George Fox’s View of Christ: A letter from Lewis Benson

January, 1970
328 Fisk Ave.

Brielle, N.J. 08730

A LETTER TO A FRIEND:

I was interested in your comments on my “that of God” paper. [Editor’s Note: “That of God in Every Man” –What Did George Fox Mean by It? by Lewis Benson, published in Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. 12. No. 2, Spring 1970, reprinted Autumn 1982.] In this paper I tried to express my strong conviction that the heart of George Fox’s message and that which is most distinctive about it is his teaching about Jesus Christ and how he saves men. When I read the paper no one commented on my statement that Fox’s Christology and soteriology are not constructed on the basis of traditional conceptions of the incarnation and the Atonement. You are right in focusing on this as the point most needing further discussion, and I will attempt to respond to your questions “What did Fox think about the incarnation?” and “What does he actually say about ‘The word made flesh’?”

I have not been able to find any reference to the word “Incarnation” in Fox’s writing. It is not a biblical word. There have been many variants on the theme of “incarnation” from Philo to Altizer, and it would be necessary to define “incarnation” before attempting to find its relation to Fox’s thought. The case is different with “The word made flesh” and I will attempt to present what Fox says about it.

Perhaps the most controverted question in Christian thought is whether the “word” in the first chapter of John is to be understood in a Hebrew or a Greek context. Today men of stature take opposite sides on this question. I am not going to review this controversy here, but I must begin by stating that, for Fox, the “word” that was made flesh derives its meaning entirely from a Hebrew context. He has much to say about this in Epistle 241 in his “Works“ (Works of Fox,Vol.7,p.284). On p.284 he says:

“And so all people, seeing the devil hath made the world like a wilderness, and there are so many ways in it that they do not know which way to come out of it, nor which to follow. Therefore this is my answer to you all, take David’s lamp and light. You may say, what is that? and where is it? I say it is with you, the word of God….
For by this word David…saw Christ and called him Lord….
And this was the word that came to Abraham, which made him forsake his national religion and worship, and obey the Lord….
And this was the word that came to Jacob….
And this was the word that made Moses a prophet, who prophesied Christ, and said ‘like unto him would God raise up a prophet, him should they hear in all things. Mark! in all things we are to be ordered both inward and outward, through hearing Christ, by whom all things were made….
And this was the word that came to Samuel, and made him a prophet….
And this was the word that made all the prophets to prophesy….
And this was the word that came to Isaiah, by which he prophesied of Christ….
And this was the word that made Jeremiah a prophet, by which he saw the new covenant….
Elijah by this word was made a prophet….
And by this word Ezekiel was made a prophet….
And by this word Daniel was made a prophet, and saw Christ and his kingdom, and how the saints should take his kingdom….
And by this word was Micah made a prophet….
And by this word was Amos the herdsman made a prophet….
This was the word by which John the evangelist saw Christ, who doth enlighten every man that cometh into the world, and saw how he became flesh, and came to his own, and that his own did not receive him….”

In Vol. 4, p.92, he carries this thought further when he says

“…here you may see where the word is“ that Moses declared who wrote of Christ, who said, ‘Like unto me will God raise up a prophet, him shall your hear; which prophet is the word and all the prophets from Samuel, and all that followed after him, likewise foretold of these days of Christ, whose name is called the word of God.”

Jesus is therefore called prophet in a very special sense for of no other prophet could it be said that he is “the word.”

That the eternal son of God became flesh means to Fox that after a long series of prophetic encounters with his people, God sent his son who appeared in the flesh to inaugurate a new covenant, to end the succession of prophets, and to bring a new righteousness and a new Israel. Christ is this new covenant in the sense that as heavenly prophet he brings in a new righteousness by teaching men what is right and giving them the power to do the right and in the sense that he brings in a new Israel by becoming its Prophet, Priest, King, Head and Order in his risen power.

In his evangelical epistle addressed to the Emperor of Austria, he says

“Christendom have wanted [lacked] the word Christ Jesus who is called the word of God, in which the prophets doth end [and] the first covenant doth end… they all end in Christ the word, which was in the beginning…. Now this power, this life is witnessed and spreading itself abroad…and such witness Moses prophecy fulfilled, who said, ‘a prophet like me will God raise up, him shall you hear so the prophet is heard [of whom] God said ‘I will give him for a covenant’…. And now many witness of this leader, this covenant of God….” (Works of Fox,Vol.4,p.231)

It is characteristic of Protestant orthodoxy that it makes the claim that “the New Testament represents man’s separation from God as not fully amenable to a prophetic ministry the alienation is one of sin and guilt, a distance that can be bridged only by Christ’s propitiation as the Priest and not simply by his teaching as prophet.” (James Atkinson in “A dictionary of Christian Theology”, ed. by Allan Richardson, 1969,p.210.)

Fox did not accept this Protestant Christology. Instead he would have said that man’s alienation from God is not only one of sin and guilt, but of disobedience (the closed ear and the unconformed will), and that the distance between God and man can only be bridged by his being taught the righteousness of God by the heavenly prophet who gives the power to obey and not “simply” by Christ’s propitiation as priest.

