15 March 2018

Trinity

Mosier, Oregon: Amy H's Pi Day pies. Apple for humans plus three dogfood pies for dogs. (Not connected with Trinity.)
In the time of the earliest Quakers, William Penn considered the charge that we deny the Trinity to be slander. He labeled it a "perversion" and listed it in a series of "perversions" and "principles" in a tract whose title was sort of a tract in itself:
A Key Opening the Way to Every Capacity; How to Distinguish the Religion Professed by the People Called Quakers, from the Perversions and Misrepresentations of their Adversaries; With a Brief Exhortation to All Sorts of People to Examine Their Ways, and Their Hearts, and Turn Speedily to the Lord.



Perversion 9: The Quakers deny the Trinity.

Principle: Nothing less. They believe in the holy three, or Trinity of Father, Word, and Spirit, according to Scripture. And that these things are truly and properly one; of one nature as well as will. But they are tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen’s, such as distinct and separate Persons or substances are, from whence people are apt to entertain gross ideas and notions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And they judge that a curious inquiry into those high and divine revelations, or into speculative subjects, though never so great truths in themselves, tends little to godliness and less to peace, which should be the chief aim of true Christians. Therefore, they cannot gratify that curiosity in themselves or others. Speculative truths are, in their judgment, to be sparingly and tenderly declared, and never to be made the measure and condition of Christian communion. Men [intentionally not marked sic!] are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice.

-- William Penn, 1692



I was reading the New Foundation Fellowship book That Thy Candles May Always Be Burning: Nine Pastoral Sermons Of George Fox, and was stopped short by a blunt denunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the editors' introduction. I wondered why I found this so disconcerting.

I mentioned this reaction of mine to a friend, and he said, first of all, consider the source. He categorized the New Foundation Fellowship as one of number of reconstructionist Quaker groups, and said that their materials tended to emphasize Friends' differences with other Christians. This puts them squarely in the sectarian typology worked out by sociologists of religion.

In a wider context, Trinitarianism, he said, was one of those doctrines that most non-specialists worry about very little, except when it is challenged. I guess an acceptance of trinitarian references is one of those signals that reassure us that we're not heretics ... a signal that is more or less important to us in direct relationship to our desirable to be acceptable to the ecumenical world.

Early Friends did not intend to start a new religion but were intending to restore New Testament Christianity by freeing the faith from post-apostolic conceits and accretions. It's in this light that I understand William Penn's contrasting "Perversion" and "Principle." God and Christ and the Holy Spirit have powerful witnesses in the New Testament, but the term "Trinity" is simply an intellectual vessel developed over hundreds of years for theologians and church politicians to contain their insights and ideas and vocabularies and disputes. The Quaker caution (and not Quaker only): we shouldn't let terminology lull us into false certainties or misleading precision.

So here are some questions for myself (and you)....
  • Is it right to distinguish the word "Trinity" from the Quaker insights into the ways God acts and is made known and experienced?
  • Do our answers depend on whether we prioritize our unity with other Christians or our challenges to them?
  • If we can honor both priorities simultaneously, what words are we using?
  • How do we know when our theological explorations and assertions honor and serve God, and when they insulate us from the living God?


I find it interesting that the Richmond Declaration of Faith, the widely-shared "orthodox" summary of Friends doctrines adopted in 1887, does not use the word "Trinity."



What are the stakes involved in any particular elaboration or interpretation of the Trinity? Whole libraries have been written about this, but I thought it was interesting to sample the field through this book review on the Web site of Christians for Biblical Equality.

Early Quaker Trinity questions.

Teaching Trinity.



Stephen Hawking, brought to you by openculture.com: Explaining black holes; the lighter side of Stephen Hawking.

Evangelicals, racism, and the Sunday morning sermon.

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Another blues dessert from Vanessa Collier.



4 comments:

Bill Samuel said...

While still quite young, Penn wrote Sandy Foundation Shaken, and was thrown in the Tower for it. The objection was mainly to his strident attacks on Trinitarian doctrine. Penn later moderated his views, and revised the book accordingly. Early Friends opposed the Church's Trinitarian doctrine, which contained "manmade religion" not from scripture, and tended to avoid the use of the word trinity which is not in scripture, but they did believe in the 3-in-1 and that is clear in some of their doctrinal statements. What you quoted I think does indicate this distinction between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all being divine and inextricably connected, and the institutional church's persons baggage they added to what is in scripture about it.

When the Toleration Act was passed, it tolerated anyone who believed in the Trinity. Quakers were tolerated after that Act, which indicates there was recognition that they didn't dispute the basic idea of the Trinity despite their quarrels with the established church about all the doctrine that had built up around it.

