A Reformed Apocalypse: Have I Come Home?

As I have thought through the Atonement through the past several years, I have been on quite a journey. For many reasons, both theological and personal, I left the Reformed tradition in which I originally cut my theological teeth. As I have thought through a number of issues, primarily Atonement, I have found myself back in the thrust of that great tradition. The tradition is wide and varied and I take comfort in that. I particularly like how B. A. Gerrish illuminates the habits of the Reformed tradition. He says the Reformed are deferential to their forebears, yet critical of their forebears; open to new insights of truth; practical in applying the truths they know; and perhaps above all evangelical, that is, they want the good news of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed as the hope of the world. I believe that in what I write in the following that I have habituated each of these. I wonder now, if I have truly come home.

In what follows, I hit some high points of dogmatic theology and outline the current state of my thinking on each. I am beginning to understand myself as moving forward in the Edwardsean line, while employing the Reformers, the Reformed Orthodox, Analytic Theism, and Dialectic Theology. It’s an eclectic project to say the least.  I hope that the discussion is useful, whether one agrees with the following or not. Iron hopefully will sharpen iron.

On Scripture: I still maintain that historical criticism is a valuable, even necessary, tool. But we must discern the spirits. Not all who engage upon this method are concerned to do so with the best of intentions. Many scholars can exhibit a hostility toward the text that is unwarranted and probably flows from some past negative experience that they had in Church or somewhere else. It could even be motivated by something more nefarious. So, we should always be mindful of that in others and ourselves. I have learned this in my own person and share it as an experience primarily from that realization.

In this light, I tend to think that the Barthian idea that Holy Scripture is the Word of God in witness/servant form is correct. I would addend that a heavy dose of Calvin’s notion of God “lisping” to us as children is also appropriate. I hold that Word of God should be expanded beyond what Barth thought, and that we can make use of the extra Calvinisticum to do so. In other words, there is more to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word, than is found in the history of Jesus Christ. Though, our thinking about the Word should be ever placed in check by that Revelation.

On Sin: This is much tougher, and you’ll have to indulge me as I tell you what I think Scripture says. Sin is essentially irrational. Barth and Torrance call it the “impossible possibility.” I can’t say that I believe in Original Sin or Total Depravity in quite the same way that it has been articulated in the tradition up until recently, but I want to hold to something like it. I’ll call it a radical distortion of the created order. It is ultimately a mystery, though future investigation might yield something a bit more solid. I have some thoughts in that direction, but I won’t yield them now. Rather, I’ll stick to a kind of exposition of some texts.

I have to understand sin through my reading of Romans 5 in compilation with evolutionary biology. Essentially, I tend to believe that Adam was a real historical person, though I don’t believe that he and Eve were the first humans. I think that Genesis 4:16-17 strongly implies that there were other people living alongside these two; evolutionary biology would concur. I rather think that Adam was elected of God for a mission, essentially to spread the true knowledge of God throughout the world by following God’s commandments.

He and Eve were and were to be God’s image bearers. They jointly failed. This caused spiritual death. God, the source of life, separated himself from the ones he chose to have communion with; God separated from them due to their disobedience. It could conversely be said that they separated themselves from God. God’s command revealed what they were supposed to do, but they chose to disobey, so their wonderful garden, their God-given source of life, was taken from them. As Romans 5:12-14 unpacks, death then spread to all because all sinned, though they didn’t sin “in the likeness of Adam.” In other words, people fell short of the glory of God, because they learned something of the God who was revealed to Adam as Adam’s progeny spread through the world and history, but it was a broken knowledge. Caan certainly had a knowledge of God, but it was severely broken. He could only see God as Judge, while Abel saw him as Provider. The knowledge of God continued forth through history in this fragmented way. It was not until the Law came to Moses that God made another revelation like he did to Adam, with Israel’s mission being the same as Adam’s: to be a light unto the nations.

What I find interesting in Romans 5, one of many things, is that “sin is not imputed when there is no law, nevertheless death reigned” (Rom. 5:13-14). There is a distinction between death and sin. Sin is something that is committed as a transgression of a known law or a lack of conformity unto a known law. But it is known (James 4:17). So, unlike the older Reformed, I don’t think that sin is imputed to Adam’s progeny but I do believe the effects of Adam’s sin were spread throughout the world, namely, spiritual death–a lack of spiritual clarity about God. Adam performed the exact opposite of his mission.

A quick aside: (I hold that natural death was already existing in the world, as evolutionary biology would have us understand. And this is a reality that will also have to be solved in the Atonement. The older Reformed often tended to speak of the Adamic Administration, therefore by logical default they were also speaking of this creation, as probationary or provisional. Given this, hypothetically Adam and Eve could have followed God’s commandment. Their garden could have been a beacon from heaven, a temple. They would have died naturally, nonetheless, but they and those who came among them believing in God and following God’s commandment could have died in true peace, in close relationship with God and with zero fear or confusion, knowing that they would be carried to something better. Ultimately, God would have lifted the whole creation to something new. However, it didn’t pan out this way. The ground of their garden was cursed, due to their disobedience. It shone as a beacon no longer.)

So, to continue: like the older Reformed, I want to maintain that Adam has a covenant headship over us. It’s just that it should be viewed as a spiritual headship rather than a natural one, as Adam was the first person to be elected to communion with God not necessarily the first actual human on my account. Adam, then, becomes the pattern of election throughout the Bible with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and finally of Christ’s spiritual headship over us through the Atonement. In each election, God is meant to reveal himself to humanity through humanity, which then makes humanity more and more responsible for living up to the standard that God requires as God reveals himself more and more. But this revelation serves to make us more and more guilty, because we discover that we can’t from our own power keep to what God has revealed. The Law, then, is a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). Sin uses the law to kill us, where we otherwise would have been fine (Rom. 7:7-12). Salvation cannot come from within us, even though it must come through humanity. And it almost seems to us that the Law itself is evil, “What shall we say then, is the Law sin?” (Rom. 7:7). The Law shows us that the distortion is too deep and beyond our control, we can’t help doing what we don’t want to do (Rom. 7:16-17), but God is merciful knowing that we “know not what [we] do” (Luke 23:34).

It is also worth pointing out that the distortion, the deceiving serpent, was there before Adam and Eve were disobedient. This is important, because too many schemes of salvation place the complete blame on Adam and Eve whereas the problem is actually much deeper.

On Atonement: Jesus Christ is the only human who can reveal God to humanity, because Christ is truly God. And Christ can truly offer the necessary human response back to God, because Jesus is truly human. As I’ve written and implied elsewhere, I don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, which is the dominant Reformed position. However, I do believe in substitutionary atonement. I hold to a minority position within the tradition that works its way through John McCleod Campbell and T. F. Torrance, yet with my own apocalyptic nuance.

As many Pauline scholars have brought forth, Paul’s theology tends to be apocalyptic. For our purposes, this means that Paul believed in a radical act of God to change the structures of our created world. Essentially, new creation is what Paul envisions for our future. Paul understands this to be the case through what is revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.

The old creation is crucified with Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2. Cor. 5:17). I believe that, in Christ’s death, God roots out the distortion of creation that allows sin to occur. He cuts away the body of death (Rom. 7:24). God does away with the elemental things, as Paul calls them; what we would call the natural laws, the principles upon which this creation is founded. (The Greek word is stoicheia.) In this removal of Christ’s fleshy body in the crucifixion, we can say farewell to the old order of things. All our sin or possible sin is gone in that movement.

In the resurrection of Christ’s new body, we can look forward to the future of newly created reality. The good things will be carried over, but the bad things will not be. As we look to Christ, we are justified. We are considered by God and then we consider ourselves to be dead to the old order, to sin (Rom. 6:11). Christ now becomes the first principle (the new stoicheion), or first fruit of the new creation. Christ really dies in our place; he is our representative. In fact, he dies for the whole cosmos to make it new (Col. 1:13-23; Eph. 1:9-10)

He does not die in the manner that some of the older Reformed sometimes thought, as a sinless, innocent man upon whom God places our exact sin and guilt. I think that would be immoral. Rather, Christ–who was/is sinless–willingly participated in our reality “coming in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50), so we have to have a new body, a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44). Jesus comes into the corruptible to do away with the corruptible (1 Cor. 5:42). We now wait for this body from heaven (2 Cor. 5:1-5). So, when we look to Christ we are justified in consideration of what Christ has done for us and which God will complete in the future.

