Introduction to “The Gospel and Self-Knowledge”

“The Gospel and Self-Knowledge” is the fourth of five lectures in the series titled A New Foundation to Build On, given by Lewis Benson in 1976 in Haverford, Pennsylvania. The lecture (along with an Appendix of questions and answers following the presentation) can be found under the Resource tab on the New Foundation Fellowship website.

Benson begins this fourth lecture with a survey of types of religious consciousness that characterized different historical periods. His review provides context for the primary focus of the lecture: our modern era, which began more than a century ago. Benson contends modern “mass man” no longer sustains an integrated identity; this calamity manifests itself widely in the personal sense of “lostness.”  This feeling of being lost and the subsequent search for identity is, Benson asserts, the distinguishing ethos of our age.

Wide-ranging, broad analysis is uncommon among scholars, and the reader’s immediate reaction may be to discount grand-scale assertions as devoid of nuance, and therefore inaccurate. Such a prejudice might arise in those who’ve yet to come to a vantage point from which can be seen the essential properties of different religious understandings. This vista is one Benson can and does offer in this lecture, and here he states his theme:

The purpose of this paper is to compare some modern philosophical approaches to the problem of self-­knowledge to the prophetic Christian understanding as exemplified by George Fox (1).

The first philosophy Benson brings to light is the system of self-realization that was set forth by George Gurdjieff, an early twentieth-century teacher with whom Benson studied as a young man. Though Benson did not find in Gurdjieff that which he sought, he was, nevertheless, strongly affected by his time spent in Gurdjieff’s compound near Paris. This impact is evidenced in the disproportionate attention given in the lecture to Gurdjieff’s understanding of the problem of self, and his method of developing consciousness through motivated self-interest and disciplined control of the will. Benson later came to realize that Gurdjieff’s reliance on methodology signaled its faulty grounding in human endeavor, and thus revealed its disparity with the prophetic faith of George Fox that Benson later came to know and affirm.

Benson next moves through a brief summary of both the techniques and suppositions found in Socrates’s philosophy and in classic Western Mysticism—giving each but a paragraph to set out their respective deficiencies. He then proceeds to his main topic, the Christian approach to the problem of self-knowledge.

The Christian approach to the problem of self-knowledge takes as its starting point the view of man that is set forth in the Bible: that people were not created to have a self-conscious existence independent of God. It is the Creator who reveals what is good and what is evil. Man’s life is characterized by his dependence on God. When this relationship is broken, the primary law of man’s being is broken, and his life becomes a deformation of the life intended for him by the Creator (3).

Benson turns to Emil Brunner, a prominent Protestant (Reformed) theologian of the last century, who affirms Benson’s position: man’s self-realization is contingent upon his response to God’s call. From there,  Benson brings George Fox into the discussion, as one whose initial, broken condition became apparent through receiving Christ, the light, revealing the self:

With the light man sees himself, which light comes from Christ ([Works. VII, 142] [p.4]).

Additionally, by obedience to the inward teaching of the light, man is restored to right relationship with God. The light of Christ is the revealer and teacher of a new righteousness, which judges out not only deeds that are manifestly evil but also those deeds which arise from the attempt to live a moral life outside of God and Christ: these attempts, too, are brought under condemnation by the light. Fox says:

The light lets you see your deeds…whether they be wrought in God or no ([I,83] [p.4]).

The deeds “wrought in God” is the righteousness that God calls for, as distinguished from humanly discerned self-righteousness, which is often—through ignorance or pride—wrongly attributed to God. Such deeds arise from the less-than-human self “that is gradually formed in us as we attempt to find ourselves outside of God and God’s word to us” (p.4). That self, says Fox, has the “nature of brute beasts” ([IV, 35] [p. 4]), and must be denied. Neither the self-knowledge nor self-righteousness that is assumed independent of the light can begin to approximate the perfection that accompanies our restoration to the image of God in Christ.

In contrast to Gurdjieff’s, others’ philosophy, or theories of psychology that claim self-realization is a function of man’s will and power to uncover his essential being, Fox holds that human personality, or self, is universally fallen and deformed into a sub-human condition, and that we can be restored to our true, intended state only when recast through “hearing and obeying the speaking God”(4).

The self or false personality is “judged out” by the light and a new life appears in them who “walk in him the new and living way, out of the old way” ([VII, 52] [p. 5]).

