“That of God”: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20

Heading of Romans, Magdalen, Oxford

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” misses the depth and power of the primitive Quaker reading of Paul.3

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.


We begin with verses 16 and 17 of Romans 1.

[16] 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. [17] 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.


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:

[18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [GNV: withhold] the truth in unrighteousness; [19] Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [20] 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 a 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.


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.”


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:

[16] 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. [17]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. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [GNV: withhold] the truth in unrighteousness; [19] Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [20] 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 within 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).


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 essay, 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 essay, 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


[1]. Lewis Benson, “‘That of God in Every Man’ – What did George Fox mean by it?” – originally published in Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. XII, No. 2 (Spring, 1970) and reprinted as a pamphlet in 2001 by the New Foundation Fellowship. Page numbers in references here are from the pamphlet.

[2]. See Benson, pp. 21-23. Jones’s student Howard Brinton would later make the incredible assertion (in Friends for 300 Years, 1988 printing, p. 21) that “As philosopher, Fox followed the Hellenic tradition, apprehending the inner Unity which exists beyond time and space, Real as compared with the phenomenal world, One as contrasted with the multiplicity recognized by the senses.”

[3]. Benson, pp. 9-11. Benson appears to have read Fox through the lens of Robert Barclay’s theology: for example, on page 85 of his Apology, Barclay says that the inner light “is not of God’s own nature” but is a “principle in which God dwells” which “draws, invites, and inclines the individual toward God.” But that is Barclay’s thought, not Fox’s, and Benson’s essay purports to explain Fox’s thinking. For more on Barclay’s re-interpretation of Fox’s theology, see Richard Bailey’s New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism.

[4]. For first Friends, scripture is properly understood only in an encounter between inspired words and inspired reading — “inspired” referring to the work of the holy spirit but meaning in practice that scripture is to be read according to the Quaker hermeneutic of inwardness. (As we’ll see, that same principle is applied to nature when it is considered as a kind of scripture.) The Quaker hermeneutic also appears to include the assumption that scripture is coherent, or consistent, so that the finding of what seems to be a serious contradiction is an indication that one is reading incorrectly.

[5]. George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded (Vol. 3 of the 1832 edition of his Works). The first quotation, in which a comma has been added for clarity, is from page 150; the second is from page 437. In that first quotation, Fox speaks of exchange: “they that deny the power,” those who deny the possibility of righteousness in this life through faith in the inward light of Christ, have exchanged the true gospel for books, just as they have exchanged real righteousness for, as Michael Gorman (whose excellent course on Romans I recently audited) put it, “a word of forgiveness, … a legal fiction.” The theme of exchange of the truly holy for a simulacrum is, to borrow Gorman’s phrase, “the order of the day” in the first chapter of Romans. See Michael Gorman, “Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis,” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 5.1, (2011): the quotations above are found on page 22. (On theosis, see note 15, below.) See also Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678): “Though the outward declaration of the Gospel be taken sometimes for the Gospel, yet it is but figuratively and by a metonymy. For, to speak properly, the Gospel is this inward power and life which preacheth glad tidings in the hearts of all men, offering salvation unto them, and seeking to redeem them from their iniquities, and therefore it is said to be preached in every creature under heaven: whereas there are many thousands of men and women to whom the outward Gospel was never preached.”

[6]. 2 Cor. 3:6: “[God] also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

[7]. See, for example, A. Katherine Grieb, “The Righteousness of God in Romans,” in Jerry Sumney, ed., Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans (SBL, 2012), p. 68: “The noun pistis has a wide range of meanings, including ‘faith, trust, and belief’ but also ‘faithfulness, trustworthiness, and credibility or believability.’ The adjective pistos can mean either ‘faithful, trustworthy, and credible’ or ‘believing, trusting, having faith.'”

[8]. George Fox’s Journal, Vol. 1 of the 1831 edition of his Works, p. 71. The “opening” or insight refers to 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not [his] brother abideth in death.”

[9]. Friends would have argued, however, that guilt accrues only to actual sin. (Of course, Paul says in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”) In the Fourth Proposition of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Robert Barclay explained that the Quakers did not accept the term “original sin” because it implied that we are born guilty: Quakers acknowledged that we are born into Adam’s sinful nature, but they would insist that we are not guilty before God until we have actually committed an evil act. “Though we do not ascribe any whit of Adam’s guilt to men, until they make it theirs by the like acts of disobedience; yet we cannot suppose that men, who are come of Adam naturally, can have any good thing in their nature, as belonging to it; which he, from whom they derive their nature, had not himself to communicate unto them. If then we may affirm that Adam did not retain in his nature (as belonging thereunto) any will or light capable to give him knowledge in spiritual things, then neither can his posterity; for whatsoever real good any man doth, it proceedeth not from his nature as he is man or the son of Adam, but from the seed of God in him, as a new visitation of life, in order to bring him out of this natural condition: so that though it be in him, yet it is not of him ….”

