Sunday, 3 January 2016

Quaker Theology: Barclay and Scott

Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676) may be considered the original statement of faith of Quakers. Robert Barclay (1648-1690), was of the next generation from the Valiant Sixty and a politician as well as theologian.  He worked with William Penn to win Crown rights for Quakers in the colonies of America and used his learning to produce a work of rigorous theology which continues to command respect and attention. There are selected passages in Quaker Faith & Practice but these show Barclay at his best, because admittedly there is much to dislike about the Apology.  In the course of a long and difficult book, Barclay is disputatious, sectarian, dour and puritanical. He condemns apostasy, which means all other Christian religions, for he holds that the surest way to be a Christian is by the Quaker route.  He dismisses the ritual and practices of other Christians, particularly Catholics, as human inventions and imaginings, condemns Islam, and describes the zeal of Jews as the ‘prejudice of education, and the love of self, more than that of God’. He upholds the power and authority of the elder and the right of churches to discipline members in error, by excommunication if necessary. He criticises frivolous pastimes such as the theatre; instead we should spend our spare time gardening or doing mathematical puzzles.  However, once one gets past the antiquated language and the disagreeable tone, Barclay has much to offer.  In a set of fifteen Propositions he makes the intellectual case for Quakerism which is still good today. In particular, in Proposition Two Barclay asserts the possibility of religious knowledge, gives a convincing explanation of what this means and sets out the basis for the Testimonies.
Barclay asserts we know God through Christ by the Spirit or what he calls immediate revelation, which means by experience and without the mediation of church or scripture.  Importantly, he says divine revelation cannot contradict the testimony of scripture or right and sound reason, but at the same time revelation is more certain than scripture and the ordinary reason of man because it forces assent. In other words, we can identify divine truths as those which cannot be denied.  Barclay lays the theological and theoretical basis for discernment, Quakers’ bold claim that through the Light we can know the will of God. 
All religions and sects claim to know God’s truth but in the case of the Quakers we have a basis for our claim which is more than just blind faith or reliance on authority, tradition, and scripture.  Barclay’s point about divine revelation forcing assent means that the fictions he condemns in other religions cannot be true, because they cannot force agreement.  It is inconceivable that God would require us to believe in mere human inventions or to deny the findings of science.  At the same time, divine knowledge cannot be the same as secular reason, which is prone to error, because God can never be wrong.  The spirit and revelation lead us to the fundamental truths of the Testimonies, to agreement about right ends such love and peace, and concomitants such as respect for others and the environment, the principles of which cannot be denied however much we might disagree about means. To put it in non-theistic terms, the Testimonies are a set of irrefutable, moral truths. Barclay tells us that there are absolute truths but that Quakers are more discriminating and so more correct than others in identifying such truths.

Although the early Quakers were opposed to the political role of the Church of England and mocked its sacraments, there were theological similarities. Indeed, theologically the Quakers had greater differences with the Puritans than with the Anglicans.  The difference hinged on the controversy of justification, which Barclay deals with in some of the most impenetrable passages in his Apology. The controversy over the difference between justification by faith and by works was mired in polemics between Catholics and Protestants, the latter rather unfairly attributing to the former opinions and practices which pre-dated the Counter-Reformation.The controversy over justification had more to do with religious politics than theology, as the protagonists asserted that salvation was available only by their special means. The Roman Catholics and hard-line Puritans both asserted extra ecclesia non salus est.  The Anglicans, on the other hand, took a less emphatic position while the Quakers held, with Barclay, that salvation comes from unmediated revelation.  

Janet Scott delivered her Swarthmore Lecture of 1980, What Canst Thou Say: Towards a Quaker Theology, in the context of the then current controversy amongst Quakers between Christocentrics and universalists.  She seems to come down in favour of the latter in that she sees the importance Christians attach to the Christ-event as just an instance of a response to the Light, to God's self-disclosure.  She seems to reject the traditional Christian idea that salvation is available only through Jesus.  Scott wrote in the years before Quakers became tested by the controversy between theists and non-theists and asks what, in the end, we are to make of God.  She answers with a striking phrase.  God 'is utterly to be trusted yet totally unexpected, surprising us with providential grace, teasing us with delightful jokes, opening up the future to possibility, including us in the transcendental laughter.'  This is poetic but speaks of a Presence I cannot recognise.   I do not understand what Scott means by transcendental laughter.  The suggestion that grace is unexpected, even random, or that God is mischievous, demeans our attempts to live a spiritual life of some control over, and understanding of, our own lives, an experience of interbeing with the world which entails a positive and active response to the Presence and Reality we encounter.  Scott is right to point to the importance of creativity, to the possibility of change, but her portrayal of the personal God seems to disallow the deep communication which is the mark of a good relationship, whether it is between one human and another or between a human being and his sense of a wider Presence, of that which is not his ego.  However, I may have taken Scott's one phrase out of context, in which case I apologise.

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