In this posting I aim to explain the importance of celestial inhabitation to first generation Quakers and indicate why this understanding was suppressed by later Friends. I want to argue that this caused a significant change in early Quaker theology that had a number of negative implications and suggest that Friends might wish to revisit the vision of celestial inhabitation and consider whether it has something to contribute to our contemporary faith and practice.
1. The Early Quaker Position
Early Quakerism was founded on a dramatic experience of Christ returning in Spirit to teach and transform his people so that they could say like the apostle Paul “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Such an experience of intimate union with God has been called celestial inhabitation. This was a highly controversial position to hold within seventeenth century Puritan England. The dominant form of Calvinism rejected the idea of divine immanence and the possibility of liberation from sin in this life. Therefore the claim that Christ might dwell within a person (what Richard Bailey has called a ‘Christopresent theology’) was regarded as blasphemous and got many early Friends into trouble with the authorities, most notoriously in the case of James Nayler who was convicted of ‘horrid blasphemy’ and endured a most brutal punishment. Here we see James Nayler, at the beginning of his Quaker ministry responding to the accusations of Quaker opponents:
And thou art offended at the "knowledge of Christ within the saints"; art not thou ashamed to profess the Scripture and deny what they witness? Which of the saints did witness any other knowledge of Christ after his ascension but as he was revealed in them? And all that know him in Spirit know him within them; and is there any Christ but one? Because thou sayest, "they know no other Christ but a Christ within them"; and thou that knows no Christ but without, ye know him not but by hearsay; and then art not thou that notionist thou speaks on? James Nayler – A Few Words Occasioned (1653)
In making sense of their spiritual experiences, early Friends found plenty of references within the New Testament that appeared to validate their understanding of celestial inhabitation. Writing in his Journal, George Fox argued that the Quaker position was no different to that of the apostle Paul:
Paul saith, “The first man is from the earth, earthly (1 Cor. 15:47). “And as we have born the image of the earthly, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly (1 Cor. 15:49). And “we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7). “And I live” he said, “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me (Gal. 2:20) who is the life of all God’s people. George Fox - Journal
Based on the testimony of scripture, Fox and early Friends believed that celestial inhabitation was a normal experience within the early church where individuals and communities were led by the living presence of Christ dwelling within them:
The scriptures saith God will dwell in men, and walk in men … Doth not the Apostle say, the saints were partakers of the divine nature? And that God dwells in the saints, and Christ is in them, except they be reprobates? And do not the saints come to eat the flesh of Christ? And if they eat his flesh, is it not within them? George Fox – Great Mystery of the Great Whore (works volume 3, pp.181-82)
B. The Incarnation – Heaven and Earth Unite
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).
For early Friends, a crucial implication of the incarnation was that, in the person of Christ Jesus, heaven and earth were united. The ‘epistle’ to the Hebrews had great resonance for them, partly because of its vision of the new covenant (see below) but also because of the way in which the incarnation was seen to break the boundaries dividing spirit and matter, heaven and earth. In this sense, Christ acts as a bridge between the divine spiritual realm and the created physical realm and in doing so he sacralizes the material creation by his divine indwelling. So although the language of early Quakerism sounds very dualistic, in fact the experiences of Friends enabled them to transcend dualistic thinking in this way.
C. The New Covenant
Early Quaker understandings were based on a fundamental distinction between the old and the new covenants that can been found in the writings of the apostle Paul and in Hebrews. In the old covenant the relationship between humanity and God was regulated and mediated through outward forms (e.g. outward law, temple, priests and sacrifices) whereas in the new covenant these are all fulfilled inwardly and spiritually by Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In the new covenant, by his own sacrifice, Christ ended the old form of law and fulfilled it by writing it on people’s hearts. A life lived in unity with God was now possible because Christ could dwell within the hearts of his people.
D. The Significance of Pentecost
At Pentecost the spirit was poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:1-21) ensuring that entry into the new covenant in which heaven and earth overlapped was available to all people. Early Quakerism was Pentecostal in the sense that it was characterised by a transformational experience of the Spirit of Christ dwelling within people as an inward teacher, priest, prophet and king.
E. The Body as the Temple of God
God is spirit (John 4:24) and humans are flesh. However, as we have seen in the incarnation and the new covenant, Spirit and flesh become one (heaven and earth meet). In the new covenant, God’s dwelling place is the human tabernacle, people are gathered into a temple of living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5) and Christ dwells within them in their measure (Ephesians 4:7). The physical Quaking of early Friends can therefore be understood as an external manifestation of the breaking open of the creature and of the Spirit pouring in (as heaven and earth connects).
F. The Body of Christ
It is quite normal for Christians to refer to the church as the body of Christ. However, for early Friends this was understood in an almost literal sense. More than in merely a metaphorical sense, Christ was seen to be the head of the church, controlling both the individual and corporate body. The true church became Christ’s body continuing his work within the world.
