‘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.

‘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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