Sunday, 28 December 2014

Re-Living the Incarnation Event (in Reverse)

My work on early Quaker theology and spirituality has led me to conclude that the 'new covenant apocalyptic' of early Friends involved an experience of re-living the incarnation event inwardly, spiritually and in reverse before re-living it outwardly in the manner of Jesus as the Body of Christ. Here are just a few initial thoughts on this which I would like to develop further at some point.

Becoming a functioning part of the body of Christ involves an on-going experience of the Incarnation event lived in reverse. 

1. Pentecost - This begins when we receive the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit.

2. Crucifixion and Resurrection -  Through the work of the Spirit, we experience what can be described as an inward and spiritual crucifixion (death) and resurrection (rebirth). This transformative process clears away the deluded, corrupted and spiritually dead aspects of our old lives and gives birth to a new life lived in communion with God. 

3. The Life and Ministry of Jesus - Christ exercises all his offices within us. He heals us, teaches us and performs miracles within us as he did outwardly in his life in the flesh. 

4. Christ is Born - In this way Christ is born within us and we no longer live but Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20).

Inward spiritual transformation leads to outward physical transformation. Christ is increasingly revealed in the actual practice of our lives as individuals and in the community that is gathered in his name. If it is faithful to its calling, this community continues the work of Christ within the world, acting as a witness to the Kingdom of God through its life together which is characterised by unconditional love, justice and peace.

Because this incarnational community perpetuates the life and work of Christ within the world it can expect to face the same ridicule, rejection, persecution and possible martyrdom as Jesus did. However, by remaining morally independent of the fallen ideologies and institutions of the world (the 'principalities and powers') it offers an alternative way of life which represents a vision of the shalom of God’s coming kingdom.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

'P' is for Pentecost, Apocalypse and the New Covenant

“Christ is come to teach his people himself!”

A radical and life-changing experience of spiritual transformation acted as the catalyst for the emergence of the Quaker movement. For those involved this appeared to be a replaying of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the apostles establishing a church guided by the presence of the risen Christ (Dobbs 1995, p.2). A dramatic experience of Christ appearing in their midst convinced early Friends that the true church was reappearing after centuries of apostasy (Wilcox 1995, p.3) and many Quakers saw these conversions in terms of Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Damrosch 1996, p.108). The revelation of Christ brought a spiritual crisis in which the sinful and apostate heart was condemned (Wilcox 1995, p.79) and a sense of joyful liberation was achieved. Everything that is distinctive about the Quaker way developed out of a response to this experience and the efforts of early Friends to make sense of it.

In his Journal, George Fox describes many openings he claims to have received by direct revelation from God. Two in particular stand out as epiphanies, and both appear to relate to Chapter two of the Book of Joel in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first took place around 1647, when Fox became aware of the real presence of Christ as a living spiritual power:

“And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.” (Journal, p 11)

This was the beginning of Fox’s Pentecostal experience, which led him to proclaim that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself”. For early Friends, the second coming had taken place inwardly and spiritually in the fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21):

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28, KJV)

A few years later in 1652, Fox had a second epiphany on Pendle Hill, which he describes in his Journal as follows:

“As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.” (Journal, p.103-104)

This passage is often interpreted as the beginning of Quakerism as a distinct tradition. However, the references to the Book of Joel make it clear that Fox’s vision was of a people to be gathered in order to join God in the struggle to defeat darkness and evil within the creation. The ‘day of the Lord’ refers to God’s final and decisive victory over evil and the coming of the kingdom of heaven on earth. This was to be a time of judgment and purification leading to salvation. In the New Testament, it was associated with the second coming of Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:8). Joel writes:

“Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand.” (Joel 2:1, KJV)

So, Fox’s epiphanies point to an early Quaker movement that was both Pentecostal and apocalyptic in character. It was Pentecostal in the sense that it was founded on a transformational experience of the Spirit of Christ as inward teacher, priest, prophet and king. It was apocalyptic because this experience convinced early Friends that God was acting decisively in their time to overcome evil and establish the kingdom of heaven.

