November 16, 2007

Orthodox salvation

Yesterday, I thought I was posting some of George Fox's hardest-to-accept moments, but judging by the comments, it sounds like people would like to see more of the same.

I don't have more of Fox right now, but I do have some related ideas that come from a very different place, focused on the nature of salvation.

I won't attempt to claim that there's a direct line between Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism as others have tried to claim for Quakerism and various mystical traditions. The Orthodox emphasis on changelessness, going back to the apostles, and the Quaker idea of Primitive Christianity Revived may have brought them to similar places, however different they appear on the surface. They both emphasize at their foundations a particular stream of New Testament thought that seems to have largely disappeared in Western Christianity. (I'll talk more about why that may have happened later.)

In The Spirit of Eastern Christendom, Jaroslav Pelikan outlines briefly how this doctrine looked in the time of Maximus the Confessor, under the headline "The Changeless Truth of Salvation":

"The chief idea of St. Maximus, as of all Eastern theology, [was] the idea of deification." Like all of his theological ideas, it had come down to him from Christian antiquity and had been formulated by the Greek fathers. Salvation defined as deification was the theme of Christian faith and of the biblical message. The purpose of the Lord's Prayer was to point to the mystery of deification. Baptism was "in the name of the life-giving and deifying Trinity." When the guests at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, as described in the Gospel of John (John 2:10), said that their host had "kept the good wine until now," they were referring to the word of God, saved for the last, by which men were made divine. When, in the epistles of the same apostle John, "the Theologian," it was said that "it does not yet appear what we shall be," (1 John 3:2) this was a reference to "the future deification of those who have now been made children of God." When the apostle Paul spoke of "the riches" of the saints, this too, meant deification.

But there were two principal passages of the Bible in which the definition of salvation as deification was set forth: the declaration of the psalm, "I say, 'You are gods,'" which was quoted in the New Testament (Ps. 82:6; John 10:34); and the promise of the New Testament that believers would "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).

The first of these meant that righteous men and angels would become divine, the second that "being united with Christ" was the means of deification. For similarity to Christ was a deifying force, making men divine. Greek paganism had already known that one should rise from the active life to the contemplative, but Greek Christianity discovered that there was a third step beyond both of these, when one was taken up and was made divine. From the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite the devotees of contemplation had learned that God was not only beyond all existing realities, but beyond essence itself; and thus they had come to the true meaning of deification.

The presupposition of salvation as deification was the incarnation of the Logos of God, for "the purpose of the Lord's becoming man was our salvation." (10, paragraph breaks added.)

There are some clear differences between this set of beliefs and that of the early Quakers, most notably baptism - but at the same time this fits extremely well with the message that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" and with Fox's moving through England as a holy man.

This is just the beginning, but it's already a lot to digest. If you'd like more on "deification", or theosis, this Wikipedia article seems like a good place to start. It's also interesting to go back with this in mind and re-examine Romans 8, which I wrote about earlier.

March 30, 2007

The importance of apocalypse

Whenever someone brings up Revelation, and starts telling it as a story tied to the present, I tend to worry. I've seen too many TV preachers forecasting the end-times, read too many of Fred Clark's reviews of Left Behind, and marveled at things like the Millerites announcing that the world would end on October 22, 1844.

I've come to think, however, that I've been wrong in writing off millenarianism as strange and destructive, and especially wrong in thinking it inherently conservative. The more I've learned about Quakerism, and more broadly about Christianity, the more that final book of the Bible seems critical.

Theologian Paul Tillich, in his A History of Christian Thought, draws some connections between the Spiritual Franciscans of the 14th century, their fondness for Joachim of Floris [Fiore]'s Revelation-fueled visions of a new age, Quakers, and the rationalists who followed:

It is entirely wrong to place the rationalism of the Enlightenment in contradiction to pietistic mysticism.. It is popular nonsense that reason and mysticism are the two great opposites. Historically, Pietism and the Enlightenment both fought against Orthodoxy.

The subjectivity of Pietism, or the doctrine of the "inner light" in Quakerism and other ecstatic movements, has the character of immediacy or autonomy against the authority of the church. To put it more sharply, modern rational autonomy is a child of the mystical autonomy of the doctrine of the inner light.

