Saturday, November 26, 2011

Synopsis: Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

I have not been blogging much in recent months. My schoolwork load at George Fox Evangelical Seminary has used up most of my spare time and my writing mojo. One of my courses this semester has been on Missional Ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of the church: What is the church? What makes church church? What are the various expressions of the church? The Missional part has to do with exploring what the mission of the church is and how that is interpreted and expressed within the various ecclesiologies. Here is a link to a more detailed definition of what Missional Ecclesiology (aka Missional Church) means:

As part of the course we were permitted to choose our own area of emphasis within the subject of Missional Ecclesiology to study. The assignment was to read something each week about our area of emphasis and then write a synopsis on what we read. The idea of a synopsis is to try to “echo back” the points that the author is making and express how we interpret those points. My area of emphasis was Quaker Missional Ecclesiology.

I thought I might share some of the synopses I wrote. The danger in doing so is, as I see it, twofold:

1. I may have misinterpreted and thus misstate what the author was trying to say. If I have done so, I apologize.

2. I may open myself up to accusations of plagiarism. Let me state very clearly: I am not claiming that the following are my ideas. I am paraphrasing and “echoing back” the thoughts and words of the author(s) in an attempt to express a synopsis of their work.

My intent in posting this is the hope that what I have done might be of value to someone else by exposing them to these ideas and authors. The topic of Quaker Missional Ecclesiology is a fascinating one; worthy of deeper consideration.

My first synopsis is on the book Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism by Carole Dale Spencer. Spencer was formerly a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and is now a professor at the Earlham School of Religion. As I understand it, this book is an expansion of her doctoral thesis. The subtitle is "An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition." For this synopsis I am focusing on chapters 1, 3 and 7.

Chapter 1, A New Perspective on Quaker History

The essence of Spencer's thesis is that "holiness is the paradigmatic theme of Quaker history and theology."[1] In other words, Quakerism can best be understood as a radical holiness movement. In order to define what is meant by "holiness", Spencer cites the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, which states that holiness "embraces a range of concepts to do with the otherness of God and the character of a human life which is ordered so as to be consciously centered on [God] and [God's] service". According to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, holiness is defined as "a spiritual quality derived from participation in the life of God who is the source of all holiness". Spencer settles on a definition of holiness that combines these two: "A spiritual quality in which human life is ordered and lived out as to be consciously centered in God." [2]

It is no coincidence that Spencer has combined Catholic and Protestant definitions of holiness. Classic Quakerism is a distinct tradition which combines elements of Catholicism (such as worship centered in the presence of Christ) and Protestantism. As Spencer points out, "For early Quakers, holiness began with a mystical experience of union with God. Holiness required an experience of encounter and illumination that went beyond the 'faith alone' and 'imputed righteousness' of the Protestant Reformation. Quakerism, rather than a Puritan culmination of Protestant radicalism taken to its ultimate conclusion...was a radical holiness movement with greater continuity with medieval mysticism and monastic ideals..." [2] Additionally, "Early Quaker holiness was closer to patristic concepts of deification than to Protestant Reformation soteriology." [2] Thus, Quakerism can be seen to contain elements of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in addition to Protestantism. Additionally, Quakerism is often placed in the category of "Free Church" ecclesiologies which grew out of the Anabaptist movement. [3] Interestingly, Quaker historians have been able to find only tenuous links between the earliest Quakers (including George Fox) and the Anabaptists. Yet, there are close affinities between the ecclesiological emphases of Quakers and those of the Radical Reformers; including unmediated access to God, the importance of community for the right understanding of revelation, the functional priesthood of all believers, the centrality of mission and holiness as a lifestyle. [4]

Spencer points out that holiness is inseparably linked with a doctrine of Perfection: "the fully restored image of God and victory over sin." [5] Perfection is the telios (consummation; end result) of hagios (holiness). The doctrine of Perfection, according to Spencer, can be traced back not only to New Testament scripture (Matt. 5:48, Gal. 3:27, Rom. 8:9, John 15:4-5, etc., etc.) but also to the Greek Fathers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the doctrine is known as theosis (deification) and plays a central role. Whether stated as the telios of hagios or as theosis or as--in the Catholic mystical tradition--Perfection, the idea is to come to the place of a high state of an awareness of God's love, which results in a radically changed life, to the point that sin is no longer an encumbrance. "Perfection is...the goal of spiritual formation...' by which we come to be made partakers of the divine nature' (2 Pet. 1:4)." [6]

In Protestantism, the doctrine of Perfection has often been viewed as suspicious, if not heretical. Luther held that man can never be more than simul justus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner). [7] On the other hand, John Wesley taught a form of Perfectionism, referring to it as "the 'loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind.' This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:' Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. 'On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:' These contain the whole of Christian perfection." [8]

Spencer lists eight historical models of holiness doctrine [9] and posits that Quakerism combined elements of each in a radical and innovative way to form a new and distinct expression. The eight historical models, and the way Quakerism modified them, are:

1. Roman Catholic (real presence): But without the material elements
2. Lutheran (sola fides): Incorporating faith, but adding free will in a "synergistic cooperation" with grace
3. Puritan/Pietist (divine guidance): The experience of rapturous love and divine leading
4. Charismatic (Spirit-baptism): Empowerment and freedom from sin
5. Quietist (silence/passivity): Silent, apophatic worship
6. Mystical (unio mystica--mystical union): As the primary means of engaging the process of holiness
7. Monastic (obedience/renunciation): But reframed as a lay movement (for everyone)
8. Anabaptist (suffering/martyrdom): As evidenced by the early Quaker's willing acceptance of persecution

