Category Archives: history

The Spirit in History part 3

In the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians, we see the insights of Moltmann applied in specific contexts, especially contexts which consist of the alienated, despised, and ignored—people who, it might be said, have long existed outside of any historical consideration.

Yet, it is in the rejected people that God’s history is so often enacted. Such non-historical people push back in liberation theologies asserting not only their identity as people made in the image of God, but also as true persons, existing in history, creating and participating in moments of historical realization, whether or not historians or any academics have thought to take note of such history. They suggest a radical particularization of historical studies, in which no one who is loved by God is considered an outsider to the field of history.

History, in light of liberation theology, becomes infinitely expansive in its complex particularities. In addition, the work of the Spirit cannot be seen as either idealism or pietism. Gutiérrez writes that the revelation of Scripture, in the prophets and in the Gospels, “presupposes the defense of the rights of the poor, punishment of the oppressors, a life free from the fear of being enslaved by others, the liberation of the oppressed. Peace, justice, love, and freedom are not private realities; they are not only internal attitudes. They are social realities, implying a historical liberation.”

The work of the Spirit is a public enterprise, enacting inner and outer transformation in this world for the sake of a new embrace of Divinely oriented freedom. “The eschatological promises are being fulfilled throughout history,” Gutiérrez writes, “but this does not mean that they can be identified clearly and completely with one or another social reality; their liberation effect goes far beyond the foreseeable and opens up new and unsuspected possibilities. The complete encounter with the Lord will mark an end to history, but it will take place in history.”

He adds, “The encounter is present even now, dynamizing humanity’s process of becoming and projecting it beyond its hopes (1 Cor. 2:6-9); it will not be planned or predesigned.” This encounter is present with every person, whether great or despised, for the Spirit of God works to enliven each to their fullest potentiality in relationship with God and with others, marking each instance as a historical moment.

Those “innocent flowers” who are trampled by supposedly “world-historical figures” are not crushed to pieces by an advanced embrace of an enlightening spirit, but rather are themselves the figures of history in whom the Spirit of God enlivens, inspires, ennobles, and enables to embrace, even in this “density of the present.”

to be continued…

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Spirit in History, part 2

Part 2 of the paper I presented at the Conference of Faith and History meeting at George Fox University. The title of the paper was “Whither the Spirit: Proposing a Pneumatological Historiography”.

It may be, however, that because Hegel so closely tied a philosophy of history with the concept of the Spirit’s actualization and revelation in history that a rejection of Hegel seems to insist on a rejection of any attempt to incorporate a robust pneumatology within a theological historiography. Recently, however, theologians have made a turn back towards history as a source of theological content. While there are an increasing number worth studying, for the present I would like to briefly highlight the work of Jürgen Moltmann, and Gustavo Gutierrez.

Jürgen Moltmann has a strong interest in God’s work in and through history, providing significant assistance in the formation of a more comprehensive theology of history, one which takes more specific interest in historical particulars and in the work of the Holy Spirit. “Like Judaism and Islam,” Moltmann reminds us, “Christianity is called a religion of history, over against the great Asiatic ‘cosmic’ religions.”

He continues, “The God about whom the ‘historical’ religions speak is not, like the divine in the ‘cosmic’ religions, always already so manifest and evident in the laws of the cosmos and the rhythms and cycles of life that no special revelation is required for the divinity to be perceived; this God reveals himself to the people of his choice in contingent events of human history.”

This God, for Moltmann, works in the context and particulars of history, initiating history and disclosing God’s future to humanity in the promises and fulfillments that occur within history.

This experience of God is, in Moltmann, a dynamic experience of God who exists in three, fully realized persons. He insists on a personhood of the Spirit that makes a strong move against earlier forms of Hegelian idealism as well as what might be called impersonal categories of the Spirit as is found in much traditional theology. Lawrence Wood writes that for Moltmann, “The Holy Spirit is not an extension of the human spirit. The Holy Spirit is not just a point of union between God the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is not just the Father and Son working together and relating together as a ‘we.’

