The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 3 — The Heart of Quakerism: A New Orientation


Recovering, Reframing, and Reclaiming
the Early Quaker Experience

Part 3

The Heart of Quakerism: A New Orientation

Christian concepts like “being born again”14 are a part of our culture, but their import here is often so different from their import for the first Friends that we are in danger of reading grossly incorrect meanings into early Quaker works when encountering those concepts there. The first Friends conceived attaining salvation as becoming a radically different human being, one whose life is godly because his or her controlling orientation to life is shaped by “that of God”15 within. The “old man” (the fallen Adamic nature) must become “the new man, which … is begotten of the divine nature; and as is his nature, so is [sic] his works….”16 Reading scripture with eyes free of the distorting lenses of traditional interpretations, the first Friends came to understand salvation as the acquiring of a new nature,17 the pure nature of God. At this point, therefore, a little theology is in order; specifically, the essential early Quaker understanding of God.

Early Quakerism was an intensely biblical and highly practical religion of salvation in the present. Consequently, its theology was also thoroughly biblical and oriented to the practical matter of attaining salvation here and now. In keeping with those values, Friends rejected theological speculation. George Fox, for example, wrote, “As for the word trinity, and three persons, we have not read it in the Bible….”18 Speculation only distracts us from the need for transformation, makes us captive to thought, and puffs us up with intellectual pride. It is but “the wisdom of men in the fall,”19 and by associating truth with thoughts, mental images, or “notions,”20 it leads us away from the living, practical truth of salvation. “But since the mystery of iniquity began to work, the world’s teachers and professors having lost their indwelling in the body of Christ, are run out into the imaginations….”21

So while the Friends did believe that all essential facts about God and salvation were contained in the scriptures, they interpreted scripture in a metaphorical, “spiritual” sense, even reading narratives of purportedly historical events as applying to present inner experiences.22 Friends insisted that the scriptures must be read in “the same Spirit by which they were written,”23 and that when so read would reveal their “spiritual meaning”24 — pointing not to any thought, belief, or intuition but to the true gospel; not to words about God but to the Word itself, the living spiritual Christ, the inwardly present “power of God.”25

Religious truth, then, is the very life and power of God.26 Therefore, our understanding of the nature of God is crucial. The first Friends found that the Bible offered clear, concise definitions of that nature, definitions that were consistent with their own spiritual experience. In images taken directly from scripture, the Friends defined God in dynamic and practical terms as life, light, and love.27

God as life, light, and love is personified in Christ the Word, known experientially in the inner process of salvation, which is our return to the original goodness of creation “fresh from the Word.”28 Spinning out themes from the prologue to the Gospel of John, James Nayler sees the creation of the world through the Word29 as a type or figure of the re-creation of human nature.

[T]he first beginning of God in the world is light: God said, “Let there be light,” and it was so. And this light God saw that it was good. This is that which was in the beginning with God, [namely,] the Word … who is the life, which life is the light of men. So none can see the life but with the light, which from the life comes, which to the life leads all that come. So this that was in the beginning is given to keep in order all the creation. That is good, but the darkness comprehends it not, though it shine in it; so all that abide in the darkness are destroyed, not discerning the life, to order and govern the creation in the light.30

The Word, the Christ-light within, “that of God in every one,”31 is that spiritual life which we first encounter as a light that leads us to itself. As in the beginning of the original creation, so in the beginning of the new creation, which is the re-creation of the human being: “the first beginning of God” in the heart is in the form of light that illumines our condition — “death, darkness and blindness”32 — and our potential — “the life and image of God”33 — and leads us from chaos and darkness to order and light.34 “[T]he first appearance of this [light] in the creature shows the darkness, and captivity that is in the darkness; till which the creature never comes to see the wretched condition that man is in, who is without God the life; nor till then will the creature be willing to stand still to see God’s salvation, but is full with vain hopes, conceits, and imaginations.”35 (“To stand still” in the light is an important part of the salvation process for Friends; we will return to it later.)

As we saw in Fox’s comments on the doctrine of the trinity, Friends insisted that God is one. Light, life, and love are, therefore, one. The light that reveals and leads us is love’s light, and the life to which it leads is the life of love. “Now God so loved the world that he gave his Son into the world, a light to condemn sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of God might be fulfilled in the creature…. And this is the love of God to sinners, to condemn sin and take it away by the light and life of Christ; and to all that love with this love, this is the end of it.”36 To love with the love that is God is to be of the nature of God, and therein alone is salvation. “The love of God is but one, and in one, nor can any receive it but who receive that one, [namely,] the Son of God; and this [love] cannot stand with self, or any changeable thing; for God is that love, and none can dwell in it but as he dwells in God: so it’s pure and perfect.”37 Whoever loves with God’s love has — demonstrably, and regardless of belief — the salvific spiritual life of Christ the Son.

