The Reach of Divinity

May 18, 2012

What is the reach of divinity?

This is an odd, new question to me, and perhaps odd and new to you, too.  As I reflect on it, however, I realize it is not a new question, and it is related to many questions that have been important to Christians over two millenia.  It is related even to how we read those five Bible snippets that seem to be about homosexuality.

How far do the special powers of God extend — the way-beyond-human powers, including perfection? Does divinity extend to human beings?  Can it extend to particular places, times, or objects?  That’s the question.

Jesus was divine: on that we Christians agree (or at least nearly all).  We should recognize, however, that this was a heated topic in the earliest centuries of Christianity, a question that gave rise to important heresies.  On the one hand, there were some who claimed Jesus was entirely a divine being, that He had no human body, and that his appearance as a human being was simply a kind of divine trick.  That heresy was called Docetism (from the Greek word dokesis, meaning “to seem”).

On the other end of a spectrum, the Arian heresy considered Jesus completely human, not divine at all.  (It’s named after Arius, c. 250 – c. 336, a priest in Alexandria.)

Christians came to agree that Jesus was one of three aspects (or persons) of God that share one essence: the trinity included God the Father/Creator, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was one person, both fully human and fully divine.  Nevertheless, these heresies (Docetism and Arianism) reappear frequently in various guises.  Quakers have mostly accepted the trinity even as they hold the term at arm’s length.  The Richmond Declaration, for example, doesn’t use the word but seems to endorse the idea in saying “these three are one in the eternal Godhead.”

Does divinity extend to other human beings?  If Jesus was divine, some wonder was Mary, his mother, or how else could she have given birth to One divine?  Even without a Bible basis (unless Revelations 12?) Roman Catholics believe there is special divinity to Mary; they believe even that she was taken bodily into heaven at the end of her earthly life, an event they call the Assumption.  Some Christians (Roman Catholics, the Orthodox) also believe in identifying saints who have a special quality of divinity to them, proven by the performance of miracles.

In accepting the full divinity of Christ, Quakers believe also there is ‘something of God’ in each and every human being.  But we are reluctant to extend thoroughgoing special divinity to other human beings (Mary, the saints), even as we recognize that some human beings have a stronger ability to hear or to know the Light within.

Similarly, Quakers have been distinctively reluctant to ascribe greater divinity to specific places.  While some Christians ascribe special divinity to specific churches or miracle sites, Quakers believe no place is more sacred than any other in God’s creation.  Quakers have been reluctant to see some special divinity in certain days.  Most 18th and 19th century Friends didn’t have a special celebration for Christmas, that day being no more sacred than any other.  (Yes, we are less punctilious about this today, but not because we recognize any special divinity in the day.)  And Quakers have refused to acknowledge divinity to objects while some Christians see special power in various relics (pieces of the true cross, the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped, etc.).

So how about the Bible?  Should we ascribe special divinity to the Bible?  If so, why?  Let’s affirm that the Bible is an indispensable source for knowing of Jesus, His ministry, His crucifixion and His resurrection.  We have hardly any other source for knowing of these shattering events that transpired in Judea centuries ago.  The Bible is essential and profound.  But to say it is essential and to say it is profound is not necessarily to say that the Bible itself is specially divine.  Quakers have generally insisted, as Barclay put it, “the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself.”

I recently heard Micah Bales (Ohio Yearly Meeting) speak of this in a talk posted on YouTube.  He says: “We hear Christians today talking a lot about “believing the Bible,” and being ‘Bible believing Christians.’ That’s kind of a phrase, “Bible believing Christians.”  I trust the Scriptures.  I believe the Scriptures have great authority.  They are extremely important in my walk with the Lord.  But ultimately, I believe in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  He is sovereign over all things, over heaven and earth, over that which is under the earth, and over the Bible.  Jesus Christ is Lord and sovereign over the Scriptures themselves.  He is the One who we must go to to be able to understand the Scriptures.  So I don’t think the Scriptures of themselves, without the Spirit, without Jesus Christ, have any power.  I believe it is only as we listen to Jesus Christ as He is present with us today through the power of His Holy Spirit that we can understand the Scriptures and truly follow Him.”  (The transcription is mine.  The clip is at….)

One account of why the Bible includes the books that it does (and no others) is that the early church leaders decided to include books written only by those who knew someone who, in turn, had know Jesus while he lived.  (We don’t have any books written by anyone who knew Jesus himself directly.)  That semi-direct connection with Jesus, some might say, conferred divinity on those authors, and that, in turn, conferred divinity on what they wrote.

But that’s precisely a step Quakers have refused to take.  What’s the reach of divinity for Quakers?  In some measure, divinity extends to everything: it is the Light Within all persons (all, not just some), and there is a quality of sacredness to all places, times and objects in God’s creation.  Semi-divine, yes, and yet not fully divine, not perfect.  There is not a special divinity to any persons other than Jesus, and no special divinity that sets apart any places, times or objects.

We would not claim any other book to be inerrant.  To claim the Bible as the “inerrant” word of God as some Christians do is to take that step to ascribing special divinity to a particular thing (in this case the Bible), and Quakers have refused to falsely stretch divinity that far.  We have refused that step because it pulls our focus away from the Holy Spirit, the Christ Within, to which we should stay attuned.

We can and should acknowledge the Bible to be divinely inspired, full of deep and essential truths for us today.  But in doing so we can also acknowledge that, having been written by humans, it can contain errors, for example about slavery, about male superiority, and about homosexuality.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to The Reach of Divinity

  1. Pingback: The Bible As Inspired Work | River View Friend

  2. Pingback: What Bible Is She Reading? | River View Friend

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