From Water and Spirit

Creator--Bible_moralisée_de_Tolède_-_Dieu_pantocrator247x350In the third chapter of the gospel book1 of John, Jesus says, “I tell you truly, truly: if one is never born [gennêthê] from water and spirit, one is not able to go into the kingdom of God.” He makes that statement in response to a question from a man named Nicodemus: “How can a person, being old, be born? He is not able to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born.” The traditional reading is that Jesus was insisting on ritual water baptism as a condition of salvation. Not so, the first Quakers would say: salvation is accomplished by the blood—that is, the divine life2—of Christ; nothing else can be required or efficacious. How, then, might we understand Jesus’ saying?

In his first epistle, John wrote, “there are three that bear record in earth—the spirit, the water, and the blood—and these three agree in one.”3 The blood being the essential life of Christ, where do we find spirit, water, and Christ explicitly related? First of all, according to John, at the beginning of the Bible.

John’s Nicodemus, “a teacher of Israel,” would have known the creation story of the book of Genesis. John began his own book by quoting the opening phrase of that story—”in the beginning”4—and thereby setting up a parallel that threads through the book. “In the beginning was the Logos, and … all things were made [egeneto] through him” (Jn. 1:1,3). At the creation, Christ the Logos, the right-ordering power of God-who-is-love, makes a cosmos of the primal chaos, just as, later, he will rightly order the hearts of those who trust in him. Given that parallel, a close reading of the first part of Genesis is in order.

Our reading will apply a Quaker hermeneutic, or principle of interpretation, to the Genesis text. Our hermeneutic is succinctly stated by George Fox in his Journal:

Then I asked them whether their mountain of sin was brought down and laid low in them? and their rough and crooked ways made smooth and straight in them? [Fox is referring to scripture passages Is. 40:4 and Lk. 3:5.] They looked upon the scriptures as meaning outward mountains and ways; but I told them [that] they must find them [i.e., the mountains and ways] in their own hearts; which they seemed to [wonder] at.5

In other words, our Quaker hermeneutic reads “outward” things and events described in scripture as figures or metaphors for our inward spiritual condition and life. With that in mind, we’ll look carefully at some early verses of Genesis (remembering that the verse and chapter divisions were added many centuries after the composition of the text). We’ll use a rendering adapted from the interlinear translation provided by

[1] In the beginning, Elohim made the heavens and the earth.

[2a] And the earth was (or, became: hayah) chaos and voidness and darkness over faces of abyss.6

From (or almost from) the beginning, the world is chaotic, empty, dark. “Abyss” refers to watery deeps, for originally the earth is engulfed by water. Quakers will recall George Fox’s well-known statement that begins, “I saw also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death ….”

The similarity to the human story is striking. Like the earth, Adam and Eve—the mythic personifications of humanity—almost immediately after their creation fall into chaos, are covered by an ocean of darkness. And both the earth and humanity receive the same remedy. “[B]ut an infinite ocean of light and love,” Fox continued, “… flowed over the ocean of darkness.” God responds to the world’s dark chaos by giving himself as Logos/Spirit.

[2b] And [the] spirit of Elohim vibrates over [the] faces of the waters.

The vibration of the Spirit of God sets the water moving in sympathetic patterns. As will happen again when God breathes into Adam, and yet again when the Paraclete inspires human hearts, Spirit [pneuma] informs and enlivens receptive matter.7 Through the Spirit of Logos, God imparts order to the creation, introducing light, or good, and dividing it from darkness, or evil.

[3] And Elohim says “light shall become,” and light becomes.

[4] And Elohim sees the light as good, and Elohim divides between the light and the darkness.

[5a] And Elohim calls to light “day,” and to darkness he calls “night.”

God has set his moral order into the structure of the world, which is why the world is, as George Fox taught, a “scripture” for everyone, a parable of the inner life.8 God will do the same when he creates human beings:

[27] And Elohim creates the human in his image; in the image of Elohim he created him; male and female he created them.

His image, according to the Christian scriptures,9 is Christ the Logos, “the Light [that] is shining in darkness, … the true Light that enlightens every human being who comes into the world” (Jn. 1: 5a,9). And that Logos abides in the human heart:

And the [Logos] became flesh, and pitched his tent in us. (Jn. 1:14, George Fox’s rendering);

For that which can be known of God is shining within them, for God reveals it to them. (Rom. 1:19, my rendering).

Within the structure of both the world and the human heart dwells the Logos which “divides aright” (an old Quaker phrase) light from darkness, good from evil.

The scriptures assert, then, that although creation falls into chaos on its own, chaos is not ultimate. When darkness prevails, God evokes the saving light of Logos—as inspirer to, not imposer of, order. And with God’s giving of himself as Logos/Spirit, a blessed world is born.

[5b] And there is evening and there is morning: day one.

In Jewish practice, a day begins with nightfall and continues through the following morning until darkness returns. The first day of the world begins with the chaos of an ocean of darkness, but that will give way to a cosmos, an ordered world, as God gives his Spirit and Light. Thereafter, God’s division of light and darkness, good and evil, will be inscribed within the world, visible to those who, as Jesus would say, “have eyes to see.” As the creative process continues, all things will arise in harmony through the Logos.