The sense of “lostness” that modern man inevitably endures indicates inner change is needed: the revealing of and standing against evil within has not yet taken place; the self or false personality has not yet been denied; the second birth not yet been undergone. Fox’s prescription for this lost, fallen condition is this:

wait upon God in that which is pure…and stand still in it…to see your savior to make you free from that which the light doth discover to you to be evil” ([VII, 24] [p.5]).

In Christ there is freedom from sin, and only there does one find unity and “fellowship with all who believe in the light, hear the light, obey the light and walk in the light” (p.5).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Powers of the Soul

We should use the three aspects of the soul fittingly and in accordance with nature, as created by God. We should use our incensive power against our outer self and against Satan. “Be incensed,” it is written, “against sin” (Ps. 4:4), that is, be incensed with yourselves and the devil, so that you will not sin against God. Our desire should be directed towards God and towards holiness. Our intelligence should control our incensive power and our desire with wisdom and skill, regulating them, admonishing them, correcting them and ruling them as a king rules over his subjects (The Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 184).

The Philokalia is a collection of texts by spiritual masters of the Eastern Orthodox Church hesychast tradition. The texts were written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries for the guidance and instruction of monks who undertook contemplative life. The Greek word “philokalia” comprises two separate words, which together signify love of the beautiful and the good.

In The Philokalia, the writers are agreed that the soul has three distinct aspects or powers: the appetitive, the incensive, and the intellect. (Greek Christian Fathers accepted this three-part formulation that originated with Plato.) The first two powers can be used naturally to one’s benefit, or unnaturally to one’s disadvantage. Using these powers naturally and beneficially prepares one to receive Christ. Unnatural use is the result of having been overcome by demons that adulterate these God-bestowed powers, and thus prevent those whom they corrupt from preparing themselves to receive Christ.

For example, the appetitive power is used naturally and beneficially when one loves and desires to know God with all one’s heart, or—for the yet unredeemed—when one loves the beautiful and the good. And conversely, the appetitive power is used unnaturally when one is driven by desires for worldly gain or sensory pleasures: for example, the desire that leads a person to crave admiration or to become gluttonous.

The soul’s incensive power is misused when it is directed toward those who interfere with one’s desire or conceit. This misuse is experienced as anger or rancor toward another whom one holds responsible for one’s discontent, having had one’s desire or conceit thwarted. Naturally and beneficially, the incensive power can be used to intensify one’s longing for God or to ward off demonic anger towards others. By relying on the intellect to redirect that anger, the intensive power turns against and expels the demons who’ve infiltrated the soul, and thus obstructed unity with Christ.

The intellect is the power that guides the appetitive and incensive powers. When it is exercised well, the intellect directs the two other powers away from the temptation to yield to demonic influence. If the intellect’s power is not exercised well, the person becomes unaware of his own sin—as if spiritually blind or asleep—and becomes corrupt. (In Quaker parlance, his conscience is “seared.”)

When one is targeted by a corrupt person who discharges cruelty and deceit, one can become distracted from the primal duty to maintain purity of heart, and instead resort to blaming the sinful other for one’s own distress. A way of dealing with this temptation to blame others (which is a misuse of the incensive power) is to avoid the temptation altogether by setting a hedge between one’s soul and whatever offends. That is to say, one can create a space wherein one more easily realizes one’s intent to receive Christ. By simply preventing extraneous threats from the demonic—as given conduit by others—one eliminates interference with one’s readiness to receive Christ. For this reason, the practice of withdrawing from the world has long been a monastic and hermitic technique.

Employing such a barrier against the world is an ascetic technique to foster growth (as is the general intent of The Philokalia); it is not, however, the state of wholeness or perfection to which we are called, and likewise find heralded in early Friends’ writings. Faith does not simply avoid the maligned but acts (when directed by Christ) to confront and overcome evil by speaking truth. Such maturity of faith is known only as one receives the power of God that overcomes the world, as Christ Jesus affirms when he states:

In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).

This aim is aspired to when one strongly loves and desires God (and for the unredeemed: when one loves and desires the beautiful and the good) so that one’s attention and heart are purified through willing one thing (Mt. 5:8). Then is the intellect rightly used, the other powers of the soul well-ordered, and the soul prepared to receive Christ. In Christ, we are fully empowered to repel demonic infiltration of the soul, and to expel all sin. Through Christ, our savior, the demons are cast out, and we become perfect; our faith makes us whole. In a world that lies in wickedness (1 Jn. 5:19) and ignorance, Christ, the power of God, is the only power stronger than the demonic.

