The quest for serenity and union with Christ (part 1)

A paper presented to the Baptist Historical Society by Rev Rod Benson (part 1 of 2)

Although in frequent demand as a public speaker and Bible teacher for more than half a century, the Australian Baptist theologian and biblical scholar George Henry Morling formally published only two slim works.

The first, titled The Quest for Serenity, was published by Young and Morling (a Sydney firm) in 1951, republished in 1965 by the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for the American market, and again in 1989 by Word Books with notes and commentary by Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of North American Baptist evangelist Billy Graham. A revised edition was published by Morling Press in 2002 with the addition of Bible references inserted by Bruce Thornton, one of “Morling’s men” who later served as Secretary of the Baptist Union of NSW, and study questions by John Reid, lecturer in pastoral studies at Morling College and former President of the Baptist Union of NSW.[1]

The second publication was titled The Holy Spirit: Studies by Rev. G.H. Morling, and first appeared in 1972. In his foreword, Baptist Union of NSW President J. Allan Reid explained that its publication was appropriate “In view of the rising tide of enquiry together with the lack of Biblical teaching in many areas concerning the Person and Ministry of the Holy Spirit in contemporary religious life.”[2]

Generally, and notably in the postwar period,[3] among other theological guides Morling heavily relied on Augustus H. Strong’s Systematic Theology for the formation of his views and insights into Christian theology in the modern period.[4] Strong’s implicit commitment to the dualist philosophy of Scottish Common Sense Realism, somewhat popular among nineteenth-century North American theologians and clergy, and evincing a problematic tension between empiricism and intuitionism, resonated with Morling. In the 1906 preface to his Systematic Theology, Strong expressed his personal conviction that

Theology is a science which can be successfully cultivated only in connection with its practical application. I would therefore, in every discussion of its principles, point out its relations to Christian experience, and its power to awaken Christian emotions and lead to Christian decisions.[5]

Such a conviction was also a central aspect of Morling’s personal spirituality and shaped his vision for theological education. It was evident in his two formal published works. As he observed, echoing Strong but pressing further, “if intellectual theory does not provide an answer, the experience of life does: and, since life is larger than logic, the practical answer is of greater value.”[6]

I have discussed Morling’s booklet on the Holy Spirit elsewhere. This paper focuses on analysis of The Quest for Serenity.

Aptly named, The Quest for Serenity was first published in 1951, when Morling was in his sixtieth year and had already served as Principal of the Baptist Theological College of NSW for thirty years. It is written in clear prose style with a literate Christian lay audience in mind. It reads like a spiritual or devotional classic. It is not unlike a thoroughly Christian version of a secular self-help guide. It is arguably an example of what Jaroslav Pelikan calls “the affectational transposition of doctrine,”[7] although Morling carefully sought to ground personal experience in what he understood to be the objective truth of ultimate reality and the authoritative testimony of Scripture.

The strengths of the book lie in its grounding in biblical theology, especially Christology and pneumatology, its emphasis on the affective and practical dimensions of biblical teaching, and its carefully crafted structure progressing from recognition of personal weaknesses and needs to a full embrace of the practical and subjective implications of the doctrine of union with Christ.

In the foreword, the Rev. Dr C. J. Tinsley, then President of the College, extols Morling as “a front rank Bible Teacher and a well-known speaker at the great Spiritual Conventions” who “speaks from the richness of a trained mind and with a deep understanding of the human heart and of the Christian’s needs.”[8] There is evidence of the author’s education in “The Classics,” and of evangelical convictions, an interest in practical theology, and a humble personality aware of his weaknesses and vulnerability and willing to assist others to progress in their journey of faith. The back cover of the 1965 edition published by Eerdmans identifies Morling’s College connection, and adds:

He has been for a number of years a prominent Christian leader in Australia, and has been a spiritual influence on many. The Quest for Serenity is the result of his own personal quest, and makes a valuable contribution to the current literature on the inner life.[9]

The back cover also displays quotes from three religious periodicals. Christian Life claimed that the book, “with its simple style, direct approach and evangelical tone nears being a classic-in-miniature.” The Christian Herald described it as “excellent” and “packed with wise counsel from one who obviously has made his own quest and arrived triumphantly at the goal.” In a more measured appraisal, The Free Methodist observed that

