A friend of mine–currently writing his PhD dissertation while in a witness protection program for knowing me–recently passed on the following quotes from James Barr. Barr, who died in 2006, was a world-renown Old Testament scholar, known for such linguistic classics as The Semantics of Biblical Language and Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament as well as theological and exegetical works (The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, and Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism).
But Barr may be best known among evangelicals as an blunt, take-no-prisoners critic of evangelical biblical scholarship–both in terms of its content and politics (Escaping from Fundamentalism, Beyond Fundamentalism: Biblical Foundations for Evangelical Christianity, and Fundamentalism)
In the second edition (1981) of Fundamentalism, Barr responds to various criticisms of the first edition that had appeared four years earlier. One of the main criticisms was that Barr was responding to a caricature of evangelical scholarship. He had failed to take note of evangelicalism’s movement beyond old fashioned fundamentalism; he wasn’t giving enough credit to the existence of more nuanced and sophisticated scholarly and semi-progressive evangelicals.
Though now over 30 years old, Barr’s comments below responding to these criticisms are still pointed–even prophetic. I am posting these comments because, from my perspective, they still carry a lot of weight in addressing the phenomenon of evangelical biblical scholarship.
I included a section (pp. 145–9) on the use of argument about presuppositions by fundamentalists but now think there is more that I should have said about this. Academic conservative controversialists seem now to spend more and more of their time talking about presuppositions. In part of this they are trying to take the discussion about presuppositions in non-conservative theology, which arose with reference to quite other matters, and adapt it as a mode of defense for an essentially fundamentalist position. Somehow, they seem to think, if it can be agreed that there is no exegesis without presuppositions (and Bultmann, because he said something like this, has received a rather incongruous respect in these circles), this will justify the claim that conservative presuppositions are just as good as any other (xvii).
Fundamentalism emphasizes the guru, the teacher, with his following. Studies of the social dynamics of leadership within fundamentalism are much needed. It is probable that the needs of leadership support the continuance of a fully conservative or fundamentalist position. Leaders may make all sorts of concessions from time to time in fact, but if they do not profess support of the most completely conservative position about the Bible their position of leadership is itself in danger…The chief concern of fundamentalists, it often seems, is to avoid being perceived and classed as fundamentalists; but this is purely tactical, for they will not affirm any non-conservative position (xix).
Such facts are in agreement with my general argument, namely that fundamentalism is not basically concerned with the Bible and what it says, but with the achievement of dominance for the evangelical tradition of religion and way of life (xiii).
What are your reactions to this? Do you concur with Barr, take issue with him, or something in between? A central component of his critique is that evangelical biblical scholarship and fundamentalism are more or less cut out of the same cloth. Do you agree? And what definition of evangelicalism is he operating with? (Remember that he was Scottish, and the evangelical scene in Britain is of a different nature than it is on this side of the pond–namely it tends to be more progressive intellectually and less tied to conservative social issues.)