I never met or knew Oliver Barclay, but his life had a great influence on mine as one of the spiritual giants – not too strong a term – who served the Evangelical movement in Britain after the Second War.
Barclay was a Cambridge trained zoologist, but was persuaded to became involved in the Inter Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical students in 1945. IVF was an example of a necessary and ultimately successful splinter movement. Evangelicals had started the Student Christian Movement in 1889 as a missonary organisation, but by the late nineteenth century, like so much of the Church, it had lurched into liberalism, and IVF was a secessionist group.
However, by 1945 Evangelicals were a minority despised as anti-intellectual, backward-looking, insular and fanatical… ’twas ever thus. Barclay however set out to put the movement on a firm intellectual footing and make it a strong presence in University life, whilst maintaining both theological soundness and spiritual vigour. In other words, like other emerging Evangelical leaders such as John Stott, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Branse Burbridge he knew and valued the true roots of Evangelical faith.
He was running The Cambridge Christian Union at the time that the liberal SCM was led by the later famous NT scholar J A T Robinson. However SCM was destined to become increasingly irrelevant, whilst under Barclay’s leadership IVF grew and spread. At the time I was at Cambridge, the Christian Union numbered about 10% of the student population, and many more were associated at college level in Bible studies and evangelistic events – my future wife being one.
Barclay was the man who found the Cambridge premises that became Tyndale House, an Evangelical postgraduate study centre whose library, in which I have been privileged to study, is now one of the foremost biblical research libraries in the world.
This was a man who not only studied his Bible daily, but read Calvin’s Institutes through once a year – a true conservative, Reformed believer. So, given the current state of the science-faith debate, it is notable that he had no problem integrating evolutionary theory with his faith. BioLogos reprinted an essay of his back in 2011. In it he takes (to me) a rather harsh and ill-informed position against ID – a position seemingly reflected in the forum of the British equivalent of the ASA, Christians in Science, which he started – another notable achievement. But the key point, differences apart, is that he considered the processes of nature totally under God’s control – he had, in other words, a strong doctrine of providence:
When we are called to acknowledge God as ‘our Creator’ we are being called not only to acknowledge that without him we and the universe would not exist, but also that he has brought us into being as we now are, even though (as we now know) it is the result of a long series of genetic and environmental processes. To the biblical writers the processes of ‘nature’ that science is exploring today are as much the work of God as the existence of the world itself. It is he who sends the seasons, as he has promised, so that when he is thanked for the harvest it is not just for the fact that there is the cycle of life that gives a crop, but that in his goodness this has happened once more. God is the Great Provider; hence the word providence.
In this he was directly in line with the first generation of TEs, and completely at odds with many of the present generation. Strange that conservative Evangelicals of his generation (he was born in 1919) – John Stott, Derek Kidner, Jim Packer, Barclay – should find the bridge between Bible and Science so easily bridgeable, when today’s young bloods in America, particularly, are insistent on the need for a radical revision of not only Evangelical, but Christian, core doctrine if faith and science are to co-exist. At least one group must be wrong.
Oliver Barclay’s death, then, should give those of us in the Science-faith discussion pause to reflect on why there might be such a difference.