Book Write-Up: Fundamentalism, by James Barr

James Barr.  Fundamentalism.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977 and 1978.

James Barr examines and critiques fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism.  His focus in this book is mainly on Christian fundamentalism, but he does include a brief section on Jewish treatments of Scripture.  Here are some of my thoughts, based upon my reading of this book.

1.  In many cases, Barr interacts with a fundamentalism that is not particularly extreme.  This fundamentalism is open to interpreting the days in Genesis 1 as great spans of times rather than as literal days, has no problem with evolution, and even notes serious problems with accepting that a global flood occurred (i.e., the mixing of fresh and sea water killing off certain sea creatures, a global flood creating astronomical problems by increasing the earth’s mass, etc.).  Young-earth creationism may not have been that prominent when Barr wrote this book!

2.  I often get frustrated when I hear or read debates between liberal and conservative Christians.  Conservative Christians often proclaim dogmatically that the Bible means such-and-such and that it’s literal meaning is true, whereas liberal Christians retort that the Bible is metaphorical.  My dilemma is that there are cases in which I tend to agree with the conservative Christians on what the Bible is saying, but I think that what the Bible is saying is wrong because it does not coincide with what reality (i.e., science, experience) seems to be saying.  Barr appears to have the same sort of approach, only he’s responding to conservative Christians who say the sorts of things that I have heard from the mouths of liberal Christians.  Against the claim that the days of Genesis 1 were large time spans, Barr argues that the days in Genesis 1 were intended to be literal because they had evening and morning.  Against the view that the flood in Genesis was local rather than global, Barr contends that the Genesis story itself is depicting the flood as global.  Barr’s point is that fundamentalists are not being faithful to what the Bible says, whatever they may claim.

One way to address the apparent conflict between Genesis 1 and science is to say that we should consider Genesis 1’s genre: perhaps Genesis 1 is a temple ceremony celebrating creation (to draw from John Walton), and we should consider Genesis 1 in light of that rather than trying to reconcile it with modern science.  Barr does not really entertain that possibility, at least not in Fundamentalism, but he does criticize fundamentalists for their rationalistic approach to Scripture: that fundamentalists don’t look at the concerns of biblical authors or the different ideologies within the Bible, but rather seek to derive from the Bible propositions of what reality is like, and they end up using a variety of approaches (some of them inconsistent or arbitrary) to make the Bible agree with how they understand reality.

3.  Barr said at the outset that he intended to discuss fundamentalism rather than the religious use of the Bible, and he referred to another book that he wrote, The Bible in the Modern World.  As I was reading Fundamentalism, however, I was wondering what exactly Barr believed about the spiritual or religious use of the Bible.  Did he maintain that a spiritual or religious use of it was even legitimate?  Does Barr believe, in short, that the Bible is somehow the word of God?

It’s hard to tell from Fundamentalism.  At times, Barr seems to regard the Bible as a collection of merely human writings.  At other times, he appears to praise neo-Orthodoxy because it focuses on important spiritual truths rather than conditioning Christianity’s legitimacy on the Bible being thoroughly inerrant (i.e., Kings and Chronicles agreeing on numbers).  My impression is that Barr had a soft spot in his heart for James Orr, who contributed to The Fundamentals, yet had a view of divine inspiration that saw God’s hand in the events leading up to the composition of the text, not only in what ended up in the text itself.

I one time heard a professor say that Barr started out as an evangelical, then Barr embraced neo-Orthodoxy, and then Barr despaired of even the possibility of deriving a systematic (or a biblical) theology from the Bible.  Where exactly Barr was on that spectrum when he wrote Fundamentalism is difficult for me to tell.

4.  Barr is sensitive to the existence of diversity within fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism.  He notes, for example, that a fundamentalist in the pew might have a different reason for believing in the Bible from a fundamentalist scholar or theologian.  At the same time, as I was reading Fundamentalism and seeing Barr criticize fundamentalists for inconsistency, I sometimes wondered if the people he was criticizing were inconsistent, or if rather different fundamentalists were saying different things.  For example, Barr notes that, on the one hand, fundamentalists criticize historical-criticism for being naturalistic—-for excluding the possibility of supernatural intervention in the course of human events.  Yet, on the other hand, Barr points out examples of conservative scholars making naturalistic arguments: interpreting the parting of the Sea of Reeds as a natural (and thus a possible) occurrence, for instance.  Is fundamentalism inconsistent in this case, or should we rather say that fundamentalists have expressed different opinions about naturalism?

