Thursday, February 24, 2011

Quakers, the Atonement, and the Saving Power of Nonviolence

With Lent upon us, I decided to post an article about the atonement I wrote a couple of years ago. Not all Quakers would agree with my views--many pastoral and Evangelical Quakers agree with Anselm about the need for Jesus' blood sacrifice to placate an offended God. But Howard Brinton, William Penn and liberal Christians believe, as I do, that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross so that we could experience God's redeeming Love and transforming power.

My interest in Quaker ideas about the atonement was renewed when I read Terry Rynne's recent book Gandhi & Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence  (Orbis 2008). See

In this thoughtful book,  Rynnes, a progressive Catholic theologian/peace activist, discusses various ideas about the atonement and makes the case that those who believe in Anselm's ideas about a vindictive God also tend to support war, while those who tend towards an approach in keeping with Abelard and the early Greek church fathers did to be less violent in outlook.

Rynnes never considered Penn or Quakers like Howard Brinton, but many of Penn's theological ideas seem very contemporary and progressive, esp. his ideas about the atonement.

Penn rejected Anselm's "satisfaction" view of the atonement and was thrown into the Tower of London for dissenting from the prevailing Protestant dogma. As far as I know, Penn is the most prominent figure to have been jailed for rejecting Anselm's doctrine of the atonement. Penn's views also anticipate those of many modern liberal theologians. Howard Brinton also supports Penn's view of the atonement, which rejects the idea that Jesus had to die for our sins to satisfy God's justice.

Penn writes: "I can boldly challenge any person to give me one Scripture phrase which does approach the doctrine of satisfaction, (much less the name) considering to what degree it's stretched; not that we do deny, but really confess that Jesus Christ, in life, doctrine and death, fulfilled his Father's will, and offered up a most satisfactory sacrifice, but not to pay God, or help him (as otherwise unable) to save men; and for a justification by imputative righteousness, whilst not real, it's merely an imagination, not a reality, and therefore rejected; otherwise confest and known to be justifying before God, because there is no abiding in Christ's love without keeping his commandments." (For full story and text, see

Penn argues that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for our sakes, so that we might be inwardly transformed. Through taking up the cross of Christ, we are given transforming power enabling us to "abide in Christ's love" and "keep his commandments." For Penn and other Quakers, the most important commandment is to "love our enemies" and "lay down our lives for our friends" (hence the name, the Religious Society of Friends). By accepting Jesus as our savior, and Inward Teacher, we become empowered to live "in that life and power that takes away the occasion of war" (George Fox).

Because Quakers experienced this transforming power, they were willing to risk their lives and go to stinking dungeons for the sake of their convictions. Some were willing even to go to jail on behalf of other Quakers. When George Fox was sent to a peculiarly noisome dungeon, a Quaker petitioned Oliver Cromwell and asked to be allowed to go to prison in Fox's place. This act of self-sacrifice shook up Cromwell and he decided to let Fox go. I am reminded of Gandhi's satyagraha--enduring suffering for the sake of the Truth.

Quakers were empowered not so much by a theological interpretation, but by a religious practice that enabled them to experience the power of God's love and grace. They "were still" and knew the power of God within. By turning to the "Inward Light of Christ," we see our own fallen condition (alienation from God and others, self-will, selfishness) and also its cure, self-sacrificial love.

Quakers not only rejected the idea of a vindictive God who required "satisfaction," they also rejected the idea that Jesus' death on the cross "imputes righteousness" to us sinners and thereby relieves us of the responsibility of living up to Jesus's commandments. We are saved not simply by "believing" in Christ but by living our faith in "evangelical obedience" (a lovely phrase!). As Penn writes:

As for justification by an imputed righteousness, I still say that whosovever believes in Christ shall have remission and justification, but then it must be such a faith as can no more live without works than a body without a spirit; wherefore I conclude that true faith comprehends evangelical obedience.

As Penn said elsewhere, "True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it."