These Pentecostal and apocalyptic aspects are intimately connected, since it was through the transformative power of the Spirit that darkness and evil would be purged; firstly, inwardly in each person’s heart, and then outwardly in the whole creation. Early Friends witnessed to the universal potential of this Pentecostal experience and apocalyptic hope. They would not accept that the Spirit could be confined in any way because, as Joel had promised, it was poured out on ‘all flesh’, not just on the Christian church. The early Quaker vision was realistic in accepting the active presence of evil in the world. At the same time, however, it was fundamentally optimistic, since it witnessed to an eternal living Spirit with the power to overcome this darkness. George Fox expressed this understanding quite succinctly when he wrote in his Journal “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” (Journal, p 19)

The Pentecostal experience prompted an apocalyptic response in the form of an assertive preaching campaign, which became known as the ‘Lamb’s War’ (a reference to the imagery of the Book of Revelation). The apocalypse has usually been portrayed as a time of violent conflict and destruction. However, for early Friends, it was to be a nonviolent inward spiritual battle. This is reflected in the words of James Nayler:

“And as they war not against men’s persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men’s lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God” (James Nayler – The Lamb’s War, 1657)

B. The New Covenant

A key aspect of early Quaker understanding is the belief that the coming of Christ has brought a new covenant (a new relationship between God and humanity) in which the immediate presence of Christ in Spirit has replaced the outwardly mediated ways in which God related to humanity in the old covenant.

In the old covenant God’s presence was to be found in a temple made of stone (The Temple in Jerusalem) and access to God was mediated through a human priesthood (the Aaronic priesthood). The people of God were led by human leaders (e.g. Moses) and God’s law (the Ten Commandments) was written on stone. In the new covenant Christ ‘fulfils all these outward and mediated forms inwardly and spiritually. He is the spiritual substance of the old outward covenant. Christ is the eternal high priest who offers everyone access to God. As a result, God may now dwell in a temple made of living stone (the human body). Christ has become the inward and spiritual leader of God’s people and he writes God’s law on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The early Quakers believed that the primitive Christianity of the Apostles was the life of a gathered community taught directly by the risen Christ (Gwyn 1986, p.36). They therefore believed that the true function of preaching was to enable people to hear Christ’s voice within them. When this was achieved there was no longer any need for human teachers (Wilcox 1995, p.38). Such a view had far-reaching consequences for Quaker practice and for the Quaker relationship with other Christian groups.

Based on the fulfilment of Joel’s prophesy at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) early Friends believed that the Spirit of Christ might speak and act through anyone regardless of gender, age, education or social standing. This was particularly significant in terms of the freedom it conferred on Quaker women to fulfil the roles of prophet, preacher and minister by the direct call of the Spirit.

The Old Covenant
The New Covenant

For Jews

For Jews, Gentiles and all nations

From Sinai

The Law of life from heavenly Sion

A “thing decayed” having “many outward things

“Christ hath abolished all outward things.”

The Priest’s lips to preserve people’s knowledge

Christ’s lips to preserve people’s knowledge

Law written on stone

Law written in the heart

Sanctuary, tabernacle, temple

The bodies of believers are the temple of God

The High Priest lights candles and lamps in the temple

Christ lightens everyone’s spirit with his heavenly light

Sacrifices and offerings

Christ offered himself once for all and ended outward sacrifice

Aaronic priesthood

Christ is the everlasting High Priest after the order of Melchizedec

The priests live in the chamber of the temple

Christ lives in the chambers of the heart

The Feast of Passover

Jews in spirit pass out of spiritual Egypt and feed on Christ the heavenly Passover

The priesthood of one tribe

All believers are priests, both male and female

Circumcision in the flesh by priests

Circumcision in the spirit by Christ

Outward death for those resisting the High Priest or Moses

Eternal death for those resisting Christ the heavenly High Priest and prophet

The spirit poured out on the House of Israel

The spirit poured out on all flesh

The observation of days, months, feasts etc.

