Shuck and Jive

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Quakerism: A Theology for Our Time

I want to offer a plug for Dr. Patricia Williams' new book: Quakerism: A Theology for Our Time. It is just being published as we speak and she may have copies for us at the conference. You will also be able to order a copy from the publisher. I will offer information about that when I get it. Truthfully, I don't know too much about the Quaker (Friends) tradition, so I am excited to hear more about it when she visits Elizabethton next week. Here is an outline and the introduction to her book:

Table of Contents

1. Background

Part 1: The Stable Core: The Light Within
2.Theology Considering the Light
3. Worship: Experiencing the Light

4. Decisions: uniting in the Light
5. Testimonies: Living in the Light

Part 2: Scripture: The Challenge of Rational Criticism

6. The Fall of Adam and Eve
7. Salvation

8. The Authority of Scripture

9. Universalism

Part 3. Science: The Encounter with Empirical Knowledge

10. Science in the Light

11. Origins

12. Human Nature

13. A Theology for Our Time

From the Introduction

Biblical scholars are crying out for a new paradigm for Christianity. Why? Scholarship on the book of Genesis shows the doctrine of the Fall (that human nature changes for the worse) is not in the text, and this alters the atonement. Scholarship on the Gospels distinguishes sayings and deeds of the historical Jesus from those the later church created. This influences Jesus’ meaning for today. Scholarship shows St. Paul thought the law superseded and, so, undermines Christian embrace of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Ten Commandments. And, finally, documentary discoveries are altering scholarly understanding of late Judaism and early Christianity. The early church was not orthodox, but replete with a concatenation of beliefs.

Clearly, the scholarship demands that Christianity change. Blessedly, the altered paradigm scholars seek has existed since the seventeenth century. Quakers created it. Quakers based their defining belief, that all people have a measure of the divine Light within them, on experience, and their other beliefs follow logically from it.

Although this book concentrates on the Quakerism of the seventeenth century, the Quakerism I describe is alive and well in the twenty-first. I have emphasized early Quakerism to avoid confusion about whether I am referring to early or contemporary Quaker beliefs and practices. Those Quakers today known as unprogrammed Quakers carry on the traditions of the seventeenth century, and therefore their theology merges here with that of early Quakerism. Most of today’s Quakers are orthodox Christians and thus fall under my coverage of Christian orthodoxy.

We often think of our religious traditions as fixed and that we must choose between one and another. Yet, we can be informed by different traditions and include their insights into our own. That to me is spiritual growth.


  1. Thanks John! I had not seen this book mentioned before. I'll have to order a copy today.

  2. Also wanted to say how much I enjoy your blog. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination my parents were involved in founding.

    I suppose I am God's joke on them :-). Here I am a gay, progressive, universalist Christian. Now how would that go over in the PCA?


  3. Hey Craig!

    Welcome! I just subscribed (via bloglines) to your blog. Good stuff! Thank you for your comments about this blog.

    I don't know how you would go over in a PCA church. I hope that you would go over well in a PCUSA church (I know you would in ours!)

    It seems to me you have found a friend with the Friends!

    Thanks! Visit and comment again!

  4. Dr. Williams seems to do a nice job of summarizing early Quaker thought - with which she is most sympathetic. One very strong caveat is that Quakerism in its original form is non-Trinitarian. During their meetings, the Scriptures are not regularly taught (relying instead on personal thoughts or "inner light" - think neoMontanism), and they reject the sacraments (see also here). Those familiar with the Reformed tradition will recognize a rejection of the marks (or notes) of the church: the Word preached, the Sacraments administered, and Biblical discipline practiced.

    In sum, it would be fair to say that radical (or early) Quakerism is not a sect of Christianity at all but rather a separate religion that has historic (but not continuous) ties to the Church of Jesus Christ. (The same is true for Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons.)

    (Note: There are some Quaker strains that - having matured - took on a form much like Christianity. Such is the case with George Fox University's Seminary.)

