January 4, 2009

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

Carole Dale Spencer manages, in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, to describe early Quakerism as a largely coherent whole whose later schisms reflect emphasis on some components and the loss of others. While it's definitely an academic book, it is still a compelling read, and I hope this story will be told widely in more accessible forms over the years to come.

Before continuing with the review, I should note that Spencer plays to practically every bias and opinion I hold regarding Quakerism up through about the 1840s, and frequently thereafter. It's strange to me to be reading interpretive Quaker history, especially history that looks beyond the first generation, and not be spending a fair amount of time arguing with the author in my head. I find her telling of the early Quakers compelling, as well as her case for the Quietists as something better than a terrible decline. While I'm not as convinced by her doubts about Elias Hicks personally, her overall take on Hicksites makes sense to me, as do her doubts about how close Joseph John Gurney was to the heart of Quakerism. I think she's correct that John Wilbur was, as he claimed, much closer.

Where I start having doubts is in the second half of the 19th century, when the Holiness Movement per se comes through. There's a conversation worth having about forms of Quaker worship, hinted at here, but not really explored. I return pretty easily though, in her discussion of the 20th century, and overall I'm kind of dazed to agree with so much of a single telling of Quaker history, especially at this level of depth.

I suspect some potential readers will bounce off the word "Holiness", thinking that this is a plea for revival meetings. They shouldn't. Spencer's use of holiness certainly includes revival meetings (including, I think, the earliest Quaker gatherings), but it's a much richer use than that. Her use of holiness derives from the early Christian fathers, a group whose thought (as she points out) regularly parallels that of early Quakers. She emphasizes eight aspects, which she sees as integrated in early Quaker thought:

  • Scripture
  • Eschatology
  • Conversion
  • Charisma (Spirit)
  • Evangelism
  • Mysticism
  • Suffering
  • Perfection

Obviously, not all of those aspects resonate with all Quakers today, and the details of many of them changed over the course of 350 years, sometimes repeatedly. I remember being blown away by Apocalypse of the Word, largely because it was startling to me that eschatology was central to early Quakers. Talking about "perfection" seems to instantly raise alarms, whether with Quakers or with, well, practically anyone, but Spencer weaves it tightly into the story.

I'll be writing more about the book for a while to come - there are lots and lots of pieces worth pursuing, even pieces I hope someone will take up and turn into complete books of their own.

Yes, it's written academically, and can be very dense, but the content is excellent. My one real complaint (and maybe this is only my copy) is that the type seems excessively light. It's all there, but reading it seems trickier than it should be. The price ($41) isn't cheap, but fortunately it's not as astronomical as some academic publishing.

I can't recommend it as light reading, but if you're up for a detailed and valuably opinionated journey through Quaker history, it's an excellent telling.

(It's also worth noting that the latest issue of Quaker Religious Thought, #110, includes reviews by Stephen Angell, Margery Post Abbott, and Jim Le Shana, with replies from Spencer.)

April 5, 2008

The Limits of History, I

Way back when, I wrote a couple of pieces on Albert Schweitzer, promising to write more about how his The Quest of the Historical Jesus related to early Quaker history and its relevance for today.

Like many of my promises here, I never got around to writing that. Nonetheless, it raised a set of questions that keep echoing in my head, especially as I gear up to write more about Seekers Found.

Unable to focus on just one book, though, I re-opened The Hauerwas Reader, a collection of Stanley Hauerwas' work that was so powerful that at one point I looked around, amazed that airport security had let me carry it on to a plane. And what did I find?

It is not my intention to settle to what extent we can know "the real Jesus." I am quite content to assume that the Jesus we have in Scripture is the Jesus of the early church. Even more important, I want to maintain that it cannot or should not be otherwise, since the very demands Jesus placed on his followers means he cannot be known abstracted from the disciples' response.

The historical fact that we learn who Jesus is only as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers, a fact that has driven many to despair because it seems that they cannot know the real Jesus, is in fact a theological necessity. For the "real Jesus" did not come to leave us unchanged, but rather to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age.