Eternal heavenly feast day of Christ

Outward Sabbath

Eternal rest day of Christ

Swearing oaths

Christ, the oath of God, abolishes swearing

Moses is the leader of the outward Jews

Christ is the leader and commander of his people and calls all people

Of natural and outward things

Of inward and spiritual things


Wilcox, C (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth Century English Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press), p.36-37


     D.   Charismatic: Quaking

The Pentecostal nature of the early Quaker movement was seen in the charismatic behaviour of its adherents. Rosemary Moore has argued that more than anything else it was the charismatic nature of their early worship that distinguished Quakers from other radical sects with which they shared many ideas (Moore 2000, p.75). Douglas Gwyn has noted that early Quaker worship was “strongly emotional, filled with dread, punctuated with inchoate sounds of sobbing, groaning, sighing and impromptu singing” (Gwyn 2006, p.122). The most enduring legacy of this charismatic behaviour was the name given to to the movement ‘in scorn’. The quaking and trembling that gave Quakers their name was the result of their inward spiritual experience (Barbour 1964, p.99). For early Friends Quaking represented a decisive manifestation of the prophetic power described in the Bible (Damrosch 1996, p.34). God’s presence in worship was not revealed through human speech but rather through quaking (Moore 2000, p.144).

2. Signs and wonders

Another effect of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit in the early Quaker movement was the performing of signs and wonders including healings (Dobbs 1995, p.47). Fox and early Friends believed that miracles were a product of being in harmony with the whole of creation so that inner fruitfulness produced outer fruitfulness (Damrosch 1996, p.157). Fox in particular was seen to have healing powers and accounts of his healings were carefully recorded even if they were later suppressed when Quakers wanted to play down the ‘enthusiasm’ of the early movement. Having rejected all outward ceremony and liturgy, the prophetic sign, based on the model of the Hebrew prophets became one of the principle means for early Friends to express their inward spiritual experiences externally. Examples of this include ‘going naked as a sign’ and James Nayler’s infamous re-enactment in 1656 at Bristol of Jesus entry into Jerusalem.

3. The Spirit as ‘leveller’

The Quaker proclamation of the existence of a new covenant in which ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’ became a significant threat to existing forms of social stratification and inequality. In particular, the idea that the Spirit was no respecter of persons and that Christ might speak through whomsoever he chooses (Dobbs 1995, p.126) represented an assault on the power and authority of the religious elites who had been trained at Oxford and Cambridge. Quakers argues that gifts and roles came by the call of the Spirit rather than by the authority of a human institution (Dobbs 1995, p.130). The idea that Christ is just as likely to speak through a woman, a child or a farm labourer as he was to work through a bishop or a parish priest was a scandal to those in positions of power and authority.

4. The position of Women

Perhaps the most radical aspect of this spiritual egalitarianism was the freedom it afforded women to be prophets and ministers within the Early Quaker movement. The Friends argued that the spirit had been poured out on all flesh and since Christ was restoring men and women to a pre-fall perfection in this life, there could be no restrictions placed on the ministry of regenerated women (Wilcox 1995, p.155). Fox consistently argued that gender divisions were an aspect of the fall reversed by Christ (Dobbs 1995, p.114). Men and women had been created jointly in the image of God and Christ could restore them into God’s image again (Wilcox 1995, p.162).

5. Gathered community

Although the spiritual transformation of early Friends was always experienced as an internal struggle within the individual, its resolution never left the convinced Friend alone as an isolated individual. Their experiences brought Friends into community and this community appears to have been an extremely tightly-knit, mutually supportive and joyous one. This is reflected in the famous words of Francis Howgill looking back on early days of the movement: 

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration, insomuch that we often said one unto another with great joy of heart: ‘What, is the Kingdom of God come to be with men? (Francis Howgill, 1663)

6. Early Aspects of Quaker Testimony

The main aspects of Quaker testimony that revealed themselves in the 1650s were Refusal to pay tithes (and conform to the established church generally), the refusal of oaths, the refusal of hat honour, titles and other forms of deference to ‘social superiors’ and the rejection of special times and seasons. Overall, however, it is important to recognise that becoming Quaker in the 17th century led to a fundamental transformation of behavior, appearance and life-style that would have been immediately obvious to everyone around them. Their whole lives were their testimony.

