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A Quaker Understanding of Jesus Christ
Part 4 of 4
by Arthur O. Roberts
Originally published January 1, 2000 at Suite101.com
[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is taken, by permission, from an article, "A Quaker Understanding of Jesus Christ", by Arthur O. Roberts in Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 29, No. 3, July 1999. Due to the length of that article, it is published here in four parts. The article was adapted from a paper read at the Quaker Theological Discussion Group, Orlando, Florida, November 21, 1998, and responses to it. Arthur Roberts is a former Editor of Quaker Religious Thought. He is the author of many journal articles, poems, devotional pieces, books, and other writings. He has served in the past as Professor of Religion and Philosophy and as Dean of Faculty at George Fox University, as well as a pastor in Friends' (Quaker) churches. Quaker Religious Thought is published two times a year, and subscription information can be obtained from Phil Smith, Religion Department, George Fox University, Newberg, OR 97132.]
D. Certain points at issue and possible resolution
1. What reality informs the metaphor? A leading Quaker metaphor is "light." Is its ground a rational construct, a universal idea such as love, a non-embodied world spirit; or is its reality Jesus Christ, the incarnate, risen Lord? Early Friends would say the latter. So do I. The same goes for other key metaphors, such as Seed, Truth, etc. A definiens entails a definiendum., otherwise there is no meaningful discourse, no existential import. Gnostic answers seem to relieve some Friends from a cultural burden they find awkward, namely, affirming an incarnated spiritual reality. But such answers betray the ethos of the 17th century Quaker awakening of the Church and are at variance with its apologetic, prophetic, and devotional literature. Such answers generally fix upon a substitute reality, e.,g. Platonic, Hindu, or Buddhist conceptualizations, which have their own ontological problems.
I suggest a better resolution: to affirm the unity of Christ in history and in the heart. And to do so confidently and devoutly. This has been a major Quaker witness. It should be so again. By affirming both the particularity and the universality of Christ, in word and deed, Quaker testimony is as relevant in our pluralistic culture as it was in the 17th century. We engage in religious dialogue with integrity when we speak from the strength of this conviction. Quaker belief in the universal and saving light affirms a Gospel that is unique and central without being exclusive. I think this message will speak to persons who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who want to affirm the Good News of Christ within a global culture.
2. Is Christ one term in a series of culturally-based synonyms or a unique and essential referent for these linguistic variables? Do advances in human knowledge through the sciences and through global cultural and technological interaction require Friends to subsume their story to a larger one? If so, would that larger story be ecumenically Christian or ecumenically religious? Can one with integrity assert that early Friends "were on the right track" to a larger religious vision but were restrained by the boundaries of a now outmoded world view? I think not. Such a judgment strikes me as parochial in making contemporary western culture the test of truth. Such a judgment seems both narrow and elitist. It denies the "scandal of particularity" which is Jesus Christ, the Word of God for all persons for all time. To resolve the problem requires a patience with how people use culturally variable synonyms to signify the spiritual reality that is Jesus Christ. As Augustine said, God is greater in our thoughts than in our words and greater in reality than in our thoughts. But we can also firmly resolve fully to affirm the referent of such linguistic signs - the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us, whose glory we, too, have witnessed.
3. What is phenomenal and what is epiphenomenal? Does a reality affirmed by scientific reason and logic carry the Gospel reality on its back, as it were, or is the Word spoken in Jesus Christ the reality that carries reason and logic? To use a Venn diagram, which circle encloses other manifestations of reality: revelation or science? To use another metaphor, which is text and which is commentary? The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, said the Psalmist. So said the early Friends. So say I. To stand in awe before a transcendent God may require of Quakers a needed poverty of spirit, which in Jesus' list constitutes the first step toward the virtues of peacemaking and holiness.
4. Is the early Quaker view of the Bible, as the inspired words of God, central or peripheral to Quaker understandings about spiritual reality? Some critics have claimed the Gospels were written to rationalize the failure of Jesus. Some Friends eagerly embrace the views of the Jesus seminar people who deny historicity to the accounts of Jesus, particularly the miraculous claims about nativity and resurrection. Are we to replace Barclay with Borg? Can we sustain a Christian understanding of the Spirit while rejecting the outward authority of the Scriptures which our fore parents stoutly declared were given forth by the Spirit? No. We may quibble about interpretation, and we shall continue to seek guidance of the Spirit in discernment, but Friends cannot, without squandering their theological inheritance, deny the Scriptures as providing "clear testimony to the essentials of the Christian faith" and the "only proper outward judge of controversy among Christians." (Robert Barclay, <(Apology, III, VI). I ask Bible scholars and ministers to approach the text with reverence befitting the "words of God" lest notional religious activity erode the work of the Holy Spirit, lest Bible study become a trade and not prayerful inquiry into the will of God.
Last year on the Internet occurred an extended discussion of George Fox's Letter to the Governor of Barbados. It is well known that some Friends are uncomfortable with it, claiming that such propositional orthodoxy was contrived for prudential reasons. A Friend from Spain, however, discounted the issue of political correctness. He writes of this document: "We can see the first ideas of Friends referring to Jesus and the Bible. They were not humanistic, secular or philosophical ideas. They were really biblical. What was most characteristic in a Quaker was to be biblical! We have walked a long way from then to now and I think that the way has been not the best. In Jesus, César Vidal."
David Johns sent the following quotation, which shows the Barbados letter to be consistent with other testimony. George Fox wrote from Worchester prison, "Something in answer to all such as falsely say, the Quakers are no Christians ..." (Andrew Sowle, 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 indited 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 (John 1; 17) Who was glorified with the Father before the World began, who is God over all blessed forever (John 14). [3rdly] That there is one holy Spirit, the Promise of the Father and the Son, and Leader, and Sanctifier, and Comforter of his people (I John 5) . . . [Christ] exercises his Prophetical, Kingly and Priestly office now in his Church, and also his Offices, as a Counselor and Leader, Bishop, Shepherd and Mediator, he (to wit) the Son of God, he exercises these Offices in his Household of Faith, whose House we are, that are believers in the Light, & by faith ingrafted into Christ, the Word, by whom all things were made; and so are Heirs of eternal Life, being elected in him before the World began. . . . Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? we say with Philip, "Come and see."
David Finke, a Friend from Illinois Yearly Meeting, raised an evocative question about cultural barriers to modern Friends accepting early Quaker theology:
What makes it so hard for us to say with George Fox that "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to [our] condition," or that "Christ has come to teach his people himself"? In my increasing travels among Friends in recent years, I've found this as a joyous proclamation - in deed as well as word - among Friends for whom it is absolutely obvious that what makes us Quakers is our encounter with the Living Christ, the Presence in our Midst, the Friend who transcends the power of death. (printed in Winter '97-'98 issue, Among Friends)
Many years ago, a British Friend, Maurice Creasey , disturbed by non-Christian trends within the Society of Friends, wrote the following:
Whatever else may be learned from a study of our origins, this much at least is clear: that the early Quaker teaching concerning "the universal and divine light of Christ" was a message concerning the action of God rather than the nature of man. . . Friends were united in the certainty that the same power, wisdom, and grace of God which had ever been seeking to save man from his futile desire for autonomy, and which had been concretely revealed and expressed in Jesus Christ, was now available to lead into all truth those who trusted and obeyed it. (Christ in Early Quakerism. Philadelphia: The Tract Association of Friends, undated.)
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