It is a startling fact, so obvious that its significance is missed time and time again, that when the early Christians first began to witness the significance of Jesus for their lives they necessarily resorted to a telling of his life.

Their "Christology" did not consist first in claims about Jesus' ontological status, though such claims were made; their Christology was not limited to assessing the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, though certainly these were attributed great significance; rather, their "Christology," if it can be called that, showed the story of Jesus as absolutely essential for depicting the kind of kingdom that they now though possible through his life, death, and resurrection.

Therefore, though Jesus did not call attention to himself, the early Christians rightly saw that what Jesus came to proclaim, the kingdom of God as a present and future reality, could be grasped only by recognizing how Jesus exemplified in his life the standards of that kingdom.

But the situation is even more complex. The form of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train us to situate our lives in relation to that life. For it was assumed by the churches that gave us the Gospels that we cannot know who Jesus is and what he stands for without learning to be his followers. Hence the ironic form of Mark, which begins by announcing to the reader this is the "good news about Jesus, the annointed one, the son of God," but in depicting the disciples shows how difficult it is to understand the significance of that news.

You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is. (118-9, paragraph breaks added, originally from The Peaceable Kingdom.)

Theologically, this is a powerful statement, but seen from a modern historical perspective, it's earth-shattering. Historians have given up on most of their dreams of purely objective history, but this telling moves well beyond practices that acknowledge bias to what many would argue is sheer propaganda.

But can the story really be told in any other way, by people who believe it? I have to agree with Hauerwas that the authors of the Gospels weren't writing Christological treatises, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it.

I think that dynamic, on a smaller scale, may also be operating in the narratives of early Quakerism, though there is more explicit "Christology" of various kinds there. Some people find the stories life-changing, and tell them in ways meant to change the listener, while others reject that style of story-telling all together. As with Christianity broadly, they may even reject the foundations of the story itself, while enjoying the cultural and spiritual benefits they believe it helped to create.

March 7, 2008

Orthodox deification in depth - and Quakerism

I wrote a lot here over the holidays about parallels between early Quakers and Orthodox deification ideas, but I've been quiet for a while. Why? Well, Angelika got me the incredibly rich The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, Norman Russell's dense but powerful survey of the development of Orthodox views.

It's not easy reading - there's just too much going on. While Russell provides a lot of background on theological and philosophical issues contributing to the story, it's simply a lot to take in. Russell's own perspective as author is sometime a bit confusing as well, as he sounds relieved (to me) when he discusses deification as a metaphor rather than reality, but also sounds very excited when he reaches the conclusion, discussing deification in the work of Maximus the Confessor and very briefly in Gregory Palamas. Given the contentious nature of the subject, however, that doesn't seem particularly troubling.

Over the course of reading, it became pretty clear that while there are parallels between Orthodox thought and Quaker thought, there are also strong divergences. The main practical barrier is, I think, the Orthodox emphasis on the sacraments - baptism and the eucharist especially - as critical means toward connecting with Christ and with God. Quakerism's non-sacramental approach would simply be a non-starter for most of this theology.

I do think that, while the Orthodox writers and Russell would probably disagree, Quakers could consider convincement parallel to baptism, and gathered meeting parallel to the eucharist. However, I'm not sure how far that can be pushed without breaking.

The other major barrier is that the Orthodox approach depends strongly on a very well-developed Christology, a Christology honed by years of contention with Arians, Gnostics, Nestorians, Monophysites, Muslims, and many others. These writers are either part of the conversation which led to the development of the Trinity or building on that conversation explicitly. Quakers, on the other hand, didn't spend a huge amount of effort in this space, and their contemporaries often accused them of confusing God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

As those two pieces are pretty much the foundation of Orthodox thought on the subject, there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn. However, it does seem clear that these writers and early Quakers drew on similar verses in similar ways, and I'll use some quotes from Russell to suggest paths worth exploring in Quakerism.

