26 March 2009

Are Quakers Protestant?

A few days ago I was talking with a group about the importance of the Protestant-Eastern Orthodox dialogue, identifying us Friends with Protestants. Someone in the group said that Friends in her country, particularly when relating to the ecumenical movement, asserted that we Quakers were not Protestants but entirely a separate movement.

I don't agree, and will continue to identify Friends with Protestants, even though I respect the "outside the box" thinking that the separate-movement idea can encourage. Here are some of the reasons why I think it is important for Friends to understand our Protestant grounding:

1) The "we're not Protestant" position plays on a familiar conceit shared with many other Christian movements: "We're different, original, authentic, primitive." Given Friends' abiding temptation toward spiritual elitism, I think it is important to recognize that almost every renewal movement worth its salt makes this claim. The original Protestants of the 16th century didn't say, "We are launching a new movement," they asserted that they were returning to apostolic or biblical authenticity. And almost every "innovation" we Friends like to credit ourselves with was anticipated by earlier Christian reform movements.

2) Furthermore, I've often observed that the "we're not Protestant" Friends sometimes use a simplistic comparison, viewing Protestantism simply as a Christian movement that puts the Word first (theologically, the Bible; liturgically, the sermon), in contrast to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tendencies to prioritize the Eucharist and church tradition, and the role of the hierarchy in interpreting the Bible. There's some value in this analysis, as long as it is applied modestly and cautiously--I've seen plenty of Protestants who emphasize the sacraments, tradition, hierarchy, mysticism, and so on. And Catholics and Orthodox congregations vary widely in the functional importance of Bible study, teaching, preaching, and lay participation.

3) The Friends movement began in the specific historical context of England in the mid-17th century, as Christians confronted their compromised leadership, the church's political enmeshments and tensions, new access to the Bible, and expectations of the impending end of history. In conducting these controversies, they drew directly from the arguments and categories of the Reformation. These were often life-and-death issues. If we spiritualize our origins and pretend that we are somehow outside history, or invent a direct historical line of descent to the apostolic era, it's only a small step to the next expression of our irrelevance--the conceit that we're a whole new religion. Of course we rightly acknowledge the inspiration of God's primordial Holy Spirit in our formation, but every Christian movement does the same!

4) Another reason that we need that historic anchor: the false accusation that we are a heretical sect or a cult. In the consumerist context of North America, this may now seem like a minor problem, but for Friends in Russia and East Africa, and elsewhere, this issue is huge. (Not so many years ago, East African Friends were confronted by a prominent source with precisely this accusation--that Friends were a cultic novelty.) In conducting our loving and worthwhile dissent from the majority Christian perspective on certain issues--including the nature of leadership and discernment, the role of social status vs spiritual gifts in leadership, the disciple's attitudes to violence and wealth, and the realities of sin and perfection--we have every right to engage with our conversation partners as peers who love the same God and live in the same stream of salvation history. Protestantism, with all its defects, is a concrete, known, honorable movement in world Christianity; in comparison, what weight and presence does a disembodied, self-mythologizing Quakerism have?

5) It's sometimes argued that Friends have evolved into a movement that would not fit into the categories of traditional Protestants. However, it's hard to think of any Protestant body that's been around for more than a couple of centuries which isn't in a similar situation.

6) My most important reason for claiming the Protestant label is that the core tenets of Protestantism are important parts of the Quaker DNA, even though in our self-absorption we may forget that we didn't manufacture that DNA ourselves. Salvation by faith is closely related to "convincement." (We get into trouble when we forget salvation by faith and begin to think that we have to reproduce every nuance of certain quakerish folkways to be truly Friends.) The doctrine of Scripture alone does not depend on a tightly calibrated understanding of authorship or inerrancy to make it clear that the Bible protects us from extrabiblical requirements, gnostic expertise, and other false authorities. The priesthood of all believers is central to Friends.

