Are His Writings Dependable ?
Mr. William MacDonald has traveled worldwide ministering the Word of God and is the author of dozens of booklets, Bible correspondence courses and books. He presently resides in California and directs a Discipleship Intern Training Program at San Leandro.
While Mr. MacDonald’s current article is much longer than those generally published in FOCUS, the editor felt because of the article’s nature and importance that it should be published in its entirety rather than in two installments.
William Barclay is one of the most enigmatical writers on the religious scene today. At one moment can delight you with his scintillating comments on the Scripture. Then in the next breath he will shock you with his unabashed heresy. He has a special gift of speaking out of both corners of his mouth. At first you are ready to welcome him warmly into the evangelical fold, but on further reading you begin to wonder if he accepts any of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.
It cannot be denied that he serves up vast amounts of helpful background material for the serious Bible student. And his word studies are unforgettable. But there is death in the pot! Interspersed with all that is appealing and attractive is the poison of modernism and of higher criticism.
If we were to use the methods of the higher critics, we could easily prove that his books were written by two or even three different men — Barclay, Deutero-Barclay and Trito-Barclay. The books are lavishly sprinkled with contradictions and inconsistencies. He changes his stance from moment to moment.
Evangelical preachers make increasing reference to Barclay’s works. Evangelical writers now quote him without apology. Evangelical bookstores stock his books side by side with those of the great fundamental stalwarts. Increasingly William Barclay’s writings are finding acceptance in conservative circles. If Christians knew what he really believes about Christ’s miracles, about the Resurrection, about the life hereafter, it is doubtful that they would be so meekly tolerant.
One of Barclay’s major works is The Daily Study Bible, a commentary, in 17 volumes, on the whole New Testament. This set is published by The Saint Andrew Press in Edinburgh and by Westminister Press in Philadelphia. If you read these books you will find out what Barclay really believes about inspiration, about the Person of Christ, about the miracles, about the way of salvation, and about other important Biblical truths.
Barclay believes that some books of the New Testament are more accurate than others. He says, for instance, that Mark’s gospel is more reliable than Matthew’s. “Mark’s gospel is the earliest gospel, and is therefore the nearest thing we will ever have to an actual report of all that Jesus said and did” (Matt., Vol. 1, p. 204). Again he writes, “Mark is the earliest gospel, and therefore Mark’s version is most likely to be strictly accurate” (Matt., Vol. 1, p. 393). With regard to the cursing of the fig tree, recorded in Matthew and Mark, he says, “From the existence of these two versions of the story, it is quite clear that some development has taken place; and, since Mark’s is the earliest gospel, it is equally clear that his version must be nearer to the actual historical facts” (Matt., Vol. II, p. 227).
In the same manner, he bluntly states that Paul’s true teaching on marriage is to be found in Ephesians 5 and not in 1 Cor. 7: “If we are to be fair to Paul. it is from this Chapter (Eph. 5) that we will draw his teaching on marriage and not from his earlier letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 7 contains crisis and emergency regulations at a time when Paul thought that the world had only days to exist. Ephesians gives us Paul’s view of marriage as part of the permanent situation of the Christian life … It is just possible that the Corinthians passage was coloured by Paul’s personal experience” (Eph., pp. 204, 205).
There is no doubt in Barclay’s mind that some of the New Testament writers were subject to error in what they wrote. Thus, with regard to the Lord’s statement that He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, he says, “Matthew understood wrongly the point of what Jesus said; and in so doing he made a strange mistake; for Jesus was not in the heart of the earth for three nights, but only for two nights” (Matt., Vol. II p. 55). Barclay overlooks the fact that in Jewish reckoning, a day and a night constitute an onah, and that any part of an onah is counted as an onah.
He also questions Matthew’s accuracy in quoting Jesus on the discipline of an offending brother (Matt. 18:15-18). “In many ways this is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the whole of Matthew’s gospel. Its difficulty lies in the undoubted fact that it does not ring true; it does not sound like Jesus; it sounds more like the regulations of an ecclesiastical committee than it does like the words of Jesus Christ. We may go further. It is not possible that Jesus said it in its present form …” (Matt., Vol. II, p. 206).
Barclay claims that there is a flaw in Paul’s argument in Rom. 5:12-21 (Rom., p. 81). Concerning Paul’s use of the picture of the potter in Romans 9:21, he says, “It is a bad analogy. One great New Testament commentator has said that this is one of the very few passages that we wish that Paul had not written” (Rom., p. 140).
