Messianic Succession

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By Warren Lewis

Warren LewisWhen I applied for a job at Unification Theological Seminary in 1975, Unificationist John Sonneborn was assigned to introduce me to Divine Principle, a summary of the teachings of Sun Myung Moon. My future employers wanted me, at least, to have an acquaintance with the confessional point of view of my students to whom I would be teaching Church History.

When we got to the part about the migration of messiahship from person to person, from Jesus, the Messiah (Christ) of the First Advent, to — as Unificationists believe — Rev. Moon, “Lord of the Second Advent,” I brightened. “Oh!” I said, “That is similar to the idea of Peter John Olivi” (ca. 1248-1298), on whose Apocalypse commentary I have been working. “He believed that St. Francis was the second advent of Christ, in spirit.”

Dr. Sonneborn was astonished and delighted to discover that someone else in Christian history had conceived of “the second coming” as fulfilled by someone other than the person of the historical Jesus. I got the job.

During my course in Church History, we would touch on other “fulfillments” of messianic expectation:  Abraham Abulafia (13th century) and Sabbatai Zevi (17th century), Jewish messiahs; various Muslim Mahdis; and, especially Mother Ann Lee, the 18th century “Coming of Christ in the Female Line” and foundress of the Shakers.

Peter John Olivi (ca. 1248-1298)

Everyone has heard of Francis of Assisi, but who was Peter John Olivi? Why did he think St. Francis was the “Lord of the Second Advent?” How could it have come about that a devout Christian could believe that some person other than the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth could have been the Second Coming of Christ?

Olivi was born about 20 years after Francis (1181/82-1226) had died, and became a member of the religious order that St. Francis had founded in 1209. Awestruck by Francis’s holiness and miracles, Olivi devoutly followed Francis as Francis had followed Christ.

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