Paul Tillich proposed a "Protestant principle"--
. . . the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality, even if this claim is made by a Protestant church. The Protestant principle is the judge of every religious and cultural reality, including the religion and culture which calls itself "Protestant."
Friends honor this principle in our radical skepticism toward presumptuous authority and, more positively, when we understand that "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

I do not believe that Protestants are better Christians than Roman Catholic or Orthodox people. The best insights of Protestantism are not in fact owned by anyone, nor are these insights, by themselves, a sufficient basis for a whole church. The original role of Protestants may have been to confront corruption in a specific time and place; but that focus probably also led to an undervaluing of the Holy Spirit, tradition, and the role of nonverbal communication of faith, which in part are the strengths of the Catholic and Orthodox streams. I just think that we Friends will be best equipped to participate in crucial ecumenical conversations when we operate as embodied people fully aware of our public history, with all its prophetic elements as well as its deficiencies.

In the comments below, Bill Samuel refers to his own article on the same subject. Take a look.

Also see my earlier post, "What differentiates Quakers from other Christians?"

Serge Schmemann, son of the eminent Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, writes about the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia today for National Geographic. (Thank you, NPR.) ~~ Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov says that Russia would be better served by not emerging too soon from its economic difficulties. ~~ Another book for my wish list, based on this review: Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University. ~~ David Finke's Easter message. ~~ Unexpected ministry: Bart and William speak in meeting.

Speaking of roots, here is my dessert for this Thursday evening: Lucky Peterson plays a slow "Tin Pan Alley."

Lucky Peterson : Tin Pan Alley по ripa170


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Johan,

I don't think Quakers are Protestant in the general sense of the word since so many of the latter hold to Calvinism's TULIP, especially double predestination.

It is true that Quakers are part of the radical reformation along with the Swiss Brethren, Mennonites, etc., but I would tend to agree with several Friends historians who say the Friends movement is actually closer to Catholicism. As Elton Trueblood pointed out, Quaker emphasized the limitless love of God for everyone in contrast to the Puritan focus on limited atonement.

Indeed, the English authorities often accused Quakers of being secret Catholics.

In some ways, Friends are closest to Eastern Orthodox--not in the ritual sense, but theologically.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Bill said...

In Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism Carol Dale Spencer does a pretty convincing job of tying together the Catholic mystic, anabaptist and protestant roots of us Quakers.

Hystery said...

My experience and training within the most liberal Protestant tradition and my study of the history of liberal Protestantism in the United States coupled with my critical observation of Friends for the past several years tells me that laying aside obvious historical differences in theology,there is very little functional difference between what liberal Protestants and Christian Friends believe. In fact, in some important ways, liberal Protestants and Christian Friends have more in common than Christian and Universalist Friends. Indeed, I've noted a greater tendency toward emphasis on biblical authority among Friends than among liberal Protestants with decidedly universalist tendencies. In a postmodern, deeply pluralist world, perhaps many of these traditional labels are rapidly losing form. There are very few of us with pure religious pedigrees.

Granted, there are important theological differences between orthodox Calvinism and Friends' theologies and there are some critical differences in faith in practice between Friends and Protestants (much of this stemming from Friends' rejection of pastoral authority). However, Calvinism with its predestination and emphasis on sin, etc. hasn't been en vogue in (mainline graduate level) Protestant seminaries for a long time- certainly not since the seventies when my dad was in seminary and if one dates it back to the historical changes in the mid- to late- nineteenth century in the United States, much longer. Henry Ward Beecher and his ilk were already dismantling Calvinism long before we got to guys like Rauschenbusch and Tillich and later liberation, post-colonial and feminist theologies.

I am cautious about conflating historical/orthodox definitions arising out of our traditions' origins and early development in the 16th- 18th centuries and practiced popular theologies of today. I also maintain that if one were to spend significant time studying how Protestants define themselves in mainline seminaries, Friends would find that the differences between themselves and the Protestant seminarians is minimal. In all this, I emphasize mainline Protestantism, especially as it is communicated academically and professionally and do not refer to fundamentalist, charismatic, Pentacostal, etc. denominations and interpretations. That's a whole 'nother thing.

Tom Smith said...

I had an acquaintance with a Greek Orthodox layman who explained his (Greek Orthodox) beliefs in comparison to Friends with respect to authority and direct relationship with God. He made a relatively convincing comparison. It was a fairly new view to me.