7. The Lamb’s War

During 1650s the emerging Quaker movement launched an extremely assertive but nonviolent spiritual campaign which has become known as the Lamb’s War. This involved an unrelenting assault on evil within the world and on what early Friends regarded as apostate Christianity. This campaign will be dealt with in more details in the section on the ‘The Lamb’s War – Nonviolent Apocalypse’.


1. The Hebrew Scriptures - Foundational Texts
31 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: 33 but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:31-34
28 And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: 29 and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. 30 And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth,
blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned into darkness,
and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come. Joel 2:28-31
2. God’s grace and presence is no longer confined
37 And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost. 38 And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom. Mark 15:37-38

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 2:28-29
3. Outward Law replaced by the Inward Christ
23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. 26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Galatians 2:23-27
4. The Spirit poured out on all flesh
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; 17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: 18 and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: Acts 2:1-4, 16-18
5. The Outward Temple and the old ways come to an end

And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass? And he said, Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them. But when ye shall hear of wars and commotions, be not terrified: for these things must first come to pass; but the end is not by and by. 10 Then said he unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: 11 And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven. Luke 21:5-11

6. A direct relationship with God through Christ
1 God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, Hebrews 1:1-2
11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Romans 8:11
20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20
7. God’s People are temples of living stone
16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? 1 Corinthians 3:16)
if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious. To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:3-5
8. Inward Spiritual Transformation
28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. Romans 2:28-29
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:6-8
9. The New Covenant Explained
1 Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount. But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. 10 For this isthe covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: 11 and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more. 13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:1-13


Barbour, Hugh (1964) The Quakers in Puritan England (Yale University Press)

Damrosch, L (1996) The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and   the Puritan crackdown on the free spirit (Harvard University Press)

Dobbs, Jack (1995) Authority and the Early Quakers (University of Oxford)

Fox, George (1975)  The Works of George Fox, eight volumes (AMS Press)
Gwyn, Douglas (1986) Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox 1624-1691 (Friends United Press)

Moore, Rosemary (2000) The Light in their Consciences: Faith, Practices, and Personalities in Early British Quakerism, 1646 -1666 (Pennsylvania State University Press)

Nayler, James & Kuenning, Licia (2003-9) The Works of James Nayler, four volumes (Quaker Heritage Press)

Wilcox, Catherine (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth Century English Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

'O' is for the Orthodox Way and the Quaker Way


On the face of it the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Quakerism would appear to be entirely incompatible; one values outward liturgy and the veneration of icons whereas the other rejects all outward ceremony and imagery. But are these two traditions really as far apart as they at first appear? This posting will seek to address this question by exploring a number of aspects of the Orthodox way that share commonalities with traditional Quaker understandings. Might this prompt us to explore dialogue and greater mutual understanding as a way of bringing spiritual enrichment to both groups?


The main purpose of this posting is to indicate the ways in which Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism share a number of similar theological and spiritual understandings. However, it is clear that there is a range of quite significant differences dividing the two traditions that should not be ignored. In terms of the Eastern Orthodox Church these include:

·         Churches with strong national or even nationalist identities.
·         Hierarchical Church structures
·         An ordained male priesthood
·         An apparently firm distinction between laity and the priesthood/monastics
·         The outward ritual of the Holy Liturgy
·         The outward sacraments
·         The ecclesiastical year regulated by a liturgical calendar
·         Elaborate church architecture
·         The importance of physical images and symbolism
·         Very firmly defined boundaries of acceptable doctrine


Despite the many significant differences listed above, there are also a surprising number of areas of Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality that are reflected to some degree within traditional Quaker faith and practice. These are set out below.

