Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
I've recently been doing a lot of reading regarding the very early Quaker view of the "parousia" (or second coming) and how it provided the original rationale for rejecting ritual sacraments or ordinances - the Mass, Eucharist, or Lord's Supper in particular. It's interesting that by the second generation of Quakers (Barclay etc.) Friends had already pretty much dropped their claim that such ordinances were anachronistic (Paul had said the meal was "to proclaim the Lord's death till He comes", but Christ had truly come already in their individual and corporate experience). That generation began rather to focus on the superiority of the spiritual over the "carnal" and on the New Covenant emphasis on real substance over symbolic or sacramental shadows. Fox's original insight that the eucharist was no longer valid since Christ's coming had already happened was set aside.
The remarkable insight given to Fox and his contemporaries concerning the reality of Christ's real presence (parousia) was such a precious gift, but it became sadly neglected, perhaps because it just seemed too fantastic and counter-creedal a claim to ask the Christian world to accept. But the foundational basis for keeping the sacraments among Christians has remained the belief that the parousia has not yet come. Christ's Kingdom, although perhaps present in some very limited way, is still primarily a hope for the future and will require a catastrophic physical change in "the heavens and the earth." The sacraments are necessary because we are living in the "meantime" or the "already, and not yet."
It's interesting that in the last 20-30 years preterist students of biblical eschatology have essentially uncovered the truth that the parousia was an event expected by the apostles (based on the promises of Jesus Himself) in their own generation, and which did in fact happen. Preterist interpreters rightly see that the events surrounding the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple were the historical fulfilment of this expectation. They also recognize that this event constituted a covenantal change which is symbolically pictured in scripture as the establishing of "a new heavens and earth." Unfortunately most preterists have failed to see what Fox saw about the powerful spiritual reality of Christ's "presence" fulfilling the expectation of His coming.
Many respected biblical scholars believe that John's gospel actually provides the rationale for a spiritual second coming in the "paraclete" sayings of Jesus' farewell discourse (in John chapters 14 -17). They point out that the same characteristics frequently mentioned in John's gospel (which showed Jesus to be "the Prophet like Moses") are attributed to the Paraclete by Jesus. There's much more to the paraclete sayings than a general prediction about the Holy Spirit and the coming outpouring at Pentecost. Reading carefully through John 14 in particular makes it clear that Jesus was identifying himself in a unique way with the Paraclete, and His promise to come again (to receive His people to Himself and to dwell together with them) is almost certainly being conjoined with the coming of the Paraclete. These paraclete sayings were John's somewhat mystical way of teaching about the meaning of parousia, while the earlier Synoptics had used Jewish apocalyptic imagery (Hebrew hyperbolic judgment language) which focused more on the coming historical judgment of Jerusalem and the Temple. I think preterist historical eschatology, current Johannine scholarship, and Fox's unique spiritual insight into the New Covenant presence of Christ with His people make a powerful and convincing case for a rich, contemporary Christ-centered Quaker faith and life.
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I am glad to see this as a full post rather than just a comment on my post about The Grammar of the Gospel. Now, I have to get out my dictionary to chase down some of the terms you are using. It should be a good education for me!
I realized after finishing my comment to you that the Lord might have something of value for the broader NFF community in these things He's been speaking to me about over the past several years. I'd be happy to discuss it all further, and in more detail, if you should become so inclined!
Bill, I am at a loss to understand what is meant by "preterist." My dictionary does not have the word. I gather that it denotes a particular viewpoint for understanding the Scriptures. Thanks for your help
Sure, Ellis, glad to help! In a nutshell, preterism is one of the three main approaches to interpreting the "end times" prophecies of Scripture. These three are preterism, historicism, and futurism. Of course there are almost endless variations and differences in detail within each of these camps, but they are three distinct approaches.
