William Barclay was one of the most effective communicators of the Gospel in the 20th Century. A classics and Greek scholar, he wrote about the New Testament with amazing clarity. While he was a theological liberal his work is used by persons of various theological positions.
Barclay’s prolific writings began as a serendipity. The person writing curriculum for the Church of Scotland became ill. Professor Barclay was asked to serve as a substitute writer. The end result was his 17-volume Daily Study Bible, which has sold well over two million copies in English alone. Recently it has been translated into Russian and several other languages.
The Scottish New Testament scholar went on to write 60 books (three books a year) and a column in the British Weekly. He was also the most popular television broadcaster on the BBC. In the 1960s if you had stopped a man on the street in Scotland and asked whom he knew in the Kirk he would likely have replied, “Aye, Willie Barclay!”
Barclay was a charming person. He was generous to a fault and jovial. He enjoyed a joke, especially when it was at his own expense. He laughed heartily when I told him about an American graduate student who remarked, “William Barclay, the only man in the world without an unpublished thought.” He was such a rapid lecturer that a student dared not drop his pen in class. A deaf musician, he led the theological college choir.
A devoted family man, Barclay and his wife Katherine lost their twenty-one year old daughter Barbara in a boating accident in the Irish Sea. One of the professor’s critics wrote from Northern Ireland that God took Barbara to save her from her father’s heresies. This hurt him very much. Several years later he said, “Whatever you make of Jesus stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he stills the storms in our hearts.” He and Katherine adopted a girl when the couple were in their 50s. They also had a son, Ronnie. Barclay said that Katherine never read one of his books.
He was a portly man during the 1960s and 1970s and a cigarette chain smoker. His hobby was railroads. The writer/professor’s great assets were his photographic memory and self-discipline. His statement in his autobiography that he had a “second class mind” and had never had an original thought was shocking. He told me that none of his books would outlive him. How wrong he was on that prediction!
What Barclay meant when he claimed to have a second class mind was that he was not an original scholar but rather a popularizer of New Testament studies. His only scholarly work was a book on ancient Near Eastern educational practices. He had a great grasp of Greek and Biblical backgrounds, as evidenced in his commentaries.
One evening while visiting in the Barclay home (as one of seven of his American students), I asked Mrs. Barclay about his exceptional ability to recall material. She said that when he was working on the translation of the New English Bible with C. H. Dodd, he would call her from Oxford with instructions such as these: “Go to the south wall of my study to the second tier of books on your left; on the third shelf from the floor you will find a green book with this title; look at the footnote on page 127.1 want to verify it.” She said that he did this sort of thing frequently. Mrs. Barclay was amazed that we American students had come all that way to study with “my Bill.”
Another asset which Barclay exploited was his deafness. He “could not hear a brass band” without his hearing aid. A highly disciplined man, he slept only five hours a night. When he was writing he would turn off the hearing aid and thus escaping all intrusions concentrate absolutely on his work.
In reply to questions about writing Barclay said, “The hardest sentence to write is the first — begin. Concentrate on the work of the moment as if it were the only job in the world. Distrust waiting for inspiration — get on with it. Never stop reading. Be systematic, don’t jump about. John Wesley read every sermon to a maiden servant in his house. If she did not understand it, he struck it out and rewrote it. Strive for clarity. Never say anything to which you cannot attach a definite meaning.”
William Barclay was the only child of middle-aged parents who were strict in his upbringing. Born in Wick, Scotland he grew up in Motherwell, a suburb of Glasgow, an industrial shipbuilding city with a population of a million. Young Willie’s father was a bank manager in the Bank of Scotland. He and his wife were members of the Free Church of Scotland in which he served as a lay preacher — in Gaelic.
Willie felt called to preach at the age of twelve. Later he entered the divinity school of the University of Glasgow. Trinity College was its oldest faculty, founded by the Pope in 1451. Shortly before his graduation and ordination at the age of 24, his mother died of cancer.
