Book Review: Following Jesus

When I agreed to review Following Jesus: The Heart of Faith and Practice, I expected that my evaluation would include both positive and negative elements. I found, however, that, despite my desire to do so, I could say nothing favorable about the book; its flawed premise vitiates every part. Although tempted to renege, I opted for publication because I felt that the book’s assertions should not go unchallenged. The review as posted here is slightly revised from the version published in Quaker Theology #25.

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[H]e took for his text these words of Peter: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts.” He told the people this [word] was the scriptures, by which they were to try all doctrines, religions, and opinions. Now the Lord’s power was so mighty upon me, and so strong in me, that I could not hold, but was made to cry out and say, “Oh! no; it is not the scriptures”; and told them what it was, namely the holy spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions, and judgments were to be tried; for it led into all truth, and so gave the knowledge of all truth. — George Fox

– – –

Following Jesus: The Heart of Faith and Practice, by Paul Anderson. 212 pages. Barclay Press, 2013. $17.00.

Paul Anderson is Professor of Biblical and Quaker Studies at George Fox University. His Following Jesus: The Heart of Faith and Practice comprises 36 essays, some of which had appeared in earlier forms in Evangelical Friend, a periodical that he edited for a time. The book reflects the contradiction inherent in the name of that periodical and in the religion it represents. On even a generous critical reading, it demonstrates, although obviously against the author’s intent, the impossibility of melding two incompatible religions: Evangelical Christianity, which insists on submission to scripture as primary source of truth, and early Quakerism, which subsisted in submission to the present, immediate guidance of the Spirit of Christ.

Evidently unaware of his predicament, Anderson writes with the assurance of one who knows the truth. Having promised, in the book’s subtitle, to illuminate the heart, the essential core, of religious/spiritual life, he defines that heart, if vaguely and arbitrarily, in the Prologue:

Indeed, there can be no authentic religion, no effective spirituality, without a pervasive and ongoing stance of openness and receptivity to the divine presence and will.1

Despite that and similar assertions, however, the religion promoted in Following Jesus is centered on openness not to “the divine presence and will” but to particular readings of certain texts. Anderson, while giving abundant lip-service to the guiding presence of Christ the living Word (Logos), tacitly accepts the Evangelical conflation of Word and words, in effect substituting the Bible for Christ — as if a scriptural veil were needed to cover a divine absence.

The essays, marred by imprecise writing, poor editing and proofreading, and the frequent and telling use of rhetorical qualifiers such as “authentic” and “true,” are arranged in seven sections, as if to cover all aspects of spiritual life. But the book’s displacement of the living Spirit by the dead letter is evident already in the first section, and the remainder of the book only further illustrates Anderson’s failure to meet his own criterion for “authentic religion.”

A look at an early essay called “The Present Leadership of the Resurrected Lord” will bring that failure into focus. The essay begins as follows.

While Christians believe in the resurrection of Christ, too few have taken seriously what it means to live under his present leadership. In fact, the implications of believing in the resurrected Lord may be among the most neglected aspects of the Christian faith.2

In the tone of spiritual superiority that infects much of the book, Anderson in that passage gives unintentional acknowledgment of the absence of a resurrected Christ. The passage implies that if we believe that Jesus was raised and still lives in divine form, then we will deduce that he is able to lead us in the present time. The implication is, then, that “authentic” spiritual/moral life is grounded not in encounter with the living Christ but in inference from scripture-derived belief, as if early Friends’ experience that “Christ is come to teach his people himself” were merely a text-based supposition.

A little later in the essay, the inferential logic is more explicit:

If Christ is alive, he seeks to lead us, and if he seeks to lead us, we can discern and obey his will.

Believing this is one thing; doing it effectively is another. Fortunately, throughout the history of the church, learnings from the past inform our approaches today, and several principles have been found to be trustworthy.3

Having deduced Christ’s implied “present leadership,” we find ourselves, according to Anderson, with the problem of knowing when and what Christ might be speaking to us. Anderson will attempt to help us with that problem by enumerating five queries — criteria phrased as questions — for the individual’s use in testing his or her “leadings.”4

But should a person have a discernment problem if Almighty God is actually talking to her? Did Moses convene a committee to decide the legitimacy of the burning bush? Did Paul on the Damascus road require, “But how do I know it’s really you?” Did George Fox assess Christ’s inward revelation against texts?