5.  Barr’s chapter on conservative evangelical biblical scholarship was thought-provoking, even if I’m not entirely sure whether or not I get what Barr is saying.  I get that Barr has problems with how conservative scholars have predetermined conclusions in mind as they do their scholarship: they want to show that the Bible is inerrant.  But Barr says that, even if conservative conclusions are true, that does not ultimately support conservative evangelicalism.  One reason he gives is that the methodology conservative scholars used to arrive at their conclusions is not exactly friendly to a fundamentalist approach: it can bracket out the supernatural (well, Barr later equivocates about whether historical-criticism necessarily does that), its conclusions are tentative rather than absolute (and Barr notes that conservative scholars like to exploit this when criticizing liberal scholarship, when their own results are tentative, too), and it doesn’t exactly necessitate the lively, authentic relationship with God that fundamentalists promote. 

I don’t believe that conservative scholarly arguments necessarily prove that the conservative Christian faith is true; at the same time, perhaps they can alleviate the concern of conservative Christians that the Bible has errors, against critics who argue that it does.  Personally, I think that inerrancy imposes a high standard on the Bible that the Bible itself cannot meet, and I prefer to be open to where the evidence leads, whether the results are conservative or not.  I am not against conservative scholars offering arguments for their positions, however.  Everyone has biases, but the arguments that people offer can still be subjected to analysis based on reason.  One conservative argument that I believe deserves serious consideration is one that Kenneth Kitchen makes.  Barr quotes Kitchen as saying that there are no ancient Near Eastern parallels to the documentary hypothesis that critical scholars advance for the Pentateuch.  Why should we be dogmatic about the documentary method of compiling the Pentateuch existing in ancient Israel, if there is no evidence that a similar phenomenon occurred elsewhere in the ancient Near East?  Well, I don’t want to dogmatically claim that the ancient Near East lacked this sort of phenomenon (and maybe scholars have even discussed this issue), but I do think that Kitchen asks a good question.

6.  Like a number of critics of fundamentalism, Barr depicts fundamentalism as a reaction against modernism, and he asserts that the way fundamentalists approach the Bible differs from Christian pre-Enlightenment treatments of it.  (Barr does not think that fundamentalism is characterizing modernism correctly, for it contends that modernism has an anti-Christian bias, when it does not.  According to Barr, fundamentalists are treating modernism as if it is deism, which was rather critical of Christianity.)  Barr notes overlaps, for he sees in the Bible a zealous concern for doctrinal purity that would later characterize fundamentalism.  But he also contrasts fundamentalism with pre-Enlightenment Christianity: the church fathers believed Jesus was both God and man, whereas fundamentalists focus on Jesus being God; John Calvin questioned Peter’s authorship of one of the epistles attributed to him, whereas fundamentalists insist on Petrine authorship; many pre-Enlightenment Christians believed that God dictated Scripture to human beings, whereas fundamentalists posit some scenario in which humans had initiative as authors of Scripture, and yet the words are somehow God’s (or what God wants written). 

I’m not sure if Barr is entirely fair in some of his arguments.  For example, I’d say that fundamentalists believe Jesus is God and man, but they focused on Jesus being God in response to religionists who (according to them) were portraying Jesus as a mere mortal.  But Barr does well to compare fundamentalism with pre-Enlightenment Christianity, and I hope that there are books and articles that go even deeper in discussing this issue.

7.  One question that was in my mind as I was reading Barr’s book was whether fundamentalism could be intellectually stimulating.  There was a time when I was looking to it for intellectual stimulation, believe it or not.  Historical-criticism seemed to me to reduce the Bible’s meanings to an ancient context, and I was looking for a richer appreciation of the Bible, from an academic and also a spiritual standpoint.  I thought that seeing the Bible as God’s word (or even God’s words) would do that for me.  That way, I could believe that every part of the Bible communicated some profound truth or lesson.  And I could draw from the results of historical-criticism, ancient Jewish and Christian interpretation, and even modern theology in a spiritually edifying way.

