Some Quaker FAQs — Part 8
[Links to the previous segments in this series are here. ]
Based on several statements in Part 7, I said I believe the Progressive Quaker view of the church is true to the best spirit of authentic and early Christian Quakerism.
I’m not alone in this view. As a key witness, I want to call on the premier theologian of early Quakerism, Robert Barclay. (Hang on; this gets a bit wonky, but I think it’s worth it.)
Q. Was Robert Barclay Really a Progressive Quaker?
Well, I don’t think he would know what that question means. (I mean, what would he think of Facebook?) But yes, some of his key ideas, I believe planted the seeds of liberal and Progressive Quakerism, and they took root, even if they didn’t flower til long after he was gone.
Barclay is remembered primarily for his theological work, in particular, The Apology for the True Christian Divinity, first published in 1676. The Apology has stood for over three hundred years as the principal Quaker theological statement. (It’s worth reading, but I won’t kid thee, often heavy going.)
Barclay’s Apology is built around a series of theses, or propositions. He considers the nature of the “true church” in Proposition 10, which deals mainly with the character and qualifications of authentic ministry within such a church.
Q. What Did Barclay Say About the “True Church”?
It is tempting to reproduce Barclay’s entire discussion, which takes up numerous pages of intricate text, because of the powerful and distinctive concepts laid out there. But for now we will summarize and highlight, and urge readers to turn to the original (particularly the Dean Freiday edition of Barclay’s Apology In Modern English) and ponder the full text. (Barclay, p. 172ff; also with links to an older online edition)
“The church,” he writes, “…signifies an assembly or gathering of many into one place. The substantive ekklesia comes from the word ekkaleo, meaning I call out of….And this is the real and proper significance of the Church. It is nothing other than the society, gathering, or company of those whom God has called out of the world and the worldly spirit, to walk in his light and life. The church as thus defined is to be considered as comprising all of those who are thus called and truly gathered by God….”
Remember the earlier question about Quakers as a gathered or called people? Here is one early expression of that idea.
Barclay then makes a subtle pun on a hoary Catholic Latin dictum; “extra ecclesiam, nullas salus,” which meant, “outside the [Roman Catholic] church, there is no salvation”:
“Aside from this Church there can be no salvation, because this Church and its denomination comprehend all, regardless of what nation, kindred, tongue or people they may be, who have become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts.”
The extent to which Barclay is turning this exclusivist notion on its head quickly becomes clear, in the truly radical passage which follows:
“Although they may be outwardly unknown to and distant from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the scriptures, yet they have become sanctified by their obedience and cleansed from the evil of their ways. For this is the universal or catholic spirit….”
In a sense, all Barclay has done is change the first letter of the term “catholic church”, from a capital “C”, designating a specific church (such as the Roman Catholic) to lower case, referring to something generic, something beyond or before specific denominational churches; but in this simple typographical change there is a world of difference.
To get a sense of the magnitude of this shift, simply compare Barclay’s conclusion with more exclusive views of the church.
Q. But Did Barclay Really Say Non-Christians can be in this “True Church”?
He answered this best himself:
“There may be members of this catholic Church not only among ALL the several sorts of Christians, but ALSO among pagans, Turks, and Jews. They are men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart. They may be blind in their understanding of some things, and perhaps burdened with the superstitions and ceremonies of the sects in which they have been collected. Yet they are upright in their hearts before the Lord, aiming and endeavoring to be delivered from iniquity, and loving to follow righteousness.” (Emphasis added.)
To gauge just how truly momentous Barclay’s concept of the church is, let’s pause for a moment to parse out some of his terminology:
“Pagans” –a general term for non-religious people; similar to “heathen” or “unbelievers.” Barclay devoted an entire section of the Apology (Proposition 6, Sec. XXVII ) to arguing that many pagan philosophers were Christians in all but name, and had surely been saved. Barclay evidently reached this conclusion via the form of cross-cultural encounter most available to him: reading their writings and histories. William Penn, by the way, expressed similar convictions. (Tolles & Alderfer, The Witness of William Penn, p. 202)
As the rather conservative 20th century Friend Elton Trueblood put it, Barclay
“took this position firmly because he could not deny the evidence of new life among all the varied groups which he had met. As a true empiricist, he proposed to sit down before the fact as a little child. If the facts were in conflict with dogma, it was too bad for the dogma. He saw that the Good Shepherd had followers in many folds.” (Trueblood, Robert Barclay, 1968, p.171)
“Turks” –a general and inaccurate term for Muslims, who were most familiar to Europeans like Barclay through the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The word’s presence here is quite striking, especially when linked to the next one: “Jews.”