Whereas Fox advised unwavering trust in the Spirit, an attitude that does not separate one from the divine power working within — “If you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying”5 — Paul Anderson (and he has many brethren, even among non-Evangelical Quakers6) breaks faith with the Spirit by reifying its work and subjecting the objectified “leading” to trial by text and tradition. The real-life consequences — such as schisms over acknowledging the human rights of homosexual people — are all too predictable.7

Anderson’s five criteria, which we’ll examine in a moment, contravene Fox’s advice, thereby implying that those who require them lack or reject Fox’s experience — a result, early Friends might say, of lack of faith in the living Spirit of Christ. They contradict as well, therefore, the presumed “Amen” to Anderson’s if-statements (which, again, indicate logical deduction rather than immediate encounter): if we cannot be led directly by Christ, then, by Anderson’s logic, Christ is not alive. In effect, the criteria undermine a central conceit of the book, and the very heart of early Quakerism, by denying the immediate guidance of Christ.

The first Friends found the leading of the living Christ, the inner light and Logos of God, to be clear and sufficient. Isaac Penington, one of the important Quaker apostles whose words are conspicuously absent from Following Jesus, eloquently expressed the early Quaker experience:

Shall the living Word be in the heart, and not [be] the rule of the heart? Shall he speak in the heart, and the man or woman in whom he speaks run to the words of scripture formerly spoken, to know whether these be his words or no? Nay, nay, his sheep know his voice better than so.8

Compare that to the first of Anderson’s aptly named “Questions for Testing One’s Leadings.”

1. “Is this leading in keeping with the teachings of the Scriptures?” The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures will not contradict the truths contained in the Bible. The Bible serves as an objective referent [sic] to check subjective leadings.

The doctrine there declared is not new to Friends; it was taught by such Quakers as the 19th-century evangelical reformer Joseph John Gurney,9 who is quoted in Following Jesus and whose influence pervades the book. But in present-day context it betrays a needlessly naïve view of reading/interpretation. By this point in history, we should be acutely aware that, as John D. Caputo put it,

As soon as something … is committed to words, an argument breaks out about the right interpretation — about the syntax, the etymology of the words, the usage, the context, the intention of the author, what the original audience would have been assuming, what the common presuppositions of everyone involved were, etc.10

(The first criterion itself is a case in point: did Anderson really intend “referent,” with its connotation that Christ’s guidance must point to the Bible, or did he erroneously write “referent” for “reference”? And if the latter, might the slip nonetheless reveal a bias?)

Yet Anderson would constrain the Holy Spirit by “the truths contained in the Bible.” “What,” we justifiably ask, “is truth?” When Pontius Pilate asks that question, there is irony in the fact that “the way, the truth, and the life” stands physically before him,11 but there is no such irony in our asking, precisely because the “truth” presented to us is not Christ but a collection of ancient texts about which arguments have raged for thousands of years. What are those objective truths in the Bible, and how would we know them?

Friends such as Fox and Penington insisted that we discern the truth of scripture only if and when we are reading it in the same Spirit in which it was written. As he did on the road to Emmaus, but inwardly as the Light enlightening everyone,12 Christ the Word opens the meaning of scripture; thus opened, scripture can be “beneficial for teaching, exposing, correcting, and learning in justice” (2 Tim. 3:16). But, as Paul implies in 2 Cor. 3:16, scriptures read without the Spirit’s hermeneutic are words of death. Penington:

But he that is come to the true Shepherd, and knows his voice, he cannot be deceived. Yea, he can read the scripture safely, and taste the true sweetness of the words that came from the life; but man who is out of the life feeds on the husks, and can receive no more. He hath gathered a dead, dry, literal, husky knowledge out of the scripture, and that he can relish; but should the life of the words and things there spoken of be opened to him, he could not receive them, he himself being out of that wherein they were written, and wherein alone they can be understood.13

Living in the Word, the life from which the words come and to which they point, we know how to understand scripture. But the hybrid religion of Following Jesus exchanges that Spirit-led hermeneutical circle for a vicious one. If, as Fox’s Quakerism asserts, we cannot read scripture correctly without the immediate leading of the Spirit, and if, as Evangelical Quakerism would have it, we cannot discern leadings of the Spirit unless we can read scripture correctly, then both Spirit and scripture are useless as guides.

