On Presumption and Belief in John 11

Of the 21 chapters in John’s Gospel, chapter 11 has been for decades the least interesting to me. It was its scattered quality that put me off: too many characters, most of them contributing only snippets; vignettes that seemed to go nowhere; dialogue that just didn’t connect or flow; inexplicable actions and reactions. Where was the throughline? I asked myself: the coherent theme that took shape with each succeeding verse.

As a narrative, this chapter seemed more like a script out of Theater of the Absurd, a movement that began in the late 1950s that took its cue from Existentialism, and featured works that showed the breakdown of communication and its replacement with irrational and illogical speech. It turns out, this impression was not so far from the truth: chapter 11 is about the breakdown of communication that occurs when people work exclusively from their own presumptions and complacent certainties. Unlike the works by the existentialists and the absurdists, however, this chapter not only illustrates the problem but shows the way out of it. Far from being a jumble of discord, this chapter has a tightly organized structure that showcases the dysfunction arising from human presumption; the presupposing nature that Jesus identifies with the epithet “the sickness unto death (4).”

Introduction of Theme and Characters

No time is wasted in setting up the forces at play in this narrative and the personae that represent those forces. The chapter begins:

Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick (Jn. 11:1-3).

As readers of gospel narratives may have come to expect, Jesus sets out a succinct description of the situation and its end, its telos, which is not death but is instead, the glory of God:

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby (4).

In these opening verses, we’re told all is not well; there’s sickness in the household: that is to say, there’s sickness in the place where one dwells, and Jesus is sent for, because he is known to heal that which is not well in the place where one dwells: that is to say, Jesus heals the soul.

Mary and Martha are in close relationship with the sick one (just like the self is in close relationship with the soul!); and as such, we will see later in the chapter how each of these different “selves” responds to the Lord. (We are given some foreshadowing when we’re told early on that Mary attends to the Lord [anoints him and wipes his feet with her hair] but find no mention made of Martha.) These sisters – each in her own way – will represent a particular response to the Lord: one spiritual and the other spiritless. Interpreted, the chapter’s first few verses tell us that a soul can be sick, and Jesus called upon; yet not every manner of being will reach to and engage him.

Illustrating the Problem

We will pick up this theme of the manner of being that does – or does not – reach to Jesus after first taking a detour to examine the sickness that Jesus is called upon to heal. We’re given to see its nature: the natural human tendency to presume to know what is right and true, when, in fact, one doesn’t.

This segment starts with verse 5 and runs through 17. In these 13 verses, there are several examples of what at first glance – and perhaps at second or third glance! – appears to be confusion and absurdity. I’ll briefly list these examples, as their significance lies not so much in each one separately but in their assembly into a unit, a few of the many varied expressions of the “sickness unto death.” Look for absurdity, confusion, and presumption in these verses.

Here we go:

  1. Verses 5 and 6: Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.

Jesus’s abiding two days in the same place after hearing Lazarus was sick seems to make no sense: Wouldn’t he want to get to Lazarus as quickly as possible? is our presumption. Look how we are implicated in presumption right from the start! A little reasoning goes a long way—too far in fact, as we’ll see confirmed later in the text.

  1. Verses 7-10: Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again. His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again? Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.

The disciples presume Jesus should consider the danger of entering Judaea. Jesus’s answer (Are there not twelve hours in the day?) seems to absurdly miss the point.

  1. Verses 11b- 15: Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.

The disciples presume Lazarus sleeps, as Jesus has said so. Jesus seems to contradict himself, creating confusion.

  1. Verse 16: Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples. Let us also go, that we may die with him.

Thomas (Didymus), who represents being of two minds, would prefer to have the matter settled, and so presumes it is, assuring himself with a display of flamboyant resolve.

Verse 17 states a numerical fact (Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.) and as math partakes of the absolute and certain, the numerical reference signals the end of this segment of confusion, which began in like manner with a similar numerical fact in verse 6 (…he abode two days still in the same place); this befuddling segment is hemmed in on both sides with number facts, thereby containing the apparent disorder. We’ve been given a glimpse into the miscommunication, confusion, and absurdity that characterizes our natural condition, as well as our varied attempts to corral that disorder with fact and presumption. It is our “faith” in our own faculties to control the vicissitudes of life that is “the sickness unto death.”

