Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus (2/4)

This is part two of four of ‘Rethinking the Liberal Quaker Jesus’, where I critique early liberal Quaker Edward Grubb’s understanding of Jesus. You can find the first part of the series here.

B. Grubb’s use of the Bible

In the previous section, I suggested that Grubb has fallen into the same trap the ‘Lives of Jesus’ authors fell into: he claims that Jesus’ significance is found in his personality, which was not the position of the New Testament writers, and so has made a Jesus in his own image. I think the way he treats the Bible makes this clearer, in that he reads it in a way that privileges his own liberal Protestant understanding of Jesus.

Grubb sees the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Luke and particularly Mark as the earliest Gospel) and Acts as being the most trustworthy when seeking historical facts about Jesus, and he treats Paul’s Epistles and John’s Gospel as revealing the ‘deepest thoughts’ of Jesus through theological reflection. This is a bit simplistic – the Gospels were oral traditions before they were written down, and it may be that early oral traditions can pop up in later written ones – but is generally uncontentious.

The problem is that Grubb is very selective about the authority he gives to different aspects of the Jesus story. In short, Grubb treats the Gospels as corrupted eye-witness accounts – as original sources that have been overlaid with Greek philosophical speculation[1] – rather than literary, theological constructions written in the light of the Resurrection that have their own integrity. He sees them as a mixture of true and false fragments to be sifted rather than as a holistic message. For example, he sees the Virgin Birth as a mythological irrelevance which has nothing to say about Jesus’ character, rather than, say, Matthew making an important theological point about Jesus.[2] This allows him to focus on the bits he likes, and reject the bits that don’t fit with his approach. It means he doesn’t need to wrestle with those parts of the Jesus-story that make him uncomfortable. This selective approach to scripture continues throughout Grubb’s portrait of Jesus, particularly in his treatment of Jesus’ eschatology (theology about the future).

C. Jesus and the Future

An important aspect of the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels, and indeed, the God we encounter in the Bible, is that God is a God of justice, and that God’s justice will eventually be established through God’s Kingdom. In the New Testament, the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom is guaranteed through Jesus’ resurrection, the promise of his ‘Second Coming’ and symbols such as the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgment. The technical term for this kind of theology is eschatology – theology of the ‘final things’.

In keeping with liberal Protestant norms, Grubb dismisses Jesus’ eschatology, and he does this through a selective reading of the New Testament. Grubb believes Jesus’ ‘thoughts on the Kingdom were imperfectly understood by his early followers… who appear to have reported some of his apocalyptic sayings without penetrating to the ideas that underlay them.’[3] In what seems to be a case of eating his cake and having it, Grubb sees the Gospel of Mark as particularly reliable when discerning the mind of Jesus, and particularly unreliable when it comes to understanding Jesus’ eschatology. Grubb specifically rejects the Biblical passages that speak of divine judgement, stating that

I believe the fact that “the Gospel according to Matthew” stands first in our New Testament, and is probably the most widely read of all the Gospels, has caused Christians from the first century onwards to give exaggerated emphasis to the element of judgment and punishment as one of the main features of the Kingdom of God. This emphasis is largely a legacy from the Jewish Apocalyptic, which finds its extreme expression in the Book of Revelation, where Divine vengeance is the prevailing theme.[4]

For Grubb, the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus is an inward, moral happening that begins in the human heart. Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom through his own perfect God-consciousness, and the Kingdom will come into its fullness when all people are ‘attuned to the will of God.’[5]

I have two difficulties with Grubb’s de-eschatologised understanding of the Kingdom. First, it means ignoring all the Biblical material that speaks of God’s judgement. Over the last century, eschatology has come to be seen by Biblical scholars as a core component of Jesus’ message. Claiming that Jesus was misreported or misunderstood is not enough to explain his eschatology away. Quakerism was an apocalyptic movement that took inspiration from texts such as the Book of Revelation. To dismiss Jesus’ eschatology leaves us with a Jesus that would be alien to our Quaker forebears.

Second, Jesus’ eschatology speaks to those that Jesus allied himself with – the marginalised and the oppressed. In the Bible, God’s judgement is invariably directed at those who oppress others. Grubb envisions the Kingdom as the breaking down of all barriers, and the whole of humanity living ‘as one family under the Fatherhood of God,’[6] which involves ‘a radical transformation of existing society and its institutions,’[7] but he sees the Kingdom as ultimately relying on humanity rather than being established by God. From the perspective of the oppressed, people (especially the ones who hold power) cannot be trusted. If the establishment of the Kingdom relies entirely on humanity, then that is no guarantee at all. If, as Grubb says, the eternal life Christ promises begins in the here and now,[8] where is the justice for those who are denied it today? Where is the justice for the dead? There is no Kingdom without justice. Grubb’s position reminds me of H. Richard Niebuhr’s criticism of liberal theology: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’

Grubb writes that Jesus demanded his disciples forgive their Roman oppressors,[9] but doesn’t mention that this should be accompanied by the repentance of the Romans. Can there be true justice without a recognition of wrongdoing? In Grubb’s disregarding of Jesus’ eschatology, God’s judgement, and the importance of repentance, it seems to me that Grubb is theologizing from a privileged position. He can dispense with the hope for God’s justice, because he himself does not experience the daily injustices of the oppressed. This ignoring of the political nature of the Jesus story also shapes his understanding of the Crucifixion, which I discuss in the next blog post of this series.

You can read part 3 here.

[Featured image photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash]

[1] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. II. Christianity as Truth (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1928), 37.

[2] Grubb, 60.

[3] Edward Grubb, The Nature of Christianity. Vol. I. Christianity as Life (London: The Swarthmore Press Ltd., 1927), 38.

[4] Grubb, 49.

[5] Grubb, 43–44.

[6] Grubb, 112.

[7] Grubb, Christianity as Truth, 206.

[8] Grubb, Christianity as Life, 281–82.

[9] Grubb, 27.

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