I caught part of an old movie on TV today, it being drizzly outside. From 1955, it was “A Man Called Peter”, about Peter Marshall, who was twice Chaplain of the United States Senate. During a scene in which he is giving a sermon, my ears perked up as he was quoting William Penn. I didn’t realize at the time that he was quoting William Penn, but after a short Bing search I found it: “If thou wouldst rule well, thou must rule for God, and to do that, thou must be ruled by him….Those who will not be governed by God will be ruled by tyrants.”
What a great quote! Remember learning about William Penn in school? I had forgotten a lot. He was born in England and lived from 1644 to 1718. He founded Pennsylvania in 1681, becoming an early proponent of religious and political freedoms in America. While still In England in 1668 he was imprisoned for writing a tract (The Sandy Foundation Shaken) which attacked the doctrines of the trinity, the imputation of righteousness and Christ’s crucifixion as God’s universal satisfaction for all sin.
As I read this tract (challenging in his style of flowery rhetoric) I many times wished I could discuss it with him. Trained in law and conversant in Scripture, Penn’s arguments often seemed top heavy with large, cumbersome collections of developed logical formulas resting on assumptions or points of view that were easily set aside. His arguments were largely dependent on his understanding of his own contemporary society, and devoid of the Hebraic perspective when looking at Christ’s crucifixion. The so-called “satisfaction” was based on satisfying the Hebrew Law, not giving satisfaction to God for every sin, an idea possibly modeled by British Law of his day.
But more than that, the entire tract was aimed at the short comings of the logic of Church traditions of his day. His logical breakdown of every doctrine he saw as fallacy presented his opponents’ arguments as ridiculous nonsense. And yet, the same logical examination of his own positions would have produced the same conclusion. His Quaker doctrines would have been seen just as ridiculous and nonsensical.
My reason for saying that is John 4:24 says God is spirit. God is supernatural. Though he created the natural world, he is not subject to it. Intellectuals, like Penn, are tempted to examine God with the same tools used to examine human subjects, such as the law. They assume that the same logic and reason used to understand the natural world can be applied to understanding the supernatural. When they do, they are putting an infinite God into a finite box of their own understanding.
William Penn’s most passionate argument (Dare I use that word, when he himself, as a Quaker, renounced passion?) was against the Trinity. Firstly, if God is spirit, then how can the Spirit of God not be God? Secondly, as if hammering a nail, he repeatedly attacked the idea of the Trinity as being three Gods. He logically disputed the notion that one God could be three persons of the same substance by saying three anythings cannot be one something. But he ignored a key concept in the Christian faith: the mystery of God in us.
What are we to make of the fact that in the beginning God said, “Let us make man in our own image.”? (Genesis 1:26) Are we to see that as simply a literary device, similar to the use of the royal third person? I think not. The Hebrews (who wrote it) chose other literary devices, such as “your servant”. Then, how do you logically explain the beginning of the Gospel of John? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God being with himself in two manifestations or forms defies natural reason. The one God of the Bible is a spiritual reality beyond our grasp.
Christ’s prayer in John 17 illustrates how God’s presence in us is reciprocal, because while he is in us, we are in him. How is that possible? Using natural logic, it is nonsensical. Nevertheless, it is true because God transcends our natural understanding. In John 17:10 Jesus prays to God the Father, “All I have is yours, and all you have is mine.” This is a concept not unlike marriage, in which the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). In Ephesians 5:3 this kind of unity is used to compare marriage to the church. “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” Christ isn’t just saving his own body. Christ is in us and we are in Christ. That is a mystery.
In John 17:21 Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us …” and he repeats it in verses 22 & 23, “…that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me…” An honest reading of this passage demands that one accept what one cannot understand: that we can be in God while God is in us, just like God the Father is in Christ while Christ is in the Father.
Like the Trinity, this is a mystery beyond our natural comprehension. 1 Corinthians 2:14 explains it: “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” The idea of a natural man, includes thinking like a natural man, a trap that believers can fall into if they aren’t careful. Proverbs 3:5&6 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” or “will direct your paths.”
William Penn’s arguments against the Trinity were basically a product of his leaning on his own understanding. However, his great intellect did benefit us all. He helped establish the now taken for granted right of trial by jury. It is a shame that he was imprisoned for the crime of thinking freely. But alas, it is in the nature of those in authority to bolster their policies by clamping down on freedom of speech. Even now, such is Britain’s current treatment of Michael Savage. But William Penn went on to immigrate to America where he did much to establish and nurture freedoms that became the bedrock of our own culture. Thank you, Mr. Penn. Surely our faith and love of freedom is worth cherishing and passing on to following generations.
“Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be ever so good, they will endeavor to warp and spoil it to their turn.” — W. Penn