Nevertheless, Jesus’s words throughout this section, though seeming to contribute to the confusion, are clear and consistent. I’ll not go through all four examples one-by-one but will instead offer just one explanation: to the second example in the list (7-10):

Jesus has informed his disciples that they will go into Judaea to assist Lazarus, and they respond that there is danger there: possible stoning. Their presumption is that Jesus must assess the outward circumstances before deciding to act: are circumstances favorable? dangerous? worth the risk? Although Jesus’s answer seems to have nothing to do with their question (Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him [9 and10]), his response does answer their concern. For he is teaching that one’s actions should not derive from one’s assessment of outward circumstance, as the disciples presume, but instead from inward direction found through “the light of this world.”

The Self that Presumes and the Self that Waits

Now we can return to the theme of the manner of being that does – or does not – reach to Jesus. The next passage in the chapter (18-35) features a contrast between the opposing ways the self can function: the first, characterized by Martha, is the proud, arrogant self whose presumption fills up the self, puts itself forward, and spills out its presumptions onto others; and the second, characterized by Mary, is the humbled, empty self that waits to be given, to be filled with what she knows she does not herself possess. The distinction between the two is made immediately:

Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house (20).

Conversely, Mary comes out to meet Jesus only after first learning that she has been called:

And when she [Martha] had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him (28 and 29).

Martha “went her [own] way,” and there’s evidence of her self-direction in her encounter with Jesus, who can teach her nothing. Look how frequently she presumes, using the words “I know”:

Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day (21 – 24).

Jesus’s response (I am the resurrection, and the life…) completely glances off her, and she falls back onto her stockpiled “knowledge,” which bears no relevance to the powerful words she’s just heard. With all the assurance of ignorance, she repeats her catechism:

Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world (27).

Although Mary’s encounter with Jesus begins with the same words her sister spoke (Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died [32, 21]), she utters these words having first fallen down at his feet (32). Her spirit is humble, as we learned early in the chapter when she was first introduced: lowly, wiping his feet with her hair (2). Unlike her sister, she doesn’t presume to be higher than she is, neither in knowledge nor in life. So low and empty of life is she that she weeps her emptiness before the Lord. And he, sensing the depth of her sorrow at loss of life, is reached, joins with her, and likewise weeps (35). It is the felt despair that – if we’re honest – comes to us in our earthly life, and does elicit the Lord’s compassionate response, his unity with us, and we feel his love.

The Prevalence of Presumption

To emphasize the prevalence of the error of presumption, we are given yet more examples. The “Jews” fare no better in this chapter than they do in the rest of this gospel. Here they as a group have a single voice, and form a kind of backdrop chorus that stands for humankind in general, repeatedly in error to the point of comic absurdity. Situated midway between the accounts of each sister’s meeting with Jesus are the Jews… presuming they know:

The Jews…when they saw Mary… went out, followed her saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there (31).

Mary is not going to the grave but is going to find Jesus, who has called for her. Later presuming again, the Jews mistake the cause of Jesus’s tears: that he weeps out of love for Lazarus (36), rather than his sorrow and rage at the misbegotten suffering he’s sees in front of him. More presumption follows, as the Jews speak among themselves about Jesus’s supposed failure to prevent Lazarus’s death:

Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? (37)

And Martha, who from the start has modelled the presumptuous mode of being, again speaks after the Lord has commanded the stone that seals the cave where Lazarus lay be taken away. She does not surprise us when she jumps in with yet another mistaken presumption, this time relying on absolute, certain mathematical fact: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days (39).” Jesus’s gentle reminder to her goes unanswered—and likely unheeded. (Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?)

Belief versus Presumption

At key points in this chapter, Jesus has spoken of belief: he gives his reason for not immediately setting out to assist Lazarus, his intent being that his disciples might believe (15); he identifies belief as necessary for coming out of spiritual death and into life, and remaining there (25 and 26):

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

Belief is needed to see the glory of God (40); he states the cause for voicing his gratitude to the Father for having heard him: that his hearers might believe that he had been sent (42). Finally the story ends with our being told “many of the Jews which came to Mary [interpreted, which came to Mary’s condition], and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him (45).”

It is in verses 41 and 42 that we see the crucial distinction made between belief and presumption, which is the overriding lesson of this narrative. Jesus says:

Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

Verb tenses are important here as they indicate timing: past, present, or future. (This is one example of the KJV providing the necessary nuance to enable sound interpretation.) Jesus knows he has been heard by the Father—not that he will be heard, or that he is heard but that he has been heard (past tense). Whereas presumption gets out ahead of what is known; belief follows behind what has been known; belief is a result of experience, presumption the result of intellectual speculation.