If that undesirable conclusion is to be dodged, then one of the two must supplant the other. The Bible, having physical (objective?) existence and being amenable (“Can I get an ‘Amen’?”) to authoritative interpretation, is the obvious choice. In practice if not in presentation, the Sun of Righteousness is eclipsed by interpreted scriptures — making professors of biblical studies indispensable mediators of revelation, a situation that greatly exercised the first Friends.

In the twenty-first century, such naïveté — or sleight of hand — as the criterion expresses is no longer excusable. Given our hard-won sophistication about texts and hermeneutics, and after millennia of often violent disagreement about interpretation of scripture — and oppressive, even murderous, imposition of various interpretations by religious, political, and social powers — a claim that the Bible can serve as objective touchstone is unsupportable and irresponsible.

Anderson’s subsequent criteria are no better.

2. “Are there examples from the past that might provide direction for the present?” We, the body of Christ, can often evaluate Christ’s leadership more clearly by hindsight, and such observations may provide parallels that inform present issues.

In other words, given that Christ is unable to provide clear guidance in the present, what rules can we extract from the past — from a reading of a text — that we can apply in the name of his “present” leadership? The body of Christ, it seems, lacks a living head.

3. “Is a leading self-serving, or is it motivated by one’s love for God and others?” … as we release our needs to God, we find that we open ourselves to God meeting our needs in ways pleasing to him.

The query’s “or” should separate a self-centric perspective from an other- or love-centric one, but it does not: both questions are about me. A self-focused I is probably in no condition to judge its own motives, for its motive for judging is already self-serving. In such a situation, to “release our needs to God” is only to seek to have them better met: what is released is not the need (which the Spirit’s scrutiny may reveal as not being a need at all), but the attempt to control how it will be satisfied. Although Following Jesus speaks of transformation, the fundamental self-orientation that is, arguably, the root of injustice — i.e., sin — is not challenged. The query is a rhetorical tautology.

4. “Does it matter who gets the credit?” …

That one restates the previous query.

5. “Is the ministry of Jesus being continued in what we do?” …

Even allowing the “we” in a query expressly addressed to individuals, one wonders: what does the question mean? Who determines, and by which criteria, what the ministry of Jesus was or is? In his expansion of the query, Anderson explains that we must “[take] the time to seek out and know [Christ’s] desires,” an explanation that begs the question the query was supposed to help answer; namely, how can I distinguish Christ’s desires from my own? At best, this query restates the first.

The five queries, then, reduce to two, both of which direct us to discernment under the guidance of (someone’s interpretations of) texts from the past. But if the living Christ were objectively present as head of the body, there would be no need to search the scriptures or imitate others: his sheep would know his voice, for, being “in Christ” (as Paul would say), their regenerate hearts and minds would be, as George Fox put it, “not distinct” from his.14 Penington expressed it succinctly:

Quest. But how may men know that these are true commands of the Lord, and not imaginations or opinions of their own?

Ans. When the principle of life is known and that which God hath begotten is felt in the heart, the distinction between what God opens and requires there and what springs up in man’s wisdom, reason and imagination, is very manifest.15

Or, as Paul said in Romans 12:2,

Do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by the reshaping of your mind that you may discern what is the will of God, the good and well-pleasing and perfect.

But if “that which God hath begotten” is not felt in the heart — if, perhaps, one remains “configured to this age,” or one’s only-begotten Lord is only begotten by interpretations of a text — then the tradition must provide the criteria for decision-making. And that substitution is the message implicit in Following Jesus: that, despite the talk of divine presence, “faith and practice” is not life in a Christ-Spirit that both opens and transcends the letter, but the imitation of a Jesus-image and the application of moral norms based on particular readings of scripture. That approach, as is amply demonstrated in the book, rests on assumptions and arguments about which biblical texts take priority, what they say, who Jesus was and is, and what he and others taught. Unless, perhaps, one’s vision is blurred by an ideological lens, the difference between that and primitive Quakerism is stark.

The question of pacifism, addressed toward the end of the book, exemplifies that difference. Anderson espouses non-violence, but his justification differs radically from that of a Quaker such as George Fox.