Basic Foundations

1. Faith as Experience and Relationship

The Orthodox way is strongly experiential in orientation, based on a relationship of divine intimacy. Such experience is especially focused on the practice of prayer and worship (Louth 2013, p.xx). Orthodoxy insists on the need for direct experience of the Holy Spirit (Ware 1979, p.102) as an on-going personal relationship with God in this life (Ware 1979, p.8). Whilst rooted in a tradition that has existed for many centuries, in this sense, the Orthodox way can be viewed as a living and developing way (Louth 2013, p.15).

2. Apophatic Mysticism (God as Mystery)

“God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped he would not be God” Evagrius of Pontus (Ware 1979, p.11)

“Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light in language is truly a liar – not because he hates the truth, but because of the inadequacy of his description” Gregory of Nyssa (Ware 1979, p.24)

This emphasis on experience and relationship reflects the Orthodox understanding of God as a mystery beyond human conception. God can be experienced but cannot be fully comprehended (Louth 2013, p.1). This leads to an apophatic form of mysticism in which we approach God by defining what is not God (Louth 2013, p.32)[i]. The pathway to God requires us to discard all human notions and images, all forms of impurity or idolatry (Chryssavgis 2004, p.61). In such circumstances truth is profoundly mystical and never merely intellectual (Chryssavgis 2004, p.56). It expresses itself best in the language of poetry and images (Louth 2013, p.114). Faith is understood not as logical certainty but as a personal relationship (Ware 1979, p.16). For the unknowable God can only be known in communion and participation (Chryssavgis 2004, p.57).

3. The Holy Spirit (as the Real Divine Presence)

“The Holy Spirit is light and life, a living fountain of knowledge, spirit of wisdom, spirit of understanding, loving, righteous, filled with knowledge and power, cleansing our offences, God and making us god, fire that comes forth from fire, speaking, working, distributing gifts of grace. By him were all the prophets, the apostles of God and the martyrs crowned. Strange were the tidings, strange was the vision at Pentecost: fire came down, bestowing gifts of grace on each” From Vespers on the Feast of Pentecost (Ware 1979, p.103)

The Holy Spirit plays an important role within the Orthodox way. Whereas in the West the Spirit has often been treated as a junior partner within the Trinity, Orthodoxy has resisted any move to depersonalise and subordinate it in this way (Ware 1979, p.92). The status of the Holy Spirit was one of the key issues at stake in the schism between the Eastern and Western churches that took place in the 11th century. The Orthodox tradition emphasises the real living presence of Christ (Louth 2013, p.51) and asserts that it is the Holy Spirit that reveals Christ to people (Ware 1979, p.91). This is based on an assumption that God's will is to be in communion with people in the Spirit (Louth 2013, p.95) and that direct mystical union between God and humanity is a possibility (Ware 1979, p.22). Bishop Kallistos Ware has argued that the whole aim of the Christian life is to be a spirit-bearer, to live in the Spirit of God (Ware 1979, p.90). As a result Orthodoxy rejects the idea that God’s revelation in the Spirit ceased after the death of the apostles (Chryssavgis 2004, p.51). Eastern Church Father Symeon the New Theologian stated that it was heresy to claim that later generations could not acquire the same vision of the Holy Spirit enjoyed by the saints (Chryssavgis 2004, p.53).

4. A Non-dualistic Vision

Eastern Orthodoxy is characterised by a strongly non-dualistic doctrine of creation (Louth 2013, p.37). It opposes any a rigid dualism in which God and the material are too clearly set apart from one another (Louth 2013, p.97) A profound sense of God’s presence within creation (Louth 2013, p.40) leads to a rejection of any sharp division being made between the sacred and the secular (Chryssavgis 2004, p.39). In the ‘iconic’ understanding of the Eastern Church the ‘other’ heavenly/spiritual world penetrates and permeates ‘this’ material/physical world (Chryssavgis 2004, p.47). Indeed, in Orthodox understanding this is what makes existence possible, because if God as an ordering presence in the world were to withdraw from it, the world would inevitably collapse (Chryssavgis 2004, p.122).