But what is God’s love? Nayler’s reference to perfection, a prominent theme in early Quakerism, recalls Matthew 5:44-48:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.38

In that passage, perfection, the biblical Greek for which connotes attaining the purpose of one’s existence, is equated with love, and love is identified as caring for all, even the evil ones who harm you and others. The Christian scriptures state that this perfect love is the very nature of God, who seeks the good of all. The Friends’ goal was to become at one with that universal love, to “be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). As the author of the First Letter of John put it, “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.”39

To be able honestly to say, “as he is so are we in this present world, and not of this world, even as he is not of this world”40 — but of the nature of perfect, or unselfish, love — was for the Friends the practical and essential meaning of salvation. To be saved is to be one whose basic bias is toward universal love, which is the opposite of “the world’s” orientation to self. To begin to turn to that new orientation is to enter the process of metanoia.

[Previous: Texts, Tools, and Thesis] [Next: Cognitive Dissonance and Metanoia]

NOTES for Part 3
[14] See John 3:3-8 and 1 Peter 1:23.
[15] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 84. “That of God” is, of course, a recurring phrase in early Quaker writing. See note 31, below, for a well-known example of its use.
[16] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 97.
[17] Salvation could also be described as recovering the lost innocence of the image of God in which we were created. In that mythic concept as well, the idea of partaking of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4) was central.
[18] George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded. Vol. 3 of Works, p. 180. Fox is arguing against speculation but not for literalism.
[19] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 118.
[20] In one of many references to “notions,” George Fox wrote “”Now the god of the world is called ‘the prince of the air, who works and rules in the hearts of the children of disobedience;’ and wickedness, who is out of truth; and he works in them by his unclean spirit, and fills them with airy notions and conceits … .” Gospel Truth Demonstrated, in Vol. 6 of Works, p. 20.
[21] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 108.
[22] Friends practiced the art of typology (an art legitimized by the New Testament itself; e.g., Romans 5:14, 1 Peter 3:20-21), of reading scriptural elements (characters, narratives, images, etc.) as metaphorical figures, or types, illuminating later events. Friends extended that art, reading scripture as referring to inner, psychic events in their own present experience.
[23] George Fox, Journal, in Vol. 1 of Works, p. 89. On the same page, he continued: “For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before the Scriptures were given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God or Christ, or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by.”
[24] See George Fox, Journal, in Vol. 1 of Works, p. 88: “They could not know the spiritual meaning of Moses, the prophets, and John’s words, nor see their path and travels, much less to see through them, and to the end of them into the kingdom, unless they had the Spirit and light of Jesus; nor could they know the words of Christ and of his apostles without his Spirit. But as man comes thro’ by the Spirit and power of God to Christ (who fulfils the types, figures, shadows, promises, and prophecies concerning him) and is led by the Holy Ghost into the truth and substance of the scriptures, sitting down in him who is the author and end of them, then are they read and understood with profit and great delight.”
[25] George Fox, in an “awakening warning” to “priests and professors,” states both that “Christ is the power of God” and “the gospel is the power of God”–which, he points out later, “was before the devil, or fall of man was.” The gospel, then, is not teachings about Christ, but is the power of God-in-Christ working in the heart and in the world. In Vol. 1 of Works, pp. 285 and 388, respectively. Note that Friends consistently took the biblical phrase “word of God” to refer not to scripture but to the living Christ: see the beginning of the Gospel of John.
[26] “Christ, the light, the life, and the power” (George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded, Vol. 3 of Works, p. 146): a Quaker rephrasing of “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) to emphasize that truth is not words but the Word, the transforming power of divine love in the heart?
[27] Examples of the biblical sources for those images include the following. Life: Deuteronomy 30:20, “for [God] is thy life” and Colossians 3:4, “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” Light: 1 John 1:5, “God is light” and John 8:12, “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Love: 1 John 4:8 and 4:16, “God is love.”
[28] “Fresh from the Word” is from “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring),” written in 1922 by Eleanor Farjeon and later known as the hymn “Morning Has Broken.”
[29] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-40)
[30] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 54.
[31] Perhaps the most famous occurrence of the phrase “that of God in every one” is in Fox’s letter “to Friends in the ministry,” from which it is often quoted out of context and given meanings–such as that “everyone is basically good”–that are foreign to Fox’s thought. Here is the passage with some context. “So the ministers of the Spirit must minister to the Spirit that is in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one, that with the Spirit of Christ people may be led out of captivity up to God, the Father of spirits, do service to Him, and have unity with Him, with the Scriptures, and with one another. 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 carriage and life 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.” From Vol. 1 of Works, pp. 288-289.
[32] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 50.
[33] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 54.
[34] “In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth–the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters, and God saith, ‘Let light be;’ and light is.” Genesis 1:1-3, Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), 1862. Note the present tense: the creation and fall account in Genesis is actually written with present verb forms. Creation, then, can be seen as an unfinished, ongoing act, as can the fall–an interpretation that accords perfectly with early Quaker theology, which employed creation and fall as metaphors for inward religious experience.
[35] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 55.
[36] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 75. This is a characteristic Quaker interpretation of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
[37] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 74.
[38] All biblical quotations will be from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.
[39] 1 John 4:16b-17
[40] Nayler, Love to the Lost, p. 57. See also John 18:36: “Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight….”

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 3 — The Heart of Quakerism: A New Orientation

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Salvation, Pt. 3 — The Heart of Quakerism: A New Orientation | Ecumenics and Quakers

  2. Pingback: William Stringfellow, Part 4: The sanctification of this world | The Empty Path

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