William Barclay: theological hero or heretic?

There’s a set of books on my shelf that have long intrigued me, or at least they did several years ago when I had time to read most of them: the Daily Study Bible (Revised Edition, 1975-76), a 17-volume series of New Testament commentaries written by Scottish theologian William Barclay. From Wikipedia:

Despite the series name, these commentaries do not set a program of regular study. Rather, they go verse by verse through Barclay’s own translation of the New Testament, listing and examining every possible interpretation known to Barclay and providing all the background information he considered possibly relevant, all in layman’s terms.

Barclay called himself a “liberal evangelical” and denied accepted doctrines like the inerrancy of scripture or even the deity of Jesus Christ. He regularly rejects supernatural explanations of Jesus’ miracles, as summarized in “The Enigmatic William Barclay“, an article in the Christian Courier:

He argued that the Savior did not multiply the loaves and fishes literally; 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. Further, he said, the Lord did not really intend for Peter to cast his fishing hook into the sea in order to obtain a coin from a fish’s mouth; rather, he meant for the apostle to use his fishing skill to raise the funds for the temple tax. So went the Barclay “spin.”

It is startling to come across these positions in his commentaries, yet he wrote with such ease and accessibility that one is tempted to pass over such indiscretions and revel in the depth of historical and illustrative knowledge cast on the scriptures. The sheer number of citations and illustrations sprinkled liberally in each dissection of scripture is astounding and illuminating.

But like Oswald Chambers, the point of his commentary was application, not just knowledge and passion. Barclay’s writing educates you, excites you and challenges you to put feet on your faith.

It’s hard to ask for more from a teacher, even if he’s a heretic.

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15 Comments

  1. Posted November 28, 2007 at 4:53 PM | Permalink

    Yes, Barclay anticipated my trick for walking on water. But that’s not how Jesus did it, experienced fishermen would hardly have fallen for that!

  2. Posted November 29, 2007 at 3:01 PM | Permalink

    I can’t help but like Barclay’s series. Sometimes one can go a long way between these bits of heresy and find really good stuff in between. He was certainly an excellent writer, and he’s always good for a clever quote or turn of phrase.

    When the widow of the man who had been my pastor in my younger years invited me into his study recently to pick out anything I might want to remember him by, I couldn’t help but ask for the Barclay set. Of course I felt greedy asking for so many volumes, but they are well-worn copies with my former pastor’s handwritten notes in the margins. Truly a personal treasure of mine.

  3. Posted November 30, 2007 at 7:23 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments, Rick. To be given such a gift as you’ve described is a treasure indeed!

    I’ve found that there is often as much insight in Barclay’s translation as there is in his study notes – I was just browsing Amazon and found that his New Testament has been published and is available. Interestingly, he’s reordered the books in their order of supposed authorship:

    Mark, Matthew, Luke, Acts, John, Galations, 1/2 Thessalonians, 1/2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians, 1/2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1/2 Peter, Jude, 1/2/3 John and Revelation.

    That could be an interesting addition to look at.

  4. Posted January 13, 2008 at 10:08 PM | Permalink

    EE, Second time this weekend I’m visiting an older post of yours. Have you seen the new Daily Bible Commentary just released last year (as far as I can tell) from Hendrickson? http://www.hendrickson.com/html/product/56143x.trade.html?category=all

    The writers seem top notch and there’s a two-page spread for every section. I wonder how this compares with Barclay? Interestingly, the textual base is the Modern Language Bible (which Hendrickson now holds the rights to–and just when I thought it was completely dead!). I also noticed that CBD has the whole set for $69 which can’t be too bad of a deal.

  5. Posted January 14, 2008 at 4:19 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the link, Rick. Looking at the excerpts on CBD, it does seem somewhat similar to the Barclay series in approach, though the latter obviously wasn’t a devotional. I suppose the thing to do would be to get one volume on a book of particular interest and compare it directly.

  6. Posted January 14, 2008 at 9:05 AM | Permalink

    True that Barclay is not a devotional per say, but the connection is in my mind because I’ve used it as such.

  7. Posted January 14, 2008 at 9:23 AM | Permalink

    Agreed – I was thinking more of the application prayer that this new series has at the end of each commentary section.

  8. Posted January 20, 2008 at 2:22 PM | Permalink

    EE, have you read any of the OT volumes in the Daily Study Bible series? I have the first volume on Genesis. I’m trying to give vol. 1 in Genesis a shot, but I’m not as enthusiastic about it. It’s not that the writer (John C. L. Gibson) is a bit to my left theologically, but rather that what made the NT DSB so goo–the excellent writing style and insight of Barclay–is simply missing here. It’s not the idea for the series that makes the NT DSB significant but the writer of them.

    Incidentally, the current version of the NT series is highly edited by other writers. My copy of the NT series is the second edition which was still strictly by Barclay. This is the one to own from what I’ve gathered.

  9. Posted January 21, 2008 at 5:33 AM | Permalink

    Rick, for the OT, I have Gibson’s volume on Job and D.S. Russell’s volume on Daniel. I agree with your assessment that the spark of Barclay’s writing is what makes the NT volumes shine. I doubt that I would pursue any more of the OT titles unless I had a specific interest in the author’s work.

    I have the “Revised Edition” of the NT series (blue and white covers, paperback), published in the mid-70s. I think it was 1st Edition (1956), 2nd Edition (1958), Revised Edition (1975). There’s been some editing of Barclay’s original texts by Rev. James Martin, but not nearly as significant as the current “New Daily Study Bible”. I think one of the reviews on Amazon has more information on the changes made by Martin.

  10. Posted January 29, 2008 at 11:33 AM | Permalink

    I guess I am mystified, as to how an acknowledged heretic (Barclay) who denied the deity of Christ and His miracles, could “excite” and “challenge to put feet on our faith”; faith in what?

    • Wanda
      Posted March 30, 2009 at 11:12 PM | Permalink

      I am wondering the same thing. Matthew Henry gives more insight and truth at least.

  11. Doz
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 2:26 AM | Permalink

    It just goes to show that we must all study the scriptures when we read, hear or find something regarding the Christian faith for ourselves. Keeping the Bible in context and getting all of scripture on a subject should be our all sufficient rule for proper Bible study. I am currently working on attempts to reform some long time Jehovah’s Witness’s, by proving from the Word that Jesus Christ is God, and not just ‘a god’. They gave me an article attacking John 1:1 in it WatchTower have quoted Barkley’s interpretation of it. Obviously to justify their own beleifs, that Jesus Christ was rather a created spirit of God. Thanks for your write up its helped my study.

    • AA
      Posted July 10, 2012 at 4:40 PM | Permalink

      I was going to get Barclay’s set of books but now that I have been informed that he does not believe the inerrancy of scripture, how can I be sure that all his acclaimed scholarship is not poisoned, especially since it is well argued? It is like having the JWs teaching you the Bible, eventually you will believe what they believe.

  12. William Daniels
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 1:39 AM | Permalink

    How dare you call Barclay a heretic?

    • Matt Goodall
      Posted July 30, 2012 at 1:31 AM | Permalink

      An Oak tree remains an Oak tree whether one calls it a Tulip or a rose.
      Likewise Barclay remains a heretic, on the grounds of his beliefs, whether one calls him such or prefers to call him an angel.