5. The Whole World as a Sacrament

Linked to this non-dualistic vision, the Orthodox tradition has viewed the whole of creation as a sacrament – an outward symbol or image of God’s grace (Chryssavgis 2004, p.126). Every visible or invisible creature is therefore to be understood as a theophany or an ‘appearance’ of God (Ware 1979, p.23). The active presence of God is always at the heart of each thing, maintaining it in its being (Ware 1979, p.46). The Eastern view has therefore been critical of Western rationalism for disenchanted and demystified the glories of the creation and regarding it as mere matter. We have disconnected this world from heaven and so have desacralized both (Chryssavgis 2004, p.110).

6. The Significance of Silence and Stillness (Hesychasm)

“Some of the Fathers have called this practice stillness of the heart, others attentiveness, others the guarding of the heart, others watchfulness and rebuttal, and still others the investigation of thoughts and the guarding of the intellect. But all of them alike worked the earth of their own heart, and in this way they were fed on the divine manna (Exodus 16:15)” Symeon the New Theologian (Smith 2012, p.183)

Given that in Eastern Orthodoxy God is understood to be ultimately beyond rational comprehension, the Orthodox way values the imageless and wordless attitude of silence as a fitting way to address God as mystery (Chryssavgis 2004, p.82). Silence has significance because it is the place where we meet the divine mystery (Louth 2013, p.5). In the Orthodox contemplative practice known as Hesychasm, the Seeker begins to ‘wait upon God’ in quietness and silence, no longer talking about or to God but simply listening (Ware 1979, pp.121-122). It is through this kind of contemplative prayer that one hears the voice of Christ (Louth 2013, p.7). Ware points out that the quest for the inward kingdom is one of the master themes found throughout the writings of the Greek Fathers (Ware 1979, p.55) and John Climacus asserts that “the one who has achieved silence has arrived at the very centre of all mysteries (Chryssavgis 2004, p.90). Silence is a way of surrendering all self-justification, giving up all of our infantile images of God and giving in to the living image of God (Chryssavgis 2004, p.71). This view is reflected in the Liturgy of St James which proclaims “let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling” (Ware 1979, p.32).

7. The Bible

“Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness, and complete detachment, while wisdom comes through humble meditation on Holy Scriptures and, above all, through grace given by God” Diadochos of Photiki (Smith 2012, p.169)

Consistent with its mysticism and emphasis on contemplative practice, Eastern Orthodoxy adopts a prayerful and experiential approach to reading the Bible (Ware 1979, p.111) regarding it as an icon of Christ (Louth 2013, p.8). This means that, although the book is a material object, it functions as a window through which the spiritual and heavenly dimension of reality can be perceived. The Holy Spirit therefore plays an essential role in the reading of the scriptures where the study of mere words gives way to an immediate dialogue with the living Word (Ware 1979, p.111).

What Has Gone Wrong?

How does the Eastern Orthodox tradition understand the world as it currently is, a world gone wrong?

8. The Nature of Sin

“There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things” Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov (Ware 1979, p.63)

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has never accepted the Western doctrine of original sin understood in terms of a stain of guilt past genetically from generation to generation. Instead, it has worked with a concept of ‘ancestral sin’ in which humans inherit the implications of the errors and delusions of past generations (Louth 2013, p.73). We are all born into a world which is already structured in a way that makes it extremely hard for people to consistently do good and very easy for them to do evil.

9. The Human Condition

The Orthodox believe that in the conditions of the fall, humanity has created a deluded, imaginary world of their own devising (Louth 2013, p.72) and this is characterised in particular by disharmonious and dysfunctional relationships with God, with each other and with the rest of creation (Louth 2013, p.73). Despite this, the Eastern Church has rejected the doctrine of ‘total depravity’ because it believes that while the image of God in humanity has been obscured, it has not been entirely obliterated (Ware 1979, p.61). All humans still bear some trace of the true unfallen vision of humanity we see in Christ (Louth 2013, p.87).

