Friday, 14 February 2014

'E' is for the End Times (Eschatology)


A. INTRODUCTION

Eschatology – the branch of theology that deals with the last things

How should we understand the meaning of the words ‘end times’ and ‘apocalypse’? This question has critical implications when we consider the nature of Quakerism and it rootedness in the Christian tradition because, like the other Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Islam) Christianity works with a linear view of history leading to an end time or apocalypse. In this posting I want to argue that, in religious thinking and in popular culture there is an urgent need to reinterpret the meaning of  the end times and the apocalypse. Within Christendom the dominant understanding of these terms has been one characterised by a vision of violent conflict and the destruction of the physical creation. However, there is an alternative interpretation rooted in a peace church perspective. In this interpretation the end times are understood to be the times in which God’s ends are fully revealed and realised in the whole creation. Ultimately God’s ends for the whole creation are reflected in the biblical vision of ‘shalom’ (meaning a state of dynamic harmony, interconnection, well-being, justice and peace). The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation’ and so, in the alternative understanding, the apocalypse entails the revelation and realisation of shalom as God’s ultimate ‘end’ or intention for the whole creation.

Some Dictionary Definitions

Two possible definitions of the meaning of the word ‘end’:

  1. Termination of existence, destruction, downfall; a person’s death.
  2. To reach an ultimate state or condition; to complete or finish.

Two possible definitions of the meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’:

  1. The destruction and end of the world.
  2. The revelation of divine mysteries.

These dictionary definitions present us quite starkly with the two fundamentally divergent ways of approaching this issue. The fact that when it comes to the word ‘apocalypse’ almost all mainstream dictionaries limit the scope of their definitions to that of violent physical conflict, destruction and the end of the world, demonstrates the dominance of this particular vision within our culture.     

B. The Biblical Vision

1. Hebrew Scriptures - The Vision of Shalom

The biblical vision of ‘shalom’ (in the Hebrew Scriptures) or ‘eirene’ (in the New Testament) is a model for the renewed creation, the hope to be brought to fruition in the end times. It is a vision which is described vividly by the Hebrew prophets (see the words of Isaiah below). Perry Yoder has argued that the vision of shalom represents the way things ought to be (Yoder 1987, p.22). The conditions of shalom set out in the Hebrew Scriptures are associated with God’s way and God’s rule and include reconciliation, material well-being for all (Yoder 1987, p.1), justice for all (Yoder 1987, p.13) and the truthfulness/integrity of all (Yoder 1987, p.16). In the New Testament we see eirene associated with the God of peace revealed in Jesus and including good accord, the absence of conflict and moral virtue (Yoder 1987, p.20).

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4 (NRVS)

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

Isaiah 11:6-7 (NRSV)

2. The New Testament – The Renewal of All Things

A belief that ‘the end’ will be characterized by cataclysmic violent conflict and destruction is most often predicated on a reading of the New Testament Book of Revelation. However, such a reading usually fails to recognise that the outcome of the conflict described in this book is not the destruction of the creation but rather the renewal of all things in which God’s realm (heaven) comes to earth in the form of the New Jerusalem, the nations are healed and God is fully present in the creation. We see this vision of the realisation of the new creation and the overlapping of heaven and earth in the two following passages:The New Heaven and the New Earth

 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

 

Revelation 21:1-6 (NRSV) The River of Life

 

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

 

Revelation 22:1-5 (NRSV)

C. the early quaker vision - The Lamb’s War and the End Times

Early Friends understood that the narrative of the Book of Revelation pointed to a nonviolent process in which the spirit of evil was destroyed and God’s shalom established on earth. This understanding is expressed most clearly by James Nayler in his tract ‘The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin’ published in 1657:

And as they war not against men's persons, so their weapons are not carnal, nor hurtful to any of the creation; for the Lamb comes not to destroy men's lives, nor the work of God, and therefore at his appearance in his subjects, he puts spiritual weapons into their hearts and hands: their armor is the light, their sword the Spirit of the Father and the Son; their shield is faith and patience; their paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God.

The Lamb's quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: "For we war not with flesh and blood," nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.