  5. Chris,

    What you write is not quite true. The early Quakers rejected the term "Trinity" because it wasn't in the Bible. The early Quaker understanding can be found in Barclay's Apology and, with the exception of the word "Trinity" falls well within the mainstream of orthodox Christianity.

    The Scriptures were taught...regularly. Please refer to any of the early Quaker Journals especially George Fox's. They did give their thoughts on Scripture based upon direct revelation but that direct revelation, as Quakers understood it, could never contradict the Bible (Quakers don't refer to the Bible as the "Word of God"...only Jesus is the Word of God).

    As for rejecting the sacraments. That is a misunderstanding. The Quakers saw that there was a spiritual meaning behind the sacraments. We continue to keep the sacraments, just not the outward form. We are joined in this understanding by the Salvation Army and several Holiness denominations.

    Might I suggest, Chris, that the problem with Quakerism does not lie in its past, but the fact that many Quakers are apathetic to its past.

    There is, however, a reclaimation of early Quaker theology going on in Meetings right now. This is a revival of sorts. Folks in Conservative Meetings ( are at the forefront of bringing Quakerism back to the Root, that Root being Jesus.

    In addition, there is no way to generalize Quaker beliefs. There are many (too many) branches of Quakers. The Evangelical Quakers (of George Fox "Seminary") are not the only Quakers who have moved from traditional Quaker understandings and language and embraced Wesleyan theology.

    Chris, have you ever attended a Quaker Meeting? What type of Meeting did you attend? Have you ever read the only systematic theological work of early Quakerism, written by a former Calvinist, Robert Barclay.

    The one thing I really like about Quakerism is that the most important thing one can do is have a living relationship with Jesus Christ and follow his teachings. Having "right" theology comes second to orthopraxis. Having grown up in a very conservative Reformed tradition, I really appreciate this view. Many evangelicals put the "cart before the horse".

    One more thing, your use of the "inner light" is far from the true Quaker understanding. The early Quakers, and most Quakers today, use the term, "the Inward Light of Christ". That Light is there to bring us closer to the image of Jesus. It convicts of wrongdoing and is universal in that the "law is written on the heart" of every person.

    If your interested in knowing what the Quaker Path is all about, you can find that here:

    Love and peace,

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  7. Chris, I see that you did reference the 15 theses of Barclay's Apology. I suggest reading the entire Apology as each theses is expanded upon.


  8. I always figured Quakers to be "Sermon on the Mount" subscribers, and therefore, better Christians than most of us.
    Since Christian Fundamentalism tends to reject the lessons of that sermon for a contrived, self-gratifying version of Zionism with a dash of Jesus thrown in for social acceptance, I feel far more comfortable with some Quakers around.

    A good example of the fact that Christian Conservatives are scared of the true word of Christ (probably because it forbids their fave emotion, hate), is found HERE.
    The Quakers have actually been considered terrorists by our Fundi/Pro-Zionist Republican government.

    Keep up the good work, Quakers. We need more real Christians in America, those who follow the lessons provided for us. Not those who re-write the Gospel to justify their intolerance, ignorance, and psychotic hatred of their fellow man.

    This has been a rant, thanx to John for providing a place for it. ;)

  9. Craig,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have been to Quaker meetings at Guilford College. I can testify that at that meeting, there was not one jot of Scripture read. There were two people who gave thoughts that went in differing directions and one person stood and read a paragraph from an editorial in a magazine.

    Please notice that I hedged my comments by specifying the visible marks of the visible church: preaching is the public exposition of the Word of God written (the Scriptures) and the Sacraments are the visible signs Christ commanded his church to keep in order to proclaim and confirm all the promises of God which find their "yes" in Jesus. Those who try to spiritualize these acts deprive the people of God of the comfort that is rightly theirs as children of God. (It also veers dangerously close to Gnosticism - where the "superior" Christians know that the physical stuff - wine, bread, water, etc - is for less mature Christians who are just too worldly.)

