Friday, 28 March 2014

'G' is for Good and Evil

A. INTRODUCTION

In this posting I want to explore the early Quaker understanding of good and evil. We will see that early Friends present us with a realistic but ultimately optimistic vision. Evil and darkness exist and cannot be avoided in the world as it currently is. However, evil and darkness are finite and temporary. God is Goodness and Light and God is infinite and eternal. Christ came to overcome the darkness and to liberate both humanity and the whole creation from the power of evil.

B. the nature of evil and the power of goodness

1. The Fall and its Implications

As the first proposition of Roberts Barclay’s Apology makes clear, early Quakers believed that human goodness and well-being was based on a true knowledge of God (Freiday 1991, p.13). Therefore if heaven is defined as the true knowledge of God, then hell consists of a state of separation from and ignorance of God. (Wilson 2005 p.). For early Quakers the Genesis fall narrative presented Adam and Eve turning away from the inward knowledge of God and focusing instead on outward things which by their nature were not God. For Fox, human life focused on outward knowledge was a state of being characterised by inward spiritual death (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.37). Ultimately therefore, early Quakers understood sin in terms of a breakdown of relationship, human alienation from God (Gwyn 1986, p.134).

2. What were the Implications of the Fall?

The early Quaker understanding of the fall included implications that ranged from the personal to the cosmic. Essentially, they saw the fall in terms of a fundamental breach with the God-given wholeness, harmony and order of the creation:

  • Fallen humanity upset the perfect order of creation and disrupted its essential goodness (Wilson 1996, p.5 & 8).

  • Because of the significant role God had given humanity within creation, human alienation from God threw the created order into disarray. Instead of original unity, order and harmony the fall brought separation, disunity, disorder and disharmony (Wilcox 1995, p. 25).

  • A key aspect of this state of affairs was that humans found themselves in a state of conflict among themselves and with the rest of creation (Wilson 1996, p.166).

  • This apparent chaos and disorder was the result of ignorance and misunderstanding. Humans had lost the ability to perceive and understand the divine order of creation (Wilson 2005, p.142).

  • The fallen human focus on outward physical things rather than on the inward truth of God placed them in a state of vulnerability to the temptations and misguidance of the serpent (Gwyn 1986, p.99).

3. Evil and the Truth

Although early Quakers associated the fallen state with the domination of evil, separation, disunity and disorder, they did not accept that this was the true nature of things. God had made the creation good and God’s order for creation was always stronger and more real than the circumstances of the fall which they associated with delusions and ignorance: 

  • Spencer has argued that, like other mystics, early Quakers believed that through the infinite power of an eternal God, all things exist in a state of oneness. Since evil is finite and limited, it will ultimately be overcome by good. Quakers shared with the Eastern Orthodox Tradition a belief that the nature of good is stronger than the habit of evil (Scully/ Spencer 2007, p.44 & 49).

  • Gwyn shares this perspective arguing that since early Quakers saw God’s truth as eternal, they believed that evil could only have the power that humans chose to give to it (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.41).

Their particular view of the fall combined with a belief in the infinite power of truth over the finite power of evil demonstrates a distinctive feature of early Quaker understanding. They were extremely realistic about the pervasive presence of evil in the world and the darkness of the fallen human condition but at the same time steadfastly optimistic about the essential goodness of creation and the ultimate defeat of darkness and evil in the world.

4. The Human Condition in the Fall

Although early Quakers regularly condemned the evils ways of humans under the conditions of the fall (e.g. pride, covetousness, violence and coercion), fundamentally, they believed that sinfulness was a state of being rather than types of behaviour:  

  • As a result of alienation from God, human culture had become characterised by idolatry so that people focused on the ‘inventions’ of our own minds rather than on God’s truth (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.37).

  • Fallenness was characterised as a state of separation (from God, from each other and from the whole of creation). Shaw has argued that evil is the hurt we inflict on one another because although we cannot exist apart from one another we behave as if we do (Scully/Shaw 2007, p.101)

  • Fallenness was characterised as a state of self-deception. According to Gwyn, early Quakers saw this deception leading people to imagine they were achieving things beyond the capacity and role actually given humanity by God, while also leading them to despair of returning to the original harmony of paradise in this life (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.39).

