Quakers and Jesus: First Things

Georgefox at the breadline  For my Doctrine of Christ class at George Fox Seminary I was given an opportunity to explore Christology, or the study of Jesus. I took that opportunity to seek out an understanding of how Christ centered Quakers, old and new, thought about Jesus. Though this was a research project, and perhaps is quite heady in spots, my goal was to distill this down in ways that were accessible. If anyone is interested in the purely academic version I am willing to share it. The main reason I wanted to pursue this was to explore the Quaker Christological understanding in its diversity and richness, to tease out its meaning and applications for today. In the project which I entitled “Logos as Light: a Quaker Christology” I look at the biblical and experiential roots of the Quaker experience with Jesus, explore the diversity and orthodoxy of this understanding, and then examine more deeply the uniquely Quaker conceptions of Jesus as Present Teacher and Lord, Christ as Seed, Christ as Inner Light, and Christ as Center. In a section called “First Things,” which this post is based off of, I begin to wrestle with the experiential nature of the Quaker understanding of Jesus.  

Quakers, or Friends, are a diverse group today, with some even so diverse as to stand outside the Christian heritage of early Friends. Like other groups in the mystical tradition such as Pentecostals, Friends emphasized the experiential far more than articulations of their theologies codified into neat and tidy systems. As I endeavor to reverse engineer a Quaker Christology for the purposes of this paper, it is essential to point out that when Quakers wrote about Jesus, it was first and foremost a reflection of their inward experience of Christ as a mystical reality. Their aim in a sense was practical, not ontological or theological precision. The great Quaker discovery was one of the immediacy of God, a God too large to be trapped in a book or mediated through rituals or priest and too mysterious to be understood merely through intellectualism or theological speculation.

The heart of Quakerism is essentially Christological; it is a shared experience of the pre-existent and inward Christ.[1] This experiential focus has brought along with it a sort of mystical and metaphysical naiveté[2] as George Fox and others sought an “untheological Christianity.” Fox criticized those of his day for being too caught up in theological speculations, which he referred to as “notions.” He felt a growing repugnance for these notions similar to Luther’s repugnance for indulgences[3] because theological reflection about God had seemed to eclipse personal relationship with God. Early Friends were not as concerned with believing a doctrine of atonement as much as “experiencing deliverance from sin and the love of it, and the formation of a new Christ-like character within.” Contra Luther’s “by grace alone,” Friends emphasized Christ as an inward transforming experience[4] and existential reality.[5] Faith was seen as a lived experience in the laboratory of life,[6] and Friends believed that unless there was the transforming power of the Spirit there was no true Christianity present.[7] In a sense, Quaker Christology was more about orthopraxy (right action) than orthodoxy (right belief), it is Christian mysticism but with an emphasis on ethical action stemming from a holy encounter.[8] Friends had a new vision and new certainty in action.[9] Their discovery was Christ speaking within, to a mystical ear,[10] but also was a recovering of the Christ mysticism of the New Testament that allowed for direct revelation.[11] For early Friends such as William Penn, this was an experience of “primitive Christianity revived,”[12] a recovery of a faith like that seen on the pages of the book of Acts.

Query: Are we contemporary Friends still committed to emphasizing Christ as an “inward transforming experience and existential reality”? Do we still have a vision of faith that makes room for “experience in the laboratory of life”?

Continue on to Part II: Quakers and Jesus: Toward a Quaker Christology

Other Posts in this series:

Quakers and Jesus: First Things

Quakers and Jesus: Toward a Quaker Christology

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Present Teacher and Lord

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Seed and Inner Light 

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Center

References:

[1] Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays On the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (Burnsville, N.C.: Celo Valley Books, ©1993), 164.

[2] Maurice A. Creasey, Early Quaker Christology; With Special Reference to the Teaching and Significance of Isaac Penington, 1616-1679; an Essay in Interpretation. [Leeds], 1956, 78.

[3] Rufus M. Jones, The Life and Message of George Fox, 1624-1924; A Tercentenary Address. New York: Macmillan Co, 1924, 16.

[4] Rufus M. Jones, The Faith and Practice of the Quakers (Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2002), 45.

[5] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 78, 335.

[6]Rufus M. Jones, The Faith and Practice of the Quakers, 52.

[7] Canby T. Jones, Quaker Understanding of Christ and of Authority, Philadelphia, Penna: Faith and Life Movement; distributed by Friends World Committee, American Section, 1970, 37.