Rather, the Holy Spirit is also just as distinctive in his personal specificity as the Father and the Son.” For Moltmann, the experience of the Spirit is as the creative, enlivening, personal power of God. Moltmann suggests three aspects of experiencing God’s ruach. The first, is as “the confronting event of God’s efficacious presence ‘which reaches into the depths of human existence.’” He adds, “every efficacious presence of God is determined by the ruach and, as Calvin said, has to be interpreted pneumatologically.”

Second, “the creative power of God is communicated to the beings he has created in such a way that in talking about ruach we are talking about the energy of their life too. It is not wrong to talk about the Spirit as the ‘drive’ and ‘instinct’ awakened by God.”

Third, Moltmann writes, “Ruach creates space. It sets in motion. It leads out of narrow places into wide vistas, thus conferring life. To experience ruach is to experience what is divine not only as a person, and not merely a force, but also as space—as the space of freedom in which the living being can unfold.”

Human history, then, can be said to unfold within the space of the Holy Spirit, which certainly offers significant guidance to a theology of history, but also, to be sure, adds significant problems as we look at just about any particular instance in history, which has its hopes but also its evils.

As such, this suggests not simply a space of the Spirit’s work which pervades all, but also a mission and a goal for which we have to understand the Spirit’s specific work in the process of human history.

to be continued…

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Spirit in History Part 1

On October 8, I presented a paper at the Conference of Faith and History meeting at George Fox University. The title of the paper was “Whither the Spirit: Proposing a Pneumatological Historiography”. This was a condensed version of a paper I wrote last Spring, which totaled about 45 pages. I got it down to a little less than 10 for this presentation. My task is not yet over. I’m working on adapting the theme, if not the actual present content, into another article that will focus more closely on understandings spirits in history. By this I mean looking at history as a place where God’s Spirit, human spirits, and evil spirits all are influential and interactive, pushing history different directions.

For now, though, I’d like to post from my presentation text. Not all at once, but a section or so at a time. Just to give a feel for what I’m working on. Indeed, I suspect this could be the beginning of a future book. There’s definitely a whole lot of material to write about.

Here’s the beginning part of my presentation at George Fox:

To believe in God—to believe in a fully Triune God as revealed in Scripture—is to believe in the God who not only has worked in the words of Scripture but continues to work in history. Outside of direct revelation, however, it is often a difficult, and maybe even arrogant, task to attempt to point out precisely how and where God works in history. That this is difficult, that this may even be arrogant, is likely a cause for significant reticence in exploring history for signs of God’s work.

However, as any theological claim can bear the charge of arrogance, it seems neither difficulty nor possible presumption should entirely dissuade this area of study. So, while it may be an audacious task, it is the goal of this present effort to seek a more substantial theology of history especially as it relates to the work of the Spirit of God.

Because this project is significantly larger than could be fully explored in the confines of a relatively brief presentation, the present task is less to pursue a comprehensive study on the relevant subjects and more to offer a proposal for continued study. In this presentation, then, my goal is to suggest areas of research, each of which would serve as the basis of a fuller treatment in a more substantive work. My goal is not to suggest an overarching theme, nor a definitive identification of God with any particular movement, event or culture.

My hope is to provide tools of discernment that can serve as cues for historians as they pursue their tasks, which in turn can serve as fodder for developing theological reflection. In pursuing the present task in this way, I hope to salvage some humility from what may otherwise be an overly brazen endeavor.

The whole business of history, according to Hegel, is to bring the idea of Spirit into consciousness, moving from an implicit, unconscious instinct to a more fully realized, fully aware embrace of freedom.

“World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom—a progress whose necessity we have to investigate.” Hegel understands the Spirit as the realization of a free consciousness, an idealization of human potentiality that calls us to be, in non-relational terms, divinized.

This ideal, this universal Idea, is not necessarily emphasizing individuals, however. Rather, the “universal Idea manifests itself in the State.” The State, not particularly people, is the context of the Spirit’s actualization, “in it freedom achieves its objectivity and lives in the enjoyment of this objectivity.” This is not to suggest the Idea cannot manifest in particular people. Indeed, Hegel emphasizes that it is in a “world-historical individual” who may best exemplify the progression of the universal Spirit in any given age.