[10]. The Logos (usually translated as “the Word”) is the divine creative and right-ordering — that is, ordering for righteousness — power and wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 1:24b) through which, according to John 1 (which hearkens back to the creation story in Genesis), God shapes chaos into cosmos. It is divine reason as opposed to human reason, but it dwells in human beings: “and the [Logos] became flesh, and pitched his tent in us” (John 1:14, George Fox’s translation). It is only by the light of that divine reason working within us, believed the first Friends, that we can understand scripture, the world, and ourselves truly. The following, which is just one of a multitude of possible examples, is from Vindication of the Principles and Practices of the People called Quakers, 1665, by George Bishop: “By the word Light, and the Light within, we mean Christ the Light … Now this is not Natural Reason ….” See also Barclay’s statement in note 9, above.

[11]. Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 515. The latter part of Fox’s argument is, I think, weak: Paul can be read as saying that those heathens and Jews are “without excuse” for not knowing God. But the overall point is sound: why would Paul point to an inner manifestation of “that which can be known of God” if his argument was that God is known through outward things?

[12]. Fox, Journal, p. 77.

[13]. George Fox, “A Word from the Lord, to All the World,” in Vol. 4 of the 1831 edition of his Works, pp. 34-37. For clarity’s sake, explanatory material has been added in brackets, and minor adjustments have been made in punctuation. Reading scripture as parable was not a Quaker innovation.  In addition to the long history of allegorical interpretation in the church (see, for example, the excerpt from De Prinicpiis, written by the third-century C.E. theologian Origen, at the Early Church Texts site), early in the 17th century John Everarde had been preaching the hermeneutic that Fox adopted: “But if we rest and dwell on the Letter, or on the history, and so only take it as an Historie, and not see our own selves in it, and by it; then that Historie, that Letter kills; but it is the Spirit that gives life, viz. the mind and the meaning; for there is no Scripture but is as a glass [i.e., mirror] to behold our own faces, our own hearts.” (John Everarde, Gospel-Treasures, quoted in David R. Como, Blown By the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England, p. 230.) The Friends applied their inward-pointing parabolic reading to nature as well as to scripture. [This note was revised on 9/12/2020.]

[14]. I am reminded of Fox’s “For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, faith, and power,” part of the famous “There is one” passage in his Journal.

[15]. That process is explained more thoroughly in my 2008 Quaker Theology essay, “The Psychology of Salvation.” The transformation of the human into the divine is at the heart of the idea of theosis, which Michael Gorman finds to be a central theme in Romans: see note 5, above.

[16]. “The seed” refers to Christ, as in Gal. 3:16: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”

[17]. Fox, Journal, p. 74.

[18]. See, for example, The Great Mystery, p. 176: “Christ’s name is called ‘the word of God’ [i.e., Logos] properly, and not figuratively, and more properly than the scriptures, as in the Revelation. And the scriptures are the words of God … which Christ the word fulfills. […] And [those who did not have] the scriptures worshipped God before the scriptures were written … [and] attained to eternal life. And if people have all the scriptures [but have] not the spirit which was before [the scriptures] were given forth, they [lack] the standing rule; they cannot know the scriptures, they cannot worship God aright; … neither do any worship God aright but they who are in the spirit that gave [the scriptures] forth.”

[19]. In connection with the biblical image of bearing fruit, it is worth noting that the Friends’ emphasis was not so much on “nurturing” the seed of Christ within as on simply recognizing that seed and stopping our interference with, or repression of, it. The fruit/conduct, then, grows of itself, being the graceful work of Christ. Richard B. Hays finds that approach in Paul: “The metaphor of ‘fruit’ suggests that the sanctified conduct Paul expects …. is not so much the product of moral striving as that of allowing the mysterious power of God’s Spirit to work in and through [us].” (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 37.) Another relevant scripture passage is Mark 4:26-29: “And [Jesus] said, the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest is come” (Hays, p. 83). (Mark tends not to refer to the Spirit as Paul does; here he speaks instead of what Hays calls “a mysterious possibility.”) See also the essay “I Am the Way.”