It is better to see the sin of the world as uniform and single rather than to view its manifestations as particular properties belonging to specific corrupted persons. That is to say, in its uniformity, the world’s sin is more like an expanse of mud than it is like separate rocks situated at intervals in a field! Seeing sin as a uniform force helps the intellect direct the incensive power toward sin itself, and away from particular offenders who have succumbed to and embody demonic power.

It is written that Jesus took on and overcame the sin of the world. It is germane to this statement that sin be considered a cohesive, single condition rather than a variety of particular disorders or deeds, each being the property or possession of individual persons, which is a psychological idea. Entertaining the prevailing modern notion of individual autonomy, one may be averse to yielding the claim of the self’s possessive power, even when that possession pertains to disorders of the self! It is a turnaround to accept that it is not people who possess sin but are, in fact, possessed by sin.

The older, biblical understanding allows one to see the world’s wickedness differently, and to replace the all-too-human response of resentment or anger towards the corrupt with a response of merciful pity and concern, as did our savior, who “knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:25). In unity with Christ Jesus, we overcome that which is in man; through Christ, we overcome the world.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn. 14:3).

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Opening the Scriptures: Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Mt. 13: 37-43)

Jesus is here privately explaining to his disciples the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt. 13: 24-30), one of the stories he had given to the multitude a short time before. The parable itself, as well as Jesus’s explanation of it, is usually interpreted in the following way: those people who are good will go to heaven when they die, and those who are bad will be thrust into hell.

It’s a comforting affirmation for those who consider themselves righteous: in the by-and-by, all will receive their just deserts. Furthermore, such an interpretation quiets the urge to take matters into one’s own hands: to wreak justice as spiritual vigilante, punishing wrong-doers who have disturbed one’s well-being, or egotistic self-regard.

Through the ages, this particular interpretation of the parable has likely saved many from abuse, and some of them—-perhaps in greater proportion to their number—were prophets. As well as safeguarding would-be victims from the misguided and malicious, this interpretation may also have benefited potential perpetrators, restraining hubris from descending into action.

Although it’s had its beneficial uses, this interpretation of the parable of the wheat and the tares is not the one that George Fox presents to us. Fox sees from a different perspective and therefore arrives at a different interpretation. We can study his interpretation of this parable, because Fox reveals it in his third epistle. Here is the sum total of that short epistle:

Friends,—There is an eye, that hath looked to see the good seed, that was sown, and queried, from whence came these tares? The answer was and is; “The wicked one hath sown them.” Now read the tares, and what is the effect of them, and their work? And what they do, and have done? How they hang amongst the wheat? But now is the time of harvest, that both wheat and tares are seen, and each distinguished, the one from the other.  G. F. (Works, 7: 17-18).

To understand Fox’s perspective, one begins by isolating his own words from those which are found in the original Bible passage. His own words indicate his interpretation of the text.

For example, the epistle’s first sentence is “There is an eye”: no such reference to this “eye” occurs in the text of the parable; it is strictly Fox’s expression. In communicating his first response to the parable by referring to “an eye,” he asserts the parable is about seeing; it is about seeing or knowing the difference between good and evil (good seed or evil tares). With that much information given, we know that Fox is relating the parable to the Fall, for to “know[ing] good and evil”(Gen. 3:5) independent from God’s guidance was the temptation offered by the Serpent. In taking that bait—to no longer eye God’s Will—humanity became spiritually blind, unable to see, to discern good from evil. The “eye” Fox refers to is that which has overcome that blindness by again eyeing God; this “eye” sees: “both the wheat and tares are seen, and each distinguished, the one from the other”(p. 18).

That the “eye” is but one eye—and not the two eyes given by nature—implies a special kind of seeing, the seeing that metaphorically refers to understanding, or insight. Fox refers to seeing “the good” and the evil that exist within each unredeemed human: “[the tares] hang amongst the wheat.” For Fox, the parable is first a lesson on spiritual discernment: seeing, and second a lesson on what one sees: evil is within oneself; with surprise, one asks: “from whence came these tares?”(p. 17)

Fox urges an examination of the evil that grows within. (“Now read the tares”; that is to say, now that you see the evil in yourself, learn about it.) He directs the reader to examine the characteristics and consequences of that inward evil:

what is the effect of [the tares], and their work? And what they do, and have done? How they hang amongst the wheat? (pp. 17-18)

Fox is compelling the reader to see the effects of sin and wrong-doing in his life, and the stubborn persistence of sin in human nature, as tares “hang amongst the wheat.” For to see—to sense—the distinction between good and evil, and the harm evil does to oneself and others, is the first step to knowing to refuse the evil, and choose the good (Isa. 7:15).