In the tremendous amount of ‘Peace of mind’ literature today, it is refreshing to find a book that gets to the real secret of peace. There is an adequate answer, and it is clearly portrayed here. It is a choice contribution to a vast library in the field. The author speaks with the scholarship of a trained mind which has been strangely warmed by the glow of a deep spiritual life.[10]

Earnest Methodist readers would not have missed the association with the moment in John Wesley’s life when he felt his heart “strangely warmed” on hearing the reading of the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.[11] For Wesley, the cognition and experience of that evening at Aldersgate confirmed to him the proper order of salvation (specifically, that justification precedes sanctification).

For Morling, however, the personal experience described in The Quest for Serenity was something else. It was not a conversion experience, nor the intense experience of assurance of salvation which he encountered while riding his bicycle along the bank of the Peel River as a pastor in Tamworth,[12] but a growing awareness of the need and benefits of daily self-surrender to God as an intelligent form of worship. For Morling, “the Christian life is a matter of multiplied new beginnings,”[13] although some beginnings were no doubt more significant and transformative than others.

It is my view that the reference to “Something Better” on page 27 of The Quest for Serenity relates at least in part to his Peel River experience, whereby he came to a fresh understanding of the fruit of justifying grace, or what he describes as “a divine righteousness imputed, issuing in justification,” that is, the indicative aspect of union with Christ.[14] There beside his bicycle on the bank of the stream he comprehended, perhaps in a new way, the meaning and implications of what he further describes as “a divine righteousness imparted, issuing in sanctification,” that is, the imperative aspect of union with Christ, and its implications for Christian assurance and service.[15]

This reflects a classic Reformed doctrine of justification and sanctification. As John Calvin put it:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[16]

Morling rejoiced in the apprehension and application of this “double grace.” While he speaks of  “mystical union” with Christ, and he was attracted to the Christian contemplative tradition, his theology is not a “theology of glory”[17] but an identifiably Reformed theology of the cross and resurrection, and of the Christian life. He goes on:

The Something Better is bound up with the knowledge of, and the response to, all that is comprehended with the divine righteousness which is imparted … If faith does not advance to lay hold of this second aspect of righteousness, which is nothing less than the holiness of God resident within the regenerated heart, then the Heavenly Father cannot satisfy the longing soul. It is not enough to have God’s gift of pardoning grace which, as a robe of righteousness, covers the sinful life. The sinful life itself must become righteous. Justifying righteousness brings only peace of conscience and the cessation of fear regarding the eternal future. It declares a divine amnesty and gives a title to heaven. We need more than that; and, in the opulence of grace there is something more, much more. There is sanctifying righteousness which, from within, transforms the life. If the one secures our title to heaven, the other procures our fitness for it and, in so doing, floods it with radiance.[18]

If the notion of “Jesus Christ appropriated” through “constantly feeding on Christ and finding in Him such satisfaction that no trace of unrest remained” is “Paul’s secret,” as Morling intimated,[19] then the efficacious experience of “divine righteousness appropriated,” and the particular peace and power it releases, may be described as Morling’s secret.

In the introduction to the book, Morling expresses the desire that “some will find in it an authentic word of God.” He acknowledges that the book is “a personal testimony of faith and experience,” and that he has “written much more in terms of principles than of rules,” since “I have interpreted rest as being oceanic in character.”[20]

This may imply his awareness of the complexity and diversity of individual experience, and the necessity of adumbrating general principles rather than stipulating rigid rules for spiritual direction and counsel. Certainly the author shares his personal weaknesses and vulnerability in several places in order to confirm that the “quest” reflects his contemporary practical experience and not mere theory or stories from the past alone.[21]

The Quest for Serenity shows evidence of wide reading and a fine command of Scripture, but is poorly referenced.[22] On close inspection, the text reveals references to 77 Bible texts: 13 from the Old Testament (16.9 per cent), and 64 from the New Testament (83.1 per cent). Of the OT texts, seven are from the Psalms, three from Isaiah, and there are no other references from the Wisdom literature or the Prophets.

