamic in his life, not about a divine “Substance” as “Son of God.”
    Enogh fo now. Hugh Barbour

    • Welcome, Hugh. I am very glad that Janet told you about this conversation and I really look forward to a little ‘oversight’ by such an esteemed and seasoned historian. I am an amateur, myself; or rather I should say, I have tried to approach my own research and writing as a form of written ministry in the tradition of independent study which Quakers alone among the religions I know welcome and respect. But now and then, I discover that I’ve made some kind of mistake or missed an element of study that would have been less likely if I had more formal training and experience.

      I am actually rather new to Lewis Benson’s work, though I read Catholic Quakerism and a couple of New Foundation Fellowship pamphlets years ago. So it’s great to have someone participating who knew Benson well.

      I agree with you about Benson’s intensity of focus on sin, though I suspect that he’s not unfaithful to Fox himself in this regard. It’s also interesting to me that many of the people who have commented on these posts share this emphasis on sin and salvation and with it, often, some anger at Friends who do not share it. In my experience, these often go together—anger and emphasis on judgment—and so I plan to explore this in a future post.

      Thanks again for your interest and participation!

  • I’m very grateful to Steve for drawing Friends’ attention to Lewis Benson’s now-classic 1970 article, which I’d love to see made available to the public online. Thanks also to the others that have contributed reflections to this thread.

    In some sense there surely is that of God in each of us, but it cannot save us (and we surely need saving) so long as we remain addicted to things of self and darkness (as in John 3:19) that are contrary to the ways of God. Benson rightly cautions us that we cannot translate “there is that of God in us” into “I’m OK, you’re OK.” We are not OK until, in whatever language of faith our hearts may speak, we ask for the help of a Savior, because we cannot save ourselves. It has been Quaker experience that there is a true Savior, and that He corrects those who ask His help. More than corrects them: makes them into partakers of His own nature.

    Those of us who know this from experience need not quarrel with Friends for whom the central Quaker teaching is “there is that of God in every person,” nor shame them for their “ignorance.” Some may have reason to rejoice in Quakerism’s recognition of that of God in every person, like the new member of my meeting who told me she’d been raised among folks that treated all nonmembers of their particular denomination as doomed to hell. I delight in her delight. Following the apostle’s advice to teach rather than strive (2 Timothy 2:24), I’d simply look for opportunities to say, “and wait. It gets better than that.”

  • I hope nobody believes that I am one of those liberals who allegedly believes that this Spirit of God which is in everone makes everyone the same as a God or makes faith and evangelism unnecessary.

    I’ve never heard such foolishness and tend to believe that these stories come from ‘evangelicals’ who simply are having trouble understanding quakerism.

  • forrest curo says:

    Reading post+comments…

    There are, in fact, at least two referents to the word “Christ.” One is ‘that historical person’, and the other is “the Living God at work in (indeed, living as) each human being, pre-and-post that historical referent.”

    The basic Christian belief (and experienced insight for some!) is that those two referents are truly the same.

    If you truly see this, then the literal interpretation of a Biblical reference to what happened at Pentecost is not going to clarify the issue: That ‘Christ’ is indeed present in all humans, ‘good’ or otherwise– and hence God sends us all sunlight and rain for our needs, hence what Jesus called ‘the chief commandment’ (Love God) “is like” his second (which “Liberals” keep usurping it with!) about “Love thy neighbor.”

    Humans can and do confuse their personal images of what’s sacred for Christ– but when it really is what’s sacred then it necessarily is Christ! (Whether or not ‘He’ has entirely succeeded in freeing them from illusion and wrongdoing! That may take longer.)

    I agree, and have said many times, that “You can’t understand ‘that of God’ in someone else without knowing that of God ‘in’ you.”

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    Hi Steve,

    I posted a comment earlier and noticed afterwards that I’d put an out-dated email address in the window. So, here’s the correct one.

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    In his Notes Benson writes: “It is evident that a major source in scripture contributing to Fox’s view of that of God in every man is ROMANS 1:18-19, and surrounding verses (SEE Q16). This whole chapter is cited by Fox and deserves careful study for the light it throws on his concept of that of God in every man.”

    Because that of God in every man functions to expose evil, corruption, and unrighteousness, it is scandalous to the contemporary liberal Quaker who cherishes a doctrine of the nobility of human nature. Fox’s phrase is misused by liberals to express this notional doctrine.

    Conviction of sin is the original meaning of our Quaker term “convincement.” From vol. 7, p. 193 of The Works of George Fox: “in all your tradings…walk in the truth, and this brings righteousness forth. For it answereth the witness of God in every one, which lets every one see the deeds they have done amiss, and the words they have spoken amiss: So the witness of God in them rises a swift witness against them…and brings them to the judgment bar and to condemnation.”

  • I would also say, in response to you, Mark, that Friends who cite “that of God” in others as the foundation of our testimonies get it backwards. When we turn away from violence, we answer “that of God” IN OURSELVES, not that in others. It is the Light within US that prompts us toward love and peace and the Truth.

    Furthermore, while it is fairly clear (on an attentive reading) what Fox meant by “answering that of God” in another, which, as you say, is an evangelical ministry, a ministry of awakening and nurturing the work of Christ in others; it has never been clear to me how folks who use the phrase today actually experience a mystical divine spark in others. When I ask people this question, their answers are always rather vague and end up really being a description of their own inner experience and sound more like a prompting of conscience that would be better described as answering that of God in themselves.

