Is the confession that “Christ is come in the flesh” at the point of convergence for theistic and nontheistic Friends? As Bierce might ask, “Can such things be?”
The phrase “Christ is come in the flesh” is from 1 John 4:1-4.
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.
A “professor” named William Jeffries attempted to use that passage against the primitive Quakers, writing, “The spirit of antichrist denies Christ come in the flesh, and says the light within is Christ, when at the best it is but the light of nature.” As do his responses to other such charges, George Fox’s response to Jeffries implies a sharp distinction between the belief that Christ came to earth (lived, died, and was raised) 2,000 years ago, which is apostate Christianity’s basis of faith, and the Quakers’ experience that Christ is come here and now in his saints, in the reality of the inner Light, by which his flesh is known in our own.
Before looking at Fox’s response to Jeffries, which will tell us more about what the phrase “Christ is come in the flesh” means in primitive Quaker exegesis and theology, a few words of caution and preparation are in order.
It’s all too easy for us to read Fox under the influence of 2,000 years of the apostate (i.e., defective!) Christian worldview. It is helpful to remember that truth is not a cognitive datum for primitive Quakerism, but is the living Christ himself (who, it bears repeating, is not a cognitive datum). Because, as Fox often said, Christ is the power of God (e.g., The Great Mystery, hereinafter GM, p. 464; see also 1 Cor. 1:24), we can say that “truth is power.” We know Christ by being empowered in his divine life of love here and now. In that intimate union, his flesh and ours is one: we are “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone” (see Gen. 2:23 and Eph. 5:30).
The church — we saints — is, then, the very body of Christ. Another traditional image of the church, that of the bride of Christ, also tells us that we are formed, as was Eve of Adam’s, of Christ’s own flesh. Fox puts the two together and tells us how to become thus incorporated into Christ: we are, in the mythic and paradoxical language of scripture, to spiritually eat the flesh of Christ. “[T]he saints are ‘flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone,’ and the church which he is head of, is his body. And every one that eats his flesh, knows his body given for the life of the world …” (GM, p. 51). To “eat” Christ’s spiritual flesh (cf. Gen. 9:4 and John 6:53) in holy communion means to be “partakers of the divine nature” through “his divine power” (2 Peter 1: 3-4) — to become, through living in the light and power of love, the living flesh and blood and bone of Christ here and now. This is not what the world knows as Christianity.
Here now is the heart of Fox’s response to Jeffries:
[No one can] know him in the flesh, confess him ‘come in the flesh,’ or know his flesh, or the flesh of the son of man, but who are in the light that comes from him that ‘doth enlighten every man,’ &c…. And walking in the light, it leads into the day, where there is no night, which light is Christ the covenant of God; and such come to know the darkness past. Now I say [none who have their] eyes closed to that of God in them … can ‘confess Christ come in the flesh,’ but only from the letter; for these know not his flesh. […] The apostates must come all to that which they have ravened from inwardly, before they come to know Christ’s flesh, and are of his flesh, and eat his flesh, and ‘confess that Christ is come in the flesh,’ who is the offering, and the sacrifice of the whole world that makes the peace between God and man, and ‘perfects for ever them that are sanctified.’ — GM, pp. 246-247, emphasis added.
“Christ the covenant of God” refers, of course, to the New Covenant (or Testament) of which the Hebrew scriptures speak:
And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it. For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)
[T]his shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
This is the new covenant/testament of peace and toleration which Paul said is “not of words [gramma: the letter; the written word; the scripture], for words kill, but of spirit, for spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). “The new covenant is Christ” (GM, p. 507), who is himself the way, the truth, the life, the gospel, the power of God (again, see GM p. 464).
In the theopoetic imagery of 1 John, it is the spirits in us that make confession, and anyone in whom the spirit is confessing that “Christ is come in the flesh” is of the spirit of God. How does the spirit make that confession in us? Again, it is not in words; as Fox points out repeatedly, the devil, the antichrist, the apostates believe and say those words. As we have seen, truth is power. Christ is come in power (GM, p. 449). To confess that “Christ is come in the flesh,” then, has nothing to do with words or beliefs: it is nothing other than to live in the power of the God who is love, to be the living presence of Christ here and now.
As Quakerism has always recognized, one need not know the words “God” and “Christ,” or the story of Jesus, in order to do that, whereas “many have the words, and [yet] deny the word itself [e.g., the divine Logos, the creating, illuminating, enlivening power of God]” — and “the word is Christ and God” (GM, pp.364 and 463, respectively). To actually “confess that Christ is come in the flesh” is to surrender to the searching and empowering work of the light of love in the heart. Then one’s life is the divine spirit’s confession, a confession not in words but in the Word, which is “the true light that enlightens every one,” the creative power of love “made flesh” in us.*
Principle. He [i.e., Samuel Eaton, ‘who calls himself a teacher of the church of Christ’] saith he doth ‘not believe that there is any substantial, essential, or personal union betwixt the eternal spirit and believers.’
Answer. [But] the scripture saith, the spirit dwells in the saints, 1 Cor. 6, and, ‘He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.’ 1 John 1. As though the saints had not union with God, which the scripture saith they have. — GM, p. 34.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits….” The spirit of the God of love is Christ, the head of the body of saints, we saints who, abiding in love, are “flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone.” Christ is come in our flesh. In light of the reality expressed in those theopoetic images, we see that words and beliefs are mere pointers, pointers that lead to delusion and death when spirits are poorly discerned. The world believes that it knows Christ, that it confesses Christ come in the flesh, but that confession, in words of belief, leaves evil rampant: the bloody “man of sin,” the spirit of self, still dominates the world. It is only in our effective life-confession, our living in the power of love, that evil is overcome. “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.”
Here, again, in our living in the unity of the holy spirit of perfect and perfecting love, not in the words “Christ is come in the flesh” but in their actualization, is the point of convergence for Friends. We do well to keep that before us, to live and celebrate our unity in the “universal love” that many of us name “God,” “till we all come, in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
* From “Several scriptures corrupted by the translators” in Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 582 (punctuation and emphasis edited): “John i. 14: ‘The word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us’; in the Greek it is in us …. By true interpretation it is, ‘the word became flesh, and pitched his tent in us.'”