In the meantime, we have the Spirit as a pledge of what will come (2 Cor. 5:5). We can rest in this and we are motivated to good things now, even in our body of death, because the Spirit works to vivify us in anticipation of what will come (Rom. 8:11). We have a future and a hope.

But in the meantime, in the time between the times, all things now are relativized. The Law can lay claim to us no more. Its threats have been vanquished in Christ. There remains what the Reformers called a third use of the Law, which is to say that the Ten Commandments can guide us along a moral life. But we also have the freedom now to figure out which socio-economic arrangements might be best for us, and which ethical theories best apply what the Ten Commandments reveal. We are no longer bound to the Mosaic economy. God wants us to explore and sends his Spirit to guide us. We can be charitable to one another when we differ. We truly have a lot of freedom to explore what the world is and how it all works. God does not tell us these things directly. God has set us free, only let us remain virtuous (Gal. 5:1,13; Phil. 4:8).

Finally, for that great Reformed dogma of predestination: I believe an updated version of it. I hold to a version of predestination that critically defers to the line of thought that developed from Saint Paul to Augustine to Calvin to Barth to Torrance and to Robin Parry. My view is an ontological, formal view. The ontology is based in God, who is love. That love takes the form of Christ. I believe that the entire cosmos is meant to take the form of Christ in death and resurrection. Currently, we have some freedom, which is quasi-libertarian, meaning that we can choose between different natural, earthly things or options. But the Law reveals how deeply distorted our nature is, therefore, we cannot choose in an entirely morally free sense. We can see and know the good in various fleeting moments, but we can’t always muster the power to choose it–the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

In Christ, God has rent the old creation asunder, the old man, as Paul calls it. We gain freedom from this, by the Spirit, as we look toward this saving act and trust it. But we still live in this present evil age, again as Paul calls it. We are not presently free enough as we should be. God’s ultimate goal is to set us free to his glory. So, we look to the form of Christ: “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). According to God’s kind intention, the mystery of his will, all things will be summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).

There may be much rebellion now, in this present evil age, but the end is clear: All evil will be put to death and God will raise all to a new creation. When the corruptible is cut from us, we will finally and fully be free to choose–and we will see clearly the irresistible grace and love of God. As we can clearly see that 2+2=4 now, as we see that it is reality and our mind cannot say it is not reality except by a deception, we will likewise see God as love and we will understand that as true reality. Our hearts will move toward it, compelled by its reality. We will then be free to live according to what is actually real. There will be no more deception. All relationships will be authentic. Those who need to be forgiven will receive forgiveness by those who will gladly want to give it. All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

So, it is a double predestination, wherein all evil is destined toward nothingness and it is so destined because all relationships will be rectified without the possibility of corruption. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable are his ways!…For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33, 36).

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The Law and Gospel of Atonement: A Process Lutheran View

We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

Ephesians 4:15-16

One fine afternoon, after commuting an hour or so home from work, I found myself reading some theology of the Finnish Lutheran variety. It had much to do with the Unio Christi, and I was engaged in that most Lutheran activity of simultaneously indulging in this fine theology while evacuating my bowels. If, at least according to one of the legends, Luther had his great gospel insight into justification while pooping in the tower, why couldn’t I do something similar? I’ve been to that tower; my bathroom is much more commodious, more conducive to letting the good thoughts flow.

And so they did.

The Finnish Lutherans have made an excellent case, through Luther’s own writings, that there is a distinction between grace and gift in Luther’s thinking on justification. This distinction comes to Luther via Romans 5:15. God’s grace or favor is simply God’s positive disposition toward a person, regardless and in spite of the sins of that person. This is most closely associated with the forensic aspect of justification—God’s declaration that a person is righteous.

The gift is the other part of the equation. Specifically, the gift is that of righteousness. God gives righteousness to the person that God favors, and so that person will become righteous, or even deified. Neither of these aspects comes from God in an abstract way. Both are aspects of a greater reality, namely, Union with Christ. The sending of Christ to a person is grace or favor from God. The work that Christ does in being sent to that person is gift. Christ works righteousness in the person who has faith in him. The person and work of Christ cannot be separated, even if they can be distinguished.

I am inspired by this distinction as I think about Atonement and what exactly it is. I believe that Atonement is Union with Christ as that union realizes the distinction between grace and gift for each individual person.

In a previous essay, entitled Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment, I mustered an argument against the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement. I remain in substantial agreement with that essay, and I rely on it to fill in the gaps that any reader might have for this essay, which I hope will be able to stand on its own legs regardless. More can always be said, though, and for a helpful bit of more I refer readers to the above-mentioned essay.

For the purposes of this essay, it is essential to bear in mind the fact that God does not require one human to pay for the sins of another. In fact, God believes this to be unjust (cf. Ezek. 18, especially 18:1-4, 32). Neither can one person legally ransom another person from death (Psalm 49:7). Jesus was/is a human, and so Jesus is included in this. Atonement theories that use either or both of these concepts and attribute them to Jesus’s death on the cross are neither canonically nor morally attuned. Even Luther himself could veer in this direction, though he need not be interpreted in that way. The fröhliche Wechseln, the joyous exchange, can be interpreted in a way that disallows these blatantly unbiblical ideas.

Paul Althaus makes this clear, as he searches through Luther’s thinking. Althaus maintains that, “No one can, in the strict sense of the word, help another in God’s judgment—either through substitutionary achievement or through meritorious intercession. (For God deals with each man by himself and no one can believe or obey or die for another. Insofar as we can speak of vicarious or substitutionary activity, we can never do that but we can only help the faith and life of the man for whom we intercede.)”[1]

He then quotes Luther in a footnote: “I do not ask that God would give you my faith or my works but that he would give you your own faith and your own works so that Christ may be able to give you all of his works and salvation through your faith just as he has given them to us through faith.”

And again: “See to it that no one proposes to be saved through someone else’s faith or works; indeed you cannot be saved through the work and faith of Mary or Christ, unless you have your own faith, for God does not permit Mary or Christ himself to take your place and to make you faithful and righteous, unless you yourself are faithful and believing.”[2]

In these sentiments, there lies embedded another notion that is closely attached to them. True forgiveness requires that the injured party is the one who does the forgiving. You cannot forgive yourself for a sin you committed against another person, as if that forgiveness were from the offended person. Likewise, you cannot offer forgiveness on behalf of another person.

For instance, if Johnny slapped Tommy, then Elizabeth could not just up and forgive Johnny for that act, not without Tommy’s expressed consent, which is to say his forgiveness. Elizabeth could be the bearer of the message of forgiveness, but it would simply be Elizabeth relaying Tommy’s act of forgiveness. It would not be Elizabeth forgiving Johnny.

Luther explains it this way: “No one can fulfill God’s law for someone else; each one has to fulfill it for himself…That is why the commandment says: You, you, you, ought to love. It does not say you should let someone else love in your place. For although we can and should pray for one another that God should be gracious and help, no one will be saved unless he has fulfilled God’s commandment for himself. Therefore we should pray not that God would permit someone else to go unpunished, as those rascals who sell indulgences pretend, but that he would become godly and keep God’s commandment.”[3]

I mean to claim in all of this that not even God can forgive one person on behalf of another person. As I say this, it immediately prompts the question: How does God forgive, then? It seems clear that God forgives. And the Pharisees, at least, believed that “God alone” can forgive sins (Mark 2:7). How can there even be an Atonement? How does it work? To answer these questions, we will have to take a quick foray into one salient aspect of Process Theology.

The aspect of Process Theology that we need to zero in on has to do with God’s ability to feel. In classical theology, God is understood as unable to feel. This is the doctrine of impassibility. In much modern theology, however, it is understood that God can feel, that God can suffer and can therefore undergo this type of relational change. Process Theology does much to argue in this direction and goes further. It argues that God feels every pain of every existing conscious being, in precisely the same amount as that being, almost as if God were that being. According to Process Theology, God indeed is a structural part of everything that exists.

