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Fundamentalism: A Pathological Condition of Christianity
A book on fundamentalism by James Barr is reviewed with a focus on the false doctrine of biblical inerrancy and its difference from evangelicalism.
By Donald W. Dayton
Editor's Note: Protestant churches and pastors over the past decades have not engaged in a strong enough critique of the religious right and fundamentalism, at least in such a way as to influence the public consciousness. But resources for such critique have been available. A key book offering a blistering critique of fundamentalism is reviewed below by Donald W. Dayton, associate professor of historical theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. A layman in the Wesleyan Church of America, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. The review appeared in the The Christian Century in 1978. The book is called "Fundamentalism" by James Barr published by Westminster. It is interesting to read now thirty years later.
Of the proliferating interpretations of "evangelicalism" or "fundamentalism" and its recent "resurgence," James Barr’s Fundamentalism is surely one of the most profound. Seldom has fundamentalism had so distinguished a critic. Barr, Oxford University’s Oriel professor of the interpretation of Holy Scripture, brings the penetrating argumentation and sharp polemic that characterized The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford University Press, 1961), his earlier critique of the ‘biblical theology" movement and Kittel’s Wörterbuch. Though offered as a broader interpretation of fundamentalism, this book is primarily a devastating attack on the biblical interpretation and underlying theological substructure of the recent "postfundamentalist evangelicalism" epitomized in this country by the student movement Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Christianity Today magazine, and an earlier era at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Those who have followed his earlier work will realize that Barr has chosen fundamentalism as a dialogue partner more often than is usual among mainstream biblical scholars. Part of the reason no doubt lies in Barr’s own background in fundamentalism -- about which he is less than candid. Apart from a couple of very obscure references, one would never guess that he served as president of the "Christian Union" (Inter-Varsity) at Edinburgh a quarter of a century ago.
There is a sense, then, in which this book constitutes a belated, public exorcism of the demon of Barr’s fundamentalist past, a fact that explains both the book’s intensity (and often hostility) and its depth of perception. The result is a remarkable and often brilliant blend of the insider’s penetration and the outsider’s critique that demands the attention of all who would understand fundamentalism, whether as adherents or as observers.
Barr writes generally to the point, and often discerningly, as he delineates the "religious basis" of fundamentalism; surveys its attitudes toward such diverse phenomena as politics, science, culture, Zionism and Roman Catholicism; catalogues such variations as Pentecostalism, Calvinist and Arminian conflicts, and millennialism; and probes its anti-ecumenical and anticritical ethos. As one might expect, however, Barr is at his best when he returns again and again to his central theme -- a critique of the style of biblical interpretation that follows from the fundamentalist commitment to a doctrine of the "inerrancy of Scripture."
Fundamentalism is, for Barr, finally a pathological condition of Christianity" -- a tradition of the interpretation of Scripture which not only is untenable but which also prevents a true reading of the Scriptures and a positive relationship of the movement to the rest of the church. He suggests that the heart of fundamentalism is not, as is often supposed, a commitment to a "literal" reading of the Bible but rather a commitment to a reading that preserves the Bible’s "inerrancy" in every detail, even if its literal sense must be violated. Barr then analyzes such classics of postfundamentalist biblical interpretation as The New Bible Commentary and The New Bible Dictionary (published in Britain by Inter-Varsity and in the US. by Eerdmans) to demonstrate forced harmonization, resort to nonliteral interpretation, and other dodges used to maintain the inerrancy assumption.
In the process, Barr exposes other foibles of more recent efforts to maintain that tradition of interpretation: a tendency toward specialization in historical and linguistic cognate fields that avoids theological issues and ironically reduces them to matters archaeological and historical; a style of "maximal conservativism" that approximates earlier positions taken on dogmatic grounds by a current process of selectively appropriating the most conservative elements of a variety of more critical positions; a surprising (and again ironic) tendency to offer ‘naturalistic" reinterpretations of the miraculous within the highly supernaturalistic inerrancy framework; and so on. Occasionally Barr mentions a scholar who breaks out of fundamentalism into a genuinely critical stance (though usually extremely conservative) -- but only to call into question the honesty of such shifts without frank recognition of the break and even apology to critics whose work had been dismissed and motives impugned.
Barr’s work is not above criticism. He at times demands standards of logical consistency that other traditions of biblical interpretation would be hard pressed to meet. (I have read enough of fundamentalists’ literature to know that they sometimes have the goods on some critics.) More sympathetic interpretations could also often be offered of the literature he cites: I might even wish to defend in part the fundamentalist critique of certain radical and historicizing styles of criticism that have given the church only a historical document rather than a source of life,
Barr’s book has a certain datedness in that it analyzes primarily an earlier mood rather than the styles of biblical interpretation of more recent evangelicals" like F. F, Bruce, I. Howard Marshall, Earle Ellis, Robert Guelich and Ralph Martin, who manage to break the patterns, at least to some extent, that Barr attacks -- though usually without the public acknowledgment of the extent of that break that Barr appropriately but perhaps unrealistically calls for.
