Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus (1/4)

‘How does Jesus speak to you today?’ (Advices & Queries No.4) Who is Jesus and why does he matter? Who do Quakers in Britain say Jesus is? A more technical way of asking this is: what is a liberal Quaker Christology? In this series of four blog posts, I’ll offer some thoughts to help us better reflect on these questions.

Why a ‘liberal Quaker Jesus’?

There are several types of Quakerism practiced around the world, and the type we find in Britain is called ‘liberal Quakerism’. Liberal Quakerism began in Britain at the end of the 19th century, and I’m particularly interested in how that change occurred. So as a way in to this question, I’m going to focus on a two-volume book called ‘The Nature of Christianity’, published in 1927/8 by one of the first and most influential of liberal Quakers, Edward Grubb.

You might ask what a book written nearly a century ago has to say about contemporary Quaker beliefs. There are two things about Grubb’s writing that interest me. First, Grubb’s description of Jesus is a very familiar one for British Friends. I hear many of Grubb’s ideas echoed in the words and assumptions of Quakers I encounter today. Second, in Grubb’s writing, we can clearly see the debt that liberal Quakers owe to liberal Protestant thought. This might come as a surprise, because we often mistakenly project these liberal Protestant ideas back onto the first Quakers of the 17th century. We tend to think that our modern day Quaker beliefs were present at the beginning of Quakerism, rather than coming to us from outside our tradition. Also, we may not be aware that many of these Protestant liberal ideas have been shown to be problematic. This might mean that our own understandings of Jesus might be problematic too. Reflecting critically on Grubb’s understanding of Jesus can help us reflect on our own understanding of Jesus today.

I suspect that most British Quakers haven’t heard of Edward Grubb (1854-1939), which is both unsurprising (we mainly talk about the first generation of Quakers like Fell and Fox) and surprising, considering how influential he was in his day. Like other Quaker modernisers, Grubb came from a wealthy, evangelical Quaker background, and actively worked for the liberalisation of British Quakerism in many areas, including theology and social reform.[1] He was editor of the ’British Friend’ from 1901 to 1913, and wrote pamphlets, booklets, and twenty-one books between 1897 and 1933.[2] This makes him perhaps the most prolific and influential British writer on liberal Quaker theology at the time.[3]

You may not have encountered the label ‘liberal Protestantism’ before. Liberal Protestant theology emerged in response to the Enlightenment, a period in 18th century Europe which emphasised the ability of human reason to work out all life’s mysteries. Along with this came a suspicion of particular claims of Christianity, such as divine revelation, the authority of the Bible, and the miraculous or ‘supernatural’ elements of the Jesus story. Two particularly influential liberal Protestant theologians were F. D. E. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) – sometimes called ‘the father of modern theology’ – and Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930). I’ll explain the specific influence of these two thinkers on Grubb as we go along.

As I was writing this, it soon became clear that I have more to say than can be fitted into one blog post. So before we get stuck in, here’s a map of what I’ll cover over the four parts. Hopefully this will whet your appetite for what’s to come!

Part 1

  • A. Jesus as Revealer of God-consciousness – Grubb’s focus on Jesus’ personality.

Part 2

  • B. Grubb’s use of the Bible
  • C. Jesus and the future – Grubb’s understanding of the Kingdom of God, and his rejection of Jesus’ eschatology (theology about the future).

Part 3

  • D. The Cross as an example of God’s love –Grubb’s understanding of Jesus’ Crucifixion, and his neglect of Jesus’ politics.
  • E. The Resurrection as psychic phenomenon – Grubb’s intriguing take on the Resurrection, and his dim view of the body.

Part 4

  • F. Jesus the Jew – Grubb’s highly problematic neglect of Jesus’ Jewishness.
  • Finding a new liberal Quaker Jesus – some final thoughts and queries to support your reflections on what Jesus means to us today.