I won’t repeat those arguments here. I will simply assert that God suffers and feels deeply the pains and joys of every conscious being. If the reader wishes to hear the arguments that bear this assertion out, s/he may read Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Thomas Jay Oord, et al.

As I assert that God can feel, it becomes necessary to realize that every sin or other harmful act that one conscious being makes against another is thereby deeply felt by God. It pains God, at least as much as—if not more than—it pains that conscious being. Every sin that is committed is committed against God in precisely this painful way.

As we begin to understand this, we can start to see that when God forgave sins on the cross, he was forgiving sins against Godself, every sin that God actually suffered. The sin of Johnny slapping Tommy would be a sin that God would feel. God would have felt the pain of that slap, and God forgave that slap anyway. God did not forgive what Tommy felt; God only forgave what God felt through Tommy. But it was precisely the same amount of pain. God has forgiven all sins against God.

Romans 3 teaches us that Jesus came as a demonstration or manifestation or proof or evidence (endeixin) that God is merciful. God portrayed Jesus publicly as a mercy seat (hilasterion) in order to demonstrate God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:25). God has not demanded full justice on his behalf. The righteousness that appears (Rom. 3:21), the righteousness that Jesus demonstrates (Rom. 3:25-26), comes apart from the Law (Rom. 3:21). It is a gift! We simply need to believe, to have faith, (Rom. 3:22), and we are thereby in full communion with God’s forgiveness of our sins against God. For every pain that I’ve caused God, I am forgiven by God. God is for us (Rom. 8:31)!

This, so far, reveals the aspect of grace or favor as we find it in Union with Christ.

“Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:31).

Remember: God did not forgive the pain of what Johnny made Tommy feel; God could only be merciful on God’s behalf with what God felt. Johnny still owes Tommy an apology; Johnny still needs to repent. If Johnny doesn’t repent, if Tommy doesn’t forgive, there will in point of fact be a relational rift between the two. Reconciliation, Atonement, will not be realized. In this interpersonal way, the Law is still upheld. There are still consequences for our actions.

Humans must reconcile with one another. If someone commits a murder, they still have to go to jail even though God forgives them. The murderer must truly repent and the one murdered must forgive, if there is ever to be true reconciliation, true salvation…if God is ever to truly and finally be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). This is the hard truth of the Law: Full salvation does not occur until everyone has mercy as God has mercy, until everyone loves as God loves.

But this difficult truth can only drive us back to the full Gospel. God poses the great Not Yet of the future, where all things will work together for good (Rom. 8:28). Not even death can separate us from the love of God as it is demonstrated in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:37-39). God has certainly shown all of us, through the Law, that we have been disobedient; but the Gospel shows us that God will have mercy on all (Rom. 11:30-36). The mystery has been revealed, all things in heaven and on earth will be summed up in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10).

Considering this, we can have faith that God will lead all to repentance and reconciliation. This, too, show’s God’s grace, even through the Law. When Tommy realizes, whether now or in the afterlife, that God was able to forgive Johnny for the precise pain that Tommy felt, then Tommy—the injured party—will see that he has the glorious power to forgive as well when he is united with Christ.

And Tommy will further realize that he has been no saint, that he has caused God and other people pain as well. He needs forgiveness, and this realization, with the empowering presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit will move him to repent. This will happen billions of times over for billions of people, and everyone will eventually be in a right relationship with everyone else. God will not stop until this work is done, until God is all in all. This, then, reveals the aspect of gift as it comes in Union with Christ. We will be made righteous, though only through faith.

This is not a robotic determinism. It is the Gospel that produces this faith, this trust, that God will carry us and finish the work. It does not coerce; it only persuades by gradually showing each person what reality actually is.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

So, the Gospel is both present and future, already and not yet. We are completely forgiven of our sins against God right now. God is for us! And God promises to bring all things to completion by working in everyone to realize the forgiveness they need and have in Christ.

We must all become the love that God is in Christ. And we will through Union with Christ! May God send us more Elizabeths to preach this to us!

[1] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. (pp. 300-301). Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1966.

[2] Ibid., p. 301

[3] Ibid., p. 301

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Tracing the Light: An Attempt at a Covenantal Quakerism

“Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every reality of evil.”

1 Thessalonians 5:19-22

To speak Quakerly for a moment: I have had a concern placed upon me, and I believe it is turning to a leading. I have been immersed in Quaker writing for about five years. I’ve attended several Quaker meetings. I work in a Quaker school and serve on the Quaker Life Committee. I love Quaker history, especially of the original 17th century Quakers and the early 20th century Friends. The writings of Rufus Jones, especially, have been a Godsend.

In all of this, I have felt something missing. I have not quite found a Quaker community that I could deeply be part of. I have not found most current Quakers to be as interested in theological and spiritual discussion as I am. From what I can gather, this didn’t seem to be the case in the early 20th century. It seems as if something in Quaker culture has waned.

Douglas Gwyn’s book, Personality and Place: The Life and Times of Pendle Hill, would seem to suggest that there was an increase in psychologizing and seekerism that occurred in the 1960’s, which led to an unhelpful kind of individualism. I have benefitted from my own study of psychology, and I could be called a seeker, but I think he’s mostly right. There’s a lack of community in most of the Meetings that I’ve attended and a lack of confidence in claiming to have made any discovery of spiritual substance.

With that being my disposition, I want to set out to discover if there can be a recovery of a substantial, a weighty, Quaker movement. I want something with deep historical roots, something that knows what it stands for, even while it remains quite open to discovering unknown truth. In a phrase, I want something more spiritually scientific, more rigorously Quaker. This is my attempt to outline what that might look like, a vision that I hope will inspire others to put on their climbing gear and take to the spiritual Alps before us. In whatever that follows, take what speaks to your condition and leave the rest.

Quakers have a general consensus that there is “that of God in everyone.” This notion has gone by many names—the Seed, Grace, the Spirit—but I will call it the Inner Light. This will be the theological starting point for a Covenantal Quakerism. Quakers of most stripes could agree with this starting point, Quakers ranging from the theological titan, Robert Barclay, to the most modern, anti-theological Quaker.

The experience of the Inner Light varies from person to person, because the guidance is for a specific person in a specific time and place, but the substance and tenor of the Light is essentially the same. As Francis Howgill once put it: “This day of the Lord, which is eternal brightness, appears in the heart; and the dawning and breaking forth of it is to be waited for there; and as it is witnessed, it manifests evil, and brings it to light, and declares against what is contrary to its own nature.” George Fox further spoke of an ocean of darkness that he could see at the beginning of his experience. But soon there was an ocean of light, moving him from the darkness.

As I have experienced the Light, I can say that it is unmistakably other than my own conscience. It comes in the precise way that is most needful, sometimes overwhelming like a mighty wave, sometimes slow and babbling. Either way, it will take me where it is best for me to go, if I would only listen and follow. I have come to believe that these experiences are amplifications of what occurs in each moment of life. These major experiences of the Light train us to see the Light everywhere and always, to listen to it with the subtlest of attention, and to keep the peace of one’s soul with the Greater Soul.

This experience is inward and unmistakable. It is objective, as Robert Barclay argued. It gives you the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Without this, it seems that all divine things would go unrecognized. The basic texture of the experience is one of love. And Saint Augustine sounded very much like a Quaker, when he said that if one only learned to love truly, then there would be no need of the Scriptures. This experience of the Inner Light is the foundational reality of a Covenantal Quakerism.

It begins in the soul, if you will. It’s a process of conversion toward being able to see the truest Reality, the Divine, and not only to see it but to be like it. It’s the essence of religion as Quakers have come to understand religion.

Even while this experience is deeply personal, it is nonetheless socially rooted and wants to be shared. It occurs primarily in Meeting, among other Friends seeking the same experience. And there is a history behind it.

It has been the sustained experience of the Religious Society of Friends that God meets us primarily in a still, small voice. This is why Friends meet in silence. We follow the way of the one who communed with his Father for hours alone in silence, the one who taught his disciples to join him, even though they couldn’t stay awake to do it. And it is this one, Jesus the Nazarene, who has set the historical trajectory for Quakers. This has sometimes been forgotten in our meeting together. That amnesia has been unhelpful, almost as if we’ve forgotten how to walk. But most early Quakers understood the Inner Light to be Jesus, who has “come to teach his people himself,” as George Fox liked to put it.

