Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Seed and Inner Light

Georgefox at the breadline

*Note this series begins with “Quakers and Jesus: First Things

Quakers have developed upon some non-typical biblical imagery about Jesus that resonated with their experiences of Christ within, some that have really set them apart and received pushback from their critics. Two of these I want to delve into here are that of Christ as Seed and Christ as Inner Light. One especially unique image of the Christ within was the Friends’ understanding of Christ as a seed speaking within,[1] essentially a seed of potential salvation or a seed of the kingdom of God[2] present in all humans though perhaps as unnoticed as a mustard seed.[3] Christ as Light and Seed were often images mixed together among early Friends[4], though Robert Barclay uses it perhaps the most extensively in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, an apologetic work that is perhaps the closest work approaching a systematic theology among Friends. Of Barclays’ 15 propositions, 4, 5, and 6 (Condition of Humans after the Fall, Potential Universal Redemption, and The Saving and Spiritual Light) argue for a Quaker understanding of the universal scope of the work of Christ, one that attempts to work out a unique non-Calvinist soteriology. Early Friends made use of the biblical imagery of seed, connecting the “incorruptible seed of the word of God” in 1st Peter[5] to both its universality implied by the parable of the Sower, as well as an immanent Word Christology (and understanding of Jesus as the incarnate Word of God). Isaac Pennington saw the Seed as “the vessel, the only vessel which containeth this life.”[6] George Fox saw the Seed of God “thick on the ground” around him.[7] Robert Barclay argued Christ resides and the “new man” takes shape where the Seed is received,[8] yet the world feeds on the husk and neglects the kernel.[9] According to Barclay, to experience salvation one must allow the Seed of righteousness to rise within you.[10]

Christ as Inner Light

Perhaps best known, and least understood is the Quaker conception of Christ as the Inner Light, an aspect of Christology Friends found profound meaning in that arises from the text of 1 John 9, referring to Christ as: “The true light that gives light to everyone [who] was coming into the world.” Friends have understood that this implies a promised though largely forgotten accessibility and universality of Christ’s work and presence, one that resonated with their mystical experience with Christ. As Thomas Kelly would later put it so eloquently the Quaker discover was:

“not a doctrine, but a life, a life filled with God, a life listening, obedient, triumphant, holy—in that same way the Quaker discovery was only a rediscovery of the life and power and fellowship and joy and radiance that moved the early church.”[11]

Christ was and is the Inner light[12] who shines into every heart,[13] a measure of God’s grace given to everyone,[14] an inward Word. [15] Friends attempted to flesh out an immanent Logos Christology (an understanding of Jesus as the Word who is present and near), one informed by their mystical experience and their understanding of the New Testament Christ mysticism and teaching about the Kingdom of God. Barclay wrote of Christ as the Light and source of Light, the hope of glory.[16] Fox spoke of the Light in many ways. The Light was to be “minded.” He spoke of answering “that of God in everyone,” yet he linked the Light unequivocally with Christ Jesus and the action of Christ in human conscience.[17] The Light of Christ informs, yet was not, the conscience.[18] He spoke of the soul as the candle of the Lord.[19] Isaac Pennington understood the Light as an experience of knowing Christ inwardly as a new creature under a new covenant, being inwardly circumcised, and feeding on the bread of life within.[20] Richard Foster, a modern Friend, echoed this view of Pennington in his reference to experiencing God as a perpetual communion.[21] Most controversially perhaps to modern Quakers was Fox’s experience with the Inner Light that he believed brought him on a mystical journey “up through the flaming sword” a reference to the angel in Genesis 3:24 who guarded the gate of Eden. Fox felt so changed by his encounter with the Light of Christ that he felt he had regained the sort of innocence Adam possessed before the Fall.[22]

Contemporary Liberal Friends often no longer connect their conception of “the Light” to its earliest understanding of the Light of Christ, while Evangelical Friends have largely dropped this terminology in a reaction against the Universalist meaning held by many who do use it today, preferring to use the less controversial terminology of the Holy Spirit.[23] Yet while this doctrine did point to the potential for any person to be saved, that the Light is the implanted Word and the Seed of salvation in everyone,[24] inevitably some would hate and reject the light[25] and ultimately harden their hearts in unbelief.[26] It was never an early teaching of Friends that this pointed to universalism (the belief that all will be saved at the final judgement), merely that all had equal access to the illumination of Christ within, and that if one was faithful to the measure of Light one received, (a formula influenced by 2 Cor. 10 and Eph. 4) Barclay argued, then a greater measure would be given by God.[27] This belief Friends held was not a new doctrine, but an understanding of the immanence of God that had been lost;[28] one that pointed to the threefold office of Christ (prophet, priest and king) and his priestly work in the world.[29]

Query: Do we as modern Friends still interact with outsiders in ways that affirm God is already at work? How do we navigate letting go an unhealthy fear of people’s eternal destinies, while still reaching out in compassion and being attuned to what God wants to do in their lives?

