Home > Apologetics, Atheism, The Bible > Barr on inerrancy vs literalism

Barr on inerrancy vs literalism

I recently read James Barr’s really enlightening book ‘Fundamentalism‘ whose main thesis was as the namesake suggests. Something that I hadn’t really considered before, was the difference between ‘literalism’ and ‘inerrancy’ and how this pertains to a fundamentalists reasoning.

It’s important to note at the outset, that defining a fundamentalist is tricky, the term is not used in a pejorative sense herein, but simply to describe a Christian that holds

(a) a very strong emphasis on the inerrancy of the Bible, the absence from it of any sort of error;

(b) a strong hostility to modern theology and to the methods, results and implications of modern critical study of the Bible;

(c) an assurance that those who do not share their religious viewpoint are not really ‘true Christians’ at all (Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 1, 1977).

Barr recognizes that these views are not held by all fundamentalists and that these definitions require expanding and elaboration, to be even in the ball park of ‘fair’ in their accuracy:  ‘complex social and religious movements are not defined in a few words’. But it gives you, the reader, a picture of what I’m talking about when I say ‘fundamentalist’.

Fundamentalists are concerned with minimizing error in the Bible- in fact they believe there are no errors in it, be they theological, geographical, historical or scientific. They are working under the less than Biblical (I will discuss that in a moment) assumption that the Bible is divinely inspired and infallible, but to keep a 2,000 year old tome like the Bible relevant with current scientific, literary and historical understanding, the fundamentalist will drop literalism to maintain that inerrancy has not been disrupted.

Genesis represents a perfect example of this:

“…most conservative evangelical opinion today does not pursue a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. A literal interpretation would hold that the world was created in six days, these days being the first of the series which we still experience as days and nights. Not at all according to conservative evangelical sources; on the contrary, they are full of warnings about the dangers and difficulties involved for those who take the day literally… E.F. Kevan tells us that there are ‘serious difficulties’ in taking them as ordinary days… (Barr, Fundamentalism, pp. 40-1, 1977)

Barr continues demonstrating some of the apologetics used to get around the apparent ‘serious difficulties’ with the scientific contradiction that is Genesis- be it the days being ‘days of dramatic vision’, or that they do not ‘represent a twenty-four hour period’ but rather a ‘geological age’ or that the textual strategy is a ‘poetic figure’ (quoting Meredith Kline, p. 41). The problem with this being that the days are represented as having a ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ which seems to suggest the kind of day we experience. Again, the rebuttal being that the ‘day’ represents ‘clearly defined epochs’, not actual, literal days. How silly of us to read into it so. The point we are to take away, is that the Biblical authors are telling us that ‘God created the world out of nothing and that He did it in a specific period, which came to an end.’ (p. 41)

As we see, all kinds of contortions are made, to keep the Bible from being interpreted literally in this instance, moreover, at least in the passages of Genesis (Barr offers other examples taken as non-literal from Genesis- the genealogical lists from Adam to Noah, the specific creation account; i.e. light was created before the sun etc)  it is considered silly to interpret them literally.

But why is there a shift away from a literal interpretation of Genesis? Barr says it’s to do with the fundamentalists acceptance of science. The evidence for the age of the Earth, says Barr has become too strong for the fundamentalists to resist, a literal interpretation would mean

pitting the Bible against scientific truths which fundamentalist intellectuals now accept; this would in turn force the admission that the Bible in this respect had been wrong. In order to avoid this, the conservative interpreter moves over into a non-literal exegesis; only this will save the inerrancy of the Bible. (Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 42, 1977)

A hundred years ago, (probably less, says Barr, p.42) a literal interpretation would have been insisted upon, and if science had something contrary to say, science be damned.It’s not as if fundamentalism has given up the fight against science though, there still remains a resistance against evolutionary, climate, and stem cell sciences.

It needs to be reiterated- the fundamentalist does not, therefore, think that the Genesis accounts are fiction or myth, no, the characters, despite whatever ‘non-literal’ interpretation fundamentalists have of them, are still described as being real people, living in a real historical setting, in a real historical age.