The second sentence is also in the past tense: Jesus does not say, I know that thou hearest me always, but “I knew (past) that thou hearest me always.” He does not speak so that the Father will hear him, for then his speaking would be a presumption on his part; rather he knew (past) that he is heard “always.” He“said” (Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.) so that others may hear/believe that the Father has sent him (42). And surely they will have done so (future perfect!), when they too have seen (past) the power of God raise one from the dead, and having seen (past) Jesus’s part in the action, they may now believe – not presume – that he has been sent by the Father.

One becomes able to distinguish intellectual presumption from experiential belief when one has been called forth by Christ into life, as was Lazarus (43). Then setting aside the trappings of the grave and spiritual death, that is to say, setting aside presumptuous, self-affirming tendencies, we have learned to wait in emptiness of soul, in the spiritual tomb where we dwell, anticipating the freedom afforded to each of us when we have felt the decree: “Loose him, and let him go.” In that resurrection to life, we see the glory of God, and we glorify his Son whom we have known.

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby (4).    

 

 

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The Solitary Ascent

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father (Jn. 20:17a).

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side (27a).

Just seven verses separate these seemingly contradictory instructions about touch that Jesus gives to these two followers: first, he cautions Mary not to touch him, and a short while later, he urges Thomas not only to touch him but to do so invasively: to feel his wounds. Clearly, there’s a difference in the significance given to “touch” in these two stories.

In the second instance, touch is the means by which the unbelieving Thomas is convinced of the reality that death has occurred and is followed by resurrection to life. Touch, here stands for personal experience that precipitates convincement. Sensory perception – the feeling, seeing, hearing – is a type or shadow for the inward perception of the substance. That substance is accessible only through the eye of faith, which alone senses, and convinces of the reality of the lordship of Christ.  (And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God [28].) In this episode Thomas and the other disciples learn that their work will be to convince others of the Truth through bestirring an inward apprehension, which sensory perception approximates.

In the first story, Mary has just recognized the Lord and has lovingly reached toward him; here touch has a different function and significance. Jesus is not teaching or convincing or engaged in any outwardly directed assistance to others, as he later would be in his encounter with Thomas and the disciples; rather he is here concerned with protecting himself and his intent to ascend to the Father.

He had been delivered into the earth but a few days before: killed and entombed; he had now risen out of the earth and was walking upon it; and, to complete his course, he was to rise above the earth to sit (rest) at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1). He would, therefore, not be deterred by worldly attachment here symbolized by touch. In this exchange with the woman, touch stands for an intimacy that can derail the soul in her journey upward toward completion, perfection, i.e., the soul’s ascent into heaven. Jesus confirms this fact when he keeps Mary at arm’s length by explaining: “for I am not yet ascended to my Father.”

The imagery of being first held under and then subsequently rising out of the earth can be seen frequently in early Friends writings.

…shake yourselves from the dust of the earth and come away in faithfulness and obedience to your call – J. Fothergill

…your minds will be animated and lifted up above the world and the fading, perishing things of it. – T. Scattergood

Must not they who are…free from the world through the cross of Christ, the power of God… walk as freemen, having the earth under them and not over them? – W. Edmundson

In George Fox’s vision of 1671, the same earth-as-encumbrance imagery occurs, but here it is applied en masse, perhaps an indication of Fox’s realization of the universality of the earthly, darkened condition in which humanity lies spiritually dead and buried, as well as of his life’s work to turn people – in large numbers – from darkness to light. He tells us:

And I had a vision about the time that I was in this travail and sufferings, that I was walking in the fields and many Friends were with me, and I bid them dig in the earth, and they did and I went down. And there was a mighty vault top-full of people kept under the earth, rocks, and stones. So I bid them break open the earth and let all the people out, and they did, and all the people came forth to liberty; and it was a mighty place. And when they had done I went on and bid them dig again. They did, and there was a mighty vault full of people, and I bid them throw it down and let all the people out, and so they did (Nickalls, 578).

As earlier illustrated in the chapter from John, Jesus – while in progress from earth to heaven – addressed two concerns: one, his work of convincing/liberating others, and two, protecting himself from earthly attachment. In this vision of Fox, we see these same two concerns likewise acknowledged, and yes, touch – signifying attachment – is again the metaphor, and the woman – signifying the earthly – is again the threat. Fox’s vision continues:

And I went on again and bid them dig again, and Friends said unto me, “George, thou finds out all things,” and so there they digged, and I went down, and went along the vault; and there sat a woman in white looking at time how it passed away. And there followed me a woman down in the vault, in which vault was the treasure; and so she laid her hand on the treasure on my left hand and then time whisked on apace; but I clapped my hand upon her and said, “Touch not the treasure.” And then time passed not so swift (Ibid).