Until we appear. We human beings will want to determine that division for ourselves—and impose our self-centric values on the world. In the myth of the Fall, we yield to the temptation to replace God’s (love’s) order with our own determinations of good and evil, thereby intermingling what God had separated. As a result, we reverse the movement of creation, plunging our world back into darkness and disorder. But we, too, are offered the present power and wisdom,10 the parousia, of the Logos in our hearts. Our “fallen,” self-enclosed existence being spiritual death—a death that affects the natural world as well—we are offered new life in union with divine love.

Quoting  passages from John’s writings, George Fox argued for that union:

And are there not three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the [Logos], and the spirit, and are they not all one? How then are they distinct? And there are three that bear record in earth, the spirit, the water, and the blood, which agree in one. And Christ saith, ‘I and my Father, are one;’ and ‘I in the Father, and the Father in me,’ and he is in the saints, and so not distinct.11

Father, Logos, Spirit, water, blood, saints: one. And as John teaches, the sanctity of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4) is available to all: the Logos within “enlightens everyone who comes into the world,” allowing those who trust in him “to become the children of God.” Entropy brings darkness continually, but always within the darkness shines the life-giving Light.

One way of framing Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus is, then, in context of the Genesis myth.12 The human story recapitulates the parabolic history and nature of the cosmos. Human beings fall into the moral chaos and darkness of self-centeredness, but divine love offers the possibility of a new creation through the inward power and wisdom that divides good and evil aright. Yielding to that Logos, we “vibrate” (quake!) increasingly in sympathy with the Holy Spirit and are re-ordered, regenerated, in the Light. To be so regenerated is to be born into the body of Christ: to be a member of his body, to think with his mind, to love with his love. It is to live by the life, the blood, of Christ in the Kingdom of God. From a Quaker perspective, baptism can be understood as the inward realization of the “first day”13 when the Spirit of the Logos breathes upon the waters and original chaos becomes Christic cosmos. “If anyone is in Christ—new creation!”14


Please note: in working with scripture I make no assertion of its historical accuracy or present authority, nor by speaking of God do I intend to posit an extra-textual being. Also, in applying a hermeneutic derived from the first Friends I make no claim that they interpreted the passages in question as I have.

[1] The word “gospel” is struck through in recognition that, as first Quakers insisted, the gospel is not a book but is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). For more about that distinction, see “That of God: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20.

[2] See, for example, Deut. 12:22-23: “the blood is the life.” For additional references and discussion, see “A Peculiar Priesthood.”

[3] The quotation is of 1 Jn. 5:8. On page 180 of The Great Mystery, Fox renders the Greek en (as does the KJV) as “in”: “in earth.” That construction could signify “within the human heart” for Fox; also in The Great Mystery, (e.g., p. 43), he points out that “human” (from the Latin humus) means “of the earth.” Note, too, that “and these three agree in one” is the KJV’s rendering of kai hoi treis eis to hem eisin, literally “and the three into the one are.” (Eis is also translated as “into” in the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus.)

[4] “In the beginning,” en arche: a quotation from the beginning of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures.

[5] George Fox, Journal, p. 96. See also p. 77: “I also saw the mountains burning up ….”

[6] An alternative approach to translating the first part of Genesis is to assume that, instead of creating ex nihilo (from nothing), God shapes pre-existing chaos into order. For example, the first verses could be translated as, “At the beginning of God’s preparing the world, the earth had been in chaos ….” While ex nihilo is, and was at the time of the first Friends, the generally-accepted approach, my thesis in this essay is compatible with either.

[7] We can see here a prefigurement of the “living water” which the Logos offers to the woman at the well in Jn. 4:10. The concept of “living water” may have been the principal context for Fox’s reading of the Nicodemus narrative: Fox viewed outward baptism with material water as a prefigurement (or “shadow”) of the real, inner baptism with the “living [i.e., spiritual] water” of the Logos. For a Quaker exegesis of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, see “A Quaker Reading of John 4:1-42.” (See also Note 12, below.)

[8] The same hermeneutical principle applies whether the inspired “scripture” be a Biblical text or the natural world. For fuller discussion, see “That of God: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20.

[9] See Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3.

[10] “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”: 1 Cor. 1:24.

[11] George Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 180. Fox quotes 1 John 5:7-8 (see also Note 3, above) as well as Jn. 10:30 and Jn. 14, verses 10, 11, and 20. Jn. 14:20 is of particular interest: “In that day you shall know that I [am] in my father, you in me, and I in you.”

[12] This is not, of course, the only possible frame. We could, for example, set the image of water in context of Noah’s flood, which from a Quaker perspective prefigures the inward destruction of sinfulness and the re-creation of the inner world in righteousness through the Logos, who, in Jn. 4:10, offers “living water.” (See “A Quaker Reading of John 4:1-42.”) Also, as mentioned in Note 7, above, we could understand “water and spirit” as that “living water.” Early Friends such as Fox had encyclopedic knowledge of scripture, so images such as water would have carried rich associations for them.

[13] We can apply that symbolism to First-day worship as well: meeting for worship on the first day of the week can remind us that the first function of the Light is the baptismal work of shining into our darkness, separating good and evil in us, and thereby rightly ordering our hearts—an inward recapitulation of the first day of creation in the Genesis myth.

[14] 2 Cor. 5:17.

2 thoughts on “From Water and Spirit

  1. “……. how hard it is to break through the wall of the signifier. Many people have tried since Christ, beginning with Christ. But Christ himself botched the crossing, the jump, he bounced off the wall.”

    Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, Athlone Press, London, 1988. p.187

    I am not sure that I agree with Deleuze and Guattari on this point … especially from John’s portrayal which is interestingly explored here thanks.

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