10. Humans within Creation

A key dimension of human sin is an inability to see the world as a sacrament of communion with God (Chryssavgis 2004, p.48). In the conditions of the fall, the creation has become opaque to humanity rather than transparent, a window revealing God (Ware 1979, p.59). Humans were created to act as mediators of God’s grace within the whole creation. However, in the conditions of the fall we have become the source of division and destruction instead (Ware 1979, p.59). Human disobedience has undermined the harmonious order intended for the creation (Louth 2013, p.69). However, the havoc inflicted on the world by human sin is not strong enough to break the divinely sustained structures of creation (Louth 2013, p.89).

11. Good and Evil

“The paradox of suffering and evil is resolved in the experience of compassion and love” Nicolas Berdyaev (Ware 1979, p.57)

The Orthodox understanding of sin, the human condition and its impact on the creation fully recognises the darkness in human nature but still asserts that good is more powerful than evil.  Evil is a product of human free will (Ware 1979, p.47) but does not undermine the fundamental goodness of the world as God created it. Therefore, in Orthodox theology and spirituality there is ‘supreme good’ in God and ‘supreme evil’ is merely a delusion (Ware 1979, p.46).

The Solution

12. The Atonement

“Because Christ is the perfect Love, his life on earth can never become a life of the past. He remains present to all eternity. Then he was alone and bore the sins of men as one whole alone. But, in death, he took us all into his work. Therefore the Gospel is now present with us. We may enter inside his own sacrifice” Mother Maria of Normanby (Ware 1979, p.86)

The Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation and the atonement differs quite significantly from the positions that have been dominant in the West for the past thousand years. Firstly, the Orthodox emphasise the way in which, through the incarnation, God has bridged or reconnected the divine and the earthly dimensions of reality that were separated by the fall (Louth 2013, p.60). This reflects the nondualistic vision of Eastern Orthodoxy and the conviction that God in Spirit is fully present and active in the creation. An essential aspect of this is that, through the Incarnation, Christ as the Word made flesh fulfils the task of mediating God’s grace to the whole creation, a task that humans rejected in the fall (Ware 1979, p.70). Secondly, the Orthodox have retained a vision of the atonement that quite closely reflects the early church understanding of ‘Christus Victor’ rather than the ‘satisfaction’ or ‘penal substitution’ theories of the Western Church[ii]. Through his death and resurrection Jesus was victorious over evil and death (Louth 2013, p.55). On the cross God met sin with forgiveness and reconciliation, overcame hate with love, battled evil with goodness and conquered darkness with light and death with life (Chryssavgis 2004, p.141-142). The cross and the resurrection are therefore conceived of as the victory of suffering love, demonstrating that love and life are stronger than hatred and death (Ware 1979, p.80-81).

13. Salvation as Healing

Given that, for the Orthodox, the key purpose of the Incarnation was to reconnect heaven and earth and heal the human will (Louth 2013, p.65), the Church is often regarded as a hospital for the Soul. The emphasis is therefore on healing and transformation rather than on guilt and punishment. The human condition is regarded as a problem but priority is given to the redemption of the human will and moral choice rather than the human body (Ware 1979, p.75). In Orthodox spirituality, if our hearts are broken open, God can find and enter the open wound, bringing healing to the soul and to the world (Chryssavgis 2004, p.72).