“They are the very truth of their age and their world,” he writes, “the next genus, so to speak, which is already formed in the womb of time. It is theirs to know this new universal, the necessary stage of their world, to make it their own aim and put all their energy into it.” He identifies Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon in his list of such figures. Such figures are so mighty they “must trample down many an innocent flower, crush to pieces many things” in their path.

The Spirit is active in this world, bringing people to a realization and actualization, of the fullness of freedom, which is progressively comprehended in each successive age as human society is expanded in consciousness of what it can fully become. Hegel is not, it seems clear, orienting his philosophy of history upon a well-developed pneumatology, but rather is elevating Enlightenment ideals into the purpose and being of the Trinity itself, taking these ideals as themselves the reality of the Spirit, and thus divinizing modern understandings of human advancement.

Any conception which could emphasize a man such as Napoleon to being what is essentially an icon of theosis is missing a significant emphasis on how God has revealed himself most fully in Scripture and especially in the person of Jesus.

Hegel provides an interesting, even helpful, proposal for a robust theology of history, but imbues his terms with untenable, even repulsive meanings that have proven highly repressive to true freedom in the course of the last two hundred years.

to be continued…

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safe conduct

In late Spring of 1725, Susanna Wesley wrote a letter to her second oldest son, whom she called Jacky.  After noting some particular frustrations experienced by his brother Charles on a recent journey, frustrations that involved his sister Hester, Susanna turns to more theological musings.  John, it seems, included some quotes from Thomas à Kempis in a previous letter, and Susanna shared her opinion that à Kempis was “extremely wrong” to suggest that God “by an irreversible decree hath determined any man to be miserable in this world.”[1]

She goes on to write, “Our blessed Lord, who came from heaven to save us from our sins… did not intend by commanding us to ‘take up the cross’ that we should bid adieu to all joy and satisfaction [indefinitely], but he opens and extends our views beyond time to eternity.  He directs us to place our joy that it may be durable as our being; not in gratifying but in retrenching our sensual appetites; not in obeying but correcting our irregular passions, bringing every appetite of the body and power of the soul under subjection to his laws, [if we would follow him to heaven].”[2]

We are to take up our cross, she writes to John, as a contrast to “our corrupt animality” in order to fight under “his banner against the flesh.” This fight is not an empty one, because “when by the divine grace we are so far conquerors as that we never willingly offend, but still press after greater degrees of Christian perfection… we shall then experience the truth of Solomon’s assertion, ‘The ways of virtue are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.’”[3]

After her brief theological insights, Susanna returns to the topic of  à Kempis noting that she takes “Kempis to have been an honest, weak man, that had more zeal than knowledge, by his condemning all mirth or pleasure as sinful.”  Misery is seen as misery to Susanna, who acknowledges how it can be used by God, but is not itself the place God leads us.  “We may and ought to rejoice that God has assured us he will never leave or forsake us; but if we continue faithful to him, he will take care to conduct us safely through all the changes and chances of this mortal life to those blessed regions of joy and immortality where sorrow and sin can never enter!”


[1]Charles Wallace, Jr., ed. Susanna Wesley: The Complete Writings (New York: Oxford University Press,1997), 107.

[2] Wallace, Susanna Wesley, 108.

[3] Wallace, Susanna Wesley, 108.

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stream of the Spirit

In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognize, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and florid) in François de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild frightening, Paradisial flavor, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed ‘Paganism’ of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognizable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

(C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock)

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Spirit and Truth

Well, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been engaged in a very busy quarter, reading a lot and recently writing a lot.  I just turned in my paper for the quarter.  It was 60 pages long, plus a 6 page bibliography.

The title was “Spirit and Truth:  A Study of Susanna Wesley, John Wesley, and John Fletcher as Participants in the Stream of the Spirit’s Work”

Here’s the conclusion:

As my goal was to look at Wesley as part of a stream of the Spirit’s work through the course of history, I primarily focused on those influences which fed into and flowed out of his significant contributions.  Although not within the scope of this present effort, the political, social, and religious contexts of his era were also vitally important and understanding these more fully is essential to understanding not only what Wesley thought but also how he applied and expressed his underlying priorities.[1] Wesley was, to be sure, an intellectual man whose eclectic reading and education shaped him significantly more than most of his era, yet a person can never be independent from their social surroundings.  Indeed, Wesley’s immensely practical interests make his social and intellectual climate even more important for study.

