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.
One thought from Barr that has stayed with me over the years is his idea of ‘maximal conservatism’ (pp85-89). Simply put, this is the observation that, faced with a question of biblical criticism, if the conservative evangelical cannot make a dogmatic appeal to literalism and inerrancy, he will opt for the most conservative position possible.
For example, the superscription of Psalm 110 calls it ‘A Psalm of David’. The conservative evangelical may take the dogmatic approach (‘the psalm “claims” to be by David, and, in any case, Jesus quotes from it as words of David’). But the alternative strategy for the evangelical is that, given a range of scholarly options, he will opt for the most conservative. In the case of Psalm 110 this would be the option that places the psalm nearest to the time of David.
Similarly with the dating of the Pentateuch. If the evangelical cannot sustain an argument for Mosaic authorship, then he supports the most conservative option, i.e. that much of the material ‘in some sense’ goes back to Moses.
And again, of all the options available with regard to the sayings ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels, the evangelical can be relied upon to prefer the view that ‘most of them’ go back ‘practically’ to Jesus himself.
The tendency is always towards the earliest dating, maximal authenticity, and so on, of the biblical documents.
Although evangelical biblical scholars will tend to deploy exegetical arguments to support their ‘maximally conservative’ conclusions, the underlying motivation is dogmatic: the nearer one can come to a literalistic inerrantist position the better.
I think that Barr’s point about ‘maximal conservatism’ is worth pondering. Indeed, it could be extended in all kinds of directions (in ethics, for example, and theology generally, evangelicals tend to be conservative and resistance to change). But at least a couple of caveats are in order:-
Firstly, Barr took much of the wind out of his own sails by failing to engage with evangelical scholars such as F.F. Bruce. Professor Bruce was, at the time, probably the leading evangelical New Testament scholar. His book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? tends towards what Barr would call ‘maximal conservatism’ throughout (on the canon, miracles, historicity and so on). But Barr avoids accusing Bruce of anything. Ah, but Barr and Bruce were colleagues at Manchester University up until 1976 (there is a brief mention of Barr in Bruce’s autobiography, In Retrospect, 209-10).
Secondly, and more importantly, there are as many reasons for asking why some biblical scholars have a habit of coming to such radical conclusions as there are for asking why others tend to come to such conservative ones. The fact is that neither group is without its presuppositions. And radical scholarship, wishing to minimise the supernatural intervention of God in divine affairs will ensure that its conclusions are consistent with its presuppositions.
The liberal does not find inspiration, or miracles, or a divine/human Saviour in Scripture for the same reason that the thief not find a policeman.