A closer look at the particulars of this passage is worth taking. Fox is journeying down into the earth; he is discovering what in his own nature is to be found that is susceptible to earthly encumbrance. He is not here focused on his work to convince/liberate captivated humanity.  Rather, here he searches out what threatens to captivate himself: and thus, he must descend into his own earthly, underground dynamics of being.

There are two women in this vision, which functions to alert one that no particular woman is meant here; rather that “woman” as category is intended (and we extend the boundary of that category to encompass “the opposite sex”). This same rhetorical devise is used in chapter 11 of Revelation where “two witnesses” do not signify particular witnesses but instead stand for the category of “those who witness,” that, as a type, they may be informed of their role and expectations, which are listed in that chapter.

The first woman Fox envisions is seated, dressed in white, and “looking at time.” Interpreted, the woman is seated and at rest; she’s among those “which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14). She looks at time, which interpreted is to say, she is not in time but is apart from it and observing it; she is where there is “time no longer”(10:6), i.e., she knows life eternal. In this first woman, we learn what qualities pertain to the person who potentially poses a threat to the prophet’s sensibility: one who is spiritually cognizant.

Fox moves on, followed by the second woman, deeper into the earth, and we see, envisioned in dream-like imagery, both the threat and the action taken to thwart it. In the second vault, “the treasure” lay, which I interpret to mean, the place where was found his sense of life. It is his left hand that is touched – not the hand with which he labors, but that part of his being not given to his work; it is there the claim upon him is made: to engage that which is not his work but some other genuine, vital part of his being, for example, his emotion. We are told time moves rapidly as a consequence, which indicates a waste of resources (time, effort, attention, etc.) that follows the misdirection of attention toward a personal, nonproductive area of life. Closely replicating Jesus’s words to Mary, Fox resists this claim upon himself, saying: “Touch not the treasure.” We then see “time passed not so swift,” which is interpreted to mean, he no longer saw his resources wasted.

Perhaps it was the personal, non-work directed nature of the topic that led Fox to conclude this journal entry with cryptic words, hinting he could speak more to the point if he chose but would instead leave interpretation to another.

They that can read these things must have the earthy, stony nature off them. And see how the stones and the earth came upon man since the beginning, since he fell from the image of God and righteousness and holiness. And much I could speak of these things, but I leave them to the right eye and reader to see and read (Ibid.)


In the first verse of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul describes himself as “separated unto the gospel of God.” In his exegetical work of the same name, Karl Barth expands upon the phrase:

Paul…is always himself, and moves essentially on the same plane as all other men. But, in contradiction to himself and in distinction from all others, he is—called by God and sent forth. Are we then to name him a Pharisee? Yes, a Pharisee—“separated,” isolated, and distinct. But he is a Pharisee of a higher order. Fashioned of the same stuff as all other men, a stone differing in no way from other stones, yet in his relation to God—and in this only—he is unique. As an apostle—and only as an apostle—he stands in no organic relationship with human society as it exists in history; seen from the point of view of human society, he can be regarded only as an exception, nay, rather, as an impossibility. Paul’s position can be justified only as resting in God, and so only can his words be regarded as at all credible, for they are as incapable of direct apprehension as is God Himself. For this reason he dares to approach others and to demand a hearing without fear either of exalting himself or of approximating too closely to his audience. He appeals only to the authority of God. This is the ground of his authority. There is no other (28).

“Separated, isolated, and distinct,” and not “approximating too closely” with those to whom he ministers is the platform from which this apostle must work; as must the prophet, Fox; and even  the Messiah himself. Barth states that only thus could Paul retain “the ground of his authority”: that “his words [could] be regarded as at all credible.” In each of these three instances – whether with Jesus, Paul, or Fox – the work entails a resistance to an “organic relationship with human society.” What was present in the two earlier illustrations but absent from Barth’s analysis, however, is the more foundational motive: In addition to ensuring the viability of one’s mission and work in the vineyard of God, there is the elemental drive to secure the soul’s solitary, heavenward ascent; one must “go it alone.”

 

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The Imperturbable

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. (Hab. 3:17-18)

Habakkuk was a prophet who foresaw the demise of his nation. While all around him signaled willful alienation from God, he wrote these lines of beauty and joy. For he knew that a person’s state is determined, not by outward circumstance but by the imperturbable Light of Christ, given and received within.