I am in many ways convinced of the movement toward Protestantism in the Society of Friends as a move toward authority (of pastors, scripture, etc.) This does seem to me to be a movement away from "traditional" Friends. This is my take and does not try to measure right/wrong in the practices/faith of Christians or in worshippers of God. I try not to succumb to the temptation that my way is better than yours. I do believe CELEBRATION of diversity provides a much more beautiful mosaic or tapestry of belief. However, I do NOT believe that ANY belief is "acceptable."

Read my "book" to understand my beliefs. It will come out when I have all the answers to ???

A Seeker of Truth and Reality

Anonymous said...

For me, it would be a matter of how much is included in the term "Protestants". I believe Friends originally had much more in common with Anabaptists and Lollards than they did with Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists. Were the Anabaptists & Lollards "Protestants"? If yes, then I would also include Friends. If no, if the Anabaptists & Lollards were a "third type", (Maurice Creasey's "Radical Christians & Christian Radicalism"), I would want to classify Friends with that group! (In other words, it might be possible to classify Friends as other than Protestants without claiming absolute uniqueness for us.)

Bill Samuel said...

The classifications always have something of an arbitrary quality to them. So a question like this does not have a definitive yes or no answer.

Anyway, I wrote on this subject years ago. See Are Quakers Protestant?.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Bill! I admit that I read your article in the process of writing mine. You can see that I came out in a somewhat different place, but I decided not to comment on yours. I was disagreeing with the comment I heard last week, not with your article--in particular, not with your point that the early Friends were asserting quite a lot of distance between themselves and the Protestants of their day.

I think that, within Friends, this discussion about the accuracy and usefulness of calling ourselves Protestant can't be resolved finally (and, given our blessed diversity, won't be!). But as we engage with the wider ecumenical and interfaith world, it is valuable to understand the theological vocabulary, historical references, and social context of Protestantism, interpreted broadly. And I admit I tend to have a very broad interpretation of Protestantism--essentially encompassing the reform movements that broke the "official," monopolistic claims of the Eastern and Western Churches (the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) with sufficient persistence, clarity, and numbers to form a genuine third movement of Christianity.

All of these discussions pale in significance to the ability of individuals and communities to know and respond to Jesus in their midst, and from that knowledge and response, to "shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round," to quote George Fox's journal. This knowing, responding, and "shaking" is a lot more important than discussing, analyzing, and categorizing. But it's also important to be coherent and accessible; and to consider where we are in the larger Christian landscape is a contribution to wider communication.

(This whole "pale in significance" point would sound very Protestant to some of my Eastern Orthodox friends.)

As Daniel says, in some ways we're closest to the Eastern Orthodox, whom I admire greatly for their ability to keep cerebral theology and mystical reality in partnership. I also see important points of contact with Pentecostals. And those Christians who apparently seem least like us, for example the Calvinists, have valuable challenges for us. Calvinists stubbornly proclaim the sovereignty of God and provide a standing challenge to all forms of legalism, including the unwritten legalism into which Friends and Holiness Christians are sometimes tempted. (As for TULIP, I don't know many Protestants who hew narrowly and literally to these five points. As for early Friends' attitudes toward original sin and total depravity, it's worth noting that Barclay flatly declared that people could not overcome sin on their own, without Jesus, even though he also rejected the doctrine of original sin. Early Friends, who were persecuted sometimes to the point of martyrdom, did not oppose the doctrine of original sin with mindless optimism.)

Many thanks to Hystery, Vail, and Tom for the points you made, which helped me clarify my thinking. I agree with the cautions you-all expressed about the ultimate usefulness of these categories

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello again Johan,

I would agree with Hystery that there is not a great difference between modern liberal Protestantism and liberal Friends.

But them 'ain't' the kind of Protestants I usually have dealt with. For some reason I have repeatedly encountered the 5-point Calvinist Protestants in the last 40 years who never tire of emphasizing how much God doesn't love most people and that Jesus only died in a limited atonement.

