The Enigmatic William Barclay

William Barclay was a popular Scottish theologian who died in 1978. His books are immensely popular. But Barclay was a “mystery.” He was modernistic in many of his views; yet extremely instructive in other ways. Read this discussion regarding a hurtful, but helpful, scholar.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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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’s Modernism

Barclay once described himself as a liberal evangelical — a somewhat contradictory expression. The truth about the engaging professor is that he was a theological modernist. For example, he did not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. He wrote that we are not compelled to accept this teaching “in the literal and physical sense.”

Barclay did not hesitate to discredit miracles in the Bible. While he felt there was some essence of the miraculous in Christ’s deeds, he believed many of the Lord’s miracles had perfectly natural explanations.

For example, he argued that the Savior did not literally multiply the loaves and fishes. 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.

And the Lord did not really intend for Peter to cast his fishing hook into the sea to obtain a coin from a fish’s mouth. He meant for the apostle to use his fishing skill to raise funds for the temple tax. So went the Barclay “spin” on the Lord’s miraculous deeds.

Was Christ truly the Son of God? 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 friends of mine once 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. He insisted he never had endorsed that idea. He claimed that the Lord himself believed that he was divine, as did others. But personally, Barclay did not. When my friend cited the apostle Paul as evidence to the contrary, the professor snapped: “I don’t care what Paul said.”

An what of our salvation? 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 Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 3:21-26). The Lord himself expressed it like this: the Son of man came to “give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

But Professor Barclay believed that taking this statement as literal 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 deplorable ideas in which the professor set aside sacred Scripture and substituted his foolish opinions, he stuns you with some of his teachings.

For instance, 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!)

Though he repudiated the deity of Jesus, he produced some beautifully rich material regarding the Lord’s teaching. 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.

While the respected scholar 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?

Undoubtedly, William Barclay was a theological renegade. So why do many serious Bible students — even conservatives (including me) — find his writings valuable, even thrilling, on occasion? I have asked myself that question many times. Permit me to share my thoughts.

His passion for learning

The Scottish professor was a lifelong 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.

He was a Hellenistic Greek teacher for more than half his life. 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 (first-century Greek). He would explore the New Testament usage of terms and even complement 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.

Historical and literary treasures

His writings are mosaics of literary treasure. Hundreds of illustrations from the works of Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Kipling adorn his compositions.

His productions are filled with rich deposits of historical lore. For instance, he once wrote about 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.

Wrote for understanding

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.”

In contrast, some today write 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.

Practical for daily living

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 a 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 developing a cancerous apathy that is ultimately deadly. The good teacher, he declared, provides his audience with something to know, feel, and to do.

A memorable writer

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 through the meadow and beside the stream. Rusty was passionate about 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 away 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 daily routine without a purpose or 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, with 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!).