I would also be inclined to give greater emphasis to the more "classical" roots of modern fundamentalism in the post-Reformation traditions of both Reformed and Lutheran scholasticism and perhaps be willing to suggest that the line is not so totally devoid of theological insight as Barr seems to indicate. And, of course, agreement with Barr will sometimes be conditioned by divergent critical assumptions -- or even by one’s concurrence with the implicit claim that the fundamental task is to create the space for criticism.
Here, too, there is a certain dated spirit about the book that may arise from Barr’s own more immediate emergence from fundamentalism. I am more inclined to think that the task of our own generation, that battle having been largely won, is to break the hold of a paralyzing critical historicism in order to recover a theological and religious use of the Scripture that does not avoid criticism but goes through and beyond it.
Despite all such criticism -- some of which will be used by fundamentalists to avoid the impact of Barr’s book -- it must be clearly said that Barr is generally "right on." He has called the bluff of much fundamentalist biblical scholarship in a way that will make it difficult for reflective practitioners to continue in their ways. In so doing, Barr raises a number of crucial questions for both fundamentalism and the rest of the church.
Dealing with these questions, however, requires first a more precise understanding of fundamentalism. Barr defines the movement primarily in terms of three negative characteristics: (1) "a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible," (2) "a strong hostility to modern theology" and "the modern critical study of the Bible," and (3) a sharp distinction between "nominal" and "true" Christians (i.e., fundamentalists). He then seeks the roots of these emphases in such sources as the 18th century "evangelical revivals" and the 19th century "Princeton theology" of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. Though these and other comments are to the point, the picture drawn is finally too simple -- at least historically and theologically.
Here we raise the question of the precise relationship of evangelicalism and fundamentalism as historical phenomena, I do not mean here to give any credence to what I predict will be the common evangelical response to Barr -- that he fails to distinguish appropriately a modern enlightened evangelicalism from a more benighted fundamentalism. Barr is surely right in insisting that while fundamentalists have made many changes in style (as evidenced, for example, by Christianity Today) on the theological level and especially with regard to biblical interpretation, there is more continuity than discontinuity. For this reason he correctly treats both the older fundamentalism (still preserved in some quarters) and the more modern evangelicalism under the same label (offensive as it is) as the same system of thought.
Part of the problem is a modem equivocal use of the word "evangelical" to denote both a prefundamentalist experience and a postfundamentalist style. The point here is to understand that originally "evangelicalism" was much broader than "fundamentalism," This distinction may be illustrated quickly by reference to 19th century evangelist D. L. Moody, who, though he stood very close to modern fundamentalism, maintained a much broader constituency. He welcomed to his Northfield Conferences such nonfundamentalists as Henry Drummond and Bible scholar George Adam Smith. Both the more fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute and the more liberal Mount Hermon schools derive from Moody and may be said to represent genuine facets of Moody himself.
This is to suggest that fundamentalism actually represents some subset of a more classical evangelicalism. In a recent study’ of the evangelical impact on the Victorians titled The Call to Seriousness, Ian Bradley contends that the decline of evangelicalism into narrow bigotry may be dated from about 1860 and correlated with the rise of a fascination with prophecy and a more literalistic use of the Scripture. This interpretation fits well with the claim of Ernest Sandeen that fundamentalism should be viewed theologically as a strange coalition between the rising tide of premillennialism that found expression in the prophecy conferences and Bible schools of the late 19th century and the views of Scripture articulated in the high Calvinist theology of. the ‘old school" Princeton variety. Though there are problems with such a description, it does provide a rough outline of the boundaries of fundamentalism historically and theologically.
Such an analysis raises logical and historical questions as to the possibility of a nonfundamentalist evangelicalism that attempts to maintain the authentic concerns of the evangelical tradition without the intellectual framework of fundamentalism and its doctrine of Scripture. Illustrations of such a position are rare on the contemporary scene, but they do exist. One might mention the Evangelical Covenant Church of America (a nonfundamentalist immigrant church rooted in pietism) or the Southern Baptists as illustrations. Southern Baptist seminaries at least are nonfundamentalist, and President Carter is clearly a nonfundamentalist evangelical.
Though he does not provide such supporting historical and theological analysis, Barr hints that he would find such a position acceptable. His broad brush often covers the whole evangelical movement, but here and there he suggests that "in the ecumenical community of the church the evangelical tradition is an honored member" and that "its views of conversion, of personal salvation and so on constitute a source of riches." This theme is made more explicit in Barr’s helpful preface to the American edition of the book, where he clearly states his thesis that "fundamentalism distorts and betrays the basic true religious concerns of evangelical Christianity."