Sometimes, according to Barclay, the writers improved on the words of Jesus. For example, “Luke, with a flash of sheer insight, adds one word to this command of Jesus: ‘Let him take up his cross daily’” (Matt., Vol. II, p. 167).
He does not hesitate to find fault with the order of verses or of chapters in the New Testament. concerning the parable of the wedding feast in Matt. 22:1-10, he writes, “There is one verse of the parable which is strangely out of place because it is not part of the original parable as Jesus told it, but a comment and an interpretation by the writer of the gospel” (Matt. Vol. II, pp. 294, 295).
In Romans 2:12-16, he teaches that the order of the verses should be changed as follows: 12, 13, 16, 14, 15 (Rom., p. 39).
Commenting on John 7:14-18, he says, “We have already had occasion to see that it is very likely that some parts of John’s Gospel have been misplaced. Maybe he never had time to put it fully in order; maybe the leaves on which it was written were finally assembled in the wrong order. This section, and the section which follows, form one of the clearest cases of misplacement. As these two passages come in here, they hardly make sense; they have no connection at all with their context. It is almost certain that they should not come in here” (John, Vol. 1, p. 248).
He suggests the possibility that “if John had had time and opportunity to revise his book, he might have removed the warning against angel worship in Revelation 22:9 since he had already given it in 19:10 (Rev., Vol. II, p. 286).
Barclay concludes that faulty memory explains why Old Testament passages are not quoted verbatim in the New. Thus in John 12:15, “John does not quote (Zechariah 9:9) accurately because obviously he is quoting from memory” (John, Vol. II, p. 137). When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:8 that 23,000 Israelites died, whereas Numbers 25:9 says that 24,000 died, “the explanation is simply that Paul was quoting from memory. Paul rarely quotes Scripture with verbatim accuracy; no one did in those days” (1 Cor., p. 98). (Mr. Barclay fails to notice that 23,000 died in one day, whereas a total of 24,000 died in the disaster.)
Next Barclay would have us believe that John’s Gospel does not necessarily give us the words of Jesus but only what John understood Jesus to mean. “When we read passages like this (John 5:19-29) we must remember that John is not seeking so much to give us the words that Jesus spoke as the things which Jesus meant. He was writing somewhere round about A.D. 100. For seventy years he had thought about Jesus and about the wonderful things which Jesus had said. Many of these things he had not fully understood when he had heard them from the lips of Jesus. But more than half a century of thinking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit had shown John deeper and deeper meanings in the words of Jesus. And so he sets down for us not only what Jesus said, but also what Jesus meant. In the light of the thought of his mind, and in the light of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he unfolds and expands the words of Jesus” (John, Vol. 1, p. 181).
With regard to Old Testament passages which describe the wrath of God, he asks, “What about the passages which speak about commandments of God to wipe out whole cities, and to destroy men, women and children? What of the anger and the destructiveness and the jealousy of God that we sometimes read of in the older parts of Scripture? The answer to that question is this — it is not God who has changed; it is men’s knowledge of God that has changed. Men wrote these things because they did not know any better. That was the stage to which their knowledge of God had reached” (John, Vol. 1. p. 15).
When Paul spoke of elemental spirits, principalities, powers and authorities (Col. 2:10), he was sufficiently the child of his age to believe in them, says Barclay (Col. p. 165). Likewise John was a child of his day in referring to an angel in Revelation 1:1. “That is what men believed at that time” (Rev., Vol. I, p. 29). And again when Paul referred to angels in Galatians 3:19, he was “using the Rabbinic thoughts of his time” (Gal., p. 32).
Barclay maintains that the New Testament writers often reflect Jewish and eastern legends in their writings. For example, in 2 Corinthians 11:1-6; Hebrews 11:7; 11:8-10; and 2 Peter 3:5, 6 (the flood legend).
He includes the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament (John, Vol. 1, p. 39), and quotes it as if of equal authority (Rom., p. 61).
Finally, Barclay denies that revelation ceased with the completion of the New Testament. “One of the mistakes that men sometimes make is to identify God’s revelation solely with the Bible. That would be to say that since about A.D. 120, when the latest book in the New Testament was written, God had ceased to speak, that since then there has been no more revelation from God … God is still revealing His truth to men” (John, Vol. II, pp. 227, 228).
