The Enigmatic William Barclay
William Barclay (1907-1978), the famous Scottish scholar, was, in some respects, a brilliant writer. But he was an enigma. Barclay taught at the University of Glasgow for 28 years. Though a man of humble background, he became a theological celebrity. He was widely known in Great Britain for his radio and television broadcasts, but his most significant legacy — whether for good or bad — was his writing.
Barclay once described himself as a “liberal evangelical” — an expression that is somewhat contradictory. The truth is, the engaging professor was a theological modernist. For example, he did not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. We are not compelled to accept this teaching “in the literal and physical sense” he wrote.
And while he felt there was some essence of the “miraculous” in the deeds of Christ, he believed that many of the Lord’s miracles had perfectly “natural” explanations.
He argued that the Savior did not multiply the loaves and fishes literally; Jesus merely motivated the thronging people to share their food with one another. He opined that Christ did not actually walk upon the Sea of Galilee; it was just that, from the disciples’ vantage point, it appeared that he did — as he walked in the shallow water near the beach. Further, he said, the Lord did not really intend for Peter to cast his fishing hook into the sea in order to obtain a coin from a fish’s mouth; rather, he meant for the apostle to use his fishing skill to raise the funds for the temple tax. So went the Barclay “spin.”
If you were to read some of Barclay’s writings regarding Jesus, you would be convinced that he believed in the Savior’s deity. For example, in his discussion of John 1:1, the famous theologian said that Jesus was “of the very same character and quality and essence and being as God.” But when two acquaintances of this writer visited with Barclay at his home in Glasgow, in the spring of 1970, the distinguished professor strongly denied that he believed that Jesus was divine, and he insisted he never had endorsed that idea. He claimed that the Lord himself believed that he was divine, as did others, but personally, he did not. When Paul was cited as evidence to the contrary, the professor snapped: “I don’t care what Paul said.”
Barclay repudiated the doctrine of the substitutionary nature of the death of Jesus. He denied that, in the divine scheme of things, Christ had to die to atone for the sins of humanity (see Isa. 53:4-6; Rom. 3:21-26). The Lord himself expressed it like this: the Son of man came to “give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). But Prof. Barclay believed that to literalize this statement was a “crude” approach to a passage that was merely an instance of the “poetry of love.” The real power of Jesus’ death, he suggested, was in its benevolent, selfless example — nothing more.
Though Jesus taught more about the topic of “hell” than did any other biblical character, Barclay denied the existence of eternal torment. The punishment of hell is “not to be taken literally” he said. In fact, as historian J.D. Douglas observed, “Barclay was a universalist (one who believes that all people will be saved ultimately).” In one of his books the professor declared that man “cannot drift beyond the love and care of God.” Supposedly, the Lord God will “never leave or forsake” any person — regardless of the depth of his depravity. For all his learning, the Scottish expositor knew nothing of the concept of God’s justice and wrath.
On the Other Hand
Even in the face of these most deplorable ideas — wherein the respected educator totally set aside sacred Scripture and substituted his own foolish opinions — he stuns you with some of his teaching.
For instance, in a time when it was popular to claim that the Gospel narratives were written by unknown writers of the second century or so, Barclay contended that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the actual authors of the compositions that bear their names. He was the only faculty member of his university to take that position.
He deplored the fact that churches neglected to practice discipline. (Of course, if they had, he should have been the first in line to receive such — if heresy is a disciplinary matter!)
And though he repudiated the deity of Jesus, he produced some of the richest material regarding the Lord’s teaching that has ever been written. Barclay’s discussion of Christ’s “Golden Rule” is a masterpiece that demonstrates the originality of Jesus’ teaching — contrary to the claims of many modernists.
And while the respected professor rationalized away many of Jesus’ miracles, he vigorously contended that there is no way to explain the explosive success of Christianity other than by the fact that such was the result of Christ’s resurrection from the grave!
Where Lies the Value?
Inasmuch as William Barclay was such a theological maverick, why do so many serious Bible students — even conservatives (including this writer) — find his writings valuable — even thrilling, on occasion? I have asked myself that question many times. Permit me to share my thoughts.