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Dialogue on Quaker Understanding of Free Will

This is a transcript of a dialogue between Stuart Masters and me that occurred in early to mid-December 2017 in the comment section of Stuart’s blog post “Friends of Martin Luther? Quakers and the Protestant Reformation.” The point I challenged was Stuart’s assertion that by a free act of will man participates in his transformation from sinner to saint. I contended early Quaker understanding held that the will is not free until liberated by Christ.

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Pat wrote (quoting from Stuart’s post):

While people may be incapable of transforming themselves, humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice, and when they do, by God’s transformative power, it is possible for them to come into perfect conformity to the will of God (i.e. holiness or perfection).

Stuart, your stating that Quakers believed that “humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice” is not accurate. Nayler writes:

There is no will free for God but that which is free from sin, which will man lost in the fall, when he let in the will of the devil and entered into it; wherein man became in bondage. And all that man in that state knows of the free-will, is that which moves in him against the will of the flesh and of the devil, which is seen in the light of Christ (Works, III, 132-3).

Man is either in the will of the devil or he is in the will of God, the latter moving in him against the will of the devil. There is no neutral state from which man chooses the one or the other. To claim otherwise encourages “self-willed” man to remain self-satisfied, imagining himself in an innocuous, autonomous state, rather than his true state of being poor, helpless, blind, and naked, and without God.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

Thank you for your comment! I am aware of this Nayler passage, which I think comes from ‘Love to the Lost’. However, I cannot believe that Nayler means what you suggest he means.

Since early Friends rejected Calvinist double predestination, logically, they had to accept that there was a degree of human cooperation with God in the salvation process. They much have accepted the need for a human response to the divine offer. If not, there would have been no point launching the massive preaching campaign during the 1650s. The essential exhortation to turn away from carnal things and toward the light of Christ in the conscience, requires a response from its hearers.

I agree that they limited the extent of free will (and saw human wilfulness as a key aspect of sin). However, no free will, no choice to turn to Christ, only God’s action (which in this sense would have to be coercive, and against the free choice of the individual, which then leads to the problem of explaining why God might force this on some but not on others, bringing us back to the issue of predestination).

Shalom,
Stuart.

Pat wrote:

I think if you read through the section titled “Concerning Free-Will” in “Love to the Lost,” you will see that I am correct in saying that Nayler asserts there is either God’s will or the devil’s will, with no free will (in our contemporary understanding of the term as autonomy) that stands apart from the two. The passageway from one to the other is given through the quickening Word of God. Nayler writes:

and as the spiritual man is quickened by the word of God, and that man born which is not of the flesh, nor of the will of it; so is that will seen again in man which is free, wherein the creature is made free from the will of the flesh, which is bondage (133).

As it is not within man’s ability to give birth to himself, it cannot be he who autonomously wills to be born from above; he is born of God. To be born of God occurs not from the will of the flesh, nor the will of man (Jn. 1:13). It was the Word of God that seventeenth-century Friends preached, to the end that others could feel the quickening seed of God within (as they themselves had been given), and feeling that quickening they found entry into God’s will, and thus experienced their freedom, which hitherto they had not known.

So man hath not free-will further than he is free-born from above of the seed that sinneth not (134).

Stuart wrote:

My view has always been that the Early Quaker position was closer to that of Wesley than to Calvin. However, I need to be open to the possibility that their roots in Calvinist Puritanism left a legacy in their faith and practice.

My interpretation of Nayler’s words are that he is emphasising the view that salvation comes by the work of God alone and not by the effort of the individual. I agree with this and feel that it is consistent with the early Quaker position generally.

Early Friends were clearly very ‘black and white’ in their understandings; one was either in darkness or in the light, in God’s will or the devil’s will, in the first birth or the second birth etc… That need not imply that they did not feel that all people were faced with a choice; to turn to God or to remain in darkness. Such a choice presumes a degree (however limited) of free choice.

However, that does not resolve the very serious problem I outlined in my first response, which you have not answered. If humans have no free agency or choice in the salvation process, then we are left with the Calvinist positions of predestination and irresistible grace. This implies that God chooses some for salvation and others for damnation, without any human choice or decision.

I cannot accept that this was the message of the first Friends.

Shalom,

Stuart.

Pat wrote:

The Cain and Abel story offers information on how to understand Friends perspective on God’s acceptance of man, or lack thereof. Following the telling of each brother’s sacrifice, God’s respect to Abel’s but not to Cain’s, and Cain’s anger, He speaks:

If thou doest well, shall thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Gen. 4:7).