[20]. For discussion of love as the nature of God, see the “God is love” tag for this blog, in particular “A Quaker Reading of 1 John 4.”

[21]Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. II No. 1 (Spring, 1960), p. 21.

[22]. The reference is, of course, to George Fox’s oft-, if acontextually-, quoted saying from “An exhortation to Friends in the Ministry”: “This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct may preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you 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: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.”

[Minor revisions: 11/27/2022]

Related posts:
“Answering That of God as Revolutionary Praxis (12/1/12)
“That of God and the Other” (3/27/12)
“Answering That of God” (7/20/11)

13 thoughts on ““That of God”: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20

  1. I think that your descriptions of “gospel” and “faith” are in accord with early Friends understanding. I take some issue with your claiming that Lewis Benson’s “central doctrine of Christ” was as the “heavenly prophet.” Benson pointed out that Fox identified many offices (functions) of Christ (priest, prophet, bishop, king, shepherd, etc.) but that Fox emphasized the prophetic office through referring to it more times than any of the others. The function of the heavenly prophet is to teach heavenly things, bringing in the new way. So one can see why Fox would emphasize the prophetic office, as his discovery and ministry were both heavenly and new in the briary wilderness in which he taught. Additionally, Christ is identified as prophet more than any other role in the first four books of the N.T. So, there’s good reason for both Fox and Benson to underscore the prophetic office of Christ.

    Another issue I have with your ideas is your identifying human nature – as opposed to divine nature – as sinful. It is fallen human nature that is subject to sin. God created man in his own image and likeness, and therefore human nature is good (Gen. 1:31) in its true state, which is godly (Ps.82:6). As man has fallen from his true state, he is sinful. And that is universal. Acceptance of this is difficult for most contemporary Friends.

    Finally, your interpretation of Rom.1:20 doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think that the phrase “being understood by the things that are made” means that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world” are understood via an understanding of things that are made, that is, oaks and dogs and wilderness etc. (That would be natural theology which didn’t occur until the 17th century.) I believe instead that the phrase “being understood by the things that are made” refers to us creatures: we are the “things that are made” by the Creator and have clearly seen even the eternal power and Godhead, and that leaves us without excuse. This interpretation of v.20 fits better with the passage.

    Thanks for taking this work on.

  2. Patricia, I’ll address each of your concerns briefly.

    On the doctrine of Christ as prophet: you appear to agree that Benson, Fox, and even the four “gospel” books make the “office” of prophet a central one for Christ. The existence and importance of other offices is well-known and, as you note, discussed by Benson in the pamphlet. But Benson seems to find the prophetic office central with regard to interpreting Fox’s intent in using the phrase “that of God,” and that, I think, can be misleading, particularly in a mainstream Christian context. My comment about centrality, by the way, is not intended to refer to Benson’s work in general: in this post, Benson is relevant only with regard to his essay on “that of God.”

    On the idea of human nature as sinful: as the passage from Barclay (see endnote 9) makes clear, for early Friends we are all children of Adam — fallen Adam. Human nature is, for the first Friends, Adamic nature. It is an essential part of the Christian myth that our nature was originally good — we might even suggest that it was, or harbored, the imago Dei, Christ the Logos, and perhaps that is what Fox refers to when he writes of “the glory of the first body” — but is now fallen, corrupted, spiritually dead. Barclay puts it forcefully: “for whatsoever real good any man doth, it proceedeth not from his nature as he is man or the son of Adam, but from the seed of God in him, as a new visitation of life, in order to bring him out of this natural condition.” In this tradition, our natural condition is sin and death, but God graciously takes flesh in us as the Seed Christ in order to give us his supernatural life by incorporating us into himself.

    On “being understood by the things that are made”: what is presented in the post is an attempt, based on his own words, to understand how George Fox read that phrase in context of and contradistinction to an accepted reading of his time. Personally, I think Fox’s interpretation may be something of a stretch (and his difficulty is noted in the post), but the post is about his reading (and that of his opponents) of the passage, not mine. If you think that Fox himself should be read differently there, however, I’d love to consider some evidence-based argument for that.

    As always, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    • I have a problem with the basic idea of original sin, th at human nature should be defined primarily as sin. Why do we–why would we–believe this? Because of Genesis? Or even because of early Friends?