I'll start with something Russell says about an earlier writer on the subject:

Gross... denied that deification was an importation from Hellenism, claiming instead that it was a biblical idea in Greek dress, the equivalent of the Western doctrine of sanctifying grace... he saw the doctrine of deification fundamentally as the re-expression by the Greek Fathers in the language of their own culture of two themes already present in the New Testament, namely, the Pauline teaching on mystical incorporation into Christ, and the Johannine idea of the incarnate Logos as the source of divine life. (5-6)

This story strikes me as one with deep parallels to the early Quaker experience. Yes, even the early Quakers were much later, and responding in some ways against the existing Christianity of their day. (In that, though, they're not too different from the Greek fathers, who were often also writing in opposition.) The early Quakers' quest for "Primitive Christianity Revived" is in some ways similar to the Orthodox avoidance of innovation. Fox and other Quakers practically breathed the language of the Bible and spoke it back out, constantly seeking inspiration from Scripture and finding in it a promise of further inspiration from the Light.

There's an open question of whether Orthodox or Quaker beliefs come directly from the Bible, something that Russell asks:

Did Paul have an idea of deification? He uses various expressions for participatory union - 'in Christ', 'with Christ', 'Christ in us', 'sons of God', and so on, but does not isolate 'participation' for special consideration. Moreover, these expressions are images. 'Deification' as a technical term only emerged later when Paul's metaphorical images were re-expressed in conceptual language. The same may be said with regard to the Johannine writings, which reveal an approach to participatory union with Christ not unlike that of Paul. (11)

My reading, as I've said before, is that the New Testament lights up in a very different way when I read it now, seeing many more connections between humans and God (and Christ, and the Holy Spirit) than I'd seen previously. God remains unknowable, transcendent - but at the same time can be approached, transforming us.

The first few chapters of the book are excellent reading for anyone approaching these questions, whether or not they are interested in the Orthodox formulation specifically. The section on deification and the Greeks has some fine moments, my favorite of which is Roman Emperor Vespasian's deathbed quote, "'Vae, puto deus fio' ('Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god')". The section on Judaism has a fascinating look at Enochic Judaism, a branch best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also accessible through 1 Enoch and the canonical letter of Jude.

The section on early Christianity is fascinating, starting with Paul and then looking at Jewish and Johannine Christianity. While Paul seems less and less popular a figure these days, the language of participation he uses throughout his letters (and which the pseudo-Pauline letters emulate) is a central discussion of Christ's transformation of the believer. The section on Jewish Christianity focuses on Hebrews, a book I was surprised to find George Fox used regularly in his writings. Johannine Christianity came with a story I hadn't realized, though perhaps one that adds flavor to the description of John as "the Quaker Gospel":

The pre-Gospel community had strong Palestinian connections rooted in the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved Disciple. The Gospel was written in about 90 CE, when the community had been expelled from the synagogues (John 9:22), the 'Jews' were its opponents, and 'the world' stood for those who preferred darkness to light.

The divided Johannine community portrayed in the Epistles belongs to a third stage. There were now two groups who were interpreting the christology and ethics of the Gospel differently. The secessionists drew on the Fourth Gospel's high christology, with its emphasis on the pre-existence of God's son. They were convinced they were sinless and already enjoyed intimacy with God.

As a corrective, the author of 1 John stresses the need for ethical behavior and for following the teaching of the earthly Jesus. His pessimistic remark that the world is paying heed to his opponents (1 John 4:5) suggests that the secessionists were enjoying greater success.

Finally the Johannine community was dissolved. The secessionists moved in the direction of Gnosticism, taking the Fourth Gospel with them, while the remainder was absorbed into the Great Church.... With the corrective of 1 John, the Gospel was accepted early into the canon of the New Testament... (87-8)

The secessionists sound much like the Ranters early Quakers opposed, though the charges leveled against them also echo the charges leveled against Quakers.

Other early Christians developed these ideas in ways that connect to other aspects of Quakerism:

In both Justin [Martyr] and Irenaeus becoming a 'god' is a way of expressing a realized and internalized eschatology. Participation in immortality and incorruption is not postponed to the eschaton but attained in principle as a result of the believer's incorporation into Christ through baptism. (113)

It's not a simple match for Fox's "Christ is come to teach his people himself," but it's not that far a leap from it. (Now I need to re-read Apocalypse of the Word again!)

