The Light of Christ: an Integrated Christology Embedded in Quaker Roots

Maurice Creasy, a 20th century Quaker theologian, discusses the original Christological understanding of founding Friends as being able to hold the “particular and the universal, the historical and the mystical emphasis” of Jesus together in unity. The salvific significance and power of Jesus concerned “the universal and divine light of Christ”. He argues that the teaching of early Quakers regarding this Light was an understanding that had to do with the action of God, not man. God showed Godself in Jesus, and what God showed IS in all men. This Light is innate in everyone, and we all have access to Christ’s Light eternally.

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20 NLT)

 

Jesus’ recorded life in Scripture embodied love and compassion. Through the Gospel narratives, Jesus exhorted and challenged others and the status quo. Early Quakers believed the embodied expressions and witness of Jesus as being active and present at all times working in and through all persons everywhere.1

Salvation through Christ came not through mere possession of this personal Illumination. Obedience to the discerned leadings of Christ was required to fulfill God’s purpose. Early Quakers were concerned with an orthopraxy of ethics and action, not liturgy. Though every person everywhere has access to this Light, few respond with the required action to manifest Jesus’ saving and transforming Power.

Creasey writes that early Friends were observing in their contemporaries a lip-service glorification of Christ. The established Church’s ignorance of Christ’s relation to Creation was evidenced “by an uncritical acceptance of social, political, economic, and military methods.” Early Quakers also criticized the Church of putting a higher value on the “intellectual apprehension of doctrine” than a Spiritual transformation. For founding Friends, belief in the Lordship of Christ implied transformation of the total individual through living through the promptings of Christ’s Spirit.

Those who so knew Christ themselves to have been delivered not only from penalty of sin but also from its power. They found themselves, moreover, gathered into a community in which were to be known, not merely as a doctrine or an idea, but in reality and in daily life, both the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and the power of Christ’s resurrection.2

Creasey seems to lament the loss of the original vision that Friends had. This was an integrated understanding to the saving purpose of Christ. He argues that the once united interworking concept of Christ embraced the particular and universal, historical and mystical, that these emphases among Friends have become polarized, divided, and in some circles even faded out of view. It is the component elements’ relationship to one another that gives our comprehension weight and depth. Our once integrated and comprehensive Christology was a keystone to our Society’s original unity and subsequent growth. To discuss today our Society’s diverse Christologies (or lack thereof) can occasion division or even offense. This is saddening, given the fact that Christ once stood as a unifying ideology among our own founding visionaries. The time is ripe to reconsider our corporate vision of Jesus in relation to our current need for transforming the uncritical social, economic, political, and ethical powers and principalities at work in today’s world.

 

1 Creasey, Maurice. Christ in Early Quakerism, (Philadelphia: The Tract Association of Friends, undated).

2 Ibid.

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Comment by Tom Smith on 4th mo. 26, 2011 at 3:53pm
I haven't read it, but David Johns of ESR edited a volume of Maurice Creasey's works. It has just been released. I think there is a good deal to be learned from his writings.
Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 27, 2011 at 1:23pm

I think 'Early Friends' lost it due to an "all or nothing", black/white vision of Christ vs World, 'Perfect' vs under 'Sin', etc. Their Puritan opponents look to have been partially right on this issue, in that That Old Black Yin just might be a necessary component of anybody's Bright New Yang... The whole theological debate was about 'Saved' vs 'Damned', and the Quakers, too, don't seem to have allowed for people being "partly this way, partly that." This rendered them harsh about minor forms of Maybe-Sin, and blind to the potential for corruption in their own institutions. (How did they think "The Apostasy" happened?-- and why should "Primitive Christianity Revived" be safe from a recurrence? )

 

They could have used a little more Zen influence, ie "Everything is perfect, but some things could use a little improvement."

 

In theology, it probably shouldn't come to arguing whether or not a person can be "free from Sin". Maybe, maybe not, and what does that have to do with this person, in any one case? If you want God to help you move away from what's really wrong with you, that should be available and sufficiently effective. Why should anyone-- if we aren't caught up in questions of Afterlife Fire Insurance-- make an issue of being 'perfect', when it ought to be clear enough that "some things could use a little improvement"?

Comment by Irene Lape on 4th mo. 28, 2011 at 7:04am
My own sense of it is that early Friends made a judgment that Christians before them had fallen into an apostasy that was based in an the error of thinking they could institutionalize Christ's vision/presence/teaching when it all was just "written on the heart" in this new covenant time on earth; they had a lot of good reasons to think that the church(es) had gone off the path, but bottom line - I think Fox was wrong on this score. I'm an Aristotelian - we come through the outward to the inward Form/Idea/Reality. The outward is not enough whether it be sacrament, catechism or solo scriptura but it is a necessary piece. This all is what led me to go back to the Catholic Church, but the vision of Friends and the writings of early Friends helped me to "see" into the depths of what I had learned there.
Comment by Jim Wilson on 4th mo. 28, 2011 at 8:57am

This is a fruitful thread for me.  A few comments:

 

I tend to comprehend early Friends in the context of reformation debates.  In many ways I think early Friends were directly responding to the ideas of Calvin and Arminius, and other views that were surging in Europe at that time.  Barclay, for example, directly references Calvin. 

 

For example, think of the debates at that time around baptism.  It surprises us today, but the debates about baptism, whether to immerse or sprinkle, whether it should be for infants or adults, were very intense.  Wars were fought over this practice and the theologies that supported it.  People could be arrested, lose their property, or even executed for holding a particular view regarding baptism.  The early Quakers sidestepped this kind of debate altogether by opting for a mystical interpretation of what baptism means which they were able to support scripturally.  All of the intense, very intense, arguing along theological lines was minimized by the early Quakers by the shift to an experientially based, mystically oriented, practice.  At least that is how I see it.

 

Forest: just a note on Zen.  My observation has been that westerners have a completely romantic view of Buddhism and its sects.  Zen history is just as subject to corruption as any western religion.  For insight into this see Brian Victoria's "Zen at War".

 

Irene, my sense is that there is an outward form which is specifically 'Quaker'.  For example, the early Quaker customs regarding dress, speech, and customs of social interaction are kinds of forms that mark the individual's religious commitments.  That is one reason why I sometimes regret their loss in the general Quaker community because these kinds of customs can serve as reminders of one's religious commitments.

 

Best wishes,

 

Jim

 

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 28, 2011 at 11:50am
Not that Zen as an institutionalized practice is free from corruption-- but that recognizing the necessary tension between ideal absolutes gives people a better defense against abusive theologies...
Comment by Kenneth Lawrence Schroeder on 5th mo. 1, 2011 at 7:24pm
The time is ripe, you are right, H.Wayne!
Comment by H. Wayne Williams on 5th mo. 2, 2011 at 1:22am

Thanks, all, for the encouraging and thoughtful responses.

@Forrest: "That Old Black Yin just might be a necessary component of anybody's Bright New Yang" = brilliant

@Irene: I suspect that we Quaker's have fallen away from an important element to the life of faith and practice, in that our singular rejection of all outward forms, namely music and the arts, may build a wall between ourselves and the dynamic and creative processes that are Spirit-breathed and revelatory of God, God's will, and Truth.

@Jim: Great insight.  I think we could think of many outward forms that are specifically Quaker.  I think that absence can be outward, if that makes any sense!

 

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