Spencer also gives eight "essential elements" of the early Quakers which also conform to beliefs and practices of the earliest Christians: Scripture, Eschatology, Conversion, Charisma, Evangelism, Mysticism, Suffering and Perfection. [10]

Chapter 3, Holiness in the Golden Age of Quietism

Early Quakers often wrote and spoke of "The Light of Christ [which] brings the soul to perfection." This Light is a metaphor for the inward work of atonement that Christ does in the heart of the believer--an ongoing power which transforms the individual who habitually responds to it. Thus, "holiness for early Quakers was the mystical process of the transformation of the personality by the Light (or grace). For early Quakers, the Light of Christ always meant 'Christ-in-me' and 'being-in-Christ,' a participation in God, the divine indwelling." [11] This is the key point of Quaker holiness (and the resultant "perfection"): not the eradication of sin (that is a by-product) but the mysterious inward union with God.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, this inward focus tended to result in outward action. "Because holiness, in any organized form, as in monasticism, represents a more intense form of spirituality and a detachment from all that distracts from the pursuit of union with God, it tends towards cultural separatism. Thus, holiness movements are inevitably counter-cultural. But essential Quaker holiness...always includes strong outreaching elements, a zealous desire to awaken others to the Light of Christ through evangelization and mission. While holiness creates a condition of being inwardly detached from the world and emptied of the ego-self, it also impels the 'pure in heart' back into the world to spread the Quaker message and to promote justice." [12] As the Quaker William Penn wrote, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." [13]

Thus, inward union with Christ is the engine that generates holiness, which then engages the transmission of outward activity. This is why Quakers have been at the forefront of social justice movements since their inception, including the abolition of slavery, prison reform, gender equality, ethical business practices, humane treatment of the mentally ill, respectful treatment of native Americans, education of freed slaves, opposition to war, anti-poverty actions including large-scale feeding programs, animal rights, women's suffrage, civil rights, human rights, environmentalism, etc. These are all ramifications, in one form or another, of a core belief and experience that every person is valued by God and can have a direct and intimate relationship with God and can live continuously in the felt presence of God.

Chapter 7, Quaker Holiness: A New Lens

Spencer concludes that over the course of the 350 year history of the Quaker movement, holiness has been a primary theme. This holiness begins with the "contemplation with grace" and leads to union with God which then results in a concern for others. Spencer posits that this is the distinguishing characteristic that set the early Quakers apart from other contemporaneous movements. "Quaker holiness is deeply embedded in the Christian mystical tradition...Holiness is always the goal of Christian mysticism...Mystics are those persons who believe it is possible to be intimate with God, who have felt God's love, and who continually desire to 'taste God.'" [15]

Spencer ends Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism by reiterating that the common view that Quakerism is simply a product of radical Reformation Protestantism is not accurate. Roman Catholicism viewed union with God as the culmination of the spiritual life, whereas Protestantism inverted that view to make union with God synonymous with justification by faith. Thus, union with God became a transactional entry point to be realized in heaven; rather than a process to be engaged in throughout one's life. "But in Quakerism," states Spencer, "from its inception, perfection was the culmination of growth in grace, sustained by the synergy of grace and works (loving God and neighbor), and by living obediently in the Light of Christ through divine indwelling. Thus, perfection could be experienced in this world as an inner communion with God, and not only a hope to be realized in heaven." [16] This means that in this regard Quakers are more closely aligned theologically with the early Greek Fathers than the Protestant Reformers. Additionally, "Their desire to create intensive contemplative communities of fully committed, spiritually awakened and aware people has more in common with the radical holiness of monastic reform movements than with the establishing of Protestant churches." [17] Quaker communities were counter-cultural; engaged in the world but not conformed to its image. The result was that a relatively small group of Jesus followers had an impact on Western culture far out of proportion to their modest numbers.


The key question I am left with after reading Spencer's book is "why not now?" I see Quakerism--along the lines of how it was originally practiced--as amazingly counter-cultural, missional and relevant. I wonder if in some ways our current times are similar to the tumult of 17th century England from which Quakerism emerged. Many of the earliest Quakers were first known as "Seekers." They were unaffiliated "spiritual but not religious" types who had become disenfranchised from the church and the political system. They distrusted authority and institution. They were drawn to the message of God's immediate accessibility and transformative power and they embraced it with reckless joy and proceeded to change their world. I see many parallels to our present age of Postmodern transition and I believe that the same message of a direct, transforming, ongoing encounter with God--apart from human or institutional mediators--is as compelling now as ever.

[1] Dale Spencer, Carol. Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster, 2007) p. 2
[2] Ibid., p. 3
[3] Karkkainen, Veli-Matti, An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Ecumenical, Historical & Global Perspectives (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2002) p. 60
[4] Ibid.,pp. 62-67
[5] Dale Spencer, Carol. Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster, 2007) p. 4
[6] Ibid. p. 7
[7] Ibid. p. 9
[9] Dale Spencer, Carol. Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster, 2007) p. 14
[10] Ibid. pp. 15-35
[11] Ibid., p. 49
[12] Ibid., p. 92
[13] Penn, William. No Cross, No Crown (11th Ed., 1771) p. 65
[15] Dale Spencer, Carol. Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster, 2007) p. 249-250
[16] Ibid., pp. 250
[17] Ibid., p. 251


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