A. Jesus as Revealer of God-consciousness

What is it about Jesus that makes him so significant? For Grubb, the answer to this is found in Jesus’ personality, his character, mind, or inner life. It is through Jesus’ personality that God is revealed. Jesus is ‘a real man, of transcendent personal character and impressiveness’[4] As the Church lost contact with the ‘historical Jesus’, the true mind and character of Jesus became obscured by layers of doctrine.[5] Through modern biblical scholarship, we now have a clearer understanding of Jesus’ personality than Christians have enjoyed since the first century.[6] His identification of ‘lowliness with exaltation,’[7] his self-forgetfulness,[8] shows humanity the nature of God’s love.[9] This is the key to understanding Jesus as the Son of God – he is like God in a moral sense, in his perfect inner life.[10] In Jesus ‘the Divine character was perfectly expressed.’[11] Jesus ‘was not a teacher but a Revealer,’[12] and what he revealed was an experience of perfect ‘filial consciousness’. Jesus’ mission was to demonstrate this experience and character, and pass it on to his disciples,[13] both in his life, and spiritually after his death.[14] It is this spiritual sharing in Jesus’ experience of ‘sonship’ that delivers us from sin, and is therefore salvation. [15] This echoes Schleiermacher’s idea that Jesus’ relationship to God was due to his ‘God-consciousness’, an all-pervading, un-ceasing experience of dependence on God. Similarly, Grubb writes: ‘Even to the best of Christians, communion with God is but a feeble flicker compared with the sunshine in which Jesus had always lived.’[16] Grubb also quotes Harnack’s view that Jesus’ mission was to kindle ‘individual religious life’. For Grubb, as for Schleiermacher before him: ‘It is in Christ and nowhere else that redeeming Divine Love comes to final expression; it is through him alone that we are able to believe with full conviction that “God is love.”’[17]

The idea that Jesus’ significance lies in his experience of God, and his moral character, resonates strongly with contemporary liberal Quaker sensibilities. I suspect what grates is the claim that Jesus is unique. Claims of Jesus’ uniqueness are difficult to maintain in a multi-faith world, but this difficulty is increased once you reduce Jesus to a moral example, as there are plenty of other exemplary lives out there to emulate. A major difficulty that Quakers may not have considered is Grubb’s idea that modern Biblical scholarship can give us access to Jesus’ personality. Here, Grubb is influenced by the ‘Quest for the Historical Jesus’, where scholars assumed that the writers of the New Testament give us a distorted picture of Jesus. They wanted to scrape away these distortions to reveal the purely human Jesus beneath. This quest for the ‘real Jesus’ resulted in literally thousands of liberal biographies of Jesus being written in the 19th century. These ‘Lives of Jesus’ each claimed to reveal the ‘real Jesus’ behind the Biblical texts.

The problem is, the writers of the Gospels (and the few non-Christian sources that speak of Jesus) aren’t interested in Jesus’ personality, his inner life or his ‘God-consciousness’. The Gospels are written in order to make very particular claims about Jesus, principally that he is the Messiah, the inaugurator of God’s Kingdom who rose from the dead. There just isn’t enough evidence to construct a ‘real Jesus’ in isolation from the claims the Early Church made about him. When we try to ‘get behind’ the New Testament writings, the only Jesus we find is a failed revolutionary of whom we know very little about. Because of this lack of evidence, the writers of the ‘Lives of Jesus’ were accused of creating Jesus in their own image – in their biographies Jesus became the ideal liberal Protestant. I don’t think Grubb escapes this criticism either, particularly when you consider his selective approach to the Bible, which I’ll talk about in the next blog post of this series.

You can read part 2 here.

[Featured image photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]


[1] Thomas C. Kennedy, British Quakerism, 1860-1920: The Transformation of a Religious Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 274.

[2] J. William Frost, “Modernist and Liberal Quakers, 1887-2010,” in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, ed. Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 80.

[3] Kennedy, British Quakerism, 1860-1920, 174.

[4] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. I. Christianity as Life (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1927), 15.

[5] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. II. Christianity as Truth (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1928), 19–20.

[6] Grubb, 52.

[7] Grubb, Christianity as Life, 21.

[8] Grubb, 32.

[9] Grubb, 30.

[10] Grubb, 125.

[11] Grubb, 25–26.

[12] Grubb, 30.

[13] Grubb, 25–26.

[14] Grubb, 107–8.

[15] Grubb, 96.

[16] Grubb, Christianity as Life, 64.

[17] Grubb, Christianity as Truth, 88.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus (1/4)

  1. Thank thee and God bless thee for this, Friend Mark! This is just the kind of ministry that I think that us less-theologically-educated Friends desperately need from better-theologically-educated Friends, here in the U.S., as in Britain, and worldwide! I call it a desperate need because, in the absence of knowledge, we tend to “know what ain’t so,” for example by imputing modern-day Quaker beliefs to the founders of Quakerism, as you rightly point out. And then when we’re shown how flimsy our Christology really is, we’re tempted to evade the revelation of our nakedness with a fig-leaf like “Oh, well, Quakerism is a non-creedal religion.” But it was not a non-creedal religion to George Fox, who bore the message to the world, “Christ is come to teach His people Himself!”
    I’m eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming installments in this series.

  2. Thanks for reading and taking the time to write such an encouraging comment John. I’m really glad this is meeting a need.

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