Barr, however, depicts a fundamentalism that is not exactly that open.  He says that fundamentalists dismiss all theology that does not coincide with a belief in biblical inerrancy (and he says more than once that non-conservative theology has been more thoughtful than conservative theology—-though he does seem to like neo-Orthodoxy, which is somewhat conservative).  He also states that fundamentalists do not insist on the importance of the virgin birth because they are interested in probing the dimensions and significance of the virgin birth, but rather because they are using it as a checklist: one has to believe this to be a Christian.

I have to admit that I used to be like a fundamentalist in this regard.  I tended to dismiss non-conservative theology because it discounted the inerrancy of Scripture, and I wondered where exactly non-conservative theologians were getting their opinions about God, if they did not deem Scripture to be fully reliable.  I also had my doctrinal checklists.  I still wonder what the basis for theology can be, if Scripture is not inerrant, and I question whether there is a whole lot of deep meaning in the doctrine of the virgin birth.  Still, I wish that I had gone with my dream of using fundamentalism as a way to encourage learning, rather than to discourage it.  In a sense, I did, but I wish that I had read more theology.  Well, it’s never too late!  The problem is that, now, I’m not sure how to be edified by the Bible or Christianity, when I have doubts about it.

8.  I thought some about Second Isaiah as I was reading Barr’s book.  Barr notes that many fundamentalists insist that only one Isaiah wrote the entire book of Isaiah, and yet he interacts with one conservative scholar who is open to more than one author of Isaiah (and Barr considers this to be yet another compromise that fundamentalism has made with modernity).  Barr quotes this scholar expressing skepticism that Isaiah of Jerusalem would be standing outside of the Temple, talking about Cyrus and the return of the Jews from exile, a message that was not particularly relevant to the Jews of Isaiah of Jerusalem’s day.  I am rather ambivalent on this issue.  I would hope that the case for Second Isaiah being written during the Babylonian exile would be stronger than this, and that it’s not based on an anti-supernaturalistic presupposition (namely, Isaiah of Jerusalem could not have mentioned Cyrus because Cyrus wasn’t around yet), or a notion that Isaiah of Jerusalem couldn’t have looked beyond the exile that he was forecasting to a return from exile.  Why couldn’t he have?  I guess where I end up is that I believe that Second Isaiah had a message that was relevant specifically to the Jews in Babylonian exile, and yet the book seems to be implying that the restoration would fulfill prophecies uttered years before.  Maybe Second Isaiah was like Daniel (as liberal scholars conceive of the Book of Daniel): a book that was said to be written in the distant past as a prophecy of what was going on in the present.

9.  On page 328, Barr lampoons what conservative evangelicals have written about ethics.  Barr notes passages about not playing with people’s emotions, and refraining from holding hands unless the relationship is serious, and he considers that sort of ethical thought to be shallow compared to what mainstream theologians have come up with.  He acknowledges that fundamentalist couples may be happy, but he thinks that’s due to their common selfless religious commitment, not to “mediocre guidance on ethical questions…”

This is actually a provocative passage in Barr’s book, for it makes me think about whether what works is necessarily the best.  A fundamentalist naivety might work in helping me to have peace in life and better relationships with other people.  But would it be satisfying and fulfilling to me, on an intellectual or a spiritual level?  And would it be right for me to find happiness in a belief system when I have doubts that it is even true?  Is there a way for me to have my cake and eat it, too?

10.  On page 103, Barr says that colleges becoming disconnected from churches has actually resulted in more conservatives teaching Bible and theology.  I don’t want to expand on this, but I just note it because it exemplifies something about Barr’s book: that you will find interesting, unexpected things in it!

Notwithstanding this long post, I don’t think that I did justice to Barr’s book, since there is so much in it.  But some books are like that!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Book Write-Up: Fundamentalism, by James Barr

  1. Thanks for the review. I am aware of Barr’s book, but I don’t recall having read it. I found your interaction with Barr very interesting.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks Tim! It’s actually a really rich book. I was interesting to read some of your posts about evangelicalism and fundamentalism while reading Barr.


  3. Yes, it is an interesting topic for many people–like me!


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