Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
A common phrase you may see describing a particular denomination or church is, “Bible based.” But the Biblical basis of Fox’s message was not a surface adherence to certain passages, but a comprehensive alignment with God’s purpose throughout history.
Fox lived in a period that was Biblically literate and highly religious. Since Fox rejected all the various forms of Christianity of his day, an appropriate question might be, “Was Fox a Christian?” Lewis Benson’s lecture no. 3, The Relation of Fox’s message to the Bible, answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Further, if you understand what Benson is saying about Fox’s Christianity, you begin to wonder how people rejecting the message of Fox can claim the title, “Christian.”
The early Quaker’s Christianity is based upon the experience of Jesus Christ in and among them performing the functions of His offices. They experienced Christ fulfilling all the prophecies, types, figures, and shadows of the old covenant by becoming the New Covenant between them and God. The Christianity of their day, as well as much of that of ours, is built upon something else: a doctrine, a theology, a culture, a tradition. This is not the same as being a people gathered by the revelation of Jesus among us, whom we are to hear in all things. Lewis Benson stated:
I have seen many denominations who claim to be calling people to a personal encounter with Jesus as their savior. But I have never encountered any other group than the early Quakers who calls people to an encounter with Jesus who is present in the midst of his people in a functional way, performing the duties of his offices in a way that we can all experience. And by these functions, we are made into the people of God.
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I was reading Licia Kuenning's essay, Understanding the Quaker Past, yesterday. In her essay she told of an email she received from a Friend who had recently purchased the first volume of Isaac Penington's Works. He was shocked that Penington actually believed his religious beliefs were right and other sects were wrong. Apparently, this man had some other notion about early Fiends. They were not the "tolerant" people described to him.
Licia's response to her correspondent's indignation was for him and other Friends to read original writings of early Friends as a means to understand them in context. I agree with her on reading original writings of early Friends but not the reason.
Early on in my experience reading various Quaker works with a group of Friends I found myself perplexed by the importance they assigned to context, particularly George Fox, Penington, and Woolman. My thinking was and is, if what is said is truth, context has no significance. Truth applies to all times and places and peoples. The significance is in what the writer is speaking to us across space and time.
I can appreciate that context is important regarding documents, such as George Fox's letters to officials who held him in prison. In those cases, the writer isn't concerned with teaching or proselytizing, and in fact uses these documents as an historical artifact. We learn from these documents about the times, the trials and troubles, and character of the writer and other persons involved.
Fox, Penington, Barclay, etc., were very much about teaching, and that teaching was (is) about turning or directing us to our Inward teacher, Jesus Christ. And then, this is especially so for George Fox, exhorting us to keep to Jesus. In other words, they are all our ministers. Everything they teach and say would bind us to Jesus and one another regardless of when and where we lived if we would not segregate ourselves in time.
The Apostles do the same in the New Testament. Read Acts 26:29, when Paul speaks to Agrippa. It's as if he turns from Agrippa, like an actor stepping out momentarily from the scene, to address the audience about something pertinent to them.
Everything Fox has taught I have experienced, from Christ is come to teach his people himself to hearing his voice to freeing us from Satan's power. These things are real and not confined to the century in which Fox lived.
So a study of early Friends isn't about context or analysis. These are outward, worldly, shadows, figures and types. These are the wanders in the desert who turn away from the Promised Land. They want the Kingdom without the King.
It's long been a concern of mine that Friends traffic in the outward, which is a sense of your post, Ellis. Correct me if I'm wrong. So the outward search of contemporary Friends to discover something tangible about the early Quakers transferable to themselves leads them to dead end paths, making them the carriers of inhuman traits they abhor--cruelty, prejudice, injustice, enmity, hatred, murder. "And while there is this knowledge in the flesh, deceit and self-will conform to anything, and will say, 'Yes, yes', to that it doth not know."
Contrary to Licia regarding the writings of the early Quakers, contemporary Friends don't have to discern what to keep and what to discard from early Friends writings if their own foundation is Jesus Christ. Early Quakers had their foundation in Jesus and that truth is the same for now and then. Truth does not change. It isn't up to contemporary Friends to decide what is acceptable and what is not. Their teacher will tell them how to be, not the culture, not Friends, not the Bible, albeit a good source of wisdom and teaching, and not man.
Again, I think this speaks to what you are saying, Ellis. Correct me if I am wrong, but your post has been an inspiration, along with Licia's essay, for me to write my long held concern for contemporary Friends. My observation is that they are all over the map in their thinking and quest. They've become to me as "captive Israel/that mourns in lonely exile here/until the Son of God appear." (O Come O Come, Emmanuel)
I can't find it in Fox's sermons just now but he exhorts us who are saved to reap the harvest. He tells us it's our purpose after being saved. I wish I could quote him; he's much more articulate than I, but I feel an urgency to reach these wayward Friends. They don't know what they are missing out on. They don't know the power the Lord gives them, us, to reach even more.
Thanks, Rhonda, for your comment. I can't decide if I need to correct you or not. I am not sure if you are disagreeing with me and with Lewis Benson's lecture #3. So I will leave those "Correct me if I am wrong" statements as they are.
I do want to say, though, in defense of context: Those who appeal to context to excuse Fox and the early Friends' insistence on the rightness of what they proclaimed as being the right way for all mankind for all time, appeal in vain. The context does not support their premise of "If only they were more enlightened they would not be so divisive." But what we do gain from the context of their day is that they were preaching to members of Christian churches. This gospel is not the same as that proclaimed by Christendom of the 17th century nor that proclaimed by Christendom of the 21st century. This is a gospel that calls people out of cultural Christianity and out of the various world religions and into the original relationship with the Creator we were created to have. Lewis Benson's lecture is stating that the basis for this gospel is entirely Biblical and, furthermore, any other gospel is based on something other than a right understanding of the Scriptures.
Thank you, Ellis, as well for responding. I thought you and Lewis Benson had similar points to mine, but I was trying to cover in case I was off base.
I'm not sure I completely understand the first three quarters of the second paragraph. I'll read it again when my mind is less clouded.
OK, Rhonda. Thanks for the clarification. I thought we were saying similar things, or at least not disagreeing.