 

[1] Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 78.

[2] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 108.

[3] Douglas V. Steere, Quaker Spirituality, 310.

[4] Rufus M. Jones, The Life and Message of George Fox, 13.

[5] Rufus M. Jones, The Faith and Practice of the Quakers, 41.

[6] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 260.

[7] Douglas V. Steere, Quaker Spirituality, 67.

[8] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 85.

[9] Ibid, 111.

[10] Ibid, 323.

[11] Thomas R. Kelly, The Eternal Promise, 72-73.

[12] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 25, 28- 29, 105-106; Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 100.

[13] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 288, 342-343, 357.

[14] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 82-83.

[15] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 234.

[16] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 89, 123.

[17] Abbott, To Be Broken and Tender, 41.

[18] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 92.

[19] Rufus M. Jones, The Life and Message of George Fox, 14.

[20] Abbott, To Be Broken and Tender, 43.

[21] Richard J. Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (San Francisco: Harper & Row, ©1981), 82.

[22] Douglas V. Steere, Quaker Spirituality, 68.

[23] Stephen W. Angell, Ben Pink Dandelion, and Stephen W. Angell. 2013. “God, Christ, and the Light“. Oxford Handbooks Online, 7, 9.

[24] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 101.

[25] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 349.

[26] Robert Barclay, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, 98.

[27] Stephen W. Angell, “God, Christ, and the Light“, 3.

[28] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 60.

[29] Ibid, 127, 320.

Other Posts in this series:

Quakers and Jesus: First Things

Quakers and Jesus: Toward a Quaker Christology

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Present Teacher and Lord

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Seed and Inner Light 

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Center

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About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

14 responses to “Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Seed and Inner Light

  • Howard Brod

    Thanks for this post James. I found it very enlightening.

    One point of potential misunderstanding that I would like to clarify regarding liberal Quakers. You said, “Contemporary Liberal Friends often no longer connect their conception of “the Light” to its earliest understanding of the Light of Christ”. While on the surface this statement is true, there is a deeper realization going on for liberal Quakers that might be helpful to your readers in understanding our theology.

    I would say that all liberal Quakers do indeed recognize that “the Light” is the very same Light that was manifested in and through Jesus, as well as advocated by Jesus in his teachings and example. Our spiritual and religious experience, however, is that “the Light” that was manifest through Jesus is and always has been expansive and available to all – whether they associate it as originating only within the person of Jesus, or not. A small point; but one that allows us to seek that Light in everyone without being concerned about their religious label. The Light simply, “is” no matter what label humans put on it.

    As far as worrying about “judgement”, it is not in our consciousness as we attempt to “live in and mind the Light” as we seek that of God in everyone.

    • jtower11

      Wow I really appreciate you sharing your perspective Howard. What I know about liberal Quakers so far is that they are hard to quantify. Those I have talked with however, to my understanding, no longer make that connection to Jesus. Obviously, in hindsight, theirs is perhaps just one of many perspectives on Jesus held by liberal Friends. Thank you for helping me make that connection.

  • Randy Oftedahl

    Thank thee, James, for this quite succinct overview of how Friends have approached the terms we use to define, as Reza Aslan put it, “the ineffable experience of faith.” And I think Howard captures my understanding of Liberal Friends as well. Here’s another thought, which I have personally found helpful, in what are often our cross-interpretations of these profound words. I try and “interpret” these various terms, when used by whomever, into language that makes sense to me. For example, I realize some more liberal Friends may seem to use “the Light” as a vague spiritual quality (or quantity); I hear their “Light” as Christ. The light within = Christ within, “spirit” = the Holy Spirit, etc. The meme popularly used these days is “listening in tongues”. It can be, I believe, a helpful way to find common ground in our diverse (and outwardly, sometimes, quite conflictual) understandings of the same thing. And wouldn’t it be great if the broad theological spectrum that is the Society of Friends could really spend more time “answering that of God” in one another regardless of what terms we use to do it? Peace.

