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The Christian Universalism of George Fox

The Christian Universalism of George Fox

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The Christian Universalism of George Fox

Lewis Benson began this lecture with the observation:
The recognition of the need for a universal faith which would unite the people of the world has led some to conclude that the Christian faith must give up its claim that Jesus Christ is God’s answer to man’s problems. That is still a conclusion many today, 2023, come to. Benson’s comments are as compelling in 2023 as they were in 1959 when this lecture was given at Pendle Hill.

This lecture was divided into three parts:

1. the universal prophetic understanding of salvation history as recorded in the Bible and understood by George Fox and the early Quakers

2. the mystical-philosophical understanding of Christianity as one of the religions of the world

3. the basic shift in understanding the three phrases most commonly used by Friends today when speaking of their faith: universal grace, that of God in every man, and the light that lighteth every man

In part one Benson gave the foundation of Christianity’s claim that Jesus Christ is God’s answer to man’s problems: Christian universalism begins with God’s promise to Abraham: “ . . . in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed,” (Acts 3:25). Benson pointed out:
The relation of the light to the enlightened is the relation of a speaker to a hearer. It is a relationship in which the speaker commands and the hearer obeys. This light, says Fox, “will lead you to obey a command within you.” Coming into obedience to the light brings with it the knowledge that the universal and saving light comes from Jesus Christ, the fulfiller of the promises and prophecies.

After explaining the Christian universalism of George Fox, giving many examples from his writings, Benson launched into the mystical-philosophical universalism that has appeared in the 20th century. He expained:
There has arisen in the 20th century another type of Quaker universalism than that which has been attributed to Fox. It is based on the premise that the religions of the East, which are based on thoroughgoing philosophical systems, are not essentially different from the philosophical interpretations of Christianity based on Platonism. Christian Platonism and classical Christian mysticism are practically identical because it is mainly through the impact of Greek thought on the Christian revelation that we have what is known in history as Christian mysticism. The assertion that Quakerism can be classified as a mystical religion is usually made on the assumption that the essential elements of Quakerism are consistently in harmony with Christian Platonism. Mysticism is thus believed to be the universal religion, whether it be Christian, Hindu, Taoist, Islamic, or Buddhist. Therefore, Quakerism, understood as mysticism, is the Christian version of a universal religion, and from this point of view the Eternal Christ, Brahman, the Dharmakaya, or the Tao are all symbols for the same spiritual reality as it is found in the metaphysical systems of Christian Platonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The idea, then, is that we can take all these philosophical systems, strip them of their historical trappings, and distill out the common, essential elements. Doing so you will have an eternal gospel, a universal gospel, that can appeal to all people of the world.

The question then comes: “Can you strip Christianity of its historical content without stripping away all that is relevant?”

This brings us to part three of Benson’s lecture: Understanding ‘Universal Grace’, ‘That of God In Every Man’, and ‘The Light That Lighteth Every Man’.

The first phrase, ‘universal grace’, is a concept that comes from Titus 2:11-14.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

Benson wrote:
We know, of course, that the early Quakers protested against the Calvinistic doctrine of ‘limited grace’ in which it is asserted that God bestows his grace on some and withholds it from others. “No,” said the Quakers, “the grace of God that bringeth salvation has appeared to all men.” To the 20th century Quaker mind, this seems to mean that ‘universal grace’ is a human capacity with which all mankind is naturally endowed. It has been defined in our day as “the effective power freely granted by God to every man to resist evil and do good.” From this modern viewpoint it can be stated that “Grace no more needs a special channel than dew does.” There can be no doubt at all that early Friends maintained that there is universal grace, but it is certainly open to question that they conceived of this grace as having a universality not dependent on the Christian revelation. The question must be asked: Does this universal grace come to all men as their natural endowment, or, is it to be understood in terms of God’s special and particular revelation in Jesus Christ? To the question: from whence comes this grace?, Fox answers that “this grace of God . . . comes by Jesus Christ, which hath appeared to all men, to teach them and bring their salvation . . . [that] by his grace which hath appeared to all men, they might receive his gospel, which was sent down from heaven.” I counted 160 occurances of the phrase ‘that of God’. Many of these deal with being in every person or a particular person. As seen from the examples Benson supplied, it is something that is spoken to, it is something that is answered, it is something that is transgressed, it is something within all that agrees with the word of the Lord spoken by the ministers of Christ.

