James Barr on Inerrancy

Please forgive the paucity of posts recently. My wife is pregnant and on bedrest, so other responsibilities have taken priority. I ran across a lengthy paragraph in James Barr’s Fundamentalism that I thought merited note, though. From page 51:

In fundamentalism the truth of the Bible, its inerrancy, understood principally as correspondence with external reality and events, is fed into the interpretive process at its very beginning. That is to say, one does not first interpret the passage on the basis of linguistic and literary structure, and then raise the question whether this is true as a matter of correspondance to external reality or to historical events. On the contrary, though linguistic and literary structure are respected as guides, and indeed conservative literature contains a good deal of boasting about the command of these disciplines by conservative interpreters, the principle of the inerrancy of scripture has an overriding function. It dominates the interpretative process entirely. The questions: Might linguistic and literary form suggest that the passage is a myth or legen? Might it be mistaken in matters of historical fact? 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?—such questions are therefore eliminated from the interpretative process from the beginning. The fundamentalist interpreter may consider them, but only in so far as they are forced upon him by the arguments of critical scholars. They do not form part of his own interpretative procedure at all. This means, however, that though linguistic and literary form are respected as guides, they operate as guides only under the overriding control of the principle of inerrancy. The question is, therefore, which of the various interpretations is supported by the linguistic and literary evidence, under the overriding assumptions that the passage is inerrant as a description of external events and realities? The passage is inerrant: the only question is, which is the correct path to the necessarily inerrant meaning?

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6 responses to “James Barr on Inerrancy

  • Judy Redman

    Hope the pregnancy goes well. This is a good quote, but I think that the basic assumption and question is: “This text (ie the whole Bible) is inerrant, so what tools of biblical criticism do I need to use in order to demonstrate that this particular passage doesn’t contradict what is said elsewhere?” When I was an undergrad, the national Fellowship of Evangelical Students affirmed that the Bible is inerrant. Period. It now affirms that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts, but that since we do not have the original manuscripts there may be problems in the texts we have.

  • veryrarelystable

    I loved reading James Barr’s Fundamentalism, a very perceptive work, and frequently hilariously funny (the chapter on miracles exceptionally so). Even funnier was reading some of the reviews from evangelical fundamentalists after its appearance, which all tried to show that fundamentalism really wasn’t like that. No-one who knew evangelical fundamentalism believed them, of course; Barr was extremely familiar with his subject as he too was an ex-fundamentalist, and he knew exactly how to expose their beliefs and their ways of working.

    I read it just after I escaped from fundamentalism (I wouldn’t have touched it before, of course) and found it really helpful.

  • humbahaha

    After reading Barr’s book many years ago, I am now constantly irritated by the common perception propagated by popular media that fundamentalists take the Bible “literally”. Rather, the standard approach is to explain away or “harmonize” any difficult passages that contradict established dogma. Thus the thread of urgent eschatological expectation that runs right through the new testament is never taken “literally”. This is particularly true for conservative interpretations of Revelation, where a literal reading suggests that the book is addressed specifically to various christian communities in first century asia minor, and that the events described in the book are about to transpire.

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