Some years ago, I wrote:
‘It occurs to me that theological liberalism reached the height of its influence in the period leading up to 1977. In fact, Alister McGrath makes a comment to this effect in his biography of J.I. Packer, To Know and Serve God, p212. In that year two books were published by SCM Press which seemed finally to demonstrate that liberalism was, in the end, an impoverished, negative, destructive influence that was incapable of serving the purpose of Christ in this or any other generation. (This is not, of course, to tar all liberals with the same brush: happily, many and are were inconsistent liberals and hold on to elements of orthodox biblical faith in spite of themselves.)
‘The two books I have in mind were John Hick et al’s The Myth of God Incarnate, and James Barr’s Fundamentalism. The first rubbished the central Christian doctrine of Christ’s incarnation, while the other sought to demolish the beliefs and practices of those whom Barr carelessly called ‘fundamentalists’ (actually, his principal targets were British conservative evangelicals).
‘Of the two books, I actually found Barr’s more interesting. Yes, it is a rant, but the author was too knowledgeable (and, having been raised in the evangelical fold, too insightful) to miss his target completely.’
I stand by that brief assessment.
Looking back over a lengthy and interesting review, by John Goldingay of Fundamentalism, a couple of things stood out.
The first is Goldingay’s attempt to delineate his own understanding of biblical inspiration:
‘My conviction about the inspiration of scripture derives experientially from the impression it has made and makes on me. This experience meshes with what I discover to be the attitude of Jesus to the Old Testament scriptures, which (because it is his) ought to commend itself also even to those who have not (yet) been grasped experbntially by scripture in this way. At the same time, I also discover from the scriptures themselves that they were produced through a fully human process, apparently by similar means as other human works. I also find in them some recognition that their humanity and historicity ~eant that they were not at every point saying the highest thing that could ever be said. But nevertheless the Bible is exactly what its divine author willed it to be; and it is exactly what its human authors willed it to be. Because the scriptures came into existence through such a historical, human process I shall investigate their meaning by similar means to the ones I apply to other literature. But because they also came into existence by the providence of God, I shall do so listening with a special expectancy of and openness to hearing what God was saying in those historical situations – and therefore what he may be saying in mine. I shall prefer not to get into an argument over inerrancy, because the framework of thinking it may suggest can be inappropriate; but if someone insists that I declare whether I think scripture is inerrant or not, I will be willing to affirm that belief, reckoning this to be less misleading than to deny it.’
I don’t know if Professor Goldingay would express himself exactly in the same way today, but the entire review is posted on his web site, so he presumably does not disown this statement. Anyway, it’s not a million miles from how I would want to put it.
The second thing to note is almost comical. Professor Barr castigates ‘fundamentalists’ for their lack of self-criticism. David Edwards (not himself a conservative evangelical) writes in his own review of James Barr’s book:
‘A few words contain the substance of this attack on fundamentalism by the Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford. “They have the highest doctrine of Scripture of anybody in the Church. They must therefore acknowledge with deep shame that their treatment of Scripture seldom coincides with their view of it. They are much better at asserting its authority than they are at wrestling with its interpretation. They are sometimes slovenly, sometimes simplistic, sometimes highly selective and sometimes downright dishonest'”.
Strong words, indeed. But, Edwards continues, they
‘do not occur in Professor Barr’s polemic. They are quoted from the first chapter in “Obeying Christ in a Changing World,” issued before the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham this spring. Their author is the Rev. John Stott of All Souls’, Langham Place (except that he wrote “we” and “our” instead of “they” and “their”). But, in this book of some 380 pages, Professor Barr never discusses the teaching of Mr Stott, the most influential Conservative Evangelical in the Church of England. He lists only two of Mr Stott’s books, both on evangelism, one from 1949 and another from 1962. But more important: he does little to prepare his readers for the fact that Mr Stott has, like the rest of us, gradually changed his mind or at least his emphasis.’
I continue to derive two mportant benefits from having read Fundamentalism all those years ago. First, I try to take seriously any valid criticisms that Barr levels at us evangelicals and our beliefs and practices. But, secondly, I take some pride that evangelicalism has survived its most blistering attack, and continues, by God’s grace, to flourish as the best (but not the only, and certainly not the perfect) expression of the faith once delivered to the saints.