I have already indicated on this blog how difficult it is to define exactly who or what is fundamentalist. Part of the problem, as I have mentioned, is that individuals are very good at shifting their position to accommodate who they are talking to. Thus a preacher might come up with some classic conservative rhetoric to please a particular congregation. In private on the other hand, talking to a liberal friend, his position on, say, the details of the Exodus, might be very flexible. One particular ‘trick’ that fundamentalist students and scholars use to impress their followers, is to utilise all the resources of biblical scholarship but then to arrive at a very conservative conclusion. Thus they might examine the language, contemporary literature of the ancient Near East and conclude that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible or that the events of the book of Jonah took place exactly as described. Because 99% of the readers of this literature are in no position to challenge (or understand!) the weighty arguments being put forward, they are left with the feeling that conservative scholars are every bit as good as the liberal scholars. The only difference is that these liberals come to conclusions which seem to challenge the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. Thus they have to be disregarded in favour of the work of conservative scholars. These scholars are part of the correct evangelical tribe and they allow a sense of safety that they have arrived with a series of ‘safe’ and ‘correct’ conclusions about the Bible.
I have recently re-acquired a key book for fundamentalism studies, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals by Harriet Harris. I say ‘re-acquired’ because I let my first copy go in a purge of books some years ago. The book is a reworking of a doctoral study of the detail of the differences and overlaps between the two, the fundamentalists and the non-fundamentalist evangelicals. In this blog post I want to share one particular debate that took place during the early 90s on this issue of the boundary between evangelical and fundamentalism. On the liberal side is an Oxford writer called James Barr who wrote a controversial attack of the fundamentalist position over the Bible. It infuriated many people in the evangelical camp, among them an evangelical scholar called R.T.France. France claimed that among evangelical scholars there were many that followed the canons of academic study which are pursued at university level. These include detailed textual analysis and the other tools of critical scholarship. The fact that their findings and conclusions agreed with their pre-existing dogmatic certainties about the Bible did not stop their work being genuine academic scholarship. Barr’s response to this was that although the tools they used were scholarly tools, the fact that they came up with conservative conclusions meant that they could not be using them properly. Although France claimed that his position was one of openness to both conservative and scholarly approaches, a kind of ‘mid-way’ position, Barr pointed out that this was nonsense. The moment that a conservative scholar refuses to endorse a particular stance about a detail of scripture because it is ‘inconsistent with evangelical theology’, then that scholar is implicitly endorsing fundamentalism. Barr points to the fact that this cadre of conservative scholars have an internal boundary which tells them the line between acceptable and inacceptable findings. Conclusions have to conform to their pre-existing ideas of inspiration. John Robinson, the radical New Testament commentator, received approval from conservative scholars when he wrote a book suggesting a very early date for John’s gospel in accordance with conservative views. Everything else was quietly ignored because the conclusions were too ‘liberal’ and radical for conservative consumption.
The strong point that Barr is making is that if you research something with the proviso that your findings have to fit into a pre-existing pattern of truth, then you fail the test of proper scholarship. Any academic research worth the name does not fix the result but allows openness and creativity. Both these words imply newness and even change from what has gone before. Barr rejects completely the idea that a true scholar can have a prior commitment to evangelical or conservative interpretations of scripture before setting out to do detailed study. No amount of learning and knowledge can overcome this stumbling block. It reminds one of the nonsense that would be created if a ship-load of members of the Flat Earth Society set off to explore the world. Everything they saw and measured would be interpreted to accord with their beliefs. That is, according to Barr, exactly what conservative Biblical scholars are doing, however impressive and apparently learned their scholarship appears to be.
I have managed to write a shorter post than usual and my readers will again be able to accompany me as I dip into the considerable wisdom of Harris’ book in the future. Because it is a detailed study of much of the available literature, it will help us to have objective view of what people have actually written and said. The shifting sands of what people say they believe about Scripture is, as I mentioned at the start, frustratingly mobile. It is to the written literature that we have to return and Harris’ book will make that possible.