Quakers and Jesus: Toward a Quaker Christology

*Note: this series begins with Quakers and Jesus: First Things

Georgefox at the breadline

As Quakers became bifurcated over time theologically,[1] it is difficult to speak of “a” Quaker Christology that captures the full spectrum of the modern Friends movement. Over time Quakers have split off in various ways, on a continuum in which the extreme ends represent those who hold closest to the theology of early Friends but have drifted apart from traditional modes of worship and social justice praxis, and those who have preserved the traditional worship and social justice practices of early Friends and yet have drifted far from the theology from which those practices arose. Indeed some Friends today might not even see a need for a Quaker Christology. Of those “Christocentric” Quakers old and new, however, there has always been a universal scope to the person and work of Jesus in religious experience.[2] Jesus reveals something about God that must be valued, namely that God is like Jesus.[3] Various lists exists about what an essential Quaker teaching about the characteristics of Christ would encompass. Perhaps the most exhaustive and well researched is Maurice Creasey’s in his seminal work Early Quaker Christology, in which he concludes with three essentials: 1) Quakerism’s attempt to bring within the compass of a doctrine of Christ’s person and work the whole range of divine dealings in creation and its redemption; 2) Quakerism’s concern to interpret the moral and spiritual experience of all humans, non-Christian and pre-Christian as well as Christian, in terms of response to the judging and saving activity of God in Christ; and 3) Quakerism’s intent to derive a full doctrine of the church, or worship, and of ministry from the conception of Christ as exercising his offices in the midst of a gathered people.[4] Others have made a point to emphasize Christ’s transforming power in history and personal and universal scope, immediate power and availability, and role of ongoing Guide and inward Teacher.[5]

Though people tend to think of Quakers as reserved and stuffy, one unexpected Christological direction taken in the 20th century is D. Elton Trueblood’s theological development of a Christology of humor.[6] Much more could be written about the nuances of Quaker Christology than I have space for here. My purposes here are to follow the flow of understanding from the immediacy of Christ’s presence, to examine Quaker Christology and its orthodoxy, and ultimately to highlight the uniquely Quaker Christological understandings of Jesus as Present Teacher and Lord, Seed, Inner Light, and Center, which will make up the rest of this series.

Orthodoxy and Trinity

While early Quakers tended to push back against “dead doctrines” that distracted from immediate and mystical knowledge of God, this is not to say that they did not believe in the value of study nor did they disagree per se with the tenants of historic orthodox Christianity. It is true that early Friends did not make use of creeds and did not prefer to use nonbiblical terminology such as the word Trinity; this did not however necessitate beliefs about these spiritual realities like that of the Unitarian Universalists. Once after an entirely orthodox exposition on the hypostatic union, George Keith responded “and thus it may appear, that we differ not in the matter, or the thing itself, but only as the manner of expression.”[7] At times their critics forced Quakers to articulate exactly what they believed about these things, and as they did so, Quakers tended more toward a looser “biblical,” rather than highly specific theological, word choice. They did however also coin some new biblical terminology about Jesus, such as referring to him as the “Inner Light,” much to the irk and ire of their many critics, many of which thought they were inherently claiming equality with God.[8]

Fox’s view of the Inner light, as I intend to show later, was actually a new articulation of the mysteries of a Logos Christology (or understanding of Jesus as the Word) modeled after that of the gospel of John[9] and at its heart was deeply orthodox.[10] Modern critics have likewise conceived of Fox and others as unhealthily dualistic and practicing a kind of ignorant pre-modern Gnosticism[11]  (a belief that material things are corrupt and evil and opposed to “spiritual” or nonmaterial things, as well as that true freedom comes only from secret knowledge). While it is true that Fox himself was more radical than his contemporaries like William Penn, Robert Barclay, Samuel Fisher, or George Whitehead,[12] it is also true that Fox often spoke in very trinitarian ways such as saying “the Father drew me to his Son by his Spirit.”[13] His critics pushed him to speak clearly and at length about perceived heresy and unorthodox Christian beliefs, and there is ample evidence from his writings that he fell in line with the historic creeds and formulations of orthodoxy, many of which are too long to examine here.[14] Likewise other Quaker leaders, in their attempts to answer critics, vindicated their orthodox beliefs in various letters and works of Quaker apologetics too numerous to count.[15] I would however like to quote George Fox at length to dig a bit deeper for this series than the paper had space for. This is from a writing of Fox entitled “Something in answer to all such as falsely say the Quakers are no Christians” (1682):

We believe concerning  God the Father, Son, and Spirit, according to the testimony of the holy scripture, which we receive and embrace as the most authentic and perfect Declaration of Christian Faith, being indicted by the Holy Spirit of God that never errs. 1st, That there is one God and Father, of whom are all things. 2ndly, That there is one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom all things were made….Who was glorified with the Father before the world began, who as God is over all, blessed forever…. That there is one Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father and the Son, the Leader and Sanctifier and Comforter of His people….And we further believe, as the holy scriptures soundly and sufficiently express, that these three are one, even the Father, the Word, and Spirit, and in the fullness of time, according to the promise of the Father, Christ was manifested in the flesh and by the grace of God tasted death for every man,…. Is risen and ascended, and sits on the right hand of God in heaven, and is the only Mediator between God and man; and that he exercises his Prophetical, Kingly and Priestly office now in his church, and also his offices in his household of faith, whose house we are, that are of the Word,…. Being elected in him before the world began.”[1]

