Program Robert Barclay Apology


Notes for September 27, 2009 Program on
A Brief Introduction to
Apology for the True Christian Divinity
Robert Barclay


What are your thoughts about the implications of using or not using scripture, creed, or dogma as authority? At the time of early Quakers, religion was authorized and protected by the government, and questioning the religious authority had more political implications than it does today, or at least different implications. What religious beliefs or practices could impact politics today in a fashion similar to the impact of Quaker beliefs in the 17th century? What religious beliefs or practices support established government policy, if any?

As you may be aware, Quakers have a wide diversity of thought regarding religion with many being “Christocentric” while others reject Christ as divine at all, at least not in a way that would distinguish him from all other humans. Some are quite conservative theologically, affirming traditional beliefs about the atonement of sins by the death of Christ and the resurrection of Christ. Others see themselves on a spiritual path that might include input from different religious traditions and could be viewed as Christian only in the sense that they take part in a path that has origins in the Christian tradition. For such a small religious group, there is considerable diversity.

Barclay, as were the early Quakers, was quite radical in his time. They refused to acknowledge the religious authority of Rome, the Church or England, or the Puritan preachers which caused them to be subject to widespread and severe persecution both in Europe and in America. Leading up to the religious conflicts of the late 17th century, religion was controlled by the state. Beliefs that were considered heresy in the eyes of religious authority were suppressed by the power of the state. So religious freedom had strong political connotations.

Barclay’s Apology was an attempt to present Quaker thought in the face of severe opposition so as to persuade readers of the gentle and religious nature of Quakers. The Apology is addressed to the King of England as well as friendly readers, and presented Quaker beliefs with extensive support from scriptures, church fathers, respected non-Christian writers, and more recent writers from the various reformation traditions.

The importance of a system of thought is not only found in the beliefs themselves but in how the beliefs function in the society where they are believed. Rejection of baptism and the eucharist, for example, was not just a matter of theological differences, but could be seen by religious leaders intent on maintaining conformity as a threat to the authority of the state or as an affront to God. Today these beliefs may seem quite tame in comparison to those times. It would be interesting to investigate what beliefs would be as threatening today and how much impact these beliefs have on Quakers today.

Although Barclay’s Apology is quite readable to current readers of English, there are a number of words that have slightly different connotations than their usage today. A prominent example is the word “Divinity” in the title of this work. Its meaning here is more like the word “theology” and perhaps similar to the use of the word in “Master’s of Divinity” degree or “divinity student”. A glossary of words whose meaning has changed is provided here.

This program will introduce only the first three propositions and propositions five and six, given the limited amount of time for the program. Barclay included fifteen propositions.

This presentation of Barclay is not intended to suggest Barclay’s Apology is authoritative for Quakers or without error. It is simply to introduce participants to an important document in Quaker history.

Context of the Apology

Robert Barclay, a contemporary of George Fox, first published the Apology in Latin in Amsterdam in 1676. Amsterdam was a center of dissent against the Catholic Church, and about 100 year earlier was a refuge for Huguenot Calvinists fleeing France. Anabaptism was also prevalent in Amsterdam at the time and some decades before. The Apology was published in English two years later.

England separated from the Church of Rome in 1534 under the reign Henry VIII. The institution of the Church of England by Henry VIII was preceded by various expressions of dissent against the Church of England and coincided with a rise in nationalism that paralleled the decline of feudalism.

In 1649 King Charles I was beheaded and after Oliver Cromwell defeated the army of Charles II, the Calvinists Puritans ruled. Charles II escaped to France and returned to rule in 1660 after the fall of Cromwell’s rule. Under Charles II’s rule, the parliament re-established the Church of England and passed a series of acts called the Clarendon Code aimed at restricting the influence of nonconformists. Charles II tried to introduce religious freedom for Catholics and protestant dissenters with a Royal Declaration of Indulgence in 1672 but was forced to withdraw it by Parliament. Barclay addressed the Apology in part to Charles II and included an introduction called “Unto Charles the Second, King of England”.

Religious dissent at the time of early Quakers, as it was throughout the reformation, was not only about religious issues but it also had political implications. In England, as in most of Christendom, the public was taxed to support the Church. The nationalism in England and the resentment of taxes going to Rome, and Bishops being appointed by Rome contributed to the support for Henry VII to create the Church of England. So the question of religious authority both for people opposing the Church of Rome and for Puritans and other dissenters opposing the authority of the Church of England was not only heresy, it was subversive. In the case of opposition to the Church of England and to the Puritans while they ruled, teaching that the established Church was not authoritative in religious matters either directly or as interpreters of authoritative scriptures could be considered seditious.