What is interesting here is God’s speaking as though Cain knows what doing “well” entails, and is not doing it. The text presents what appears to be identical behaviors between the two brothers: They both bring offerings of their labor, described with almost identical words, but only one’s is accepted while the other’s is not. We can’t see what’s amiss with Cain’s offering, but God can and does, and furthermore knows Cain does as well, and holds him accountable. By having nearly identical descriptions of the brothers’ sacrifices, but God’s judgment differing towards them, we see a narrative device by which the difference between the brothers is located: the difference between them lies within, invisible to us on the outside (and invisible to those who prefer darkness to light) but visible to God, who knows the heart.

Where has Cain failed? A strong clue is the word Jesus uses in Mt. 23:25 to describe his brother: “righteous Abel.” God expects Cain (and each of us) to live up to the capacity given: first, to love truth/righteousness; second, to recognize our limits in knowing truth/righteousness; and third, to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Mt. 5:6), that we might be filled. This love of truth requires an inward sacrifice, and Fox affirms Cain’s lack of it when he wrote in “The Papist’s Strength”: “he [Cain] observed outward things, and comes not to witness the spiritual sacrifice” (51).

“I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not” (Isa. 65:1) is a verse that points to the heeding of the seed of God within before it is known that there is such a thing; it is those who heed and love and seek a place to stand that only truth can provide; that mourn its lack with heart, mind, soul, and strength; it is these who come to be comforted through the mercy of God in His sending of His Spirit. It is not our choice or decision to suffer such need; but sensing its truth, we do not muffle or darken, obscure or deny, but instead, feelingly know the emptiness of the heart, which cannot, should not, and will not be placated by any means at our disposal or will.

Stuart wrote:

I am currently doing research for a book on James Nayler’s theology and so will need to address this matter.

I agree that the work of salvation is God’s work alone, and not about our personal effort, but maintain that, unless we at least have the freedom to respond to God’s offer of salvation, we are left with the irresistible grace of Calvinism.

Early Friends, like many others, separated from their parish churches and were seekers of truth. That seems to imply an act of choice, even if it was divinely guided. Fox exhorts people not to quench the Spirit, which implies a decision not to follow its leadings. The very act of Adam’s disobedience implies making a choice against the way of God.

If no-one has choice, no-one can be held responsible or accountable. They could do nothing else.

Pat wrote:

Your reasoning is sound, Stuart, but it starts from the wrong premise. We are not like a King who sits on a throne deciding and choosing what will be the law of his land: God’s salvation or the devil’s perfidy. Rather we are like a subject deep in a pit with no way out. It is not by choice or decision that we see our pitiful state, because, in truth, it is impossible not to see it—for those who have eyes to see. We do not choose to mourn our condition, as, in truth, it is impossible for a creature not to mourn its captivity—for those who have a heart that feels. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25) Paul is showing the necessity of seeing and feeling our true state, and the means of our deliverance. Truth, truth, truth from first to last, from captivity to freedom!

I’ve tried to show that there is another way to understand the solution to our condition other than (1) a participatory use of human will, or (2) election via the doctrine of predestination. I am convinced that it is the one understood by first Friends, and is also in accord with Scriptures. I’m grateful for this opportunity to have discussed the issue with you.

May the love of Christ be with us.

Patricia

Stuart:

Thank you Pat, I am certainly willing to take account of the perspective you have outline[d]. In any event, I need to do more work on this issue.

In the love of Christ,

Stuart

The discussion continued one week later.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

I have been doing some research on how human ‘will’ was understood in the early modern period. It seems that ‘will’ primarily related to human to our emotions, motivation and affections, rather than agency or the capacity to make choices. On this basis, I can agree with what you have said about the position of early Friends without rejecting my belief that Friends accepted that humans could make a choice about whether to respond to God’s offer of regeneration and salvation.

Essentially, I think we were simply defining the term ‘free will’ differently.

Shalom,
Stuart.

Pat wrote:

Stuart, your new definition of “will” does not affect the argument that there is no neutral ground from which to exercise free will, which is the position of first Friends, which I’ve explained. It is not possible to “choose,” because the will is captivated until it is set free by Christ, the truth. Here’s Penington’s clear refutation of the will standing of itself “free to both equally”:

But as for your speaking of free will, ye do not know what you speak of; for the will with the freedom of it, either stands in the image and power of him that made it, or in a contrary image and power…[Mark this.] The will is not of itself, but stands in another, and is servant to that in whom it stands, and there its freedom is bound and comprehended. For there is no middle state between both, wherein the will stands of itself, and is free to both equally, but it is a servant and under the command of one of these powers…such free will as men commonly speak of is mere imagination (Works, I, 77).