Seeing the work of the Spirit in an ecological rather than reductionistic fashion means that to most fully understand a context we have to look before and after, into the specific details of the people and settings, while keeping in mind the general patterns the Spirit seems to exhibit in every era. In this work, my goal was not to offer a comprehensive view of Wesley or Methodism, but rather to narrow my focus on particular influences which seemed to have led Wesley to explore certain paths, and shaped how he led others down these paths.  To be sure, there were even significantly more religious and literary influences which affected Wesley, each of which deserves fuller study, though I selected those which I felt were the most influential, with other influences often either honing or expanding what the initial influences prompted in Wesley’s continuing quest for a holistic faith.

This quest for a holistic, more purely expressed faith was not new to Wesley.  Indeed, this is the expression of the work of the Spirit in the life of the church since the day of Pentecost.  The Spirit has called and enabled the people of God to more fully participate with God in this world.  This participation calls people to turn away from their own attempts to bring definition to their life, which only lead to an incomplete identity in a struggle against the contrasting forces faced in this world.  The attempts to bring hope or definition or peace are, ultimately, unsuccessful.  For death entered into this world, and death calls all people into its grasp.  Death came into this world through the first man, Adam, but death was overcome by the new Adam, Jesus of Nazareth, who died on the cross but did not remain dead.

After three days, he was resurrected, in the power of the Spirit, the firstborn of all creation becomes the first of the resurrection, and offers this hope to all who seek him, letting themselves find their identity in his identity. In doing this, such people do not lose their self. By letting go of attempts at self-definition, by letting go of the ego’s attempt to form a false, defensive identity, the power of the Spirit reaches in and provides renewal, refreshing, and resurrection, even in this present life.  In the life of Christ, we are given life. In the power of the Spirit, we are reborn to new identities, able to take hold of the fullness of God’s reality, participating increasingly in his fellowship, and in this, participating in the fellowship of all his people.

This fellowship of God’s people in this present era is called the Church.  It is a reflection of God’s Kingdom, formed in unity and diversity to be a people who hope, who help, who love.  Yet, the Church, like present humanity, is not always, or even often, fully reflecting this call in the world.  In every age there are errors and heresies, mistakes caused by zealousness or distortions enabled by gross perversions allowed in sometimes even the highest leadership.  The Spirit who calls the people, who empowers the people, does not abandon the people.  In every age there is a constant work of the Spirit of God, calling people back to wholeness and truth, empowering those who truly seek Christ to be light in their contexts, teaching and prophesying, for the sake of the whole of God’s people.  This work of the Spirit often enlightens the people to a more fully realized truth, building on the insights of the past to help each generation see more and more clearly the fullness of the truth that God is calling all humanity to live.  This stream of the Spirit refreshes and enlivens; it sometimes breaks down but it also helps build up, bringing fresh life wherever it goes, even in the face of deep struggle.

Martin Luther participated in this stream, seeing the perversions of the Church of his era and fighting against them, and when they would not listen he helped lead the Church to new forms of gathering, forms in which the people could, once again, find more freedom in their worship and learning.  Yet, there was not an end to corruption or distortion.  The Spirit continued to work, however, leading men and women to find renewal as they explored the fresh paths of the Spirit. Often this involved looking back to those who had walked with God in previous generations. They followed the call to “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”[2] In England, a people arose who were known as Puritans, for they sought a refreshed purity in the Church of England.  However, even as many sought with a Spirit-enlightened spark, the church still had not found the full way of light. Errors were made.  People were lost.

The Spirit, however, continued to work, both in those who remained in the Church of England, and in those who Dissented from it.  Susanna Wesley, a daughter of Dissent, returned to the Church of England when she was a young teenager, following a call on her life that led her to a deeper spirituality, and an intimate relationship with a man who also sought God in his return to the Anglican communion.  They had many children, and Susanna saw it as her life mission to help these children learn how to participate with Christ, to truly walk with the Spirit in life and light.  The testimony to Susanna’s faithfulness in Spirit and Truth is seen in her children, the most famous of whom is John Wesley, a man who helped transform people not only in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, but also throughout North America.

