Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
An exchange on a recent blog post brought to mind Lewis Benson's first published work, titled "Prophetic Quakerism." Written in 1943, the piece diagnoses the state of modern Quakerism as a deviation from the original prophetic faith into a philosophical idealism, which has so beleaguered our Society in the past century. In an excerpt from "Prophetic Quakerism," Benson describes the difference between the two doctrines of the Inner Light: prophetic and philosophical (italics mine):
"First, the philosophical interpretation understands the Inner Light to be that innate capacity of human beings to comprehend rational and ethical truth....This view tends to make the concept of 'spirit' in man identical with the concept of 'mind.' The 'mind' or 'soul' of man is the seat of the divine element in man and the essentially divine reality is not external to the soul....This view affirms the inherent spirituality of the human psyche due to the presence of a native rational and ethical principle which is divine....
Secondly, the prophetic doctrine of the Inner Light understands that man may become completely spiritualized, that is to say, brought into perfect harmony with the will of the Creator God who is spirit. But the agency for this spiritualization is not to be found by an inventory of man's native capacities. Man is made spiritual and godly by a power which operates in man but which is nevertheless not of man. It is always the working of a sovereign will distinct from one's own. Thus there is accessible to man a light which illuminates his moral life, but this life is not present in man as his own psychological possession. It is imparted to man and man has received the promise that it will never be withheld. The condition of the operation of this light within man is his willingness to submit both conscience and reason to this objective and superhuman light. The conception of the Inner Light does not displace human reason, but says Joseph Phipps, it does caution 'against...the setting up human reason above its due place in religion, making it the leader instead of the follower, the teacher instead of the learner, and esteeming it vested with a kind of self-sufficiency, independent of the direction and help of God's Holy Spirit.' Likewise conscience or the 'sense of ought' is a quality of human life but it should not be regarded as autonomous and it cannot lead to the ultimate principles of righteousness unless informed by a higher authority. (The Truth is Christ, "Prophetic Quakerism," pp. 14-15)
The doctrines of "that of God in every one" and "the power of love and good will to overcome war and hate" are derived from the idealism that originates with the philosophical interpretation of the Inner Light. This doctrine is a tribute to human capacity and thus differs from the prophetic doctrine, which places man in total dependency on the power of God to inform his understanding of right and wrong, and to gather, govern, and preserve a people who have Christ as their head: "whose dominion and strength is over all, against whom," says Penington,"the gates of hell cannot prevail."
Benson's piece, written in the middle of the Second World War, when civilization hung precariously in the balance, recognizes the limits of human ability and power to order and preserve the world, and the necessity of coming into the knowledge of and obedience to the Will of God.
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