  • Falleness was characterised as a state of ignorance. Evil emerged out of a lack of human appreciation of the truth. The delusion of human separateness acts as a barrier preventing an awareness of divine truth (the way things really are). Life in darkness is ignorance, whereas life in the Light is enlightenment (Scully/ Ambler 2007, p.194 & 200).

  • Gwyn has suggested that although early Quakers regarded fallenness as a state of being they did not regard ‘original sin’ as something passed from generation to generation in a biological sense. Instead they believed that each individual human entered into the fallen state only by actual acts of disobedience. This approach suggests transmission of sin by means of socialisation into fallen human culture (Scully/Gwyn, 2007, p.37).

5. The Human Condition in the Light

Balancing this overwhelmingly pessimistic understanding of human nature in the conditions of fall early Quakers had an equally fervent belief in the transformative power of Christ in the human heart:

  • One of the defining characteristics of the early Quaker movement was its rejection of the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and predestination. Although they regarded evil as a real and pervasive force in the world, early Quakers proclaimed that Christ had come to liberate humans from their sinfulness and to restore them to the state that Adam and Eve had been in before the fall (Scully/ Spencer 2007, p.43).

  • This therefore was a theology of restoration in this world, here and now by the power of the spirit of Christ. This was a proclamation of the infinite power of God over the finite powers of darkness:

  • Barclay argued that the very weakness of human nature that made it susceptibility to evil made it equally susceptible to positive transformation through the inward workings of Christ (Scully/Pyper p.67). Human actions become righteous once the heart had been redeemed and is governed by the inward Christ (Weddle 2001, p.53).

  • For early Quakers, God was in control but humans could choose whether or not to respond to the divine offer of salvation. They firmly rejected the Calvinist belief that liberation from sin could only be realised after death and then only by the elect. Sanctification and full obedience to the will of God could be achieved in this life (Scully/Spencer 2007, p.48).

6. Evil: Personal or Structural?

The early Quaker understanding of evil includes both personal and structural dimensions. However, this is a theology which sees the seeds of evil located firmly within the heart of each individual:

  • Their life changing spiritual experiences of transformation made a deep impact on early Quakers and their understanding of evil. In these experiences, the Light revealed the evil within a person and then provided the power required to overcome it and destroy it. Hence their conception of evil was based on a vivid experience of evil existing within themselves. Once it was made visible early Quakers recognised that their own deceit and ignorance had blinded them to this reality (Scully/Ambler 2007, p.193)

  • In the particular example of the testimony against war, by drawing on the Epistle of James (James 4:1-4) early Quakers saw the source of conflict and war within each individual not just within impersonal societal forces. The task of overcoming the urge to use violence required the destruction of the spirit of wickedness (the urge to obtain, own and control things) within each person (Weddle 2001, p.52).

  • The writings of John Woolman make clear the connection early Quakers made between the evil arising within individuals and its solidification within social structures. Woolman had a real sensitivity to what he called ‘the connection of things’ and was able to see how the pursuit of wealth and luxury inevitably led to oppression and war. He found that individual human greed was the root of the injustice and violence that existed in wider social structures (Scully/Heller 2007, p.78)

  • Early Quakers regarded state enforced religion as one of the key social evils of their time (Scully/Gwyn, p.40). In his reading of the Book of Revelation Fox sees Babylon as the demonic marriage of church and state (Gwyn 1986, p.192).

  • Despite their focus on the seeds of evil within the individual, it was through the Lamb’s War preaching campaign in the 1650s that early Quakers had their greatest impact. Here again, the connection between individual and structural is visible:

“The Lamb's quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: "For we war not with flesh and blood," nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.”

James Nayler – The Lambs War (1657)

C. Responding to Evil

What did early Quakers believe was required in order to effectively respond to evil?

