Lewis Benson on “that of God”
March 15, 2017 § 3 Comments
Lewis Benson on “That of God”
My post about “that of God” and the soul prompted a fair amount of comment and some interest in Lewis Benson’s essay on the phrase, so I thought I would digest its key points here.
In 1970, Lewis Benson published an essay in Quaker Religious Thought (Vol. XII, No. 2) titled “That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?” He hoped, I think, that this essay would reverse the trend among liberal Friends toward using the phrase as the foundation for their Quakerism, since he felt that “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.” (Benson consistently uses “men” to stand in for all people in this essay; I do not change his usage in my quotes below.)
It didn’t work. His opening sentences are at least as true today as they were in 1970: “The phrase “that of God in every man” has been widely used in the twentieth century as an expression which signifies the central truth of the Quaker message. Many present-day Quakers, when asked what the Quakers believe, are likely to reply: ‘They believe that there is that of God in every man’.”
Probably no one knew the work and thought of George Fox better than Lewis Benson. He prepared a massive concordance of Fox’s works and if you look “that of God” up, as I have done, you find more than 700 entries, counting all its cognates, and there are many of those; Benson lists a few in his essay. I am persuaded by Benson’s historical analysis and his critique, and by aspects of his discussion of its implications, and I have taken up his crusade, though for different reasons and with different goals. I feel that his essay is essential reading for any Friend in the liberal tradition. (You can download a pdf file at http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/qrt/topdownloads.html.)
So here are what I think are Benson’s salient points.
How Fox used the phrase “that of God”
Benson: “This phrase belongs to his [Fox’s] pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.
Two salient facts point to an understanding of what Fox means 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.”
Where Fox got the phrase and the concept
Benson and others agree that Fox got the idea from Romans 1:19: “[Because] that which may be known of God is manifest in them [shown to them]; for God hath showed it unto them.” The context of this declaration in Benson’s essay suggests that this latter clause echoes John 1:9, which was a key passage for Friends: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
Romans 1:9 does not use the phrase “that of God”, but Benson quotes Fox showing how Fox connected the idea with the phrase: “That Fox saw ‘that of God in every man’ in the context of Romans 1 is evident from the following passage written in 1658: ‘So that which may be known of God is manifest within people, wjhich God hath showed unto them . . . and to that of God in them all must they come before they do hold the truth in righteousness, or retain God in their knowledge, or retain his covenant of light . . . ”
What did Fox mean by “that of God”
The phrase “that of God” is not an idea about human nature “but points to the work of God in Christ,” as Francis Hall puts it in his comment after Benson’s essay.
Benson elaborates: “The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator. We cannot produce the equivalent of this voice and this wisdom from our human resources. It must be heard and received. There is a hunger in every man for this voice and this wisdom—a need to be taught what is right by the Creator. 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 not an organ, or faculty, or gland. It is a hunger and thirst that God has put in man.” (emphasis mine)
That of God is not a divine spark inherent in the human, some aspect of the divine in which the human partakes, as we modern liberal Friends tend to believe. Rather, that of God is a yearning for God and for God’s teaching and guidance that was put there as a kind of receptor for the gospel, for God’s wisdom, put there by God.
“Answering” that of God
Benson: “The verbs that Fox usually links 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. Fox says, “it is the light that makes manifest to a man when he is convinced: it answers to something, and reaches to something in their particulars.’ “Answering that of God” is not recognizing the divine spark in others, but rather offering ministry that satisfies the yearning in us for God’s truth.
In the famous pastoral epistle that we quote all the time as our source for the phrase, we “will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.” “Cheerfully” here does not mean in a lighthearted mood, but rather so as to cheer in a sense mostly lost to us since the 17th century, that is to spiritually uplift—to be a blessing. It’s also notable that Fox uses “world”, not “earth”, as many liberal Friends today often misquote him. “The world” comes from John’s gospel and stands for the world as it rejected Christ: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” (John 1:9–10)
That which does the answering
Fox: “There is something in man . . . that answers the power which is the gospel.” Benson: “That of God in the conscience is not conscience itself, but the word by which all things, including conscience, were created.” This “word”, of course, is Christ the Word, John 1:3: “All things were made by him; and without hem was not any thing made that was made”.