Given the subject and focus of the book, and Morling’s interest in a spiritual interpretation of the Song of Songs as representing the union of the believer with Christ, it is strange that there are no references or allusions to that biblical book. Of the NT references,[23] 31 are drawn from the Gospels (48 per cent), and 33 from the rest of the New Testament. There are no references from the books of Acts, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, 2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude or Revelation.

Of the Gospels texts, five are from Matthew, two from Mark, seven from Luke and 17 from John. Of the other NT references, four are from Romans, two from 2 Corinthians, seven from Ephesians, eight from Philippians, nine from Hebrews, and one each from 1 Corinthians, Colossians and 1 Peter. Morling drew heavily on the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Hebrews, both of which portray key aspects of the glory of the Son of God, the enduring efficacy of his redemption through the cross and resurrection, and the present ministry of the Son from heaven through the Spirit in the life of the Christian.

Only two references are mentioned more than once: Matthew 11:28 is mentioned twice; and Hebrews 4:14-15 has three mentions. In the Matthew passage, Jesus offers rest to the weary and burdened, which provides the premise of the book and the rationale for the quest for serenity. In the Hebrews passage, the author of Hebrews assures his readers of the presence of a superior high priest, namely Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, who is able to identify with their human weaknesses, and who has been tempted in every way as they are.

These related themes are explicitly and implicitly evident throughout the book. A central aspect of The Quest for Serenity, therefore, is the demonstration of the solidarity and empathy of Jesus Christ with his people, and the profound practical blessings which accrue as a result of a growing awareness of the reality and implications of what Morling calls “the Soul’s union with Christ.”[24]


Rod Benson is a Baptist minister and Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. This article may be freely reproduced in any form provided that proper attribution is made to this website. Part 2 of this paper is also available.


References

[1] G.H. Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Sydney: & Morling, 1951), hereafter QFS.

[2] G.H. Morling, The Holy Spirit: Studies by G.H. Morling (Sydney: Baptist Union of NSW, 1972).

[3] Email from Ken R. Manley to the author, 30 March 2016.

[4] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (eighth edn; Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1970 [1907]). Originally published in three volumes, it remains in print today and furnishes the enquiring student of theology with an encyclopedic presentation of theology from a conservative Reformed perspective. On Strong see Gregory Alan Thornbury, “Augustus Hopkins Strong,” in Timothy George & David S. Dockery (eds), Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (revised edn; Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2001), pp. 139-162; Carl F.H. Henry, Personal Idealism and Strong’s Theology (Wheaton, IL: Van Kampen Press, 1951), based on Henry’s dissertation on Strong at Boston University; Albert Henry Newman, “Strong’s systematic theology,” Baptist Review and Expositor 2, Jan 1905), pp. 41-66; Augustus H. Strong, What Shall I Believe? (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1922); and Augustus H. Strong, Autobiography of Augustus Hopkins Strong(Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1981).

[5] Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. xi.

[6] QFS, p. 56.

[7] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Volume 5: Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (Since 1700) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 119.

[8] QFS, p. 3.

[9] Morling, The Quest for Serenity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), back cover.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.” [Wesley’s Journal]

[12] David Nicholas, George Henry Morling: Journeys with God, p. 2. Tamworth is a small inland city in the north of the State of NSW.

[13] QFS, p. 84.

[14] QFS, p. 27.

[15] QFS, pp. 27f.

[16] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), 3.11.1.

[17] Timothy Lull (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (second edn; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p. 50.

[18] QFS, p. 28.

[19] QFS, pp. 74-75.

[20] QFS, p. 5.

[21] On Morling’s personal experiences and discovery as shared in QFS, see pp. 13f, 28-32, 90f.

[22] The Eerdmans edition has only three footnotes: “Eccl 3:11” (p. 16); “John 14:9” (p. 19), and “From Andrew Murray’s The Spirit of Christ” (p. 69). For the 2002 edition, Bruce Thornton helpfully added many biblical references as endnotes to chapters, but some of these do not directly relate to the texts quoted or referred to by Morling, and not all explicit biblical references are identified by Thornton. I have produced my own exhaustive index. For this dissertation I have produced exhaustive Scripture, subject and name indexes.

[23] Not instances, since two texts are mentioned more than once.

[24] QFS, p. 29.

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