Street Corner Society


Skip to site-wide links.

Reflections >  Quaker Thought & History  >  Creed and Life


Quaker Thought & History

Creed and Life

By Edward Grubb

VI

Creed and Life

Nearly forty years ago Frederick Harrison, the great Positivist, wrote in one of the British magazines that "Religion consists, not in answering certain questions, but in making men of a certain quality." To many people this was a startling assertion; for it was then widely held, as it is even to-day by many who have not given much thought to the matter, that religion consists in the acceptance of certain statements about "Divine" things. The difference between Christianity and other religions is supposed to reside in this — that while the statements made by other religions are false, those taught by Christianity are true. This is the "dogmatic" conception of religion, and Frederick Harrison did good service in calling it in question. Whether his account of the nature of religion is complete, we may perhaps have to ask later on. But for the present it is enough to say that what he then asserted of religion in general was emphatically true of early Christianity. It transformed the world by making men and women of a certain quality — the quality manifested in Jesus Christ. In spite of their slowness of apprehension, Jesus had been able to share with his intimate friends something of the deepest secret of his own life — his experience of God as his Father.

"Christianity in the golden age," says Dr. Rufus M. Jones, "was essentially a rich and vivid consciousness of God rising to a perfect experience of union with God in mind and heart and will. It was a personal exhibition of the Divine in the human, the Eternal in the midst of time. When we get back to the head-waters of our religion, we come ultimately to a Person who felt, and in childlike simplicity said, 'No man knows the Father save the Son,' and 'I and the Father are one.'"1

This consciousness of God, in which Jesus lived and thought and worked, and which he was able in measure to impart to others, made life a new thing. God was not a far-away Ruler of the universe but close at hand, caring for men as Jesus cared for them, loving them as he loved, suffering with and for them as he suffered. He was taking a real part in human life, manifesting Himself in such deeds of love as Jesus wrought, reproducing His own life and character not only in Jesus but in all who, like Jesus, gave themselves up to Him. He was with them and in them constantly, guiding, controlling and inspiring them. Their life could be joyous and free from care because of their sense of God. They were delivered from the burden of self-consciousness with its anxieties and fears, from the struggle for self-preservation and self-righteousness. As the flowers give out in beauty of form and colour and scent the light and warmth they receive from the sun, so the children of God could express Him in their lives without painful effort because their wills were set right with His. The early Church was the church of an inspired people — inspired to love and to good works by the living Spirit of their Lord, which to them was none other than the Spirit of God Himself.

That this is not a highly idealized picture must be recognized, I think, by anyone who can read with open eyes the Acts of the Apostles and the first Epistle attributed to John, or who can get below the Rabbinic arguments used by Paul in his letters. The first Christians believed in God because they experienced Him in Christ, just as we believe in the air because we breathe it and feel it in our lungs, refreshing us and keeping us alive. The essence of Christianity for them was a right state of the inmost heart and will, and the expression of this in a life of loving service to God and men.

But a change came when, mainly through Paul's wide outlook and undying zeal for Christ, the Gospel was proclaimed not as the faith of a mere Jewish sect but as a world religion, and when it came to be embraced by philosophic Greeks. As Paul himself says, "the Greeks sought after wisdom" (that is, philosophy); their one absorbing interest was in definitions and explanations. Speculation and reasoning was the breath of their life; everything must be rendered in terms of intellect and its ideas. In their hands Christianity soon became one more among the "schools of thought." Just as each school of philosophy had its own formulas, to which every member of the school must subscribe, so the new school must have its formula, to be accepted by those who belonged to it. So there grew up the idea that any who did not accept the formulae must be cut off from the society, and "without doubt perish everlastingly." This change was hastened by the way the Church dealt with Gnosticism, which was a Greek product of the second century, the result of applying to Christian data a blend of Greek philosophy and oriental mysticism. The Gnostics thought they knew, and Christianity in their hands became a system of ideas. The leaders of the Church in the second century took essentially the same line, but sought to replace the mistaken ideas of Gnosticism by another set of ideas, which they could guarantee as true. As the inward fire cooled, Christianity became less and less an experience and a way of life, and more and more the acceptance and profession of orthodox views, a thing which to many people is much easier. As has been said by Dr. W. B. Selbie:

"The relation between Christian truth and Christian life became very slight. It was not necessary to be a good man or a good woman to be an orthodox Christian. Wherever a Church has insisted on a strict standard of orthodoxy, there is at least the danger of a low standard of morals. So long as men imagine they can be saved by correct thinking they will pay little or no attention to right doing. The relation between creed and conduct is not always that of a natural sequitur."2

Theology came to be mistaken for religion, and the greater part of the energy of the official Church was devoted to keeping it orthodox by cutting off from the fellowship all whose ideas were not of the perfect pattern. Happily, beneath the war of creeds, behind the anathematizing and the excommunication, there remained latent the true Christian religion in simple lives lived in the love of God revealed in Christ; and every now and then this inner heart of Christianity broke through the hard shell of orthodoxy and uprose in a wave of spiritual revival and reform. These "mystical" movements have been the saving salt of our religion, though at the time they were for the most part persecuted as heresy. In his Studies in Mystical Religion, Rufus M. Jones has traced the way in which this hidden current of spiritual Christianity broke through: in Montanism; in many of the Fathers, even Augustine; in Dionysius the Areopagite and John the Scot; in the Waldenses and Albigenses; in Francis of Assisi; in the German Friends of God; in Wiclif and the Lollards; in the Anabaptists; and lastly in the Quakers. All of these in greater or less degree maintained, often in the face of bitter persecution, that Christianity is a revelation in human life of the character of God bringing a new life in Him, a life of love to God and men. Faith for them was not the acceptance of a dogma but the life of personal loyalty.