1. Christ Within Brings Transformation

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)

For early Quakers Christ, who had returned in spirit and could dwell in every heart, was the only true solution to evil being the only power that could deal with evil in the world. First and foremost therefore, the early Quaker response was to allow Christ to reveal and destroy the evil within each person and to bring them to new life. Ultimately, the defeat of evil within the wider world would have its foundations in this experience.

  • Early Quakers seem to have subscribed to a Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. Christ was the second Adam who had resisted temptation and overcome evil and death. As a result of this victory, his spirit had the power to conquer evil within those who were led by him (Wilcox 1995, p.26).

  • Christ’s spirit presented itself to humans as a new power, a new volition that could stand against temptation and strike at the root of sin within people (Scully/ Gwyn 2007, p.40). When people come to Christ the evil in their hearts is destroyed and they would become a new creation (Wilcox 1995, p.79).

  • This baptism in the Spirit was experienced as an inward purging of the heart which crucified the old nature. By responding to Christ, the human is brought out of the first birth and into the second birth (Wilcox 1995, p.28 & 40).

  • Fox and other early Quakers taught that the Light of Christ would enable people to distinguish between good and evil by offering them access to the Truth as an alternative to the delusions of the natural and socially-conditioned human conscience (Gwyn 1986, p.88). In this sense, the Light enables people to see through deceit, accept the truth and recognise their true selves (Scully/Ambler 2007, p.203).

  • The regeneration of people frees them from the passions that gave rise to strife (Weddle 2001, p.47). As God’s new creation they are no longer slaves to the forces that lead humans into evil and so they no longer need to be subject to the restraining function of government (Wilson 2005, p.49).

  • Quaker testimony is therefore not a set of fixed ethical principles but rather an outward witness to the inward experience of spiritual transformation achieved by Christ and requires on-going individual and corporate practices of worship and discernment (Scully/Muers 2007, p.178).

“When the principle of God, which lies hid in the hearts of men...shall be raised up and come into dominion, righteousness, peace and goodwill shall spring up as naturally among men as wars, strife and divisions…do now.”

Isaac Penington (quoted in Weddle 2001, p.24)

2. A Spirituality of Subtraction and Attentiveness

The early Quaker focus on the work of Christ destroying evil within each person led to the development of a distinctive spirituality of discernment that became known as quietism:

  • Shaw has argued that Quaker practice is a ‘spirituality of subtraction’ in which the individual seeks to remove all that forms a barrier to the discernment of God’s guidance (Scully/Shaw 2007, p.97). Since this guidance is the ultimate protection against evil, constant vigilance is required to ensure that the promptings of love and truth in the human heart (the leadings of God) are not overlooked (Scully/Shaw 2007, p.105).

  • John Woolman represented a classic example of the spirituality of subtraction. He came to see that walking ‘in uprightness’ was achieved by valuing and attending to the motions of love which were the inward experience of God’s spirit (Scully/ Heller 2007, p.74).

  • Wilson has suggested that the spirituality of subtraction demands the effective management of the on-going conflict within humans between inward divine leadings and outward creaturely motivations. Evil is always lurking nearby to tempt us (Wilson 1996, p.179).

3. The Role of Suffering

Early Quakers expected to experience suffering and regarded it as an inevitable consequence of the conflict between the waning kingdoms of this world and the emerging kingdom of God. As an imitation of Christ, suffering would play a key role in the destruction of evil and the redemption of creation:

  • Early Quakers expect to face suffering and persecution because most of the world had not yet undergone rebirth in Christ and was therefore still subject to the forces of evil (Wilson 2005, p.88).

  • John Woolman saw his spiritual journey as one of following Christ in learning humility and the resignation of self-will leading to a state of oneness with suffering humanity. For Woolman, to enter into the sufferings of the oppressed was to participate in the redemption of the world (Scully/Heller 2007, p.79).

  • Wilson has suggested that for early Quakers it was through perseverance, patience and suffering that God taught the faithful to lead a kingdom life in a non-kingdom world (Wilson 2005, p.189).

4. Obedience over Effectiveness

A key test for early Quakers was not whether their actions would achieve a desired outcome but rather whether they were being truly obedient to divine guidance. This approach assumes that humans have limited awareness and that in the battle to defeat evil God may act in ways which defy human reason and understanding.