There is a nice moment for the biblical critic when we realise that the Bible actually has very little to say about its own inspiration and inerrancy (indeed about itself at all). Barr reasons that this is due to that fact that there was no Bible as it was being written, it is only when we take an unhistorical look at the Bible, as the word of God, inspired and infallible from the beginning, that we can hope to make claims about what the Bible ‘said about itself’. This is why there are a paucity of passages in the Bible proper claiming it to be ‘inerrant’ (2 Peter 1:20 and 2 Timothy 3:16  for example), after all, what would the authors of these passages have been claiming was inerrant? ‘The scriptures’  was a reference to the OT, and even if these authors were aware of other books of the Bible, we have no way of knowing which ones they knew of, or which ones they considered to be authentic. Besides, even if 2 Peter and 2 Timothy were referring to their own passages as inspired, it would be a difficult burden of proof to meet indeed, to demonstrate they speak for the entire canon. This makes the claim of inerrancy by fundamentalists a philosophical and seemingly esoteric (not to mention circular) definition.

The fundamentalist will listen to the arguments of critical scholarship- when they hear questions like: ‘might the linguistic and literary form suggest that the passage is myth or legend?’ ‘Might it be mistaken in matters of historical facts?’ ‘Might it be something generated not by external events which occurred in this sequence, but by problems in the inner experience of the early church?’ (p. 51) Barr states however, that these kinds of questions are isolated and eliminated from the beginning of the fundamentalists exegesis, they may be considered but only insofar as they are forced to do so by the arguments of critical scholars- and even then it is only to fashion an appropriate apologetic.

Generally, theological necessity is a guiding light for what must be taken as literal and not, for example, the virgin birth is taken literally because its physical necessity is required for the Christian faith. The law that the seventh day be taken as rest however is not taken literally for precisely the opposite reason. Barr states that it is only upon criticism that passages lacking theological necessity are defended, not because they become theologically necessary, but rather due to the fact that fundamentalists need to at least maintain the appearance that the Bible contains inerrant true in the face of critical scholarship.

As we see, this makes for a confusing, muddled and completely individualistic way of interpreting the Bible- inerrancy is maintained by ‘constantly altering the mode of interpretation’ as Barr says (p. 46).

Barr concludes:

Literality, though it might well be deserving of criticism, would at least be a somewhat consistent interpretive principle, and the carrying out of it would deserve some attention as a significant achievement. What fundamentalists do pursue is completely unprincipled- in the strict sense unprincipled, because guided by no principle of interpretation- approach, in which the only guiding criterion is that the Bible should, by the sorts of truths that fundamentalists respect and follow, be true and not in any sort of error.

Inerrancy is the guiding light for the fundamentalist, with literalness being a varying nicety to be enjoyed if possible. If you do not share this perspective with the fundamentalist you are of course left to wonder, as I do, why anyone accepts this book, as the word of a God- when such contortions have to be made to understand it.

Categories: Apologetics, Atheism, The Bible
  1. November 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I think that strictly sticking to a fundamentalist, literalist view of scripture causes more problems than it solves. The reality is that men compiled and wrote the Bible. There is going to be issues with it. Now, as a progressive, non-fundamentalist I can concede that the Bible is not inerrant with out throwing the baby out with the bathwater and saying that it isn’t inspired. As a non-literalist I can use common sense and logic while putting the grey matter between my ears to work around passages that if taken literally would condone the massacre of children the ownership of slaves and a prohibition against wearing clothing made from two different kinds of fabric.

    The Bible is God’s message written and portrayed by human hands. But it’s still his truth, it’s still his message, and it’s still good for teaching, and training in righteousness.

    Great post, Very thought provoking.


    • November 8, 2011 at 12:52 am

      Thanks for your comments and thoughts…. I would love it if all Christians had your views, so I would encourage you to keep blogging and spread the word… so to speak.

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