Paul’s letter to the Romans is a crucial source document for Quakerism. Even today, liberal Friends who reject Paul as a bigot and mythologizer are likely to base their spirituality, if unawares, on something from that letter: as Lewis Benson reminded us in an essay first published over 40 years ago, founding Friends such as George Fox and James Nayler derived the phrase “that of God in every one” from verse 19 of the letter’s first chapter.1 But Benson’s essay did not settle the question asked in its title, “‘That of God in Every Man’ — What did George Fox mean by it?” Given that we still appeal to Fox and other early Friends when we use the phrase, and given that, presumably, we want to do so honestly, that question continues to merit our consideration.
Benson made a number of helpful points in his essay. Most importantly, he refuted the popular misreading of Fox’s “that of God” as signifying an inherent (ontological) oneness of human beings with God, tracing that notion to the Christian Neoplatonism of such 20th-century Friends as Rufus Jones.2 But Benson, too, although not as egregiously, misread Fox: his interpretation was skewed by his commitment to a central doctrine of Christ as heavenly prophet, encounter with whom he saw as “the heart [and] cornerstone of [Fox’s] theology.” His proposal that Fox used the phrase “that of God” to refer to “a witness for God that summons [everyone] to remember the Creator … a hunger and thirst that God has put in man”3 misses the depth and power of the early Quaker reading of Paul.
In order to recover something of that depth and power, we must bracket conventional interpretations of both Fox and Paul, allowing ourselves to understand “that of God” in context of the first Friends’ unconventional hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, of scripture as pointer to inner states and events.4 This essay is intended to help in that process by examining Fox’s interpretation of Romans 1:16-20. As always, my attempt to understand the thought and experience of the first Friends is directed toward the opening of contemporary possibilities that we might overlook in our conventional certainties; I’ll conclude with a brief reflection on that.
First, a procedural note. George Fox and other first Friends would have had access to both the the King James Version (KJV) and the Geneva Bible (GNV) with its voluminous notes, which were also included in some editions of the KJV at the time. In this analysis, the KJV will be our principal translation, but I’ll interpose material from the GNV’s rendering when it is significantly different, and I’ll reproduce (with some modernization) some of the GNV’s notes. To facilitate analysis, I’ll break the Romans passage into two parts.
THE POWER OF GOD UNTO RIGHTEOUSNESS
We begin with verses 16 and 17 of Romans 1.
 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.  For therein [GNV: by it] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
The passage opens with a statement which, taken as a definition, would shape Quaker theology and the experience that followed from and fed it: the gospel of Christ is the power of God. Here we see the unusual nature of Quaker exegesis (biblical interpretation): conventional interpretations do not take that statement to be definitional, but assume that “gospel” must refer to written or oral proclamation (Gk. kerygma). We may be tempted to reject the Quaker reading out of hand, but to do so would be to close ourselves off from the source of early Quakerism’s dynamism; namely, its scriptural hermeneutic. In order to understand the Quakers’ theology and experience, we will need, at least temporarily, to take Fox’s exegetical perspective as our own. Fox is clear that Paul’s statement is to be understood as making “gospel” and “power of God” identical:
That which ye now tell people is the gospel, which ye preach, are the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, &c. [But that is] contrary to the scripture, which saith, ‘The gospel is the power of God.’ And many may have the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, &c., the form, but deny the power, and so deny the gospel, which is the power of God. And so they that deny the power have put the four books for it ….
And, lest we take refuge in metaphor:
[Richard Mayo's position:] Mayo saith, ‘To say the gospel is the power of God is but a metaphorical speech.’
[George Fox's response:] The apostle doth not say so, for the apostle saith, ‘The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believes,’ in plain words. Rom. 1 chapter.5
Fox was well aware that Paul also uses “the power of God” in what can be considered a definitional manner in First Corinthians: “Christ, the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Putting the two statements together, we arrive at a startling, even revolutionary, conclusion:
gospel = the power of God;
Christ = the power of God;
gospel = Christ = the power of God.
That is not a claim that Christ is merely a literary creation in “gospel” books: far from it. The claim is that the signifier “gospel” refers not to spoken or written material — the letter that kills — but to the actual power of God, or Christ — the spirit that gives life.6 The power of God is the proper object of faith. Given that, we should read verse 17 to say that it is by that power — not, as the conventional interpretation of the passage would have it, by the canonical books (which did not exist when Paul wrote Romans) or the oral kerygma — that the righteousness of God is revealed, “from faith to faith,” in/as that same divine power which brings us into a life of justice: “the just shall live by faith.” “Gospel truth” is not words but righteousness-power received in faith — Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6).
