William Barclay: Commentaries, Beliefs, Legacy
William Barclay: Commentaries, Beliefs, Legacy
William Barclay was born in Scotland on December 5, 1907. He died in his sleep in 1978. Between those two events, he became a renowned professor of Biblical Greek and New Testament studies, an ordained minister, and a popular radio broadcaster. His most enduring work, however, has been his wildly popular series of New Testament commentaries. William Barclay wrote a series of seventeen books of commentary, covering the entire Christian New Testament. This series, called the Daily Study Bible, has been translated into over a dozen languages and has sold more than ten million copies around the world, continuing to sell well to this day (Source: Publisher's review on Amazon). The great popularity of the series among evangelical Christians is particularly noteworthy in light of how far many of Barclay’s beliefs strayed from points of dogma that are traditionally considered by evangelicals to be crucial. Some of these beliefs will be discussed below.
Barclay's purpose in writing, he said, was to help people “know [Jesus] better and love him more” (The Mind of Jesus). His encyclopedic knowledge--and his knowledge may truly be labeled encyclopedic--was matched only by his reverent and beautiful portrayals of Jesus. Reading him, one cannot help but learn a great deal, and perhaps more importantly to Barclay, develop a deeper, visceral appreciation for the divine.
Introduction to William Barclay's Beliefs
I’ll begin my discussion of William Barclay’s beliefs by setting out some of his more controversial ones. I do this, not to emphasize their controversy, but because they lead up to his core conception of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That is, they were not the center of his belief system. Rather, they lead to the center.
William Barclay the Universalist
William Barclay was a convinced, outspoken Christian Universalist, as he pointed out in his autobiography. That is, he believed that God, through Jesus Christ, would eventually reconcile every living soul to Himself. He did not deny the existence of “hell”, but taught that the punishments of hell were for corrective purposes only, to bring the soul to repentance, and that eventually all "damned" souls would repent and be saved. Barclay believed this first of all because of scriptures such as John 12:32 and Romans 11:32, which explicitly state that God will have mercy on all people. Second, he based this belief on his formidable understanding of ancient Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. Analyzing biblical terms, such as those translated into English as “eternal punishment”, in the original Greek, Barclay found that they mean something much different. Third, he believed that one could not set limits to the grace and love of God. Finally, he believed in the ultimate triumph of God over everything. For Barclay, one soul lost for all eternity would represent the defeat of God and His love.
Barclay held the Christian Bible in such great esteem that he made it his life’s work to write and speak about it. Nevertheless, he did not seem to believe that the Bible should override man’s faculty of reason, nor did he think that one should minimize the importance of the direct guidance of God’s Spirit at work today. “The New Testament is clear about the importance of a man coming to his own conclusions,” he said in his autobiography (p 35), reminding us of Paul’s injunction to “test all things” and “hold on to the good” (1 Thess 5:21).
Some of Barclay's conclusions might shock certain Christians today. For example, he pointed out in his commentary on the Gospel of John that the author of John gives a different day for the crucifixion than the other three gospels. In John, Jesus was crucified on the day before the Jewish Passover, while in the other three gospels, he was crucified on the day of Passover. Barclay did not try to simply explain this away by coming up with some far-fetched theory as to how John and the other three gospels do not actually disagree, thus preserving the notion that there is no contradiction within the Bible. Instead, he left it as a matter of fact that John does give a different story here than the other gospels. He then pondered John’s motives for giving a different date for the crucifixion, saying that John “dated things so that Jesus would be crucified at exactly the same time as the Passover lambs were being killed, so that Jesus might be seen as the great Passover Lamb [. . .] who took away the sins of the world” (Commentary on John, Volume 2, 337-338).
Thus, Barclay concluded that the other three gospels were right in historical fact, while John was right in the eternal truth that Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God. John, however, was most likely not historically accurate on the matter of the date of Christ’s crucifixion, and there is indeed a contradiction here between his gospel and the others. So, Barclay clearly didn’t adhere to popular notions about the Bible’s absolute inerrancy or total lack of contradictions.
The Nature of Christ
William Barclay made it clear in his autobiography that Jesus Christ is not God, ontologically speaking. That is, he wasn’t the same entity as God. Rather, Jesus had the same nature, heart, and desires as God.
“When I see Jesus feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowing, befriending men and women with whom no one else would have had anything else to do, I can say: ‘This is God.’ It is not that Jesus is God [. . .] nowhere does the New Testament identify Jesus as God [. . .] but in Jesus, I see perfectly [. . .] the attitude of God to men, the attitude of God to me. In Jesus, there is the full revelation of the mind and the heart of God.” (William Barclay: A Spiritual Autobiography, 49)
The Substitutionary Atonement
William Barclay did not agree with the concept of substitutionary atonement. That is, he didn't see redemption “in terms of God laying on Jesus the punishment that should have been laid” on him (A Spiritual Autobiography, 51-52). He said that this model of atonement seemed to begin with God’s wrath, and set God (who was vengeful) in opposition to Jesus (who was merciful). In the New Testament, however, we begin with God’s love, of which Jesus is simply the perfect expression. God sent Jesus because He so loved the world, not in order that He might begin to love the world. God did not need to be reconciled to man, but man to God. Jesus came to show us God’s feelings towards us, not to change them.
William Barclay’s Central Belief
On page forty-eight of his autobiography, William Barclay did not muddle words when stating the core of his belief system: “I believe in Jesus. For me, Jesus is the center and the soul of the whole matter.” For Barclay, Jesus was the mind of God revealed, and the only one who could calm the storms in the hearts of men. The essence of God’s mind, as revealed by Jesus, is love. The God whom Barclay saw revealed in Jesus is a God who sorrows with our pain, and rejoices with our joys. He is a God who has always and will always have the nature of Christ, which is perfect love toward all people. He does not wish to destroy us, but rather to save us from our own impurities and weaknesses.
For Barclay, the reality and the goodness of God in Christ did not seem to depend on the existence of a perfect, historically factual, inerrant collection of documents. He saw John’s dating of the crucifixion to be historically inaccurate and in contradiction to other parts of the Bible, but nevertheless indicative of a higher spiritual truth that John wished to convey.
Finally, William Barclay believed that the goodness and love of God in Christ was so great, eternal, and powerful, that at last no soul would be capable of resisting it, and thus no soul would be consigned to suffer in its own sin for all eternity. The triumph of God is the complete triumph over all sin. And the only triumph that one may have over sin (I believe I may be nearly quoting George MacDonald, another Scottish theologian) is to utterly wipe it out of the sinner. This is good news indeed. This is the gospel.
© 2011 Justin Aptaker