One final point I'd like to make before leaving Russell hinges on the basic question of the Incarnation: why did Christ come? That basic question gets thousands of variations in answer, but in this context there are some interesting options:

We see Irenaeus moving towards the tantum-quantum or 'exchange' formula, namely, that the Son of God 'became what we are in order to make us what he is himself. (106)

The 'exchange' formula has its roots in Pauline thinking: though Christ was rich, 'yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich' (2 Cor 8:9; cf Phil 2:6-8). The 'exchange' signifies precisely that: an exchange of properties, not the establishment of an identity of essence. He who was Son of God by nature became a man in order to make us sons by adoption (AH 3. 19. 1). Our sonship by adoption, which is effected by baptism, endows us with one supreme property in particular: the Son's immortality and incorruption.

There is nothing automatic, however, about our progress towards incorruption and immortality. It depends on our moral behaviour and on our participation in the sacraments, which together attain the divine likeness, morality being linked with the freedom and the sacraments with the life of the divine likeness.... (108-9)

Irenaeus... holds that God himself has intervened directly in human life through the Incarnation in order to bring the created realm into a close relationship with the divine. The sons of the Most High who are 'gods' are those who have received the grace of adoption. This is then used by Irenaeus to support the reality of the Incarnation. If Christ had not really become human, there could be no true baptism with its bestowal of incorruption and immortality. The inward renewal and transformation of the Christian was only possible if the Incarnation was real....

The notion if not the language of participation... is fundamental to him. For Irenaeus, created things are fundamentally inferior to the Creator. But in Christ the created is united with the uncreated, and we in turn are related to the uncreated through Christ. The Incarnation is part of a larger economy that enables us to participate in the divine attributes of immortality and incorruption and attain the telos which had been intended for Adam. (112-3)

There's a lot there to consider - and I think the early Quakers were asking these kinds of questions, much to their peers' discomfort. They may not have started with an intricate theological framework, but they came to similar places by reading the same Scripture and following slightly different paths.

I suspect that readers with an interest in deification per se will be vastly better served by reading Russell's works than my excerpts and thoughts, but at the same time I think I've only just started on a path that proved very fruitful for the founders of Quakerism.

(And no, I don't expect to convert to Orthodoxy, despite my enjoyment of their ideas. The overlaps are fascinating, but the difference are also very real.)

April 19, 2007

Early concerns about pacifism

I just came back from a conference in San Francisco, and in the Philadelphia airport I noticed The Christians and the Fall of Rome, an excerpt from Edward Gibbons' classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a master at tearing apart ideas he doesn't like while politely saying that, for instance, he hopes the Pagan accusations of Christians editing their gospels aren't true, and it seems strange for the Romans not to have noticed an eclipse, and so on.

He reports on how Christian principles made them suspect to Romans, referencing the Quakers in a footnote:

The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defense of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries, and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults.

Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life, nor could their humane governance be convinced, that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice, or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.

[Footnote: The same patient principles have been revived since the Reformation by the Socinians, the modern Anabaptists, and the Quakers. Barclay, the apologist of the Quakers, has protected his brethren, by the authority of the primitive Christians.]

It was acknowledged, that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by annointed kings. The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.

This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman Empire, and the world itself, would be no more.

It may be observed, that, in this instance likewise, the situation of the first Christians coincided very happily with their religious scruples, and that their aversion to an active life contributed rather to excuse them from the service, than to exclude them from the honours, of the state and army. (49-50, paragraph breaks added)

Gibbon, in giving his readers a glimpse of the Romans' perception of the Christians, seems to present his own disapproval as well. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see both common objections to pacifism voiced here in combination with a claim that beliefs in the end of the world coming soon can lead to pacifism. It's interesting to see eschatology raised explicity as a reason for practice.

I also wonder what his more warlike Christian readers would have thought of it - do they share the Roman scorn for these early Christians, or do they question their own beliefs? There's a lot going on here.

There's also one slip:

what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

Of course, if everyone adopted these sentiments, the barbarians would also be beating their swords into plowshares. Unless, of course - and the Romans could well have done this - the "mankind" referred to here is only about "Roman mankind."