Some of the Geneva Bible’s notes on verse 17 may be helpful here. The GNV explains “from faith to faith” (which can also be rendered as “from faith into faith”) by saying that “we are justified before God by faith which increases daily: and therefore also saved.” “Faith,” pistis in Greek, should be defined not simply as propositional belief but — even primarily — as trust and fidelity.7 Paul is understood to say that the righteousness of God is revealed through pistis, that the revelation then increases or strengthens pistis, and that in that revelation we receive salvation by being justified in pistis. Because Fox understood “justification” to mean that one is (not merely forensically, as in a legal fiction, but) actually made just, and “gospel” to mean Christ the power of God, he understood “revelation” to mean the unveiling not of information about God’s righteousness but of that righteousness-power itself — revelation in us of the very life of Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Such a reading would be consistent with the GNV’s note that Paul’s quotation, “The just shall live by faith,” is “out of [Habakkuk], who attributes and gives unto faith both justice and life before God.” We should recall here Fox’s “opening” (i.e., insight) that true believers are those who are “passed from death to life”: faith is not belief in stories and doctrines but trust in and fidelity to the gospel, the power of God-who-is-love.8
We should note, too, that the Greek word translated as “revealed” in verse 17 is apokalyptetai, a word which, like its English cognate “apocalyptic,” refers to the uncovering of something that had been hidden. The unveiling of the divine mystery which, although present for all to see, had remained hidden through the ages was a favorite motif of Fox and other first Friends. It is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:23-29), which the KJV translates as follows:
[C]ontinue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to [Gk. en: in -- a rendering that Fox insisted upon] every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; … [namely,] the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working [Gk. energeian: operation of divine power], which worketh in me mightily.
A Quaker reading of the first part of the Romans passage yields, then, something like this: the divine power for righteousness/justice is being revealed, through and for pistis, to all human beings in Christ.
“CHRIST IN YOU, THE HOPE OF GLORY”
In verses 18 through 20, Paul tells us explicitly where that gospel/divine power/Christ is to be found. But his words, the Friends would warn us, are misconstrued if read from the conventional, rather than the inspired, perspective. Paul says:
 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [GNV: withhold] the truth in unrighteousness;  Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even [i.e., namely] his eternal power and Godhead [Gk. theiotes: divinity; divine nature]; so that they are without excuse ….
We will not explore verse 18′s reference to God’s wrath: the rest of Romans 1 elaborates that in a way that is quite controversial today, and it is not essential for our discussion of “that of God.” Whether Paul is speaking in v. 18 of everyone or of only those who “[with]hold the truth in unrighteousness,” he appears to speak universally in the next two verses. Assuming the universal intent throughout, the Geneva Bible states that “All men being considered in themselves, or without Christ, are guilty both of ungodliness and also unrighteousness, and therefore are subject to condemnation: Therefore must they needs seek righteousness in some other.” While that may be uncongenial to some contemporary Friends, the first Quakers would likely have agreed at least with the sentiment behind it.9 The Friends would also have agreed with the GNV’s suggestion that Paul’s phrase “is manifest in them” refers to “in their hearts.” Indeed, Friends knew that the heart is precisely where we find that “other” who can make us just; namely “Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
However, the Quakers would disagree vehemently with the GNV’s assertion that “By ‘truth’ Paul means all the light that is left in man since his fall, not as though [people] being led thereby were able to come into favor with God, but that their own reason might condemn them of wickedness both against God and man.” Friends would say that such a view contradicts John’s assertion that Christ the divine Logos (“Word”)10 is the light “which enlightens every one who comes into the world” (Jn. 1:9) as well as Christ’s statement that he is himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” If Christ is truth, then the light of truth is not a “natural” light at all: it is the gracious working in us of the Logos, the divine power and nature (verse 20), denied and oppressed by our human nature until we give ourselves over to it in pistis. Friends would agree that human reason, captive to our sinfulness, cannot fully acknowledge and condemn our unrighteousness, much less lead us out of it: we need power and wisdom that are other — beyond, or deeper — than our normal ways of thinking and feeling. Scripture, they believed, teaches that the light of truth which enlightens human reason is that “other” power and wisdom: it is Christ, the Logos of God, dwelling in the human heart. And that, the Friends would argue, is what Paul is trying to tell us.
Continuing in its conventional reading of Paul, the Geneva Bible goes on to assert that human wickedness refuses to acknowledge God’s clear revelation in the natural world.