Jesus, though a wanderer, was not rootless. He was a Jewish man in Palestine, under Roman rule during the first century. He was a prophet in a long line of Jewish prophets, whose job it was to warn the Jewish people that their leaders had lost their way and to point toward the steady, sometimes narrow, path forward. The Gospels tend to paint Jesus as a prophet in the vein of Isaiah, as testified in Matthew, Luke, and Q (Matt. 4:14-16; 12:17-21; Luke 2:32; 4:17-19, 21; 7:22). Jesus is the one on whom God placed his Spirit, and the one through whom healing came.

The passages quoted from Isaiah reveal something quite interesting. They say that the chosen Servant will be appointed “as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The Gospels witness that Jesus understood himself to be this Servant (Luke 4:17-21). Jesus is a covenant and a light. And that covenant and light has a specific, Jewish history. For so many reasons, we need to remember that.

A Covenantal Quakerism understands itself to be positioned in a specific history, one defined by God making covenants with God’s people. God has always revealed Godself to people. God has done this in various ways and through various religions, but it does no good for Quakers to attempt to fly above it all, to attempt to be something other than historically rooted, and forget that God has revealed Godself in the history of Jesus and Jesus’s forebears. The covenant is ancient and has long since revealed to the Jewish people that God is struggling with them and for their good, that God has since time immemorial enacted his hesed, his covenant loyalty.

But God also revealed, through the Jewish people—in prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Jonah—that God is for the nations. There is a New Covenant. Jesus is that covenant materialized, made flesh. Jesus is God become like us, so that we might become like God, as the ancient Christians used to say, following Athanasius and Augustine. And Jesus set forth the outlines of that covenant in his most well-known prayer, the prayer he passed on to his disciples, what has come to be called the Lord’s prayer.

The Good News, as set forth by Covenantal Quakerism, is that God—as the ultimate Creator of all that is true, good, and beautiful—is in favor of all that is true, good, and beautiful in us and will persuade us to that end. Whatever darkness lies in you, God will give you the Light to dispel it, the power to turn away from it and you can become righteous (1 Cor. 10:13; Ezek. 18:28, 31-32). God’s kingdom will come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God will not let us go; hasn’t let us go through the millenia.

God has come to people through diverse manners, even concentrated in a person who risked his life to bear this message of faith, hope, and love. As Rufus Jones enjoyed saying, Jesus reveals the Heart of the universe, and that Heart loves us. This is a message we cannot afford to lose sight of. Quakers have been fantastic in increasing the Kingdom of God through deeds—they have had an outsized impact considering the proportion of their numbers with the rest of society—though there has been a loss of the Kingdom’s increase in word and understanding among Friends.

So, as John Yungblut has said: “Strange and unendurable irony — that Friends who speak so much about the Inward Light should so timidly hide their own light under a bushel! The time has come to preach the faith we have resolved to practice. If we have good news for our brothers, and I believe we do, let us shout it from the housetops!” It is an exciting message!

But we need not fear any unnecessary exclusivism. I don’t want skeptics and seekers of a certain sort to jump off the train here. Covenantal Quakerism has much room for the Inner Light to explore truth in its fullness. We don’t know it all yet. While CQ can confidently claim that it has received its anchoring Light from this particular Jewish history and this particular Jewish person, it is not at all opposed to Light from other religions, philosophies, and science. On the contrary, CQ’s sense of rootedness gives it the confidence to walk wisely upon the world stage, embracing all that is true, good, and beautiful.

On a personal note: Besides the great wisdom of Judaism and Christianity, I have benefited from Hinduism, particularly the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Buddhist meditation has also been helpful. Process theology has given me a metaphysical ground, and helped me to make sense of the religion vs. science dialogue. It has also affirmed some of my innately Daoist understanding of God. Evolutionary biology has been incredibly helpful for understanding present human nature, and I believe it can successfully update Robert Barclay’s understanding of people’s “fallen” condition with much more accuracy than he was able to do in his time. Though, his heart was on the right track, for sure.

CQ doesn’t stand opposed to any truth that can be found. Rather, it stands positively as a witness for the truth that it has discovered. It is not committed to believing that all religions are equal, even as it isn’t committed to believing that it has found the only way. For CQ to believe that it is the only way would mean that it has lost sight of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, which we will speak of shortly.

CQ does maintain the positive belief that religion should be endeavored upon in a scientific manner, with the beliefs of a community being tested through experience and reason over time and always illumined by the Inner Light. Like a scientific theory, CQ provides a framework for the believer to poke, prod, test, confirm some aspects, and deny others.

CQ resonates with the quote by Douglas Gwyn in Faith and Practice: “Quaker faith and practice can be compared and combined with a wide variety of other traditions: such as Buddhism, or ethical humanism. But we will find our deepest and fullest resonances with the biblical Christian traditions that nurtured early Friends and with the Jewish traditions that nurtured Jesus.” Covenantal Quakerism is almost summed up in that very quote.

So far, this has been a general overview of what a Covenantal Quakerism could look like. CQ believes that, given the world’s diverse religious landscape, what has been said is already quite substantial. Should we go beyond this? Can we?

Covenantal Quakerism stands for all of the major testimonies that have historically been adhered to among Quakers: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship. These are often called the SPICES. Each of these values has held firm in the trials and tests of the past 350 years of Quakerism. All of these values have been tested among other groups and have been corroborated in those experiences. Covenantal Quakerism, then, bears witness to the truth value of these testimonies as a wise way to walk through the world and wishes to add its voice to testify of their greatness.

We are in agreement with Quakerism at large about the SPICES, but a longer note on the Peace testimony is needed. Covenantal Quakerism recognizes that many Friends had felt a deep moral conviction, during the American Civil War and World War II, to enter into these conflicts as combat service people. In the wisdom of the majority of Yearly Meetings, these Friends were not written out of their respective Meetings when they returned. While the position that some wars are morally just to fight in is a minority position among Friends, we feel compelled to recognize the conscience of those who made those gut-wrenching decisions as still maintaining the conscience of Friends.

Therefore, we cannot hold to an ideology of Absolute Pacifism. Rather, we must take the position that most historical wars have been morally wrong, while there are a few that can be morally justified, even if not in totality. Furthermore, any such decision to enter a particular conflict in the present is advisedly made from the normative experience of peace-making—meaning the living of a life that desires true harmony, true shalom, among all people, of all places and every day, insofar as it depends on the peace-makers’ ability to bring this about. Any individual entering upon such a decision is urgently advised to seek the wisdom of a clearness committee. Beyond this, we will say no more at this time.

There are, however, other distinctions between Quakerism at large and Covenantal Quakerism that are worth talking about.

Those coming from outside the Quaker tradition are often interested to understand how the Quakers read their Bible. Others are often interested in what Quaker worship looks like. In the following paragraphs, we will speak to both of these curiosities as they mingle in a distinct way in Covenantal Quaker worship.

To begin with, Covenantal Quakers can agree wholeheartedly with the statement about Scripture set forth in the 2017 Faith and Practice, found here. There are a few aspects, however, that CQ tends to emphasize in its worship. Specifically, “Friends know that their shared knowledge of the Bible deepens both spoken ministry and inward listening. And Friends continue to find the Bible to be an important touchstone against which to test their leadings.”

To continue with the theme of religious experimentation, CQ would say that every good theory has testable claims. In the case of CQ, we have a history illuminated by the Inner Light, and we test the discoveries concerning the Divine through that Light. Like a standard scientific theory, we know that there is a history of interpretation, a peer-reviewed dialogue, through which the theory arises. Our history shows forth the various tests of the Inner Light’s leadings, from Abraham onward. The Hebrew Tanakh and the Christian New Testament, together simply called the Bible, are our primary historical witnesses to our growing understanding of the Divine, our religious theory. The Bible serves as our family story and our peer-reviewed literature. It is the testimony of a grand, spiritual epic, as Rufus Jones liked to put it.

