CONCERNING IMMEDIATE REVELATION
In his Second Proposition, Barclay makes a very important distinction. He reminds us that we can know about things, or we can know them directly in our own experience.
By reading books, for example, we could learn many things about Japan. We could learn that Tokyo is the capitol. We could learn that the region is prone to earthquakes. We could learn about the diet and language of the Japanese people. But it is an entirely different thing to have a first-hand experience of Japan itself. Instead of relying on economic statistics or on the anecdotes of another, a traveler with first-hand experience can know Japan directly. When he or she speaks of Japan, it is from personal experience.
Those without a personal experience of Japan can only speak of that country as if it were a "category of information."
In the Apology, Barclay is more interested in our knowledge of Jesus than in our knowledge of Japan. Nevertheless, the distinction remains. Either we know the Spirit of Christ in our direct experience, or else we merely know about Christ.
To further illustrate this distinction, we might consider the information available to us through sports cards (like baseball cards). On these cards, we may learn many facts about a particular player. We can learn about their height and weight. We can learn about their age. Since these cards usually feature a photograph, we can learn about a player's appearance.
In fact, these cards usually contain a veritable goldmine of information. We can learn how often they hit the baseball, sink their freethrows, or sack the quarterback.
But, of course, there is a big difference between knowing these statistics about a player and knowing the player himself or herself. No matter how many pictures we have, no matter how many statistics we have at our command, knowing about a person is not the same thing as knowing a person directly.
Complaining that many Christians have no direct knowledge of Christ, Barclay in effect accuses Christendom of accepting a sports card version of Jesus. Instead of knowing Christ directly, some people believe that their knowledge is complete because they are able to say so much about Jesus.
In this baseball card version of Christianity, superior Christians are those who have a better grasp of the data; they know how to provide Scriptural references for any argument, how to parse Greek verbs, and why Constantine called the Council of Nicea. By this same model, inferior Christians are those who can't locate Habakkuk in their Bibles.
Although they may know nothing of Christ as a direct and present guide in their lives, those who have mastered the statistics proudly consider themselves to be Christians of the highest sort.
Barclay unequivocally rejects the baseball card version of Christianity. To Barclay, a Christian is someone who has the Spirit of Christ. In other words, the real knowledge is not knowledge about, it is direct knowledge. There is only one way to really know God, namely, through "the inward immediate manifestation and revelation of God's Spirit, shining in and upon the heart, enlightening and opening the understanding."
Without direct experience from which to speak, a person who speaks spiritual truth does so like the "prattling of a parrot." A parrot can mimic the sound of human speech, but has no depth of understanding. In the same way, a person without direct experience of God speaks "by the outward ear, and not from a living principle."
Remember, Barclay intended his Apology to serve as a defense. Barclay knows he must hold the attention of those very same "superior Christians" whose view of faith he rejects. They -- the people who are smug in their own mastery of outward knowledge -- are the ones most likely to condemn the Quaker movement. And so, Barclay makes a clear effort to speak in their "language." He offers his opponents proof taken from sources of outward authority.
For example, Barclay points to passages of Scripture, such as Romans 8:9 ("If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ") and John 14:17 ("The world cannot accept the Spirit of Truth, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you"). Barclay also points to the example of historical figures.
In appealing to these other authorities, Barclay is careful to acknowledge their real and legitimate merit. As a scholar himself, Barclay is not suggesting that the pursuit of knowledge is wrong. Mastery of outward knowledge may indeed be very helpful. But this outward knowledge can never substitute for an intimate, direct and inward knowledge of God. When Barclay does appeal to these outward authorities, it is always to demonstrate the ultimate authority of God's present Spirit.
Here are a few questions:
1. In your spiritual journey, how has knowing about God influenced the ways you have sought to know God directly? How has your experience of God influenced the ways in which you think about God?
2. Is there any outward knowledge that must be mastered before a person can be called a "disciple" of Christ?
3. Given Barclay's position, how should we teach others about our faith? How should we teach our children?
4. Some people worry that relying on God's Spirit as a foundation for truth is too "uncertain." After all, people might come to any conclusion at all and still say that it is "God's Leading." While it is true that our emphasis on the Spirit might be abused, is there any other system of belief that is more certain?
Continue to Proposition Three