Law, Love, and Liberty

“[M]y law is spiritual and not moral.” — James Nayler, “A True Discoverie of Faith” (1655)

During a recent interfaith discussion of the eighth commandment (or the seventh, depending on the numbering scheme), which forbids stealing (or kidnapping, depending on the translation), someone mentioned Proudhon’s assertion that property is theft.1 Participants then began to consider how a broad reading of a divine commandment against stealing might apply to our relationship with people who are poor. Unfortunately but understandably, the discussion quickly settled on how we, as relatively well-off persons, should relate to those who beg from us on sidewalks and in medians. Broader issues, such as systemic economic inequity that benefits us, were silently sidelined along with Proudhon’s radical perspective.

panhandle3Also unfortunately and understandably, discussion focused on obligation. Essentially, the question asked was this: given the uncertainties (e.g., our ignorance of the begging person’s actual circumstances, where the donations end up, etc.), how are we who are better off obliged to act toward such people? Should we give them a dollar, a granola bar, a bit of conversation, nothing? The primary concern seemed to be “what must I do to be on the right side of the commandment and, therefore, of the God whose law it is?”

But the Quaker tradition has helped me see that the desire to accord with moral law, as symptomatic of concern for personal salvation (i.e., approval of God, self, and others), is a product of minds and hearts in bondage to a constricted sense of self and the concomitant fear. As I listened to the discussion, a saying of Jesus came to me: “Whosoever would be seeking to save his soul shall be destroying her, and whosoever would be seeking to destroy his soul shall be nurturing her.”2 I recalled, too, Paul’s concern to protect “the freedom we have in Christ” from those who would “bring us into bondage [to the law]” (Gal. 2:4). The self bound by law is bound first of all by fear, but “there is no fear in love: mature love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). And maturing in love beyond law is a real possibility for us: “the law and the prophets were until John, and since then the Kingdom of God is being gospelized” (Lk. 16:16) “in every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23), “till we all come … into the realization of the Son of God, into a mature man, into a measure of stature of the fullness of the Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

Our tradition has been called antinomian (the Greek nomos means “law”) because it has rejected legalism’s bondage. However, the antinomianism of Friends is not libertinism but mature life in the Spirit of agapē.3 Quakers bracket moral law not in favor of unregenerate desire but because we live in that divine Spirit of which the law, according to Paul a temporary “schoolmaster” for the spiritual childhood of the human race (Gal. 3), is but a reflection. With Jesus, we recognize that “the law and the prophets are hanging” on the two-fold commandment of love (Mt. 22:40).4

Paradoxically, the commandment of love directs us away from the following of rules, to life in the divine agapē-Spirit that breathes where it wills (Jn. 3:8). Life in agapē is life in the “freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21), the liberty of those whose Spirit is divine. It differs radically from the ersatz liberty of that human spirit which, breathing where it believes it should, remains nonetheless enclosed. “Unless one is born of water and the [divine] Spirit, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5; cf. Gen. 1:2-3). Metaphorically, our first birth is into that human nature which needs the constraint and coercion of law, while our second birth, wrought through trust in and fidelity to the Spirit that opens the heart, is into the divine nature.

The question, then, is not whether one is self-centered, but whether the nature of the self is human or divine. When, in this metaphorical way, we speak of human nature, we speak of a life centered in an (illusorily) autonomous, essentially a-relational sense of self; when we speak of divine nature, we mean a life that is (not other- but) agapē-centered.

That question of which nature is crucial to understanding “the freedom of the children of God.” Children share in the nature — the DNA, so to speak — of their parents. Human beings who become children of God become, therefore, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). As the Christian God is constrained by no law but acts spontaneously according to his agapē-nature, so does the spiritually mature Friend live in the liberty of that same nature. “God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God lives in her. Herein has our love been made mature, that we may have freedom of speaking in the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world” (1 Jn. 4:16b-17).

The contrast is stark. As is evident from its subject, the query “how must I act toward the beggar?” arises primarily from concern for the asker. The beggar is instrumental, an occasion of sin or virtue. In a sense, therefore, the question is not even an ethical one. But a mature agapic response to another will be the expression not of moral obligation but of love’s desire in one’s heart. Calculations of obligation, as of spiritual gain and loss, do not arise.

An agapic response emerges, proceeds, in and from interpersonal encounter, for that is the locus of the living Spirit. It is not, as Jacques Derrida would say,5 “the simple mechanistic deployment of a theorem”: it is truly a response. The precise form that such response will take cannot be prescribed, nor can it be predicted with certainty from past forms. As each encounter is unique, the Spirit breathes in each as it wills. Indeed, an essential part of our praxis is to set aside our expectations and preconceptions in order to allow agapic revelation to rise into consciousness.

