William Barclay (d. 1978) is a lot like C.S. Lewis in one key respect: he was a British scholar widely read and trusted by North American evangelicals who nonetheless frequently expressed some relatively radical opinions that sailed under the radar of those same evangelicals.
I was reminded of this again the other day when in our family devotions we were reading through Barclay’s commentary on John. As he reflected on the astounding fact that the Word (Jesus) reveals the eternal God (John 1:1-2), Barclay turned to a fascinating and complex question: how do we reconcile the image of Jesus that comes to us in the Gospels with the apparently violent and capricious depiction of God that is found elsewhere in Scripture? Barclay writes:
“In many ways this idea of pre-existence is very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to grasp. But it does mean one very simple, very practical, and very tremendous thing. If the word was with God before time began, if God’s word is part of the eternal scheme of things, it means that God was always like Jesus. Sometimes we tend to think of God as stern and avenging, and we tend to think that something Jesus did change God’s anger into love and altered his attitude to men. The New Testament knows nothing of that idea. The whole New Testament tells us, this passage of John especially, that God has always been like Jesus. What Jesus did was to open a window in time that we might see the eternal and unchanging love of God.
“We may well ask, ‘What then about some of the things that we read in the Old Testament? 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 is this–it is not God who has changed; it is men’s knowledge of him that has changed. Men wrote these things because they did not know any better; that was the stage which their knowledge of God had reached.
“It is told that a little girl was once confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament. Her comment was; ‘But that happened before God became a Christian!’ If we may so put it with all reverence, when John says that the word was always there, he is saying that God was always a Christian. He is telling us that God was and is and ever shall be like Jesus; but men could never know and realize that until Jesus came.” (The Gospel of John: vol. 1, The Daily Study Bible, rev. ed. (Burlington: Welch, 1975), 37-38.)
Barclay’s claim is radical: it is not God who has changed but rather our understanding of God. Moreover, the canonical guide for the correct understanding is found in Jesus, the Jesus revealed in the New Testament: God always was like Jesus. Barclay leaves it to the reader to draw the implications of his claim: if we accept that God is like Jesus, and Jesus would never command wiping out whole cities of men, women, and children, or exhibiting destructive anger and jealousy, then these depictions of God must be incorrect: “it is not God who has changed; it is men’s knowledge of him that has changed.”
This striking proposal will be sure to invite the charge of “Marcionism” insofar as Barclay seems to pit the Testaments against one another. The more basic charge, however, is simply this: how does one reconcile this proposal with the doctrine of plenary inspiration? Barclay offers no explanation here as to why these otherwise errant passages were included in the “final draft” of the Bible. But if all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, then in what sense does that ascription apply to these texts, the ones that Barclay describes as bloodthirsty and savage?