9. The Transformation of the Whole Creation
Another defining feature of the early Quaker vision was the belief that in Christ people were restored to an Edenic state of innocence in perfect harmony with God and with the rest of the creation (Moore 2000, p.83). This was a restoration of God’s original intention for the creation. Humanity had been created to reflect the nature of God in creation but a loss of union with God threw the created order into disarray, a state of affairs characterised by separation, disunity, disorder and disharmony (Wilcox 1995, p.21 & 25). Through the indwelling of Christ this gulf was bridged. Early Friends felt that the wisdom and order of creation was revealed to them, that they were brought into harmony with this wisdom and order and could understand and practice right relationship with and right use of the creation
3. The Biblical References
Let us now look at a number of biblical references that early Friends used to support their belief in celestial inhabitation:
a. God’s promise is that we will transcend human limitations and come to share in the divine nature:
Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)
b. God’s temple is now the human body and the Holy Spirit dwells within it:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:19)
…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
c. Christ dwells within us in part but this can grow until it reaches fullness:
“one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:5-7)
…until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:13)
d. When Christ dwells within us we are transformed and Jesus becomes visible again in our own lives:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)
…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)
4. The Quaker Rejection of Celestial Inhabitation
During the 1650 the emerging movement had been on the offensive. However, with the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 Quakers (along with other dissenting religious groups) suffered severe persecution at the hands of a government that was committed to imposing the establish church and cracking down on nonconformity. Hundreds of Friends were imprisoned and most of the first generation leaders lost their lives due to the terrible prison conditions of the time. In such circumstances it is not surprising that corporately Quakers became concerned to manage their public image and campaign for religious toleration. In the face of accusations of doctrinal heresy, religious enthusiasm and political subversion, Friends began to emphasise their orthodoxy, their peaceable intentions and their respectability. In these new circumstances the celestial inhabitation and the ‘Christopresent’ theology of the 1650s seemed far too unorthodox, threatening and enthusiastic to a Quaker movement that was losing its charismatic fire and becoming an ordered community. As a result, Friends suppressed this aspect of the early Quaker vision and in some cases censored and altered earlier writings that were regarded as unsafe. Michelle Tartar has argued that in Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity Quakers turned to a traditional theology of dualism (radically separating the spiritual and the material/bodily) “Severing the ‘inward’ from the ‘outward’, Barclay disempowered the original Quaker notion of celestial flesh by replacing Fox’s literalization of the spirit with a more traditional and figurative hermeneutics of religious worship.” The ‘corporeal’ experience was replaced by a rational/ philosophical one (Tartar 2004, pp.93-94). It can be argued that the legacy of this transformation in Quaker theology has had a number of negative implications (Johns 2013, pp.7-15). These include a tendency:
i) To mistrust the human body and suppress active physical expression.
ii) To neglect the goodness of the physical creation in favour of a disembodied spiritual realm.
iii) To adopt an inward-looking and introverted spirituality.
Although this transition did not undermine the basic Quaker commitment to the spiritual equality of women, it may well have resulted in greater restrictions on a woman’s ability to express herself and take the role of prophet. The radical freedom of the 1650s was strongly predicated on the assertion that it was Christ living through the human vessel. In such circumstances gender distinctions were deemed irrelevant.
5. Contemporary Significance and Implications
In revisiting the vision of celestial inhabitation and considering whether it has something to contribute to contemporary Quaker faith and practice, Friends (particularly those within the Liberal strand of Quakerism) might like to consider a number of queries:
a. Overcoming dualism – Is our faith and practice based on an artificial separation between the spiritual/heavenly and the physical/earthly? Does our focus on the inward and the spiritual lead to a neglect of the physical, the bodily and the natural? What might a spirituality founded on the unity of spirit and matter and heaven and earth look like?
b. Valuing the material creation – Is our corporate concern for the beauty and variety of the creation (e.g. Advices and Queries no. 42) consistent with a faith and practice which sometimes focuses on the inward and spiritual at the expense of the outward and the physical? How can we bring these two aspects of Quakerism into greater harmony?
c. Valuing the body and physical expression – Is our faith and practice weakened by a neglect of the body and an avoidance of physical expression? Can we find a way of holding together inward contemplative practice and outwardly embodied physical expression? Can these two dimensions of human life be united within our spirituality?
d. The possibility of real transformation – has our vision of the power of the Spirit become too limited and domesticated? In focusing on a more ‘realistic’ role for the Spirit as a source of guidance, have we neglected its more radical transformative potential? Does the vision of new birth through the power of the Spirit have any meaning to us today?
e. Heaven on earth – do we merely pay lip service to the idea that it is possible to create heaven on earth or do we really believe it? How might the early Quaker experience of living in the place where heaven and earth meet, inspire our witness today? Can we again be a people who embody this vision?
f. Learning from other faith traditions – can we find inspiration in other faith traditions? How do we relate to other spirit-led churches such as those based on Wesleyan holiness (e.g. Methodism and Pentecostalism)? Can we find inspiration in Eastern Orthodox pneumatology in which the Holy Spirit fills all things and humans and the whole creation are on a path towards deification (theosis)? Can we learn from ancient and contemporary forms of animism?
Bailey, Richard (1992) New Light on George Fox & Early Quakerism: The Making and Unmaking of a God (Edwin Mellen Press)
Dandelion, Pink (2004) The Creation of Quaker Theory: Inner Perspectives (Ashgate)
Fox, George (1975) The Works of George Fox, eight volumes (AMS Press)
Johns, David L (2013) Quakering Theology: Essays on Worship, Tradition and Christian Faith (Ashgate)
Moore, Rosemary (2000) The Light in their Consciences: Faith, Practices, and Personalities in Early British Quakerism, 1646 -1666 (Pennsylvania State University Press)
Nayler, James &
Kuenning, Licia (2003-9) The Works of James Nayler, four volumes (Quaker Heritage Press)
Nickalls, J Ed. (1997) The Journal of George Fox (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting)
Spencer, Carole (2007) Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism (Paternoster Press)
Tartar, Michele L (2004) ‘Go North!’ The Journey towards First-generation Friends and their Prophesy of Celestial Flesh (in Dandelion, P. 2004)
Wilcox, Catherine (1995) Theology and Women’s Ministry in Seventeenth Century English Quakerism (Edwin Mellen Press)