ESR's Stephen W. Angell shares this reflection after attending Indiana and Ohio Valley Yearly Meetings this past summer:
The most constructive theological move that Quakers could ever make is cheerfully to agree to disagree on the Atonement. Not on the fact of the atonement itself. From the seventeenth century onwards, Quakers have properly held that the influence of Christ Jesus who died and rose again at Jerusalem 2000 years ago, and the continuing influence of the Light of Christ Jesus within us, are that in which we place our hopes and in which we rest in confidence of salvation. No, we need to be able to see reason in wide-ranging views on how exactly Christ Jesus accomplishes that atonement on our behalf. The Christian Churches as a whole have never been able to agree on the latter question, whether at the seven Ecumenical Councils prior to 787 or at any other time. Why should Quakers think that we should be able to succeed in prescribing a single view, where other Christians have failed? The sole result has been endless rounds of separations, splits, and schisms. If we could agree that varying views of the atonement are compatible, and be able to embrace many such views and be highly reluctant to exclude any, we would be far ahead of where we have been for the past 200 years.
Quakers, and Christians, are besieged on all sides. Some of the battering that Quakers in the Midwest have experienced over the past few decades has been social and economic. Several Friends at the latest sessions of Indiana Yearly Meeting (a yearly meeting of mostly evangelical Friends), including plenary speaker Ron Selleck and Van Wert Friends pastor Paul Hamrick, have given persuasive accounts of the human devastation that has resulted from the closing down of factories and the waning of family farms. Both Selleck and Hamrick discussed their ministry to people with addictions and mental illness, exacerbated, one would think, by the region’s economic decline. What these down-and-out folks require is a Savior with power, one who is able to take away their sins and to bear their punishments. On this Savior who atones vicariously (in our place) for our sins, we can lean completely and with confidence. This is the first step for these folks – let’s call them new Friends – to begin to turn around their lives. We need this powerful Savior, this Lord, who demands our obedience, and who atones for our sins in place of us!
But that is only one of the challenges that Christians – and Quakers – have faced. Another is with a highly educated elite on college and university campuses. These folk have great confidence in the power of reason, and they sometimes are put off by a religion like Christianity that celebrates the “foolishness of God [which] is wiser than men.” Friedrich Schleiermacher, an early advocate of liberal theology over two centuries ago, knew this type of skeptical audience very well, and addressed his speeches on Christianity to the “cultured despisers” of religion.
Yet this group also may be attracted by the Good News of a Christ that is our friend, one who walks and talks with us, and serves as an example for us. This is the Christ who leads us through our spiritual journey, our religious experience. This Christ Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher; and the Light of Christ Jesus that continues within us is our Inward Teacher. At Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting (a yearly meeting of mostly liberal Friends), which met the weekend after Indiana Yearly Meeting, this friendly savior Christ was very highly regarded and spoken of.
The truth, of course, is that the Christ who speaks to drug addicts and the mentally ill and the Christ who speaks to educated elites is the same Christ. The Christ who lived two millennia ago and the Christ who continues to live in our hearts is big enough to embrace all of these attributes that Christians have so impressively testified to. Sometimes, however, we want to narrow Christ down. At both Ohio Valley and Indiana Yearly Meeting, I heard voices of disapproval toward the view of Christ and Christ’s atonement that was not the featured one at that yearly meeting’s session. One speaker at Indiana Yearly Meeting stated that the fact that “Jesus was a good teacher and charismatic rabbi is important, but not enough.” The only Jesus powerful to save people deep in sin, such as people suffering from addictions, is a Jesus that has been crucified and resurrected, who has suffered for our sins in our place, despite the fact that none of us deserve it. Expressions at Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting were more fleeting, but at times there was expressed a clear preference for the model of Jesus as a friend, as the human savior who leads in the paths of the Quaker testimonies – peace, equality, simplicity, and integrity, and sometimes it may have been implied that other models of the atonement do not measure up.
This is, of course, not the first time that Quakers have taken sides on the issue of the atonement, and the results have sometimes been disastrous. Two centuries ago, Elias Hicks decried those who believed that Jesus’ blood was saving, stating that Jesus’ blood was no more instrumental in our salvation than the blood of a chicken. Orthodox Friends such as Thomas Evans and Joseph John Gurney responded with numerous assertions that the blood of Jesus was saving to all humanity, together with many Scripture passages to support their assertions. The result was a wrenching separation, which affects the Society of Friends adversely to this day.
Steve Angell is the Professor of Quaker Studies at ESR