Thursday, April 27, 2006

quakers & the resurrection

I will work on the next two points that QuakerK makes on Quaker Glimmerings, because they go together:

3. Early Quakers didn't stress the physical resurrection. Again they got a lot of flack for this. I've seen this in the Nayler writings that I have read--they stress the idea of "spiritual body."

4. They discounted the overriding importance of Christ's death on the cross: not that it was unimportant, but that by itself it meant nothing, and wasn't effectual without the Inner Light.

I don't pretend to be incredibly knowledgable about early Quaker writings on these topics--maybe that shows that there aren't many! Or maybe I'm just ignorant of them. At any rate, I'll do my best here.

First, I would echo a comment from Wess on QuakerK's post: Friends contemporary with Nayler came to see him as heretical, in that they felt he was going a different way from the goals of the Friends movement. I haven't read much Nayler, so I'm not sure if what QuakerK is referring to is from his earlier or later writings, but either way I'm not sure I would take him as representative of early Friends, although some of his writing is probably still useful and good.

I think in a way it is true that early Friends didn't stress the physical resurrection, but that is at least in part because it wasn't really questioned yet. The Enlightenment was going on at the same time, but I think most people hadn't gotten to the point of truly questioning faith and miracles yet. There wasn't much of a need to "stress" Jesus' physical resurrection because it was assumed that most people would already believe in that. We have to remember that it was a completely different culture and mindframe! Europe was nearly all nominally Christian (with some Jews and Muslims and others thrown in there). Most all regular citizens would belong to some church, probably the state church. Most people weren't converting to Quakerism from atheism, but from other Christian denominations.

Quakers tended to emphasize that followers of Christ will suffer, be persecuted, and possibly die for their beliefs and actions. I think QuakerK is right that early Friends didn't emphasize the crucifixion as an end in itself, but saw it more as an analogy for the lives of the followers of Christ: if people will persecute and kill God, how much more likely is it that we normal people will be persecuted for our beliefs? They focused more on the life of Jesus, following his example and in that way "carrying thier cross."

In the modern era several atonement theories have been put forth to explain the reason Jesus had to die on the cross. The early Friends were working with just one atonement theory, pretty much the only one there was (as far as I know): that of substitutionary atonement, that God had to die as a perfect sacrifice, mimicking the Jewish substitutionary system with the perfect human sacrifice, who alone could cancel out our sins through death. This theory emphasizes the death part of the life-crucifixion-resurrection, and while it has some good parts and some biblical basis, more modern atonement theories come at it from a different direction.

Perhaps the early Friends were unconsciously reacting to this fairly negative way of looking at the life of Jesus, not to mention humanity. As I said in my post yesterday, Quakers tend to be on the whole a more optimistic group in terms of human nature than most other Protestants. Quakers and Anabaptists tended to see the life of Jesus as an example to live (and die) by, and the resurrection as the promise of new and full life in God whether one survives or dies as one follow God's guidance. Although they didn't come up with a new atonement theory I think in many ways they lived it out.

I would also say that perhaps early Friends didn't spend too much time debating the little doctrinal pieces because they felt there were more important things to do--like work against injustice and help others. But I think all these impulses came out of their understanding of the true life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which gave their lives and their actions meaning and hope.


QuakerK said...

The Nayler writings I've read are from the first volume of his collected works--1653-54. At the same time, I think it could be an overstatement to say that Nayler was out of the mainstream of Quakerism. It is true that later, after the ride into Bristol, Nayler was disowned. However, in the early years, perhaps up to 1656, my impression is that Nayler was considered almost co-equal with Fox as a leader of the Quakers. At least, he was considered such by non-Quakers, and I don't think that was just because he was an easy target (although he may very well have represented the more radical wing of the Quaker movement that did Fox).

I'm also not sure if it would be accurate to say that the resurrection hadn't been doubted. As I've noted elsewhere, reading Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down has been eye-opening for me. He makes it clear that religious skepticism was more wide-spread in England than I would have thought. I wouldn't say it was mainstream, but it was well-known--including scepticism about the resurrection, which by certain radical religious groups was seen as an allegory, rather than a historical fact. Accurately or not, the Quakers were seen by their critics as a continuation of that stream of thought.

Overall, though, I think you're right about the Quakers having a different implicit theory of atonement. I once heard a Quaker say that the early Friends stressed that the point of the atonment wasn't to atone for sins, it was to stop sinning--thus the Quakers attacks on preachers who "plead for sin."


cherice said...

Thasks for your comments. I haven't read a whole lot of Nayler so what I know is mostly from what other people wrote about him later, so you very well may be right about him being a recognized leader with Fox in the early days.

I agree also about people doubting the resurrection to some degree--it was the beginning of the Enlightenment, after all. But I think as a whole cultural phenomenon it probably wasn't doubted that much. The Enlightenment in England was mainly a movement of the educated elite for a long time. But I'm sure it was part of what got Fox questioning in the first place: he was in the midst of a culture that was starting to question. I'll have to read more early Friends stuff and see what more people say about the idea of the resurrection. I haven't read Friends writings with that question in mind before.

I also agree about the idea to stop sinning. They were majorly influenced by the influx of Anabaptists who were thrown out of their countries in mainland Europe about 25-50 years prior, and that was something the Anabaptists also stressed. They and Quakers had in common the belief that the stuff Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount and other radical discipleship texts were meant to be lived out in this lifetime and that through God we can create the Kingdom of God in our communities. Anabaptists chose to create their own communities as examples of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and Quakers chose what is probably the harder route, to live out the Kingdom of God in a world that wants no part in it.

Anonymous said...

You have not mentioned reading any of Joseph John Gurney's writings. I suggest that you find a copy of his MEMOIRS edited by Joseph Bevan Brathwaite. This may give you a different slant on one well-known early Friend's work and theology. There is also a book written by Gurney himself entitled OBSERVATIONS ON THE DISTINGUISHING VIEWS AND PRACTICES OF THE SOCIETY OF FRIENDS. Both should be of interest to you!