Robert Barclay: An Apology

October 9, 2016

This is a post about religion, linked to a book I’ve been reading, which is why this post appears here: having no wish to force religion on anyone, if it’s not your thing, you could stop reading now…

I was raised a Catholic, and gave this up while at university. I tried atheism and agnosticism for a good twenty years, but these failed me too – I think once you have been a Catholic, it’s almost impossible to eradicate some spiritual yearning. So, having tried a few other possibilities I eventually became a Quaker, which I have been at home with for well over twenty years. It suits because it’s a religion of seekers and I’ve been seeking something all my life, and it’s a religion that, although hard work, treats me as an intelligent person, and does not force creeds, disciplines and believing twenty impossible things before breakfast on me.

This leads me to the book I’ve just finished re-reading (again): its full title is An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. It’s an extremely challenging read (makes swimming through molasses easy), but one I find very comforting. Quakers are known for having produced almost no theological works, and Robert Barclay’s book is the original and the best. He wrote it towards the end of the seventeenth century – so when the Society of Friends had only been in existence a few decades – as a way of explaining and justifying his faith, and dedicated it to the king, Charles the Second. He hoped, I think, to reduce the oppression of the Society by the public authorities.

It’s a stunning work of logic, which works its way through a series of propositions about Christianity, with the aim of getting back to the original beliefs and practices of the primitive church before it was perverted and corrupted in the service of power and secular authority. Everything is fully and painstakingly argued and referenced, as he refutes Roman Catholics, the various Protestant churches, Calvinists and more: clearly and logically he shows why he believes Quakers have got it right…

And yet, he doesn’t come across as dogmatic: he argues, reasons and convinces, and to someone who has never been able to escape the power of argument and logic – I’ve lost count of the number of times people have referred to me as Aquarian (which I am) in my approach – he comforts me by making it all make some sort of sense insofar as that’s possible, a reason behind my faith, if you like, which I seem to need.

It’s very hard work as a book because it’s written in rather convoluted seventeenth-century English, as well as relying on syllogism and refutation. An attempt was made to put it into modern English by an American some forty years ago or so, but apparently his is rather a flawed version which trims, edits and unwittingly or wittingly twists the sense of the original in many places… so we are left with the original to wrestle with. And I’ve found it worth it, once again; I can put it to one side for a few years until it begins to call to me again through the power of Barclay’s logic and astonishing breadth of learning, of which I am in awe.


One Response to “Robert Barclay: An Apology”

  1. Kathy Says:

    At least for the Catholic with strong beliefs, the prospect of confession would help to curb temptations. Serious misdemeanours would require not just prayers said as penance, but real reparation before forgiveness. A few requirement not to try to be a better person, but to BE a better person. Of course religious belief is not necessary at all. Just being honest with oneself and about one’s relationships with others, aiming for empathy with everything important; people, animals, environment, the tangible now and the hoped for future is what matters. Religious faith: simply a self induced comforter at best, and a smug divisive instrument at worst ? Coercive and controlling? Reality is the only truth we have.


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