James Nayler – The Lamb’s War 1657

1. What is the Lamb’s War?

During the 1650s, the young Quaker movement launched a nation-wide preaching campaign of great vigour and intensity that became known as the Lamb’s War, referring to the book of Revelation in which John of Patmos recorded his visions of Christ’s final defeat of evil on earth and the establishment of the New Jerusalem. Doug Gwyn has called the Lamb’s War a ‘cultural revolution’ because it involved a comprehensive attack on all those institutions and practices that sustained the existing order and a proclamation of the coming of a new divine order (Gwyn 1986, pp.36-38). The massive scope and rapid success of the Lamb’s War caused significant disquiet within the establishment. The apocalyptic imagery and language was disturbingly militaristic and many thought that the Quakers intended to overthrow the state by force. By the late 1650s, rumours circulated widely about Anabaptists and Quakers coming to cut people’s throats.

2. Early Quaker Eschatology

The early Quaker claim that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’ was, for them, an announcement that the great spiritual battle outlined in Revelation had begun. Early Quakers expected that the inward transformation of individuals would lead to the outward transformation of the world. The Lamb’s War was therefore a campaign that took place first of all within the individual and then within the world. In this sense, Quaker eschatology was both realised (within the individual) and to be realised (within the world). Friends were certain that the final outcome would be the triumph of justice over evil and the establishment of God’s kingdom. However, this transformation was dependent on a human response. It required a universal acceptance of the power of the Lamb to crucify evil and resurrect the new creation within the individual and then within the world. Every human won by the Lamb weakens the power of the ‘Beast’. The early Quaker movement experienced an inward liberation that they understood in terms of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Having rediscovered the pearl of inner and outer peace for all people, they were prepared to risk everything to establish the kingdom of God.

3. The Practice of the Lamb’s War

The methods used by early Friends in conducting the Lamb’s War reflected their understanding of the way in which God deals with evil. The Lamb’s War was very much a corporate endeavour. It did not involve a lapse into personal piety. Early Friends recognised that the process of realising God’s kingdom on earth was a job for a gathered people, not for isolated individuals. Despite the assertiveness and militaristic language of the Lamb’s War, it was a consistently non-violent campaign. Their religious experiences had taught Friends that spiritual transformation must involve a genuine change of heart and that this, by its nature, could not be achieved by force and coercion. Instead of using force, the Lamb’s War was a campaign in which Friends sought to persuade others by the example of their lives and by the suffering they were prepared to endure. Friends were willing to face severe persecution rather than transgress the law of God written in their hearts. The message of the Lamb’s War was addressed to everyone. For example, when Quakers spoke to those in authority, their principal aim was to prompt the moral reform of the powerful. No individual was regarded as entirely lost to the cause of the Lamb. This was a struggle for liberation that sought to free people from bondage to the ‘lusts’ that produce injustice and destructive aggression. The struggle was to be won by turning people away from the evil present in the world and inward towards the power of the Lamb working in their hearts.  

4. The New Creation and the Lamb’s War

Through the Lamb’s War, Friends committed themselves to God’s project of liberating each and every soul and every part of the creation. They sought the restoration of all things to God’s order and kingdom by re-establishing the hearing and obeying relationship that humans had originally experienced with God in the Garden of Eden. The process of spiritual transformation experienced by early Friends convinced them that there would be no peace while two wills competed for supremacy (self-will and God’s will). The events enacted by the Lamb in their hearts (revelation, judgment, purging and restoration) were regarded as a microcosm of the events to be enacted throughout the whole of creation. Friends believed that the Lamb’s War would bring people to gospel order, which is God’s new creation.

5. Gospel Order – Right relationship

Quakers have tended to deny that the cosmos is random and chaotic in nature, and have argued instead that God has given an order to creation: Gospel Order. Although humans have become a dysfunctional element within this order, it is possible, by the transformative power of the Spirit of Christ, for people to be brought back into harmony with Gospel Order. Lloyd Lee Wilson has characterised Gospel Order as follows:

Gospel order is the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say “it was very good.

Wilson, Lloyd Lee (1993) p.1

This vision makes a distinction between the surface appearance of the fallen world and the deeper reality of God’s order for the creation (Dandelion 2005, p.30). Our brokenness stems from our alienation from God and our inability to see beyond surface appearances to the deeper reality. Salvation is, therefore, seen in terms of a journey back to unity with God and into harmony with Gospel order. This implies the restoration of mental and spiritual health and wholeness (Abbott 2010, p.23) and right relationship with other humans and with the whole of creation (Wilson 1996, p.6).

D. COnTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN PERsPECTIVES

A growing number of contemporary Christian theologians and biblical scholars are challenging the vision of the end times and the apocalypse as a process of violent conflict and destruction and affirming the alternative vision of the coming of God’s shalom within a renewed creation. What follows is a summary of some of this thinking.