When Fox explained why he would not join the army, he referred to scripture indirectly, using the epistle of James not as proof but as background. “I told them,” he reports in the Journal, “that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.”16 In other words, Fox’s reason for refusing to use violence was not that the Bible told him so, but that the spiritual power and wisdom in and by which he lived — i.e., the living Christ within17 — was leading him to respond to violence in peaceful love. Fox’s reference to James, whom he read as attributing war to human “lusts,” was explanatory: one who lives in that Christ-power is free of the inordinate desires that lead to violence.

Anderson pretends to know Fox’s thoughts at the time, yet he (mis)interprets Fox’s statement as expressing determination to live by a “moral principle,” again confusing “submission to the way of the Holy Spirit” with obedience to Bible-derived norms.18 Consistent with that, he argues for pacifism by proof-texting, endorsing Walter Wink’s view that Jesus taught a particular form of nonviolent resistance. That approach assumes that to live the gospel is to live out the implications of certain texts: as Anderson put it in a 2002 Quaker Religious Thought article, “Based upon one’s impression of Jesus’ teachings [in the gospel books,] a host of ethical responses to violence and injustice follow.”19

Against such views, George Fox would insist that the apostle Paul meant “the gospel is the power of God” (Rom. 1:16) not metaphorically but literally; for Fox, the text announces the gospel, but the gospel itself is spiritual power, not words. The gospel, he wrote, is “a living way, which is revealed within, ‘the power of God unto salvation.’”20 As such, it both illuminates the way of justice and empowers us to walk in that way. Failing to so distinguish that inward light and power from external imperatives, Anderson would mire us in tired and inconclusive arguments about the import of selected Bible passages.

Following Jesus thus fails to go beyond posturing about “authentic” Christianity and “truths” of scripture, theology, and history. I expect that it will have difficulty convincing anyone not already in sympathy with the author’s opinions, and indeed there is little effort to address the critical reader: the book’s lack of notes, citations, and index is consistent with that. More importantly, the book undermines the Evangelical Quaker syncretism it espouses. Following Jesus impresses as an unwitting revelation of the true nature of such Quakerism: it strongly suggests that while believing themselves to be in a master-disciple relationship with a living Spirit who guides them, so to speak, in real time, these Friends are actually accepting beliefs and norms from a particular scriptural tradition. The more such Friends develop their ability to do that, so that the praxis of scriptural-traditional memes comes to feel almost automatic, the more convinced they may become that they are hearing and responding to a living Jesus. Following Jesus seems intended to assist in that process, but that is ultimately a work of self-deception and self-programming, unworthy of “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

It is ironic that Anderson’s book, which wants to help us submit to “the present leadership of the resurrected Lord,” instead confronts us with his absence. But Following Jesus reflects the reality of a religion that represses the contradiction at its heart. Traces of that repression are evident even in passages such as the following, in which the personified scriptures take precedence over Jesus in a statement that seems to argue against that very thing:

Some might even assume that God does not, or cannot, communicate directly with humanity, but the Scriptures and Jesus say otherwise. Indeed, humans fall short in our attempts to attend and ascertain God’s presence and direction, but the remedy is to affirm the reality of God’s active workings rather than resorting [sic] to secondhand attempts to represent or effect the real thing.21

Indeed. Yet “secondhand attempts to represent or effect the real thing” are Following Jesus’ stock-in-trade. The book presents “following” as obeying imperatives gleaned from, or read into, certain ancient texts, but, as a George Fox might point out, that’s not the only possible perspective. If “Christ is not distinct from his saints,” then to follow Jesus is to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and born as child of God, as sharer in the divine nature agapē; that is, it is to surrender to the inner working of the Spirit such that one lives in and as “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). It is not at all what George Fox, evincing a relatively sophisticated understanding of exegesis, called to “follow their own spirits” by asserting “the spirit’s dwelling in the letter”:

And the spirit that was in [those who] gave forth the scriptures was received [from] God, the Father of spirits, and dwells in God. [But] they that are [out of] the spirit of God within, which gave forth the scriptures, are such as follow their own spirits, and use their tongues, and get the good words, the sheep’s clothing, deceive the hearts of the simple, and tell them “the spirit is in the letter,” which never did any of the experienced saints say; but [those saints] did conclude the spirit dwelt in their hearts, the faith in their hearts, the light in their hearts, the word in their hearts, the anointing within them, God dwelt within them, Christ within them, the law in their hearts, the witness within them, “the ingrafted word that saved their souls,” the gift within, the hidden man in the heart, strength in the inward man; the holy ghost moved them, the spirit of the Father spoke in them; this led them to speak forth scriptures. These [saints] never said the spirit was in the letter, as all the filthy dreamers say …. 22

