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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

A Quaker Understanding
of Jesus Christ
Part 1 of 4

by Arthur O. Roberts
Originally published October 1, 1999 at

[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 online 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 past 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.]


In this paper I first state five assumptions about truth basic to theological expressions by 17th century Quaker leaders. Then under twelve headings I summarize what early Friends believed about Christ, supported by citations. After this I identify seven contemporary cultural barriers to acceptance of these early Quaker beliefs about Christ. I then summarize certain points at issue and suggest lines of resolution.

A.  Basic Quaker Assumptions About the Nature of Truth

  1. God reveals truth.
  2. Christianity is based upon revealed truth.
  3. Revealed truth is transformational, and not just cognitive.
  4. Truth is fully comprehended through obedience.
  5. Christian truth claims are experientially and rationally credible.

B.  What early Friends believed about Christ

1.  There is unity in the Christ as historically revealed and as spiritually received.

This is very clear to anyone who reads early Quaker writings. It is also apparent that 17th century Friends shared with other Christians a firm belief in the unique, messianic nature of Jesus of Nazareth. What Quakers labored against was a prevalent unbelief in the immediate presence of Christ. They labored to show that the universality of Christ is coherent with the particular historical incarnation, that Christ was not encapsulated within priestly ritual nor within the Scriptures that testified of him.

My friend, the late John H. McCandless, in a presentation to the New Foundation Fellowship, Fernbrook PA, 12/31/88, (cited in New Foundation Papers, No. 60) stated:

It is important that we recognize the unity between the inward and the outward teachings; this explains why early Quakers never had any trouble accepting New Testament teaching and ethical precepts. If they were guided inwardly by the same Jesus Christ who had spoken outwardly in Scripture, then they did not expect that there could be any sort of contradiction between scriptural teachings and the inward guidance that came to them.

William Penn stoutly defended Quakers against the accusation that they deny Christ to be God. He called this charge "a most untrue and unreasonable censure," and, citing John 1:9 and 8:12, declared that the "great and characteristic principle" of the Quakers is, that Christ as the Divine Word enlightens everyone. Penn also defended Quakers against the accusation that they deny the human nature of Christ. "We never taught, said, or held so gross a thing," wrote Penn, who further affirmed the manhood of Christ Jesus--"of the seed of Abraham and David after the flesh and therefore truly and properly man, like us in all things, and once subject to all things for our sakes, sin only excepted." (The Key, sections VI and VII)

2.  The Bible authentically defines the person and work of Christ.

Robert Barclay stated it plainly: "We believe that everything which is recorded in the holy scriptures concerning the birth, life, miracles, suffering, resurrection, and ascension of Christ actually happened." (Apology, Proposition 5, xv, Freiday Edition p. 88. See also Proposition 3 on Scripture). To get a feel for how Barclay actually drew upon Scriptures as the "true and faithful record" one only has to scan the pages of his Catechism. An example:

"Q.  Was Jesus Christ really crucified and raised again?
A.  For I delivered unto you first of all, that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the scriptures. I Cor. 15. 3, 4." (Philadelphia, n.d., 16).

George Fox quibbled with Baptists over the term "word of God;" they wanted to use it as a synonym for the Bible, whereas Fox insisted the term denotes Jesus Christ. Fox buttressed his arguments from the Scriptures themselves, which, said Fox, are the "words of God." In many similar phrases, Fox exhorted people to read the Scriptures "sitting down in him who is the author and end of them." (Journal, Nichols Edition, pp. 32ff., 145ff. and ad passim) That Quakers held an inclusive view of revelation did not discredit the Bible, but elevated its importance as an outward test and spiritual guide.