14. Surrender and Self-Emptying

“Let no one deceive you with vain words (Ephesians 5:6), and let us not deceive ourselves: before we have experienced inward grief and tears there is no true repentance or change of mind in us, nor is there any fear of God in our hearts… If we do not attain such a state, we cannot be united with the Holy Spirit. And if we have not been united with the Holy Spirit through purification, we cannot have either vision or knowledge of God, or be initiated into the hidden virtues of humility” Symeon the New Theologian (Smith 2012, p.17) 

In the Orthodox tradition, the healing of the human will is achieved through a process of self-empting (of the deluded and alienated human self) and surrender to the will of God. Orthodox spirituality is therefore a way of renunciation and surrender (Chryssavgis 2004, p.17). Like Christ, we must all seek self-emptying in order to achieve unity with God (Louth 2013, p.21). This involves attaining a state of detachment where worldly values or self-centredness are not allowed to distract us from what is most essential which is our relationship with God and the world (Chryssavgis 2004, p.29). When we arrive at the end of our own individual resources, we find that an infinite and eternal source can open up (Chryssavgis 2004, p.66). “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

15. Theosis (Deification)

“What is the purpose of the Incarnation of the Divine Logos, which is proclaimed throughout the scriptures, about which we read and that yet we do not recognise? Surely it is that he has shared in what is ours so as to make us participants of what he is. For the Son of God became the Son of man in order to make us human beings sons of God, raising us up by grace to what he is by nature, giving us new birth in the Holy Spirit and leading us directly into the kingdom of heaven. Or rather, he gives us the grace to possess this kingdom within ourselves (Luke 17:21) so that not merely do we hope to enter it, but being in full possession of it, we can affirm: ‘Our life is hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3)” Symeon the New Theologian (Smith 2012, p.211)

For the Orthodox, the Incarnation has opened the way to human deification (Ware 1979, p.74). This is now possible by the power of the Holy Spirit (Louth 2013, p.26) which transforms the creaturely being and glorifies it (Louth 2013, p.147). In the Orthodox way this process is known as theosis. Christ has the power to effect inner transformation (Louth 2013, p.7) but this requires our voluntary cooperation (Ware 1979, p.112). For Symeon the New Theologian the aim of the spiritual life is to become ‘all Christ’ (Chryssavgis 2004, p.75). However, the process does not end with the human. Reconciliation and the transformation of humanity leads to reconciliation and the transfiguration of the whole creation (Ware 1979, p.137). Rather than involving the destruction of the material world, the end times (eschatology) are understood as the deification of the whole creation (Chryssavgis 2004, p.26).

16. Universalism

“…there exists with (the creator) a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, (a love) which is without alteration, timeless and everlasting… No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal kingdom”  Isaac the Syrian (Louth 2013, p.158)

The Orthodox vision of the incarnation, the atonement, the powerful living presence of the Holy Spirit and the deification of the whole creation has led to a tendency within the Eastern Church towards a belief in universal salvation, that in the end all will be saved (Louth 2013, p.157). As the apostle Paul writes “when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

If you have found this information helpful, you might like to know about the following course at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre:

Icons and Iconoclasts : exploring Eastern Orthodox and Quaker spirituality

Friday 24 - Sunday 26 October I 16 places

On the face of it the spirituality of Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism would appear to be entirely incompatible; one values outward liturgy and the veneration of icons whereas the other rejects all outward ceremony and imagery. But are these two traditions really as far apart as they appear? We will consider this question by exploring themes such as holiness, creation, material and spiritual, inward and outward, light and darkness. Could opening up to the other's perspective bring spiritual enrichment to both groups?

Tutors: Stuart Masters and Lucy Faulkner-Gawlinski

End Notes

[i] In kataphatic spirituality or ‘via positiva’ God is described in positive terms (i.e. God is this or that). In apophatic spirituality or ‘via negativa’ God as mystery is defined negatively (i.e. God is not this or that).

[ii] Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories of atonement are both variations on the same theme. God is angry because humans have sinned. In order to forgive humanity for their sins God requires someone to be punished. In his crucifixion Jesus takes this punishment on our behalf.


Chryssavigis, John (2004) Light Through Darkness: The Orthodox Tradition (Darton, Longman and Todd)

Louth, Andrew (2013) Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (SPCK)

Smith, Allyne (2012) Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (Skylight Paths)

Ware, Kallistos (1979) The Orthodox Way (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)