The central reason I left evangelical Protestantism and became a Quaker is to leave such horrific theology. After I read the creeds such as Westminster and the Synods of Dort, etc., I agreed with Wesley when he said he would rather be an atheist. And reading Quakers such as Barclay were such Good News!

Maybe I am predestined;-) to counter 5-point Calvinists' Despairing News.

In the Light of God's limitless love and unlimited atonement.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I held off commenting on this one, and I’m glad I did, for the sake of the others who commented before me.

Johan, you made what I thought were a number of welcome points here. I particularly liked your discussion of Orthodox Friends’ continued commitment to the Bible as a corrective.

I quite agree that Friends-in-general are Protestants, and I think I’d go a step further and say that we were originally a correction of Lutheran-Calvinism, within (not outside) that movement. It is both a historical and a categorical error to think we have more in common with the Eastern Orthodox, given that (1) early Friends had no contact with eastern Orthodoxy, (2) the Eastern Orthodox never bought into the belief in the total depravity of humankind which traditional Friends inherit from Luther and Calvin, and (3) early Friends never believed in things such as a priesthood and sacraments that are quite clearly central to Eastern Orthodox praxis.

Nor does it make sense to look for our roots in Anabaptism, when early Friends were at such pains to deny the connection, or in Lollardry, which had pretty much died out of England two generations before Quakerism arose. Reading the opening pages of the Putney Army Debates is a useful corrective here: one can see this thoroughly Calvinist body, Cromwell’s New Model Army, using the purest Quaker methods of Spirit-led collective discernment years before the rise of Quakerism, and one can then recall that a large part of the early Quaker movement, including many of its greatest leaders, came directly out of the New Model Army. Quakerism can be described quite well as being simply the result of taking the implications of the New Model Army’s version of Christian faithfulness to their logical conclusions.

Certainly most of the branches of Friends evolved away from Lutheran and Calvinist ideas in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in doing so they did not cease to be Protestant; they simply became post-Lutheran, post-Calvinist Protestants. Gurneyite Friends moved away from Lutheranism and Calvinism in a Wesleyan direction; Hicksites moved away in a Unitarian direction.

Today it may even be true that a majority of FGC Quakers are no longer Protestants at all (and no longer, in the proper sense, even Friends); yet the organization, FGC, still shows strong Protestant traits. Such is the innate conservatism of organized religion.

So far as I know, the only thing required to be “orthodox” Protestant is subscription to the ideas affirmed in the Apostolicum. (Do you understand otherwise?) And I believe all major branches of Friends except for FGC, which is to say, all major branches descended from the Orthodox side of the Orthodox-Hicksite separation, meet this standard. This needs to be said to anyone in Russia, Africa, or elsewhere who does not understand.

As a minor criticism, I’d like to suggest to you that treating salvation by faith as “closely related” to our Quaker concept of convincement is dangerously misleading. Our Quaker concept of convincement is at root a reference to the Biblical passage about being convinced of sin, and righteousness, and judgment. And the way early Friends were convinced of these three things was by experiencing themselves as sinful, experiencing the righteousness of God, and experiencing God’s judgment upon themselves. By this standard, Luther was convinced in our Quaker sense of the term, and it was Luther’s convincement that made his great spiritual breakthrough possible. But where Luther’s great breakthrough was to salvation by grace through faith, Fox’s breakthrough was to salvation by grace through obedience. That difference goes to the heart of the way in which Quakerism was a deliberate correction of Lutheranism.

I believe Daniel is mistaken in thinking that TULIP is definitive of Protestantism “in the general sense of the word”. It is too easy to find huge bodies of respectable Protestants that are not subscribers to TULIP, including not only the Methodists but also the Restorationists, many Pentecostals, and a good percentage of the Anglicans.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Some good points there from Marshall, especially his point about Pentecostals, as early Friends practiced many of the gifts of the Spirit. I was surprised to read in one historical study that some early Friends spoke in tongues.

I guess I should clarify where Marshall thinks I am mistaken.

By Protestantism I was referring to the main Reformers (except for the radical ones such as the Brethren and Mennonites) and their descendents and creeds.