  • Weddle has argued that early Quakers gave priority to a Hebraic type of obedience to God over a Greek focus on God’s grace expressed in Jesus’ sacrifice (Weddle 2001, p.52).

  • Olmstead shows that John Woolman almost never referred to the desire for outward results. What mattered to him was faithfulness and obedience to the Lord in seeking to be an instrument of the divine (Olmstead 1993, p.11).

5. Answering That of God in Others

In early Quaker practice the link between the destruction of evil within the individual and its eradication in the whole world can be found in the principle of answering that of God in others. This was a conviction that the visible example of the new life lived in Christ would ‘preach among all sorts of people’ turning others to the spirit of Christ available within them.

  • Again, John Woolman provided a classic example of this practice. His approach demonstrated a trust in the other person’s ability to respond to the leadings of the spirit (Scully/Heller 2007, p.76). His focus was on persuading those causing suffering (the oppressors) to change their ways by appealing to the spirit working within them rather than by condemnation and denunciation (Olmstead 1993, p.34).

6. Nonviolent Spiritual Conflict

In addition to a preoccupation with responding to evil within each individual heart, early Quakers also demonstrated an active approach to confronting evil in the Lamb’s War preaching campaign of the 1650s:

  • Gwyn has argued that the apocalyptic vision of early Quakers was grounded in a relentless confrontation with deceit and evil in the human heart and its accumulated conventions in religious, social and political life. The Lamb’s War was a nonviolent but highly conflictual campaign (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.33 & p.40).

  • The fundamental aim of the Lamb’s War was to liberate people from the repressive doctrines and false prophets (Babylon) that kept them in captivity to evil and separated them from God (Gwyn 1986, p.194).

E. The Role of the Church

1. A Community of Discernment

Quaker corporate discipline enables the whole community to play a part in discerning the will of God:

  • The Quaker community is first and foremost the place where truth is discerned, tested, interpreted and acted out (Wilson 2005, p.26).

  • Through the corporate discipline of the Quaker community, the leadings of individuals can be tested by the whole body of Christ (Gwyn 1986, p.198)

  • Quaker corporate practices of discernment and decision-making can act as a much needed counter balance to the tendency to rely on pure ethical principles (Scully/Muers 2007, p.176).

2. The Lamb’s Army

Early Quakers believed that their community was in the vanguard of the Lamb’s War, fighting alongside Christ in a spiritual struggle to defeat evil in the world and establish the kingdom of God on earth:

  • For them the church had an active role in establishing the new world order as it stood at the cross where Jesus decisively achieved victory over Satan (Gwyn 1986, p.115).

  • For John Woolman God’s presence in the world means the community of faith has a duty to make the world a better place (Scully/Heller 2007, p.75).

  • The strong corporate dimension of early Quakerism recognises that individuals alone cannot effectively address the challenges of systemic evil in society, only a disciplined and spirit-led community of faith can do that (Wilson 2005, p.91).

3. A Vision of God’s Kingdom

Early Quakers believed that their visible life as a community should offer the world a vision of the coming kingdom of God:

  • In a world filled with hatred and conflict, the love and unity of the true Christian community should stand as a witness to a new order (Gwyn 1986, p.144).

  • By absorbing the destructive forces of the world, the church can incarnate the hope of Christ’s resurrection that death might be swallowed up in victory (Gwyn 1986, p.213).

  • By living an alternative way of life, the faith community can counter the greed, violence and injustice of the dominant culture (Wilson 2005, p.170).

  • Guiton has argued that the spirit-led fellowship of early Quakers acted as a sacramental sign of visible unity in a broken and divided world (Guiton 2005, p.258).

  • The boundaries of the community also provide protection from the dangers of mainstream culture. The community can safeguard the individual from the temptations of the world (Wilson 1996, p.24).

G. THE FINAL DEFEAT OF EVIL

The early Quaker experience of being lifted out of the old world and restored into the pre-fallen paradise of Eden gave them a keen sense of eschatological possibility and this fueled their life-style evangelism and prophetic witness to the powers of the day.

