Friday, December 19, 2014

Barclay: Spirit Trumps Revelation

One thing that irked folks about Gregg Frazer's thesis on the political theology of the "key Founders" (which he termed "theistic rationalism" but for which others have competing terms) is it overstates the Enlightenment's reliance on "reason" as the be all and end all of "truth."

The phrase that most bothers is "reason trumps revelation" -- what Dr. Frazer's thesis claims America was founded on by virtue of its political theology. As it were, America's key Founders, unlike the strict deists, may have believed, in principle, in God revealing to man. But all such revelations were subject to the metaphorical if not literal razor (in Jefferson's case) of "reason"  to decide which revelations were true. Thus, the "Bible" as a canon, was "fit" to be "edited" according to this standard.

Well, a few, if not key but profoundly "notable" Founders held to a different sort of radical tendency, one given to us by the Quakers: a radicalism of the spirit.

Examine, if you will, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity by Robert Barclay first published in 1678. This work does not, as per the Enlightenment spirit of the age, set up man's individual reason to "test" the Bible for truth and error (with reason, of course, being the final arbiter). Rather it sets up the individual believer's sense of "Spirit" within him or her as the final arbiter of truth.

From Barclay's THE THIRD PROPOSITION, Concerning the Scriptures:
Nevertheless, because [the Scriptures] are only 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. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty: for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that Guide by which the saints are led into all Truth; therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.a Seeing then that we do therefore receive and believe the Scriptures because they proceeded from the Spirit, for the very same reason is the Spirit more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale: That for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such.


Daniel said...

Barclay would not say that Spirit trumps revelation, because Spirit is the source of revelation. And revelation is ongoing. I think Barclay argues that Spirit does not contradict scripture, but that scripture sometimes must be reinterpreted in light of Spirit. Just as the Spirit revealed truth to the primitive church, so the Spirit reveals truth to the church now.

While Reason was proclaimed The Standard in the Enlightenment, the driving concern was a crisis of epistemology. It was widely recognized that reason couldn't do all of the heavy lifting, so some other authority was needed. While the Quaker approach was radical in identifying Spirit as the ultimate authority, Quakers weren't the only ones to look in a similar (inner) direction.

Jefferson, in explaining how he separated the pearls from the dung in scripture, seemed to indicate a reliance on intuition. Thomas Reid, James Wilson, and other proponents of Common Sense Realism derived authority from a sense that was common to humanity (or at least to all whose senses were rightly ordered). This intuition or common sense was not inconsistent with reason, but could not always be derived from reason.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Daniel: I'll admit one area where I'm ignorant re Barclay and the Quakers is what the thought of the "revelation" of the "Bible" or the "canon" as an exact distinct whole down to the letter.

(So perhaps when I use "revelation" as shorthand for the "biblical canon" I'm being imprecise or using a term unfairly loaded by "orthodox" standards.)

So if a Christian who believes in "revelation" in a "God speaking directly to man" sense, nonetheless because his "reason" or "the spirit within" him instructed that the Book of Revelation was nonsensical bullshit (and therefore he disregarded it) he might not see that as anything trumping "revelation" because he's already judged that not to be valid "revelation."

So let's say you have a Christian who, in the tradition of Barclay ... their spirit tells them the Book of Revelation is not valid revelation. But the Gospel of Thomas is valid.

How do we assess this?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exactly. This is Protestantism's greatest problem after it rejects the [Catholic] Church's claim to magisterium, to determine what are the Scriptures in the first place:

Barclay writes:

"It is not unknown to such as are in the least acquainted with antiquity, what great contests are concerning the second epistle of Peter, that of James, the second and third of John, and the Revelations, which many, even very ancient, deny to have been written by the beloved disciple and brother of James, but by another of that name. What should then become of Christians, if they had not received that Spirit, and those spiritual senses, by which they know how to discern the true from the false? It is the privilege of Christ's sheep indeed that they hear his voice, and refuse that of a stranger; which privilege being taken away, we are left a prey to all manner of wolves."

Basically, the answer is rather sophistic, a claim on the authority of the Holy Spirit parallel to the Catholic church's own

Thus also in the fifth article of the confession of faith of the churches of Holland, confirmed by the [Calvinist] Synod of Dort: "We receive these books only for holy and canonical, not so much because the church receives and approves them, as because the Spirit of God doth witness in our hearts that they are of God."

Of course Catholicism makes the same claim, that the canon became canonical in the first place for the same reasons.