Anderson’s book expresses agreement with Fox and others that we can live “under [Christ’s] present leadership,” but it points us instead to prescriptions from the past. Although written in a magisterial tone, Following Jesus: The Heart of Faith and Practice is a work of confusion, a muddle of Spirit and letter, that proclaims the absence of its God by supplanting him with scripture. As such, it is a betrayal, if presumably an unintentional one, of the religion of such Friends as the one whose name was appropriated by Paul Anderson’s employer, a religion that was consistent and clear in its faith in and faithfulness to the immediate, inwardly-known inspiration and power of God-who-is-agapē, the light that shines in our darkness.


NOTES

The epigraph is from George Fox’s Journal, page 94 in the 1831 edition of his Works.

  1. Paul Anderson, Following Jesus, p. 1.
  2. Following Jesus, p. 18.
  3. Following Jesus, pp. 21-22.
  4. Following Jesus, p. 22.
  5. George Fox, A Journal (Vol. I of The Works of George Fox, 1831 edition), p. 312. See also Hugh Barbour, “Five Tests for Discerning a True Leading,” at http://www.tractassociation.org/tracts/tests-discerning-true-leading/. Perhaps the original Quaker approach has more in common with Barth’s “divine command” ethic than with Anderson’s: in Ethics, Barth wrote, “When people reached by God’s command stand in decision, it is a particular and definite command that has reached them. Moral generalities of any kind, even though they are biblical and in the exact words of the Bible, are not the command, for over against them we ourselves secretly are and remain judges and master. The good is this or that command that is given to me without choice or determination on my part.” (1981, p. 83)
  6. Liberal Quakers as well tend to speak of individual “leadings.” The phrase “many brethren” is used ironically here in memory of the early Quaker James Nayler, who when on trial for blasphemy, said, “I am the Son of God, but I have many brethren” — see Leonard Williams Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie, p. 185.
  7. See reports on Indiana YM at Quaker Theology, Issues #18 through #24.
  8. Isaac Penington, “The Way of Life and Death Made manifest and Set Before Men,” on line at http://www.qhpress.org/texts/penington/way.html.
  9. Gurney asserted that “it is utterly impossible that the work of God can contradict the word of God; it is utterly impossible that the Spirit of his Truth should say one thing on one occasion, and another on another occasion; opposite to one another; this would confuse all morals, and all religion, and principle, and reduce the moral world to a chaos, like that which was formerly reduced to order, when the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters; and I own I am ashamed, I am afflicted, I am astonished, when I hear any one under the profession of Quakerism, refusing to test his doctrines by the holy scripture ….” (“Prove All Things, Hold Fast to That Which Is Good,” an 1833 sermon available on line at: http://www.qhpress.org/quakerpages/qhoa/jjgprove.htm.) That sort of naïveté about hermeneutics and contextuality is easier to forgive in a 19th-century writer.
  10. John D. Caputo, More Radical Hermeneutics, p. 198.
  11. Jn. 14:6a.
  12. Jn. 1:9.
  13. Isaac Penington, “The Way of Life and Death Made manifest and Set Before Men.”
  14. See, for example, George Fox’s The Great Mystery (Vol. 3 of the 1831 edition of Works), page 340.
  15. Isaac Penington, “Some Questions and Answers Showing Mankind His Duty,” on line at http://www.qhpress.org/texts/penington/duty.html. See also the quotation from Barth in Note 5, above.
  16. George Fox, A Journal, p. 113.
  17. See 1 Cor. 1:24 and Col 1:27b.
  18. See Following Jesus, pp. 145-146.
  19. Paul Anderson, “Jesus Matters: A Response to Professors Borg, Powell and Kinkel,” Quaker Religious Thought #98 (Vol. 30, No. 4), p. 52.
  20. George Fox, The Great Mystery. On “the gospel is the power of God” as “plain speech” rather than metaphor, see p. 437. On the gospel as “a living way, which is revealed within,” see p. 41.
  21. Following Jesus, p. 130.
  22. George Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 281.

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