Thursday, 9 January 2014

'B' is for Born-Again Quakerism

Introduction

Most people associate the idea of being ‘born again’ with a certain kind of conservative evangelical Christianity. However, the experience of being born again through the inward transformative power of the Spirit of Christ was an absolutely essential aspect of early Quaker faith and practice. First and foremost, this was not about becoming a member of the right religious club or signing up to the right set of beliefs or doctrine. Instead it pointed to a real experience of change in which people’s relationship with God, with other humans and with the rest of the creation was fundamentally transformed.

In one of his earliest tracts, George Fox explained the early Quaker position:

“Christ said, unless a man is born again of water and of the spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God, nor enter into it. So no man in his first natural birth can see the kingdom of God, nor enter into it, nor know the things of God. For those who see the kingdom of God, they must come to the spirit of God, and the spiritual birth by which the things of God are known, and the kingdom of God; and John the divine said, he was in the kingdom, then he saw it. And the apostle Paul said, God has translated us into the kingdom of his dear son. And so then these [the apostles] saw the kingdom, and were in it. And as many as receive Christ, he gives them power to become the sons of God; even to them that believe on his name, which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. This is the birth that sees, and enters God's kingdom.

George Fox – To All That Would Know the Way to the Kingdom (1654)

The Biblical References

This vision of spiritual rebirth can be seen in two key biblical passages:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit; what is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I tell you that you must be born from above.” 
John, 3:5-7, NRSV

“You have been born anew, not of perishable, but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” 
1 Peter 1:23, NRSV

James Nayler’s Contribution

Perhaps the most thorough early Quaker examination of the distinction between the first birth in the flesh and the second birth in the Spirit can be found in James Nayler's tract A Discovery of the First Wisdom from Beneath and the Second Wisdom from Above or The Difference betwixt the Two Seeds, The one after the flesh, the other after the Spirit which was published in 1653. An on-line version is available on the Quaker Heritage Press website. See the link below: 




A DISCOVERY OF THE FIRST WISDOM - IN SUMMARY

A. Introduction

For Nayler, the heavenly and spiritual reality represents the ‘Truth’. Alienation from God and a focus of the first birth on thing that are not God is merely a temporary corruption of the divine order of creation, a form of delusion that is destined to be destroyed with the coming of the kingdom of God. False religion is man-made within the conditions of the first birth and is focussed outwardly (on earthly, material, carnal, corruptible and fallen things). True religion comes from God, bringing a second birth and is focussed inwardly (on heavenly, spiritual, eternal and incorruptible things). People a free to choose between the two. For Nayler, false man-made religion is a form of idolatry because it involves worshiping something other than God.

The movement from the first birth to the second birth requires the crucifixion of the ‘carnal man’ and the resurrection of the ‘spiritual man’. This is not achieved by human effort but is the work of Christ within each person. Nayler argues that those who believe that sin is inescapable in this life deny the possibility of a transformed life. As a result they excuse sinfulness and have a low expectation of human conduct. He makes clear that in the new covenant God’s temple or tabernacle is the human body. This raises the question of who dwells and rules within the human tabernacle; is it God or is it the serpent? Everything that is opposed to God must be removed from the human tabernacle if God is to enter and dwell there.

B. Key Points in Summary

Here is a summary of the key points in The Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin:

1. We are all born physically but we must also be born again in Spirit

  • The wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God are in conflict with one another.

  • The wisdom of the world enslaves us but the wisdom of God sets us free.

  • There is no point professing our belief in Christ outwardly unless we are taught by him inwardly. Possession is more important than profession.

  • We must let God teach us what form of worship is acceptable. Outward and                 manmade worship is a form of idolatry.

  • The Light brings us into the new covenant where God’s law is written on our hearts.

  • The Light protects us from the evil ways of the world.

  • The Light enables us to distinguish between what is from God and what is contrary to God.

  • The Light brings us to the cross where our disobedient earthly nature (the first birth) is crucified and a new spiritual nature (the second birth) in is raised up in communion with God.

  • The earthly nature and the heavenly nature are opposed to one another.


2. Distinguishing between life in the first birth and life in the second birth

The First Birth

The Second Birth

In the first birth people:

·        Focus on outward things and physical enjoyments, especially the accumulation of wealth and power.

·        Worship a God far away, who is only known to them by what other people have said and written about God.

·        Use their earthly knowledge for corrupt purposes to gain early power and wealth (e.g. fraud, oppression and violence).