    • jtower11

      Greetings Randy,
      I appreciate your encouraging words. I had never heard of “listening in tongues” before, fantastic concept. I appreciate your sentimate for common ground, what I would truly hope for in my heart of hearts is a Friends community that does not have to choose say between the theology of early Friends, and the social justice practices of early friends. I truly want to “have it both ways” in this. What I see however is liberal Friends who keep the worship and social justice practices but have lost a connection to say the theology of Barclay and Pennington, or Evangelical friends who have kept the theology but have grown distrustful of the social praxis. So in many ways I am both at home, as well as somewhat alienated by both groups. I do however wish for less doublespeak. Common ground is a worthy pursuit, but at times, when we use the same terminology and yet mean different things, I can’t help but feel that the ground held in “common” may at times be illusion, a mere blanket of denial that while warm, is not nearly as comforting to me as to some.

  • Howard Brod

    Yes, it is true that many liberal Quakers do not make a personal connection to Jesus (but a noticeable minority do). My clarification was not meant to counter your true observation. You were correct in your statement in your post.

    Still, my clarification would likely ‘speak the mind’ of all liberal Quakers on the topic because individual doctrinal beliefs (about Jesus and everything else) are considered inconsequential to the experience of the ‘Light’ within – which is the transforming power that matters to liberal Quakers. And on this deep spiritual level, liberal Quakers do feel connected to the same Spirit that was (and is) within Jesus, even if not the human, Jesus, himself. Liberal Quakerism is a nearly 100% mystical faith tradition – mainly based on individual spiritual experience without outward forms – brought back to the whole meeting community. So, if you quizzed those liberal Quakers you’ve spoken to a bit more, they would likely tell you that “the Light” is not only through Jesus; rather, it just is. So, while Jesus is certainly a valid introduction to “the Light, he is not the only introduction available.

    And by the way, the term “inner Christ” or “Christ within” is used metaphorically among some liberal Quakers as another term for “the Light”, even if they don’t make a personal connection to Jesus.

    I know all of this sounds so ‘iffy’ if you have not been worshipping with liberal Quakers for quite awhile. I offer it just as food for thought to demonstrate that while our branches of Quakerism use different terms and practices to express our faith, the reality of our Quaker experience is not all that different in substance.

  • Manuel S. Alfaro C.

    Gracias amigo James Tower. No hablo inglés. Perdón por la posible dificultad de leer mi comentario. Inicié en la Iglesia Evangélica Amigos y llegué a un pastor de ella desde 1988, pero mi corazón suspira por la fe y la práctica de los primeros amigos. Con la ayuda de Dios, de aquí en adelante trataré de vivir como un cuáquero. Agradezco todo aporte que ayude a mi propósito y me acerque a la vida y la práctica de los amigos antiguos.
    Me serví del traductor en línea para entender un poco.

    Thanks friend James Tower . I do not speak English. Sorry for the possible difficulty reading my comment . I started in the Evangelical Friends Church and a pastor came to her in 1988 , but my heart longs for faith and practice of the first friends . With the help of God , from now on I will try to live as a Quaker . I appreciate any contribution to help my purpose and I approached life and practice of old friends.
    I made use of online translator to understand a little .

    • jtower11

      ¡Hola! Amigo Manuel. I do not speak Spanish. I share your heart about recapturing the vision of early Friends, and not having to choose between the theology OR practices of early Friends! I appreciate your encouragement, and your kind words. Blessings!
      Agape,
      James

      • Manuel Salvador Alfaro Cabrera

        Thank you very much for answering quickly. I have the translation tool to leverage their contributions. I’ll be on the lookout. Eugene Pickard knows maybe, he was my teacher in Guatemala. It is Southwest Yearly Meeting.

        El Sábado 31 de octubre de 2015 15:36, Practicing Resurrection Together escribió:

        #yiv7516170442 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7516170442 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7516170442 a.yiv7516170442primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7516170442 a.yiv7516170442primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7516170442 a.yiv7516170442primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7516170442 a.yiv7516170442primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7516170442 WordPress.com jtower11 commented: “¡Hola! Amigo Manuel. I do not speak Spanish. I share your heart about recapturing the vision of early Friends, and not having to choose between the theology OR practices of early Friends! I appreciate your encouragement, and your kind words. Blessings!” | |

  • James Tower on Christ as Seed and Inner Light (Links)

    […] James Tower on Christ as Seed and Inner Light. Con­tem­po­rary Lib­eral Friends often no longer con­nect their con­cep­tion of “the Light” to its ear­li­est under­stand­ing of the Light of Christ, while Evan­gel­i­cal Friends have largely dropped this ter­mi­nol­ogy in a reac­tion against the Uni­ver­sal­ist mean­ing held by many who do use it today […]

  • PaulR

    What a wonderful post on the holy spirit. I probably don’t fit neatly wrapped and packed in the evangelical camp. But I have slowly started to reclaim my heritage and its language. Personally there is something precious about the name of holy spirit, something that cuts to the core of who I am.I have been shaped by the holy spirit inprofound ways that I cannot step out of, nor do I want to.