The “harvest,” a word found in both the original text and Fox’s epistle, does not refer to physical death, and neither does it refer to some cataclysmic end of all life on earth, as is often portrayed in non-Quaker interpretations. These wrong interpretations result from assigning a literal meaning to Jesus’s words: “the harvest is the end of the world” (v. 39).

For Fox, the end of the world is the end of the worldly self, the unredeemed, fallen self that is in opposition to and independent of God. Dying to that self, the inward cross, is the worldly death that entails “wailing and gnashing of teeth” (v. 42). Once this inward separation of spirit from worldly flesh, wheat from tares, good from evil, has taken place, and the tares gathered and burned, “then,” says Jesus, “the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mt. 13:42-43)

Jesus’s final statement (“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”) informs us that not all will grasp his meaning. He and other prophets realize comprehension comes only when the mysteries of the kingdom are unveiled by the Holy Ghost (Jn. 14:26). In his speech to London Yearly Meeting in 1675, Fox identified the parables, however, as one tool that prepares humankind to receive the Holy Ghost: “Here is the bundle of life opened, the end of the parables, and of the figures, and law, and who fulfilleth it.”

When Jesus’s disciples asked him why he spoke in parables, he said:

Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given….Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them (Mt. 13:11-15).

As did the prophets before them, seventeenth-century Friends understood that the worldly nature (described in this excerpt where Jesus quotes Esaias [Isa. 6:10]) could not understand the Scriptures. It is “by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know [the Scriptures],” wrote Barclay in Apology for the True Christian Divinity (Quaker Heritage Press, p. 62). No amount of scholarship, knowledge of Hebrew or Greek, nor seminary training could explicate the words given through the spirit of prophecy. The same dependency on the Spirit is required to understand early Friends’ writings: no amount of reading, training, or knowledge of history or doctrine can open the meaning of their writings. Because they are written from the spirit of truth, they must be read in that same spirit.

For I saw in that light and spirit which was before the scriptures were given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that spirit, if they would know God or Christ, or the scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by (Works, 1:89).

Fox here confirms the Scripture message that all must come to that Spirit (Rev. 22:17), if they would understand the words of the prophets and apostles that have come before. It is this Spirit of Christ that enables us to understand the writings of these prophetic men and women, regardless of the century in which they wrote—first, seventeenth, in between, or after—and to discern the spirit of truth from the spirit of error: to distinguish the wheat from the tares.

Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world; therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God; he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error (1 Jn. 4:4-6).

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His Seed Remaineth

Having faith, [a person] can thrive even when planted in the chaos of the world that lies in wickedness, even as a sycamine tree could be planted in a hostile environment of the sea (Lk. 17:6). Having faith, the hearing/obeying relationship with his Creator, man is restored, strengthened, and empowered to withstand and rise above such assaults upon his soul. He is given the power of God to rule over his human nature and to thrive regardless of the circumstances (“Increase Our Faith”).

Half a dozen years ago, I was walking with a friend on the Haverford College campus, which is in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was the beginning of the school year, and some students—about 30— had gathered on the college lawn to play a game that I’d never seen before. Intrigued, I suggested to my friend that we take a moment to watch the progress of the game. I recall her saying that the game was called “Zombie Tag,” and it began with a few students walking stiffly with arms outstretched among all the others, whose goal was to escape being tagged by them. When tagged, however, each victim also began to stalk others in a like manner—stiffly walking with arms outstretched. It surprised me to see how quickly the game progressed. As their number increased, the “walking dead” overcame “the living ones,” and when all players had joined the ranks of “the undead,” the game was over.

Being a gospel minister and regularly seeing in every day events analogies to the life of the Spirit, it occurred to me that the game modelled some spiritual dynamics: humankind can be alive in the flesh yet dead in the Spirit (just like zombies!) and in both the game and real life, the walking death spreads by contact between one person and another. In the game, it is simple tagging, but in life, the spiritual contagion is spread by deceitful, unjust behavior perpetrated upon innocent victims, who then, in turn, become perpetrators; and on and on it goes. As W.H. Auden quipped:

I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn

Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.

The game did not mimic life, however, in one very significant way:  whereas the game ends when all are caught and have become “zombies”; in real life, the death and darkness that consume need not be final: not all remain captive to the demonic forces that entice away life.

