Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Theology of John Woolman, part 5 of 6

The Emergence of the “Government of Christ”: This-Worldly Perfection and Judgment

In the last post we looked at eschatology in relation to eighteenth century Quaker antislavery proponent, John Woolman’s, conception of time: one foot in the eschaton and one foot in historical time, so that he viewed himself as someone who brought God’s will to bear on the world of human affairs.

Today we are going to look at Woolman’s perfectionism and his views of divine judgment.
A theology of perfection and a theology of divine judgment are two beliefs that make us twenty-first century folks squirm in our seats a bit.  Why would concepts of perfection and judgment make us uneasy?

The concept of perfection brings with it fears of moral self-righteousness. It also makes us think of the infallibility that is associated with cults. When people claim perfection for themselves, they are usually abusing power in some way.

Similarly, theologies the feature divine judgment prominently are often little more than blaming others for their suffering. Moreover, retributive views of divine judgment strike us as arbitrary because people who rarely know God's specific will for their own lives claim to know God’s motivations in dealing with other people. When someone has a difficult time deciding where to go for lunch, but then claims to know God's mind  when a tragedy strikes another person or group, it seems phony.

Here are some definitions that will guide my thinking on perfection and judgment:


  •  conquer the power of sin (not necessarily complete sinlessness in practice)
  •   united to the mind of Christ
  •   completely transformed in this world
    Divine judgment:
  • "Chastisements": God's use of natural and historical  phenomenon to correct or guide human affairs. This is logical component of divine Providence, the belief that God interacts with human beings and is working within time for their good.
  • God’s Overthrow of Evil: This view is related to eschatology, because it deals with God's ultimate victory over evil and the vindication of the saints.

Let's dig into Woolman's perfectionism.


Since Woolman believed that some part of the eschaton, the Kingdom of God, was available on earth and within history, he also held the corollary belief that humans could enter into the life promised for the eschaton. In the Bible, this future world is one where God conquers evil powers, wipes away every tear, and the saints dwell eternally in the direct presence of God. For Woolman, this was not merely a future hope but something God was enacting spiritually in the faithful on earth. Woolman's perfectionism, then, was not the result of his own efforts but of an overwhelming experience of having been transformed by God, and, indeed, changed in his nature to reflect the fulfillment of God's eschatological promises.

Historical time might be seeming to progress normally, but to those privy to God's ways knew that eternity was always shaping and transforming the physical realm with spiritual power. The faithful had experienced inwardly a death of the human will and a transformation into a new state, a state in which sin was overcome and the fullness of God's will was determinative. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Woolman talked about this eschatological and perfected state on earth as a "life hid with Christ in God." In that state, the carnal encumberances that separated people from actualizing the divine presence immediately were overcome.

The Single Event: Justification and Sanctification

Protestant theology usually identifies to separate and distinct works of God in the individual in what is referred to as "salvation." Justification is usually thought of as the regenerative work that establishes the individual as accepted by God. In some Protestant groups, justification is like a line in the sand and once a person crosses that line they are saved. Sanctification is then the process of growing in one's faith, or discipleship. This particular view inevitably belittles the role of sanctification in salvation, because justification is all that really matters. Other Protestant groups reverse the formula and look for particular evidences of salvation that would result from sanctification, viewing salvation as a long process rather than an instantaneous event. This view lessens the importance of justification in salvation.

For Woolman, there was a marked change that happened in the moment of conversion, a change in the spiritual state of a person that encapsulated both justification and sanctification. Similar to earliest Friends of the 1660s, Woolman felt that justification and sanctification were instantaneous and a single event. After the first generation, and during Woolman’s own day, most Quakers viewed justification and sanctification as two different event or processes. The result of the separation of these two events after the first generation was:

  • anxiety over whether or not a person was truly "saved," because they must always work to progress in the spiritual life (i.e. questioning their sanctification).
  •  questioning the efficacy of their conversion, since it was still a work in progress (i.e. wondering if their experience of justification was sufficient)

While Woolman described an ongoing process of purification, such that his initial conversion experience cannot be understood to be the climax of his religious life, he did not merely move beyond his conversion and leave it in his past as one step among many towards his religious goals. Rather, the conversion was always efficacious, even as he acknowledged God's continuing work on him and in the world.

