Christianity, Astrology & William Barclay (the Unwitting Apologist)

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Mark 8:27-30

This may sound like a cliche topic, but in consideration of the ongoing interest in Christ, I felt I needed to post this. The question for humanity was, is, and will continue to be, so long as the Lord tarries: Who is Jesus Christ?

For Peter and the ten, Jesus was the Christ, the eternal Son of God become flesh – Messiah of God, Redeemer of men. However, for others, He was merely a resuscitated prophet. Some thought of Him as being greater or lesser in degree of prophet-hood (hence the references to Elijah, John the Baptist, and one of the prophets), but still a prophet.

And the debate continues today. I think I’ve heard just about every wild speculation regarding the identity of Jesus Christ from the acceptance of His historical existence and simultaneous denial of His divine nature (obviously denying that He performed miracles, etc), to the outright denial of His historical existence. Not at all denials of the historicity of Christ are the same, it should be noted. There are some which reduce the content of the four gospels to mere communal myth, while there are others which make more radical claims.

Many would like to see in Jesus and the twelve disciples, for instance, a narrative equivalent of the Zodiac. Apart from the textual impossibility of establishing such a claim (see here for more info on the problematic position espoused by the film Zeitgeist, and others made by Acharya S.), there are historico-textual facts that undermine these erroneous claims.

For example: The Epistle to the Colossians.

The Epistle to the Colossians, written early on in the history of the Christian faith (c. AD 58-62), is in some senses an extended apolgetic against an unnamed heresy that had begun to creep into the church at Colosse. Theologian William Barclay breaks this heresy down into its 11 constituent elements. For lack of space, however, I will only touch upon four of these, seeing as they  directly address the issues of (i.) Jesus’ historical existence, (ii.) His divine nature, (iii.) His uniqueness among the false gods and goddesses of Paul’s time, and (iv.) the incompatibility of astrology and Christ.

i. Denial of the Adequacy of Christ –  Paul counters this by writing some of the loftiest statements about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ found in Scripture (particularly, Col. 1:15-20 & 2:8-9).

ii. Denial of Christ as Creator  – Paul counters this by explicitly proclaiming the Divinity of Jesus Christ as God-become-man (ibid).

iii. Denial of the Humanity of Christ – Paul addresses explicitly by addressing the physical reality of Jesus Christ, as does John in his gospel and epistles.

iv. Astrological Elements – Paul addresses an area of the “Colossian heresy” that attempted to bring in astrology as a complement to the teaching of Christ, given through the apostle, to the church at Colosse.

(Summarized from The Letters to The Philipians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Revised Edition), pp. 94-97)

Barclay expounds upon a phrase found in Colossians 2:8-10 (“elements of this world” is the phrase) and its astrological implications. However, because Barclay’s analysis is a few pages long, I have chosen a small selection of text from p. 96 explaining point  iv.

Stoicheia [translated as elements of this world’] can [also] mean the elemental spirits of the world, and especially the spirits of the stars and planets. The ancient world was dominated by thought of the influence of the stars; and even the wisest men would not act without consulting them. It believed that all things were in the grip of an iron fatalism settled by the stars; and the science of astrology professed to provide men with the secret knowledge which would rid them of their slavery to the elemental spirits. It is most likely that the Colossian false teachers were teaching that it needed something more than Jesus Christ to rid men of their subjection to these elemental spirits.”

Now, I think it is pertinent to mention here that I don’t agree with Barclay’s theology, seeing as he was a Universalist who denied the miraculous as recorded in the New Testament. To be blunt about it, the man was an out and out heretic who denied and contradicted some of the plainest things in Scripture.

And, ironically, this is what makes this case so much stronger, for Barclay’s aim was not to provide an apologetic for the New Testament, but to provide a historically situated exegesis of the New Testament’s writings (although, due to his own logical errors, stemming from his philosophical presuppositions, he sometimes read into what is textually present – see here). In such analyses, he provides us with a detailed portrait of the early church and its beliefs (even beliefs that he doesn’t accept as true, e.g. the Deity of Jesus Christ). Therefore, it is on this basis that in spite of his heresy, I can appreciate his unwitting contribution to the defense of the historicity of Christ as Scripture presents Him.

I have scanned a selection from Barclay’s book and provided a download link here, if you are curious as to the broader context of his elaboration upon the Colossian Heresy.

Peace

(in Christ alone)

-h.

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One thought on “Christianity, Astrology & William Barclay (the Unwitting Apologist)

  1. Heather says:

    This reminded me of Samuel’s word’s to King Saul:

    For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idol-worship. Because you have rejected the Word of Jehovah, He has also rejected you from being king! 1Samuel 15:23

    I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the connections between rebellion-witchcraft and stubbornness-idolatry.

    But then realized it’s the same pattern of sin we see in the Garden. Stiff-necked Adam conspired with rebellious angelic powers ( witchcraft, astrology, etc). The subsequent blame shifting and refusal to admit personal guilt was a result of saying “I’m god and will determine for myself what is right and wrong.

    What really is striking to me is that, after being rejected by God, Saul went and consulted a medium.

    Guess Samuel’s words aren’t as big of a mystery as I originally thought.

    On a more relevant note, it’s interesting how God will show Himself to be true, even through the ignorant efforts of those who reject Him.

    Heather

    Like

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