    Similarly, those who do not preach forsake the example of Jesus who said that preaching was central to his purpose. The apostles - obedient to the command of Christ - would not be distracted from preaching, neither by acts of compassion nor by violent oppression. Worst of all, those who neglect preaching deny unbelievers the chance to believe.

    The Quakers were marked at one time by a rather rigorous and disciplined morality. That has changed - and I'm not the least bit surprised. When Jesus was tempted of the Devil he did not rely on inner light or goodness. Instead, he quoted the Scriptures to thwart the wiles of the Deceiver. As the Word of God, he had the right to just say anything he wanted. But he did this to teach his disciples to defeat evil by the Word - and not by their own power.

    Again, these are visible signs given to the Church by Christ. I do not presume to make judgments on their inward piety or spiritual condition but only on the institutional absence of signs that Jesus said would mark his flock. Absent these visible signs, we cannot be sure that the Church of Christ has gathered.

  10. Hello Chris! Sounds like you're pretty well versed on the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    I would disagree with you regarding the keeping of outward sacraments. Did you get a chance to read Barclay on the sacraments? There's not much more I can add than what he writes.

    The bottom line is have we experienced the living Christ in our actions, be that keeping an outward form of communion or working for the poor?

    About your experience at worship...a lot of vocal ministry is not as Christocentric as I would like. However, just because words are not wrapped in "Bible language" does not make them untrue. I recall Brother Lawrence coming to God through the ministry of a tree of all things! For me, the ultimate Truth is Jesus. The starting point for any of my experiences is the teachings of Jesus. I especially try to see life through the beatitudes...not always as sucessful as I would like.

    You question the current state of Quaker morality. I'm not sure specifically what you are talking about but I can assure you that Quakers are also concerned about the state of thier morality. As the Inward Light of Christ shines in those dark areas of our life, we are just as convicted of our wrongdoings as Friends were 350 years ago. Might I caution again that it is hard to generalize Quakers. I am a Conservative Quaker. Most conservative Quakers see the ultimate goal in their life as aligning themselves with what Jesus taught, again those beatitudes.

    Having been in reared in the PCA, I can tell you that people of all denominations struggle with moral issues. I struggle with anger, self-righteousness, unforgiveness, etc. I suppose those might be the same struggles you have as well. They are human struggles...not Quaker, not Reformed, just human. Thank goodness for grace, huh?

    You mention scripture quoting quite a bit. There is so much Truth in Scripture that I would be hard pressed to disagree with you. Although I have often wondered why Jesus quoted what he did and why some what he quoted did not seem to reflect the context of the quote. I'll have to find that out when I meet him face to face. Until that time I am content to believe that we see through a glass darkly and haven't been given all understanding.

    Someday when I get the two great commandments down pat: "Love God with your whole heart...and your neighbor as yourself," I will give more attention to the understanding of theological matters.

    God loves you, Chris. He doesn't command you to have the right doctrines or be an apologist for your particular brand of Christianity, although that is noble. What Jesus commands of us is clear and I think we would both agree on that....Love God and love your neighbor. That is what the whole of Christianity is all about.

    My prayer is that we would both continue to listen to that "Still Small Voice" and have a willing heart to obey what we hear. It doesn't matter who is right or who is wrong if we don't manifest the fruits of the, peace, longsuffering, etc. And of course, the greatest fruit of a follower of God is Love.

    God's peace my brother,

  11. Even though I no longer attend Quaker meetings, I am still very much influenced by Quaker theology. I still don't like sacraments very much, for example; when I attend church services that offer communion to all who want it, I either refrain from partaking of it or will do so with great reluctance (at some churches, like St. Gregory's in San Francisco, it is kind of hard to refuse communion without seeming rude.) I also have an attraction to contemplative worship. I still very much admire the Quaker testimonies, such as peace and simplicity. And I think that the Quaker concept of direct, unmediated experience of God is an important part of my own theology.