    I have shared with friends that I believe Fox was not a systematic theologian. In other words, his theology is experiential and not a carefully thought out and logically consistent system. He sometimes means different things when he uses the same words. And he is constantly exploring, unpacking, repacking, testing, trying out new understandings, and pushing language to the limits. Sometimes he seems to use language sloppily, and the inconsistencies annoy and frustrates me at times. Sometimes he seems to be intentionally ambiguous in his use of terms, and I am impressed.

    But I believe whatever language works for you and has integrity is good, I think. The way you or I speak of our faith (or anyone for that matter) is deeply personal and may well change over time. I suppose that if the words never change at all, then there is a good chance we are stagnant.

    So the holy spirit again is a kind of catch-all term for me that means that mysterious gift Jesus gave and placed in each human heart which, gently nudging us toward restoration and healing, towards experiential knowledge of himself. When acknowledged and nurtured, can grow, into the holy fire of divine love.

  • JDM

    Thanks for bringing attention to these classic Quaker terms. It would helpful, however, to note that early Friends never spoke of the “inner” light, and rarely even the “inward” light. It was often just “the light.” The term inner did not appear until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in an attempt by some Friends to modernize Quakerism. It’s a crucial change, because it begins to understand God as innately within us rather than the more traditional Christian idea of God being independent and outside of us, and then moving inward to redeem.

  • PaulR

    In regards to the smorgasbord of terms whether used by early Quakers or contemporary Quakers to name the holy spirit, the inner light, or the inward teacher I guess I don’t get myself in frenzy over language.When it comes to describing spiritual experience or ultimate reality, language is but a poor tool. We don’t have adequate words for what we know inside, and often, when we think we have found words for our experience, they fail us as soon as we speak them. The experience of the holy spirit is either too heavy or too light for the words, and many times either the words break or the experience drifts away from the words and the moment of communication is lost. But sometimes, the mere attempt to carry the weight of experience from one person to another is enough, and then heart understands heart. I suppose what is most important is that the words we use to talk about holy spirit give voice, however imperfectly, to something about our deepest and truest self, and this is a beautiful thing to witness. Let the words keep coming. Coming out of a Lutheran background “decision theology” was a big no no. There was no altar calls in the Lutheran church. You didn’t come to the holy spirit, the holy spirit came to you in the word and sacraments.Like faith itself it was a gift. The emphasis is not on us or what we name the holy, but what the holy spirit gives us in the word and sacraments. We Quakers called this waiting worship. Because in it the holy spirit comes to serve us with grace and forgiveness.We are in turn, empower to serve others.

    • Howard Brod

      Paul, I loved reading your response to James’ post. I found it very inspiring and reminded me that our experience in the holy is a constant, comforting companion.

  • treegestalt

    I can’t be other than a ‘liberal’ Friend, yet consider LiberalFriendism to be basically a sterile rut — a refuge from mistaken forms of Christianity, but as the Ching says, ‘prisons must not become dwelling places.’

    [ This is my best shot at why it’s a necessary step and a bad stopping point:
    http://apoetictheology.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-good-news-and-bad-news.html ]

    Regardless of the fact that some people do seem to turn away from the Light and go ‘all to Hell’, it seems clear that to ‘know the power of God’ — and the mercy of God, and the subtle wisdom — implies that the hell-bent don’t always get where they’re going, neither are they doomed to remain. ‘Universalism’ as ‘universal salvation’ (eventually) seems the only possibility consistent with Jesus’ message about how God is and what it means to “be perfect like your Father.”

    Likewise for ‘universalism’ as the belief that God has not given the followers of any religion ‘a stone when they asked for bread’, ie that their doctrines must lead the way forward for their adherents, and generally clarify some aspect of the sheer complexity of God and human relations with God, or so I’ve found. I’ve been led to conclude that this must apply even to atheism, that a certain temporary distance from God must be somehow needed for human development at certain times — though I fervently hope we may all be past such times very soon now.

    (The metaphors of ‘running away from home’, of going through adolescence, of the phenomenon of ‘counterwill’ being somehow needed for growing up as ‘a real person’ — developing differences to be eventually reconciled — seems to fit, so far.)

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