The main Reformers including Luther (and most of the creeds) denied humans have a choice, emphasized that God doesn't love or will for many humans to be saved and that Jesus didn't die for many of us. I will never forget the shock of first learning this.

Reading Trueblood's book A People Called Quakers, where he said a central trust of Quakers is that God loves and wills for everyone to be saved. What good news!

Luther in his disagreements with Erasmus said some very horrible things about God, how God doesn't love many of us, of how we have no choice to respond to God, etc.

Quakers do have many similarities to Methodists and Pentencostals, including the fact that some of the latter were strongly influenced by Quakers at the start of the 1900's. In fact many early Pentecostals (the Assembly of God, the Church of God in Christ, etc.) in the 1900's were pacifists in Christ, because of the witness of a leading Quaker.

Church history is a wonderous story, except when the Reformers denied God loves everyone and held some of us were pre-damned without hope.

That was where the Friends movement came in with great good news.

Unknown said...

Johan, thanks for your thoughtful and helpful post. I agree mainly that Quakers are pretty much historically Protestants, although they have theological connections with both Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. They came out of the Protestant era (although a little late), and attacked very similar things in their Protestant contemporaries that the early Reformation leaders had attacked in the Catholic church. Much of this had to do with abuse of power, dead rituals, and a reminder that each person is part of the Body of Christ, not just the priests.

At the same time, it must be remembered that Quakers were calling for reform of already-established Protestant groups. Perhaps this is not an important distinction, because then we would have to say that any denomination created after the 16th century is not truly "Protestant." But I still think it's important.

Another important thing to note is that, although you talk about places where it's detrimental for Quakers to not be associated with Protestants, there are also places where this is a welcome distinction. Two examples:

1. Northern Ireland. Quakers in Northern Ireland in the last 50 years have been able to do a lot of reconciliation work because they are neither "Protestant" or "Catholic," ethnically or religiously. If they had been a Protestant group working for peace, there would not have been the same effect.

2. More personally, once I was at a conference for a national group of atheists and agnostics (long story), and I was hanging out with this group of young adults, and when it came out that I was a Christian people were shocked and looked repulsed. When I explained I was a Quaker, they were somewhat relieved--they have heard of Quakers in history classes and they respect them. They see something different about Quakers than if I had said I was a "Protestant." This is a somewhat different argument than the one between Protestants and Catholics, but it's important nonetheless--hopefully we're not just remembered for our history of integrity and living out Christ's love, but we are known for it today, in ways that cross denominational and other boundaries. Hopefully we can be engaged in the ecumenical movement without losing our identity and without being spiritual elitists, as you put it!

Johan Maurer said...

Cherice, your cautions are good. One doesn't communicate anything valuable with the word "Protestant" if there are no shared understandings of what that means, and no space to develop those shared understandings.

The history of Friends in Northern Ireland does contain some bit of anti-Catholicism, as does our history in Latin America. However, in confirmation of your point, I can cite this lovely story from A Place Apart by Dervla Murphy:

"Towards the end of my time in Northern Ireland I had a strange little experience. I had been invited to stay with a family of whom I knew nothing, in a town I had not visited before, and the surname was to my ears 'theologically' neutral. When I telephoned to announce my time of arrival an elderly man [p] spoke to me and during our brief conversation I got an impression of unusual gentleness and warmth. At dusk I found the neat little bungalow and immediately realised that this was not a Catholic home - but neither was it Northern Irish Protestant. I felt sure of that because of the family's demeanour ('aura' would be a better word but it makes people laugh). Yet everybody had a marked Northern accent and the whole thing was quite baffling.

"As we talked I found myself communicating without any constraint, as I would have done among old friends. 'Atmosphere' is something that has fascinated me in many parts of the world; it is so definite and yet so indefinable. In that atmosphere I was aware of relaxing completely, as I had not done for what seemed like a long time. The familiar Northern tension was not there and I felt no need to be careful lest I give offence. Then, after a few hours, the mystery was solved by a chance remark. I was among Quakers."

Unknown said...

Johan "I was among Quakers". Wow, beautiful.Thanks for that my Friend.