Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
I'm currently working on a blog post which will explore where George Fox may fit in the various eschatological schools of interpretation. However I believe the Spirit is prompting me to post a little aside to clarify my motivations and intentions before proceeding. Some responses to my previous posts have alerted me to the fact that there's a more important issue to be addressed first. That is, I don't want there to be any unnecessary misunderstandings about where I'm going with this. Ellis in particular (for whom I have the highest regard, by the way) has very gently encouraged me not to go too far afield. He is rightly concerned that our primary focus should be on the experience of Christ's real presence which Fox and the earliest Friends knew deeply, and which is ever available to anyone who earnestly seeks it. I absolutely agree that this must always be our central concern.
My interest here is not so much in the sacramental issue per say, but rather this: the way in which early Quakers handled the issue could be indicative of something larger (and which might have real significance for us). Quaker historians have observed that there was a fairly early shift in emphasis, from Fox and his contemporaries to the next (and all later) generations, concerning their unabashed understanding that the presence of Christ in their earliest experience was a powerful manifestation of the Second Coming (parousia) of Christ. For example, Ben Pink Dandelion has this to say:
"In some ways, we can say that the Quaker movement began in the 1650s in response to two aspects of Christian history: first, the Protestant impulse to more fully reform Christianity; and second, the waiting for the Second Coming upon which Christianity as a formal religion is founded... Christianity itself emerged as a religion as the early Christians came to realize that the Second Coming of Christ prophesied by Paul, was not necessarily going to take place immediately." (here I would insert the comment that if the Church had properly understood the biblical meaning of the Second Coming (parousia), in preterist terms as Jesus gave it, they would not have mistakenly thought that He had failed to come!).
Dandelion continues, describing the conditions under which the post-Apostolic Church devised ways of dealing with the perceived delay in the Second Coming:
"Humanity needed help to wait faithfully and the institution of the Church and its officers and practices was a pragmatic response to that need. Official Church documents are explicit about the temporary nature of these rites and institutions. Visit an Anglican or Roman Catholic church today and you find the liturgy of the Eucharist is explicitly about the remembrance of the First Coming and the anticipation of the Second... Early Quakers felt they were in the vanguard of this Second Coming which would come to all and bring about global transformation... This new reality available to all meant the the way Christianity had been operating was now redundant and anachronistic, belonging only to an age now past... churches and outward sacraments could be dispensed with. Revelation 3:20 talks about Christ supping inwardly with those who respond to his knocking, and Friends thought this communion replaced the passage in 1 Corinthians 11:26 that instructs the believers to break the bread until the Lord comes. The Lord had come again. There was a new supper to celebrate, the marriage supper of the Lamb..." (quotations are from the Section, "Quakerism in context" in chapter 1 of The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction - Location 296-322 on my Kindle).
Later, in Chapter Four of his book, Dandelion makes what might be a very significant observation about a shift in emphasis regarding the Second Coming. The shift is discernible in Quaker thinking and apologetics as early as the second generation:
"It was Robert Barclay in 1676 and Elizabeth Bathhurst in 1679 who first under took the task of producing a systematic Quaker theology. In their works, The Apology and Truth's Vindication, respectively, the direct experience of Christ remained central and primary. Theology and witness flowed out from that understanding. Barclay, whose book became influential, as his complete works were published by William Penn after his death, played down the idea of an unfolding Second Coming... As we saw in Chapters 2 and 3, he used a different argument against outward sacraments. Rather than see the instruction in 1 Cor. 1:26 to break the bread until the Lord comes as anachronistic, he became engaged in an argument over its interpretation. By not framing the Quakers' direct encounter with God within an understanding of the Second Coming, Barclay constructed a meantime theology." (from the Section, "Revelation and Scripture" - Location 893-902 on my Kindle).
There are really two reasons why I've chosen to raise this topic. First, the stated mission of the NFF is "Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel." I understand this to mean the retrieval, and deeper understanding of the earliest message of Fox, along with its power for today. The shift described by Dandelion (and clearly discernable from the available early documents) may or may not be significant. My sense is that it could be. And this is where George Fox and preterism coincide. Although I certainly don't think he was a preterist in the full technical sense, Fox was led by the Spirit to use scripture in a way that is very often consistent with a preterist interpretation.
I believe that Fox's approach to the prophetic scriptures was sometimes preterist, sometimes historicist. He applied these scriptures creatively, in a way that highlighted what God was doing right then in history, particularly through the Quaker movement and its struggle with the principalities and powers (what he called the Lamb's War). In that sense he took an idealist approach. It was brilliant, totally valid, and (I believe) it was Spirit-led and prophetic. I may discuss this in more detail in my next post, and also look at the question of whether Fox intended to rule out a final, cataclysmic coming of Christ altogether, given his strong focus on "realized eschatology" ("the Kingdom is here now" being his point of emphasis, rather than "the Kingdom will be here someday"). Was he a "full preterist" in that regard? Was he a futurist? Or did he fit somewhere in between?
For now, I think its important to point out that Fox was a gifted preacher, not a systematic theologian, as has been noted by many who have studied him. This is why trying to formulate a Quaker systematic biblical theology is such a challenge, and has really never been accomplished successfully. Its also why it was so easy for the Quaker movement to splinter in such diverse (and sometimes mutually exclusive) directions over time. I think Lewis Benson recognized this, and sensed the need for a more definitive understanding of the basics of Fox's message. He devoted his life to discerning what Fox's entire body of work is really saying to us, apart from any personal agendas. He knew that all branches of Quakerism - Quietist, Mystical, Conservative, Liberal and Evangelical - had missed certain aspects of Fox's thinking. I think he also saw that this sad state of affairs had made it virtually impossible for the wider world to comprehend what authentic Quaker faith is supposed to be. Benson's work certainly laid a sound and necessary foundation for others to build upon.
One of Lewis Benson's cherished visions was for the everlasting gospel message of Fox to break out of the confines of sectarian "Quakerism". He believed God's intent for the movement was that it should become a universal Christian faith. I share that vision, and I've noticed others on the NFF site expressing a similar hope. From my perspective as an "outsider" it seems that in order for this to happen there will have to be an engagement between those who have studied Fox deeply (building on Benson's work) and the broader Christian world. Friends will have to learn the language of that world and translate the Quaker message into that language. If this engagement is to happen, it will require a willingness to stretch on the part of folks who are immersed in the Quaker tradition. This is my motivation for raising issues that may seem new, or foreign, or not too important to the traditional Quaker mindset. Admittedly, I'm not your typical Quaker conversation partner. But I'd like to be a catalyst for fruitful conversation, and perhaps offer some ideas that can help bridge the gap between early Quaker thought and the broader world of current Christian thought and scholarship. This was the intent of my first post, and I'm happy with the resulting interest that's been shown and with the very respectful and Christ-like spirit I've encountered. I'm very aware of my need to be a learner as well as a teacher, and I value the opportunity to be in conversation with everyone here at NFF.
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