·  Are proud and concerned about earthly reputation. They want to grasp the earth’s resources and this leads to war, conflict and oppression. They persecute God’s people.
In the second birth people:

·        Focus on God and heavenly things and reject physical enjoyments in favour of invisible riches.

·        Worship a God who is in an intimate relationship with us inwardly and listen to God’s direct teaching.

·        Are transformed by power of the Spirit and given the ability to overcome the sin and evil of the world.

·       Are humble, meek and full of love for all regardless of status. They are willing to suffer persecution and humiliation because this is how evil is defeated. They are made perfect in suffering.

3. Christ has come to destroy evil, to free the oppressed and imprisoned and to establish the kingdom of God

  • God is against those who seek worldly wealth and fashions and demand that               others worship them.

  • God is against those who overindulge in food and drink when so many of the poor are in need.

  • God is against those who swear oaths, take the name of God in vain and ignore his commands in the way they live their lives.

  • God is against those who scorn and mock others and indulge in pointless sports and activities.

  • God is against those who cheat and oppress the poor in order to gain earthly               wealth.


CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE

I want to argue that the possibility of spiritual rebirth remains essential to the Quaker way today for two main reasons:

1. The conviction that all people can change for the better – we need to hold onto the conviction that, however violent, cruel, greedy and uncaring some people appear to be, no-one is beyond redemption. Humans are not entirely determined by their genes, by their culture or by the powers, institutions and ideologies that dominate the world. We must continue to affirm that there is a Spirit available to everyone that has the power to teach and transform us.

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”

Advices and Queries No.1

2. The conviction that the peaceable kingdom can be realised on earth – we need to hold on to the conviction that, despite the continued existence of war, torture, injustice, hunger, hatred, oppression, animal cruelty and environmental destruction in the world today, it is still possible for the whole creation to be transformed and for God’s peaceable kingdom to be realised on earth. We must continue to affirm that there is a Spirit that is available and active in the world that has the power to transform all things.

“Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all his creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives…

Oppression in the extreme appears terrible: but oppression in more refined appearances remains to be oppression; and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive. To labour for a perfect redemption from this spirit of oppression is the great business of the whole family of Christ Jesus in this world.”

John Woolman, 1763 (QF&P 23.14)

6 comments:

  1. Good post, and I am adding a link to it on my QuakerInfo piece on New Beginnings, which looks at the same subject from a different angle. But you say "Nayler sets out four main characteristics" and then list three. What is the fourth?

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  2. Thanks Bill! I think 'four' is a typo. Obviously, my summary is a huge simplification of a rather detailed piece of writing. I will amend the blog. Stuart.

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  3. Thank you for this succinct presentation of the core tenets of our faith.

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  4. I don't believe the term "Born Again" is understoon correctly. Of course this is a minority view which I have failed to find anyone agreeing to so don't take this as anything but an attempt to make you think twice before using the term. I believe the scripture is making the point that without being "born again" you have no way to comprehend the spiritual world around you. However, I believe that being "born again" opens you to a spiritual world that has many dangers. I offer the following scripture for consideration.
    Mar 4:3 Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow:
    Mar 4:4 And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up.(The ground being a heart that was not born again)
    Mar 4:5 And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth.
    Mar 4:6 But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. :(the ground being a heart that was born again but not a believer's heart because it was not grounded in the Word)
    Mar 4:7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.(the ground being a believer's heart that was not a disciple's heart because it had not consciously decided to forsake the things of this world (santification))..
    Mar 4:8 And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.(the ground being the heart of a disciple who made a conscious decision to follow Jesus and be crucified with Him)
    Mar 4:9 And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
    Mar 4:10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.
    Mar 4:11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
    Mar 4:12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
    Mar 4:13 And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?
    Mar 4:14 The sower soweth the word.
    Mar 4:15 And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.
    Mar 4:16 And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness;
    Mar 4:17 And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.
    Mar 4:18 And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word,
    Mar 4:19 And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful.
    Mar 4:20 And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.
    Many are called but few are chosen and even the devils believe but to bear fruit you have to let the dead bury the dean and pick up your cross and come follow Him with no place to lay your head. Being Born Again isn't enough. You have to get grounded in the word and die to self to bear fruit.

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  5. Dear Broschultz,

    Thank you for your comments. I certainly think that early Friends recognised the need to die to self. They very much identified with Paul's participatory understanding of the cross (e.g. 1 Cor 1:18, Gal 2:20, Gal 6:14-15 and Rom 6:3-4). They also understood the need for careful spiritual discernment.

    I am writing a set of A-Z blogs across the year and so each individual posting will be limited in scope. I hope to deal with the cross later.

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