The twentieth century usage
Benson: “Between 1700 and 1900 “that of God in every man” virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary . . . How did this long-forgotten phrase get into the spotlight and stay in the spotlight?” What happened that modern liberal Friends have turned this phrase on its head and then made it the one slender pillar upon which all Quaker tradition was to balance?
Benson’s answer: “The earliest instance of the revived use of “that of God” that I have been able to discover is found in Rufus Jones’ “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903, in which he expresses his opinion that the “larger truth” implicit in Fox’s early experiences is the discovery that there is a ‘universal principle, that the Spirit of God reaches in every man.’ He then adds: ‘To all sorts and conditions of men, Fox continually makes appeal to ‘that of God’ in them or to ‘the principle of God within man’ . . . In every instance he means that the Divine Being operates directly on the human life.’ In the following year he [Jones] wrote: ‘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.’ 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.”
Benson notes that in the last few weeks of his life, Jones began to have doubts about what he had done. It was only at this late time in his career that Jones actually began to systematically study what Fox meant by the phrase. Meanwhile, Jones had been propagating his misinterpretation for 45 years.
In his failure to actually study the material he was interpreting, Jones prefigured our own practice. Most Friends use the phrase glibly, having read very little Fox, if any, who are ignorant of Benson’s essay, and haven’t thought through what either Fox or they themselves mean by the phrase beyond the divine spark idea.
The idea spreads
Benson believes that the AFSC is responsible for bringing this understanding of the phrase into common usage. “A major contributing factor in the dissemination of this idea has been the torrent of promotional literature and other publications that flows from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service committee. . . . by frequently reminding us that its central motivating principle is ‘that of God in every man,’ [the Service Committee] has exerted a much greater influence on Quaker faith and thought than anything emanating from the Society itself.” This jives with my sense that you are most likely to see the phrase invoked as the foundation for the peace testimony and our other social testimonies, a topic which Benson takes up at length.
“That of God” and membership
But the phrase has come to dominate our thinking about more than our social witness. Benson: “Among Quakers today there is a widespread belief that the central truth of Quakerism is a principle that is not solely derived from the Christian revelation. . . . for a considerable number of Friends ‘that of God in every man’ is the symbol of a principle that transcends and comprehends Christianity. 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 Quakers’ 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 . . . there is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.”
My own meeting (Central Philadelphia) does not use the phrase in this way as a credal test in its membership process, but its membership documents are, in fact, full of the claim that our faith rests on the belief in that of God in everyone.
Comments by T. Canby Jones and Francis B. Hall
The Quaker Religious Thought issue with Benson’s essay also includes two comments by these two Quaker thinkers. Jones points out that it’s really hard to distinguish in Fox’s thinking between the Light and “that of God in everyone”. They have the same source, they work in the same ways. Fox was famously unsystematic in his thinking, and Jones confesses to still being “all hung up” on this distinction, even though he dwelt on the question for pages in his doctoral dissertation. “I can hear Fox laughing,” he says.
I agree with Jones about this. I find it quite hard to follow Fox’s thinking a lot of the time. But I also agree with Benson about almost all of his points. We misuse the phrase “that of God” these days in ways that do violence to our tradition and to the testimony of integrity. We have narrowed our belief system down to this one principle and ravaged an ancient and rich tradition in the process. We have forgotten where our “modern” interpretation came from, and when, and we have falsely retrojected it onto our prophetic founder, who, it seems, never meant by it anything like what we mean by it.
But, as my Friend Don Badgley often points out, it’s not what we believe that matters so much as what we have experienced. “Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light?” Whatever “that of God” within us is, a divine spark or an inward yearning for Truth, is it connecting? Are we answering the knock on our heart’s door? Are we rising to face and follow the light, in spirit and in truth?
But while direct experience of the Christ (and I will leave open for now the question of what and/or who the Christ is) may be the main question, the way that we present our beliefs still matters. The way we answer questions about our faith from the public, from newcomers, and from our children. What we say matters. As Fox put it, “What thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”