11 April 2019

What does "that of God" mean?

George Fox's Works, vol. 1, source.
There are three quotations from Quaker co-founder George Fox that are often used (in and out of context) to sum up Friends' message:
  • "You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?" (quoted by Margaret Fell)
  • "Christ has come to teach his people himself." (quoted by Lewis Benson)
  • "...That of God in every one..." (Fox's Journal entries for 1656)
That last fragment is probably trimmed of crucial context more than any other, but in its full form, it's an important sample of Fox's foundational thinking. I remember how inspiring it was to me when I first encountered Friends.

As part of Phoenix (Arizona) Friends pastor Steve Kozimor's Masters course work at Barclay College, he surveyed Friends leaders, both self-identified liberals and self-identified evangelicals, about how they would answer these two questions:
  1. What do you think is meant by George Fox’s statement, “that of God, in everyone”?
  2. How does your meaning inform your spiritual formation?
Somehow my name landed on his survey list. Since at that very time I was also running a survey, it seemed only fair that I respond to his. Here, with some light editing for this blog format, are my answers.

Now: how would you respond to Steve's questions?

Starting with the first question: "What do you think is meant by George Fox’s statement, 'that of God, in everyone'?" ...

I've always appreciated Lewis Benson's essay, "'That of God in Every Man': What did George Fox Mean by It?" Among the important points Benson makes, persuasively, are these:
  • Fox's understanding of "that of God" is based on the first chapter of Romans. Therefore, "that of God" in us cannot be understood apart from the "knowledge of God" that Paul says is available to everyone who turns to it rather than to the long list of counterfeits listed by Paul in Romans 1. (Benson is in part reacting to the relatively recent error that "that of God" is an embedded piece of divinity in humans that is somehow independent of the "counsel of God" and the Christian Gospel.)
  • Fox uses the concept of "that of God" pastorally rather than doctrinally. It's a feature of his "applied theology,"
It's this second point that has been important to me as an evangelist. In my blog post about John Chau, who died trying to reach the North Sentinelese people, I quoted one of the most famous "that of God in everyone" passages:
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 life and conduct 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.
I interpret this as an exhortation for us to call people to that knowledge or counsel that God has already made available to each member of our audiences, to every human. God has granted us this knowledge, but in our own capacities we ignore or disobey it, whether by our own weakness or the action of the Enemy. Without our turning to this knowledge and receiving it and the Savior who provides it, there is no other path of reconciliation with God.

Quakers (in my opinion) are completely orthodox Christians in insisting on this connection. Where we depart from the Christian establishment of the 17th century is in our insisting that there is no outward licensing or priestly activity that is necessary to accomplish the task of directing those deemed "unreached" to this inward witness of God. Every one of us can walk cheerfully over the world, calling forth God's inward witness that God has made universally available. We are not carrying a cargo of new knowledge (or even less of new culture) to bless this new audience; instead our faithfulness promises a mutual blessing.

Now, to the second question, how does this interpretation inform my spiritual formation? Since I grew up in an atheist family, part of the appeal of the Quaker family of Christians was that I could receive Jesus with joy and enthusiasm without having to deal with all the stagecraft, hierarchies, and apparatus of the religion industry. Christ has come to teach his people himself [there it is, fragment no. 2!], and I found this was true -- through the Bible, through mentors at my Friends meeting, through Barclay's Apology (which I devoured during lunch hours at work), and through inward confirmations.

My joy at finding this fellowship drove me to enroll in the Ottawa Lay School of Theology, and I found similar resources in the places we moved after I left Canada -- the Christian Study Center at Park Street Church in Boston; InterVarsity classes in Charlottesville, Virginia; Earlham School of Religion in Indiana; the Mendenhall Bible Church at Mendenhall, Mississippi; and other more informal opportunities over the years. I tend to be an unapologetic idealist and optimist despite all sorts of distressing trends to the contrary (and my own family's history of violence and alcoholism); whether that shaped my Christian formation or my Christian formation made me that way is hard for me to say!

I became a Christian in 1974 and began attending Ottawa Meeting in Canada. However, between 1974 and 1982, I never spent more than two or three years in one place. My first long-term church home was First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana. Not long after we arrived there, our Sunday school class took a spiritual gifts inventory test, based on Peter Wagner's book Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. My gifts were apparently "apostle," "evangelist," and "teacher." I've tried to choose jobs and vocations that involved those gifts, including the ten years I served in Russia.