That is not an abdication of responsibility. It is the exercise of a more relational kind of responsibility, of the ability to respond directly to situated persons rather than to one’s own sense of moral duty. It is likely that most human beings have a measure of that ability; its fuller development, however, probably requires a shift of center, of response-source, from the false security of the enclosed self to the freedom of relationality. To take the risk of allowing that shift is to begin on the path of intentionally agapē-centered living.

And risk it is, first of all because it entails surrender of our compulsion to be in full conscious control (a surrender that, when simulated as a means of salvation, can be a most insidious form of self-delusion). “Make effective your deliverance with fear and trembling,” wrote Paul, “for it is God who is working in you, willing and acting for good desire” (Phil. 2:12b-13). Pondering Paul’s words, Derrida would write, “We fear and tremble before the inaccessible secret of a God who decides for us although we remain responsible, that is, free to decide, to work, to assume our life and our death.”6

But fear, for one who trusts in agapē, is “the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). As one learns that the inward power and wisdom of agapē, while ungraspable, is7 in fact accessible, fear and its need for control give way to courage and liberty as one’s heart opens to Spirit.8 The divine secret, “the hidden man of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4), is revealed (but not reified) in that power and wisdom. “For nothing is secret that shall not become manifest” (Lk. 8:17), and “that which is known of God is manifest in/among them” (Rom. 1:19). As George Fox exulted in his book, The Great Mystery,

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 ….9

In the Western doctrine of the Trinity, the divine Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son:10 the Spirit personifies the dynamic relationality, the agapē, that is the Godhead. Likewise, the mature Friend, living in the reality signified by that concept of Spirit, proceeds — comes forth and acts — from the unfettered relationality that is her most essential being. Having worked out the freedom of the child of God in fear and trembling, she no longer struggles to know and conform to moral law: she has learned to let the light of agapē illumine her way.11


[1] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What Is Property?: or, An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government, 1840.

[2] Lk. 17:33, following the Concordant Greek Text Sublinear. (Parallel sayings, each a little different, are at Mt. 10:39, Lk. 9:24, and Jn. 12:25.) In the Greek, the word I have rendered as “soul” is psuchen, or psychen, which is an objective case form of psuchē or psychē. In the King James Version, translations include, in order of frequency, “soul,” “life,” “mind,” and “heart.”

[3] Leo Damrosch’s definition of the early Friends’ antinomianism as “the replacement of an external law by an internal, spiritual one” can, I think, convey the Quaker sense if we are careful to avoid thinking of an “internal, spiritual” law as being an internalized moral code. Damrosch quotes a statement by James Nayler, part of which I have used as an epigraph for this essay: “Christ is the rule of life to me forever, and my law is spiritual and not moral.” (Leo Damrosch, The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit, 1996, p. 5.)

[4] The Greek word translated as “hanging” is kremantai. I find it interesting that every other scriptural use of it is in a context of death. Generally, it refers to crucifixion, but it is also used to refer to a millstone to be hung around the neck for drowning of one who scandalizes children and to an attack on Paul by a viper, which bit him and hung from his hand. (Paul was miraculously saved; see Acts 28.) Imagining some word play, I permit myself to think of Jesus’ saying as having a subtext that the law and the prophets are being crucified on the commandments of love, or that they are threatening to kill love.

[5] Jacques Derrida (trans. David Wills), The Gift of Death, Second Edition (1995), p. 26.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Early Friends would use a singular verb in such constructions because they understood that the power and wisdom of God were one thing: Christ. See the passage from Fox’s The Great Mystery that concludes the paragraph.

[8] That is not, of course, to say that fear will never be experienced, but that it will be overcome by agapē. The archetype of such redemptive fear and trembling is Jesus’ suffering at Gethsemane. Søren Kierkegaard wrote of the “spiritual trial” (which may have some affinity with the classic Quaker concept of the “leading”):

The difference between sin and spiritual trial (for the conditions in both can be deceptively similar) is that the temptation to sin is in accord with inclination, [but] spiritual trial [is] contrary to inclination. Therefore the opposite tactic must be employed. The person tempted by inclination to sin does well to shun the danger, but in relation to spiritual trial this is the very danger … (VIII 1 A 93).

[9] George Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 281.

[10] See the Wikipedia article on the “Filioque” controversy at

[11] A classic Quaker expression of that condition is the following passage from George Fox’s The Great Mystery (p. 318):

Now as for the ten commandments …, he that covets, he that steals, he that commits adultery and kills, he that sets up graven images, he that covets his neighbour’s house, wife, or goods, or any thing that is his, or commits adultery, is departed from that principle of God in his own self; so the law was added upon him. He that is led by the spirit doth not transgress, nor doth oppress, nor covet, nor steal, nor bear false witness, and so love fulfils the law, and its commandments.

7 thoughts on “Law, Love, and Liberty

  1. Pingback: Law, Love, and Liberty — The Postmodern Quaker | Ecumenics and Quakers

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