1. The Defeat of evil

A belief in the inevitable defeat of evil gave early Quakers a strong sense of confidence and fearlessness:

  • Their eschatology convinced them that they were witnessing and participating in the final triumph of justice over evil and the establishment of God’s righteous reign on earth (Wilcox 1995, p.97).

  • They had confidence that as the Light of Christ came to rule in the hearts of more and more people so the power of the Beast would weaken and move toward its eschatological downfall (Guiton 2005, p.53).

  • They believed that enmity, injustice and oppression were the works of the antichrist and that the victory of Christ over this evil would bring outward peace to the nations and inner peace to its rulers (Guiton 2005, p.86).

2. The New Creature

Early Quakers were also empowered by their experiences of becoming new creatures:

  • They clearly accepted the principle that since the Word had become flesh, the flesh could become god-like (Scully/Spencer 2007, p.52).

  • As their bodies became temples within which the spirit could dwell they saw themselves as ‘new creatures’, representing in thought, word and deed the emerging new heaven and new earth (Guiton 2005, p.38).

  • Gwyn has argued that the early Quaker movement provided a fleeting fulfillment of Paul’s mystical doctrine of being redeemed into the kingdom of God through union with Christ (Gwyn 1986, p.218).

3. The New Creation

For early Quakers this life changing experience of spiritual rebirth was associated with the restoration of the whole creation to its original God-given harmony and goodness:

  • They felt that to walk in the Light was to walk here and now in the New Jerusalem, which was the end of the world (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.36).

  • They saw that through the gathering of regenerated individuals, the Light was beginning to shape a new social order (Scully/Gwyn 2007, p.33).

  • They believed that the old outward and physical covenant had been replaced by the new inward and spiritual covenant. This was reflected in the early Quaker rejection of fighting with carnal weapons. In the old covenant the outward sword was used to cut down the outward heathen. In the new covenant however the inward sword would cut down the inward heathen (Weddle 2001, p.49).

H. REFERENCES

Birkel, M. (2003) A Near Sympathy: The Timeless Quaker Wisdom of John Woolman (Friends United Press)

Freiday, D. (1991) Barclay’s Apology in Modern English (Barclay Press)

Guiton, G. (2005) Growth and Development of Quaker Testimony 1652–1666 and 1960-1994: Conflict, Non-Violence and Conciliation (Edwin Mellen Press)

Gwyn, D. (1986) Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox 1624-1691 (Friends United Press)

Olmstead, S. (1993) Motions of Love: Woolman as Mystic and Activist (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 312)

Nayler, J. (1657)  The Lamb’s War in The Works of James Nayler, vol. 4 (Quaker Heritage Press)

Scully, J.L. & Dandelion, P. (2007) Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives (Ashgate)

Spencer, C. (2007) Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster Press)

Weddle, M. B. (2001) Walking the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford University Press)

Wilcox, C (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth Century English Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press)

Wilson, L. L. (1996) Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (Quaker Press of FGC)

Wilson, L. L. (2005) Wrestling With Our Faith Tradition: Collected Public Witness, 1995-2004 (Quaker Press of FGC)

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

'F' is for Friends of the Truth

A. Introduction

What’s in a name? Well quite a lot it would seem when it comes to movements of religious reform and renewal. The Anabaptists called themselves ‘brethren’ or ‘children of light’, Quakers called themselves ‘children of light’ or ‘friendsof the truth’ and the Methodists began as ‘the Holy Club’. In each case the best-known and most enduring name for these movements was first used as a term of abuse by their opponents:

  • Anabaptist - means re-baptiser (i.e. someone who is baptised as an adult after having been baptised as an infant). This was regarded as a capital offence throughout most of the history of Christendom.
  • Quaker – was a term used ‘in scorn’ for the physical shaking or quaking in the power of the Lord that marked the process of inward crucifixion and spiritual rebirth experienced by early Friends.
  • Methodist – was a pejorative reference to the rigorous and highly ordered system of spiritual disciplines practiced by members of the Holy Club that included Charles and John Wesley and other early Methodist leaders.
The names chosen by groups and those given to them ‘in scorn’ by opponents can tell us a great deal about their spirituality and theology and how they were perceived by the wider society out of which they emerged. Quakers actively chose to be known as ‘Friends of the Truth’ and so in this post I want to explore what this name has to say about the nature of Quakerism and the early Quaker movement.