The problem isn't what happens when everyone adopts these sentiments. Rather, it's what happens when some adopt these sentiments and others don't, choosing to take advantage of the those who choose peace.

April 12, 2007

Present parousia

While Apocalypse of the Word is a rare non-fiction book, one with suspense built into it, it's not because Douglas Gwyn keeps the ending a surprise. After talking a bit about the problem of the parousia, Christ's return, that is always to come soon in the New Testament but for which we still wait, Gwyn argues that Fox's preaching changes the entire shape of such discussion:

In preaching Christ's return as a presently unfolding reality, Fox recovers the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith, shattering the perceived problem of a "delay" or "non-occurrence" of the parousia. He does this as he witnesses to the second advent of Christ in the same terms that the gospels use to witness to the first advent. The problem in both cases is with the expectation and perception of the people, together with the vested interests of human authority. The "messianic secret", the scandal that Jesus was not recognized as Messiah by the Jews, is relived in the drama of Christian disbelief in his return and his present power to save from sin, rather than in sin. In his first advent, Christ was revealed in a carpenter's son from Nazareth; in his second advent, he is revealed in a universally bestowed light. In both cases, his commonness is a stumbling block to the pious. (xxii)

This casts the Puritans more or less in the position of the Jews of the New Testament, whose beliefs about the coming Messiah didn't mesh with what they saw. (For more on those Jews' point of view, I strongly recommend Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. In this context, it might lead to more sympathy for Fox's Puritan opponents.) This telling makes me think I need to reread a lot of Fox's challenges to the Puritans; while I saw the parallel Fox draws, this adds layers of meaning to it.

Meanwhile, this return to "the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith" combines the "Primitive Christianity Revived" story with the Second Coming story, making it easier to see how this approach includes much more of the New Testament than Revelation. As later generations took a less eschatological approach, they might well find different messages in the same statements. This combination makes it easier to read a lot of Fox's statements in a de-eschatologized way.

Fox's use of revelation also changes the way we look at that word, bringing it back to its original meaning in Greek:

Fox's preaching that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" therefore connects the hope of the parousia with the question of Christian knowledge. In other words, apocalypse and revelation are reunited in the basic sense of the Greek word apokalupsis as it is used in the New Testament. For example, the Apocalypse of John is the revelation of the end given him by Christ. Apocalypse as revelation itself leads us to conclude that Christian apocalyptic is most basically a matter of present experience, rather than speculation upon the future, as scholars have often assumed. (xxii)

This is a theme Gwyn will repeat throughout the book, structuring chapters around particular 'apocalypses', revelations Fox reported and preached. At the same time, he ties that preaching to Fox's distinctive eschatology and specifically (at times) to Revelation.

Before I move into the main body of the book, there's one more paragraph in the preface I'd like to highlight, as it suggests something of where this approach leads, and how it differs from Puritan and other traditionally Protestant perspectives:

Justification and sanctification become one continuous work of God in Fox's preaching that "Jesus Christ is come to teach his people himself." There is neither a retreat to metaphysics nor a resort to the interim ethic and government of the institutional church. Christ is come by his Spirit to judge, to empower, to war against Satan, and to rule among his people. The kingdom of God is revealed concretely on earth now. Fox comes to these conclusions without falling into the trap of spiritual enthusiasm or privatism. Unlike Paul's opponents at Corinth and Philippi, Fox by no means underestimates the problem of sin, but witnesses to the greater power of the risen Lord to save and gather his people. The cross relentlessly maintains its central position in Fox's writings. (xxi-xxii)

I've written a bit about the earlier Quaker position on justification (and later rejection of that position by the Gurneyite Orthodox), but hadn't thought deeply about where it came from, though I did test it against Romans 8. This piece (which I had read before I wrote all that, but apparently forgotten) fits that space of the Quaker puzzle neatly. It explains a divergence from other Protestants well.

As I noted before, there's still a dramatic tension in Gwyn's book. How much explanatory power does this perspective have? The preface is promising, the thesis interesting, but the bulk of the book will fill it out.