This somewhat subdued theme casts Barr’s book in an entirely new light -- one that will perhaps be missed by most postfundamentalist evangelicals if the British reviews are any indication. It is not clear finally how acceptable such a nonfundamentalist evangelicalism would be to Barr personally. It would probably still violate his sensitivity with regard to his third defining point of fundamentalism by claiming -- as have all reforming movements with a vision for the renewal of the church -- to have some insight into a "higher Christian life" than that grasped by many church members. It is to be hoped, however, that such claims could be advanced without falling back into crass and unnuanced distinctions between "nominal" and "true" Christians.
Such a position would, of course, depend in part on the possibility of articulating a strong and religiously satisfying doctrine of Scripture without the fundamentalist claim of inerrancy and its correlate theological assumptions. Continuing fundamentalists will, of course, deny this possibility and object to the erosion of what appears to them to be the only possible epistemological foundation for their faith.
Barr, on the other hand, seems to defend it by suggesting that inerrancy could be abandoned with very little adjustment in the pattern of evangelical belief -- and that the doctrine is, in fact, despite claims to the contrary, more a product of philosophical assumptions than genuine exegesis. Barr goes even further than I would to suggest, and apparently defend, a noninerrancy doctrine of "verbal inspiration" that attempts to overcome the "dictation" ideas implicit in the fundamentalist formulations of inspiration.
Barr’s book, however, serves notice that the minor adjustments of modern postfundamentalist evangelicalism are unequal to the task. The rejection of inerrancy will require a more radical rejection of the underlying thought forms that produced it. As Barr suggests. "little respect can be shown to those who maintain a doctrinal position like Warfield’s, but then cheerfully say that they are not tied to complete inerrancy." In an early review of Barr’s book in Eternity magazine, postfundamentalist evangelical Carl F. H. Henry takes this comment of Barr to suggest that Warfield remains the "strongest" conservative option and that any mediating stance is untenable.
But Henry himself has elsewhere lamented the intellectual sterility of the Evangelical Theological Society built on this doctrinal foundation (and requiring an annual subscription to inerrancy as its only qualification for membership). I take Barr to be suggesting that these facts are not unrelated and that confinement in the straitjacket of that intellectual system is a major reason that "modernized and up-dated evangelicalism has [not] attained to any conceptual framework that is intrinsically different from the fundamentalist one, or that it has even tried." I myself am inclined to agree with Barr about the poverty of this postfundamentalist theology and tradition for the future of evangelicalism -- though I would want my evangelical colleagues to understand clearly that I reject this tradition not to reject biblical or evangelical faith but to seek rather a more adequate conceptual framework through which to be more faithful to the Scriptures.
But Barr’s book finally raises the possibility of the re-emergence of such a nonfundamentalist evangelical vision. Barr is pessimistic but looks to discussions in this country more than in Britain because "American Christianity, creative in the origins of fundamentalism, may also be creative in the discovery of ways for escaping from it." I am more optimistic than Barr. Discussions with British evangelicals after the appearance of the SCM edition last summer convinced me that the British evangelical scene is more uniform and more defined by the Inter-Varsity experience and its tradition of biblical exegesis. In such a context Barr’s book is a special threat that is more likely to produce the falling back into fundamentalism that he fears.
The American scene, however, is much more variegated. Evangelicalism here is more diverse, manifesting itself in a number of nonfundamentalist (or potentially nonfundamentalist) styles less fully defined by their commitment to such a doctrine of inerrancy. There is a sense in which such traditions have stood in the wings awaiting this time and will now re-emerge, I predict, with a new creativity, offering various paradigms of nonfundamentalist evangelicalism.
Indeed, signs of such developments are already evident in several directions. One of the little-noticed but highly significant facts of our time is the quiet but persistent growing rejection among evangelicals of the fundamentalist tradition. The power of this current is illustrated in the strength of the revulsion often expressed by former adherents. In such a period of ferment, Barr’s books can, if evangelicals can see beyond its negatives, accentuate and, facilitate that development.
Evidence of such, and a sign of hope. may be seen in another early review of Barr’s book. Clark Pinnock, author of an influential defense of biblical inerrancy, concludes in a recent InterVarsity publication that "the effect of Barr’s extensive discussion of evangelical exegetical work on an open-minded evangelical leader will be to convince him or her of the burden and liability represented by the inerrancy assumption in so much evangelical thinking . . - I do not expect any return to the strict inerrancy assumption on the part of informed biblical scholarship." So be it.
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