It was in England, however, that Wesley’s continued leadership through preaching, teaching, and writing found some of his most treasured growth.  A young Swiss man named John Fletcher was drawn into the Methodist fold, and was soon drawn into John Wesley’s own inner circle, becoming a helper and a friend, and one of the most important interpreters of Wesley’s theology, helping the many tributaries which poured into and out of John Wesley to find even greater cohesion.  They sought perfection, but not perfection as performance. Rather, they sought a perfection that was itself a gift and testimony of the Holy Spirit, a true holiness which was reflected in inner purity and outward actions, a purity that was at its very depths one filled will divine love.

This stream did not stop in the age of Wesley and Fletcher. Their contributions helped to steer others, men and women, towards an even better understanding of the call of God in this world.  Though there were also still temptations and distortions and many mistakes leading particular churches down wrong roads and out of the stream of the call of Christ, there was always a testimony of God’s Spirit in this world, calling and leading, enlightening and empowering.  John Fletcher called this great work of the Spirit in a person the baptism of the Spirit, seeing it as a continual Pentecost that can be experienced in each person, in each generation.

Those in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries understood this to be a true call to the signs of the earliest church, and sought a renewed Pentecost in holiness and healings, tongues and prophesying.  The renewal the Puritans sought in England found new insight in Susanna Wesley, who passed her wisdom to her son John, who was a mentor to John Fletcher, who gave new insights and understanding to men and women of, at first, two continents, and then many.  This is a church that is constantly emerging, finding both renewal and fresh insight in every generation.

This stream of the Spirit continues to pour out even to our day.  Often, as in the beginning, this work of the Spirit is warming hearts in unexpected places and among unexpected people and in unexpected ways.

Supreme eternal being!  Fountain of life and happiness! Vouchsafe to be ever present to the inward sense of my mind. I offer you my heart—take possession by the Holy Spirit for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen. Amen.[3]


[1] Very helpful texts for understanding the context of Wesley, Methodism, and nonconformity in general are the earlier works of  J. Wesley Bready, England, before and after Wesley : The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938) and  Maldwyn Lloyd Edwards, After Wesley: A Study of the Social and Political Influence of Methodism in the Middle Period (1791-1849) (London: Epworth Press, 1935).  For more contemporary studies see David Hempton, Methodism and Politics in British Society, 1750-1850 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984); David Hempton, The Religion of the People : Methodism and Popular Religion C. 1750-1900 (New York: Routledge, 1996); David Hempton, Methodism Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); James E. Bradley, Religion, Revolution, and English Radicalism: Nonconformity in Eighteenth-Century Politics and Society ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, A History of Evangelicalism ; V. 1 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003); Patrick Karl O’Brien and Roland E. Quinault, eds., The Industrial Revolution and British Society (New York: Cambridge University Press,1993).

[2] Jeremiah 6:16.

[3] From the journal of Susanna Wesley, in Wallace, Susanna Wesley, 333.

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Whither the Spirit?

Last quarter I took a class on pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. My final paper was on proposing a pneumatological historiography. In human language, I suggested that we should look for the Holy Spirit in our historical studies and I proposed some ways to start doing that. I had about forty-two pages of stuff to say on the topic. Well, I had a whole lot more to say, meaning this might be, hopefully will be, a future book project. The quarter ended a week ago, and I got the paper back this past Wednesday. Got an A on it. So, another fruitful quarter behind me, and more work about to start up tomorrow.

Here’s my conclusion to my paper “Whither the Spirit?”:

Philosophy tends toward a binary with God and Son, often adding mentions of the Spirit as a rhetorical flair, or as a term for idealized human achievement. The recent turn towards a dialogue with Science, which seems to dominate discussion in theological studies these days makes a strong, and very encouraging, embrace of relevant fields of God’s creative power in this world, providing interesting analogies and ideas for theological reflection. However, in far too many of these discussions, the person of Jesus is extraneous, a rhetorical flair meant to “Christianize” a broadly panphysical coordination of theology and science, and in this, I might suggest offers another binarian form, that of a Father and Spirit, sans Son. It is in the study of history that we can see a truly Trinitarian revelation, and with this, such a study must continue to reorient itself along Trinitarian lines.