November 27, 2006

Quakers and Montanists

I wrote earlier about Paul Tillich's comments on Montanism, mystics, and Quakers, where Tillich speculated about the flames of ecstasy dwindling into rationalism. Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition doesn't compare Montanists and Quakers directly, but his description of this very early group (~150 AD) echoes the story of early Quakerism:

Nathanael Bonwetsch defined primitive Montanism as follows: "An effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the return of Christ, immediately at hand; to define the essence of true Christianity from this point of view; and to oppose everything by which conditions in the church were to acquire a permanent form for the purpose of entering upon a longer historical development...."

In the explication of his thesis, Bonwetsch placed the principal stress upon Montanism's attitude toward questions of the Christian life in relation to the world, and he saw it as the first outstanding movement to be called forth by a concern with these questions....

the explanation of the origins of Montanism lies in the fact that when the apocalyptic vision became less vivid and the church's polity more rigid, the extraordinary operations of the Spirit characteristic of the early church diminished in both frequency and intensity. The decline in the eschatological hope and the rise of the monarchical episcopate are closely interrelated phenomena worthy of special treatment; both indicate a process of settling already at work in the second-century church, and perhaps earlier, by which many Christians were beginning to adjust themselves to the possibility that the church might have to live in the world for a considerable time to come. Part of that process of settling was the gradual decline, both in intensity and in frequency, of the charismata that had been so prominent in the earlier stages of the Christian movement.... (98-99)

Reading this reminded me of the excitement Doug Gwyn conveys in Apocalypse of the Word when he talks about the impact of Fox's announcement that "Christ is come to teach His people himself", and the battles Fox had with those who by the 1650s seemed to reject 'charismata' completely, as something long since past. Early Christians didn't make that claim, particularly, against the Montanists.

It therefore seems to be correct to note that this type of prophetic speech was at home in the Montanist sect and in the greater church. But the tone of this insistence on the part of the critics of Montanism seems to indicate a certain amount of embarrassment on their part in practice if not in principle the charismata were becoming rarer and rarer. Despite their assertion of the theoretical possibility of prophecy in the church, the other guarantees of the presence and work of the Spirit in their midst were becoming so firm in their minds that when Montanism claimed to actuate this theoretical possibility with a vengeance, they were put to a severe test. (100)

Montanism laid claim to supernatural inspiration by the Holy Spirit as the source of its prophecy, and it pointed to the moral decline of the church as the main reason for having lost this power of the Spirit. Most orthodox writers in the second and even in the third century maintained that such inspiration by the Holy Spirit was not only possible, but present and active in the church. In meeting the challenge of Montanism, they could not, for the most part, take the approach that the age of supernatural inspiration had passed. Among the earliest critics of Montanism, there was no effort to discredit the supernatural character of the new prophecy. (105-6)

This is deeply different from most of the responses Fox received - by 1650 the focus was on scripture, even the old traditions of the church in various degrees cast off by reformers. Like Montanism's opponents, however, Quakerism's opponents found dark causes for Quaker inspiration:

Instead, these critics affirmed that the ecstatic seizures of the Montanists were indeed supernatural in origin, but claimed that the supernatural involved was not the Holy Spirit of God but demonic spirits.

I'll have more to say later on some of the connections between the areas that produced Quakerism and stories of witchcraft, but these kinds of questions still arise for any kind of supernatural message, along with the questions of insanity.

The impact of the Montanists would create problems for later mystics and prophets, however, as Hippolytus of Rome, first antipope but eventual saint, established a new path:

Yet the decline of genuine prophecy and of the extraordinary functioning of the Spirit among the ranks of the catholic church tended to reduce the effectiveness of this charge that the prophecy of the Montanists was a pseudoprophecy because its supernatural source was demonic.

There was another way to meet the doctrinal implications of the Montanist challenge, and in the long run that was the way orthodoxy took... [Hippolytus] recognized that the weakness which Montanism had discovered in the church lay in the church's concept of a continuing prophecy. This concept was of a piece with a vivid eschatology; for apocalyptic has always, as suggested by its very name, which means "revelatory", brought with it the notion of supplementary revelation, by which among other things, the apocalypticist is convinced that the end has truly come.