Even still, we do not understand all parts of the Bible to be divinely inspired. There are dark moments of our family history that have been recorded, moments where cruelty and malice come to the fore. When these elements are advocated in the Bible, rather than warned against, we understand by the Inner Light that these elements are not Divine even when biblically advocated. They then serve us as a reminder of how otherwise good people can slip into bad modes of being. They also serve to remind us how religious fervor can go astray if not properly guided by the Peace of the Inner Light. The Meeting can then offer a spiritually criticized version of these passages as the proper way to read them in the Light.

With the foundational experience of the Inner Light, CQ is further guided to read Scripture through two, reciprocal lenses of experience. In the Hebrew Tanakh, the primary lens of experience is that God acts according to hesed. God is loyal to the covenant over thousands of years and is endlessly forgiving and loving. In the New Testament, the covenant comes to Light and Life in the person of Jesus the Nazarene. This Jesus loved and forgave his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same. Anything in the Bible, whether in Tanakh or the New Testament, that teaches the contrary to these two, reciprocal lenses of experience is not normative and is probably not inspired.

Therefore, we highly esteem the statement in Faith and Practice that says: “Friends do not consider any scriptures, including the Bible, to be the final Word of God. Robert Barclay cautioned that the scriptures are only a declaration of the source and not the source itself. Friends believe in ‘continuing revelation’ arising from ongoing communion with the Living God. This expands our sensitivity in relationships with one another and likewise our knowledge of the universe.”

At the same time, we take the biblical history with utter seriousness, and we see the fingerprint of God everywhere in it. We see, with C. S. Lewis, how it “carries the Word of God.”

This seriousness leads to a distinction in CQ worship. Whereas most Friends Meetings, at least on the U.S. East Coast and in Britain, are unprogrammed—meaning the meeting is entirely held in silence except for those spontaneously moved to give vocal ministry—Covenantal Quaker worship rather intends to read a portion of the Bible at each Meeting.

A weighty Friend, someone with much learning about the chosen passage and using the best means possible—including historical criticism, literary criticism, and lived experience—will then attempt to say a few words about the passage. This weighty Friend witnesses about the continued relevance of the passage, using the best of human knowledge and experience available to them. This Witness will last typically around 10 minutes.

After this, the Meeting will move to unprogrammed, silent worship. The Meeting may incline itself toward the Witness, or it may diverge depending upon the sense of the Meeting. The Divine must always have space, and there is no prescription for silent worship other than to hearken toward the Divine. It should also be stated that it is fully acceptable to read from other family stories, meaning other sacred scriptures, than the Bible, but a passage from the Bible will always be read at Meeting, giving our faith mothers and fathers the honor due to them. This is the Covenantal Quaker way of remaining rooted, of attesting to the history of the Covenant, and of living in that continuing history of revelation. At the end of each service, the Meeting will come to consensus on which passage should stand as Witness the following week.

With all of this, we do honestly accept other inspired texts to enter into the Meeting. CQ understands inspiration in a similar fashion as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Rufus Jones understood it. Inspiration is when you meet a text or event that lifts you up to be more than you could have without it, signaling that it comes from a transcendent place. It is when you read a text that seems to read you back more deeply, revealing to you things that you did not know about yourself or other people. It puts asunder the bad in you and raises the good. It evokes transitive concern, a loving disposition toward other people. Inspiration is what happens, through any given medium, when the Meeting is brought into loyalty with itself and toward its ultimate goals of worshiping and experiencing the Divine and then living in Light of that experience. It is anything that spontaneously increases what Paul called the fruits of the Spirit. In short, inspiration is another outworking of the Inner Light.

This view of inspiration leads easily to the CQ stance on sacraments. The Nazarene once said that “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Quakers have traditionally understood this experience as the center of their worship. They have often chastened Christians for making too much of the forms of worship and not enough of the one through whom they worship and the specific life generated by that worship. Quakers have taken Jesus at his word and have believed that his presence is with them in worship. This has been sacrament enough for them. The forms, Quakers say, are not necessary.

While CQ believes that the intention behind this is mostly correct, it also recognizes the wisdom of recent Faith and Practice books, where the sacraments are understood as helpful, and often deeply meaningful, even if they are not altogether necessary for a life in the Light. Quakers are wary that the Eucharist might become an empty form. They want to emphasize that the point is the gathering of people to remember Jesus and the way he pursued truth, goodness, and beauty in the world so that we might venture along that path. Likewise, Quakers are wary when water baptism replaces the washing and regeneration of conscience that Peter spoke of (1 Peter 3:21). Through all of this, CQ can still find value in these practices if understood as possible moments of inspiration. But we must remember spontaneity, so that we don’t risk returning to a bare form.

So, Covenantal Quakerism shares the wariness toward outward forms that Quakerism generally articulates, though it does not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t want to make a legalism of either spontaneity or form.

CQ will offer water baptism to those who desire, particularly to those who have had the experience of regeneration or convincement. Although, children could be included, if their parents desire it, by virtue of a covenantal understanding of God’s promise to all people. Either way, CQ will make it clear that true baptism is to undergo spiritual transformation, which is often difficult, and none will be required to undergo water baptism, especially not those who believe that their spiritual experience has been baptism enough. After all, Christ’s most true baptism was not the baptism of John in the Jordan. It was the cross (Luke 12:50), which the readers will remember included no water except for his own sweat and the tears that preceded the crucifixion.

Similarly, with Communion—sometimes called Eucharist or Lord’s Supper—CQ is guided by the path of its forebears, who were Primitivist Christians and were guided by the desire to be the church as it was in the New Testament time. In that light, Communion will be an actual meal. Bread and wine will be present to serve as ancient symbols, but it will be a meal with whatever food comes out of the bounty of the meeting and it will especially feed the poor among us. In this way, CQ will remember that Christ is there, truly present, in the gathering and communing of people in his name. There is no magic in the bread or wine. The Cosmic Christ is present in all people and all things at all times. It is the Inner Light shining through everyone, like so many gathered candles becoming a roaring fire, which is the important point of Communion.

This leads us to speak more directly about Jesus. So far, we have spoken of Jesus as the Inner Light, “the Christ who comes to teach his people himself,” and the Presence we feel when we gather toward the Divine. This all accords with what Quakers have traditionally thought and felt about Jesus.

Typically, Quakers have not entered into the fray of Christological debate. But Quakers have held to a distinction-without-separation between the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ. This distinction is similar to what came about in the Chalcedonian creed of early Christianity, yet with important and helpful differences. Quakers have not traditionally assigned Jesus to any metaphysical box; they have rather stood as witnesses to their experiences of him, which illuminates and deepens the original experiences of the first Christians.

Jesus came in the flesh, in the first century. He grew up in a unique historical situation, and he was part of a specific people group—he was Jewish. He preached a message about the kingdom of God. Many believe this message can be summed up in the prayer he taught his disciples, with the Sermon on the Mount and Plains working to clarify further what that kingdom could look like. This historical Jesus set a trajectory for walking on this earth. This message, by Jesus’s own sentiment (Matt. 15:24), was originally meant for Jewish people of the first century. But his teaching has universal elements that can be taught in any time and place. This Jesus died on a Roman Cross. But…

This did not end the mission or vision of Jesus. In fact, this mission and vision only grew. And it grew because many of his disciples experienced this Jesus in a different form. This Jesus was resurrected, and he went from being a living man to being a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). His disciples could not recognize him at first, but as he continued to appear to them, they became convinced that he is alive, including those that deeply doubted (John 20:28). They went forward to spread this message, extending the mission and vision of Jesus, who had now become the Cosmic Christ.

This distinction between the historical Jesus and the Cosmic Christ is similar to the Christology of Lutheranism with some hints of Eastern Orthodoxy, though it doesn’t claim the same metaphysical starting point of either and is open to metaphysical clarification. But Quakerism has experienced Christ in this fashion and desires to live life in the wisdom and hope of this experience. Quakerism has the fleshly, historical model of Jesus to follow, even as it is really illuminated and empowered from within by the risen Cosmic Christ to live that model and to clarify how that model fits into a contemporary person’s experience.