Barclay was called as pastor of Trinity Church of Scotland in Renfrew, another Glasgow suburb. It was a community of shipbuilders in which unemployment was very high during the years of the Great Depression. He said that twelve of his seventeen elders had no jobs. There was only one professional family in the working-class congregation of 1050 members. When I asked how he learned to communicate so clearly he attributed it to that fourteen year pastorate. He told me, “it was communicate or perish.” His tenure in Renfrew also included the war years when the Nazis bombed the area. 2000 people were killed in his community in one evening raid.
Barclay resigned his only pastorate in 1946 when he was invited to join the faculty of Trinity College, his alma mater. It was only in the closing years of his teaching career that he was given the Chair of Divinity. He said that no man would be added to a Scottish theology faculty unless he had a dozen years of pastoral experience (an obvious weakness in most American seminary faculties).
Barclay was 39 years old when he began teaching. I studied with him as a graduate student when he was at the height of his powers and remained a correspondent more than eleven years, contributing to his official biography by Clive Rawlins.
In considering William Barclay’s theology we will want to remember he had that Gaelic trait of being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind at once. As an example, he would lecture or write on St. Paul’s view of Christ’s death on the cross as a vicarious substitutionary atonement. However in a graduate seminar he would make it plain that this was not his own view of the atonement. Barclay personally subscribed to Abelard’s moral influence theory of the atonement.
Barclay was a student of Rudolph Bultmann, but did not consider himself a disciple of the German scholar. He started out as a fundamentalist but moved to the theological left in subsequent years. He said, “I am a fundamentalist in that I believe there is an historical event behind all scripture.” He rejected the notion that the gospel stories were the inventions of the early Church.
The professor was perhaps least orthodox in his view of Jesus’ Virgin Birth. He said, “If this is true then Jesus arrived in a way no one else has and therefore he would not be fully human.” This argument is interesting in that the early Church saw the Virgin Birth as proof of Jesus’ humanity — he was actually born of woman and not an angel come slumming, as the Gnostics might suppose.
Barclay held a dynamic view of the inspiration of Scripture. He believed the Holy Spirit inspired its writing, and the same Spirit inspires us to understand the Bible as we read it today.
Willie and Katherine’s health was not the best in their later years. He made reference to this in his correspondence. He retired from his Chair at Trinity College and Lady Collins (a devout Roman Catholic who owned Collins Publishers) made him an offer he could not refuse. She provided him an office, secretary and carte blanche to publish his Daily Study Bible on the Old Testament. He wrote about this opportunity with excitement as he started writing on Genesis and the Psalms. Unfortunately Parkinsons disease cut short that ambitious project.
The Church of Scotland wanted to elect Barclay its Moderator. However, he refused this high honor saying he was too busy to take the denominational post and he did not want to wear the Moderator’s ceremonial costume. While he had been a devoted pastor, visiting each family in his parish annually, and a seminary professor, Barclay had a Free Church antiestablishment bias. He was not a good Churchman for he often did not attend Presbytery meetings.
The professor’s outstanding accomplishments in publication and television broadcasting was recognized by the Crown. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Due to his writing Barclay became one of the wealthiest clergymen in Scotland. He kept a balance of $150,000 in his checking account at a time when the average pastor in the Church of Scotland made less than $3,000 annually. Generous to a fault, he was a fun-loving man who worked hard but also enjoyed life. While he had a host of acquaintances he confessed to having few close friends.
Barclay was out of step with the ecumenical movement in Britain during his time. Serious talks of union were under way between the Anglican Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Some Scots feared “having Bishops in the Kirk!” Barclay felt that Church union was the wrong way to go. He did not see uniformity as a good thing but felt we “all should be at liberty to come to each other’s Communion Tables.”
He compared Church denominations to units in the same army. His example was the Argyll and Sutherland Highland regiment as a part of the Eighth Army within the British Army. He preferred retaining denominations as distinct members of the same family — not one World Church.
William Barclay popularized New Testament studies and put insights from the Greek New Testament into the hands of ordinary laity in language they could understand. His purpose “to bring to ordinary people the insights of modern scholarship” was achieved. His fertile mind and prolific pen blessed untold millions. What even greater treasures we would have, had he lived and written for another decade or so.
The Christian world can be grateful to the Father for this remarkable communicator of the Gospel: servant of the Word, William Barclay.

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