A great man,” wrote Hegel, “condemns the world to the task of explaining him.” On that view, the world has a job on its hands with William Barclay: New Testament scholar, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, best-selling author, working-man’s friend, and extraordinary communicator.

“I have a second-class mind,” says the sixty-eight-year-old Scot. “I never had an original idea in my life.” So how does he himself explain his success? A good memory, hard work, an ability to work to order (he never wrote a Sunday sermon after Thursday), a facility with words, and a capacity for thinking in pictures rather than theological abstractions. The good memory was confirmed when I interviewed him recently; he not only remembered our one previous meeting eighteen years ago but reminded me of an aspect of it I had completely forgotten.

I wanted to ask that “second-class mind” if he thought the Kirk (the Church of Scotland) had any first-class minds today, and if so why didn’t we all benefit from them—did their kind of genius necessarily involve unintelligibility? The question went unasked; it would have been invidious had I named names, and William Barclay is a charitable man.

But how, I asked, did he account for his popularity and quotability even in conservative circles where on some themes he would be dubbed heretic? A clumsy question, but greeted with customary good humor. Much of the information he was sharing, said Barclay, was theologically neutral. Moreover, he didn’t begin by talking in negations: rather than express doubts about the Virgin Birth, for example, he would say what the Virgin Birth was all about.

Reticent on some subjects, ...

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