With Jesus, we believe that a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. If this venture in Covenantal Quakerism produces good fruit, if the house stands, then we know it is of the Divine, for a house divided against itself cannot stand. If it does not produce good fruit, then the world is better off without it. Time will tell, but given the long history of experimentation behind it, the theory looks solid; it’s more than a hypothesis.

This, so far, is a vision of what a Covenantal Quakerism could look like in faith and practice. It holds to some definite substance, even as it is quite open to other tested experience. Its primary mission as a religious community is to witness to the truth it feels that it has discerned and to pass that on to the world community, hoping to benefit all who would hear. It is historically rooted, and it is mindful of Christ and the Spirit, and still it says with Paul: “Finally, Friends, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any virtue and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

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Infinite Waters

Return us to the place of setting sun over

Water, the crab pots hanging from

Breakers, liquid fire reflecting our past and



The brick house on the water stands, blue

Shutters, brilliantly in the fading burn. The

Smoke of future hovers on the coast, over

The haphazard rocks, indeterminate.


The large wooden door opens, to the

Chapel, where paths cross and holy words

Embossed toward the ceiling, beyond the

Roof to the sky, fly we know not where or



Windswept trees groan against the falling

Veil of August, revealing the hairline of

September, the widow’s peak that will turn

To grey skies and later white snow.


Return us to the place of setting sun over

Water, the rain fallen brackish smell of all

Things drifting to ocean, to infinite waters.

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Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

I previously wrote an essay about the Atonement, laying out my view that God is in search of people to supply them with Love and Life, to counteract all that hinders Love and Life, to destroy Death. God wants to move all things to a grand reality of Shalom.

In writing that, I avoided going explicitly to the Bible. Scriptural interpretation can often be a fraught endeavor. Even still, I think it’s necessary. So, I embark in that direction here.

I am quite aware that not everyone will follow my way of reading the Bible. That’s more than fine. I have no desire to manhandle people into following the way that I understand the Scriptures and the Divine. I do, however, care about clarity.

My concern for clarity is a deeply moral one. It stems from, at least, two different Quaker testimonies that have influenced me, namely, integrity and plain speech. Integrity means more than just, “Don’t lie!” Integrity means that all you know and are should come into a unity. Additionally, the history of plain speech guides me into using words accurately and justly, even as I know they fall short.

With this caveat—that I will fall short in my explanation—I hazard forward.

As I’ve decided to level my weight against a particular theory of the Atonement, namely Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I will address the major passages used in that theory, of which there are six: Isaiah 53:4-6, 10, 11; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 Peter 3:18; Romans 3:23-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10, 13.

I think a definition of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (heretofore PSA) will benefit the conversation as we move forward.

So, in PSA, God desires to forgive people, because one of God’s attributes is love, yet God cannot simply forgive people of their sins because that would break another of God’s attributes, namely, justice. PSA holds that Jesus died to receive the EXACT punishment for the sins of every person for whom Jesus died. This substitution—Jesus for the sinful people—satisfies God’s attribute of justice and allows God to act in forgiveness. The nature of the punishment being exactly retributive is what distinguishes PSA from other types of Substitutionary Atonement.

Alright, with that in mind let’s move forward.

Isaiah 53 is a hotly debated text. Most Christians have viewed this passage as a direct prophecy about Jesus. Many Jewish scholars have understood this passage to be referring to the nation of Israel. Without going too far into that debate, I would say that these are not mutually exclusive options.

The passage does seem to be continuing the anthropomorphizing of Jerusalem that began in chapter 52. The servant of this passage is Jerusalem. It suffers the torments of the evil nations that seek to destroy it, but God promises that it will be whole again. It will be revived, and all the nations will answer to it. Jerusalem will establish righteousness among the nations. It will be the great exemplar. Even especially as it suffers the sins of the nations and seemingly perishes at their hands, it will rise and make a stand for righteousness. What I want to make clear is that there is no metaphysical carrying of sins here, rather there is a suffering of actual sins.

1 Peter 2:22 applies the words of Isaiah 53:9 to Christ. The previous verse of 1 Peter 2:21 calls Christ an example. It is under this notion of example, with Isaiah’s suffering servant in mind, that we need to understand 1 Peter 2:24 and 3:18.

Peter declares that Jesus “bore our sins,” which is to say that Jesus suffered the actual sins of those at that time, including Peter’s denial of Christ. Jesus bore these sins in order to set forth an example for all to follow. Rather than return evil for evil, we are instructed to turn evil into good, to turn the other cheek—to allow another’s vice to become our virtue, whether of patience or even amazingly…love (3:9-10). If everyone had a mind to do that, then there would be no vice.

So, those passages do not mean that Jesus died on the cross to pay for the fact that I lied yesterday. Not exactly. Jesus died because actual people lied about him and murdered him. The passages do want us to understand that all vice leads toward spiritual death and dissolution, that to stop this ignorant cycle we must be righteous, but they do not elaborate a theory of exact retributive justice.

In other words, I am to look to Christ, see that he died in the midst of sinful people and because of sinful people, and I am to follow his example—to live and to tell the truth no matter the consequences that may come from the unrighteousness of other people, or from me correcting my own unrighteousness—in this instance, confessing that I lied and making it right. My conscience is to be awoken by Christ’s example.

As we move now to our passage in Romans, we need to remember that this letter, like Isaiah, is a piece of writing that has inspired a mountain of books in commentary on it. But here’s my exegetical sense of things when it comes to Romans 3:24-26 as understood in its context.

Much is said about the Greek word hilasterion, which appears in verse 25. The debate has surrounded how this should be interpreted, with the main options being propitiation, expiation, sacrifice of atonement, and mercy seat.

The first three in that list all have a sort of pagan feel to them. They draw conceptually from pagan notions of sacrifice. I hate to sound judgmental, but…they all have this notion that God requires that God’s justice be balanced by a human offering a human life. I find that revolting—as per Deuteronomy 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Jer. 31:29, 30; Ezek. 18:20—and I firmly believe that’s not at all what Saint Paul was saying. Let’s look closer.

The notions of demonstration and forbearance are very important in this context. What they point out—what they demonstrate—is that God was the one acting. The hilasterion was not primarily coming from the human side of things. It can’t be the pagan notion of a human giving something to God in order to get a favor in return. No, it was God publicly displaying something.

What was God displaying?

Well, verse 25 talks about God forbearing sins. And since, in the previous chapters, the history of sin in the world is recounted, we are to assume that God has been forbearing since the beginning. But if God is up there, forbearing all of this, it might look to a skeptic like God isn’t doing anything in order to eliminate sin. So, to show what God has been doing and what God plans to do, God sends Jesus as a demonstration that God is both just and a justifier.

God shows how bad sin is, proving it by sending a righteous man into the world, a man who is accused of being guilty then murdered. But God also shows that the only way to overcome injustice is through forgiveness and mercy. God intends to be a justifier by motivating people to be forgiving and merciful, by eradicating vengeance through love, therefore promoting Life.

God has spoken a true word in the public demonstration of Jesus as the hilasterion, the Mercy Seat. God has been merciful for the entirety of time, not counting sins against people, rather intending that they forgive one another, that they be reconciled.

Brief pause: I haven’t said this heretofore, but reconciliation is the main biblical word for Atonement. Atonement comes from an English amalgam: At-one-ment, to be one with someone. The notion is consonant with reconcile: to return to council with someone after parting ways.


God gave Christ as a demonstration—as proof—of God’s intentions toward us, to be God for us, so that we would be “fully assured that what God had promised, he was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:21). We parted ways with God, but God wasn’t happy to let us slip into death and destruction, to move into un-freedom. God wants us to be free, to be alive. This is God’s promise to us. We are to look away from the past and toward the future, toward Life, toward the Resurrection.

Toward the Recreation…

And now we take a look at 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says “God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” And given the fact that Paul often equates sin and death, almost inseparably at times, and righteousness and life are often equated (Rom. 6:16), I believe we can see what Paul means in the above statement through the parallel statement here following. In verse 5:15, Paul says, “…and he died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and rose again on their behalf.”

