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Bill Samuel, August 4, 2002
Bill Samuel

Barclay's Catechism and
Confession of Faith

A review by Bill Samuel
Originally published April 1, 2001 at

Robert Barclay played a key role among early Friends. Better educated than most, with part of his education from Calvinists and part from Jesuits, he became the leading theologian of the Quaker movement. While a number of early Friends wrote doctrinal works, Barclay was the one who wrote more systematic theological treatises which stand to the present day as the most definitive expressions of early Quaker belief.

Barclay is best known for his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, which has remained in print since its first publication more than three centuries ago. However, his earlier work, A Catechism and Confession of Faith, was also widely used among Friends for hundreds of years.

Unlike the Apology, this earlier work had been out of print for a long time. Consequently, even its existence has not been widely known among contemporary Friends. But within the last few months, it has once again become readily available. It is now available in two ways:
  1. In print form edited in modern English by Dean Freiday and Arthur O. Roberts (Barclay Press, 2001)
  2. Online, in the original English of the Third Edition (1673).
It is no coincidence that both the modern English and original language versions became available at around the same time. The original language version was put online by Friends concerned that the modern English version would inevitably change to some degree the original meaning. They contend that 17th century English is understandable by contemporary English speakers, and thus a modern English version is undesirable. Personally, I think it is good to have both approaches available.

Both the catechism and confession formats were very common in Barclay's day. Usually the confession was placed first, but Barclay reversed that on the grounds that, "It is more orderly to begin with easier and more readily understood things and then progress to those that are more difficult and involved."

The catechism is a question and answer format where the answers are all passages of scripture. The confession is a summary of doctrines, using largely Biblical language but with some editorial changes for appropriate flow. Together, these present the faith understandings of Friends through use of the scripture, and directly counter accusations against Friends through appeals to scripture.

Barclay, who was just 24 when this work was first published, had a little fun with it. He took the name originally given Friends in derision, Quakers, and used it in several of the questions in the catechism. He thus uses the scriptural references to people trembling at the words of God to prove the soundness of what others criticized Friends for.

Barclay adds two things to the catechism and confession. The first is a discussion of the logical steps to reasoning together about what the Christian faith means. The second is a tearing apart of some key sections of the Westminster Confession, the most widely used confession of his day. These show the workings of his keen mind.

I found that the editors of the modern English version did a remarkably good job of making the work very easily readable. In addition to updating Barclay's own words, they substituted the New Revised Standard Version for the King James. In many instances, they also put an additional modern translation in footnotes.

The editors think that the modern English version is well suited as a discussion resource and study guide for those wishing to deepen their understanding of Quaker beliefs and perspectives. I agree with them, and feel it is much better suited to this than the better known Apology. Those wondering whether the change in language may have altered the meaning can refer to the online original language version and reach their own conclusions.
© by Bill Samuel. Do not reprint in whole or in part without prior permission of the author, except for limited quoting in accordance with "fair use" principles. You are welcome to link to this page.

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Document last modified on Saturday, 22-Oct-2005 20:53:35 EDT