[8] Margery Post Abbott, To Be Broken and Tender: A Quaker Theology for Today. [Portland, Or.]: Friends Bulletin Corp, 2010, 51.

[9] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 347.

[10] Robert Barclay and Dean Freiday, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English. [Alburtis Pa.]: [Hemlock Press; distributed by Friends Book store, Philadelphia], 1967, 27.

[11] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 355-356; Barclay’s Apology in Modern English 28-29; Rufus M. Jones, The Life and Message of George Fox, 47-48.

[12] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 7, 53.

 

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About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. A former atheist trying to find my way as a Quaker minister. A former drop-out trying to find my way through an M. Div program at George Fox. A former addict who, over twelve years ago had a life changing encounter with Jesus that has altered the course of my life forever. I am a creative person called to pastoral ministry, spiritual direction and discipleship. I love "conversations of consequence" with people who are willing to wrestle through the deeper truths and messiness of life. I have found God in my brokenness, and He has shown me how to use that personal knowledge to work toward healing and reconciliation with others. I love the outdoors, camping and recreation, an eclectic blend of music and arts, and creativity in general. I am passionate about expressing my faith in Jesus, and allowing God to transform every area of my life and every decision I make. Together with my wife Liz and daughters Sophie and Greta, we are on a journey to figure out where, when, and how to live out the call God has placed in our hearts. For more about me check out the "about" or "my story" pages. View all posts by jtower11

7 responses to “Quakers and Jesus: First Things

  • Howard Brod

    Loved your post James. Thank you!

    It goes a long way towards bringing our fractured Religious Society of Friends to a place of common understanding of the value offered by our shared faith tradition. Early Friends were seeking spiritual realness; spiritual experience – not religion. It’s good to be reminded of that!

    • jtower11

      Thank you Howard! I think it was Rufus Jones who said that Quakerism is the most Christ centered of all the expressions of Christianity because we have stripped everything else away. I appreciate your encouragement.

  • Don

    It was John Wesley who added “experience” to the idea of knowing truth. But he never gave up reason, tradition and scripture. The Quakers are to far devorced from the ability to find the essential truth of a living body of Christ on earth. It is all about the BIG “me”
    experiencing Jesus and rarely about the other.

    • jtower11

      Hey Don, Quakers came before Wesley by 50 years or so. Have you read much Thomas Kelly? He really develops the corporate side of mystical experience in his work called the gathered meeting. Quakerism is not purely subjective. It’s was explained to me that scripture, the corporate body, and the Holy Spirit are all held intension, not completely unlike Wesley’s quadrilateral. The metaphor often used in my experience is that these form something of a three legged stool. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this Don.
      Agape,
      James

  • Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Seed and Inner Light | Practicing Resurrection Together

    […] *Note this series begins with “Quakers and Jesus: First Things […]

  • Ellis Hein

    James, I realize that this series is old by the standards of the fast moving attention spans of the modern world, but it is of particular interest to me. A story too long to tell here. One thing I noticed as I poked around in the series is that you do not cite the works of Fox in your sources. (Or if you do, I missed it.) Yet, if you want to know what the early Quakers’ conception of Christ was, you can do no better than immerse yourself in the writings and thought of Fox. There are plenty of people, Rufus Jones included, who would reinvent what Fox was about and had to say. But you will do well to get your hands on a copy of the Works of Fox and read for yourself what he had to say. I would also particularly recommend Edward Burrough’s introduction to Vol. III of the Works of Fox. On my blog (thiswasthetruelight.wordpress.com) I have a page that consists of Fox’s commission when God sent him to preach the everlasting gospel. And I find I am always turning to Edward Burrough. There is so much there! I would also recommend anything by Lewis Benson you can get your hands on.

    • jtower11

      Greetings Ellis, there is a fairly lengthy quote from Fox in his own words on the second part. I admit I used Creasy’s work on Fox because it was comprehensive and did not spend a great deal of space quoting Fox directly. Are you familiar with Creasy? His analysis of early Quaker theology about Jesus, as far as I know, is still unmatched. I may yet get the chance to dig into this further, but was kind of under the gun when I was doing this project. Being a minister, father, student, and teacher all at the same time did prevent me from being as thorough as I might have otherwise been with more time to invest in a project like this. Thank you for helping me consider expanding my horizons.

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