 Stuart wrote:

Well we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shooting the Moon: An Essay on Reflection and Substance

One Saturday each month, Friends from around the Philadelphia area meet at a specified meetinghouse for what is called “Extended Worship.” The schedule for the day is worship for several hours in the morning, then lunch and gathering in the afternoon for an opportunity to share one’s response to the morning’s ministry, or the insights silently gained during worship. The event usually draws around a dozen or so Friends, and for the most part, it has settled into a gathering of regular attenders, of which I am one.

Another regular attender, whom I’ll refer to as “S,” has been struggling with cancer for a while, and her messages often bring forth some of what that struggle entails: the fear, confusion, sense of loss, the desire for healing, and the striving to remain hopeful. That morning her message came to us as a story of a recent experience she’d had while hospitalized and interacting with other patients and their families in the waiting room of a 12th-floor oncology ward.

“S” is an artist, and for some time, it’s been her practice to photograph the full moon each month. In her message, she described other times she’d photographed the moon: times when the light of evening was just right, the sky a clear, warm blue in the moments before dark, and times when the moon was tinged with the reflected light of the setting sun. Having a 12th-floor vantage point overlooking Philadelphia, she saw a unique opportunity to photograph the moon as it rose above the horizon and was mirrored in the towering, glass-walled buildings of the city.

Her camera, tripod, and other equipment brought in by a friend, “S” prepared to get the shot, as interested onlookers joined in the fun of sharing her quest. The waiting room began to hum with curiosity, talk, and laughter as other patients; their kids, parents, and grandparents; friends; and staff chatted, and hoped the cloud cover might break and the moon appear, which in the end, it did.

The primary cause for joy for those in the room, however, was not the successful completion of the quest, but the warm person-to-person interaction that had emerged. The group found among themselves, at least for a time, the wherewithal to withstand and overcome the fear of impending threat and loss. Just as the rising moon may reflect the sun’s rays, we humans can also glow in the beauty of our nature. When her message finished, this hymn came to mind:

For the beauty of the earth / And the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth / Over and around us lies.

Lord of all to thee we raise,

This our hymn of grateful praise.

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Sitting in the silence that followed, appreciating the richness of the story and the liveliness it depicted, I thought that God is glorified in his creatures when we act with courage and ability, with creativity and warmth, and with love.

Then unexpectedly Jesus’s words from John 17 appeared in my mind: “Father, glorify thy son, that thy son might glorify thee.” These words begin the prayer Jesus gives just before his arrest, which leads to the events that he knows will bring an end to his earthly life. As the verse presented such an abrupt alternative to what I had been feeling and thinking, I realized I needed to examine it.

Father, glorify thy son, that thy son might glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him (1-2).

Jesus begins the prayer by acknowledging that God is the source of life: he addresses Him as “Father”; he appeals to Him for power to complete his mission, a mission that God has given. Jesus’s initial words express a dependency on God for purpose, strength, and love. Here there are no mediating activities or relationships; instead there is a direct one-to-one interaction between the Creator and the human being, a reciprocality: Jesus, as man, is to be glorified through receiving God’s presence, and God is to be glorified by Jesus’s conformity to His Will. It is a relationship that retains the distinction between Creator and creature, and yet interiorizes that relationship through the indwelling of God in man: “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (21).

Secondly, in this passage, Jesus identifies his mission: he is to give others eternal life; he is not intent upon bettering the natural state by lessening fear, creating beauty, or by forming bonds of affection. His mission can proceed only upon his having received “power over all flesh,” i.e., the power to withstand any claims made upon the will by the first nature that exists independent of God.

Given the circumstances, one might suppose that the impulse to self-preservation would figure in this prayer, but throughout, there is no sign of it. Jesus instead focuses on making known the glory he has been given, and in turn gives to others (22). In like manner for us, to know the glory received from Christ blinds us to every natural impulse; for there is neither seen nor felt a forfeiture or sense of loss to the first nature, as one receives and focuses upon the light of Christ within. Such is the complete power and beauty of our Lord, who is the Substance forevermore.

 In this stands our blessedness and everlasting happiness, as our eye is kept always looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and not only to know him as the author the beginner of faith, but as the finisher and ender also, and to know the end of faith, which is the salvation of our souls…. Many are living witnesses in this age, as in ages past, of the power of faith, even in the beginning of its work. But it is a higher state to know the end of it, the finishing of faith, even to know its work done, to know the heart purified by it, and the victory over the world obtained, the wicked one subdued, overcome, brought down, and destroyed. This is a blessed state indeed, and that which all are to wait for, press after, and witness. The only way to attain this is to always look to Jesus, to keep the eye of the mind toward him, and the ear open to him, who alone teaches to profit, even in silence, when no word is spoken outwardly. This is the blessed end of the ministry and the ministers of truth whom the Lord has sent among us, and of all preaching, writing, and printing, even that everyone’s eye might be turned to Jesus, always looking to him who has begun the good work, and who alone is able to finish it.