Like modern liberals, Penn was not interested simply in personal salvation or transformation. He wanted (with Divine Assistance) to change the world. That's why he founded Pennsylvania as a "Holy Experiment," a model community where religious toleration was practiced. He also advocated for a League of Nations to resolve conflicts nonviolently among the nations of Europe.

To which, Gandhi and liberal theologians would say, AMEN, SHANTIH!


  1. Friend:
    I would classify myself not as a liberal Friend but as a Christ-centered convergent Friend -- and I also reject Anselm's satisfaction view (& Calvin's substitutionary view) of the Atonement -- as being totally at odds with the Lamb's War view of a non-violent God & Christ! I have been on record as far back as 1999 as seeing those views as being rejected by early Friends (Barclay especially) ["Some Issues From 19th-Century Quakerism", Quaker Religious Thought vol. 29 no. 2]. I am currently in process of revising an article (proposing an alternative theory of the Atonement) for Quaker Studies. Surprisingly, it is only in the past couple of weeks, working on this revision, that I read Penn's masterful Sandy Foundation Shaken, refuting the satisfaction theory!

    I can recommend 3 21st-century books which reject or seriously question the satisfaction/substitution theories and propose alternate views -- all seeing the Atonement as the non-violent work of a non-violent God: J. Denny Weaver (Mennonite), The Nonviolent Atonement; R. Larry Shelton (Free Methodist), Cross & Covenant; Gregory A. Love (Presbyterian), Love, Violence, and the Cross.

    Vail Palmer

  2. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for writing this interpretive article on the atonement and William Penn.


    In the Light,

    Daniel Wilcox

  3. Dear Vail, Thanks for letting me know about your work, which sounds very interesting and useful. My focus has been on Howard Brinton and his theological contribution. He also supported Penn's views on the Atonement.

  4. I read an article by J. Denny Weaver, which was a condensed version of his book The Nonviolent Atonement ( It was a real revelation to me. Since then, I too have rejected the "satisfaction" doctrine and also the vicarious redemption doctrine, to the point of self-sacrifice. I think that Jesus just (just!!) lived what he preached to the end. And I think we are called upon to do the same. All the rest is theology.

  5. That Barclay rejected a sacrificial understanding of the Atonement would have been news to Barclay:

    "First then, we renounce all natural power in ourselves, in order to bring us out of our lost and fallen condition and first nature; and confess, that as of ourselves we are able to do nothing that is good, so neither can we procure remission of sins or justification by any act of our own, so as to merit it, or draw it as a debt from God due unto us; but we acknowledge all to be of and from his love, which is the fundamental cause of our acceptance.

    Secondly, God manifested this love towards us, in the sending of his beloved Son the Lord Jesus Christ into the world, who gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet-smelling savour, having made peace through the blood of his cross, that he might reconcile us unto himself; and by the Eternal Spirit offered himself without spot unto God, and suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us unto God.

    Thirdly then, Forasmuch as all men who have come to man's estate, (the man Jesus only excepted) have sinned, therefore all have need of this Saviour, to remove from them the wrath of God due to their offences; in this respect he is truly said to have borne the iniquities of us all in his body on the tree, and therefore is the only Mediator, having averted the wrath of God from us; so that our former sins stand not in our way, being by virtue of his most satisfactory sacrifice removed and pardoned."

    See Apology, VII.3

    As for Penn:

    "In fine, having taught this Doctrine, and lived as he spoke, he died to confirm it, and offer'd up himself a Propitiation for the Sins of the whole World, when no other Sacrifice could be found, that could atone for Man with God: Who, rising above the Power of Death and the Grave, hath led Captivity captive and is become the First-born from the Dead, and Lord of the Living; and his living People praise him, who is worthy for ever."

    See No Cross, No Crown.

    Am I missing something?

  6. To anonymous:

    It is possible to believe in the cross as a sacrifice without accepting the satisfaction or substitution theory. The opposing Christus Victor theory also uses the language of sacrifice. See Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, pages 31 and 57-58.

    Vail Palmer