Take, for example, this passage, written in the late 1760s:

It is with Reverence that I acknowledge the Mercies of our Heavenly Father, who, in Infinite Love, did visit me in my Youth, and wrought a Belief in me, that through true Obedience a State of inward Purity may be known in this Life; in which we may love Mankind in the same Love with which our Redeemer loveth us, and therein learn Resignation to endure Hardships, for the real Good of others.

As a mature adult, Woolman looked back on his conversion as a transformation to "a State of inward Purity" which he experienced "in this Life."  Out of this "State," the faithful could love others with God's very same love. The goal of this perfection was outwardly focused and resulted in manifestations of God's love "for the real Good of others."  At the moment of conversion, a state of this-worldly perfection became the normative expectation for the faithful, and this new state was embodied in specific acts of love towards the creation. This point is important: Woolman’s sense of perfection and “inward purity” was not to suit his own self-righteousness, it was not to separate himself from others, it was for the purpose of loving others with the same love in which God had loved him. Woolman's experience of God, his theology, drew him into connection to others and service to others. 

And in his 1772 deathbed narrative in York, he reminisced on the freedom from sin occasioned by his conversion experience, but noted that, after that conversion, he was still a work in progress:

O Lord! It was thy power that enabled me to forsake sin in my youth, and I have felt thy bruises since for disobedience, but as I bowed under them, thou healedst me; and though I have gone through many trials and sore afflictions, thou hast been with me, continuing a father and a friend. I feel thy power now and beg that in the approaching trying moments, thou wilt keep my heart steadfast unto thee. 
Woolman recognised that, at the moment of conversion as a young man, things were forever different in his life, as he was no longer confined to a life under the power of sin. Yet, he admitted that he had fallen short since that initial, efficacious moment, but was "healedst" as he "resigned" himself to God's will.  However, the bulk of his writings focused on the daily, ongoing, guiding presence of God. The "power" of God to uphold him continually and to enable him to "act on an inward principle of virtue," according to the manner in what God "opened" to him, was the key-stone of his perfectionism.

United to the Mind of Christ

Woolman believed that the "mind of Christ" could dwell within him and could govern his decision making. 1 Corinthians 2:16 reads: 
“For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? but we have the mind of Christ.”

Woolman’s perfectionism and eschatology were influenced heavily by his understanding of Christ’s life, death and presence with the faithful. Woolman felt that Christ had physical form like other human beings, and was susceptible to the same temptations as everyone else, and yet he was perfect, and was absolutely obedient to the Father. Christ made incarnate the perfected life of God on earth for all to see. And now, the faithful carried within them the mind of Christ and could embody that same life. The faithful could incarnate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ: 

Now this mind being in us, which was in Christ Jesus, it removes from our hearts the desire of Superiority, worldly honours or greatness. A deep attention is felt to the Divine Counsellor, and an ardent engagement to promote, as far as we may be enabled, the happiness of mankind universally. This state, where every motion from a Selfish spirit yieldeth to pure love, I may with gratitude to the Father of mercies acknowledge, is often opened before me as a pearl to dig after; attended with a living concern, that amongst the many nations & families on the Earth, those who believe in the Messiah, that “he was manifested to destroy the works of the devil,” and thus to “take away the Sins of the world,” that the will of our heavenly Father may “be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Strong are the desires I often feel, that this holy profession may remain unpolluted and the believers in Christ may so abide in the pure inward feeling of his spirit, that the wisdom from above may shine forth in their living, as a light by which others may be Instrumentally helped on their way, in the true harmonious walking!

