Book Review: Communicating the Gospel (William Barclay).
As a teenager I discovered William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible commentaries series and I have remained a fan of his ever since. I have all of his commentaries on the New Testament and numerous of his other writings. Barclay has had a profound impact on both my thought and my character.
Barclay lived from 1907-1978 and in addition to writing many books he served as a pastor, spoke on BBC radio and television, and was a Professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at the University of Glasgow. Barclay considered himself a “liberal evangelical” – moving from fundamentalist moves earlier in life to more liberal views as life progressed. There are many facets of Barclay’s theology with which I cannot agree – and I am hesitant to recommend his books to new Christians because of the various theological heresies he embraces.
This is one reason why one of my long-term dreams is to write a new series of commentaries (on the entire bible) that will act in a similar manner to Barclay’s commentaries but from an orthodox evangelical view. That said, I still read Barclay and learn much from him and thinks he has much to teach us as well. I would not recommend him as a first book for the new believer – at least not without a more seasoned believer providing insight and commentary throughout the reading – but I find him practically indispensable as a preacher and teacher.
In any case, I recently picked up his book entitled Communicating the Gospel which clocks in at a slim 106 pages and consists of several lectures he gave at the Laird Lectures and the last a lecture given to “a joint audience of Protestants and Roman Catholics in a series of lectures arranged by the Extra-Mural Department of the University.” (xi)
Communicating the Gospel consists of four chapters:
- Communicating the Gospel in the Prophets
- Communicating the Gospel in the Apostles
- Communicating the Gospel Today
- The Gospel in Tradition
Communicating the Gospel in the Prophets
This first chapter I found invaluable. Barclay provides invaluable insights into the Old Testament Prophetic understanding of the gospel. He helps us dive into the worldview of the ancient prophets. For example on pg. 2 he writes,
“To the prophets, nature was the instrument of the action of God. Disobedience to God brought the blight and the mildew and the locust to ruin their crops, the pestilence and disaster (Amos 4. 10-12).”
And continues on pg. 3, “But the principle which is all-important is this–to the Jewish mind there was no such thing as secondary causes. Everything was traceable to the direct action of God.”
Barclay challenges our meek and mild Jesus when he writes on pg. 5, “The main weapon which the prophets used against idolatry was scorn. They drew, always with vividness, and sometimes with Homeric laughter, the contrast between the dead idol and the living God.”
On pg. 8 he highlights the recurrent problem of the Israelite people – “The people wanted a religious syncretism in which they could worship Jahweh and at the same time maintain their contact with the fertility gods and goddesses and their worship.”
He writes to us about the Day of the Lord – which can be equated with the New Testament affirmations regarding the End Times noting, “The belief in the Day of the Lord is not the result of pessimism, based on the belief in a godless world; it is the result of that optimism which believes in the ultimate victory of God.” (pg. 19)
But don’t expect just information transfer from Barclay – as always he takes knowledge and transforms it into a call for action. The challenges facing the Old Testament peoples are the same challenges we face today he says and then goes on to explicitly show us how we as well are tempted in the ways they were – even if we don’t have wooden or stone idols.
Communicating the Gospel in the Apostles
This is another excellent chapter. Let me provide just a little glimpse by outlining what Barclay believed was the Gospel as taught by the Apostles:
- “The new age has dawned, and it has dawned through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (pg. 35)
- Life changed forever for children.
- Life changed forever for women.
- Life changed forever for the laborer.
- Life changed forever for the sinner.
- “The life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all that he was and did, all that happened to him, are the direct fulfilment of prophecy.” (pg. 40)
- “…the declaration that Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God and that he would come again to judge the quick and the dead.” (pg. 43)
- “…an invitation and a promise. It is an invitation in view of all this to repent, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (pg. 46)
He summarizes this on pg. 48,
“This, then, was the gospel which the apostolic preaching proclaimed. The new age has dawned; God has acted directly in the life and the dead and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. All this is the fulfilment of prophecy and the very conception of prophecy implies a plan and a purpose which are being steadily worked out in the world. This Jesus who lived and died and rose again will come again; he will come to the individual heart, and in the end he will triumph over all the world. There comes the demand for repentance, for a new attitude to life and to living, and the promise of forgiveness for the past and strength for the future. And finally there comes the threat that, if a man will not accept life, then he has accepted death.”
Note: Barclay’s understanding of prophecy is fascinating and liberal. Yet many who struggle with faith may also find some comfort in Barclay’s honest struggles to understand the use of prophecy in the NT.
Communicating the Gospel Today
This chapter is good, but not quite indispensable. Here, the writing is in part limited by its age – the issues Barclay is addressing (e.g. contemporary translations of Scripture) are not nearly the issues today as they were then.
Still, he starts off strong by stating, “I take it that all here will be agreed that the task of the Christian Church in this, as in any other, age is to communicate to men the truth of God as we find it in the word of God.” (pg. 49)
He then outlines what he believes are the necessary steps to effectively communicating the gospel contemporaneously:
- “…we must approach it as literature. It is the fact that anyone who has not read the Bible is simply from the literary point of view not properly educated.” (pg. 50)
- Thus we should read it in long sections.
- We need contemporary translations.
- We should use the best textual sources available.
- “…approach…must be the linguistic approach…one of the essential approaches to the New Testament is the study of the meaning of its words.” (pg. 56) He provides us with several word studies to demonstrate this importance: “meek” (praotes), “earnest” (arrabon), Abba, and “comforter” (parakletos).
- “…approach which is necessary is the historical approach. Everything happens against a background in history, and to know that background often adds very greatly to the meaning of the incident.” (pg. 60) Here he provides us with fascinating insights into John 2:13-17, 7:37, 8:12; Matthew 21:12,13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; and Revelation 3:15-18.
- “…approach necessary to communication the New Testament is the psychological approach. The psychological approach involves the investigation of, not only what people did, but why they did it.” (pg. 67) He uses here the example of Judas and his motivations for betraying Jesus.
In conclusion Barclay states, “Here is the reason for the study of the New Testament, not that we should know the history or the linguistics or anything else, but that we should know him of whom it tells; for we can never communicate Jesus Christ to others, until we know him ourselves.” (pg. 71)
The Gospel in Tradition
This is probably the least interesting of the chapters from a quick reading perspective, but filled with useful information from an academic and apologetic perspective. In this chapter Barclay attempts to explain the varying understandings of the relationship between tradition and Scripture as seen by Catholics and Protestants and does so in large part by comparing and contrasting the thoughts of Christians in the early church. One will find a veritable treasure of quotations from such minds as Tyndale and Erasmus, Gregory Nazianzen, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Athenagoras.
There are some fascinating sections on how one should read the Scriptures form an ancient perspective – e.g. which books to read first, which books one should not read until adulthood, and whether one should read with a teacher present or no.
This book is a worthwhile read. It is written in a readable manner that those who have read Barclay elsewhere will find familiar and comfortable. How do I reconcile my respect for William Barclay with his errant teachings? I’m not sure. Some good articles have been written on the topic including Alton H. McEachern’s William Barclay, Remarkable Communicator and Wayne Jackson’s The Enigmatic William Barclay. I suppose, perhaps, I feel about William Barclay as John Piper feels about C.S. Lewis…not that I am comparing my abilities to those of Piper!