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William Barclay: Commentaries, Beliefs, Legacy

Updated on April 20, 2016
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Justin Aptaker graduated summa cum laude from the University of Tennessee, earning a B.A. in psychology and a minor in religious studies.

William Barclay: beloved Scottish minister, professor, and author
William Barclay: beloved Scottish minister, professor, and author

William Barclay: Commentaries, Beliefs, Legacy

If you want to obtain William Barclay commentaries on New Testament Books, click here. If you want to learn about some of William Barclay's beliefs, including his more “unorthodox” beliefs, continue reading.

William Barclay: Brief Biography

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 commentary for each book of the New Testament. This series, called the Daily Study Bible, became a bestselling phenomenon, and continues to sell well to this day. Barclay’s purpose in writing, he said, was to help people “know [Jesus] better and love him more” (The Mind of Jesus). I, personally, have found his writings to do those very things in my own life. His encyclopedic knowledge--and his knowledge may truly be labeled encyclopedic--is matched only by his reverent and beautiful portrayals of Jesus. Reading him, one can not help but learn a great deal, and grow in love for God and for Jesus Christ.

Introduction To His 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 are 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. 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--John 12:32 and Romans 11:32, to name a couple--which explicitly state that God will have mercy on all people. Secondly, he bases this belief on his formidable understanding of ancient Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. Analyzing biblical phrases such as “eternal punishment” in the original Greek, Barclay finds 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. Read the chapter about universalism in William Barclay's autobiography here.

Biblical Inerrancy

Although Barclay held the Bible in great esteem (he made it his life’s work, after all, to write and speak about it), he did not seem to believe that the Bible should completely override man’s reason and 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 says in his autobiography, reminding us of Paul’s injunction to “test all things” and “hold on to the good” (p 35).

And some of his conclusions might shock the average Christian today. For example, he points 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 does 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 leaves it as a matter of fact that John does give a different story here than the other gospels. He instead ponders 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 concludes 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. Thus, Barclay clearly didn’t adhere to the popular notions about the Bible’s absolute inerrancy or total lack of contradictions.

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Jesus Healing a Blind Man. William Barclay saw the nature of God revealed in the love and kindness of Jesus.
Jesus Healing a Blind Man. William Barclay saw the nature of God revealed in the love and kindness of Jesus.

The Nature of Christ

William Barclay makes 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, the same 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 does not agree with the concept of substitutionary atonement. That is, he doesn’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 does not muddle words when stating the core of his belief system: “I believe in Jesus. For me Jesus is the centre 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 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.

William Barclay Commentaries (Daily Study Bible)

To my knowledge, William Barclay Commentaries are not available for free online, and the search results which purport to offer them for free online are mostly spam sites which are likely to infect with viruses the user who clicks on them. The safe and reliable way to get a William Barclay Commentary is to buy one in book form.


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      6 years ago

      Excellent overview. Thanks for posting.

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      Mary Kay  

      8 years ago

      This Internet picture of the painting just doesn't do it justice.

      A copy is over my fireplace and it is breathtaking when you walk into my house and first see it.

      It's a shock and awe kind of a work. Genius.

      Mary Kay Mason


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