The doctrine of the inner light is very old; we have it in the Franciscan theology of the Middle Ages, in some of the radical sects (especially the later Franciscans), in many sects of the Reformation period, in the transition from spiritualism to rationalism, from the belief in the Spirit as the autonomous guide of every individual to the rational guidance which everybody has by his autonomous reason.

From another historical perspective, the third stage of Joachim of Floris, the stage of the Holy Spirit, is behind the idea among the bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment that they have reached the third stage, the age of reason, in which every individual is taught directly. They go back to the prophecy of Joel, in which every maid or servant is taught directly by the Holy Spirit, and no one is dependent on anybody else for the Spirit.

Thus we can say that rationalism is not opposed to mysticism, if by mysticism we mean the presence of the Spirit in the depths of the human soul. Rationalism is the child of mysticism, and both of them are opposed to authoritarian Orthodoxy. (286-7, paragraph breaks added)

I'll connect this back to Quakerism in some posts to come on Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word, but first I'd like to explore Joachim of Floris and the worlds Umberto Eco presented in The Name of the Rose.

So, to get started, what does Joachim of Floris sound like? Here's a sample from Apocalyptic Spirituality, in full detailing-the-end mode:

Then the commander of the army will be Gog, the final Antichrist. God will judge him and his army by fire and brimstone poured down from heaven. The devil who led men astray to do all these evil deeds will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the Beast and the False Prophet are (Apoc. 20:9-10). The Beast and the False Prophet (that is, the eleventh king mentioned in Daniel, along with his army) and the Seventh King written of above along with his group of false prophets are next thrown into the lake of fire. At the end Gog and his army will be judged; after them the devil and Gog himself will be cast into the lake of fire where the Beast and the False Prophet already are.

Continue reading "The importance of apocalypse" »

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.

June 2, 2006

History, Quakerism, Christianity

Reading New Light on George Fox was a rather jarring experience, though since my background is in history, a not entirely surprising one. I didn't expect Fox or other early Quakers to be perfect saints, or Quakerism born at once, wholly formed. Still, there's always something unsettling about history done right, something that rarely fits with settled opinion.

Tonight I returned to my quest to finally finish Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (Since 1700), the last volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and found:

Like any good historian, the historian of the church and of Christian doctrine in any period had the responsibility to begin with the sources and to lead the reader back to the sources.

In the course of doing so, the historians of all the churches learned how questions that seemed to be purely historical could become doctrinally explosive and profoundly divisive. "The assembly in Moscow of ancient manuscripts from various places of Russia" in the seventeeth century might have seemed to an outside observer to be a harmless exercise in antiquarianism and what Orthodoxy called "ecclesiastical philology," but a nineteenth-century historian showed how it had become the occasion for the Russian schism or "Raskol"; the history of the liturgy was an indispensable part of the history of the church.

Even while one Roman Catholic historical theologian was seeking to reject as a slander the charge that the Catholic faith required "an assent to views and interpretations of Scripture which modern science and historical research have utterly discredited" and another was declaring the rejection of the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass by the Protestant Reformers to be a "stubborn denial" of the clear results of honest historical investigation, the debate over the doctrine of papal infallibility was about to involve yet another in researches whose conclusion it was that "to the adherents of the theory of infallibility the history of the ancient church for the first millenium must appear to be an insoluble riddle."

Such contradictions were taken by Protestants that honest historiography would necessarily clash with the authoritarian teachings of "the Roman church." For their part, Roman Catholics strove to rescue and rehabilitate history from its domination by "Germans and Protestants" and, because Protestants denied both the authority of tradition and the validity of doctrinal development, to insist that "to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." (236-7, additional paragraph breaks added.)

That's just the history of the church itself - the discussion hasn't yet reached the Bible. It's clear that history can be a problem for religion, and I think it's also clear that early Quakers were aware of this:

For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)

When the founders were clearly aware of the functions of history, and take steps to manage it (the writing and editing of Fox's Journal among those steps), it can be especially dangerous to raise the cry of "back to the Founders". I'm enjoying reading Fox and exploring early Quakerism, but his valuable insights require much context.

I don't think history is incompatible with Quakerism or Christianity in the way, I'd say, for example, economics is, but it's definitely a complex relationship, one I hope to explore much further. I expect the Light will prove a necessary guide, not just a subject to research.