There is a distancing from Luther's sola scriptura--the Bible alone--here, but it's actually more a distancing from brute reason and critical textual analysis and toward a more prophetic fideism:

"To those who ask, that we prove unto them, by reason, that Moses and the prophets were inspired of God to speak, I answer, That the testimony of the Holy Spirit is more excellent than all reason." [quoting Calvin here]

In the end, a rejection of not only Catholic magisterial authority but more Protestant than Luther!

For as we freely acknowledge that their authority doth not depend upon the approbation or canons of any church or assembly; so neither can we subject them to the fallen, corrupt and defiled reason of man, and therein as we do freely agree with the Protestants against the error of the Romanists, so on the other hand, we cannot go the length of such Protestants as make their authority to depend upon any virtue or power that is in the writings themselves; but we desire to ascribe all to that Spirit from which they proceeded.

Daniel said...

Jon, I push back against your use of 'revelation' because it becomes tricky where Quakers are involved. The consensus of the church is that Scripture is revelation (or contains revelation). The disagreement concerns other sources of revelation. That is, does revelation continue and if so, how and when?

I think Barclay would not denounce any bit of scripture as nonsense (I may be mistaken), but he may have some interpretations that seem strained or even bizarre. Perhaps no more bizarre than some commonly understood interpretations but jarring because they are sometimes heterodox.

TVD is correct that Protestantism seems to lack a good explanation for placing authority in scripture. Within the traditions that accept ongoing revelation, a greater problem is evaluation of claims of current revelation. If I say that God has spoken to me, even if the church accepts that such revelation is possible, how does anyone know whether my subjective claim is true? That question has many answers, most resting in the notion that an individual revelation is suspect and that it is the church that speaks for God rather than any individual. An interesting discussion of this is

Jonathan Rowe said...


I read Barclay as saying the "written word" (scripture, revelation; perhaps it would be better to refer to the written word as "Scripture" and distinguish it from "Revelation") is subservient to the "truths" of the "Spirit."

He also says in what Tom quoted that the individual believer, consulting the Spirit, gets to decide which revelations are true. So that if a Quaker "friend" of his said "the Spirit tells me the Book of Revelation is nonsense," Barclay would have to accept that person's position as "valid" -- even if he didn't personally hold to it.

Daniel said...

I gather that religious life in Pennsylvania was very diverse and interesting. Based on Barclay's teaching, you would expect that the Quakers would be extremely tolerant. According to Roger Wiliams, in a pamphlet titled "George Fox Digged Out of His Burrow", a level of Quaker orthodoxy was enforced. Since there was a very wide range of Quaker belief and practice, I suspect that the level of tolerance varied from region to region.

Daniel said...

I think when Barclay says the Sprit doth witness in our hearts, he is indicating that we receive the message of the Spirit as part of the communion of friends and not as individuals. The Society of Friends is not an individualistic faith. That said, if I hear the Spirit witness that the writings of Paul are nonsense and my friends hear the Spirit witness that those writings are inspired, I'm not sure how Barclay would say we are to evaluate my sense of revelation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, the pope authorized [St.] Thomas More to conduct a public debate with the early reformer William Tyndale. The same issues were live 100 years later, and still live after 500!

Trudy said...

I thought the issue of scripture is that reading is an intellectual experience rather than spiritual experience. So does Barclay mean that (for some people) the bible is not a rulebook or a text-book? Instead, does he mean that (for some people) the bible is more like good poetry? Poetry is only considered to be good when it functions on multiple levels of ambiguity. Because of ambiguity, good poetry has the capacity to touch readers in different ways, molding to the person who reads it. Good poetry always speaks to universal truths, and so a good poem will stand the test of time even in a changing world. Some people do not like reading poetry very much at all. They would rather look at a flower, etc. etc. (just like the poet does). I think there are more writers than readers.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Trudy: I think the Quakers of Barclay's time were more devout in believing in an God speaking to man sense than "poetry" would account for.

I think they believed that the spirit who wrote the Bible interprets the Bible for each individual believer. The Bible without the Spirit interpreting it is just worthless as toilet paper.

So though believers who disagree on what the Bible means can argue with one another, you can't win an argument by noting, "you are wrong because the Bible says X and that proves it" (when X may mean a particular interpretation of the text or a number of texts synthesized, even though the Sola Scriptura proof texters will claim they are just reading the Bible and the Bible is interpreting itself).

It's more like "the Bible says and means X" because through the Spirit I "see" that it does.

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