‘That of God’ – more Lewis Benson

November 18, 2010 § 4 Comments

Quite a few Friends have participated in the discussion of Lewis Benson’s Quaker Religious Thought essay on “That of God in Every Man,” so I thought I would try to summarize more of it. I started out with his critique of its evolution in the modern period, from its reintroduction by Rufus Jones at the turn of the twentieth century to its very widespread use today (well, 1970, actually, when he wrote this piece; but the trends he decries have only gained momentum since then).  In this post, I want to focus on his discussion of its original meaning in the works of George Fox.

As Patricia Dallmann pointed out in her comment to the earlier post, Fox was working from Paul’s letter to the Romans when he used the phrase:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. (Romans 1:18-19; King James Version)

Benson goes on to say this about Fox’s use of the phrase:

Fox does not use the declarative sentence, “There is that of God in every man,” and he never makes it the central theme of any of his sermons or writings. . . This phrase belongs to his pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.

Two salient facts point to an understanding of what Fox meant by “that of God in every man”: first, it is not used by Fox to designate the central truth that he is proclaiming; and, second, it is used most frequently to refer to the response that Friends were trying to evoke by word and deed. . . What was this special kind of response? (pp. 2-3)

Benson answers this question later:

The verbs that Fox usually link with “that of God” are “answer” and “reach.” The goal of Quaker preaching, either by word or deed, is to reach or answer something in all men. (p. 9)

Answering that of God in man involves the judgment of God and a call to repentance. . . . Fox maintains that there is something of God in man that shows him what is evil. (p. 12)    [though it is not the conscience:]

That of God in the conscience is not conscience itself, but the word by which all things, including conscience, were created. (p. 13)

Here, of course, Benson is referring to the Word of John 1. Here are more definitions and clarifications. (Benson uses italics for emphasis in many of these quotes, but I haven’t yet revised WordPress’s CSS code to keep the template from applying italics to all of the blockquotes; hopefully by next posting, I will have done.)

In every man there is a witness for God that summons him to remember the Creator. This is “that of God in every man.” . . . It is a hunger and thirst that God has put in man. . . [It is ] a voice that is personal and transcendent. It calls us to repentance. It judges and condemns the transgressor, and blesses the obedient. (pp. 5-6)

He believes that it is something more dynamic than a mere capacity to hear God’s wisdom, but an active impulse, a hunger, a “witness” eager to testify:

“There is something in man,” he [Fox] says, “that answers the power which is the gospel.” . . . Fox taught that it is the wisdom of the Creator that answers the witness of God in all men. . . That which answers that of God in man is the truth. (pp.10-11)

Benson clearly rejects any ‘gnostic’ character of “that of God.”

In creating man, God did not create another god. Man was not endowed at creation with the wisdom of God, but is a creature to whom God imparts his wisdom. (p. 10)

Confirming the essentially pastoral thrust of Fox’s use of the phrase:

The help of God’s spirit is needed in a ministry that answers that of God in man. Fox says, “the Spirit . . . giveth an understanding . . . how to wait, speak, and answer the Spirit of God in his people. . . . The Holy Spirit teacheth the holy, gentle, meek, and quiet lowly mind to answer . . . the light, grace, and Spirit and the gospel in every creature.” (p. 12)

And this is how that of God is answered:

  • Preaching by word of mouth.
  • Preaching with our lives.
  • The love of the brethren for one another.
  • Unity of the brethren.
  • Direct encounter with that which is contrary to truth—“confounding deceit”.

Thus, according to Lewis Benson, Fox uses “that of God” in ways very different from, if not diametrically opposed to, the uses prevalent in liberal Quaker circles today. It is one key to his approach to gospel ministry, rather than a key to what he “believes”. It hasn’t any substance, in the sense of being essential to human nature or as a share of God’s nature or substance: it was put there by God to hear God’s voice. Its role is to serve God’s judgment and our salvation by revealing sin and answering to the truth.

Bailey, King, Reynolds and the other writers who argue for a more ‘gnostic,’ more ‘substantial’ meaning, who speak of ‘celestial flesh’ and of salvation as a complete transformation of the soul by Christ’s presence within us, are reading a different Fox.

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§ 4 Responses to ‘That of God’ – more Lewis Benson

  • […] Lewis Benson, part two. This post quotes Benson more extensively on what Fox actually meant by the phrase. […]

  • George Boucher says:

    thanks to Patricia Dallman and Steven Davison for a most enlightening presentation of Fox’s fuller meaning of a phrase which-as I hear it from many Friends-is no more than a banality which hinders further thought.George Boucher.

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    Hi Steve,

    I missed this when it was first posted. Thanks for distilling out Benson’s explanation of Fox’s understanding of that ubiquitous phrase.

    I think that the word “hunger” most adequately describes togiem: as it conveys an awareness of a lack of substance. Initially, it is not a hunger for God, as we simply don’t long for God until after God is known; we can only long for what we imagine God to be. However, before knowing God, we can and must hunger and thirst for righteousness, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, and Fox then corroborates: And blessed are all they indeed that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised be the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfieth the desires of the hungry soul. (Journal, p.13, Nickalls)

    I don’t think that this post was picked up by Quakerquaker.org, which I would’ve liked to seen happen. As the post is a couple of months old, this response may not even reach you. Oh well.

    Patricia Dallmann

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