1. The Return of Christ in Spirit

It is argued that since at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all flesh (Acts 2:17) the Second Coming can be understood as the return of the risen Christ in Spirit (Borg 2011, p.195). This must be an inclusive process because everyone, without exception, is summoned to be part of the renewed world that God is remaking (Kurht 2011, p.48). Tom Wright has argued that the Spirit is given so that the church can share in the life and continuing work of Jesus himself, making God’s future present in the present (Wright 2011, p.105). This understanding has been particularly important to Quakers and is reflected in the great proclamation of the early movement that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’. If Christ’s Spirit is a living presence, then all claims of human authority are open to question. This is ‘the end’ of the delusion of human omniscience. In such circumstances, priority has to be given to collective discernment of the Spirit’s guidance and leadings.

2. Jesus is Lord of this World

The return of Christ in Spirit (the apocalypse of the Word) is also ‘the end’ of the delusion of human power and control. If Jesus is proclaimed Lord of this world, then this undermines all forms of human lordship. The apostle Paul proclaimed that Jesus is Lord and that through him, God’s eschatological age was breaking into the world (Kuhrt 2011, p.48). This eschatological age is associated with Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the kingdom, bringing the great exile of humanity to an end and establishing the new creation (Kuhrt 2011, p.40). The ages of slavery and exile were ending and the age of God’s shalom had arrived.

3. The World Renewed, Not Destroyed!

When understood within its Jewish context, the Christian tradition affirms the goodness of God’s creation and rejects a dualism that views physical matter as evil, corrupt and inferior to the ‘spiritual’ realm. As a result, it asserts that the end times are not about the end or destruction of the world, but rather the earth’s transformation and renewal by a fresh act of God. This is what is really meant by the ‘good news’ (Kuhrt 2011, p.36). Therefore, the principal goal of Christianity is not to escape from this world, but rather to love the world and work with God to change it for the better (Borg 2011, p.193). This victory of the Lamb can only be achieved using the ‘weapons’ of Christ, which are humility, mercy, justice and compassion (Abbott 2010, p.106). Tom Wright has suggested that the beauty we glimpse in the creation as it currently is gives an indication of what will be accomplished when God renews heaven and earth (Wright 2011, p.200).

4. Heaven and Earth Overlap

Tom Wright has developed a unique understanding of the end times. He argues that heaven is God’s dimension of reality, and that God’s ultimate intention is to restore his creation by re-joining a renewed heaven with a renewed earth (Kuhrt 2011, p.38). God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights in a full overlapping of heaven and earth (Wright 2011, p.185). We see this presented in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation, in which the New Jerusalem comes to earth and there is a new heaven and a new earth. Given this, it is ironic that the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation is so often interpreted in terms of violent conflict and the destruction of the world.

5. The Church – God’s Vehicle

With the pouring out of Spirit at Pentecost, everyone is invited to contribute to the work of reconciliation to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. The church is called to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in an almost literal sense; and as such continues his work within the world. When we become participants in God’s plan, we experience the joy of helping God to accomplish the divine purpose by taking responsibility in a world transformed (Gulley 2012, p.127). Tom Wright suggests that the church is caught up in the labour pains of a new world waiting to be born (Wright 2011, p.138). The main point of Christianity is to follow Jesus into the new world, God’s new world, which has been revealed to us in Jesus (Wright 2011, p.202).

E. References

Abbot, Margery Post (2010) To Be Broken and Tender: a Quaker theology for today (Western Friend)

Borg, Marcus J. (2011) Speaking Christian: recovering the lost meaning of Christian words (SPCK)

Dandelion, Pink (2005) The Liturgies of Quakerism (Ashgate)

Gulley, Philip (2012) The Evolution of Faith: how God is creating a better Christianity (Harper One)

Gwyn, Douglas (1986) Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox, 1624-1691 (Friends United Press)

Kuhrt, Stephen (2011) Tom Wright for Everyone: putting the Theology of N. T. Wright into practice in the local church (SPCK)

Wilson, Lloyd Lee (1996) Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (FGC)

Wright, N. T. (2008) Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree - in – The Green Bible (Collins)

Wright, Tom (2011) Simply Christian (SPCK)

Yoder, Perry (1987) Shalom: the Bible’s word for salvation, justice and peace (Evangel Publishing House)

