“William Barclay Says…”

By Dudley Ross

More and more articles are being written and sermons being delivered in which William Barclay is quoted to substantiate some point. The popularity of Barclay among brethren is quite understandable for at least two reasons. (1) His writings are numerous. Barclay had over twenty books on the market at the time of his death. (2) His ability to organize thoughts was remarkable. When one reads any of the short topics in his Daily Bible Study Series, this ability of Barclay is clearly observed. His short treatment of segments of the New Testament lends itself to quick and painless sermonizing.

There are a number of things about William Barclay that some are not aware of. Nearly everyone who reads after the man remarks that he is really good but no one seems to know where he gets his information for he does not document his sources. He treats a Greek or Hebrew word without citing any lexical authority. Yet he will use men like A.J. Gossip and C.H. Dodd without hesitation. C.H. Dodd’s writings are about as full of infidelity and modernism as anything you can find. Dodd’s biblical scholarship is very questionable also. Of course, that can be said likewise of Barclay.

Barclay never made any claims to genius or originality. He described his mind as “second class” and went on to admit, “It is the simple truth that I never had an original idea in my life. In all the books I have written I have explained and expounded other men’s ideas.”(1) However, Barclay failed to say just who the other men from whom he borrowed ideas were. While he was not secretive about his lack of originality, he was not shy about his ability to remember. He said, “If then I have a second-class mind, how did I emerge with a first-class honors degree in Classics? Because I happen to have a phenomenal memory, and I am therefore an excellent examinee which merely goes to show what a poor test of real ability examinations are.”(2)

William Barclay was a man whose ideas, admittedly borrowed, run quite contrary to those of faithful brethren. It is here that faithful brethren should take warning. Barclay was a liberal and, in a sense, a modernist. He admits as much when he discussed the problem of being “evangelical.” The term “evangelical” is misused, misapplied and exploited by denominationalists who claim they are fundamentalists and Bible believers who are born again Christians – or some such description. In reality they are not evangelical in any sense of the term, but when Barclay discussed the point here was his comment: “It has always been to me a matter of deep regret that the word evangelical must in the eyes of some people always by preceded by the word conservative – a conservative evangelical. An evangelical is surely one who loves the good news of God in Jesus Christ, and I cannot see why there should be no such thing as a liberal evangelical.”(3)

The evidence of the liberal theology of Barclay is abundant. When you read Barclay’s books, look at such topics in the index as “The Virgin Birth,” “Miracles” and “The Person of Christ.” As Barclay dealt with these and other matters related to them, he would often just cast a little aspersion on the belief in super natural matters. He did not directly deny the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in his commentary on Matthew but called it a “crude fact” and emphasized that it is not important to literally believe that Jesus was born only of a woman. Let us look at some things he had to say about the birth of Christ.

He argued that both genealogies recorded in the Gospel records are traced through Joseph and argued that Mary is never even mentioned, except to say that Joseph was her husband. He argued that the virgin birth story could not be taken literally. He argued, “If Jesus was the son of Mary alone, he was of Aaronic and not Davidic descent.”(4) He contended that there was a “strong strand of thought which was at least unaware of the Virgin Birth” in the New Testament text.(5) Then he alleged, “The phrase `born of woman’ has nothing to do with the Virgin Birth.”(6) This is the man many are quoting as an authority in sermons and articles.

His concept of the miracles is the classic modernistic position. He expressed it this way. “That which would be a miracle in one age or in one society is a commonplace in another. Even fifty years ago people would have regarded it as a miracle to be able to sit in a room and look into a glass-fronted box and see plays being acted, games being played, events happening hundreds and even thousands of miles away.”(7) Over twenty years ago, this writer had a confrontation with a Presbyterian preacher who contended that what the Jews considered miraculous provision of Manna from Heaven was now a natural thing in that Maniferis Sinaiticus is a regularly exported product from the peninsula of Sinai today. Of course the obvious reply was that Jesus endorsed the giving of the Manna as a miracle and based His claim to being the true “bread of life” on that miraculous occurence (John 6:48-51).

Barclay looked at the healing miracles as simple legends and not facts. He had no more faith in the miracles of healing Jesus performed than he did those of the pagans of Christ’s time. He described an event that took place in Alexandria when a blind man came to Vespasian and “besought him to cure him by touching his eyes with his spittle, and a man who had a diseased hand, who besought him to heal it by touching it with the sole of his foot.”(8) Barclay then related how the blind man saw again and said, “Both facts are attested to this day.” He affirmed, “There is every reason to believe that these cures happened, and that they were not uncommon in the ancient world.” Later, however, he attributes it all, including the miracles of Christ and the apostles, to the current thought of those ancient days. He did not believe in miracles as divine intervention in the natural realm of the world. This man who regarded the miracles of Jesus as understood only in the characteristic Hebrew exagerations, is quoted far too often today by faithful brethren.

Barclay really did not believe that Jesus was God. Here is an area that is enigmatic in studying Barclay, for one time he wrote of his faith in Christ, but then made such statements as these. “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. (My emphasis, DRS) 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 (sic).”(9)

There are any number of other errors Barclay taught. There are some things he wrote that are well said, but when one is as liberal and modernistic as was Barclay, it is difficult to trust him. It is important to know the theology of a man if we are going to use him authoritatively. It is like using Thayer as a lexical authority, keeping in mind that the man was Unitarian. As the publishers preface reads, “A word of caution is necessary. Thayer was a Unitarian, and the errors of this sect occasionally come through in the expalatory notes. The reader should be alert for both subtle and blatant denials of such doctrines as the Trinity (Thayer regarded Christ as a mere man and the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force emanating from God), the inherent and total depravity of fallen human nature, the eternal punishment of the wicked, and Biblical inerrancy.”(10) The same is said in regard to Barclay and the works he left. This article is just a word of caution.


1. Barclay, W. “A Spiritual Biography, ” Eerdmans, 1975, p. 27.

2. Ibid. p. 28.

3. Ibid. pp. 102-103.

4. Barclay, W. The Mind of Jesus, Harper & Rowe, 1961, p. 329.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid. p. 330.

7. Ibid. p. 68.

8. Ibid. p. 69.

9. Op. cit. p. 56.

10. Thayer, J.H. A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, Baker, 1977 (preface) p. vii.

Guardian of Truth XXV: 10, pp. 150-151
March 5, 1981