The difference between Fox’s view of Christ and that of main line Reformation Protestantism cannot be exaggerated. This is the key that accounts for everything that is distinctive about Fox’s interpretation of Christianity.

Hugh Barbour claims that Fox “underplayed” the atonement. From Hugh’s excessively Protestant bias the only appropriate place for the atonement is the center. (See Quaker Religious Thought, vol. XI No. 2 which is shortly to appear.)

On the other hand, Protestant Christianity not only underplays the prophetic office of Christ, but virtually rejects it. And this, according to Fox, is precisely the “rejected stone” that Jesus intended to be the cornerstone of his new way to God. Fox finds support for this position in the parable of the wicked husbandman. Surely, in this parable, Jesus intends us to understand that the son of the Lord of the vineyard is himself. The son is the last agent following a series of agents who were all beaten or killed. Who were these other agents supposed to represent? Were they priests? Priests die in bed. I think C. H. Dodd is correct in his understanding that the other agents were prophets. And so Christ himself must be representing himself as the son who is also the prophet. The important thing is that, in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus gives us to understand that in this parable is to be found the cornerstone of the Christian revelation–the rejected cornerstone.

Fox makes the prophetic office of Christ central in his Christology. I cannot attempt to summarize here all the material I have collected that points to this conclusion, but you may be interested in a tabulation I recently made based on 12 places in Fox’s writings where he speaks of the offices of Christ. This only includes references in which two or more offices are mentioned. He mentions 32 distinct offices of which 23 are mentioned less than 8 times.

The offices most mentioned by Fox are: Total
Prophet (92) plus Teacher (20) 112
Shepherd 93
Bishop (82) plus Overseer (5) 87
Priest (71) Intercessor and High Priest (8) 79
King (18) plus ruler governor Lord etc. (26) 44
Counsellor 43
Leader 35
Head (of church) 20
Orderer 8

Of these 12 references, 4± are designated “the offices of Christ as he is present in the midst”. Most of the references to “Head” and “Orderer” are in these special 4 passages.

In Fox’s two accounts of his sermon at Firbank Fell he refers only to the offices of Christ listed above, with the exception of Orderer. The emphasis on Christ as orderer came later (I have two references to the office of Christ as Orderer).

Fox expects the Christian to encounter Christ primarily as prophet and teacher, and as shepherd and bishop. The offices are not mere titles–they describe the activity of Christ. They tell us what he does when we open our doors and receive him, and what he does when he is present in the midst of those who gather in his name. The office of priest ranks a high fourth among the four offices most frequently mentioned, but his understanding of the priestly office needs to be distinguished from the Protestant view of it.

For Fox, Christianity is not exclusively, or even primarily, a religion of atonement, and therefore he does not exalt Christ’s priestly office above his other offices. Fox does not underestimate the reality of guilt and the inability of man to remove this guilt by his own efforts. This is what Christ does in his priestly office. But the problem of guilt is not the whole problem of man, and Jesus saving power is not limited to his power to remove the guilt incurred by sin. Fox taught that Christ, in his office of priest, not only removes guilt, but he also sanctifies us and offers us up to God without spot, or wrinkle, or blemish, or any such thing. This heavenly priest, he says, “breaks the peace of earthly priests…that hold up sinners and prop them up to plead for sin for term of life.”

Fox does not oppose the office of prophet to that of priest, but just as Protestant orthodoxy tips the scale in favor of priest, so Fox tips them in favor of the prophet. Yet Fox retains the office of priest in his Christology whereas in Protestant Christology the office of prophet is little more than an honorary title.

I have noted 30 instances where Fox identifies Christ with “a prophet like Moses.” Calvin interprets Deut. 18:18 as a promise of continuing ministry, and not as a messianic prediction (in spite of Peter and Stephen). He [Calvin] sees Jesus’ prophethood as derived solely from his priesthood, and argues that since priests are teachers, and, since Jesus is a priest, therefore Jesus can be called a prophet by virtue of his priesthood.

For Fox, the central problem of man is how to listen to the word of the creator and obey it, and this is why, in Fox’s doctrine of salvation, the emphasis is laid upon Christ as the prophet “like Moses”–the teacher and enabler. Fox’s Christianity is not simply a gloss, or commentary, on “main-stream” orthodoxy but is a bold and revolutionary attempt to experience Christ and his gospel and his cross as the power of God.

Now you have asked some direct questions and I have tried to answer them. What Fox said about Christ seems adequate to me. In fact, every kind of Christian thinking I ever heard of seemed inadequate to me until I encountered the Quaker vision.

Since J. J. Gurney the trends in Quakerism toward Christ-centeredness have been trends to correct the drift toward a vague universalism by importations from Protestant orthodoxy. There has been no movement to recover the distinctive Christ-centeredness that belongs to the Quaker vision. My own concern for the recovery of the Quaker vision has been as much resisted by Christ-centered Quakers as by any other kind.

Lewis Benson

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