More recently, I've been reading Primal Fire: Reigniting the Church with the Five Gifts of Jesus and discussing the book with others in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I'm still trying to learn more about what it means to stay faithful to "that of God" in me and to honor "that of God" in others, and to use that knowledge in exercising my gifts. I'm currently involved in the Committee for the Nurture of Ministry for our yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, which gives me a new channel for thinking about formation after the manner of Friends.

Friday PS: In my answer to Steve, I didn't mention another deviation of Friends from the orthodoxy of their time and place: their denial of original sin and total depravity. I've covered some of this territory in my posts on evil and hell.

The "that of God" quotation from Fox that I used in my answer to Steve is sweet and positive, and explains how evangelism by pattern and example, by life and conduct, need not require arguing over doctrinal propositions. However, if we zoom out to a longer extract, and see what came before and after that beloved paragraph, we're not left in any doubt about Fox's sense of urgency, and its warning that this kind of "walking cheerfully" may not be to the exact liking of the powers and principalities. Fasten your seatbelts; here's that fuller extract. (Note: I've not edited for inclusive language, for which I beg forgiveness; but I've added a few paragraph breaks.)
Bring all into the worship of God. Plough up the fallow ground. Thresh and get out the corn; that the seed, the wheat, may be gathered into the barn: that to the beginning all people may come; to Christ, who was before the world was made. For the chaff is come upon the wheat by transgression. He that treads it out is out of transgression, fathoms transgression, puts a difference between the precious and the vile, can pick out the wheat from the tares, and gather into the garner; so brings to the lively hope the immortal soul, into God out of which it came.

None worship God but who come to the principle of God, which they have transgressed. None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, that he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God. 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, to serve him, and have unity with him, with the scriptures, and one with 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 life and conduct 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.

Spare no deceit. Lay the sword upon it; go over it. Keep yourselves clear of the blood of all men, either by word or writing, and keep yourselves clean, that you may stand in your throne, and every one have his lot and stand in the lot in the ancient of days. The blessing of the Lord be with you, and keep you over all the idolatrous worships and worshippers. Let them know the living God; for teachings, churches, worships must be thrown down with the power of the Lord God, set up by man's earthly understanding, knowledge, and will. All this must be thrown down with that which gave forth the scripture; and who are in that, reign over it all.

That is the word of the Lord God to you all. In that is God worshipped, that brings to declare his will, and brings to the church in God, the ground and pillar of truth: for now is the mighty day of the Lord appeared, and the arrows of the Almighty gone forth; which shall stick in the hearts of the wicked. Now will I arise, saith the Lord God Almighty, to trample and thunder down deceit, which hath long reigned and stained the earth. Now will I have my glory out of every one. The Lord God Almighty over all in his strength and power keep you to his glory, that you may come to answer that of God in every one in the world. Proclaim the mighty day of the Lord of fire and sword, who will be worshipped in spirit and in truth; and keep in the life and power of the Lord God, that the inhabitants of the earth may tremble before you: that God's power and majesty may be admired among hypocrites and heathen, and ye in the wisdom, dread, life, terror, and dominion preserved to his glory; that nothing may rule or reign but power and life itself, and in the wisdom of Ged ye may be preserved in it.

This is the word of the Lord God to you all. The call is now out of transgression, the spirit bids, come. The call is now from all false worships and gods, from all inventions and dead works, to serve the living God. The call is to repentance, to amendment of life, whereby righteousness may be brought forth, which shall go throughout the earth. Therefore ye that be chosen and faithful, who are with the Lamb, go through your work faithfully in the strength and power of the Lord, and be obedient to the power; for that will save you out of the hands of unreasonable men, and preserve you over the world to himself. Hereby you may live in the kingdom that stands in power, which hath no end; where glory and life is.
After reading all that, if you're still ready to walk cheerfully, let's walk together!

I'm enjoying a moment of self-congratulation ... this week I didn't mention politics! Of course, George Fox's revolutionary theology is bursting with political implications.

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Terry Mattingly: Can we really understand demographic trends without taking religion into account?

Source: NSF.  
A black hole 55 million light years away, and how its image was generated.

While we're in space: can NASA really return crews to the moon by 2024? Casey Dreier considers the challenge. (Related Planetary Radio podcast.)

A warning? "...The forces are awakening." J.S. Ondara, "Revolution Blues."


Tom Smith said...

Johan, your invitation to walk with you, prompts my response which is one of my favorites:
Do not walk in front go me, I may not follow;
Do not walk behind me, I may not lead;
Walk beside me and be my friend.

I have not found a definitive attribution for this, but do believe it could well have been a Friend.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Tom! Yes, a Friendly origin seems possible.