“A Catechism and Confession of Faith,”* by Robert Barclay, A Review

Reviewed by Thomas D. Paxson, Jr.

Many who come to the Religious Society of Friends are not introduced in any systematic way to the scriptural passages which most spoke to the experience of early Friends, which strengthened them in their faith and helped them keep to the Light. Nor is this surprising, since few texts have been available that did this in an economical and reasonably comprehensive way.

Yet many who come to Friends thirst for such guidance. The need for such a book is now handsomely met by the publication of Robert Barclay’s A Catechism and Confession of Faith, first published in 1673, three years before his more famous Apology for the True Christian Divinity was published in Latin, and five years before it was published in English. Dean Freiday has again performed the inestimable service of tackling the task of rendering Barclay’s work into modern English; this time he has teamed up with Arthur O. Roberts, and the joint effort has proven to be quite felicitous. There is a graceful Foreword by the New Testament scholar, Paul Anderson, and Barclay’s own Preface.

As the title indicates, Barclay’s slender volume contained a catechism in traditional question-answer form, the answers being selected scriptural passages (chapters 1-14); a confession of faith (chapter 16), preceded by “a short introduction” (chapter 15); an “appeal to all Christians” (chapter 17); and, in conclusion, a “brief [critical] look at scriptural proofs of selected articles” of the Westminster Confession (chapter 18).

The 23 articles of the Confession follow the order in which the topics appear in the 14 chapters of the Catechism, from the “True and Saving Knowledge of God,” in the wording of the Confession, to “The Resurrection.” Two appendices are included in this volume: a reproduction of the title page as it appeared in some of the early editions and a brief account of the editors’ method, written by Dean Freiday and crediting Arthur O. Roberts for the main work of rendering Barclay’s seventeenth century English into modern prose.

The Catechism was addressed to Presbyterians of the seventeenth century who persecuted Friends and the questions, deal with issues of particular concern in seventeenth century religious controversies.

Consider the following examples:

On Freedom from Sin: “Far from supposing sin to be his [Paul’s] constant condition, or that of all the believers, doesn’t the apostle even suppose that many who were then of the church of Rome, to whom he wrote, were free from sin? What does he say then in relation to this matter?”

There is a whole series of questions regarding Justification, including:

“To be justified by grace means to be saved, regenerated, which cannot exclude works done by grace and by the Spirit. In the following verses, how does the apostle maintain this balance against those who quibble about the law?”

While these questions are seldom, if ever, asked within FGC circles today, questions like them are sometimes asked of FGC Friends in grass roots ecumenical dialogue.

Nonetheless, there is plenty here of interest to Friends today. For example, the fourth chapter addresses the inward presence of Christ and the unity of believers, while the fifth addresses the universality and sufficiency of God’s grace. Barclay pulls together in Chapter 10 a set of biblical verses in support of Friends’ approach to worship, insisting that “prayers are worthless when offered without the leading and help of the Spirit.” Among these verses are:

Eph. 6:18 “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.”

Rom. 8:26-27. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

In the body of the text the editors have used the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for all biblical texts. The use of a single translation has the virtues of consistency and avoidance of the appearance of special pleading. The alternative translations given in the footnotes, however, are often clearer and more compelling than the NRSV translations. For example, compare the NRSV translation of 1 John 2:27, given on page 23, with the Revised English Bible translation of the same passage:

NRSV: “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.”

Revised English Bible: “But as for you, the anointing which you received from him remains with you; you need no other teacher, but you learn all you need to know from his anointing, which is true and no lie. Dwell in him as he taught you to do.”

Sometimes the different translations convey difference in meaning, not just in felicity of expression. For example, with respect to Rom. 8:14.

NRSV: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

Contemporary English Version: “Only those people who are led by God’s spirit are his children.”

The first of these is a universal affirmative, the second a universal negative equivalent to “no people not led by God’s Spirit are God’s Children.” Two questions immediately arise. (1) Which of these very different senses did the translation that Barclay used have? (2) Which translation is the more accurate one or is the original koine Greek ambiguous on this point? The editors do not address either question.

They do comment on the Greek (on page 35) with respect to the translation of Gal. 1:15-16 (“But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being.”) in order to justify using an alternative reading given in the NRSV rather than the primary reading given. It would not seem to be beyond the scope of their editorial project, therefore, to address the translation of Rom. 8:14.

This is a splendid little book and deserves a place in every Quaker library. We owe a large debt of gratitude to Dean Freiday, Arthur O. Roberts, and the people at Barclay Press for their efforts to make available this long out of print text.

*Dean Freiday and Arthur O. Roberts, A Catechism and Confession of Faith, by Robert Barclay. A New Edition in Modern English. Newberg, Oregon: Barclay Press, 2001, pp. 144, $6.95.

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