This is a paraphrase of 'Proposition Four' from Robert Barclay's APOLOGY. His book was first published in Latin, in 1675. The first English edition appeared in 1678.

The "Micro'pology series" was first published in the WHF newsletter, in the 1990's.

Proposition Four


During the Reformation, theologians debated one another over the idea of "utter depravity." For the most part, these theologians all agreed that we human beings are thoroughly miserable, corrupt and vile. Moreover, we are born that way -- yes, even as infants we are worthy of condemnation. The theologians of the period were all inclined toward a very dreary and pessimistic view of human nature.

As modern people, we live in the age of Self Esteem. We want our children to feel worthy and valuable. We consider it our duty to praise them. It is very hard for us to imagine why anyone would think it good to denounce all people as reprobates and vermin!

But there was a time when people were very careful to distinguish between God's goodness and human sinfulness. To them, the issue was cut and dried: God was all-good and humanity was all-bad. To point at human malevolence with enthusiasm was, in effect, a way to exalt God's goodness. The more contrast that could be established between us and God, the more glorious God appeared.

Because human beings were seen as bad-by-definition, no one actually needed to do anything to earn the status of "bad." It was just human nature. In speaking of human nature, these writers would typically refer to Adam as the archetype of our human condition. Adam is the stencil by which all other humans are made. And since the master copy has been deteriorated, we who come after Adam are necessarily flawed.

Theologians have argued that because of Adam's guilt, we too are guilty. We have inherited Adam's unworthiness simply because we are human. And because infants are human, they are unavoidably guilty and stained with sin. It is their sad birthright as fallen and corrupt human beings.

Writing in the Apology, Robert Barclay calls this line of thought "absurd," "cruel," and "contrary to the nature of... God's mercy."

How can you say an infant bears the weight of another person's guilt? Barclay points to Ezekiel 18:20, "The son will not share the guilt of the father..." Clearly, God does not hold people guilty by association. God does not condemn us, merely for being born. Barclay rejects the belief that humanity is so vile and corrupt that even its incoherent newborns are deserving of condemnation.

But if Barclay rejects the extremely negative view of human nature, he also rejects the extremely positive view.

In the extremely positive view of human nature (as it was taking root during that "Age of Enlightenment"), people were seen to be endowed with bright Reason; and Reason is like a great and searching beacon from which no truth can hide.

According to an extremely positive view of human nature, we can have faith in "Human Progress." Human progress means that we will gain further and further enlightenment as a species, until we reach the point where we have outgrown the misbehaviors of our past (e.g. wars and superstition and all manner of oppression). According to an extremely positive view of human nature, we have the faculties within ourselves to reach perfection.

Barclay does not put his faith in human nature, because he too is very careful to distinguish between the things of God and the things of humankind. We do indeed live in the shadow of Adam's transgression. This doesn't mean that we enter the world as a "fit object for God's wrath." But it does mean that we are often inclined away from God's intention for us.

When Barclay points to our short comings, it is not to condemn us en mass, young and old alike. Rather, it is to point us outside of ourselves. Barclay hopes to redirect our attention away from our own desire to be good (according to our own abilities). Instead, we are to focus on God's presence within us -- and God's desire and God's power to transform us more fully into the people we were created to be.

The Light of God within us is not a human faculty (like sight or reason, or even our conscience). The Light of God within us is a foreign presence.

This distinction was important to Barclay and the early Friends, because there is a difference between the ways of God and the ways of humankind. Those who are reckoned "wise" by human standards may be, and often are, hostile to the work of God's Spirit. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And world's wisdom is foolishness to God. There are two different systems at work.

Barclay, most emphatically, hopes to point us toward the wisdom of God.

Here are a few questions:

1. In what ways is God's wisdom different from the wisdom of the world?

2. What inclines people towards good and what inclines them towards malice?

3. Do you think people are wiser or more kind now than they were 100 years ago (or 1000 years ago)? Do you think they are worse?

Continue to Proposition Five