The Puritans, from which most Quakers came, had a Calvinist theology, which was deterministic and taught that individuals were predestined to heaven or hell before their birth. In contrast, Quakers taught a much more optimistic view of God as being available through the inward spirit of god in every person; Barclay wrote of the “inner God” and of the “inward grace of God” that was “sufficient to work out salvation.”

The First Proposition: Concerning the true Foundation of Knowledge

All happiness is placed in the true knowledge of God …

Do Quakers believe this? How important is this belief?

Barclay starts the first proposition with the statement ” Seeing the height of all happiness is placed in the true knowledge of God … , the true and right understanding of this foundation and ground of knowledge is that which is most necessary to be known and believed in the first place.”

In this short proposition, approaching a knowledge of God is described in phrases like ” sense of his own unworthiness”, and ” real glances of
God’s Light upon his heart”, with a warning against a possibility that a person seeking God would ” embrace any thing that brings present ease” and thereby creating a false peace. Interestingly, he provides support for this first proposition from both scriptures and from Epictetus.

Barclay’s proposition on the knowledge of God is much shorter than the other propositions, but each of the next two propositions builds on the idea and gives us more detail about what he means by “knowledge of God.”

The Second Proposition: Of Immediate Revelation

” … the testimony of the Spirit is that alone by which the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be only revealed;.”

In the synopsis of this proposal, Barclay says, ” … the testimony of the Spirit is that alone by which the true knowledge of God hath been, is, and can be only revealed;.” This synopsis includes three primary points:

1) It is only through the testimony of the Spirit that true knowledge of God is revealed, and this spirit is the same as that which was manifested to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets and to the apostles of the New Testament.

2) These inward revelations that are necessary to building up a true faith do not contradict scriptures or natural reason.

3) These divine revelations are not to be subjected to a test of the outward testimony of Scriptures nor to the natural reason of humans, “…as to a more noble or certain rule and touchstone.”

This immediate revelation is spoken of as ” inward illumination” and distinguishes between what I would describe as conceptual knowledge and direct knowledge. For example, he says, “… we do distinguish betwixt the certain knowledge of God, and the uncertain; betwixt the spiritual knowledge, and the literal; the saving heart-knowledge, and the soaring, airy head-knowledge.” He then supports his statements about immediate revelation using extensive quotes from the scriptures and from Church Fathers including Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Jerome, Athanasius, Gregory the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Origen, and Bernard.

Barclay spends several pages writing about people of religious prominence who had considerable training in Christian theology and history who were “… wholly unacquainted with the movings and actings of God’s Spirit upon their hearts” and have no knowledge of God since, ” there was no true knowledge of God but that which is revealed inwardly by his own Spirit.”


Questions for Thought or Discussion on First Two Propositions

The following questions are more of a quick brain dump than exact questions to use in the discussion. There are certainly too many to cover in the time allotted for the program. If any strike an interest, we can use them in the discussion.

  • How does knowledge coming from an experience (e.g. feeling gravity) differ from explanations conveyed in language or concepts about the experience (e.g. Is gravity a force? Is it curvature in space? Is it related to quantum physics, or string theory? Is it the result of a law? Where does the law reside and how is that different from Deism? Is it God saying do it again?). Is it truthful to say I know gravity without being able to explain it?
  • What is the difference, if any, between knowledge to which Barclay is referring when he talks of “testimony of the spirit” and knowledge coming from reading or hearing or using natural logic?
  • What is objective truth? How does one find it? Does it depend on accepting an authority? How does one objectively decide on an authority that should be used to determine objective truth? Is truth different from concepts and language about truth, or are references to truth only conceptual or language-based? Give an example of truth that is not conceptual or language-based. Give an example of truth that comes entirely from logic or concepts without a reference to an experience.
  • To what extent are our explanations and conceptions about God and about immediate revelation subjective? To what extent is direct or experiential knowledge subjective? How do you distinguish subjective from objective?
  • To what extend does the word “God” refer to an experience, and to what extent does it refer to a concept? (Recall Augustine’s quote that you would not be seeking God if you did not already know God.) What other words could be used that could point to God, if any?
  • Can knowledge of God be reached by logic? Since logic always depends on premises from which to start (e.g. axioms of mathematics in mathematical proofs), what premises are necessary to use logic to get to truth about God through logic?
  • The beginning of a use of the scriptures today as an authority in matters of faith can be traced back to the reformation and the rejection of the authority of the Pope in matters of faith. Quakers went a step further and denied the authority of the scriptures as “rule or touchstone” to test inward revelations. What role should authority have in matters of faith?