As far as the curse pronounced on those who add to the words of the prophecy of this book (Rev. 22:18, 19), Barclay says, “It is by no means impossible that these words are not the words of the John of the Revelation at all, but the words of a later scribe, inserted when he copied the book, and was anxious that none should alter it in the days to come” (Rev., Vol. II, p. 296).
Barclay doesn’t come right out and deny the inspiration of the Bible in so many words. But he consistently and systematically undermines the authority of the Scriptures until, when he is through, his readers are left with nothing but a mutilated, fallible book.
It is clear that he does not believe that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). He does not believe that the very words of the Bible, as originally given, were inspired by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13). He does not believe that holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).
It is not only in the area of inspiration that Barclay’s books are unacceptable. The way in which he explains away the miracles also reveals him in his true light.
He denies, for instance, that Jesus actually cast demons out of people. He says, “Even if there are no such things as demons, a man could only be cured by the assumption that for him at least the demons were the realest of all things” (Matt., Vol. I, p. 328). “When people believe in demon-possession it is easy for them to convince themselves that they are so possessed; when they come under that delusion, the symptoms of demon-possession immediately arise in them … When a person under such a delusion was confronted with an exorcist in whom he had faith and confidence, often the delusion was dispelled, and a cure resulted. In such cases if a man was convinced he was cured, he was cured” (Matt., Vol. II, p. 39).
Here is Barclay’s account of what really happened when the demons were cast into the swine in Luke 8:26-40: “Again we must remember the intensity of the belief of these people in demons. The man, thinking the demons were speaking through him, besought Jesus not to send the demons into the abyss of hell to which they would be consigned in the final judgment. Let us see if we can form a picture of what happened. The man — and this is the essence of this part of the story — would never have believed that he was cured unless he had ocular and visible demonstration. Nothing less than the visible departure of the demons would have convinced him. Surely what happened was this. The herd of swine was feeding there on the mountain side. Jesus was exerting His power to cure what was a very stubborn case. Suddenly the man’s wild cries and shouts and screams disturbed the swine and they went dashing down the steep place into the sea in blind terror. ‘Look!’ said Jesus, ‘Look! There your demons are gone.’ Jesus had to find a way to get into the mind of this poor man; and in that way He found it” (Luke, p. 108).
Does Matthew 14:22-27 mean that Jesus walked on the water? Barclay admits the possibility but adds, “It may mean that the disciples’ boat was driven by the wind to the northern shore of the lake, that Jesus came down from the mountain to help them when He saw them struggling in the moonlight, and that He came walking through the surf of the shore and the waves towards the boat, and came so suddenly upon them that they were terrified when they saw Him” (Matt., Vol. II, p. 117).
Barclay finds insurmountable problems in believing that Jesus actually sent Peter to get a coin out of the fish’s mouth. What really happened was this. “Jesus was saying, ‘Back to your job, Peter; that’s the way to pay your debts. A day at the fishing will soon produce all we need’ “ (Matt., Vol. II, pp. 189, 190).
But you have not heard anything yet. Listen to Barclay’s comments on the cursing of the fig tree. “The story does not ring true. To be frank, the whole incident does not seem worthy of Jesus. There seems a certain petulance in it. It is just the kind of story which is told of other wonderworkers but which is never told of Jesus. Still further, we have this basic difficulty. Jesus had always refused to use His miraculous powers for His own sake. He would not turn the stones into bread in the desert to satisfy His own hunger. Later He would not use His own miraculous powers to escape from His enemies. He never used His power for His own sake. And yet here He uses His power to blast a tree which had disappointed Him when He was hungry … The whole story does not seem to fit Jesus at all” (Mark, p. 280).
In Luke 5:1-11 Jesus directed His disciples to a large shoal of fish. Barclay’s explanation is as follows: “Most likely Jesus’ keen eye saw just such a shoal and His keen sight make it look like a miracle” (Luke, p. 53). Again, concerning the catch of fish in John 21:1-14, he writes, “The catch here is not described as a miracle, and it is not intended to be … Jesus was acting as guide to His fisherman friends, just as people still do today” (John, Vol. II, pp. 326, 327).