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

'D' is for Hans Denck

A. Introduction

Quakers have tended to assume that their movement is somewhat atypical and unique within Christianity. In his Journal, George Fox gives the impression that his understandings were entirely the result of divine revelation and that the emergence of the Quaker movement represented the end of the long apostasy of the church that began shortly after the death of the apostles at the end of the first century. However, the evidence suggests that pretty much all the so-called ‘peculiarities’ of Quaker theology, spirituality and practice can be found in other groups and movements within Christian history. In particular, the spiritualist wing of the Anabaptist movement that emerged in Europe during the ‘Radical Reformation’ came to a set of almost identical views as those of early Friends. The individuals and groups associated with the Radical Reformation rejected both the beliefs of the Catholic Church and those of the Magisterial Reformers such as Luther, Zwingli and Calvin (see Williams, 2000). McLaughlin has argued that “the Reformation as a whole ‘spiritualised’ much of Medieval Catholicism. As a result, all of the Reformers were ‘spiritualists’ to one degree or another” (McLaughlin 2007, p.119). The Reformers rejected the spiritual power of the outward sacraments and the mediatory function of the priesthood (sarcedotalism). The Spiritualists agreed with these positions but in turn rejected the Reformer’s assertion of ‘sola scriptura’ (the Bible as primary religious authority) and ‘sola fide’ (justification by faith alone) which had the effect of disconnecting the believer’s life and works from the process of salvation (McLaughlin 2007, pp.119-120). The theology and spirituality present in the writings of Hans Denck provide a good example of this ‘spiritualising’ tendency and one that has real resonances with the early Quaker vision, even though they predate the emergence of the Quaker movement by some 125 years.

B. Who was Hans Denck?

Hans Denck (1495-1527) was a German theologian and Anabaptist leader during the Reformation. Denck was born in 1495 in the Bavarian town of Habach. After a classical education, he became headmaster at the St. Sebaldus School in Nuremberg in 1523. It was here that he met Thomas Münzer, and first came in contact with Anabaptism, which he accepted on his own terms. As a result of his Anabaptist convictions, he was banished from Nuremberg in January 1524, and forced into an itinerant life until his death. Following a long period of travelling in Southern Germany and Switzerland he found refuge in Basel. After attending the Martyrs' Synod in Augsburg, he returned to Basel where he died of bubonic plague in 1527. Denck’s religious ideas were adopted and developed by a number of his followers including Johannes Bunderlin (1499-1533) and Christian Entfelder. Although the spiritualist stream of Anabaptism quickly disappeared from view and died out, Denck’s writings and ideas have continued to have an influence on the Anabaptist tradition.

C. Key Aspects of Denck’s Theology and Spirituality

Some of the key aspects of Denck’s theology and spirituality that share real similarities with that of the early Quaker vision include (See Dipple 2007, pp.259-263):

  • A belief that the corruption of the church began after the death of the apostles when people began to focus again on outward things and human authority rather than on Christ’s spiritual leadership of believers and the church.

  • That Christ rather than the Bible is the Word of God and that salvation is not bound to scripture (scripture is a witness to the workings of the Word of God).

  • The Spirit leads people into unity whereas the Letter tends to create disagreement and division.

  • Christ’s historical sacrifice in the flesh is not all-sufficient for salvation since what is also required is an inward crucifixion and resurrection within the individual through the active power of the Spirit of Christ.

  • Outward baptism with water is not required because the sacrament is primarily an inward spiritual baptism by the Holy Spirit.

  • The outward Lord’s Supper is not required since the sacrament is primarily an inward and spiritual feeding on the spiritual body of Christ who is the ‘bread of life’.

  • A commitment to nonviolence, religious toleration and freedom of conscience.

  • A rejection of oaths and ‘false swearing’.

  • A rejection of the doctrine of predestination.

D. Criticisms of Denck’s Theology and Spirituality

Both Denck (Spiritualist Anabaptists) and Quakers faced a number of similar criticisms from their Protestant opponents. The most frequent accusations being (see Dipple 2007, p.263 & p.292):

  • That they were reintroducing a form of works righteousness (and so were accused of being ‘Catholics in disguise’ and of promoting ‘monkish holiness’).

  • That they were ignoring the historical Jesus and denigrating the efficacy of his sacrifice on the cross.

  • That they were denigrating the importance and value of the Bible.

