Adam Clarke & Albert Barnes: Scholars from the Past

Adam Clarke and Albert Barnes were famous Bible commentators of a by-gone era. This “human interest” piece discusses some little-known facts about these distinguished gentlemen.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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Occasionally in these weekly articles I like to depart from the “heavier” subjects and take one of those inviting side-trails that explore interesting facts of history. This week we have a “human interest” piece concerning two renowned Bible commentators.

Adam Clarke (1762-1832)

Adam Clarke was the most famous commentator the Methodist Church ever produced. As a child he was judged to be rather dull; however, from about eight onward he began to excel in learning. Though his father was of the Church of England, and his mother a Presbyterian, he became a Methodist when he was about sixteen. As his studies progressed he became a master of both Hebrew and Greek, as well as several other languages. He was proficient in the Greek classics, patristic literature, and various disciplines of history and science.

Clarke labored for forty years to bring to completion his erudite eight-volume work (now available in three volumes), A Commentary on the Bible. His studies were so rigorous that he eventually wore himself out in these pursuits. Though his commentaries are not held in high regard today by modern “stuffy” scholars, and while they are obsolete in certain areas, nonetheless, they still contain a wealth of information and should be in every preacher’s library.

In spite of his vast knowledge, Clarke held some very “quirky” ideas. For example, he wrote: “There is scarcely any doubt now remaining in the philosophical world that the moon is a habitable globe.” He described this “lesser light” as a place of mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and seas, and he believed that the moon is inhabited by intelligent beings.

Additionally, Clarke speculated that the “serpent,” used by Satan as an instrument by which to approach Eve (Gen. 3), was a creature of the “ape” family. The New Testament, of course, indicates that the “serpent” was a snake (ophis), a limbless reptile (cf. Mk. 16:18; cf. 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9; 20:2).

Clarke also entertained the bizarre notion that Judas Iscariot did not commit suicide, as our common translations indicate in Matthew 27:5. Rather, the learned gentleman ventured the opinion that Judas was stricken with remorse over having betrayed the Lord. His mental anguish became so acute that he was seized with “violent dysentery.” He got choked, fell off of a seat upon which he was sitting, and his bowels gushed out.

Clarke further attempted to argue that Judas sincerely repented of his betrayal of Christ, and that the Bible student may entertain every hope that the traitor will enjoy eternity in heaven. Of course the evidence is clear that Judas hanged himself. The verb apagcho, in the middle voice, means precisely that, “to hang oneself.” The same term is used to describe the death of Ahithophel in the Greek version of the Old Testament (2 Sam. 17:23). Moreover, Judas was described by Christ as the “son of perdition” (i.e., worthy of perdition; cf. 2 Thes. 2:3) who “perished” (Jn. 17:12). And Peter noted that the wayward apostle “fell away” and went to his “own place” (Acts 1:25), i.e., the place of which he was deserving.

Albert Barnes (1798-1870)

Albert Barnes was a Presbyterian minister who produced a number of valuable commentaries on the Bible. He wrote Old Testament commentaries on Job, Psalms, Isaiah, and Daniel, and a complete set on the New Testament. These works have been extremely popular in both Europe and the U.S., selling into the millions of copies, though his Old Testament productions are generally considered to be superior to the New Testament works — which were written mostly for Sunday school teachers.

Educated at Princeton seminary, Barnes was a dedicated student. He arose early in the morning and studied by lamplight — which sustained practice almost cost him his eyesight. For forty years he maintained an association with the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

Barnes had a strong sense of morality and was much opposed to the practice of slavery. In 1846, he wrote a book, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. He also preached against the use of alcoholic beverages, urging total abstinence.

In 1868, Barnes was invited to deliver a series of ten lectures on “Christian Evidences” in New York. These were subsequently incorporated into a book and constitute a masterful defense of the Christian religion.

Though a Presbyterian, Barnes argued that man possesses freewill; he urged his auditors exercise their power of choice, and to respond to God’s offer of salvation. These views brought him into serious conflict with strict Calvinists. After the publication of his commentary on Romans, Barnes was charged with doctrinal heresy, and put on trial (1835) by his presbytery. Ultimately, the church’s general assembly acquitted him, though with some censure. His teaching on “unlimited atonement” (contra Calvin) helped generate a split in the Presbyterian Church in 1837. Unfortunately, the celebrated commentator was unable to divest himself of all his Calvinistic baggage.

Albert Barnes nurtured some unusual ideas. It is reported that he would not fish with a baited hook inasmuch as he considered that practice to be a form of deception (yet see Mt. 17:27).

Moreover, in his commentary on Job, when discussing the ostrich (39:13ff), he speculated that this curious creature was “the connecting link between quadrupeds and fowls.” Not even this generally conservative scholar was immune to the influence of evolutionism — though his work on Job was published a dozen years before Darwin’s The Origin of Species came from the press. Too, under the influence of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), a Scottish church leader, he subscribed to the “Gap Theory,” which, he conceded, was “designed to solve some of the growing difficulties from the new science of geology.” He was intimidated by the assertions of the “scientism” of his day, hence, in weakness, compromised the biblical view of creation.

In December of 1868, at the age of 70, he delivered an address in Philadelphia titled, “Life at Threescore and Ten,” which contained his reflections on things he had learned, and had come to appreciate over the years. At the conclusion of his presentation, he cited these lines:

May some disease, not tardy to perform
Its destined office, yet with gentle stroke,
Dismiss me weary to safe retreat
Beneath the turf that I have often trod.

He hoped to die a quick death, rather than one of lingering agony. Coincidentally, two years later to the month, he died instantly while making a call of condolence at the home of a friend.

It is a sad footnote to history that Barnes has largely been ignored in the biographical sketches of influential theological writers. In the New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, he merits only a half-dozen sentences, while the infamous Karl Barth is granted an entire page. In the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church he is mentioned not at all.