C. Friends – The Biblical References

The language of early Quakers was almost entirely drawn from the Bible and so, in trying to assess what the use of the name ‘Friends of the Truth’ has to say about their theology and spirituality, we need to look at a number of key passages from the scriptures that had particular resonance for the movement.

1. John 15:13-20 – The Foundational Text

It is commonly argued that ‘Friends’ as the official name for Quakers comes from this passage. So let’s have a look at it and consider what it tells us about the nature of this friendship:

13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

 

18 ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. John 15:13-20

So based on this passage we can see that Jesus associates friendship with:

  • Those who have a direct and intimate relationship with God - friendship implies divine immanence; being in a relationship with God, involving communion, intimacy, love and commitment.
  • Those who are taught ‘the truth’ by Jesus – friendship implies a teacher-pupil relationship. Jesus teaches the way of God (the truth) to his disciples (those who follow Jesus as teacher).
  • Those who accept Jesus’ teachings and put them into practice – friendship implies not just receiving Jesus’ teaching but crucially also putting those teachings into practice. The teaching is worthless unless it is acted on.
  • Those whose loyalty is to the way of God rather than to the ways of the world – Friendship implies a relationship of loyalty. There is a stark choice to be made because it is not possible to serve both God and the world.
  • Those who are willing to face death out of love for God and neighbour – friendship implies being willing to follow Jesus in all things including facing the hatred and persecution of the world which may ultimately result in the loss of one’s life.

2. Abraham and Moses as Old Covenant Examples

The idea of being a ‘friend of God’ does not originate in the New Testament. We see it first in the Hebrew Scriptures where this status is applied to both Abraham and Moses:

              11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.                             Exodus 33:11

 

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; Isaiah 41:8


By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Hebrews 11:8-10

21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. James 2:21-24

In these passages, being a ‘friend of God’ implies four key characteristics:

 

a)    Being in a direct and intimate relationship with God.

b)    Being willing to listening to and hear what God is asking one to do.

c)    Being prepared to have faith and trust in God’s guidance.

d)    Being willing to put God’s commands into practice whatever the consequences.

 

3. The New Covenant – All Can Have a Direct Relationship with God

 

The divine intimacy associated with being a friend of God takes on a whole new dimension as a result of the incarnation and the establishment of the new covenant:

 

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. Hebrews 1:1-2


16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:16-18

If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ John 14:7

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. John 16:13

28Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Joel 2:28

In the old covenant only a few chosen prophets enjoyed the kind of divine intimacy that made them ‘friends of God’. However, with the coming of Christ (the Word made flesh) and the establishment of the new covenant, it is possible for all people to become ‘friends of God’.

a)    God now speaks directly to people through the Spirit of Christ.
b)    At Pentecost the Spirit was poured out on all flesh.
c)    Through the Spirit of Christ all people can know God.
            d)    Therefore all people can now be ‘friends of God’ if they receive this Spirit.

5. The New Covenant – All can be Sons and Daughters of God

Similarly, as a result of the incarnation and the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh, it is now possible for everyone to become sons and daughters of God by faith (i.e. through an intimate hearing and obeying relationship with God):

 

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:26-29

 

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he[a] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-4

 

This again points to a reciprocal relationship of intimacy, love, communication, guidance and obedience.

 

4. The Dangers of Friendship with the World


In the new covenant, by the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ, it is possible for all people to become ‘friends of God’. However, because the ways of the world are contrary to the ways of God, it is not possible to be both a friend of the world and a friend of God. This is a matter of loyalty and a choice has to be made between the two:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, ‘God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? James 4:1-5

D. Early Quaker Writings

Having considered the key biblical references, let’s now look at a number of passages of early Quaker writings from George Fox, Margaret Fell and William Penn.