Was the widow of Nain’s son really dead? Not necessarily, according to Barclay. “It may well be that here we have a miracle of diagnosis; that Jesus with these keen eyes of His saw that the lad was in a cataleptic trance and saved him from being buried alive, as so many were in Palestine” (Luke, p. 86).
Now listen to Barclay’s unsatisfactory handling of the healing of the blind man in John 9. “The fact is that Jesus took the methods and the customs of His time and used them. He was a wise physician. He had to gain the confidence of His patient. It was not that Jesus believed in these things, but He kindled expectation by doing what the patient would expect a doctor to do. After all, to this day the efficacy of any medicine or treatment depends at least as much on the patient’s faith in it as in the treatment or the drug itself” (John, Vol. II, p. 49).
One final illustration. Concerning Peter’s supernatural release from prison in Acts 12:12-19, Barclay says, “In this story we do not necessarily need to see a miracle. It may well be the story of a thrilling rescue and escape.”
Barclay’s handling of the miracles is what we have come to expect from liberals and modernists. but all such attempts to give naturalistic explanations for what is plainly miraculous create more problems than they solve. It takes credulity to believe Barclay’s version; it takes faith to believe the Bible.
Nowhere does William Barclay seem to contradict himself more than when he is dealing with the Person of Christ. At times the reader is convinced that Barclay actually believes that Jesus Christ is God. At other times, it seems that he is using evangelical words to mean something entirely different.
Here are some passages where, if words have any meaning, Barclay teaches the deity of Christ.
Commenting on John’s Gospel, he writes, “But on the other hand, there is no gospel which sets before us such a view of the deity and Godhead of Jesus” (John, Vol. I, p. xxx).
“When Jesus made the claim that He was the Light of the world, He was making a claim that which none could possibly be higher” (John, Vol. Vol. II, p. 15).
“In Jesus we see, not simply a man who came and lived and died; in Jesus we see the timeless God, who was the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, who was before time and who will be after time, who always is. In Jesus the eternal God showed Himself to men” (John, Vol. II, p. 43).
“Moses, in short, was the servant; but Jesus was the Son. Moses knew a little about God; Jesus was God. Therein lies the greatness of Jesus and the secret of His unique superiority” (Heb., p. 25).
“Glory is that which by right belongs to God and to God alone. To say that Jesus Christ posseses the glory to do nothing less than to say that He is divine and that He shares the rights and privileges of God” (Rev., Vol. I, p. 227).
It would be easy to conclude from these quotations that Barclay sincerely believes in the absolute deity of the Lord Jesus. But we are forced to have second thoughts when he comes out with statements like the following:
When the rich man addressed Jesus as “Good teacher!” Jesus answered, according to Barclay, “No flattery! Don’t call me good! Keep that word for God! … Second, Jesus said in effect, “You cannot become a Christian by a sentimental passion for Me. You must look at God” (Mark, p. 252). Barclay should realize that in this passage Jesus was not denying His deity but He was giving the rich man an opportunity to confess it.
“We believe in evolution, the slow climb upwards of man from the level of the beasts. Jesus is the end and climax of the evolutionary process because in Him men met God. He is at once the perfection of manhood and the fulness of godhead” (Luke, p. 140).
“In any gallery of the world’s heroes Jesus must find a place” (John, Vol. II, p. 59). What a ridiculous understatement if Jesus is really God!
“The danger of the Christian faith is that we set up Jesus as a kind of secondary God” (John, Vol. II, p. 188).
“The serenity, the peace, the glory of divinity — Jesus gave them up, voluntarily and willingly, in order to become man. He emptied Himself of His deity to take upon Himself His humanity” (Philippians, p. 45).
“The Christian doctrine of the creating agency of Jesus Christ was thought out to combat the Gnostic doctrine of an ignorant and a hostile creating God” (Colossians, p. 137).
Barclay weakens the meaning of Colossians 2:9 as follows: “He (Paul) says that in Christ there dwelt the pleroma of deity in a bodily form. He meant that in Jesus there dwelt the totality of the wisdom, the power, the love of God. Just because of that Jesus is inexhaustible” (John, Vol. I, p. 52).
