The well of love…

Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.

Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:

The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”

Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that

according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3.16-19)

It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:

The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

(QFP 26.44)

Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

9 thoughts on “The well of love…

  1. shawnleonard

    I spent a few days with Quakers from the Eastern part of the U.S. Not once did they mention Jesus, but always the Light. It made me wonder if they remembered who the Light is. I don’t remember Jesus’ name being Light. His name is the name above all names, Jesus.

  2. T. Roger S. Wilson

    Christ is a title, Jesus is a name. It is faintly surprising, therefore, to find early Friends preferring the former when it seems that the latter would have served. A bit like insisting on ‘Her Majesty’ when ‘Elizabeth Windsor’ would be understood to refer to the same person. Can anyone enlighten me why? Was it especially significant to them that he should be identified as the Jewish Messiah?

    1. Mike Farley Post author

      I don’t know for certain. It may be no more than a quirk of 17th century usage, but on the other hand it may relate to their speaking of the indwelling Christ – see the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians quoted above – rather than the historical Jesus during his time preaching around Galilee. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Paul, a Jew, spoke of “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”, rather than “the love of Jesus…”?

  3. Tom E

    It may be as well to remember, as Rufus Jones once pointed out, that there is a lot of Quaker writing, largely from the 18th century, where the words ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus’ are seldom found. Instead this literature tended to evolve its own terminology (or perhaps borrow it from the larger Quietist tradition). This tends to be fairly abstract (in much the same way as ‘the Light’), and includes expressions such as ‘Pure Love’, ‘Pure Wisdom’, ‘the Truth’, ‘the Creator’ and so forth. We should also remember that, of all the Christian traditions, Quakerism has historically been far more open to other faiths, indeed far more ‘universalist’ than most. This kind of thinking is evident, for instance, in the writing of William Penn, who was also keen to distinguish Quakerism from all other forms of Christianity, these being, for him, both Catholicism and Protestantism. So this whole question has a much more tangled history than many might think, and is nothing new.

      1. Tom E

        Thanks, Mike, I forgot to say how much I liked your piece. When all these differences of opinion and interpretation run their course, I am reminded of the words of James Nayler, who strongly urged his fellow Quakers not to ‘run out from the simplicity’. I think that Ben Pink Dandelion is right when he characterizes Quakerism (at least of the BYM variety) as orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. Some people will always be attracted by the idea of sitting down with others, with as few preconceptions as possible, and opening themselves up to the breathings of the Spirit. Doesn’t much seem to matter if one is theist, nontheist, or even atheist. It is the practice that counts.

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