1. Friends in the Truth

In this first passage, a letter written to Friends in 1553, George Fox emphasises the importance of following divine guidance leading to a faith that communicates itself to others through a visibly transformed life. He makes clear that Christ is a friend of their souls because Christ is the source of their inward spiritual transformation and changed outward life.

P. S.—Friends, a warning from the Lord to you all, in wisdom to walk, that ye may adorn every one, what ye profess [Tit 2:10], that the measure of God's spirit in every one ye may answer. And know the Lord to guide your understandings, and let his wisdom be justified by you all [Mat 11:19], and ye in the measure of the spirit of God in unity kept; that ye may see righteousness spring and flourish among you, and no deceit stand, nor nothing that is deceitful; but with the eternal judge it down, and keep it down, that nothing may live that is for the sword, which would defile the land [Num 35:34]. Therefore in that which is eternal, dwell, as a royal priesthood [1 Pet 2:9], in that which comes from him by whom the world was made; who to all your souls is a Friend [John 15:15], from whence the refreshing is received. So the Lord God Almighty preserve and keep you all, that in his life, dread, and power ye may be preserved.

George Fox – Epistle 33 (1653)

In this second passage another letter written to Friends, this time by Margaret Fell in 1658, a link is made between the inward transformative power of Christ within the new covenant with the faithfulness of Abraham. Being a Friend of God requires the faithfulness of Abraham who heard God’s call and was obedient to God’s command. So in the new covenant, to be a Friend is to hear the inward call of Christ, to dwell in his Light and follow his commands.

So Friends, here is your way, by which this you must enter, even by the spirit of God in your hearts, this is he that works the works of God in you, God is a spirit, and it is truth in the inward parts that he looks at, and it is the Law written in your hearts that is his Covenant, and it is Circumcision that is of the heart, that worships God in spirit, which is the seal of this Covenant, to which the promise of God remains, to Abraham and to his seed forever. Know ye therefore that they that are of the faith, the same as the Children of Abraham, and they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. Abraham was the Friend of God (James 2:23) and ye are my Friends saith Christ, if you do whatsoever I command you (John 15:14), so dwelling in the Light, there is the Command of the Lord received, there is the will of the Lord done, and his work wrought, abiding in the Light, there is the unity of faith, which worketh by love, by which the just lives…

Margaret Fell – Epistle 77, To Brethren and Sisters (1658)

Our third passage is taken from a section of William Penn’s tract Sandy Foundation Shaken from 1669 in which he argues against the doctrine of imputed righteousness. Penn is rejecting the idea that ‘the elect’ are justified in sin without there being any real change in themselves because they benefit at second hand from what Jesus achieved in his death and resurrection. Instead, using the passage about friendship from John’s Gospel, Penn argues that justification must always involve a real change in one’s life and relationship to God. In particular it requires us to hear Jesus’ teaching and keep his commands in this life. Rather than being an ‘imputed’ transaction, the relationship has to be genuine and meaningful. This is what early Quakers meant when they talked about the need for real ‘possession’ as well as mere ‘profession’.

6. Ye are my Friends if ye do whatsoever I command you (John 15:14). We have almost here the very words, but altogether the same matter , which affords us thus much, without being Christ’s Friend, there’s no being justified, but unless we keep his Commandments, it’s impossible we should be his Friends; it therefore necessarily follows, that except we keep his Commandments, there is no being justified: or in short thus, If the way to be a Friend is to keep the Commandments, then the way to be justified is to keep the commandments, because none can obtain the quality of a Friend, and remain justified, or be truly justified, whilst an enemy, which he certainly is, that keeps not his Commandments.

William Penn – Sandy Foundation Shaken (1669)

Finally, some thirty years later, George Fox again writes to Friends to communicate the same basic message.