In the Letter to the Governor of Barbados Fox wrote:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures are the words of God; for it is said, in Ex. xx. 1, "God spake all these words, saying," etc., meaning the ten commandments given forth upon Mount Sinai. And in Rev. xxii. 18, saith John, "I testify to every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: if any man addeth unto these, and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy" (not the word,) etc. So in Luke i. 20, "Because thou believest not my words." And in John v. 47; xv. 7; xiv. 23; and xii. 47. So that we call the Holy Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles called them, and holy men of God called them, viz., the words of God. [from Some of the Mysteries of God's Kingdom Glanced At, 1663]

3.  Christ's resurrection occurred, signifying spiritual renewal and life after death.

A contemporary Friend, Gusten Lutter, Jr. asks "How can people deny the resurrection and still claim that Christ has come to teach his people himself?" Lutter writes:

Jesus' Resurrection fuses the Incarnation. It is a claim that God is (now)connected in an intimate (physical) way with Creation, perhaps in a way that was not before. Jesus raised was not a spirit untouched by thirty years in a mortal coil. The marks of his life were upon him, and (promise to be) with him eternally. Jesus' resurrected body promises us that our lives are real, even from the standpoint of a Creator who could unmake us at will. When we ask, "Was the Resurrection an historical event?" we are asking "Was it real?" Real to us, material, available to the senses. At the same time, when we say, "God raised Jesus from the dead," we are giving what we saw (through the eyes of the disciples) in three dimensions greater depth. The three dimensional surface of Jesus' body becomes transparent to the eyes of the spirit, and we see God in and through him. The incarnation & resurrection make claims about the world without which the New Testament (the books of the New Covenant of God with God's People) is [merely] a nice story. (To: Gusten Lutter, Jr. Wed, 08 Jul 1998 14:28:39 -0600)

4.  Christ's life, death and resurrection is the procuring cause of human salvation.

For George Fox it was central to "the people of God called Quakers" to let everyone know, whether Jews, Turks, Christians, or heathens, that "there is no salvation in any other name under heaven, whereby they must be saved but in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, crucified and raised from the dead." (Works 5, 87) Early Friends did not use scholastic atonement theories but used a variety of Biblical metaphors to affirm casuality. To the question: How doth Christ convey life? Isaac Penington wrote:

As the living Word; as the promised seed. He soweth the seed of the kingdom in the heart, in which is life: and as he maketh way for this to spread and grow up in and leaven the vessel, even so he quickeneth and gathereth into his life. Again, he is the enlightening word, the quickening word, the word of wisdom, the word of power, the word of love and reconciliation, whose voice worketh mightily towards the destroying of sin, and saving of the soul from it.

Job Scott, at the end of the eighteenth century, stressed the outer-inner meaning of Jesus' death in a plenary rather than substitutionary mode. He speaks for the conservative Quaker tradition:

Christ...has shown us plainly that nothing will do, short of death in us. That the death must be in man; that we must die to all creaturely corruption, as he died to the creaturely life. "In that he dies, he died unto sin once," says the apostle, "and in that he liveth, he liveth unto God." Though he was sinless, yet he died unto sin; he died to the very first risings and motions of evil; for "he was in all things tempted as we are." In yielding to these temptations, lust would have been so conceived as to have brought forth sin, but in dying, instantly, the death of the holy cross, to every motion whose tendency was unto sin, he is properly said to have died unto sin. And herein, as well as in his death on the cross outwardly to the life of the creature, he has powerfully taught us the necessity of dying with him unto all sin. He that will lose his life for his sake, shall save a divine and eternal life with and in him. But he that will save his life, will not die with him unto sin, must and shall lose it. He that will reign with him, must suffer with him; and he that will rise with him in the newness of the divine life, must first be buried with him in that baptism which is into real death unto all sin, even the baptism by which the floor of the heart is thoroughly cleansed. [from Essays on Salvation by Christ, ca. 1793, pp. 40-44 in Quaker Heritage Press edition]

William Bacon Evans, a weighty Philadelphia Friend during the first part of our century, blessed his generation with religious verse. One of his sonnets, "The Gospel" speaks to the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

Best of Good News! which science ne'er contrived,
Nor charlatan devised, nor sibyl saw -
Whose swelling words the undiscerning draw
Toward panaceas idle and short lived -
O prodigy of Grace in Heaven prepared!
Strong in the might of all-embracing law;
Love without bound, outreaching to withdraw
From toils of hell and death the sin-ensnared;
Thou son of God and Son of man in one!
Who bare our loads of sin upon the tree,
With empty hands of need we come to Thee!
Salvation promised, preached in everyone;
  For us Thou tasted vinegar and gall,
  O miracle of Love encircling all!
  -- 10th, IV, 1942
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