The significance of “Pagans,” “Turks” and “Jews” for our discussion can hardly be overestimated. The latter two, in particular, were by no means ignorant aborigines in some primeval forest who had never heard of Christianity.
Quite the contrary: Islamic belief, as laid out in the Quran, makes numerous specific statements about Jesus, statements taken as divinely-warranted truths by its adherents. These are meant to be both historical and doctrinal, and they include, for instance, declarations contradicting orthodox Christian theological ideas. They include assertions that Jesus, while a great and revered prophet, was by no means divine and certainly not the “son of God”; that he did not die on the cross and hence was not resurrected; and although he was a true prophet, his work was superseded and completed by Muhammad in Islam.
And Jews, of course, are the community from which Jesus and Christianity emerged, and which explicitly rejected, and still rejects, the claims of both.
In sum, far from being ignorant of Jesus and Christianity, by Barclay’s time there had been theological polemic and religious warfare between “Turks,” and “Jews,” and Christians for over a thousand years; and the worst, of course, was yet to come.
Nevertheless, Barclay insisted that even members of these Christianity-rejecting religions, “blind” though they might be “in their understanding of some things,” could nonetheless sense and respond to the light and call of God and Christ in them, and by so doing become gathered as members of the true universal church and be “saved.”
Q. Do All Quakers Agree With Barclay and These Other Statements About the “True Church”?
No. This was a radical view of the Church when Barclay published it in 1676. It was a radical view two centuries later, when the revivalist leadership in Ohio Yearly Meeting adopted a minute that declared:
“We do not believe there is any principle or quality in the soul of man, innate or otherwise, which even though rightly used, will ever save a single soul.” And: “We repudiate the so-called doctrine of the Inner Light, or the gift of a portion of the Holy Spirit in the soul of every man as dangerous; unsound and unscriptural.”
This view remained as repellent in 1946 to Edward Mott, the evangelical leader of Oregon Yearly Meeting, who thundered that
“No greater deception is practiced upon the spiritually ignorant than the untruth…of That of God in every man.’” (Mott, 1946, p.16)
And in our time, the Faith & Practice of the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest restates this view: (p. 7):
“We were made to glorify and enjoy God, but our relationship with him and our very nature has been broken by sin, which has made us all subject to God’s judgment. . . . . We believe that all of our world, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible was created by God. We believe our world is also broken by sin and remains in corruption and rebellion and indeed of God’s redemption.”
The underlying theological notion is is one to “total depravity,’ which is widespread in other Christian denominations. The contrast between Barclay’s vision and the exclusivist claims of these evangelical statements could hardly be more stark. To this must be added the 1991 declaration by evangelical Friend Stephen Main that:
“…Quakers of the evangelical persuasion are convinced that the universal working of God’s grace alone is not sufficient for salvation. Salvation is a gift of grace that includes repentance, forgiveness of sin and its impact on our life, coupled with a walk of obedience to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.” [Emphasis added.] (Pendle Hill p. 14)
And here is the view of the church laid out in the Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region’s Faith and Practice:
“We believe that the church is made up of all those from the apostles until now…who through response to God’s gracious offer of salvation by repentance of their sins and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour have been born again as new creatures in Christ.” [Emphasis added. EFC-ER, 2007 Edition, p.11]
No saintly pagan philosophers, however highly Barclay may have thought of them, need apply there.
Whatever its other merits, this is not the church Barclay is describing. To repeat Elton Trueblood: “If the facts [of experience] were in conflict with dogma, it was too bad for the dogma.” Barclay’s church is, I contend, essentially equivalent to the Progressive model.
Q. But Did Barclay and Fox Really Mean It?
But perhaps we are drawing too much from these brief quotes. Maybe Barclay and Fox were just being hyperbolic, and they really felt you specifically had to “have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as [your] savior,” as the Friends Church-Southwest Yearly Meeting creed puts it, to qualify for the true church.
I don’t think so. Barclay did not rest on inferences; he explicitly repudiated the idea that a Christian profession was the prerequisite for salvation:
“It is substituting light for darkness and darkness for light to claim that no one, however holy, can be a member of the Church of Christ who has not made the outward profession and been initiated into it by some outward ceremonies.”