Preterists believe that the prophecies of both Old and New Testaments should be first approached with the idea of "original audience relevance." This leads them to look for the meaning in the prophecies which was most likely the original intent for those who first received them. Historicists and futurists are more likely to apply the prophecies to later historical time periods and events. Historicists see a progressive unfolding in history which means that many of the prophecies have already unfolded through history from our present perspective (an example of this would be the classic historicist belief, popular among Protestant reformers, that the emergence of the papacy was the fulfilment of the Sea Beast of Revelation 13). Historicists usually also believe that some parts of biblical prophecy are yet to be fulfilled in our future. Futurists, particularly those who are devoted to the very popular Dispensationalist futurism (most fundamentalists and many evangelicals are into this) apply the prophecies almost entirely to their own generation and to the near future. Hal Lindsay and the more recent writers of the popular "Left Behind" series of books are in that latter category. These are the folks who are always sure that "the rapture" is right around the corner and that world events are "signs" that we must be living in "the last days."
There is another school of thought known as "idealism" which tries to blend these three approaches by proposing that the prophecies weren't intended to have any one specific and detailed fulfilmenent. Rather they propose that the prophecies are generalized pictures of spiritual and historical conditions that are going to be replayed in one way or another throughout history. Thus the prophecies have a "timeless relevance" to Christians in every age. Idealists would say that each of the three schools is correct in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. It seems apparent to me that any thinking student of Scripture and history could agree to some extent with this observation, although I believe it is wrong to ignore the primacy of original audience relevance and authorial intent when interpreting biblical prophecy. In other words, I believe preterism is essentially right to look for the primary fulfillment in past history without denying that there are principles revealed in the prophecies which can be applied in some sense to later historical conditions and events. After all, the human condition is such that the basics of history and spiritual struggle are repeated over and over again.
Within the preterist camp (especially in the past 30 years or so) there is a wide diversity of belief on all kinds of issues. The more creedally inclined preterists (actually they are partial preterists and partial futurists) still believe that there is a final "coming" of Christ which is yet future. They hold the preterist view that the apocalyptic passages in the Synoptic gospels and Revelation were pointing almost entirely to First Century events, but would still apply the events at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:7-10) and also the Great White Throne Judgment scene (Rev. 20:11-15) and the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. chapters 21 and 22) to our future. They usually understand this final coming of Christ to be cataclysmic and bringing about a complete change in the physical order of the universe (as do all futurists). These partial preterists are firmly within the Protestant evangelical sphere even though they have been adamantly challenged by Dispensational futurists. Many fundamentalist dispensationalists go so far as to consider them heretics. The past 20 years especially have seen a raging "eschatology war" within evangelical theological circles.
The more radical preterists believe that all the prophecies have been fulfilled and that the second coming futurists are still expecting has already happened in the historical events surrounding Jerusalem's destruction in AD 70. They consider themselves to be "full" or "consistent" preterists. Many, but not all, of these folks have abandoned sacramental practices because they believe this is consistent with the fact that we're now living in what was, for Jesus and the apostolic Church, "the age to come".. we're now living in the Afe of the New Covenant and in the time of "the New Heavens and the New Earth." Partial preterists consider "full preterists" to be heretical, or at least heterodox (they usually call them "hyper-preterists") because of their extreme and counter-creedal tendencies.
I would recommend the following article by partial preterist Kenneth Gentry as a good starting place for trying to understand what preterism is. Gentry is an excellent and widely respected Reformed (Presbyterian) scholar who has contributed immensely to the research and debate around this issue. He has engaged fruitfully with respected scholars in the futurist camp and also has a clear grasp of the issues relating to the more radical and counter-creedal versions of full preterism. The article is found on the Preterist Archive website which has a voluminous amount of material relevant to preterism. One could spend a lifetime wading through the material there (and I would definitely not recommend it, especially for the uninitiated). Just read Gentry's article for a very good overview for now. An even better overview and introduction would be R. C. Sproul's book, "The Last Days According to Jesus". It was in reading this book 20 years ago that my eyes were opened and a paradigm shift began to take place in my thinking about biblical prophecy and eschatology. The Lord used this shift to also open my eyes to much of what George Fox saw, and it accelerated my already awakening appreciation for early Quaker thought and values. Gentry's article:
Of course, I'm always happy to share whatever knowledge or insight God has given me, Ellis. I'm overjoyed to have some conversation partners here at NFF who are deeply interested in the same things that move me and stir my own heart!