The mind of Christ in his passion was in the faithful so as to cleanse them from sinful desires.  The "mind of Christ" placed the faithful in a "state" that aborted "every motion" derived from a sinful spirit. Christ took away the sins of the world so that God's will could be accomplished on earth as it was done in heaven.  Woolman believed that Christ was more than just a moral example. In Christ's obedience, suffering, and crucifixion, an actual mystical transmutation of states took place. 

The word, “transmutation” is not Woolman’s, of course, it’s how I am trying to discuss the process Woolman is describing.  In evolutionary biology – which I know almost nothing about – a transmutation of species is what happens when one species gradually takes on the form and characteristics of another species. Or in other contexts, like alchemy, transmutation is the process in which a base metal, like iron, could be changed into a precious metal, like gold.  With the presence of the mind of Christ, the faithful would "abide in the pure inward feeling of [Christ's] spirit" so that they made visible the realities of Christ's life and his present government in their lives. Just as the divine Christ overcame the weaknesses of human nature, a form of this-worldly divinisation took place in those under Christ's leadership, as they took on a measure of the perfected "mind of Christ.  As a result, the recipients of divine revelation overcame sin and in practical embodiments were made harbingers of the age to come and participants in the unfolding reign of Christ" in human affairs. 
Christ literally lived in the faithful. 

As a result of this tansmutation, there need be no separation between the world as it was and the world as God intended it to be.  Christ was fully present spiritually in the faithful, and through the Spirit, could rule over the world.  So the millennium was not a future state and time, it was a real possibility and an impending reality.

Perfect and Complete

But it was the death of self that led to this transmutation of states:

No man can see God and live. This was uttered by the Almighty to the prophet Moses. And the mind at this day divinely enlightened feels that in losing our life for Christ's sake the understanding is quickened and enlarged in the knowledge of the work of Redemption. The natural mind is active about the things of this life but this activity must cease before we stand perfect and compleat [sic] in the will of God. When the mind is wholly turned to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, then we learn to employ our time and our strength rightly and feel it necessary to be diligent in business, fervent in Spirit serving the Lord. Thus is fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet: This is the name wherewith he shall be called the Lord our Righteousness (Woolman, John. “Manuscript of John Woolman’s Sea Journal,” 1772. Luke Howard Manuscripts. Friends House Library.)

To say that “no man can see God and live” was not to say that human beings are incapable of being in the divine presence, but that to experience God is to die to the old way of living. To know and experience God brought about the death of self. There was a spiritual, this-worldly death and resurrection in which new horizons of God's influence and power became known to the faithful.  Here, the mystery of God's purposes was revealed  to those whose "understanding is quickened and enlarged in the knowledge of the work of Redemption."  With this knowledge, derived from a resurrection as a new creation in God, the "natural mind" was laid aside and the faithful could "stand perfect and compleat [sic] in the will of God."  At that point, no further progression in the life of faith could be made as the "natural mind" became "wholly turned to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness."  In the resurrected self, Woolman believed, one lived in a state of mutual indwelling with God which provided a new manner of living in the world.  In this state of completion, Woolman believed he knew how to act consistently with God's purposes, "diligent in business, fervent in Spirit serving the Lord."  When the claims of the inward apocalypse governed the outward, practical aspects of one's life, God's "Righteousness" was "fulfilled."  

Woolman’s claim to be “perfect and complete” in God’s will is about as strong of a statement of this-worldly perfection as I have seen.

Judgment: Chastisements

I want to now switch gears to talk about Woolman’s view of divine judgment. Like his perfectionism, his theology of judgment was related to his eschatology in that it was the story of how God was actively intervening in society to bring about God’s ultimate purposes.

He had two categories of divine judgment: chastisements and wrath.