It’s not that Jesus became our sin, strictly speaking. It’s that Jesus died. He entered the state that sin brings us to enter. Jesus receives the wages of sin: He dies. But it’s not because he sinned; it’s because of those who sinned against him. Jesus entered death, and it’s important to remember that death is unholy, as per the tradition (Num. 19:10-22). This is Paul’s, at bottom, meaning: Jesus was ritually unholy while in a state of death. In this sense, Paul could say that Jesus was sin—not because Jesus took on our exact sins in some metaphysical sense. No. It’s ritual, symbol.

Jesus entered this state on our behalf, because he wanted ultimately to move us toward Life. Jesus wants us to recognize that people can move through and beyond death toward eternal Life. We can live now in light of this promise. We can leave fear and resentment behind. So, it’s not sin or death that are the real concern.

Actually, the Resurrection is the point, because it points to the grand new reality that God has in store for his creation, namely, New Creation. In verse 5:15, the New Creation is put in terms of living for the sake of Christ. In verse 5:21, New Creation is described in terms of righteousness.

The notion of New Creation was hinted at back in chapter 4, verses 10 and 16: “always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body;” “…our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” New Creation is stated outright in 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, she is a new creature.”

With this New Creation comes the need for ambassadors to declare its reality, in order that people may begin living it now. In a verse that hints very much in the direction of Romans 3:25 and of God’s forbearance of sin, Paul says that “…God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). To spread this message is to be involved in Atonement, in reconciliation—the promotion of Love and Life.

I see a clear example of this kind of reconciliation in Ezekiel 18:27-28: “Again, if a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”

Now, the last verse in the list of traditional PSA texts is Galatians 3:13, which says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Saint Paul is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy to make his point. It’s perhaps best that we take a look at the Deuteronomic context.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 spells out what it means for someone to be cursed of God by hanging on a tree. Verse 22 tells us that it’s a man who “has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree.” This verse is interesting in a two-fold sense: 1) It implies that not all sins are worthy of death, which helps to jeopardize PSA all the more; 2) Jesus does not fit the bill for someone who has committed a sin worthy of death. So, Jesus doesn’t meet the realistic qualification for an actual curse.

Verse 23 can help us to understand how Jesus might, in Paul’s mind, be considered a curse. The insight comes from the command that the person hanged on the tree should be buried on the same day as he was hanged, “so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” So, it seems then that Jesus could fit the bill as one who was ritually impure or defiled, ritually under a curse, if not actually cursed in the strict sense. This assessment should harken back to 1 Corinthians 5:21.

Christ was falsely accused, ritually accursed, but he actually died. Let’s put this together with what it might mean in the context of Galatians.

Paul goes on, in Galatians 4, to elaborate his distaste for the stoicheia, the weak “elemental things” of the world. He mentions the earthly rhythms of days, months, and seasons. Yet, the notion of stoicheia goes deeper than that, as Paul was certainly aware. Ancient Greeks, like Paul’s audience, would have understood elements like earth, fire, wind, and water to be the foundational material that make up the world. These are the stoicheia. Paul believes that in the death of Christ these things are overcome. There’s a New Creation on the rise.

In light of this, Paul spends much of this letter arguing vehemently against the fleshly practice of circumcision. Paul understands this to be a vestigial stoicheion of the tradition. Or as Paul puts it: “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a New Creation.”

The Resurrection is the New Creation that has happened for Christ, though not yet for us. Even still, we are to live in the Spirit, looking forward to the New Creation and attempting to live as if we are in it now, because in our relation to Christ we are. Whatever Law might have cursed us in the past is now no longer a threat. There’s a new reality rising. So, be of good faith.

In all of the passages that we’ve surveyed, it seems to me that none of them sets forth a notion that there is an exacting exchange of retributive justice. I don’t believe that PSA stands up to close scrutiny.

Rather, God has sent his Son into the world in order to demonstrate God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus does this through ritual, symbol, and the heroic act of remaining righteous in the face of evil’s worst attack. In Jesus, we actually witness God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment, as Saint James said so long ago.

And as it was said even longer ago:

“Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! For why will you die, O house of Israel? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. Therefore, repent and live” (Ezekiel 18:31-32).

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Atonement: A Mystical View with Quaker Influence

In his book, The Double Search, Rufus Jones intimates the notion that Atonement is a process. In other words, it’s not a one time, one off event. What’s more, it must be a process, because it involves humans, people. People are finite but unfinalizable, to use Bakhtin’s expression.

A large portion of the Christian community believes the contrary. Many, maybe most, Christians—especially in America—understand the Atonement as something more or less like this: 1) God is just 2) Sin is unjust 3) Sin makes God angry 4) God must punish sin in order for there to be justice. 5) But God is also loving, so he sends his own Son to die and take on the penalty for our awful sins, thereby balancing the scales of justice through a seeming act of love.

This, for so many, just simply is the Gospel.

Let me be straightforward, I don’t assent to the logic of this five fingered discount. This view is closely associated with the Evangelical tradition. I don’t belong to that tradition.

I am a Christian Mystic, and though I’m not a Quaker, I closely associate with the Quaker tradition. There is no consensus within the Quaker tradition as to what the Atonement is. So, what I’m about to set forward is my own view. At the same time, Quakerism does have its own vibe, and I’m going to be consistent with that frequency. So, here goes something.

Well, maybe I should talk about that vibe for a bit. Maybe I should give a few pointers toward how a Quaker might think or act, toward what many Quakers have believed, do believe.

A major foundation for Quaker belief is the notion, extending from George Fox, that there is “that of God in everyone.” This has wide ranging implications, but one thing it means consistently is that every person is related to God at some deep level. No one is ultimately separated from God.

There is another closely related, yet still distinct, belief that there is an Inner Light. Many Quakers have understood this to be Jesus. As a Christian Mystic, I agree. This belief implies that all who are guided by the Inner Light, by Jesus himself, are capable of receiving insight from God. It’s not just the prophets or apostles, of Scriptural fame, who are able to receive messages from God.

Some modern Quakers have taken this notion to mean the elimination of sacred texts. I don’t follow in that leading. I am all for the use of sacred texts. Why wouldn’t you want to be guided by the wisdom of the ages?

The Bible, of the Old and New Testaments, are the sacred texts to which I’m most closely tied, from which I’ve learned the most. I do learn from many other sacred texts, but the Bible feels like home.

I should say, as a final word of introduction, that I don’t understand the Bible to be the literal Word of God. I believe that these Scriptures testify to God’s leading in the world, God’s inspiration. From these Scriptures, we can gain insight into who God is and how God works in the world. With that, we can then better distinguish true leadings from the actual Inner Light versus those promptings that are just our own voice and desire. I take this to be very important.

Alright, so enough with the vibe; let’s dig in.

To articulate any theological position is to build something of a house. And every house needs a foundation. My study of the Bible, my encounter with Jesus, has led me to believe that God is Love and Life. One can see this clearly in the Gospel of John and in the epistle of 1 John.

Maybe we should define Love and Life. I think that Aquinas’ definition of Love is great: “To will the good of the other.” This covers a ton of ground, from parents relating to children, to neighbors lending a helping hand to each other, to spouses living in harmony. And Life…well, life is known to us all simply by the living of it. We know what helps Life, and we know what hinders it.

Sin, then, is anything that stands in the way of Love and Life. I’m not afraid of using the word sin. It’s true that it has been used poorly, destructively, in the past, by emotionally abusive clergy. No doubt. But sin understood as that which stands in the way of Love and Life would, I think, make most people perk up and agree.

I think God agrees.

Love and Life, then, is what we want. These I take as the two most universal desires. And yet, we live in a world wherein which these desires seem to be suppressed at every turn. What gives?

Competing desires: That’s what. We need to survive, and so we do things that help us to survive. Too often, we do these things in spite of others rather than in efforts to help them. We care for ourselves, but we don’t love. This is the problem that needs solving.

We the people are caught in this conundrum. And God has decided to help us out of it. God is Love and Life and so God acts in accordance with this character. God wills our good.

I see this most clearly and insightfully in the Life of Jesus the Nazarene. Jesus teaches us the way of Life. He pours himself out in Love. I believe Jesus to be the example, par excellence, of God working in this world. He shows us, demonstrates, the way of God in the world. This gets him killed. But! God is not content to leave things there. God brings Jesus back to life, changed for sure, but changed to a Life that will not die.