"It is not opinion," wrote William Penn in words that every Quaker would have accepted, "or speculation, or notions of what is true; or assent to, or the subscription of, articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that . . . makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of life and light in the soul, which denotes a person truly a child of God."3

That, when it has known what it stood for, has always been the position of the Society of Friends.

But does it follow that all theology is useless, and that the statement of definite beliefs has no place in true Christianity? By no means. The early Quakers did not so understand their religion; they were always ready, when the occasion seemed to demand it, to set down in writing what they believed about God and Christ. And in this they were surely right. Strange as it may often seem, man is after all fundamentally a rational being, and he cannot escape from the necessity of reflection about the subject-matter of his experience. While religion is indeed "the making of men of a certain quality and not the answering of certain questions," it is a necessity of our nature that questions should be asked, and some of them require an answer. It is not easy, for example, to see how a man is to be made of the true quality unless he is assured that the world is not a chaos but an order, that there is a meaning and purpose in it which he can in some measure apprehend and make his own; that the Universe is not hostile or indifferent to his moral strivings but is on their side. What grounds have we for this underlying assurance that the world in its deepest reality is good? Philosophy may help us but leaves us short of certainty. We may rely upon an inward intuition but, sooner or later, if it is not supported by something beyond itself, we shall be smitten with the doubt whether it is more than self-suggestion. For the Christian, assurance comes in the quality and character of the God revealed in the historic fact of Jesus Christ. For him, if he understands his belief, Christ is the revelation at once of what man must strive to be, and of the inner heart of reality that initiates and supports his striving. It is in Christ that he reaches the assured conviction that God is Love.

People often say, "It is no matter what a man believes, so long as his life is right." It would be almost as sensible to say, "It is no matter what a man eats, as long as his health is good." It is true that a healthy digestion may dispose of some articles of food that would violently disagree with a weakly one; but it is also obvious that our health depends in large measure on the wholesomeness of the food we take. Just so our moral life depends very largely on what we imagine the Universe to be. If the heart of Reality, or God, is what Jesus Christ declared and showed in himself, there is a definite moral ideal and an inspiration to follow it. The way of Christ must be our way, and in following him we shall not go wrong. But if he was a dreamer, and the world is built on different principles from those on which he lived — if, for instance, it is a world in which "the race is to the swift" and in which the strongest survive by crushing the weak — then his way of life is not in accordance with the nature of things and we cannot with safety follow it. We have to make up our minds what we are to think of Christ; we cannot afford to leave the question to the theologians, as if it were an abstract one that does not concern us.

The intellectual energy that was put into the framing of the Creeds of Christendom — misguided as it was, especially in anathematizing all who could not accept the formulas that resulted — was not all wasted. The Creeds did at least preserve, though without reconciling them, the two things that really matter: that Jesus Christ was at once really Divine and truly human. They tried to account for this by the theory that two radically different natures were combined in a single Person; but this theory depended on a philosophy about "natures" which can never be ours. The best minds in Christendom are now engaged in the search for a better explanation, which will probably be reached in the light of new discoveries as to the meaning of personality, an idea which was not in the minds of the Greek theologians and which they had no word to express. But the fact that they did retain the two elements, the Divine and the human in Jesus Christ, is of priceless importance because it involves a thought of God which makes a vast difference to our moral life. It means that the Christian God is One who could express Himself, and has expressed Himself, in a particular fact in history: in the emergence of a perfect human life. It means that God for us is a Being with a definite personal character — a character like that of Jesus — and that our true life is a development into this character or image. Hence the Christian belief, when held with sincerity and understanding, vitally affects our life as moral beings; for, as has been said before, this depends in no small measure on the sort of God we worship.

There is a sloppy kind of tolerance, a want of earnestness and conviction about fundamental matters, which is popular to-day but which takes the backbone out of life and reduces us mentally to the consistency of jellyfish. Really, it is little else than indifference to truth. We think it broad-minded to take for granted that everyone else is as likely to be right as we are, and that therefore to state our views with any definiteness would be dogmatism and bad form. We care so little about our beliefs that we hesitate to teach them even to our own children. They must not be instructed in what we profess to believe, but must choose for themselves. Some one has said that it is much as though a doctor should put half a dozen bottles of different medicines on the table and tell his patient not to be influenced by a mere professional opinion but to choose for himself. There is, after all, a difference between truth and error, and two opposites cannot be true at the same time. It is a wholesome thing to ask ourselves occasionally how much we believe with enough conviction to be willing if necessary to die for it. The heroes and martyrs whom we honour would certainly have been horrified at our easy-going indifference to truth.

The upshot of this enquiry is that the word Creed, like many others, has at least two meanings, and that in one of these meanings it is a good thing while in the other it is not. If it means, in accordance with its derivation, what in our heart of hearts we really believe, it has a vital effect upon our life; and, if it is true, our whole mind should be set on the desire to see it clearly and to hold it firmly, and to persuade other people to see it too. If, on the other hand, it means the attempt to stereotype for all time in human language a statement of that which necessarily eludes precise definition — the nature of God or of Christ — and to rule out as non-Christian all who, even though sincere disciples, are unable to express themselves in the same way; if it is so used as to make Christianity appear to be a system of ideas and not essentially an experience and a life; then it is not really Christian at all, for it is alien to the mind of Jesus Christ, who declared that "Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven."

Chapter VII ...>


From Quaker Thought and History: A Volume of Essays. By Edward Grubb, M.A. Published in 1925 by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

Notes and Links

 1  Studies in Mystical Religion, p. 4.

 2  Aspects of Christ, pp. 202, 203.

 3  A Key, etc. (1682).