Such a study does not look for obvious Spirit language nor great signs of supposed miracles or mystical events. Though these may occur within a truly pneumatological moment, these cannot be seen as necessary, predominant, or even common expressions of such a movement. As shown, the reality of human history is a chaotic structure in which the work of the Spirit could be embedded in a myriad of different ways, moving in certain situations, stirring slight moods, tweaking specific moments in ways that would well be imperceptible to anyone in a given situation. Seeing the Spirit only as a publicly obvious, charismatic force inciting dramatic gifts, visions, or intense piety leaves the discussion of the Spirit off to the side in most historical situations. Thus, to look for the Spirit in history is not to become voyeurs of the Spirit. Rather, if the Spirit remains behind the scenes, we do not look for obvious moments or extraordinary events of supernatural activity. We have to instead discover the cues which point to the work of the Spirit, a work which has at its heart the fullness of God’s holistic, enlivening, salvific work as reflected in, and returning all creation back towards, the person of Christ.

This study brings with it significant challenges on both sides of history and theology. Fortunately, while these have not maintained significant dialogue, there is very helpful guidance to be found from scholars in each field, indeed too much to be properly digested in even an extended essay. More work needs to be done in more thoroughly considering the theological contributions of Pannenberg, Moltmann, and others, who have indeed suggested a robust theology of history based on the Triune God’s creative work in this world. While they have not provided significant examples of how this might be worked out, we can take valuable guidance from the many historians who have long wrestled with what it means to be a person of Christian faith working in historical studies. Alongside broader considerations of contemporary historiography it is possible to begin a more substantive development of a pneumatological history that takes seriously not only the content of God’s own revelation but also the method he has seemingly chosen to offer this revelation. It is in history that God reveals himself, and continues to reveal himself as this history presses on towards eternity.


“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
(2 Corinthians 3:18-19).

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More Pure than the Puritans

Last quarter I did what is called a Directed Reading. Rather than having a class, I worked out a course of study with a professor, Jim Bradley, and worked independently. This basically was a whole lot of reading and a final paper.

The reason for doing this was because I decided to add a Church history minor to my PhD. Basically, this means that while my PhD still is in systematic theology, I’m adding an extra course of study that widens my area of specialty. Meaning I have more job possibilities when I’m done, and more interest while I’m on my way through it.

My focus this last quarter was on early American church history. Read all of the writings of Roger Williams, and key early documents from the Quakers, as well as key source material about Anne Hutchinson. Made for a very interesting season of reading, as this era was quite religiously vibrant–a lot more so than most people realize.

This work is also going to pour into some continued interests of mine, so I see all the various streams I’m wading in contributing to a fuller (ha!) course of study, which may end up being a career’s worth of work. Now, this is just the beginning, making it feel daunting and exciting.

All this was basically a lead in to the main purpose of this post. If you’re at all curious about Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and early Quakers then I just posted my paper online. If I ever want to do anything more with it, I might take it offline, but for now it’s here for your enjoyment. I’d love to hear thoughts, questions, comments if you have any.

More Pure than the Puritans: A Study of Nonconformity in 17th Century America

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More Pure

So why did Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Quakers make such strong stands against the establishment churches of their time and region? It was not solely a reaction against a restrictive religion, nor an attempt to water down the demands it was assumed Christ made on their souls. Indeed, just the opposite. They were increasingly strident against their local churches precisely because in their reading of Scripture, there was a more holistic, more demanding, more open work of God that required more devotion, not less, and such devotion that was especially cognizant of God’s own sovereignty above all in leading his people as he would through his Spirit. They sought to be more pure than those around them, letting go what they saw as anti-Christian accretions to the faith. Not more pure in regards to church doctrine or accepted standards of the age. More pure in regards to what they saw as the call of the Spirit in their lives.

At the heart of this separation was a spiritual drive which had become aware of a pressing need for a more substantive fellowship with God. This drive radically affected their understanding of fellowship with others, pushing them out of being comfortable with established forms of authority and church, leading them into, one might say, the wilderness of religious exploration. In their driving angst, they were pushed back into the Biblical text, and in their independent readings they discovered reasons for the source of their angst. There was more to the fellowship with God than the theology of their era allowed. This was not a new drive, to be sure, as history points to others whose zeal for fellowship with God pushed them along new paths, some in keeping with Scripture, many falling away from it. Throughout Christian history, this zeal was generally funneled down the direction of Christian mysticism, using highly spiritualized language and experiences to channel the overwhelming surge of God’s presence.