It is virtue that lasts, that’s eternal. Jesus was virtue incarnate. He will last. And the message is that the more we live like Jesus—into virtue, into Love and Life—the more we will be living a life that will last. Sin will not last. It’s what stands in the way of Life. Another name for it, then, is death.

God’s plan is to show us the way and give us the power, if we want it, to live in the way of Love and Life. But sin is so easy. It’s easier to wreck a house than to build one. Entropy is a lazy man’s game. Holiness, on the other hand, is an epic, an adventure. And I’m calling anything holy that promotes Love and Life. It takes a real mensch to pull off holiness. That was Jesus, and he is with us—by means of the Inner Light—to empower us along the way to our own holiness.

It is this energy, this power, this guidance that I am calling Atonement. Rufus was right. It’s a process. I surmise it will be an adventure that takes us even beyond the boundaries of this world we live in.

So far, I’ve kept things on the horizontal plane. But Atonement, as our good man Rufus points out, is a double search.

I’ve talked a bit about God’s empowering us to make things right between ourselves, on the human plane. I haven’t made a mention of how we relate to God, or if there is something that needs to be made right between God and people. That, after all, is the whole basis of the Atonement in the mind of most Evangelical Christians, indeed most Western Christians.

I’ve decided to talk more about how God has provided the teaching and the power to go along the way of Love and Life. And I think that’s the right emphasis. At the same time, it’s necessary to understand that we are not exactly putting our best foot forward when we are acting against Love and Life in the various, even small, ways that we do.

God, though, is an eminently better person than we are. God is not concerned to hold a grudge, rather God would just assume that we are children in need of an education. When we don’t consent to do things in accordance with Life and Love, then God is content to let us find out for ourselves what the consequences are, even after warning us what they would be.

We do need to get things right between God and us. Thankfully, God is good enough to take the initiative. And however content God is with letting us discover the consequences of our actions, God is not content to ever give up on us. Not ever. Not even after we die.

The final goal of all of this is that everyone would be holy as God is holy, that everyone would Love and promote the Life of others. When this happens, we will be living in harmony. We will be experiencing what the ancient Hebrews called Shalom, which means more than just peace. It means a state of existing where everyone promotes the welfare of everyone else whom they can.

As Walt Whitman once asked, “Is it a dream?” To answer in accord with him: No! I think it’s the only state of being that could count as fully real. Everyone reconciled, every wrong act righted. This is Good News. Let’s get it started now! I hold you in the Light. Amen.

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Exorcising the Zeitgeists

Symbolism was a movement in art and literature that can trace its roots to the mid-1800s, though its real maturation doesn’t occur until the end of that century.[1] It begins with the French writer, Charles Baudelaire and his publication of a volume of poetry called, Les Fleur du mal.

Interestingly, there is some American influence here. Baudelaire was much affected by, and even translated, the work of the Maryland based Edgar Allen Poe.[2] Besides showing the literary background of Symbolism, this fact points out an early instance of American literature starting to prove its power in the middle of the century when America comes into its own.

The major players of Symbolism include some of the most well-known names in French literature: Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé. The influence of these writers would extend to T. S. Eliot and James Joyce among many others. The visual artists are less well known: Victor Vasnetsov, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edvard Munch.

There’s insight to be gained through seeing the transitional nature of the Symbolist movement. One could look at this movement in a few ways, but it seems important to see it is as a movement from 19th century Romanticism to 20th century Modernism.

We should, of course, be careful to hold on too tightly to labels like Romanticism, Symbolism, etc. It’s best to describe these, thinking of them as moods, feelings—or if we must as zeitgeists. They don’t describe strict doctrine so much as a dominant outlook. The early 20th century literary critic, Edmund Wilson, warns us of all of this, yet he doesn’t shy away from using the labels.[3]

Wilson goes on to explain Symbolism as a movement that continues the Romantic revolt. As he explains, science and math were developing so as to draw everything, humans included, into a mechanistic worldview. There seemed no room for human freedom or emotion. Romanticism enters the scene, a revolutionary ready to fight against the determinisms of society and science in favor of the individual and her emotions. This movement occurs during the late 1700s into the early 1800s and deeply affects culture, giving it the air of freedom. But many begin to understand Darwin’s discovery in science, rightly or not, as yielding a deterministic frame, so human freedom and emotion are again in need of recovery.[4]

Symbolism was deeply concerned with the depth of reality. It was a movement that attracted a religious element of society. As was typical in 19th century Europe, the majority of that religious element was Christian. Nevertheless, there was also a notable Jewish representation.

There was a group, attached to the Symbolist movement, known as Les Nabis. This name is a French term derived from the Hebrew word for prophet. This group comprised Jewish and Christian artists who associated closely with one another in a common artistic and spiritual temperament.[5]

While the great nemesis of 18th century Romanticism was the Rationalism of the same century, Symbolism’s great opponent was the Naturalism and Realism of the 19th century, largely set in motion by the developments in Biology, the greatest achievement being Darwin’s.[6] This does not imply that Symbolism was anti-science or even anti-Darwin.

Symbolism seems more concerned that we avoid reductionism. Math and science are excellent tools, but the Symbolists were asking questions about purpose. Math and science reveal aspects of the structure of the world, but they are mostly descriptive. The Symbolists were looking for something more prescriptive. They wanted a message from eternity, values that were timeless.

When you look at Victor Vasnetsov’s The Knight at the Crossroads, you want to come alongside the knight and say, “No, don’t give up. Look beyond the grave stone to the light in the distance. It may be setting…But it will rise!”

When you view Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ Young Girls on the Edge of the Sea, you behold a beautiful, if mundane, scene of French women by the water. But you notice that it’s three women…that, oh, it’s the three sisters of Fate; it’s the Trinity—it’s all of these at the same time. You see one woman beholding her belly, another looking out at the sea while fixing her hair, another sitting in repose, perhaps sadly, next to a hill which you begin to look up until it goes out of the frame.

You look at all of this until you realize that you’ve been looking at Eve, Mary Magdelene, and Mary the Mother of Christ. Christ is assumed as you look up that hill and you’ve just viewed the entire symbolic tradition of Western art in one scan of one painting. This is the value of Symbolism.

The goal of Symbolism is to take the eternal and bring it into the present. I take this straight from the Symbolist manifesto, which says, “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.”[7]

Here, I think, is a way to view all of this: Rationalism knew well how to go for the structure of things, but its structure remained in the form of bones, and mostly dry ones at that. Romanticism had to put flesh and marrow to these. Naturalism and Realism focused on the particular and the surface of things. They could see these bipedal forms walking about and even dancing on occasion. But they missed something. Symbolism had to come along and breathe the spirit into them, to move past the surface and find life itself.

Romanticism privileged Nature and the genius individual. And it privileges the past, particularly the Middle Ages. While you need these to get things started, you can’t stop there. Symbolism could see the beyond while looking at the things among us. It hints at the future, even while it privileges the present.

The future of Symbolism is in some ways past for us and some ways present.

Modernism took the stage after Symbolism exited. There were many factors involved, but World War I was perhaps the greatest. For all the shellshock of war, Western culture could not get much beyond the present, nor could individuals break from the trauma and the absurdity of life, remaining stuck in their own heads. The balance of eternity and present broke, with our attention turned to our own injured minds. Fracture is the pervading metaphor of Modernism. This is how you get T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mark Rothko’s as well as Joan Mitchell’s color fields.

Postmodernism, I believe, is only the inevitable extension of the Modernist outlook. And this fragmented view ruled the 20th century. What will the 21st century bring? What will our counterpoise be? Where is our spirit?

[1] Symbolism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)


[2] Symbolism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)


[3] Wilson, E. (1931). Symbolism. In Axel’s Castle: A Study In The Imaginative Literature of 1870 To 1930 (pp. 10-11). New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.


[4] Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (p. 6).

[5] Les Nabis. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Nabis


[6] Wilson, E. Axel’s Castle (pp. 7-8).

[7] Symbolism. (n.d.). Retrieved January 4, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolism_(arts)


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