Was William Barclay a Universalist? What You Need to Know


William Barclay (1907-1978) was one of the most popular Bible teachers of the 20th century. His teachings on Scripture and Christian theology still influence people decades after his death. Barclay’s Bible commentaries, including the The Daily Study Bible series, remain widely-used in the 21st century, especially by pastors.

William Barclay was a professing universalist. He believed that all people — no matter their orientation to Jesus Christ on earth — will eventually go to heaven. Barclay believed that the Bible taught universalism, so he taught it in his preaching and teaching ministries, as well as in his commentaries.

What exactly did Barclay believe about universalism and why? And why do so many non-univeralist pastors and Christians read Barclay’s Bible commentaries? Keep reading to learn more.

Are you interested in the Daily Study Bible series? See William Barclay: The Daily Study Bible series to learn more.

William Barclay held several unorthodox beliefs about Christian doctrine

Barclay was an avowed universalist

Regarding the doctrine of salvation, Barclay held the position of universalism. He believed that all people would eventually be saved through the person and work of Christ. Though there have been universalist pastors and theologians in Christian history, the doctrine has been conventionally considered unorthodox.

Barclay’s universalist beliefs aren’t an inference that just some readers of his books have made. Sometimes pastors and theologians get accused of holding certain beliefs, which they deny having. Barclay was transparent about his beliefs about salvation and heaven.

“I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God.”

A Spiritual Autobiography, p. 65-67

Like other universalists, Barclay held that the doctrine exalts God and magnifies the love He has for all people, whether they put their faith in Christ while on this earth or not. People going to hell, where they would be consciously tormented for eternity, wasn’t consistent with the God of the Bible, according to Barclay.

What did Barclay believe about universalism?

Not all universalists believe the same things about the doctrine. Like other theological subjects, there are various facets to the doctrines upon which not all professing universalists agree. Nevertheless, there are certain core beliefs common to all universalists, which Barclay believed, including:

  • Universalism is true to God’s character: God would never make anyone experience eternal conscious torment in hell, according to universalists. It’s inconsistent with His goodness. Because God is perfectly moral and righteous, He will eventually extend grace and mercy to all people.
  • Universalism is true to God’s power: Universalists believe that saving everyone eventually is a way that God will demonstrate His power. God has the power to change every heart and mind, even after death — and He will do so — according to this doctrine. Some universalists believe that God will transform Satan and demons as demonstrations of his power as well. It isn’t clear if Barclay believed that.
  • Universalism is true to God’s will: 2 Peter 3:9 reads, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (NIV, emphasis added). To universalists, what God wants — that no one would perish — will eventually happen.
  • Universalism is consistent with the nature of heaven: How could people in heaven be happy and have no more tears or crying or pain (Rev. 21:4), if they are aware that millions of people, including some of their loved ones, are being tormented in hell? According to universalists, if people in heaven are aware of people in hell, then how can that be “heaven”?
  • Universalism is consistent with proper humility: According to the doctrine, if Christians know they are going to heaven, and the unconverted are going to hell, then that knowledge inevitably results in pride, which the Bible forbids. The doctrine of hell, as it’s classically understood, produces arrogance toward unbelievers, according to universalists.
  • Universalism deals best with the problem of suffering: If hell is eternal then the problem of suffering in the presence of a God who is all-loving and all-powerful, will never go away. But if no one experiences eternal conscious torment in hell because all people will eventually be saved, then the problem of suffering will cease at some point.

Was Barclay orthodox in other areas of Christian theology?

Barclay held beliefs that were contrary to doctrines that important Church councils articulated and that many Christians hold. For example:

  • Barclay denied the virgin birth of Christ
  • He denied that the miracles of Christ were historically true and held readers shouldn’t understand them literally, but as symbolically
  • He denied the deity of Christ. In his commentary on Luke, he wrote, “The danger of the Christian faith is that we set up Jesus as a kind of secondary God” (p. 140)

In an article titled “The Enigma of William Barclay,” the author recounts:

“In the spring of 1970, [Barclay] strongly denied that he believed that Jesus was divine, and he insisted he never had endorsed that idea. He claimed that the Lord himself believed that he was divine, as did others, but personally, he did not. When Paul was cited as evidence to the contrary, the professor snapped: ‘I don’t care what Paul said.'” [2]

  • He denied the creation account in Genesis as a historical event and held that readers shouldn’t interpret it literally. Barclay held to Darwinian evolutionary theory
  • Because of the beliefs mentioned above, people have also questioned whether or not Barclay held to the inspiration of Scripture

The Daily Study Bible commentary series

Barclay was a biblical scholar who was born and raised, and lived his life, in Scotland. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1933 and taught classes on the New Testament at Glasgow University.

His Daily Study Bible series (link goes to Amazon) brought him fame as people enjoyed how he explained biblical texts. Barclay retired from teaching in 1974 and died four years later. He never stopped working on the Daily Study Bible series. Barclay wrote 17 commentaries, which cover all 27 New Testament books of the Bible.

He didn’t write Old Testament commentaries, though he endorsed volumes that other authors wrote for the series. Barclay did, however, write two books on Old Testament subjects: The Ten Commandments and The Lord is My Shepherd (links go to Amazon).

Why do non-universalists read Barclay’s commentaries?

There are multiple reasons why Barclay’s commentaries are popular, but the first thing that must be said it that it’s likely that many people who use his books don’t know he was a universalist or don’t know what universalism is.

Whether or not non-universalists would continue to learn from Barclay if they know that he held the doctrine or if they knew more about the doctrine itself, is a difficult question to answer.

Barclay’s commentaries remain popular decades after he wrote them. They are still published and since they are relatively affordable, many people can acquire them to add to their personal libraries. People like Barclay’s commentaries for different reasons, including:

  • Though he was a learned academic scholar, he wrote commentaries that anyone could understand. People who are new to Christianity or new to Bible study can easily understand Barclay’s commentaries. Unlike some other Bible reference books, the reader doesn’t need to know Greek or Hebrew to understand the content. Barclay doesn’t interact with recent biblical scholarship either, which is a staple of most Bible commentaries.
  • Another reason people like Barclay’s commentaries is because they are full of interesting stories and illustrations. Barclay commonly used historical anecdotes, interesting quotations, and simply analogies to explain biblical texts, which made it easier for readers to learn. One reason pastors love Barclay’s commentaries is because they are a gold mine for illustrations that they can use in their sermons.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source

Daniel Joseph Isaiah

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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