The good news is that while yet on earth and yet in time, we can receive life that is not subject to death, i.e. eternal life and the indwelling seed that keeps us from succumbing to the evil that men inflict upon their neighbors, and upon their brothers, as did that first perpetrator, Cain. (And wherefore slew he [Abel]? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous [1 Jn. 3:12].)

For not only was Jesus sent to raise up humankind above the throes and threat of spiritual darkness and death, but he is now sent to retrieve us into and sustain us in his own unassailable state, where he—and thus we—have power over the living death and living hell.

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death (Rev.1:18)

.     .     .     .     .

In the great prayer found in John 17 and expressed shortly before his execution, Jesus asks God to keep his disciples from the evil (15). Jesus was not asking that his disciples be removed from the trajectory of evil released by the animus of others, for ill-treatment comes to everyone in this world, and—as Jesus knows—those who “are not of the world” (Jn. 15:19) will be targeted assiduously by the prince of the world through those who have come unwittingly to do his bidding.

In asking that his disciples be kept from the evil, Jesus is asking that the inward condition of their souls be kept inviolate and uncorrupted by the evil that will—without question—assault them. It is the soul’s condition for which Jesus prays, that nothing in his disciples give foothold to the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2); i.e. that his disciples heed no temptation, that they forfeit no blessedness.

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light (Mt. 6:22).

Through singleness of mind, purity of heart, focused obedience, do his disciples overcome distraction and temptation. The physical sensation of being indwelled by the Spirit—the body full of light—is more than metaphor; it is actual experience arising from the blessed integration of one’s entire being: body and soul. It is the perfection of Christ’s joy fulfilled in those who have been born of God, and do not commit sin, for his seed remains in them.

Whoever is born of God doth not commit sin: for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother (1 Jn. 3: 9-10).

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Each Gives Out of His Store

My first book on religion came from my grandparents the Christmas I was 14. Its title was What the Great Religions Believe by author Joseph Gaer. Deep discussions with my grandfather occurred most every night in those early teenage years, while he washed and I dried the dishes after dinner. Religion was a topic that interested us both, and I’m grateful that I can recall some of his wisdom.

My views were very different then: I was becoming surer of my agnosticism with each month that passed, a perspective that was to last for most of the next two decades. Part of his wisdom was accepting my 14-year-old ideas as worthy of discussion. My views now are no doubt closer to what his were then, as is my age.

I was reminded recently of one vignette in this book, and thought I’d share it here. It is one of a number of unauthenticated sayings of Jesus that were found in papyri in Upper Egypt in the late-19th century and were thought to have been written between 150 and 300 A.D. The sayings, or Agrapha, were written in Greek. So, here’s the story:

One day Jesus and his disciples passed a man who spoke evil of them in a loud voice; but Jesus spoke only good in return. And when his disciples asked him why he spoke good to him who spoke evil, he replied: “Each gives out of his store.”

I’d like to think that my grandfather and I talked about that story.

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I want to give a shout-out to the reader in Hong Kong whose presence showed up today on the stat page of this blog for the first time since Typhoo Mangkhut hit in mid-September. Your frequent visits, as shown in the stats, had been a welcome sight for some months. I’m glad you’re safe and hope your city is recovering quickly.

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Introduction to “The Power of the Gospel”

The Quaker’s revolution was a movement to recover the experience of the power of God through the recovery of that gospel of power which had been lost “since the Apostles’ days.” — Lewis Benson

In August 1976 at Haverford College, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lewis Benson gave a series of five lectures titled “A New Foundation to Build On.” The second lecture in this series is called “The Power of the Gospel.” It begins with a brief history of George Fox’s early life at the time he felt near despair of finding a way to live a right and true life, a crisis that was resolved when he was given to know Christ experientially. In this essay, Benson alludes to the same stultifying difficulty early in his own life. As a result of having passed from darkness to light, both Fox and Benson, for the remainder of their lives, made their first concern the presentation of the gospel and its message, for the gospel conveyed the power to overcome the human condition of alienation from God.

Though Scriptures bear witness to the availability of and necessity for coming into the gospel, the church of Fox’s time no longer taught this message, and it was no longer known. Isolated groups throughout the centuries had known and practiced this faith, but it had been absent from the church for 1600 years. It was the Quaker mission to recover the gospel and present it to the world.