Indeed, Barclay called this notion the work of “the Antichristian church.” (Freiday, p. 175; also here, Section V )
In another passage he uses a medical analogy:
“Many men have been killed by a poison that was infused into their flesh without their knowing what poison it was or who gave it to them. And on the other hand, many have been cured by medical remedies without knowing how the medicine was prepared or what the ingredients were, and often without knowing who made it.” (Ibid., 114; also here, Section XXV)
Q. But Wasn’t Barclay a “Christian”?
He sure was. There is no question that Barclay, like Fox and other early Friends, was passionately Christian, as he understood the term. That is, he and they believed this universal Church was the gracious creation of God, acting through Jesus.
“Indeed,” Barclay writes, “the name Jesus signifies the saviour who will free [people] from the sin and the iniquity in their hearts.” He adds, “I confess that there is no other name by which to be saved. But,” he immediately qualifies, “salvation does not lie in the literal knowledge of that name, but in the experience of what it signifies. Those who merely know the name, without any experience of its meaning, are not saved by it. But those who know the meaning and have experienced his power can be saved without knowing his name.” (Ibid., 113; Prop VI, Section XXV)
Barclay and the other founding Friends insisted that in these convictions they were recovering the true original meaning of God’s work through Jesus, what Penn called in a 1696 tract, Primitive Christianity Revived, in the Faith and Practice of the Quakers.
Q. Then What Kind of Christians Were Barclay & Fox?
Here we get to a key point:
Barclay, Fox and other early Friends were Christians, certainly.
But what kind of Christians?
What sort of “primitive” Christianity were they and Penn “reviving”?
Was it a proto-Evangelical revivalism, of the sort described by some as a subset of modern evangelicalism? Or like the New Covenant Temple we looked at in earlier parts of this series?
Or was it, perhaps, something else?
Could it have been a version of Christianity that used orthodox language to convey meanings that were radically new in Barclay’s time (and ours) –- but meanings consistent with what we know of the original movement, its gospels, or its Founder?
This is what Barclay is driving at when he writes that
“(Friends) firmly believe that there is no other doctrine or gospel to be preached other than that which was delivered by the apostles.”
Q. But If Early Friends Were Christians, Why Were (and Are) These Ideas So Controversial?
Because this true gospel, early Friends insisted, had been buried under more than a millennium of churchly corruption, errors, apostasy, doctrine-spinning, heresy hunts and power struggles. But it was now being recovered, in early Quakerism. Barclay:
“If there has ever been a time since the days of the apostles when God proposed to show his power by using weak instruments to batter down earthly and pagan wisdom, and to restore again the ancient simplicity of truth, this is it!” (p. 205; Proposition X, Section XXIII)
Not “new,” but newly “restored”, and nonetheless radical: That is in fact what Barclay, Fox and Penn thought Quakerism was, and I believe they were right. Their mainstream church opponents also agreed that it was at least radical and new, if not authentically Christian. They spent several decades trying to stamp it out through persecution. And even today, struggles in some American yearly meetings revolve around efforts to banish the same ideas.
Q. But Did Anybody Else Besides These Early Friends Repeat These Ideas?
You bet. One of the most eloquent champions of these ideas didn’t come along until 200 years after Barclay. It was the most famous American Friend of the 1800s, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier.
Re-reading Whittier’s religious and Quaker-oriented poems, it has seemed obvious to me that they serve as the imaginative previsioning of much of the path liberal and Progressive Quakerism has trod since.
To see what I mean, let’s consider a few stanzas, first from his long poem,
I know how well the fathers taught,
What work the later schoolmen wrought;
I reverence old-time faith and men,
But God is near us now as then.
And still the measure of our needs
Outgrows the cramping bounds of creeds;
The manna gathered yesterday
Already savors of decay . . . .
Or this, from “Miriam”:
And I made answer: “Truth is one;
And in all lands beneath the sun,
Whoso hath eyes to see may see
The tokens of its unity.
No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,
We trace it not by school-boy maps,
Free as the sun and air it is
Of latitudes and boundaries.
In Vedic verse, in dull Koran,
Are messages of good to man . . .”
There are many other similar passages.
Of course, like Barclay and his other forebears, Whittier was about as loyally Christian in his basic outlook as one could hope for. He was much impressed by the preaching of Joseph John Gurney, the godfather of evangelical Quakerism. Yet his mature faith, as glimpsed in these lines, is simultaneously at one with the inclusive view of the Church which Barclay expounded and which I am describing here.
Some have said such a combination is impossible or self-contradictory. I believe that is mistaken, and call Friend Greenleaf as Exhibit A.
Next time: in the ninth, closing segment of this series, we’ll have some more to say about Jesus, especially comparing him to, of all things, the Golden Gate Bridge.
This post is adapted from the booklet, “Some Quaker FAQs,” by Chuck Fager.