  • That they were failing to follow Christ’s ordinances (water baptism and Lord’s Supper).

E. The Writings of Han Denck - Similarities with the early Quaker vision

1. The New Covenant – Christ has brought a new covenant which is inward and spiritual and in which the Holy Spirit writes God’s law on people’s hearts.

Whoever has received God’s new covenant, that is, whoever has had the law written into his heart by the Holy Spirit is truly righteous. Whoever thinks that he can observe the law by means of the Book ascribes to the dead letter what belongs to the living Spirit. Whoever does not have the Spirit and imagines that he will find him in scripture looks for light and finds darkness, looks for life and finds only death, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New…. Whoever has really laid hold of truth can assess it without Scripture.

Concerning the Law of God (1526)

2. Inward Christ, Outward Transformation - We come to God through Christ but in order to do this we must first experience Christ working within us and transforming us so that we come to follow his way and life outwardly.

But the medium is Christ whom no one can truly know unless he follow him in his life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him. Whoever does not know him does not have him and without him he cannot come to the Father. But whoever knows him and does not witness to him by his life will be judged by him… Woes to him who looks elsewhere than to this goal. For whoever thinks he belongs to Christ must walk the way that Christ walked.

The Contention that Scripture Says (1526)

3. Baptised in the Spirit, Taught by Christ - In the new covenant the believer experiences a baptism in the Holy Spirit and is taught directly and inwardly by Christ who is the Word of God. The scriptures are not the Word of God and can only be understood when read in the Spirit that gave them forth.

All commandments, customs and laws insofar as they are written in the Old and New Testaments are suspended for the true disciples of Christ since he has a word written in his heart, that is that he loves God alone. By this he orders everything that he does even if he has nothing written. If there is a part in the whole that he cannot understand he does not despise the witness of scripture but he searches diligently and compares them with each other. But he does not accept the scripture before it has been interpreted for him through the anointing of the Spirit. When he does not understand he suspends his judgment and waits for God’s revelation. For a belief or a judgment that has not been revealed by the key of David may not be accepted without great error.

Hans Denck – Concerning the Law of God (1526) 

4. The Spirit and the Letter - Christ is the Word of God not the scriptures. The scriptures do not have the power to bring people to salvation, only the power of the living Spirit of Christ can do this working within them.

I value the Holy Scriptures above all human treasures but not as high as the Word of God, which is living, powerful and eternal, and which is free and unencumbered by all of the elements of this world. For, insofar as it is God himself it is spirit and no letter, written without pen and paper that it may never be expunged. Therefore also salvation cannot be tied to the scriptures, however important and good they may be with respect to it. The cause is that it is not possible for the Scriptures to improve and evil heart even if it is highly learned. A pious heart, however, that is a heart in which there is a true spark of godly zeal, will be improved through all things.

Recantation (1527)

5. Inward Lord’s Supper - The Lord’s Supper is not an outward meal but rather an inward and spiritual feeding on Christ who is the bread of life.

The Lord Christ took the bread in the supper, blessed it and broke it. This was as if he meant to say: I have told you before that you should eat my flesh and drink my blood if you wish to be saved and indicated that this was to be done in a spiritual sense and not as flesh and blood understand it. Now I am emphasizing the same thing again here, how you ought to regard his bread and wine. For as this bread is the support of the physical life of your souls through the power of God as it is given, chewed and spiritually eaten, that is, as it is known and believed. Again as this wine makes the heart of man fresh and glad, so also my blood which in the love of God I shed for you. If you so regard it, it will refresh you, make you joyful and fervent in love, so that you become completely one with me, and that I remain in you and you remain in me even as the food and drink are united with the nature of man.

Recantation (1527)

6. Real Transformation not Salvation in Sin - The idea that people are saved in sin is a blasphemy and a denial of the presence of Christ who’s Spirit has the power to transform us and free us from sin in this life.

The suffering of Christ is sufficient for the sins of all men even if no man were ever saved. For no one can comprehend suffering except he who has the spirit of Christ. The spirit equips and arms the elect with the minds and thoughts of Christ. But whoever depends on the merits of Christ and nevertheless continues in a carnal, beastly way of life, he thinks of Christ as in ancient times the pagans thought of their gods. It is as though he did not esteem the merits of Christ. This is a blasphemy of which the world is full. For whoever believes that Christ has liberated him from sin can no longer be a slave to sin. But if we continue in the old life we do not truly believe…

Recantation (1527) 

7. A Peaceable People - True followers of Christ do what he commands. They do not use outward violence or coercion because their weapons are inward and spiritual. Therefore discipline within the Christian community should be based on Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18:15-20.