Aside from this there are many theological reflections among early Friends about the preexistence of Christ,[16] the incarnation,[17] his body and blood,[18] and his role as the “heavenly man.”[19] Later the Richmond Declaration of Faith of 1887—a very orthodox statement of Christian faith and belief— came into being and is still used today by Evangelical Friends and Friends United Meeting. Though some notable Yearly Meetings never adopted it, the two largest Quaker denominational bodies representing the better part of Quaker global presence have. This statement of faith was even reaffirmed by FUM in 2007. The Richmond Declaration, along with Fox’s Letter to the Governor of Barbados and Essential Truths form the three major doctrinal statements of orthodox Friends. These are all sound expressions of orthodox Christian faith and Christological orthodoxy—yet rather than a great deal of arguing for the orthodoxy of beliefs of most Quakers, old and new, worldwide—for the remainder of this series, I intend to sketch out and examine the uniquely Quaker Christological contributions which are of far greater interest.

Continue on to part III

Quakers and Jesus: Christ as Present Teacher and Lord

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

[1]Creasey,  217-219.

[1] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 361.

[2] Ibid, 352-353.

[3] Ibid, 346.

[4] Ibid, 136-139.

[5] Canby T. Jones, Quaker Understanding of Christ and of Authority, 18.

[6]See Elton Trueblood, Harper Jubilee Books. Vol. HJ8, The Humor of Christ. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, ©1964; also Howard R. Macy, Let’s Be Friends, Vol. bk. 1, Stepping in the Light: Life in Joy and Power. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 2007.

[7] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 79.

[8] Pink Dandelion, ed., The Creation of Quaker Theory: Insider Perspectives (Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate, ©2004), 67.

[9] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 19.

[10] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 14.

[11] Pink Dandelion, The Creation of Quaker Theory, 71.

[12] Ibid, 65.

[13] Creasey, Early Quaker Christology, 68.

[14] Ibid, 217-218.

[15] Ibid, 79, 219-231; William Penn, No Cross, No Crown: A Discourse Showing the Nature and Discipline of the Holy Cross of Christ and That the Denial of Self and Daily Bearing of Christ’s Cross in the Alone Way to the Rest and Kingdom of God (York, England: Ebor Press, 1981), 379.

[16] Ibid, 82.

[17] Ibid, 90, 94, 99-100.

[18] Ibid, 86, 131, 321.

[19] Ibid, 88.

 

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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

4 responses to “Quakers and Jesus: Toward a Quaker Christology

  • John Wilmerding

    I’m content to let the Quakers who religiously study or seek knowledge about Christ argue over this. But I have one relevant experience to relate. A short time after 9/11, and fearing war like the rest of us, and also remarking on the Nickel Mines incident where a gunman killed a group of Amish schoolchildren, the Mennonites and a few of the Brethren, impressed by the Amish’s expressed forgiveness for the murderer, called a conference to try to articulate a ‘Theology of Peace’. I was invited. Since I was then concerned about the fact that the USA was, in effect, declaring war against Islam, I suggested that the next conference include Muslims and Jews. This was not at all well-taken. But I was invited to the next conference. When I got that invitation, I wrote and said that I was going to raise the same question again. Then I was UN-invited. The reason given was that ‘Christians have the right to articulate their own theology of peace’. So you see how this plays out? Let the Christophiles complain that having those of us in the Society who don’t believe in the Nicene Creed or agree with the Richmond Declaration makes it hard to articulate a Quaker Christology. Frankly, I don’t care, because to my mind, any statement which writes off the beliefs of some of us isn’t valid. I felt marginalized at the very least when I insisted that Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all of whom worship the same G-d, should have the right to decide what we think G-d’s will is regarding peace in times of war and violence. We weaken ourselves when we put other people out of our ‘fold’ because of beliefs … the ‘fold’ can only get smaller and smaller. In Quakerism, we must believe in and practice ‘-ologies’ of inclusion.

    • jtower11

      Thanks for you perspective John. I am not against interfaith dialogue, merely syncretism. The original Quakers were clear Christians. It is unfortunate that the term Quaker is now so broad it can mean anything from someone who is the most legalistic bible thumper to someone who is pretty much a Unitarian Universalist, or even a member of another religion besides Christianity entirely. I think advocating peace among various religions is important work and I salute you for it, but I also think that when Quakerism can mean anything anyone wants it to mean it loses its saltiness. It becomes a term stripped of meaning and witness, and stands apart from the very things that made it distinctive in the first place. The testimonies were once ways of demonstrating the gospel with our lives, not merely a collection of optional values lived for their own intrinsic merits.

  • hyesungfrancis

    Love this. One thing that should be noted is that Keith ended up leaving the Society because he believed Friends strayed from orthodoxy. I believe he briefly started a group of water-baptizing Quakers, though eventually becoming ordained in the Church of England.

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