This month, we begin our discussion in a 17th Century print shop.
Both the early Friends and their detractors made frequent use of the printing press. In those days, pamphlets flew about like leaves in October. One side would publish a document, provoking a flurry of rebuttals from the other. And each rebuttal was answered with a published defense. In this way, entire debates were conducted in print.
One person who waged a war of words on the early Friends was John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress. In fact, Bunyan's first book was an assault on Quaker beliefs.
At one point, Bunyan leveled this attack at the Friends: "Now these men do pretend, that they do verily and truly profess the Lord Jesus Christ; but when it comes to the trial, and their principles be thoroughly weighed, the best that they do is to take one truth and corrupt it, that they may thereby fight more stoutly against another. As for instance, they will own that salvation was obtained by Christ. This is truth, that salvation was obtained by Christ, but come close to the thing, and you will find that they corrupt the word, and only mean this much, That salvation is wrought out by Christ as he is within..."
After wading through Bunyan's bile, we come to this accusation: Quakers believe that "salvation is wrought out by Christ as he is within."
It is the emphasis on Christ within that provokes Bunyan's wrath. And why should this particular Quaker peculiarity cause such hostility in the Puritan author?
In the debate between John Bunyan and the early Friends, Christ is dichotomized into the Inward Christ (i.e the Christ we know in our experience) and the Outward Christ (i.e. the Christ who lived and died in Roman-occupied Judea). For Bunyan (and for many Christians throughout the centuries), salvation rests entirely on the outward activity of Christ. Salvation rests entirely upon one specific act in history -- upon the moment when Christ died at Calvary. By emphasizing the Inward Christ, Bunyan frets that the Quakers will distract people from this central truth.
Of course, the Quakers see this debate very differently. Isaac Penington, for example, writes: "That charge of thine on us, that we deny the person of Christ, and make him nothing but a light or notion, a principle in the heart of man, is very unjust and untrue; for we own that appearance of him in his body of flesh, his sufferings and death, and his sitting at the Father's right hand in glory: but then we affirm, that there is no true knowledge of him, or union with him, but in the seed or principle of his life in the heart, and that therein he appears, subdues sin, and reigns over it, in those that understand and submit to the teaching and government of his Spirit."
In other words, the early Friends were not trying to diminish the historical Christ -- Quakers were trying to make this same Christ real and present in their current experience.
Early Friends embraced the truth of Christ's life and ministry on earth. They embraced the truth of Christ's suffering and death. They embraced the truth of the resurrection. And then Friends went on to say that these things have no real power if they are merely accepted as statements about history. A person can believe that "Jesus of Nazareth died on a hill named Calvary," and still be totally unaffected by that belief.
And here, John Bunyan will turn purple with rage. Here, John Bunyan would say that Quakers are adding something to the Gospel. Bunyan would say that we are reconciled to God merely on the basis of our belief in Christ. Nothing else is required. We simply need to believe that Christ died for our sins.
For Friends, this formula is inadequate. Accepting what Christ has done does not necessarily mean that we accept what Christ will do. And being reconciled to God means opening one's self to what God will do. It means surrendering our selves to the transforming power of God's Spirit.
Writing in the Apology, Robert Barclay points out that there are two complementary metaphors about Christ in the New Testament. In one metaphor, Christ is described as the sacrifice. His death somehow erases our guilt. Barclay suggests that some Christians want to stop here, because they don't really want transformation. They simply want to be excused.
But the second metaphor describes Christ as the vine -- the source of nourishment for each of the branches. Barclay says that we must incorporate both images into our understanding of Christ. Christ must be a source of nourishment for us, and not just the scapegoat for our sins.
To be nourished by Christ, we must allow Christ to rule from within. We must seek Christ as our present teacher and guide. It is by doing this that we are truly reconciled to God.
In discussing this topic, Barclay uses the word "Justification." It is a word with fine theological pedigree. However, it is not a familiar word to modern people, and so I introduce it only here at the end of my remarks. Basically, justification gets at the idea of being reconciled to God. A person reconciled to God is said to be "justified" in the sight of God.
I bring this word to your attention because Barclay mines the word for its meaning and significance. Barclay points out that someone who is "Justified" is not really someone who us merely "excused." Rather, the justified are made Just.
Being justified (or reconciled to God), is not a process whereby God overlooks our imperfections. Rather, it is a process whereby God restores us. It is a process whereby we are transformed into the people we were created to be.
And the power behind this process is the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Although he vehemently disagrees, Bunyan states our position well: "Salvation is wrought out by Christ as he is within."
Here are some questions to consider:
1. In your experience, is there a connection between the "outward," historical Christ and the inward presence of Christ's Spirit? If so, how would you describe that connection?
2. Do you feel as though you have had a "new start" based upon your relationship with God? How has this new start come about?
3. What does the death of Christ mean for you?
4. Which metaphor resonates most with you: Christ as sacrifice or Christ as the nourishing vine to our branches? What might you be able to learn from metaphor that is least comfortable?
Continue reading Proposition Eight