‘That of God’ – new light (?)

November 11, 2010 § 17 Comments

For years, I have labored under a concern about our misuse of the phrase ‘that of God’, which most Friends know from an epistle to ministers that George Fox includes in his journal, though he used the phrase in various forms more than seven hundred times, by my count in Lewis Benson’s massive concordance of Fox’s works. One of the things I’ve been harping on is that we now mean something by the phrase that turns Fox’s meaning on its head, that we’re mostly ignorant of this 180 degree turn, and that we should not use it without being more knowledgeable and reflective about, not just its history but our own intentions. Most Friends today, I think, have a vaguely neoplatonic, neognostic meaning in mind: that we each have some little piece of God in us, that inherent in the human is some aspect of the divine—a divine spark—and that this spark is the key to the direct experience of God that is fundamental to Quaker faith and practice.

I have argued instead that Fox could never have held such an idea. That for him, a huge chasm separates humans from God, and that, while there may be a seat within the human soul waiting for Christ to come in and sup with us, as early Friends were wont to quote Revelation (3:20), that only because Christ had bridged that gulf did we partake of the divine in any way. I had argued further that the current mystical, divine-spark meaning of ‘that of God’ had entered modern Quakerism from Rufus Jones and was therefore a relatively new meaning, and that it was an innovation of his own or brought in from outside our tradition. But I had lost the record and the memory of where in his writings Jones had first introduced the idea. When I went looking for it, I discovered a rather extensive body of analysis that seemed to indicate that I might be totally wrong about all of this.

These writers claim that Fox was, in fact, some kind of gnostic (though his theology is truly unique in the long history of neoplatonic ideas). That ‘that of God’ does in fact refer to a share of the divine in the human. That many early Friends agreed with him about this. That they went quite far beyond the simple presence of a divine spark to include a view of salvation that so fused the believer with Christ that s/he was virtually—no, not ‘virtually’, but actually—fully one with him. And that William Penn, Thomas Ellwood and others deliberately removed or withheld these ideas from Fox’s published works, especially the first edition of the journal, in order to protect the Society from the charge of blasphemy.

I am eager to pursue this further with Friends who know more about Fox’s biography, writings and theology than I do. First, I want to share the bibliography that I’ve begun to read, so others can read this stuff for themselves. I am lucky to be close to Princeton Theological Seminary and their great library, but I suspect these books may be hard to get for many Friends. Still, I am hoping that we can have a lively and informed dialog about these uncovered themes in early Quaker experience and thinking. Here’s what I’ve found so far:

The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives; Pink Dandelion, editor. Two essays touch on these ideas: “’Go North!’ The Journey towards First-generation Friends and their Prophecy of Celestial Flesh,” by Michele Lise Tarter; “George Fox and Christian Gnosis,” by Glen D. Reynolds.

Was George Fox a Gnostic? An Examination of Foxian Theology from a Valentinian Gnostic Perspective; Glen D. Reynolds.

New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God; Richard Bailey.

The Light in their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain 1646-1666; Rosemary Moore.

George Fox and the Light Within, 1650-1660; R. H. King. (I’ve not got my hands on this one yet, but it is quoted quite a lot by the others.)

I still have other concerns about the way we use the phrase ‘that of God,’ but these must wait for another post.

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