For the three subjects at hand, while there was a varying degree of mysticism, this was not channeled in the typical directions. Rather, this mysticism had a strong ecclesiastical response, radically connecting a resurgent understanding of fellowship with God into their developing understanding of fellowship with each other. Roger Williams saw where he could no longer stand and no longer go, but could not embrace a new direction, and essentially put himself on the sidelines until he became convinced God had opened new ways. Hutchinson fought a battle far too common in churches, combining politics and theology, yet she stands out because at her foundation was a sense that God was moving beyond static rules and was seeking to communicate his discernment directly to his people. She was crushed before she could sort out what this fully meant. George Fox, along with many who were followers of Hutchinson and had affinity with Williams, went through a period of seeking as well, but emerged from this with a new vision of a new way of life, one that resounded with an increasingly intimate interaction with God, through the Spirit. By incorporating a cogent understanding of the Holy Spirit into a holistic spirituality, Fox and the Quakers were able to take advantage of the paths others had forged and offer an example of radical Christian community which persists as a model even to this day.

That’s the conclusion to the paper I just turned in on Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Quakers. There were about 34 pages that led up to these last few paragraphs.

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Primary emphasis

I’m not sure what brought this to mind, but I feel I might as well consider it for a bit. Back in 1997 I worked at the US Post Office in San Dimas, CA as a clerk. It payed the bills. Or really, it inspired me to get new bills. I bought some books, the 10 volume set of Ante-Nicene Fathers, and quit the job to read said books.

I had an Early Church history class a couple of years before this which awakened me to the world of the Apostolic Fathers and other early church writers. The professor was great as he had us actually read entire sections of the Fathers. Which seems natural… until one takes other classes on the subject. So we read through volume 1 in that class, and I read through volume 3 on my own over Spring Break for my paper on Tertullian.

I remember writing to a college friend about my insights, which now strike me a little funny. My sixteen week class had been an introduction but it still left me on my own afterwards to wade into what was really an obscure topic. I was an Evangelical and so such post Biblical writings have no place in the church, until we get so post Biblical as to get to this generation.

I note this because in quitting the job and reading those books I didn’t have a professor or guide to shape my reading. I went to a nearby park and read. What was my realization?

Love. I remember writing to this friend that I was shocked how much Love was a central theme in the early church. Of course it’s Biblical but that doesn’t mean it’s a hallmark of the Church in which I was raised. The essence and description of Love in what I read transformed my soul and shot me like a cannon into a renewed perception of Christ and his Church. The holiness and love and devotion I found stirred my heart in a way which still resonates.

I say this now because in re-reading other primary sources this morning I realize how sometimes we get bogged down by how others interpret the text for us. We learn to read as others want us to read rather than reading what is there for us to read. I’m curious how many folks have gone through a class on Early Church theology and been bowled over by the reality of Love within these texts? This morning it wasn’t early church, it was early American history. And, once again, I was ‘pastored’ in a way that no living person has ever reached me.

Reading on our own allows the work of the Spirit to help us interpret, I think, and in moments of importance or after interpretive experiences revisiting original texts can be quite the event. But, it’s really easier to have others tell us what is there. I again realize how good it is that I have been taught not to depend on that.

So, to my parents and professors who encouraged me to read, and read primary sources in their purity. Thanks.

Love is the consummation of all blessings, since all who walk in it love leads and guides towards God, the supreme blessing and cause of every blessing, and unites them with Him; for love is faithful and never fails (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8). Faith is the foundation of what comes after it, namely hope and love, since it provides a firm basis for truth. Hope is the strength of the two pre-eminent gifts of love and faith, since hope gives us glimpses both of that in which we believe and of that for which we long, and teaches us to make our way towards our goal. Love is the completion of the other two, embracing entirely the entire desire of all desires, and satisfying the yearning of our faith and hope for it; for that which we believe to be and which we hope will come to pass, love enables us to enjoy as a present reality.

–Maximos the Confessor

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