Benson spends a major portion of the lecture describing the content of the gospel message that Quakers preached; it was most briefly formulated in the statement “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” In the seventeenth century, this summary expressed a unique understanding of Christ’s salvific work: his being present and active, with particular emphasis on his prophetic office or function as the teacher of righteousness.

Whenever [Fox] preached the gospel, he preached the “offices of Christ,” and especially the office of prophet, because it is by hearing Christ the prophet that the knowledge of God’s righteousness is received and the power to obey is given (Benson).

The essay concludes by referring to the 1945 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a discovery that confirmed seventeenth-century Friends’ assertion that the gospel they preached was the same that was held by the Jewish Christians of the first century. Though it was a significant discovery, it had little impact on Quakers then or since, nor on Christians in general, for an apostasy is overcome not through gospel-corroborating scholarship but through the gospel itself.

This lecture series can be found at the New Foundation Fellowship website under the Resources tab and Lewis Benson’s writings.

 

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Hear Ye Him: Some Observations on Matthew 17

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? Of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou has opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee (Mt. 17: 24-27 KJV).

This isn’t your ordinary fish story, though it is incredible. Nevertheless, there’s a lesson about reality being taught here, a lesson to be confirmed by experience alone. For the experience goes well beyond that which we have learned is possible in nature, just like the story itself.

Peter is being taught in this passage that the new way that Jesus embodies will free him from the confines of the first nature, the nature given to all humankind. The story conveys this lesson by transcending nature at large, i.e., by presenting a miracle. The story’s miracle implies our human nature can likewise be transcended. By grace and truth, humankind’s state can be moved beyond its corrupt, sinful nature into a new and living perfection.

Several other passages in this chapter affirm the real possibility of transcending our first-birth nature. When an idea is presented convincingly a number of times and in various ways, the likelihood of its being grasped is increased. One instance among the plethora of argument, evidence, and conviction may at last raise the veil that darkens the mind, plant a seed that grows in the heart.

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you (20).

And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again (23).

Jesus’s question to Peter (of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? [25]) begins a course of reasoning designed to teach Peter that he has closer connection to God (as His child) than do those religious authorities who (alienated strangers to God) uphold religious, social regulation, such as paying and demanding tribute. Jesus is teaching Peter that he is beyond that alienated, tribute-paying nature of the world; he has a closer relationship to God: that of a son.

To finish his lesson with a demonstration of its truth, Jesus instructs Peter to perform an act that is impossible in nature: to get money from a fish’s mouth. He has taught Peter that (human) nature can be transcended, and now he wants Peter himself to partake of this knowledge, to have it confirmed by experience.

This passage is about coming into gospel freedom, freedom from captivity to  corrupt human nature: the final line Jesus speaks to Peter before sending him off to find the fish is “Then are the children free” (26).

There’s a thematic symmetry in this chapter. The opening verses (1-5) also  carry the lesson that with the coming of the new, living way, the paying of tribute is become defunct. In paying tribute, choosing what resources to give over to God, one assumes control, and asserts this arrangement is just and adequate. In the new way that Jesus brings to the world, humankind no longer arbitrates the dispensing of resources to God, no longer pays tribute, but instead yields to God’s command. Power and predominance of will shift their locus away from ourselves and onto God, once again to their rightful place that has been from the beginning.

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart. And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him (1-5).

We are told only of Peter’s reaction to the appearance of Moses and Elias: he wants to honor them and Jesus—to pay tribute—by building tabernacles, one for each. (The tabernacle was a type or figure of God’s dwelling with his people [Ex. 25: 8-9].) Even as Peter speaks of his intent to pay tribute, however, he is interrupted by the voice coming out of a bright cloud: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him”(5). God’s command, “hear ye him,” disrupts Peter’s plan. The voice commands the new way God is to dwell with his people: no longer through man-made tabernacles, but by hearing the Word of God, which is Christ. The enveloping structure of the tabernacle is superseded by the enveloping cloud of light; paying tribute is superseded by hearing the beloved Son.

The middle passages of this chapter teach a variety of lessons about the work Peter and the other disciples will soon take up after Jesus has been killed. The timing, sequence, and history; the expectations of suffering and frustration; and the healings, their source, and how to perform them are all lessons covered in the middle portion. Yet standing like bookends at either end of this chapter is Jesus teaching the difference between the man-made religion of paying tribute, and the nature-transcending faith that comes down from above. The prominent position afforded this lesson in the first and last passages of this teaching chapter bespeak its significance as the first and last lesson that a disciple must learn.

 

 

 

 

 

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