Woolman viewed “chastisements” as natural events with divine meaning, they were intended to warn, correct and reprove humanity for the purpose of changing their ways. Woolman, and many other devout religious figures, did not think that natural events happened on their own, they were guided and directed by God.
Chastisements were acts of God's grace designed to guide colonists towards a right application of God's will:

"The care of a wise and good man for his only son is inferior to the regard of the great Parent of the universe for his creatures. He hath the command of all the powers and operations in nature and “doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men” [Lam. 3:33]. Chastisement is intended for instruction, and instruction being received by gentle chastisement, greater calamities are prevented."
Woolman believed divine chastisements were elements of God's loving revelation intended to guide people towards their best selves.  He implied that God was the rightful ruler of all aspects of world events and would, thus, intervene to direct them through the use of natural corrections. Woolman looked to the events of his day as guideposts and warnings colonists could recognise on the road to greater faithfulness:
"It is a time for us to attend diligently to the intent of every chastisement and consider the most deep and inward design of them."

In a chapter entitled 'On Divine Admonitions' in Woolman's essay 'Consideration on the True Harmony of Mankind', he explained how God used natural forces as a "messenger" in the same way the Hebrew prophets interpreted God's actions in world events.  He argued that plagues, storms and droughts were God's tools to instruct colonists in the right use of material things. The natural world was both subject to God's eternal purposes and an extension of God's revelation established on earth.

Richard Bauman notes that Quaker reformers, like Woolman, tended to view natural events as "divinely caused and having particular referent to other earthly events, circumstances, or situations."  This "apocalyptic reading" of temporal events implied the belief that human behaviour influenced God's intervention in human affairs. For example, Abner Woolman, John’s brother, wrote that God "often afflicts the children of men that he may bring them near to him." Thus, affliction and suffering were caused by God to evoke spiritual growth in those who had fallen short. Suffering and natural disasters were not arbitrarily meted out, these reformers believed, and so could be interpreted for the rest of colonial society. 

Judgment: God’s Overthrow of Evil

In 1770, Woolman made this entry in his Journal: 

I have seen in the light of the Lord that the day is approaching when the man that is the most wise in human policies shall be the greatest fool, and the arm that is mighty to support injustice shall be broken to pieces. The enemies of righteousness shall make a terrible rattle and shall mightily torment one another. For he that is omnipotent is rising up to judgment and will plead the cause of the oppressed. And he commanded me to open the vision.  

Woolman expressed concern that God's wrath was impending, and that God would use 
supernatural power to overthrow evil and apostasy. This judgement would address social and religious sin, and would be manifest in social and religious ways.

He calls this a vision, a supernatural revelation of foreboding.  This is the kind of stuff we think of in regard to a more catastrophic apocalypticism, more catastrophic than we would usually attribute to Woolman. Judgment is immanent, because God’s kingdom will prevail.  Humanity can respond to God’s lesser chastisements and change their ways, but if they do not, God will be victorious none-the-less by overthrowing all powers opposed to God.

The central aspect of Woolman’s theology was that God had placed a "principle" in the human being, such that they could know God immediately, directly and because of that spiritual Second Coming of Christ into the lives of the faithful Christ could govern world affairs directly through them.  The counter-point to this is that those who quelched the spirit, or who rejected God’s revelation were enemies to God and in grave danger. Slavery and economic oppression were fruits of this spiritual apostasy.  We can easily identify with Woolman’s social and economic criticisms.
However, Woolman's focus was on the individual's state of obedience to the divine revelation, slavery and economic oppression were obvious repudiations of God’s will.  But those were just two examples of the way that Woolman thought people rejected God’s revelation. And God’s judgment was impending for all who rejected the divine revelation, in whatever way it happened.  That Woolman’s focus was on disobedience to divine revelation, and not to particular symptoms of that disobeidence, is seen in the fact that Woolman believed even doing something like giving vocal ministry outside of God’s leading was a grave evil that could bring about God’s judgment. The actual act of speaking might seem trivial in itself, except that the act sprang from a rejection of God's leading. 