Thanks for posting this. I was wondering if you could give a specific reference for Fox's view on the sacraments. I am particularly interested in how Fox links the idea that Christ has, in fact, already appeared to the rejection of sacraments such as baptism and the Lord's Supper.
My reading of Barclay indicates that there was another reason for the rejection of Communion. In the 'Apology' Barclay goes into a kind of rant about how the Communion service has lead Christians, especially Protestants, into endless arguing, debate, and generated much enmity. Barclay is harsh about this situation. And it is an accurate description of the kinds of theological debates among the 'professors' that were taking place at that time. My feeling is that Barclay is making a kind of 'by their fruits ye shall know them' argument. I mean that given that Communion has generated division, hostility, and endless bickering, and that it has not led to charity, love, and holiness, then we might want to conclude that such an approach to the spirit is not efficacious.
Thanks again for your post.
Jim (and Bill), If I may jump in here to answer this. Vol. 3 of the Works of Fox has much to say in answer to still current practices of the Christian religion regarding sacraments. One of the best statements I have found occurs in the section entitled Queries propounded to George Fox, by some of the contrivers of the petition, and by him answered. So quoting from page 596
The question is not whether to continue various traditions or not, but rather do you dwell in the substance, in the life and spirit of Christ that was in the apostles, in the prophets. When you are feeding upon the bread of life, junk food does nothing for you.
I have not had a chance to pursue the preterist literature you recommended, but I did think of something you might be interested in. Stephen Crisp preached a sermon entitled, The Kingdom of God Within (1691). I have placed a copy of that sermon on site available for download. Go the Resource tab, there should be a drop down menu that includes online resources, click on it. Then select The Kingdom of God Within.
Jim, you are correct that Barclay pointed to the seemingly endless and unresolvable disagreements between the many opposing Christian sects as one of the grievous problems with the state of Christendom. I agree that he was right about that, although his "ranting" approach isn't so appealing. It was an approach very much in the spirit of his times however. There's a QRT article you might be interested in that discusses this aspect a bit, found here:
I'm in the process of writing a third blog post on George Fox and preterism. There'll be a lot of material there that you may find helpful. In the meanwhile I'll give you the clearest statement I've found in which Fox states plainly that he viewed significant "second coming" Bible passages as having been already fulfilled, and in which he states his belief that this fact demonstrates that sacraments are redundant in the New Covenant era. The original quotation is from Fox's "Gospel Truths", Ed. 1706. It is quoted at length in Thomas Kimber's "Early Friends and Outward Ordinances" pp. 16-17. Here is a link:
The quote is also found in The Friend's Review Vol. 39, no. 17, p. 259 :
I appreciate your interest, Jim. Blessings to you!
Ellis, I agree with you that the more important issue regarding sacraments is that we be dwelling "in the substance" of Christ's real presence, not in shadows. But my real point of interest in the "sacraments" issue was the fact that Fox's emphasis on the coming of Christ (actually referencing "second coming" biblical passages as having been already fulfilled) was common to him and his early Quaker contemporaries, but not for the following generations (even the next generation. This "parousia" theology (if you want to call it that) of Christ's real presence was part of Fox's vision that seemed to be rather quickly abandoned, or at least down-played. I think that is very unfortunate, and that it resulted in the Quaker movement losing something that was very significant to its explosive beginnings. I think its something very much worth trying to understand and recover if the movement is to become powerful again.
Thanks for the tip about Crisp's sermon. I'll check it out!
Yes, Fox and early Friends wrote from experience. They were not expounding a theory of Biblical interpretation.