(1) The Scottish professor was a life-long student. He was not a cleric who spoke or wrote lazily. He did not employ stale, borrowed (or stolen) or warmed-over material. He obviously had a thirst for knowledge.
For more than half his life he was a teacher of Hellenistic Greek. He was perfectly at home with Aristotle, Thucydides, or Herodotus. In his discussions of biblical words he would track the terms from their classical origins, into the environment of the Septuagint era. He was familiar with words in Koine (common) Greek (the first-century Greek). He would explore the New Testament usage of terms, and even compliment the investigation by showing how the early “church fathers” employed various biblical texts. His linguistic studies are models of research methodology. Barclay’s little book, New Testament Words, is a must — especially for ministers.
(2) His writings are mosaics of literary treasure. Hundreds of illustrations from the works of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Kipling, etc., adorn his compositions in illustrative fashion. His productions are filled with rich deposits of historical lore. For instance, he once wrote regarding Roman domestic life: “So high was the standard of Roman morality that for the first five hundred years of the Roman commonwealth there was not a single recorded case of divorce.”
Barclay’s New Testament commentaries (eighteen small volumes) are packed with information that it would take years and years to locate on one’s own. For instance, his discussion of “slavery” in connection with the book of Philemon is a treasure that significantly illuminates that ancient problem, and the Christian approach to the oppressive institution.
(3) For all his scholarship, the professor of Glasgow was never “pedantic.” He did not “strut” while sitting at his desk! He wrote so that the average person could understand him. He once stingingly declared: “It is usually true that the man who is unintelligible is not unintelligible because he is ‘deep,’ but because he does not himself understand what he is talking about.”
By way of contrast, some today write so as to flaunt their alleged scholasticism, rather than to communicate meaningfully to the man-on-the-street. They speak to the wind!
Barclay’s words flowed easily and elegantly. He is never boring, but always a delight to read. (In a way, this is what makes him so dangerous as well — especially to the novice who may be unable to separate the “wheat” from the “chaff.”) But one can never read Barclay to a significant degree without learning something.
(4) His writings were never intended to be mere exercises in the theoretical. He was ever applying the truths of the Bible to the circumstances of daily life. He believed that the student of the Scriptures must learn to practice the teaching of Christ.
He once commented that the teacher who arouses only passion in his student, without pointing out what needs to be done, is a dangerous instructor. That sort of teaching lulls the student into a psychological comfort zone that lends itself to the development of a cancerous apathy that ultimately is deadly. The good teacher, he declared, provides his audience with something to know, to feel, and to do.
(5) Barclay had a way of illustrating his lessons so as to make them memorable. I remember the story he told of a dog he once had. Rusty, a bull-terrier, would accompany his master on walks down through the meadow and beside the stream. Rusty had a passion for plunging into the water, locating a rock on the bottom, getting it in his mouth, and bringing it to the bank. He would carefully deposit the stone some distance from the water’s edge, and then go for another one. Time and again he would fetch his treasured rock, repeating the process for hours — if so allowed. Barclay asked this question: “What is the point?”
So far as he could determine, there was none. The exercise served no discernable purpose at all. He then observed that this is the way many Christians are. They seem to be going through the same monotonous routine every day, but without a purpose; with no projected goal. They appear not to know what their reason for existing actually is. They operate on the “dog” level.
Is it not the case that many of us scurry to make money (having little time for faith or family), and then die, leaving our resources (be they much or meager) to others, over which to squabble. We stay frustrated over the most trivial issues. As the saying goes, we “major in minors.” We are ever sidetracked from our main goal — reverencing our Creator, keeping his commands, and teaching others to do likewise.
And so, Barclay’s “what-is-the-point?” point was powerful indeed — and obviously memorable!
William Barclay frustrates me and delights me. He makes me angry, yet he teaches me. I despise his theology, but I thrill to many truths I have learned from him. I listen to him, and I ignore him. I recommend his writings, yet with a grain of salt (no, a bucket of salt!).
Scripture references: John 1:1; Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 3:21-26; Matthew 20:28