RIP Oliver Barclay

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to RIP Oliver Barclay

  1. James says:

    Hi, Jon.

    Thanks for this background on Barclay. I, too, had some serious objections to his remarks on BioLogos, and, given the usual set of beliefs associated with the kind of criticisms he made, I had taken him to be yet another scientist/Christian liberal of the type that dominates the TE leadership in the USA (and, to some extent, in Britain, too). I’m glad to hear that his theological understanding was much richer than I thought.

    Of course, BioLogos has never gone out of its way to theologically contextualize the contributions of its columnists, so it’s not surprising that I would get a one-sided view of the man from reading only an excerpt from his writing on BioLogos.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I am not familiar with Barclay, so I can only comment on the article you referred to. The remarks in there are general, but I found that they conform to the accepted view of God as the Creator of heaven and earth. His remarks on design are also imo generally sensible, since the overall outlook of design is loaded with meanings derived from human activity.

    I have been trying to get a good handle on “how God may guide any evolutionary process..” that you and Eddie/James have been advocating. I must confess that I am having difficulties with this notion. Do you mean that we should obtain information from nature that would enable us to deduce that such and such shows what God has done it directly (e.g. scientific data that show God has intervened), or should we look for scientific data that would be additional confirmation that God has guided some process? Or is it an introduction to a more detailed discussion on natural vs supernatural vs miracles? I think a lot of argument has taken place when people try to prove Biblical events using geology and other methods, but I do not think you are referring to this approach (?).

    I close this comment by repeating my previous remarks, in that I distinguish between knowledge that is the result of, or based on, human effort and intelligence, with theological discussions which ultimately must be squared with Biblical authority. I cannot as yet see a simple bridge between these two ‘ways of knowing’, although philosophy and theology can make a fair go of discussing such matters.

    I guess if BioLogos is shutting down comments, we may continue on your site….. not such a bad idea when I think about it (although I have some sympathy for their position, since they have taken a very broad approach and this will inevitably lead to a wide range of opinion and heat).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The most succinct answer I can give on my motivation is that I start from the faith commitment to God’s true creatorship – and want that to become axiomatic to all believers, especially in the sciences.

      Along with, and arising from that, is the understanding from Romans 1 (etc) that man has an innate capacity to observe the power and deity of the Lord from observation of nature.

      So part of the project is to see how the faith commitment maps to metaphysics, philosophy and, expecially. science.

      After all, science is nothing but organised observation – so if observation shows God’s hand, how far can the discipline of science go in delineating what that means? ARe there artificail limitations in science, matural limitations in what can be known and so on.

      Natural theology, then, including ID, is a field to examine with an open mind.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        It is difficult for us to find areas of significant difference, so my questions are intended more to (perhaps) an interesting debate/discussion related to the various remarks/criticisms of BioLogos as inferred in the statement, “… evolution shows how God has created or made things …”. If I understand the critical comments, it is reasonable to ask, just how did God involve Himself in this process. I am sure you and others have examined this in detail, but I find the subject intriguing. So I agree that we examine these matters with an open mind – do you and James have detail that we should consider and debate?

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Firstly apologies for typos above – I really am getting rubbish early in the morning!

          If The Hump is really going to be a place for these conversations, I hope some others pitch in too.

          Your question is almost too big, I think. Let me take just one line on it. The early project of science in the hands of people like Newton and Kepler was, apart from any Baconian practical purpose, to “think God’s thoughts after him” and see how he acted in nature, with a view, I think, purely to glorify him for the order and detail.

          In other words, I don’t think they sought to use nature to learn more about what kind of God he was, such as “Oh nature can be cruel, so God must sometimes be cruel … oh, contingency seems to be involved here so God must be subject to contingency.” Scripture was the main vehicle to learn his character. Science has a more restricted role.

          In the same way, to the extent that evolutionary processes can be confirmed and understood (and I know you may have even more problems with that than some others in both areas), it is all simply matter wherewith to praise and thank God, to rejoice in the knowledge of his works and, of course, perhaps to use it practically in some way to the benefit of all.

          How God involves himself in evolution must depend on the actual detail of the process. I would maintain that whatever his involvement – and maybe the only general categories available are natural law, the government of chance and miracle, unless anybody can add more – whatever his involvement it is under his providence, so is not going to reconstitute our theology.

          One further point: whether God works through law, chance or miracle, it seems to me axiomatic that what he works is in the area of, speaking mundanely, “information”. Or speaking spiritually his wisdom and knowledge through the λογος, as the Bible teaches.

          So just as God’s spiritual wisdom can be learned in detail from Scripture – even though the unbelieving mind may refuse to see it as his – it seems to me that his creatorial wisdom may be learned from the information found in nature. However it got there, it is there, just as the words of the Bible are there, however they were written and transmitted.

          How do Eddie and others respond?

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            Hi Jon,

            Yes the subject is big, and I think that is one of the many reasons we discuss it the way we do (and don’t get me started on typo errors – I may have invented these things).

            I am personally drawn to seeing nature as a means by which we may distinguish between human action (and what we think is law), natural action and law(s) as articulated by the physical sciences, and the Divine Law (which also can be articulated as the Logos). I would be happy to talk of theology after there was agreement on these (large) areas.

            I guess not being involved in the bio-sciences, and seeing these as less developed (I think you and others have used the term ‘soft science’), I place less emphasis on things like Darwin’s thinking, and may appear impatient with some of the comments in this area.

            But that is why we have, and benefit, from discussions/comments. I guess BioLogos have their own views on this.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              At some stage it would be useful to tease out and clarify the threefold distinction you’re making between human law, natural law and divine law.

              For example, if Christ the Logos lays it down that e=mc^2 throughout his creation, is that “Natural” or “divine” law?

              Being picky one might even say it was human law, since science is a human interpretation of what patterns they observe.

              Sounds like one for a thread of its own.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    “… the Logos lays down that e=mc^2…”

    Good point Jon and one that helps us in a discussion that deals with science as science, and theology as a detailed discussion of our faith. To help in ‘teasing out and clarifying …’ I would add this: The Logos would lay out a creation in which e=mc^2 was a reality we would access and articulate as such (indeed the act of creation would be one that also lays down the entire time line and all events, be they chance or determined – or different, such as the resurrection). Thus what we can access is also determined by God before any beginning.

    By this, I mean the Logos created by the power of God, the entire creation, and we would continue to discover the matters that excites scientists such as ourselves. The divine law as far as Nature is concerned, is in that act of creation; the Divine law does not end there however, as creation if the world is only a part of the total law. The fate and future of humanity involves the divine law (although sin, because it is a violation of divine law, permeates the entire creation).

    Again your comment, “…it was human law ..” is appropriate in that it is an articulation as a law, and its understanding stems from human activity.

    It does sound like a subject on its own and it does require us to discuss human understanding, and how this may be discussed theologically ( a very big subject). My interest is in the effort needed to understand the distinction between the divine and the human and to then address freedom and law as a theological and faith based outlook. But that is my interest and I do not intend to push it further.

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