An example of this can be found in Woolman's essay, "Concerning the Ministry."  The essay, written while in England, in 1772, instructs ministers to be on their guard against preaching in their own strength or to enhance their reputation, they should, rather, listen continually for the direct revelations of Christ teaching the minister moment by moment.  It was to the voice of Christ, he said, that ministers should listen obediently, not their own agenda.

The natural man loveth eloquence, and many love to hear eloquent orations: and if there is not a careful attention to the gift men who have once laboured in the pure gospel ministry, growing weary of suffering, and ashamed of appearing weak, may kindle a fire, compass themselves about with sparks, and walk in the light, - not of Christ who is under a suffering, - but of that fire which they, going from the gift, have kindled: And that in hearers, which is gone from the meek suffering state, into the worldly wisdom, may be warmed with this fire, and speak highly of these labours, and thus the false Prophet in many may form likenesses & his coming may be with Signs and Wonders and lying Miracles; and deceivableness of unrighteousness; but the Sorcerers, however powerful - they remain without in Company with the Idolaters and Adulterers. That which is of God gathers to God; and that which is of the world is owned by the world.

Not only did Woolman condemn ministers who testified out of pride rather than God's Spirit, but he identified those ministers with the false prophet of the book of Revelation. Woolman’s spiritualized apocalyptic-eschatology contained not only the spiritual reign of Christ, but spiritual forms of the False Prophet of the book of Revelation. Woolman believed this eschatological judgment referred to people of his day, not people of some future time.  In his apocalyptic theology, the eschaton was already realising and so were its judgments. Woolman believed that there were people of other religions who were part of Christ's society and there were professing Quakers who were on the outside of this society of the faithful because they acted out of their own will and not as united to God's will.  The crucial factor was not credal affiliation, but one's standing in the government of Christ, determined by manifesting the kingdom of God and being in a state of union with the revelation of the Spirit.

In 'Concerning the Ministry,' Woolman declared that some Quaker ministers of his day were in the state of apostasy foretold in the book of Revelation and 2 Thessalonians and would experience eschatological judgments.  To reject God's revelation would lead to the spiritual judgment of eternal separation from God.

In summary, Woolman's perfectionism and his eschatology functioned together. Since the eschaton would occur in this world and could be fully known in the present, the faithful could experience transformation in this life.  In this transformed state, the false-self was crucified and the new-self in God was a resurrection beyond the effects of sin and the systemic corruptions of the transatlantic marketplace.  Here, the faithful could perfectly hear and perfectly obey God's revelation, thus making it the normative standard for human affairs. Woolman believed that, as he lived in a state united to God, he was already what the world would inevitably become.

Through divine judgment, in the form of chastisements and retribution, God would make God's self known no matter how stiff the resistance. Woolman's apocalyptic theology understood this world, its natural forces and geopolitical events to be, ultimately, controlled by a God who was determined to govern the world directly. As such, God did battle with the apostate who rejected God's will. Woolman believed divine judgment was initially gracious in its intentions to guide towards true happiness in this life. However, God would, ultimately, destroy all forces opposed to the divine will and so even these gracious judgments must be taken seriously. Indeed, for Woolman the historical events of his day illustrated that God's judgment was already at hand. 

Thus, Woolman's theology of impending judgment emphasized the notion that God did not act arbitrarily, but in consistency with God's just character. Likewise, human beings were not pawns with little control over their eternal states. Rather, God revealed God's will and human agents could live in consistency with that will, or reject it at their own peril. Therefore, Woolman called colonists to an alternative societal ordering as new creations in Christ's government. Woolman's theology of impending judgment recognized that God was active in the course of human affairs and intervened in history.  Woolman was motivated, at least in part, by his conviction that God would ultimately overthrow all forces contrary to the divine rule, so that God alone would be established as direct ruler on earth.

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