Tuesday, April 11, 2006

more inner light

Tonight I've been reading more Calvin--this week's systematic theology topic is the doctrine of sin, and I don't think I'm ready to tackle that one yet, so I'll stick with the nice doctrine of the Inner Light. =)

Calvin is talking about how although humans were created in the image of God, they sinned and so lost their capacity for spiritual insight apart from God's grace, and although we still have the ability to be rational and to use our will, these have been perverted by the Fall (although we won't tell Calvin that the term "Fall" doesn't appear in the Bible, or even in Hebrew literature until about 200-100BCE...but that's another topic).

So Calvin's saying that we don't have the ability to recognize God apart from God's revelation to us, which I suppose is true, but I think it would be true whether we were perfect or not. Anyway, where this connects with the Inner Light is that Calvin talks about John 1:5 where the author says, "this light shines in the darkness, but the darkness comprehends it not." Of this Calvin says, "[God] shows that [hu]man's soul is so illumined by the brightness of God's light as never to be without some slight flame or at least a spark of it; but that even with this illumination it does not comprehend God" (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.II.19).

This sounds like an Inner Light to me. I think I agree with Calvin here. If the world is somehow in darkness, meaning that there is evil present in the world and we are not all in full communion with God at all times, if there is any light in the world we probably all see a flicker of it, and keep this flicker alive in ourselves if we try. At the same time, we can't fully comprehend God, of course. We can see a glimmer of light and we can walk toward it, we can cultivate it in ourselves, but we'll never understand or possess it completely--else it isn't God!

This is where I differ from Calvin, however, because he would say that there is nothing we can do to recognize or move toward the light. Only God can cause us to recognize God's self, and only God can make God's self more comprehensible to us. Calvin doesn't believe in free will to do good--everything good is from God. I agree in a sense, in that God created everything good and therefore every good thing has its root in God. But I think God has created us in such a way that we can choose good. We know what is good because of God impolanting knowledge and recognition of God's character in us, but we have the free will to choose what to do with that knowledge. If all we can do is choose evil, why wouldn't God cause all of us to choose good? Why only the "elect" few?

Instead, I think God offers the Light to the entire world, and most of the world doesn't comprehend it although God makes that recognition available to all. We can choose to move toward the Light, to fan the flame of the Light within ourselves and our communities, or choose to keep our distance, remaining in darkness and incomprehension.

Does anyone know of a Quaker systematic theological work besides Barclay? (I know, it's kind of an oxymoroan--Quaker systematic theology--but hey, I think it's an interesting way of dialoguing with other groups.) Reformed theology is interesting and all, but it would be nice to read a Quaker perspective, but I don't know of any that are more recent than Barclay's.


Liz in the Mist said...

Kind of on subject kind of night...a girl and I have been discussing our views of the Devil. I am kinda of in the camp that the devil is a sense of more internalized oppression and not sure he fully exists, but she is convinced he does.

What is typical Quaker views on the Devil?

Unknown said...

Well, that's a hard question, because what is the "typical Quaker view" of anything???

Short answer: early Friends talked a lot about the Lamb's War, meaning we're fighting not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness. I think they probably saw these powers as taking shape in beings of some sort (Satan and demons). Today many Christians are questioning whether there is a "devil," partially for philosophical reasons (it would create a dualism or else God had to create evil), and partially because the idea of there being some other powerful spiritual being besides God isn't very popular right now--it seems superstitious.

Quakers...probably depends on the person. Some Quakers probably don't even really believe in evil, but only injustice which is a consequence of human choices. Some Quakers are fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally and so would point to passages that suggest a personal being who embodies evil.

Maybe I'll post something on this later, but there's my short reply.

Paul said...

Your thoughts on this tension between God working good in us and us doing intentional acts,making conscious choices to move deeper into goodness, awareness of God, makes me think of Philippians 2 where Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” It seems there are two parties involved working for the purpose of good.

Zach Alexander said...

Rex Ambler of Britain YM is writing a book on Quakerk theology, I think a little more in the systemic direction than the typical woolly writing by liberal Friends (I say that as one), and he sent me some draft chapters months ago but I've been too busy to read them!

Johan Maurer said...

Ben Richmond's new book Signs of Salvation is as close to a new restatement of Friends theology as I've seen. It's not a complete systematic theology, but it sets up a wonderful biblical paradigm for one. It succeeds in being faithful to "orthodox" roots and radically humane at the same time. With its dependence on the concept of covenant, your Princeton colleagues might like it, too.

I have worked with Calvin College on a couple of projects for a year and a half now, and I love the intelligence and integrity that their scholars apply to modern Reformed theology (AND spirituality).

However, I still think that the Inward Light is a crucial doctrine. It doesn't deny the sovereignty of God because God CHOSE to place that Light in us. God chose to have a witness in each person created in God's image, and our task as evangelists is made both more subtle and more simple by being conceived as the task of turning people toward that witness, rather than intervening with an element that was heretofore foreign to them. This has been my approach personally, at any rate.

There are theological dilemmas involved with this understanding—what about the sociopath, for example? Is (was) there literally a functional witness in everyone? In the man who murdered my sister? In Hitler? I have two thoughts: (1) I don't need to know the answer to that; perhaps God permits natural disasters on legs, as well as natural disasters in the form of earthquakes and windstorms. I don't need to have that issue resolved before reaching out to the witness of God that I am required to presuppose is there by my discipleship.

(2) Too often, people are likely to resolve the issue of whether someone is redeemable by agendas and criteria that are not God's. Do they look redeemable? Do they belong to some group defined as outside our boundaries, such as ... well, I'm going to resist the temptation to throw some curveballs in there.

Easter blessings!


Anonymous said...

I think a good thing to read, in contrast to Barclay, or in complementation of him, is Nayler's "Love to the Lost," which is around on the web, or I can email a file of it to anyone who writes me (brian_drayton@terc.edu).
Reading it raised for me the question, What should/can Quaker theology look like? By this, I don't mean, What should the content be? but things like "How should it make its appeals to the Spirit, to Scripture, and tradition? How should it engage conceptually with classic issues like the atonement, incarnation, justification, etc.?" Not that form and content are really separate.