William Barclay

William Barclay

© 1979 Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th.M., Th.D.

Because William Barclay has been so popular in some circles, I think that it is necessary to offer some corrections. The man did not hold to the inerrancy of Scripture. Unfortunately, we live in an age when popularity is more important than truth, when selling power is considered a measure of veracity and reputation is equal to inerrancy. So William Barclay is held in high esteem since he is well known, popular, and his commentaries sell well. However, if a man were to deny the Virgin Birth of Christ, His absolute deity, the miracles He performed, His substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, forgiveness of our sins by faith only in Christ, and eternal hell, no one would accuse him of being a Christian—indeed there would be no evidence for such a verdict! We shall see from Mr. Barclay’s own words that he denied all these truths.

First, John Murray, that late, great theologian of Westminster, quotes from Barclay’s works to demonstrate he denied the Virgin Birth of our Lord: “Dr. Barclay uses the argument that the Virgin Birth ‘impinges on the simple idea of Jesus as our example’, for then he would have ‘entered into life with an advantage which is denied to all other men’.”[1]

Secondly, from Barclay’s own words in his Spiritual Autobiography, we can easily document his other heresies. On p. 52 he denies Christ literally did miracles but they are “symbols of what he still can do.” One could easily read over this statement, for, like most liberals, Mr. Barclay’s words are very subtle. But this is where he is the most dangerous. Though he is sometimes very careful not to deny miracles forthright, he succeeds in prejudicing his readers against the supernatural with subtle restatements of them—“they are symbols.”

On p. 56 of the same book he states: “It is not that Jesus is God. Nowhere does the New Testament identify Jesus and God.” John 8:24 says one will die in his sins if he rejects the deity of Jesus. The deity of Jesus is a cardinal doctrine, without which no one can be saved. It is the rejection of this teaching that makes the Jehovah’s Witnesses a cult. Has not Barclay read these verses: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1); Jesus made “Himself equal with God” (John 5:18); the Father called Jesus God in Heb. 1:8; etc.

On pp. 57 and 58 the substitutionary death of Jesus is exchanged for a demonstration of love to inspire us to live better. Now Jesus’ death is such, but primarily He was a substitute, paying our penalty of sin in our stead. If Jesus did not save us, then the only alternative is for us to save ourselves by our works. Yet Paul specifically says this is another Gospel (Gal. 1:8, 9; Rom. 10:2-4).

Furthermore, Barclay is a convinced universalist: “. . . I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.” “And so the choice is whether we accept God’s offer and invitation willingly, or take the long and terrible way round through ages of purification” (p. 65). Or again, “. . . if you will have it so, you can go to heaven via hell” (p. 67). He believes, therefore, that all men, even Hitler, will make it to heaven. And what is this “purification” if not a works system?

On the bodily resurrection he says: “I believe that this Jesus so appeared to his men that they were convinced that he had conquered death. I do not know what exactly happened” (p. 113). I ask you, dear reader, is this anyway to treat the bodily resurrection of our Lord, to state “I don’t know”? Of course we know what happened—He was raised bodily from the grave! Anyone who rejects this is still in his sins according to 1 Corinthians 15:12-17.

Concerning God Himself Barclay says: “Here we have the extra-ordinary thought of an experimenting God who needs men to correct his mistakes” (p. 118). Now I did not misquote Barclay; he says God makes mistakes! Again, “But . . . God is not the omnipotent God he is the struggling God.” “It may be heresy, but there is something tremendous in the thought of a God who is fighting the battle of the universe, and who has deliberately made himself dependent on men” (p. 119). Please do not mistake my motive. I have no axe to grind with him personally. Only I ask you to discern if he is a minister of Christ or of Satan (2 Cor. 11:4, 5, 12-15; 1 John 4:1-6).

The attitude today is one of indifference, too characteristic of “Christians” in our times, I’m afraid. Now I ask you, Are these differences simply ones of opinion or has Barclay seriously departed from the faith (2 Cor. 11:4, 13-15)? Truly Harold Lindsell in The Bible in the Balance was right when he said: “I do not think Wm. Barclay was a Christian. In his Autobiography he clearly stated that he was not a Trinitarian, he did not believe Jesus is God, he denied . . . vicarious atonement and also the Virgin Birth of Christ, and his view of the Holy Spirit fits no discernible orthodox definition in the history of the Christian church. Needless to say, he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Thus, I feel that Wm. Barclay was not a Christian because by no reasonable understanding of the Bible could he be called one. It is the Bible which makes it impossible to claim this man as a fellow believer without emptying Christianity of its basic content” (p. 45).

Now Mr. Barclay’s commentaries are more subtle that his Autobiography, circumnavigating issues with subtlety of statement. In his commentary on Romans he feels that Paul’s analogy in Romans 9:19ff is a bad one and he wishes Paul had not written this (p. 132). Dear reader once again I ask, “Did Paul err here?” “Is God’s holy Word mistaken?”

In the Mark Commentary, he says it is not important if we believe in literal demons (pp. 119, 120). All through his commentary Mr. Barclay denies the supernatural or the demonic. The same naturalism pervades his explanation of Jesus calming the storm (p. 161) and virtually all other miracles he encounters in the sacred text.

Some point out, though, in contrast to all that has been documented, that Barclay’s commentaries have good historical background and word studies and are very readable by the average layman. However, let me note several things. First, the historical and philological value he may have is tertiary compared to the devastating effect his “theology” has on some. And those who promote him are “partakers of his evil deeds” (2 John 11), since he does not have the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9). Secondly, any good commentary will give historical background and word studies. Thirdly, the Tyndale series and the New International Commentaries are very readable for the layman. We are not, therefore, locked into Barclay, as these are viable alternatives. AMEN.

[1] Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols., Banner of Truth, p. 1:341.

3 thoughts on “William Barclay

  1. Pingback: Some interesting blog posts « Prydain

  2. I just wanted to thank you for this post. A lot of people use Barclay without realizing his “issues”, and therefore I hope some of them will be motivated to seek better commentaries than his after they have read your post.

  3. Dr. Curtis Crenshaw, I sincerely thank God for you. Thank you for this excellent article on Mr. William Barclay, who was an anti-supernaturalist. Dr. Barclay, it is sad to say, could not bring himself to say as the Apostle Paul, But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
    Dr. James Crichton would not allow Barclay’s commentaries to be used at the college where he was president, nor would he allow Barclay’s commentaries to be sold out of the bookstore.
    It is my contention that whenever a preacher or teacher quotes William Barclay, as I recently heard John MacArthur do, he should add a note of caution as to his writings.

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