Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
In response to my last post, a very good question was raised which I'll attempt to answer here. In doing so, my hope is that I can tie up some of the loose ends that are still out there, and that the overall intention of this series will begin to become clearer for everyone. The gist of the question is this:
“We know that George Fox’s central focus on Christ’s coming was its awesome spiritual power for our present experience. He emphasized Christ’s office as Prophet (the one like Moses who was promised in the Old Testament) and our need to hear and obey His voice. Christ’s coming is significant primarily because it means He’s present and active now in the life of the people of God. Fox’s definition of the New Covenant and of the gospel message could thus be summarized in his often repeated phrase: Christ is come to teach His people Himself. He gives this spiritual reality full weight in his declarations about the way of salvation as few others have done since the days of the apostles or since the days of the early Quakers. So is this unique focus on Christ as the Prophet now come at all connected with preterist teaching about His coming? What really is the point of bringing up preterism in connection with George Fox?
My short answer is this: Yes, I do believe Fox’s message and preterism are connected in a meaningful and important way, but unfortunately preterists generally have not seen that connection. I believe Fox’s message is the missing piece that preterists are struggling to find, but they’re simply unaware of its existence. Please allow me to try and explain what I’m getting at. And I plead for your patience as I struggle to do so!
I think it's important to understand that the primary concern for preterists is the timing of the coming (parousia) of Christ. That is, they’re anxious to show that Jesus was not a false prophet when He predicted His coming would be in that very generation, at a time when many of his contemporaries would still be alive. Many Christians, because of futurist assumptions and a Western bias toward literal interpretations, assume that Jesus was either mistaken or that He really didn’t mean what He said. Preterists are defending the true Prophethood of Jesus Christ. Jesus said He would return during the lifetime of many of his hearers, and that's exactly what He did. Preterists show convincingly that the judgment on Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 was the event which Christ had said would be the historical mark of His coming.
Jesus didn’t intend the apocalyptic images he used (found in the Synoptic gospel accounts) of the stars falling, cataclysmic changes in the earth and heavens, coming in the clouds etc. to be taken literally. In keeping with the conventions of Hebrew prophecy, Jesus used this hyperbolic style of language to depict a coming judgment on the nation of Israel. One has only to carefully read Luke chapters 20-21 and compare with Matthew’s parallel in chapters 22-25 (also Mark’s) to see that the preterists are essentially correct about this. Preterists understand that this First Century coming of Christ marked the turning point in redemptive history between the Old Covenant Age and the New Covenant Age. They have a solid biblical case for the First Century timing of the parousia.
However, as the above question clearly implies, the preterist weakness is that their understanding of the First Century coming of Christ is largely about dry historical facts. It doesn't answer the most important questions. There’s not much in the preterist message by itself to inspire vision and hope for God’s people, either today or in the future. Preterists have the timing right, but they miss the real spiritual substance because they don't understand the true meaning of the New Covenant any better than other traditional Christians do. And this is where George Fox comes in. Fox has the answer!!! The New Covenant is a living relationship with Christ Himself. It is the privilege of living in communion with Christ, hearing the voice of the true Prophet, and living in obedience to Him. Wow!!! The Parousia (which means the Presence) began in the First Century and has been available for people to enter into ever since. George Fox and the early Quakers tapped into that truth and that reality in an explosive way in their generation. The good news is that we can tap into it in ours as well.
What I’m trying to say is that preterists have provided a sound and convincing exegetical and theological framework into which Fox’s message fits very well. Preterism gives powerful biblical support to some of Fox’s most controversial ideas. Fox (and Quakers in general) have not been able to present his message to the Christian world effectively, at least in part because they lacked the necessary tools to communicate it. Fox has very often been viewed as an eccentric preacher with strange, incomprehensible ideas. Now please consider how the basic premises of preterism harmonize with George Fox and how they lend credibility to His message. Let's start with the book of Revelation.
There are some very significant commonalities between Fox’s view of the book of Revelation and a preterist view. Fox clearly saw that the Revelation of Christ given to the prophet John was a turning point in redemptive history. In my last post I pointed out that he viewed the time of the Revelation to John as coinciding with the coming of Christ (as do preterists). And, like preterists, Fox believed that this First Century coming marked the end of the Old Covenant system and the beginning of the New Covenant in its fullness. He believed that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Rev. 19 depicted the beginning of a new Kingdom era for the people of God, as do preterists. And Fox believed that the New Heavens and Earth and the New Jerusalem were symbolic of the present New Covenant age, not literal pictures of a future change in the material universe. That too is classic preterism. The preterist eschatological framework provides a sound biblical base upon which to build the rich spiritual insights given by God to George Fox. This framework could well be a helpful means by which to communicate Fox’s message to the world more effectively.
It’s true that Fox was not necessarily concerned with how the book of Revelation, or the Gospels, were connected to historical events like the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. But I seriously doubt that he would deny that these events were legitimate signs that Christ did come in the First Century, even as He said He would. It’s also true that Fox applied parts of Revelation, in keeping with an Idealist approach, to important conditions and events of his own time. For example, the symbolic pictures which undoubtedly had a primary fulfillment for First Century believers (events surrounding the early Christians, Nero, the Jewish-Roman War, the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple etc.). These symbols Fox was led prophetically to re-apply to the spiritual upheavals and battles, heroes and antichrists of his own time. His spiritual “openings” gave him insight into their application to his own contemporary situation.
In addition to (and yet also related to) the preterist connection to Fox, and even more intriguing, is the connection of the Gospel of John to Fox’s thinking (I already alluded to this in a previous post). Fox’s theology drew heavily on John’s gospel, just as it did the book of Revelation. There are some fascinating insights among New Testament scholars which I believe are significant to this whole issue. There's a kind of Johannine preterism which focuses on a parousia of spiritual encounter and relationship promised by Jesus, rather than the focus on the apocalyptic judgment coming found in the Synoptic gospels.
The really fascinating thing is that the book of Revelation combines both aspects, spiritual relationship on the one hand, and judgment and shaking on the other. Fox's preaching combines them both as well. So it isn’t surprising then that Fox’s favorite biblical source for his preaching was the book of Revelation. Douglas Gwyn says that the themes and language of Revelation are “infused in page after page, volume after volume of his collected works.” (The Day of the Lord: Eschatology In Quaker Perspective, page 70). In future posts I’d like to say more about the connections between Fox, John’s gospel (also his epistles), preterism, and the book of Revelation.
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