Keith Saylor said...

In 1655, a pamphlet was published, entitled “To all that would Know the WAY TO THE KINGDOME, Whether they be In Forms, Without Forms, or Got above all Forms. A Direction to turn your minds within, Where the voice of God is heard, whom whom you ignorantly worship as afar off; and To wait upon him for the true Wisdom.

The pamphlet begins with these words:

”I am the light of the world, and enlightens every one that cometh into the world: Christ hath enlightened every one that comes into the world ...”

It is instructive and compelling that George Fox writes in the quote above ‘I am the light of the world, and enlightens every one that cometh into the world‘. He then transitions into ‘Christ has enlightened every one that come into the world’.

This is relevant to the discussion here because, for many early Quakers, the direct experience of the inshining Light upon their consciousness and conscience brought them out of a life guided and informed by abstract concepts like the Trinity. The experience of the immanent presence of God in their consciousness and conscience was one of living in relationship to Christ and being identified (according to each person’s measure) was with the Light itself in itself. To testify to the witness ‘I am the light, and the light is in me, and the light is all around me’ is to testify to a way of being that is come out of abstract theological contrivances and constructs and into the experience of and identification with the thing itself in itself.

In the 15th edition of Penn’s “A Key ...” published in 1749, Penn sets out and answers this Perversion.

Pervers. 2. The Quakers hold, The the Light within them is God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit; so that ever Quaker has whole God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit in him, which is gros Blasphemy.

Prin. This is also a Mistake of their Belief. They never said the every divine Illumination or Manifestation of Christ, in the hearts of men, was whole God, Christ, or the Spirit, which might render them guilty of that gros and blasphemous Absurdity some would fasten upon them: (1) But that God, who is the Light, or the Word Christ, who is the Light, stiled the second Adam, the Lord from Heaven, and the quickening Spirit, who is God over all, blessed for ever, hath enlightened Mankind with a Measure of saving Light; who said I am the Light of the World, and they that follow me, shall not abide in Darkness, but shall have the Light of Life. So that the Illumination is from God. Or Christ the divine Word; but not therefore the whole God or Christ is in every Man, any more than the whole Sun or Air is in every house or Chamber. There are no such harsh and unscriptural Words in theirs Writings. It is only a frightful Perversion of some of their Enemies, to bring an Odium upon their holy Faith. Yet in a Sense the Scriptures say it, and that is their Sense, in which only, they say the same Thing, I will walk in them, and dwell, in them. He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you: I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you, I in them and they in me: Christ in us, the Hope of Glory. Unless Christ be in you, ye are Reprobates. Little Children, of whom I travel again in Birth, until Christ be formed in you(2) ...

Finally, Penn’s sense that the Quaker experience is like the Sun or Air, is curious to me because while the Air, for example, within the House cannot be said to be all the air in the world, it is still completely and fully air itself in itself. That air in the house is in itself air in full measure. It strikes me in his, understandable, want to downplay the significance of immanence (the air in the house) for the sake of the transcendent (the air outside the house) he come very close to himself misrepresenting the actual witness or experience of many early Quakers who could, without equivocation, testify to their witness ‘I am the light of the World.’


1. Marginal Note: John 1. 4. viii. 12. 1 Cor. xv 45, 47.
2. Marginal Note: John xiv . 3. 17, 18, 20. Col. 1. 26, 27. 2 Cor. xiii 5. Gal. iv 19.

Tom Smith said...

My reaction to the "New Foundation Fellowship" comment is based on my interactions with Lewis Benson whose teachings were instrumental in the formation of this "fellowship." In the several years of fairly close fellowship with Lewis. (We were members of Manasquan Meeting together and in an "unusual" circumstance we were both recommended for "recording" at the same time) I do not remember discussion of the "Trinity" at in our conversations. However, another "major disagreement" with many "Christian" interpretations was the emphasis on Fox's quote: "Christ has come to teach his people himself" and the concept was Christ IS PRESENT in ALL his offices(emphasis added). Thus we do not look for a "second coming" because Christ is here as prophet, priest and King. His Kingdom is HERE and NOW (when his will is done on Earth).
For me this means that God is here and "His right hand" is here, but that the physical manifestation or descriptions are essentially "meaningless." Thus the form of any physical "interactions," such as the "sacraments" etc. as well as a human "priest" need to be implemented by our REAL interactions with the present Christ.
In my current circumstances (physical and mental), I choose to not further extend my comments and will likely not react to further comments.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks to all three of you who have commented. Your clarifications and additions are helpful.