      For there was no Adam and Eve, or talking serpent and dreadful fruit. There was no historical moment in which an innocent humanity “fell” permanently, “genetically”, into a state of sinfulness that we have inherited from them somehow.

      I’m not saying we do not sin, nor that sin does not matter, only that sinfulness no more defines the human than does the capacity for social cooperation, or love, or humor, or art and other forms of cultural creativity, or for culture broadly understood. Or, for that matter, the capacity to be led by the Holy Spirit. To obsess about sin as the essential element of the human, the thing about which religion should be most concerned, to the degree that we imagine a region of eternal retributive suffering, is in my view–well, not healthy.

      • Steven, in explorations such as this I examine the thought-world of the first Friends in order to understand their reported experience and what it might mean for us when we are able to bracket, or set aside, our cultural assumptions and “personal” reactions. Why, indeed, “believe” these concepts and images that we have inherited from our religious ancestors? I for one don’t believe them: perhaps that is why I can see their truth and power — and thereby believe in them. And in seeing their truth and power I see, too, the potential value of exploring how they shaped the experience of the founders of our faith and how, in a way appropriate to our contemporary situation, they might yet shape ours.

        But I think we must also ask why we should privilege some such beliefs — say, the Holy Spirit — above others — say, the contrast of “human” to refer to primary self-centeredness and “divine” to refer to primary love-centeredness — that are equally essential to the system. Because some make us uncomfortable and some make us feel good? That may tend to confirm the very insight we might want to deny: that we human beings are self-centered or, in the traditional language, sinful, tending to turn all things to our selfish ends. George Fox diagnosed that sort of thing quite acutely.

        For the sake of clarity: I’m not suggesting obsession with sin, or “preaching up sin” in the sense of defining it as our inescapable fate as human beings. To the contrary, I celebrate the early Quaker emphasis on righteousness. The Friends’ experience was that sin can be overcome, but only after we acknowledge its presence and pervasiveness in our hearts. (Christianity is, after all, a religion of salvation from sin and death.) To acknowledge the fact of human selfishness is not to obsess: denial and obsession are not the only options. Acknowledgement, a matter of clarity and honesty, is the first step to recovery.

        If obsession about sin would not be healthy, then we must say, I think, the same about denial. Evolution has made us self-centered beings, and that’s natural and normal. (It can be argued that even cooperation is selfish in origin.) It also causes unimaginable suffering. Quakers felt themselves raised above that normal human nature through faith in and surrender to the power of God in their hearts. Today we might prefer to say that the Christ-power is also part of our nature, but that does not negate the truth of the Friends’ experience that the power is normally buried, neglected, denied, despised, abused — nor their insight that sin, “self-will,” is inherent and central in us.

        In any case, there’s no suggestion here that we should or can simply import the beliefs, qua beliefs, of the first Friends into the 21st century. But I do maintain that we can and should be open to the existential truths harbored in those beliefs, and that in doing so we might share something of the experience they shaped. The final section of the post deals with that.

  3. I will have to find my copy of the Benson booklet to examine the relationship he proposes between the phrase TOGIEM and Christ as prophet.

    On the second point: though Barclay may use the word “nature” loosely, Fox held that human nature had a rightly ordered course, which could be deviated from when acting contrary to one’s conscience and measure of faith. Human nature, says Fox, can be returned to its rightful course by the light. So, for Fox human nature is good; it’s been corrupted and needs to be returned to its original ordered state. Here’s one excerpt from Fox’s writing showing his understanding of human nature:

    For dwelling in the light…this keeps your minds from…those things…which lead nature out of course…And that…keeps you in peace and order, and leads nature into its right course, and into the virtue of that word by which creatures were made, and with it to use them all to his glory (Works. 7:97).

    I completely agree that Fox used figurative language to parallel outward, visible nature to inward, spiritual conditions. My point was that the phrase in verse 20 (“being understood by the things that are made”), didn’t seem to me to refer to this activity. In fact, if you drop the phrase from the verse, the thought flows more easily. The passage is about man’s failure to see the invisible things. To impose another category (outward creation) into the middle of this argument doesn’t seem appropriate. My point was that the phrase refers to man, I think, as there are only two forces in this passage: 1) God’s revelation to man, and 2) man’s refusal to see. Adding another whole component, such as man learning from nature about God, seems out of place. The words “from the creation of the world” might lead one to assume this is about outward nature, but these words are used to mean something like “from time immemorial” or “right from the start.” They don’t refer to outward nature. So, I agree that Fox uses outward nature to describe inward states; I just don’t see that that is what this particular phrase in verse 20 is about.