    So even if I no longer attend Quaker meetings and no longer identify myself as one, I still am a bit of a Quaker sympathizer. :)

  12. "well versed on the Westminster"... coming from a former PCA, I'll take that as a complement. I haven't read Barclay's full treatment on the sacraments, and probably never will. Jesus commanded his church to do these things and he didn't tell us to think on them, so no amount of self-excusing speculation is going to change his commandment. (Yes, I realize that sacraments have been, are being, and will be abused - but abandoning them isn't the answer.)

    While I whole-heartedly agree that truth doesn't always come wrapped in Biblical language, the purpose of meeting together as Christians is to exhort and encourage. Two plus two equals four. That statement is absolutely true - but it isn't encouraging in the life of faith. Instead, Jesus prayed that we would be sanctified (made better or more like himself) by the word of truth.

    As for your statement about getting the two great commandments right before worrying about "the understanding of theological matters" - we both know that's disingenuous. What people believe drives how people act - and vice versa. There was a reason that Paul told Titus to hold firm to sound doctrine while at the same time holding firm to moral excellence; similarly so, the unity & complentarity of orthodoxy & orthopraxy is commended to Timothy. In fact, it is impossible to please God apart from faith in certain doctrinal points (insofar as one is able to believe).

    You can't love someone you don't know - not in any engaging, relational sense. And simply knowing about someone isn't the same as loving them. Right doctrine tells us that we don't earn God's love by obedience. But right practice is to show our love by obedience.

    As for your assertion that I'm not commanded to make a defense of the faith, read the Pastoral Epistles and see how many times the pastor is enjoined to correct false teaching. Contrary to your assertion, we are commanded to believe. It is the source of our righteousness before God - not being a good little boy while we're down here (as if that were possible). And anyone who teaches different needs to be refuted - with gentleness if possible.

  13. He doesn't command you to have the right doctrines or be an apologist for your particular brand of Christianity

    Au contraire! Not only does God command him to have the right doctrines, but God also commands him to hang out in other people's blogs so that he can go on the attack against any beliefs or religious groups that don't meet with his and God's approval! Congratulations--it was your denomination's turn to be the object of his self-appointed (excuse me, I mean God-appointed) mission.

    Nevertheless, you are exhibiting the Friendly virtue of respecting that of God in everyone by attempting to engage him in a dialog. Somebody's gotta do it. Better thee than me.

  14. I fully understand from where Chris is coming as I was myself a "5 point confessional Calvinist" for many years.

    Suffice it to say Chris and I disagree and no amount of debate or discussion will change either of our opinions. I can imagine what I would have said 20 years ago had someone stated what I have said here. Chris is being much more kind than I would have been back then.

    But time and God has a way of changing us. Hey, I am still a work in progress and I am sure that Chris will admit that he is well.

    My good ole' pious Lutheran grandmother said it best years ago when my Dad and I were disagreeing on the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar...she said, "I don't know about all of that, I just fell in love with Jesus." Well said Grandma!

    I fully agree with Chris that Jesus commanded us what to do. That is why Matt. 5 and 6 and the other teachings of Jesus as to how we should live our lives is the guiding principal in my life (again, not always sucessfullly so). I can think about the poor all day long, but until I obey Jesus and feed the poor, I am unworthy to call myself his follower. I can think about peace, but until I actually practice peace in my daily life, I am unworthy to call myself his follower. I can think about justice but until I work to eliminate my enabling of injustice, I am unworthy to call myself a follower of Jesus.

    Most of all, "if I have not love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal." God grant that my love is greater than my desire to win an argument.

    God's peace,

  15. Craig,

    Amen to that. It looks like that time spent catechizing you wasn't for naught. Eventually God's gonna work all this stuff out. I appreciate your kindness in talking with me. I pray every day that I would show the kind of orthodoxy and generosity that folks like Steve Brown and Reggie Kidd show (aside from calling folks "twits" on national radio).

    (Please know, though, that I was a "progressive" at one time who railed against the unfairness of only getting to choose a lifemate from one gender. God does funny things with his people - just so we know that we'll never figure him out.)