“In the Greek (2 Peter 1:1) there is only one person involved, and the phrase should read, our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. The great interest of this is that it does what the New Testament very, very seldom does. It actually calls Jesus God. The only real parallel to this is the adoring cry of Thomas, when he recognized the Lord for what He was: ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28). This is not a matter to argue about at all; it is not even a matter of theology; for to Peter and to Thomas to call Jesus by the name of God was not a matter of theology, but an onrush of the adoration of the heart. It was simply that in the depths of the emotion of their heart and in the glory of their wonder they felt that human terms could not contain the person whom they knew as Lord” (2 Peter, p. 347).
A final quote is on Revelation 1:1-3. “God gives this revelation to Jesus Christ, The Bible never allows us to forget the majestic loneliness of God. The Bible never, as it were, makes a second God of Jesus. Rather it stresses the utter dependence of Jesus on God” (Rev., Vol. I, p. 28).
Anyone could be excused for being thoroughly confused by Barclay’s contradictory stances on the Person of Christ. We can only conclude that when he speaks of the godhead of Jesus he means something else by the word.
Next we come to Barclay’s teaching on the way of salvation. We feel heartened when we read, among his comments on Revelation 2:18-29, “The claim of Christianity is not that Jesus Christ is one of the Saviiours; not even that He is the chief of the Saviours; but that He is the only Saviour” (Rev., Vol. I, p. 136).
But our joy is short-lived for then we read, “There is far more than one way to God … It was true that, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ And it is also true that all roads, if we pursue them long enough and far enough lead to God” (Mark, p. 233).
“Let a man always remember that there are more ways to heaven than one; and let him keep himself from intolerance” (Thess., p. 223).
“Surely this (Rev. 21:12 means that a man can come by many roads into the Kingdom, that ‘there are as many ways to the stars as there are men to climb them,’ that no Church has any right to claim any monopoly as the one way to God. The gates of God are many, and a man can find his own” (Rev., Vol. II, p. 269). Barclay quotes Origen approvingly for pointing out six ways in which a man may gain forgiveness of his sins. “He may gain remission of his sins by baptism, by martyrdom, by almsgiving (Luke 11:41), by the forgiveness of others (Matthew 6:14), by love (Luke 7:47), and by converting a sinner from the evil of his ways. God will forgive much to the man who has been the means of leading another brother back to Him” (James, p. 158) … “The man who has rescued his brother, has not only saved his brother’s soul, he has covered a multitude of his own sins. In other words, to save another’s soul is the surest way to save one’s own” (James, p. 158).
Barclay seems to believe in universal salvation, that is, that everyone will be saved at last. (In his autobiography, he makes it very clear that he is a universalist, p. 58).
“In the end there must come a universe in which Jesus Christ is supreme. How that will come about is not ours to know; but it may be that we are allowed to think that this final subjugation will not consist in the smashing and the breaking and the extinction of His enemies, but in their submission to His love. After all, it is not so much the power, but the love of God, which must conquer in the end” (Heb., p. 132). “We are not forbidden to believe that somehow and sometime the God who loved the world will bring the whole world to Himself” (2 Peter, p. 406). “So in the very end all, Jew and Gentile, will be saved” (Rom., p. 129).
Barclay further teaches that in heaven the believer will share the divinity of Christ. “The hope of the Christian is that the day will come when his humanity will be changed into nothing less than the divinity of Christ Himself, and when the necessary lowliness of mortality will be changed into the essential splendour of deathless and eternal life” (Phil., p. 86).
There are many other areas in which Barclay is unsound. He says, for instance, that belief in the virgin birth is optional for Christians. “The Virgin Birth is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and it is a doctrine which our Church does not compel us to accept in the literal and physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own belief and our own conclusion” Matt., Vol. I, p. 13). “There is much more in this chapter (Matt. I) than the crude fact that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin mother” (Matt, Vol. I, p. 13).
He waters down eternal punishment to mean ‘punishment which befits God to give, and punishment which only God can give” (Matt., Vol. II, p. 201).
He denies man’s total depravity. “Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity; He never believed that you could glorify God by blackguarding men” (Luke, p. 212). He believes that there may be some men who have never broken the law of God. “Even if there are some who can say they have never broken any of the Ten Commandments, there are none who can say that they have never wished to break them” (Matt., Vol. 1, p. 222).
All this is enough to prove conclusively that even if Barclay’s books contain much that is helpful, his writings are undependable, There is no question in my own mind that Barclay belongs to those of whom Jesus said, “He that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad.” One cannot recommend his writings to other believers; the danger of doctrinal defilement is too great.