More consistently than most of the anti-Montanist writers were willing to do, Hippolytus subjected to question the very foundations of the Montanist movement. He was franker than most of his contemporaries in admitting that the church was not necessarily living in the last times, and in opposition to Montanism he defended the process by which the church was beginning to reconcile itself to the delay in the Lord's second coming.

As he pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of prophecy into the past. It had ended with the apostle John, whose Apocalypse Hippolytus maintained was the last valid prophecy to have come from the Holy Spirit. And though John was entitled to claim the inspiration of the Spirit for his prophetic work, later so-called prophets had no such right....

As Schepelern has summarized the situation, "A half century earlier such a movement could still count on ecclesiastical recognition. Between the preaching of judgment by John and that by Montanus, however, there lies the decisive phase in the development of the church's organization and ministry, and the free manifestations of the Spirit protest against their authority in vain"...

In this way, the apostles became a sort of spiritual aristocracy, and the first century a golden age of the Spirit's activity. The difference between the Spirit's activity in the days of the apostolic church and in the history of the church became a difference not only of degree but fundamentally of kind, and the promises of the New Testament on the coming of the Holy Spirit were referred primarily to the Pentecost event and only through that event, via the apostles, to the subsequent ages of the church.

The promise that the Spirit would lead into all truth, which figured prominently in Montanist doctrine, now meant principally, if not exclusively, that the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth as they composed the creed and books of the New Testament, and the church into all truth when it was build on their foundation. Here too, the transition was gradual, and it was not complete. The history of the church has never been altogether without the spontaneous gifts of the Holy Spirit, even where the authority of the apostolic norms has been most incontestable. In the experiences of monks and friars, of mystics and seers, as well as in the underground religion of many believers, the Montanist heresy has carried on a sort of unofficial existence. (106-8)

I'd always wondered why the sense I had of "church" felt so hard to square with what I actually read in the New Testament. The Gospels, Acts, and Letters describe people caught up in the Lord, experiencing Christ even when, as with Paul, they never actually met him in the flesh, but rather through the spirit. Hippolytus seems to be the writer who takes the (perhaps inevitable) step of declaring their experience completely different from ours, leaving us merely to be inspired by their writings but not to share the experience... that they invite us to share.

Though Quakerism (definitely) varies from Montanism in the details of what it finds in the Spirit, it's hard not to see the early Quakers rebelling not just against their fellow Protestants but against a line of argument that extends back to the second century. Early Quakers' fondness for "primitive Christianity" and their insistence on experience brings them back to expectations set before Hippolytus and a church that needed order.

Quakers have faced a similar problem of an end that hasn't arrived, and haven't spent much time as a movement proclaiming the nearness of the end since the 1650s, despite that perspective having helped define Quaker testimonies. 350 years later, however, Quakers still gather to listen for Christ, here to teach his people himself.

September 8, 2006

From the Apostles to the Seekers

After telling of the dispensations and how God's interactions with humans have changed, William Penn's introduction to George Fox's Journal continues with a look at what has gone wrong in the current dispensation, the "falling away from the power of godliness."

The problems were seen almost from the beginning:

But alas! even in the apostles’ days, (those bright stars of the first magnitude of the gospel light,) some clouds (foretelling an eclipse of this primitive glory) began to appear, and several of them gave early caution of it to the Christians of their time; that even then there was, and yet would be, more and more, a falling away from the power of godliness, and the purity of that spiritual dispensation, by such as thought to make a fair show in the flesh, but with whom the offence of the cross ceased: yet with this comfortable conclusion, that they saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever, to the true church.

Though Penn isn't citing scripture explicitly here, but echoes warnings from the epistles of the New Testament, reflecting the challenges the church had even in Acts. The Apostles "saw beyond it a more glorious time than ever," after all of these problems were resolved, and the later parts of Penn's introductions suggest that Quakerism is bringing us closer to that time.

Next, Penn describes the deterioration, focusing (as he had in the dispensations on the substitution of outward observances for inward. From this stems worldliness, loss of contact with the spirit, strife, and opposition to the true church.

Continue reading "From the Apostles to the Seekers" »