Their ungodliness [Paul] proves hereby, that although all men have a most clear and evident glass [i.e., mirror] wherein to behold the everlasting and almighty nature of God, [namely] in his creatures, yet have they fallen away from those principles to most foolish and fond devices of their own brains …. ‘You see God not, and yet you acknowledge him as God by his works,’ [wrote] Cicero.
That brings us to the core difference between the conventional and the Quaker interpretations of the passage. The standard reading of verse 20 asserts that God’s eternal power and divine nature, although invisible in themselves, are reflected in the order of nature, and that there is, therefore, no reason for anyone to fail to know God in that order. That’s a classic argument, if one that may not fare well today, given our understanding of the ruthless operation of natural selection; but it is not, from the primitive Quaker perspective, Paul’s argument.
The Friends insisted that Paul, when he points to the locus of the revelation of God’s nature and power, points not outward, as to the kerygma or the order of creation, but inward. Paul directs people to look “in their hearts” (in the GNV’s own phrase) “because that which may be known of God is manifest in them,” and he should be taken at his word. As we have seen, Friends read the Romans passage as consistent with John’s assertion that Christ the Logos-light shines in everyone, revealing his divine power and wisdom in them and offering them God’s own nature and righteousness through faith: “He came into his own, and his own did not accept him. But to those who received him he gave the power to become the offspring [i.e., to share the nature] of God, to those trusting in his name” (Jn. 1:11-12, my translation). Fox defended the Quaker position succinctly in his The Great Mystery:11
[John Hume’s position:] ‘That God was to be known by the things that were made, as the sun, moon, and stars.’
[George Fox’s response:] But Jesus Christ said, Matt. xi. 27. ‘No man knows the Father but the son, and he to whomsoever the son will reveal him,’ and the heathens know not God, nor had the Jews seen his shape.
If the scriptures are coherent, the Quakers would maintain, then Paul cannot be advancing the view expressed by the GNV and preachers such as John Hume. “That which may be known of God is manifest in them,” Paul wrote, and in is what he meant. And he did not change his doctrine from one verse to the next.
WORLD AS PARABLE
But how did the Friends justify that “inward” reading against the conventional one of knowing God’s nature and power through their reflection in the creation? In a brilliant maneuver that safeguards the continuity of scripture, Fox (who, I like to speculate, may have enjoyed reframing the GNV’s reference to a glass or mirror) turns that seemingly outward emphasis inward. He reads the Romans passage as validating the Quaker hermeneutic, which he would sum up cleverly and concisely in his Journal:
I saw also the mountains burning up, and the rubbish, and the rough, and crooked ways and places made smooth and plain, that the Lord might come into his tabernacle. These things are to be found in man’s heart; but to speak of these things being within seemed strange to the rough, crooked, and mountainous ones. Yet the Lord saith, ‘O earth, hear the word of the Lord!’12
In that journal passage, Fox referred to scripture (Luke 3/Isaiah 40) which may seem to speak only of the natural world but which is seen, when read in the spirit, to point inward. And the natural world itself, when “read” in the spirit, is a kind of scripture: God himself, according to Fox, has told us that. For God would not address his word to the deaf physical earth: God speaks to the “earth” that is human nature. (As Fox repeatedly reminds his readers in The Great Mystery, “human,” from the Latin humus, means “earthy,” “of the earth.”) God, whom we know as the light of Christ within, is the source of the Quaker hermeneutic, and we are to apply that hermeneutic not only to scripture but also to the natural world, “the things that are made.” For the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation,” is “preached in every creature which is under heaven.”
In his “A Word from the Lord, to All the World,” Fox employed that principle in a long, even rhapsodic statement on how nature or outward reality should be understood as a “figure” or parable directing us to both the human darkness and the divine light and power in our hearts.13 His statement is an extended gloss on our passage from Romans.
To all you that are unlearned outwardly of the letter, that cannot read the scripture outwardly, to you I have a word from the Lord to speak: which is, Christ saith, I have given to every one a measure, according to their ability; this is the measure, the light which is pure, which doth convince thee, and if thou doth take heed to this light, that is scripture within thee ….
And as the light opens and exerciseth thy conscience, it will open to thee parables and figures, and it will let thee see invisible things, which are clearly seen by that which is invisible in thee, which are clearly seen since the creation of the world, that doth declare the eternal power and Godhead; that which is invisible is the light within thee, which he who is invisible hath given thee a measure of, that will let thee see [that] thy heart [is] stony, and [that the] stones without thee [are] of the like nature [as thy heart] ….