    • The question of human nature in Fox’s thought is an interesting one.

      That for Fox the true course of nature is that of oneness with God’s will seems clear. It can be argued, however, that human nature, as it now is, is not the original nature of human beings. According to the Christian theopoetic myth, which I think Fox shared, we were created in the image of God but lost that image, and therefore our nature was — and is now — essentially corrupted and in death. One way of conceptualizing what Christ is believed to do might be to say that he restores us to our true nature by allowing us to become, as Peter put it, “partakers of the divine nature.”

      But it can also be argued that the concept of “human nature” is not a particularly useful one in this context. Fox can speak of nature in many different ways (even in that one volume from which you quoted), from speaking of it — not specifically human nature, please note — in that passage as “out of course” to speaking of “the fleshly lusts and nature” and even saying that “the beastly nature in man and woman holdeth up the beast.” He could also say things such as that “human nature is from the ground; this is old Adam ….” Analysis is complicated by that consistent use of the word “human” to refer to that which is of the earth: e.g., the dying flesh. And Fox insists that the phrase “human nature” is notional, not scriptural (in the passage just quoted, he goes on to do just that), and so when he speaks of “nature” we cannot simply assume in a given instance that he means what we would call “human nature.” I find Fox’s use of the word ambiguous: that’s why I quoted Barclay in my response above.

      From my perspective, Fox’s theopoetical language attempts to convey the need for us to recognize our self-centeredness (or “self-will”) and be radically re-oriented by and in the power called Christ; that’s the import of his somewhat archaic language about “nature,” and that’s the “take-home” message for 21st-century people.

  4. In reviewing that first chapter of Romans, starting with verse 14, I am seeing references to Greek philosophical thought, including the passage in question 19-21. In Greek thought, the intellect – once it had purified itself and the passible aspects of the soul – could through natural contemplation grasp the indwelling spiritual essences and qualities of all sensible forms. I think Paul is chastising the ungodly who misuse their intellect by avoiding its intended function, which misuse is contrary to nature. The positive and natural use of the intellect is to purify and thus prepare itself for such natural contemplation. The following paragraph from Maximos the Confessor, a 7th century monk, describes how God makes images of his glory which enable the created human intellect to journey by means of its own natural contemplation, and pass beyond to a higher participation, which Paul describes in 2 Cor.12:2-5. So, Paul is using Greek philosophical thought here in Romans to show how God has provided images of essences for man’s intelligible grasp (both the images and man’s intellect being verse 20’s “things that are made”) of noetic realities, and man is therefore “without excuse.” Here’s Maximos:

    In His supreme goodness God has not only made the divine and incorporeal essences of noetic realities images of His unutterable glory, each in its own way reflecting, in so far as this is granted, the supra-noetic splendor of His unapproachable beauty; He also permeates with echoes of His majesty things that are sensory and far inferior to noetic essences. These enable the human intellect, mounted upon them and carried above all visible things, to journey towards God and to attain the summit of blessedness. (The Philokalia, vol. 2, p. 208)

    • It seems that Greek thought, perhaps particularly through Philo of Alexandria, is an acknowledged influence in the Christian scriptures, not only in Paul but also in others such as John (e.g., the Logos doctrine) and even James. (Compare James 4:1, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” to this from Plato’s Phaedo: “For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?”) Although our purpose here has been to examine what George Fox made of the brief passage from Romans, and not what the passage might mean from other perspectives, this is useful information. Thanks for your contribution.

  5. I very much appreciate your helpful and thorough discussion of this topic! But as an Evangelical Friend (from Texas, no less!), I am wondering how a nontheist humanist Quaker might hope to “live in and by that oft-neglected inner power which moves us to justice, peace, and mercy.” Wouldn’t that necessarily require recognizing and yielding to the light within — Christ, the power of God unto salvation?

    • If I understand you correctly, Friend, that’s what the essay proposes. But if the light, life, and power that is agapē within is real, then anyone can recognize and yield to it — that’s the basis of the universalism that has characterized Friends from the beginning: the light that our tradition names “Christ” enlightens everyone. We trust in that light, life, and power, not in an idea of it or a signifier for it. One doesn’t need to believe that a power exists or has particular qualities when that power is working on her: she knows it directly.

  6. Pingback: Mind the Pure Principle of Life – Friendly Quakersaurus

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