First some housekeeping. I intend to proceed through Barclay's Apology talking about those parts that I find interesting or provocative. I realize that not everyone will know much about the book itself. So I have provided some links in the sidebar. One is to the 15 propositions. These are the theological points that Barclay addresses in his book. This will at least provide an overview of what is in the book. Secondly, I have provided a link to the Quaker Heritage Press page which contains the complete Apology. This is probably way more than you would want to read on line but it might be useful in small bits. This is the version my quotes will be taken from. The third link is to the Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection. This contains a number of works by Barclay and by many other Friends as well.
There was a very early Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Barclay in Brief. I believe that it was after this came out, someone came out with “An Even Briefer Barclay” which was a very concise summation of the Apology in verse. If someone knows where I can find a copy of it please let me know.
Whenever I give a talk I encourage questions and this website is just like that. Feel free to use the comments section to ask for clarifications, or to ask about things you would like to know more about, or to say that you think I have something completely wrong.
Now on with Barclay. While Barclay's Apology may be the most systematic work on theology produced by early Friends, it is not comprehensive. Robert Barclay was primarily interested in addressing those areas in which Quaker views were in conflict with the views of other Christians in England. It provides us with a systematic view of what early Friends considered important. As such it provides a way of getting an understanding of Quaker concepts so that you can better understand what Fox and others were saying in sometimes much more colorful and symbolic language.
THE FIRST PROPOSITION
Concerning the true Foundation of Knowledge.
Seeing the height of all happiness is placed in the true knowledge of God, ("This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,") 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 other words, he is saying that, since happiness is based on the true knowledge of God, you must have a proper understanding from the beginning. He then makes almost no elaboration on this because he feels that this is self-evident and where there is no controversy he wants to be brief. But he does have something to say about this which I think we 21st Century Friends might do well to consider.
This is also abundantly proved by the experience of all such, as being secretly touched with the call of God's grace unto them, do apply themselves unto false teachers; where the remedy proves worse than the disease; because instead of knowing God, or the things relating to their salvation aright, they drink in wrong opinions of him; from which it is harder to be disentangled, than while the soul remains a blank, or tabula rasa. For they that conceit themselves wise, are worse to deal with than they that are sensible of their ignorance. Nor hath it been less the device of the devil, the great enemy of mankind, to persuade men into wrong notions of God, than to keep them altogether from acknowledging him; ... so that not from their denying any Deity, but from their mistakes and misapprehensions of it, hath proceeded all the idolatry and superstition of the world; yea, hence even atheism itself hath proceeded: for these many and various opinions of God and religion, being so much mixed with the guessings and uncertain judgments of men, have begotten in many the opinion that there is no God at all.
In my more curmudgeonly moments I might think that he was describing a modern Friends meeting. :^)
I think that this concern for proper beginnings stands in contrast to our difficulty in introducing new Friends to the basics of our faith. Quakerism is not difficult to write about or describe. The collected works of George Fox, after all, run to 8 volumes, James Naylor to four and Robert Barclay to three. When Fox came down from Pendle Hill and preached at Firbank Fell, he spoke for three hours. So I don't think that the problem is with the subject matter as much as it is with us.
First of all, we are socialized to not talk about religion. Religious conversation is actively discouraged in most social settings and our schools and workplaces are often aggressively secular. Secondly, even in our meetings we do not necessarily talk a lot about what we believe and we certainly are not used to making a short summary of our beliefs. When I first started giving talks on Quakerism, it was hard for me to make such a summary. It was even harder when I tried to do this in conversation with a newcomer after meeting. Partly this was my own natural shyness and partly it was that it made me very vulnerable to say words to the effect of “I believe that God speaks to each of us directly and I am trying to make listening to that voice the central part of my life on a daily basis.” Thirdly we are often exquisitely sensitive to not appear to be forcing our beliefs on anyone. And finally it is hard because Friends no longer have a common set of shared beliefs or a common language that lets us set out the essentials of Quakerism without a lot of caveats and disclaimers.
I have heard some people propose that Quakerism is really based on orthopraxy, right practice, rather than orthodoxy, or right belief. The truth of the matter is that the meetings I have attended have often not done a good job of teaching either. We don't provide the basics of Quaker belief and we don't do much about teaching about what it means to live as a Quaker either. We may give some guidance on how to center down in meeting but often people are left to their own devices. How much do we talk about daily spiritual practice or how to live a life of scrupulous honesty or what does it mean on a daily basis to live in the life and power that takes away the occasion for all war?
We comfort ourselves by saying that Quakerism should be caught and not taught. As a result newcomers to Quakerism are often left to figure things out for themselves. We might think that we are leaving them to be taught directly by God but what may happen is that they end up making sense of things using whatever frameworks and understandings they brought with them. As a result they may not come to understand what is unique about Quakerism. Is it any wonder that in matters of basic understanding of doctrine that we are a cacophony not a consensus and certainly not a sense of the meeting?
I do not mean to imply that we should have a creed or statement of belief but that we need to find a core understanding of Quakerism that we at least agree to wrestle with to be able to continue as a religious community. After all if “the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it...” is true in regard to our peace testimony might it also be true in other areas of our belief?