In verse 20, Paul wrote, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made ….” And he named those invisible things: they are the power and “Godhead,” or nature, of God. George Fox asserts that “that which is invisible is the light within thee” which “will open to thee figures and parables”; in other words, the inner light of Christ illumines the created order as scripture directing us to the dark truth of our own condition. As our conscience, normally shut up in accepted moral wisdom and implicit self-righteousness,14 is opened to the truth by that light, we see that the hardness, selfishness, and brutality of the world are also active in us, are indeed inherent in our human nature, often disguising themselves as moral goodness. That same enlightening power will, as we put our faith in it, increasingly reveal itself in us, thus strengthening our faith and leading us out of the human nature into the divine.15
Fox illustrates that process profusely as he continues; we’ll elaborate it through some of his examples. (Note: in the following excerpts, which have been modified for clarity, “without” is used by Fox as the opposite of “within” and should be read as “outside of.”)
First, the light of Christ shows us, through types or “figures spoken to the carnal part in man,” the truth of our human nature.
[A]s there are briars without thee, so there are briars within thee; and as [there are] serpents without thee, so the nature of serpents [is] within thee … [and as] the earth [is] without thee, so the earth [is] within thee; as lions [are] without thee, so [is] the nature of lions within thee; … as forests [are] without thee, so [is] the wilderness in thy heart: these things doth the scripture speak of; [the ones?] who had the light spoke forth these parables to that nature in men and women: this light lets thee [see that] as fat bulls [are] without thee, feeding the flesh, thou art as a fat bull, who only feedeth the flesh; [and] as there are dogs and swine without thee, thou art a dog that bitest and devourest and barkest [--] there is thy figure [i.e., symbol or pattern, as in a parable] ….
As [there are] tall cedars without thee, thou wilt see thyself a tall cedar, who livest without the truth, spreading thyself: and as [there are] strong oaks without thee, thou in thy strength wilt see thyself as a strong oak, who art full of earth, and livest [proudly] in thy power and dignity; … as asses without thee, snuffing up their noses upon the mountains, thou art lifted up in thy high-mindedness, and full of pride and wildness, [so] thou wilt see thyself to be as a wild ass; … the light within thee will let thee see these things ….
The light reveals that the world in its harshness and absurdity reflects our own condition, but it also unveils what we shall be if we turn and submit in pistis to the Logos, the Word, which is “the power of God unto salvation.”
[As there is a] harvest without thee, so [there is a] harvest within: [those] who come to see with the invisible eye, all [those who] mind the light, shall see another harvest; as there are many sowing the seed without, [the seed] that lies under the clods, so thou shalt see the seed that lieth under the clods in thee;16 and as [there is] summer without thee, so are the children of God brought into the summer, where there is joy and peace, and are brought out of the world; and as [there is] singing of birds without thee, so [singing like birds] are they [who] are brought out of the winter; the world is a figure to them: as [there is] a turtle-dove without thee, that is a figure [for the one] who comes to this joyful land; as [there are] doves without thee, [so there is the] nature of doves within; as [there are] lambs without thee, [so there is] the nature of lambs within: … now the light of God gave forth all these figures [which are] like unto that nature in man, and [the light shows] what the saints should [i.e., shall or do] enjoy, and this light will let thee see [all of that.]
Our task, then, is always to “mind the light” of Christ within, for “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”17
[T]he light will let you see it: as [there is] night without thee and darkness, so there is night within; and as [there are stars and moon and clouds] without thee, so there are [stars and moon and clouds] within thee. These things are all figures; and as [there is] the sun without thee, so [there is] the sun of righteousness arising with healing in his wings within thee. All who mind the measure [of the Christ-light] which God hath given you, it will open you unto these outward figures which God spake, and will teach you ….
Now this light will shew you these figures: here thou mayest read scriptures, thou that lovest the light: [but] thou that hatest this light canst not see these figures. But it is the invisible that opens these, [the same spirit] that gave them forth; and here thou [who] art unlearned in the letter mayest read the scripture, and as [there are] secret chambers without thee, [so if thou wilt] hearken to the light within thee … it will let thee see the secret places [within], where the retired place, the secret chambers, are; and as [there is] a prison without thee, so there is a prison within, where the seed of God lies; and as there is threshing without thee, [the light] will let thee see threshing within thee; … this light of God which gave forth the scriptures … will open the scripture to thee; for man [having been driven out of Paradise] into the earth, and the earth being above the seed, the earth without thee [is like] the earth within thee [i.e., our inner “earth,” or human nature, covers up the Christ-seed in us]; [in that secret place within] the Lord [is] speaking low things, [showing you these] comparisons [by which the outer world is] like to that nature in man; that man may look upon the creation with that which is invisible [i.e., with the Christ-light, that of God, within], and there read himself; there thou mayest see [thy figure] wherever thou goest.
