Question: "Who was William Barclay?"

Answer:

William Barclay (1907—1978) was a New Testament scholar and Church of Scotland minister best remembered for his radio and television broadcasts and writings produced and published as the Daily Study Bible. Barclay’s primary interest was communicating the history, theology, and language of the New Testament in a comprehensible and relevant way to ordinary people of his time.

Born in Wick, Scotland, Barclay descended from Scottish highlanders. His father was an evangelical lay minister who preached in Gaelic and worked as a manager at the Bank of Scotland. The family moved to Motherwell—the town Barclay called home—when he was a boy of five. By age 12, Barclay felt called to preach.

Barclay studied classical arts and divinity at Glasgow University, earning his degree in 1932. He then pursued an additional year of education at the University of Marburg in Germany. In 1933, William Barclay was ordained in the Church of Scotland and began ministering at Trinity Church, Renfrew (near Glasgow), where he continued until 1946.

Barclay’s time in that pulpit during the Great Depression and World War II brought him into close connections with working-class people from the surrounding factories and shipyards. There “he learned to speak in language intelligible to ordinary people. Yet he also learned not to underestimate his audience, a point he later urged upon his students” (Douglas, J. D., “Barclay, William,” Who’s Who in Christian History, Douglas, J. D., and Comfort, P., eds., Tyndale House, 1992, p. 61).

In 1933, William married Katherine Gillespie, a minister’s daughter described as “a vivacious person” who was “keenly interested in his work” (www.lifeandwork.org/features/looking-back-this-man-barclay, accessed 8/20/23). The couple had three children, two girls and a boy. Their eldest daughter tragically drowned in a yachting accident at age 21.

In 1947, William Barclay took a position as New Testament Lecturer at Glasgow University. He was later appointed Senior Lecturer in Hellenic Greek and eventually, in 1963, became Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism until his retirement in 1974. He continued to lecture as a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde. He was awarded Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.

One of Barclay’s students described him as a generous, charming, and cheerful family man who worked hard and loved life. He was highly disciplined in his work, possessed a photographic memory, and had the gift of thinking in pictures. Despite losing his hearing, Barclay still succeeded in leading the college choir. He counted his deafness an asset: “When he was writing he would turn off the hearing aid and thus escaping all intrusions concentrate absolutely on his work” (www.preaching.com/articles/past-masters/william-barclay-remarkable-communicator/, accessed 8/20/23). Barclay’s experiences among the working people of Scotland inspired his famous verse-by-verse, 17-volume New Testament commentary, the Daily Study Bible, initially published between 1954 and 1978. The work began as a temporary measure. After the Church of Scotland’s curriculum author fell ill, Barclay was asked to fill in as a substitute writer. But Barclay never left the project, and the first edition sold over five million copies. Each volume in the series contains Barclay’s unique translation of the New Testament in everyday English. The latest edition, the New Daily Study Bible, was released in 2001.

Barclay described himself as a “liberal evangelical” (Douglas, op. cit., p. 61), and his modernism became more evident the older he became. Barclay was reluctant to defend the inspiration of Scripture, was critical of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and expressed doubts about the virgin birth. He downplayed the literal nature of the miracles in Scripture. For example, he doubted that Jesus truly raised the widow’s son to life in Luke 17:11–17:

It may well be that here we have a miracle of diagnosis; that Jesus with those keen eyes of his saw that the young man was in a cataleptic trance and saved him from being buried alive, as so many were in Palestine. (Barclay, W., The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, p. 105).

The same “keen eyes” of Jesus are also used to explain away the miracle of the draught of fish in Luke 5:1–11:

There is no need to think that Jesus created a shoal of fishes for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee there were phenomenal shoals which covered the sea as if it was solid for as much as an acre. Most likely Jesus’ discerning eye saw just such a shoal and his keen sight made it look like a miracle.
(Ibid., p. 68).

Barclay even cast doubt on the divinity of Christ:

It is not that Jesus is God. Time and time again the Fourth Gospel speaks of God sending Jesus into the world. Time and time again we see Jesus praying to God. Time and time again we see Jesus unhesitatingly and unquestioningly and unconditionally accepting the will of God for himself. Nowhere does the New Testament identify Jesus and God. He said: “He who has seen me has seen God.” There are attributes of God I do not see in Jesus. I do not see God’s omniscience in Jesus, for there are things which Jesus did not know.
(Barclay, W., The Mind of Jesus, Harper & Row, 1961, p. 56).

In light of Barclay’s theological problems, he should be read with care. Yet there is value in his work. He was a good writer who was adept at organization and pulling together the various themes of Scripture into an understandable whole. And he always issued a call to action. William Barclay believed every Christian should be a student of God’s Word, applying its truth and living out the teachings of Christ in daily life.

Besides his Daily Study Bible, Barclay wrote more than 50 books at a pace of about three a year. Although he started working on the books of the Old Testament (Genesis and the Psalms), Parkinson’s disease ended that quest early. Barclay died in 1978 at age 71 in Glasgow.

Consider these quotes from the writings of William Barclay:

“Jesus promised his disciples three things—that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.” (The Gospel of Luke)

“We need to discover the lost radiance of the Christian faith. In a worried world, Christians should be the only people who remain serene. In a depressed world, Christians should be the only people who remain full of the joy of life.” (The Gospel of Matthew)

“The Christian hope is the hope which has seen everything and endured everything, and has still not despaired, because it believes in God. The Christian hope is not hope in the human spirit, in human goodness, in human endurance, in human achievement; the Christian hope is hope in the power of God.” (The Letter to the Romans)



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