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A Review of Escaping from Fundamentalism (James Barr, SCM Press, 1984)

By Theo Todman

September 1987

The reader of Search may he somewhat surprised that a book with such a title should be reviewed within its pages. Thus, a few words of explanation may be in order.

Firstly, a "fundamental" approach to Scripture is enshrined within the OBT Trust Deed. Hence, it is sensible to be aware of intelligent criticism and to answer or learn from it. Secondly, all keen Bible students will be aware of problems that have occurred to them from time to time, many of which they have left unexplained but would wish to have answered. Thirdly, as those who claim to rest their faith on the testimony of Scripture, we would wish to treat Scripture as it is, rather than how we would like it to be.

James Barr is Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University. He states that he is an evangelical without being a fundamentalist, his definition of an evangelical being "one who believes the good news that calls men to salvation through faith" which some may consider a little vague.

What are his aims in writing this book? One of his contentions is that many people, having been converted to Christianity via Fundamentalism, eventually realise there are problems with the Fundamentalist view of Scripture. His book aims to help such escape from Fundamentalism while remaining active Christians. The professed method of the book is pastoral rather than controversial though, to prove his case that Fundamentalism is deficient, James Barr has to demonstrate certain factual points. Hence, the book cannot avoid a polemical character despite its avowed eirenic aims. The author has, in fact, written an extensive earlier critique of Fundamentalism, entitled simply Fundmentalism, which, however, I found to be less stimulating and less succinct than the present book.

What are the author's objections to Fundamentalism ? The following claims persist throughout the book :-

  1. The Fundamentalist view of Scripture is 'fundamentally" wrong.
  2. Fundamentalism's view of its own interpretation of Scripture as the only valid one is simplistic because it ignores the traditional element within its own theology.
  3. Fundamentalists consider themselves to lie in a thin line of faithful tradition going back via the Reformation and the early church Fathers to New Testament times themselves. However, many of those faithful witnesses of the past, Athanasius & Augustine for example, would have abhorred the Fundamentalist understanding of Christianity and Fundamentalists themselves reject much of the teachings of the Fathers.

The first objection only will be considered here. Firstly, James Barr thinks that the usual proof texts do not imply all that Fundamentalists would have them do (ie. in defining Scripture as inerrant and the touchstone of doctrine). For example, 2 Timothy 3:16 does not define the meaning of God-breathedness and is low-key in using expressions like profitable and able to instruct. Futher, he considers that the Lord Jesus didn't necessarily imply the inerrancy of the Old Testament Scriptures by his use of them. In the author's view, when the Lord referred to Noah or seemed to ascribe a Psalm to David he was not pronouncing authoritatively on critical questions but simply making use of illustrative material much as in his use of parables, which no-one considers to be factual. Finally, he considers that the prophetic paradigm thus saith the Lord is inappropriate to Scripture as a whole.

Secondly, James Barr considers that inerrant is an incorrect interpretation of what inspired means. He believes that our understanding of inspiration should he within the limits that Scripture permits and subject to the factual reality of Scripture. He contends that it is not the nature of the Bible that all its statements are correct and that God can and does teach through narratives that are only substantially true.

Much of the book is taken up with disputing Fundamentalist claims that the Bible is 100% inerrant. It is this extreme Fundamentalist view that makes marginal cases much more important than they would be in other understandings of inspiration. James Barr's allegations of Scriptural errancy fall into at least seven categories:-

  1. There are factual discrepancies between parallel passages.
  2. There are contradictory teachings.
  3. The New Testament abuses the Old, ignoring the context in quotations.
  4. The New Testament occasionally uses corrupt Old Testament texts as the bases of important theological arguments.
  5. The Bible contains the moral and theological imperfections associated with progressive revelation and borrowings from other ancient middle-eastern cultures.
  6. The Bible contains legendary material.
  7. The text and canon of Scripture are not self defining.

In a review of this size it is not possible to do justice to the arguments for or against Scriptural inerrancy by way of example and comment. Instead, we will consider the proposals James Barr puts forward as alternative understandings of inspiration. Of course, the need for alternatives depends on how well we think Scripture, viewed as inerrant, stands up to the criticisms he has levelled at it. James Barr's alternative understandings of inspiration fall into four categories:-

  1. The analogy of the Incarnation - just as the Lord Jesus was physiologically a normal human being while yet divine, so the Scripture possesses the marks of human frailty while retaining its nature as a divine communication.
  2. The analogy of justification - Scripture was written by sinful men. As they were acceptable, though imperfect, so is Scripture.
  3. The analogy of the inspiring teacher - just as a teacher cannot decree that his pupils will fully understand or pass on their lessons accurately to others, so the Holy Spirit did not do so with the writers of Scripture.
  4. Inspiration acts as Scripture is read and interpreted in the church in each generation.

I think his last proposal has to be rejected out of hand. The idea that inspiration takes place as Scripture is read and interpreted is too woolly, given the number of different interpretations there are. This is not to deny that the Holy Spirit breaths through the Word as it is studied, but it must also be inspired in some static sense as well, in its original giving.

The analogy with the Incarnation looks very promising and could be saying no more than that as the Lord Jesus was truly God, while being truly man, so the Scriptures have a human and a divine side to them. They are God's words, spoken through and by men, not by dictation but respecting their own personalities. Such, or something like it, is believed by most Fundamentalists. However, is such a scenario consonant with the Bible containing error ? The key question may be whether or not accidental error is sin. It is doubtless regrettable and irritating if I accidentally say "Jeremiah" when I mean "Zechariah", especially if I'm always doing that sort of thing, but is it sin? The question becomes more acute if it is the Lord who does it. For instance, when (in Mark 2:25-26), in the passage about the consecrated bread, the Lord refers to "David ... in the days of Abiathar the high priest" did he really mean Ahimelech, Abiathar's father, who gave David the bread (1 Samuel 21) ? Are we comfortable with the thoughts that the Lord may have occasionally got his sums wrong, or may have thought that the Earth was flat, or perhaps didn't know what the dark side of the moon was like ? If we are not, can we say that he was fully human? If we are, should we expect Scripture to be any more perfect ?

The second and third suggestions imply that Scripture contains moral as well as factual errors, not to mention errors of reasoning, much as the justified man or the Spirit-taught man has moral lapses and suffers from ignorance and confusion as well as making slips of the pen. Can we allow these elements into Scripture? This is a mistaken question as stated, for errors are either there or not, whatever we might decide to believe.

James Barr strongly rejects the idea that one error in Scripture makes the whole Bible unreliable, but accepting the possibility of error does lead us into the subjective area of deciding where these occur and may lead to hasty judgements or to the wholesale denial of the supernatural. Moreover, it is extremely difficult for a determined and resourceful defender to be convinced that there are any errors, because some explanation can always be found for problem passages, though some of them may not be immune to criticism.

The reader may ask, does James Barr want to prove God wrong ? This, I think, is to misunderstand the issue. No Christian wants to prove God wrong, but to accept God's revelation on its own terms. If God had or has been pleased to reveal himself through an inspired but imperfect medium, that is up to him. The question is one of facts, not of what must be or ought to be the case. However, the facts are open to question and the reader will doubtless have answers to many objections, including the problems alluded to above.

Finally, should you read this book? I would say, "by all means", but only if these issues are currently important to you and you're willing to work hard and face up to them, whether or not you ultimately accept any of James Barr's proposals.

© Theo Todman September 1987.

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