Skip to main content

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 Christianityand 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.

But are things much better now? The suggestion that they are in fact much better now, and that conservative evangelicalism today is quite different, free from the stains of the older fundamentalism, is one of the most interesting responses that my book has evoked. Conservative propaganda has, it seems, convinced some that this improvement has taken place. Undoubtedly the total evangelical scene in recent years has come to display some excellent features of openness, freedom and variety. But the very success and numerical strength of evangelicalism has through the same process greatly intensified the obscurantists, backward-looking and extremist aspects in which the core of fundamentalism resides. The student fundamentalism of today may perhaps be more gracious and kindly in its manner than that of earlier generations; but, on the other side, it seems to have systematically lost or eradicated the major features that a generation ago softened the rationalism of pure conservative ideology, brought the movement closer to the currents of general theological thinking, made it much more biblical, and also made it really evangelical. On the institutional scene, the use of ecclesiastical power-politics to achieve a fundamentalist take-over of the great Concordia Seminary, with the use of inquisitional methods upon the former teachers and finally the enforcement of their exile and withdrawal into a separate institution, is a clear modern demonstration that the motives and methods of fundamentalism haven’t changed. The use of heresy hunts against scholars and theologians, which was a normal weapon of the older fundamentalism, is being tried again in some denominations and is more likely to succeed than fifty years ago. Intellectually, the improved quality of conservative scholarship has to be balanced by an appreciation of the enormous influence in the evangelical world of pseudo-intellectual gurus like Francis Schaeffer, of semi-educated evangelists and leaders of all kinds, and of rubbishy partisan literature. On the social side, the presence of interesting and open-minded evangelical groups with positive, promising and sometimes radical social ideas, which should be gladly acknowledged, does not alter the fact that at the same time we have a much more massive and effective social-right in American politics. Thus in all respects, as I see it, the notable elements of progress, to which conservative apologists gladly call attention, are balanced by even greater elements of regress, of which they generally say nothing (xiv-xv).

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.)


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.