“Thou that hatest this light canst not see these figures”: it is only when we trust and mind the divine light that we can see clearly. To read scripture correctly, we must read it in the same spirit, the light of the Logos, by and in which it was given forth.18 The conventional interpretation of verse 20 misses Paul’s reference to the mirroring, parabolic, scriptural nature of the world because that reading comes not from the Christ-light within but from the spirit of the world: that is the Quakers’ ultimate defense of their interpretation. For them, it is clear that those who read scripture in the conventional manner are not in the holy spirit, for “you shall know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:16), and real righteousness among Christians is rare. That is only to be expected, because the conventional reading directs people away from the Christ-power within. The lives of the Friends, however, who read according to the holy spirit’s hermeneutic of inwardness, manifest the fruits of that spirit: justice, peace, generosity, integrity, simplicity.19 That hermeneutic unlocks the meaning of scripture, directing us to the living gospel-power in our hearts. And when we see by the light of Christ, everything is scripture.
The excerpts above are only part of Fox’s long catalog of parabolic “figures” in “A Word.” His argument was, perhaps, a difficult one to make, but it was essential for the Quaker doctrine of “that of God in every one.”
OUR QUAKER READING
We can now produce a Quaker statement of the doctrine of “that of God” as derived from Romans 1:16-20.
First, here is the KJV passage again:
 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein [GNV: by it] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [GNV: withhold] the truth in unrighteousness;  Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even [i.e., namely] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse ….
And here is our Quaker reading:
The gospel, the power of God-who-is-love, is Christ, the light within that enlightens and justifies everyone who trusts in it. That light opens the parabolic meaning of the world, shows us our own inner darkness, reveals God’s righteousness, and empowers us to live — to become — that righteousness. Because Christ the light and power of God is manifest in everyone and illumines the world as holy scripture, no one can justifiably continue in unrighteousness, whether or not they have the written Bible.
According to the first Friends, then, “that of God in every one” is not simply something in us that calls us to remember God, nor is it inherent divinity or oneness with God: it is the indwelling Christ, the divine Logos, the very nature (i.e., love20) and righteousness-power of God which can show us our dark condition and lead us into a new, holy life of light, peace, justice, and generosity. Putting our faith in that light and power and living in fidelity to it, we are enabled to understand self, world, and scriptures aright and are taken “from death to life,” “out of the world” and into the divine life. “We all, with [unveiled] face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
DOES IT MATTER?
Why should we 21st-century Friends care what Fox and other first Friends had in mind when they spoke of “that of God” within?
In the introduction to this post, I spoke of opening contemporary possibilities that we may have overlooked in our conventional certainties. Hope for revelation of hitherto unseen — or glimpsed but dismissed — possibilities for more just and generous human living is the primary reason for my attempts to understand the first Friends. A nontheist and humanist, I do not assume that, as Henry J. Cadbury put it when reacting to the work of Lewis Benson, “those aspects of the early Quaker vision thus reconstructed [by purportedly objective historical analysis] ought to be permanently normative to Quakerism,”21 but I am convinced that foundational Quaker thought and experience of manifest spiritual power should be permitted and assisted to ground our faith and practice today. Faithful “translation” of the first Friends’ thought into a contemporary idiom may be difficult, but it is necessary if we are to recover, preserve, and share in the source of their spiritual power. We begin that work by allowing ourselves to encounter their thought, as best we can, on its own terms. It is by doing so that we might share something of their experience, for their experience was shaped by their thinking, particularly by their interpretation of scripture.
As also mentioned in the beginning of this post, however, there is a sense in which we do present sayings of George Fox and other first Friends as normative, sometimes even while insisting that they are not: we still appeal to them for justification of the few doctrines we more or less agree upon. There are, therefore, questions of personal and corporate integrity at stake, too. If we are to continue to claim Fox et al. as spiritual founders and to quote them as sources of our beliefs and practices, particularly of the now-central doctrine of “that of God in everyone,” then honesty requires that, rather than forcing them into our molds, we engage them respectfully, allowing them to be what they were, reconstructing their ideas as carefully and objectively as possible: that we not steal our ancestors’ words to justify beliefs that they may not have espoused.
For those reasons and more, but particularly because the world desperately needs the great spiritual depth and power that we see in the lives of the first Friends, we do well to allow those Friends to speak to us in their own way and in their own context. If we let them communicate their minds and hearts, they can challenge our complacencies, open our horizons, and help us to live in and by that oft-neglected inner power which moves us to justice, peace, and mercy. In other words, they can answer that of God in us, whereby they may continue to be, in us, a blessing for the world.22