No Christian, who wishes to boast in his Lord may use power to coerce and rule. For the realm of our king consists alone in the teaching and power of the Spirit. Whoever truly acknowledges Christ as Lord ought to do nothing but what he commands him. Now he commands all his disciples to teach evildoers and to admonish them for their improvement. If they will not listen we should allow them to be heathens and avoid them…

Concerning True Love (1527)

8. Christians and the State - In the fallen world, the state has the power to control evil by force. However, through the work of the Spirit, Christians know a better way and so cannot play a part in the violent and coercive action of government. Our first loyalty is to Christ rather than the state. 

It is not that power in itself is wrong seen from the perspective of the evil world, for (the government) serves God in his wrath, but rather that love teaches her children a better way, namely to serve the graciousness of God. For it is the nature of love not to will or desire the hurt of anyone, but as much as is possible to serve for the betterment of everyone… And insofar as it were possible for a government to act in this way it could well be Christian in its office. Since however the world will not tolerate it, a friend of God should not be in government but out of it, that is if he desires to keep Christ as Lord and master. Whoever loves the Lord loves him regardless of his station. But he should not forget what characterises a true lover (of God), namely that for the Lord’s sake he renounces all power and to be subject to no one but the Lord

Concerning True Love (1527)

9. Religious Toleration - As followers of the way of Christ we believe that there should be no coercion in matters of faith. We should practice toleration of different beliefs and freedom of conscience.

Such a security will exist also in outward things, with practice of the true gospel that each will let the other move and dwell in peace — be he Turk or heathen, believing what he will — through and in his land, not submitting to a magistrate in matters of faith. Is there anything more to be desired? I stand fast on what the prophet says here. Everyone among all peoples may move around in the name of his God. That is to say, no one shall deprive another — whether heathen or Jew or Christian — but rather allow everyone to move in all territories in the name of his God. So may we benefit in the peace which God gives.

Commentary on Micah (1527)

F. Early Quakers – Combining Aspects of Spiritualism and Anabaptism

There are a number ways in which Quakers have diverted from the tradition of Denck and the Spiritualist Anabaptists. These include:

  • Church Order and Discipline – Denck does not appear to have given much attention to ecclesiology, maybe because during his life he had little involvement in establishing and ordering Christian community. Early Quakers however were quick to establish organisational structures, to nurture of cohesive community and to implement forms of discipline and mutual accountability.   

  • Visible Public Witness – Because they gave absolute priority to an inward spirituality, over time the Spiritualist Anabaptists tended to become religious individualists who operated secretly and therefore invisibly. Quakers however maintained a strong commitment to public witness even in the face of severe persecution and saw themselves as a visible people of God rather than as isolated individuals.  

  • Dualism – The Spiritualists often adopted a dualist position based on the philosophy of Plato in which an absolute and fundamental distinction is made between the spiritual realm and the physical realm. This often led to the kind of invisible individualism mentioned above. Quakers on the other hand rejected dualism and believed that inward spiritual transformation would always be reflected in a visibly changed physical life. For them, one of the most significant aspects of the incarnation was that in the coming of Christ heaven and earth, spirit and matter had been united and that therefore this was now to be the way for humans and the whole of creation through the work of the Spirit of Christ.

In conclusion therefore, what we see in the emergence of the Quaker movement in 17th century England is a Christian tradition that is located firmly in the theology, spirituality and practice of the 16th century European Radical Reformation.  Friends combined the Christology and soteriology of the Spiritualists with the ordered and disciplined ecclesiology and public witness of the more Biblical Anabaptists such as the Swiss Brethren/Mennonites and the Hutterites.

G. References

Dipple, Geoffrey (2007) The Spiritualist Anabaptists – in Roth & Stayer (2007), p.257-298

Klaassen, Walter (1981) Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources (Herald Press)

McLaughlin, R. Emmet (2007) Spiritualism, Schwenckfeld and Franck and their Early Modern Resonance – in Roth & Stayer (2007), pp.119-162

Roth, John D. and
Stayer, James M. (2007) A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521-1700 (Brill)

Snyder, C. Arnold (2004) Following in the Footsteps of Christ (Darton, Longman and Todd)

Williams, George Huston (2000) The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition (Truman State University Press)