    Nonetheless, some Friends do have the gift of eldership and many more of us experience spontaneous inner promptings to nurture another in the life of the Spirit. This, I would say, is “answering that of God” in them, even if it is not consciously thought of that way or specifically answering sin with the saving message of the gospel.

    • Mark Wutka says:

      I completely agree that the testimonies are testifying of the work of Christ within us, and are not based on our view of others. What I hear from liberal Friends when they talk about trying to see “that of God” in others (which may or may not be what they are trying to say), is that they are trying to see beyond their own prejudices/judgments/fears and treat the other person as a fellow child of God. In some ways, it is no different than other Christians who say “Christ died for that person, too”. It seems to me that Fox would have advised them to stop trying to rely on themselves for this, and sink down to the seed within and let Christ remove those prejudices so that they may love others more fully.

      I think “answering that of God” encompasses a lot, pretty much anything that awakens people to the divine seed within themselves so that they turn towards God. One of the things Fox quotes a lot is that the gospel “is the power of God” (from Rom 1:16), and often speaks of it as if it were synonymous with the light of Christ. This makes the “saving message of the gospel” more than just a message. If someone comes into a gathered meeting and feels the power of God without a word being spoken, I would say that the gospel has been preached, and “that of God” within them has been answered. Not that there is no place for words, just that the power of God is spread in many ways.

  • broschultz says:

    When I hear friends use “that of God” they seems to be implying that it gives everyone some divine value. I believe it does give them some value in the sense that “God doesn’t make junk” but it doesn’t elevate everyone to a position where there sinfulness is to be accepted just because they are God’s creation. As to grace vs. faith, I don’t think they apply. Grace is unmerited favor. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Neither appears to me to be part of the “that of God” question being raised. However, I might just not see it at this point and will stay open to future possibilities.

    • broschultz, we read that at Pentecost some new, Christly spirit was poured out upon the whole world, and we see in Acts 10:44-47 that the gentiles had this spirit already without baptism or laying on of hands, which spirit was ‘of God’ but still needed the word of Christ to be spoken unto it – this is a picture of unmmerited favor (grace) and Peter speaking to that of God in the gentiles.

      As for faith, maybe your quote can be read so that it speaks of faith IN the substance of our hope, and faith AS the evidence of the unseen. If faith is inactive, it means nothing.

      Your question is full of potential discussion but I have to go to the dentist!

      • broschultz says:

        The dentist I understand.:)
        I’m still missing the relationship between grace/faith and “that of God”. I need a light to go on. But at Pentecost it wasn’t some new, Christly spirit. In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells the Apostles the Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit will empower them. I believe its the same Holy Spirit that is mentioned in Genesis 1:2. And the Power that fell wasn’t on the whole world but only those gathered in the upper room, although it has fallen on people from the whole world aferwards and I would agree that many of them probably didn’t know what it was about or who sent it or why. I agree that inactive faith is nothing more than belief. I think “is the substance” is pretty accurate but could see “in” if the substance you are referring to is God.

      • Broshultz I believe the spirit given at Pentecost was something new because I believe what Christ says in John 16:7 and elsewhere on the Comforter, or ‘Counselor’ which he was to send after he departed the world.

        I believe the extent to which this gift has been bestowed cannot be limited by anyone but Christ and that it is a strong candidate for ‘that of God’ which is in everyone.

  • I do not know if it is the same writing to which you refer above, but I have an Introduction to Fox’s Journal by Rufus Jones in the 1963 Capricorn edition, where I find the following at pg 31, (2 pages before Jones makes a reference to ‘that of God’):

    The turning point of his life is the discovery – through what he beautifully calls an “opening” – that Christ is not merely an historic person who once came to the world and then forever withdrew, but that he is the continuous Divine Presence, God manifested humanly, and that this Christ can “speak to his condition.”

    And I think the following is most important, at p. 32:

    All that the Christians of his time believed about Christ he, too, believed. His long search had not been to find out something about Christ, but to find Him. The Christ of the theological systems was too remote and unreal to be dynamic for him. Assent to all the propositions about Him left one still in the power of sin.

    So steven, let’s be careful that we don’t attribute life-giving power to statements ‘about’ Jesus Christ. Fox would say they are not enough.

    Think of Ephesians 2:8 “By grace are ye saved through faith.” If Fox means to say ‘that of God’ is in all persons, as Jones suggests, this spirit needn’t be another word for saving faith – but it certainly represents a fair candidate for the meaning of the word ‘grace.’

    And it still holds that this grace, though univesal, is not sufficient for salvation without faith – so it will still be necessary to be saved by faith.

    The universalism of the divine spark is not a universalism of salvation but only a universalism of opportunity. The light which lights everyone who comes into the world is a divine light or spark or calling within them – the foundation of a living faith – but only if they so choose to fellowship with it in faith.

    So we need to be talking about the difference between grace and faith at least, I think, to make any sense out of these distinctions you are trying to introduce.

    • Mark Wutka says:

      I think that when we start to contrast the modern liberal usage of “that of God” with the phrase “Christ-centered” we may turn the discussion towards one of vocabulary.

      Fox’s use of “answering that of God” was essentially one of evangelism. We were to answer “that of God” in others so that “their minds might be turned to God” (as in epistle #334), and then be saved from sinning as “that of God” reproves and guides one towards living a holy life. Fox, like Paul, felt that he was “sent to turn people from darkness to light”.

      As Benson said, the modern usage is more about the nature of people, and I would add that it really removes the call to evangelism, since it speaks more about your personal behavior (I treat you this way because of “that of God” in you) but says nothing about turning others from darkness to light.

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