–William Shewen, (Meditations and Experiences [Market Street Fellowship Early Quaker Series, 2015], 74-75)

                                   

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advice to a Young Christian

The following response was given to a young man who while living in South America had felt bewilderment and dismay when speaking of his faith to those who associated Christianity with the condoning of violent abuse against them and their culture in previous centuries, as well as an abuse toward women in the present-day. His statement can be read here in a post titled “When Words Fail.”

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That people use the language and ideas of Christianity for their own selfish ends is commonplace. You are seeing some gross forms of this perversion in South America, but subtle forms of it are just as deadly to the souls and cultures who succumb to this or to any other corruption. The need to dominate is always a fear of death, which is Satan’s reign, whether it’s dominating women, other cultures, or language (as did Humpty-Dumpty!*).

Upon seeing corruption, you must take care of yourself first (like putting on your oxygen mask before trying to help others with theirs): don’t let resentment or grief take up residence in your soul. Recognize the corruption you’re seeing, but don’t let negative emotion or thought overcome you; despair is “of the world,” and Christ within overcomes the world. You can be ready to act on the Lamb’s behalf only if you abide in his name: Let his light preserve you in righteousness, his power be your readiness to act, and his wisdom your guide to victory.

The victory will not always manifest as an immediate reversal of the world’s corruption, but it will always manifest as soul-satisfying peace and joy, which gives you strength to continue in the face of what appears to be overwhelming odds, for the whole world lies in wickedness. Though you may or may not effect change in outward circumstances, know that you are not working alone: For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men (Titus 2:11). Though it be in the darkness of men’s hearts, the light, grace, and truth shines in everyone, and is forever one’s Lord: in faith, a formidable ally.

 

*”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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A Colony of Heaven

Last December in his blog Can you believe? Johan Maurer offered an opportunity to voice one’s thoughts on what constitutes a faith community through taking a survey he’d composed titled “Building a Trustworthy Church.” It can be found here.  In this survey, participants were asked to describe their experience of trustworthiness (or its lack) in religious communities they’d been part of, and also to rate the importance of particular qualities or features for sustaining a trustworthy religious community. The survey included questions on the nature of leadership, culture, education, and finance.

Participants were also asked to envision “qualities or features [that] would be most important to include in any congregation [they] might consider joining.” As I began to write my response to this particular question, I found more and more ideas tumbling forward, and upon completing my answer, noticed myself re-visiting the long-ago feeling of being six-years-old and having finished my Christmas list! Here’s my list of the features and qualities:

The primary feature would be a genuine knowledge of God and Christ. I’d want to see some effort had been given to studying Scripture and early Friends writings, additionally contemporary writers who have studied these original resources and written sensibly about their findings. I’d want to see good character, not only in major issues such as marital fidelity but in minor day-to-day behaviors, such as not monopolizing conversations or podium time, etc. In short, I’d want to see some self-awareness and discipline counteracting the fallen nature’s tendency to self-aggrandizement. I’d like to see a creative, personal approach to worship and socializing: the house church where each brings a psalm or prayer, and worshipers gather around a table to share and joyfully have a meal together sounds like an ideal. I’d like to see true friendliness and concern about one another’s lives. I’d like to feel that the group was truly the body of Christ, a colony of heaven. I’d like to hear others minister the Word of God.

There is in every culture a germ or seed of origin that determines its form and function. In time, too many accretions burden the entity; distort its function; and cause it to fail, to die, leaving behind a hollow shell of what once lived. Prophets call us to honor and return to the source, the living seed, and not to worship the cultural casing that once held its outgrowth. George Fox here recalls the small beginning of the church in apostles’ time when they

said, “pray every where;” who met together in their several houses, and went from house to house. Acts 2. 46. And this was the practice of the church in the primitive times, which we observe, who were to edify one another, and exhort one another, and build up one another, and pray for one another, and they were not to be tied to one place, synagogue, or temple, which the Jews were only, but sometimes they met on mountains and hills, and sometimes in houses. And the church was in Aquila and Priscilla’s house, 1 Cor. 16.19. there was a meeting set up in the primitive time (The Works of George Fox, IV, 269).

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