Concerning the second phrase, Benson stated:
Perhaps the phrase which, more than any other, has come to serve as the prevailing term in modern Quaker universalism is: “that of God in every man.” In modern usage this term has been understood to be something which is “an inherent part of man’s being as man,” and as being the equivalent of the “Divine Spark” at the apex of the human soul which was so much spoken of “by the mystics of the Fourteenth century under the influence of Plotinus.” It has therefore become widely accepted in Quaker circles as a term that signifies the inherent divinity in all men. This phrase we owe primarily to George Fox. He used it, or variants of it, hundreds of times. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to suppose that through an analysis of these many references we can reach a fair understanding of what he meant by it. The experience of “that of God in every man” is an experience of God as he speaks to us through his son. Fox says, that “which answers that of God in every man, this is the Son of God . . . ” and “so every one that cometh into the world being enlightened, which hears not the light . . . he hears not the prophet, which Moses prophesied of. . . . ” Such, says Fox are those whose minds are “unestablished in the world” because “they go from that of God in them.” He claims that “that of God in every man” is a witness in man to that voice which is not his own voice and it testifies against the tendency to create an inner light metaphysic. “That which is of God in every man,” he says, “will not render the light, (when he cometh to it through the gospel) natural, . . . and that of God in man will not call Christ (the light) natural which the Quakers speak of.”

The third phrase, ‘the light that lighteth every man’ is a phrase taken from John’s prologue. Benson supplied the following insights:
“The light” is not part of the order of nature but it is to be understood in terms of God’s redemptive act in sending his Son into the world. To the Emperor of China, Fox wrote: “. . . the true light which doth enlighten every man that cometh into the world . . . is Christ the Son of God. . . . ” An encounter with “the light” is an encounter with “the redeemer.” He says: “the light, Christ Jesus . . . redeems out of transgression . . . death, darkness, and sin . . . ” and he says that “they that believe in the light have the witness in themselves that he is their redeemer.” “The light” is to be understood as belonging to what God has done for us as our redeemer. The way of redemption is God’s way and we owe our redemption to him as we owe our very life to him.
The Christian conception of redemption is incompatible with all schemes of spiritual self-culture. Man cannot solve his basic human problem by controlling and exploiting the forces of the spirit in the same way that he deals with his environment by controlling and exploiting the forces of nature. Redemption is in God’s hands. In love and mercy and grace he comes to all men with the free gift of redemption which is Jesus Christ.

Benson sums up the message of this lecture saying:
[Quoting Fox] “And this is my message to you all: That God who was the first teacher and speaker to Adam and Eve in Paradise, and who was the speaker and teacher to the apostles and church in primitive times, is now come to teach his people himself by his Son if ye will hear him . . . ” “ . . . keep over that spirit,” he exhorts, “that . . . would draw you from your habitation and possession . . . it is the same spirit by . . . which (Adam and Eve) lost their habitation . . . Stand up for your liberty in the gospel and in the Faith, which Christ hath been the author of, for if you lose it, and let another spirit get over you, you will not soon regain it.”
If Babel is the community that symbolizes confusion and failure to communicate, then Pentecost is the symbol of that community in which differences are resolved by the rushing in of a new spirit. This is the spirit that Christ and his Father promised and Christ and his Father sent. It is a spirit that leads us to Christ and testifies to him. “By which spirit,” says Fox, “the believers are baptized into one body, brought out of the many bodies, and so by the spirit they are brought to the one head, which is Christ.” “ . . . for there is the unity and out of it is the confusion.” “The unity of this Holy Spirit is the bond of peace of all the living members of Christ Jesus, of which he is the spiritual Head, Rock, and Foundation.”
In this age of confusion, our only hope lies in rebuilding again with the rejected stone. For if we build without this stone, our building will not stand.


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