And the apostle saith, ‘That Abraham was called a friend of God [Jas 2:23]. And Christ saith to his disciples, ‘Ye are my friends, if ye do whatever I command. Henceforth I call you not servants, for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doth. But I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you [John 15:14f]. Here Christ called his disciples sometimes friends, and sometimes brethren, as before; as in John 15:19 and Hebrews 2:11-12.
And as many as received Christ, to them he gave 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 [John 1:12f]. These are they that declared the generations of Christ.

George Fox – Epistle 402 (1685)
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2. The Faith of Abraham

We can see the important example of the faith of Abraham in James Nayler’s description of his epiphany at the plough that led to his Quaker ministry. This demonstrates two points of key significance for early Friends:

a)    The need for an intimate hearing and obeying relation with God.
b)    The need to give absolute loyalty to the way of God over the ways of the world.

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. Genesis 12:1-3

I was at the plow, meditating on the things of God, and suddenly I heard a voice saying unto me, "Get thee out from thy kindred and from thy father's house"—and I had a promise given in with it. Whereupon, I did exceedingly rejoice, that I had heard the voice of that God which I had professed from a child but had never known him.

James Nayler – Saul’s Errand to Damascus (1653)

B. Children of Light

Before finishing, I just want to mention briefly the use of ‘Children of Light’ which was perhaps the earliest name adopted by Quakers and one that connects them to the early Anabaptist movement that developed in Europe some 120 years earlier. The name is drawn from two passages within the Pauline epistles:

for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 1 Thessalonians 5:5

 

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Ephesians 5:8-10


Again the name suggests an intimate relationship (being the child of a parent), connection to Christ who is the Light and obedience to divine teaching and commands. It is also clear that this name remained important to Friends throughout the 17th century. Here we have two of Fox’s epistles that make reference to being ‘children of Light’; one from the beginning of the movement in 1652 and the other from towards the end of Fox’s life in 1684.

But ye all, in whom the immortal seed is brought to light, who are raised up to sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus [Eph 2:6], and are become children of the day, walk as children of the day, and as children of the light [1 Th 5:5], and ‘let your light so shine before men, that they may glorify your Father, which is in heaven.’ [Mat 5:16] All loving the light, ye love the one thing, which gathers your hearts together to the fountain of light and life [Psa 36:9]; and walking in it, ye have unity one with another, and the ‘blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth you from all sin.’ [1 Jn 1:7].

            George Fox – Epistle 20 (1652)

Now, dear friends and brethren, if it doth please the Lord to try you, who are the believers in the light [John 12:36], and children of the light and the day [1 Th 5:5] of Christ: I say again, if it please the Lord, and it be his will, to try you in stinking prisons and dungeons, Bridewells, houses of correction, and suffer you to be put in such places, who are his sheep and lambs, plants and branches; I say, the Lord can sanctify all such places for his people, his children, his sons and daughters, and make all pleasant to them:

George Fox – Epistle 398 (1684)

It is interesting to note that the name ‘children of light’ was also used by early adherents of the other historic peace church tradition, the Anabaptists. Here is the opening letter to the Schleitheim Confession which is the earliest statement of faith of those individuals and groups that went on to form the Amish, the Mennonites and the Hutterites.

May joy, peace and mercy from our Father through the atonement of the blood of Christ Jesus, together with the gifts of the Spirit – Who is sent from the Father to all believers for their strength and comfort and for their perseverance in all tribulation until the end, Amen – be to all those who love God, who are the children of light, and who are scattered everywhere as it has been ordained of God our Father, where they are with one mind assembled together in one God and Father of us all: Grace and peace of heart be with you all, Amen.

Opening Letter to the Schleitheim Confession (1527)

E. Summary and Conclusion


Early Quakers did not choose the name ‘Friends of the Truth’ randomly or because it sounded good. It is clear that this name communicated something quite vital about their experience, their spirituality, their theology and their witness in the world. It spoke of a people who experienced a direct and intimate relationship with God, who felt that they were being taught ‘the truth’ by Christ in Spirit and who recognised the importance of putting Christ’s teachings into practice. This implied loyalty to the way of God rather than to the ways of the world and a willingness to face death at the hands of the world out of love for God and neighbour. This name therefore said quite a lot about the essentials of the Quaker way.