The Third Proposition: Concerning the Scriptures

“… a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, …”

Barclay summarizes this proposition as follows:

From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints have proceeded the Scriptures of Truth, which contain,

I. A faithful historical account of the actings of God’s people in divers ages; with many singular and remarkable providences attending them.

II. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come.

III. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ, held forth in divers precious declarations, exhortations and sentences, which, by the moving of God’s Spirit, were at several times, and upon sundry occasions, spoken and written unto some churches and their pastors.

Yet, he proclaims ” because they are a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. “

Barclay addresses the teachings of other reformists, unable to establish Scriptures as authoritative by means of logic, relied on the Spirit of God as persuading believers that the scriptures are true certainty. Calvin relied on “the testimony of the Holy Spirit”; the French Churches relied on ” the testimony and inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit”. He continues through numerous historical Christian writings including the writings in the scriptures themselves to demonstrate the repeated establishing of “… the Spirit, and not the Scriptures, is the foundation and ground of all Truth and knowledge, and the primary rule of faith and manners.”

Though Barclay made Scriptures secondary to knowledge of the spirit, he says, “… we do look upon them as the only fit outward judge of controversies among Christians; and that whatsoever doctrine is contrary unto their testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false.” He also says that divine inward revelations, “…neither do nor can ever contradict the outward testimony of the Scriptures, or right and sound reason.”

Questions regarding proposition three, concerning Scriptures

  • Barclay rejected Scriptures as the principle ground of Truth and knowledge, but nonetheless affirmed that “…inward revelations do not contradict the outward testimony of the Scriptures.” What complications does this raise with respect to our affirmations?
  • Is Barclay’s view of scriptures consistent with the idea of “continuing revelation” (the term is not in Barclay)?
  • Do Quakers have any appeal to authority for beliefs? How about Friends General Conference Quakers?
  • Do non-religious people or agnostics have appeals to authority?


Concerning Universal Redemption by Christ

Barclay writes in the synopsis of Proposition 5, the following:

GOD, out of his infinite love, who delighteth not in the death of a sinner, but that all should live and be saved, hath so loved the world, that he hath given his only Son a Light, that whosoever believeth in him shall be saved (John 3:16), “who enlighteneth EVERY man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9), and “maketh manifest all things that are reprovable” (Eph. 5:13), and teacheth all temperance, righteousness, and godliness; and this Light enlighteneth the hearts of all in a day, in order to salvation; and this is it which reproves the sin of all individuals, and would work out the salvation of all, if not resisted. Nor is it less universal than the seed of sin, being the purchase of his death, “who tasted death for every man: for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).

The emphasis on the word “every” in quoting John 3:16, and the phrase “in Christ all shall be made alive” is Barclay’s and represents the idea behind most of the many pages he uses to present the universal redemption of Christ and the “… universality of the love and mercy of God towards mankind “. He states that the patriarchs of the Old Testament and many old philosophers might have been saved. He also asserts the possibility that many who”… are cast into those remote parts of the world where the knowledge of the history is wanting, be made partakers of the divine mystery “

Barclay does not question the theology of atonement for sins through Christ’s death, yet he affirms its universal nature. He writes, ” This most certain doctrine being then received, that there is an evangelical and saving Light and grace in all, the universality of the love and mercy of God towards mankind, both in the death of his beloved Son the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the manifestation of the Light in the heart, is established and confirmed, against all the objections of such as deny it. ” He refers to people in remote places who by accident of birth do not have adequate teaching of the history of Christianity but who still have access to sufficient Light. He spends numerous pages supporting this with references to scriptures and Christian writers from the Church Fathers on.

Questions related to Propositions Five and Six, Universal Redemption by Christ

  • Many Quakers, at least Friends General Conference Quakers, do not believe in atonement theology. What are your thoughts about this?
  • Does atonement theology require a belief in hell or at least a state of eternal damnation? To what extent do you think Quakers believe in this today?
  • How does atonement theology relate to the idea of every person having that of God in them?
  • Early Christians and Jews were among the few religions of the early Mediterranean world that rejected membership in multiple religions. Islam was more accepting of Abrahamic religions, but relegated them to secondary status. To what extent has strong religious identity contributed to conflict in the world? What are your beliefs about the importance of identifying with a religious tradition to the exclusion of other traditions?
  • Are there parallels to the universalism of Barclay in other Christian traditions? other religions? in non-theistic religions? in secular philosophical traditions?