Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?

Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?

Dr. James Barr, Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, is one of our leading British theologians. He will probably be remembered for his contribution to the hermeneutical debate in The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), in which he convincingly argues that the meaning of a word is to be determined less by its etymological history than by its contemporary use in context. He has written four major works since then.

Last year, however, he wrote a very different kind of book, Fundamentalism, which is not dispassionate but polemical, and which fiercely attacks fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals (whom he refuses to distinguish from one another). Our whole position is “incoherent,” even “completely wrong” (p. 8), he asserts. Indeed, to him “fundamentalism is a pathological condition of Christianity” (p. 318), so that, far from it being “the true and ancient Christian faith,” he is not even sure if it comes “within the range that is acceptable in the church” (pp. 343–44).

Two introductory comments need to be made. First, Barr refers several times to the research that lies behind his book, and claims that he has made a “very thorough review of fundamentalist literature” (p. 9). This is a false claim. He relies too heavily on the Scofield Reference Bible, which he calls “perhaps the most important single document in all fundamentalist literature” (p. 45), and popular presentations like the New Bible Commentary and New Bible Dictionary. He is unfair—even rude—to Norman Anderson and Michael Green, almost ignores F. F. Bruce and Howard Marshall, and does not begin to do justice to the reasoned argumentation of J. I. Packer in his Fundamentalism and the Word of God or J. W. Wenham in his Christ and the Bible.

I do not think he is any more surefooted when he turns to the American evangelical scene. He refers to Hodge and Warfield, the Princeton giants, and he quotes E. J. Carnell and G. E. Ladd appreciatively. But he has not read Carl F. H. Henry, for he refers to only one of his books and includes only two quotations from his pen, both of which he has taken from other authors.

My second general comment concerns his object in writing the book. It is not to change our minds, he says, but to understand and describe our “intellectual structure” (p. 9). This is strange. If we are so completely mistaken, should he not want to alter our opinions? The book is not a serious theological debate; he has little or no respect for the people he is criticizing. His tone ranges from the cynical and the patronizing to the contemptuous and even the sour. He attributes ignorance, prejudice, and hypocrisy to us. He also accuses us of making no “serious attempt to understand what non-conservative theologians think” (pp. 164 and 316). This may be true of some of us, but I fear that the boot is also on the other foot. Fundamentalism has increased my own determination that in all religious debate I will respect the other person, listen carefully to him, and struggle to understand him. There can be no understanding without sympathy and no dialogue without respect.

In criticizing Barr’s selectivity and tone, I am far from saying that we have nothing to learn from his attack. Here are three sensitive areas in which I think we should listen to him.

First, tradition. “The core of fundamentalism resides not in the Bible but in a particular kind of religion” (p. 11), he writes. That is, the religious experience and consequent tradition of evangelicals is normative for us, rather than Scripture. We “do not use the Bible to question and re-check this tradition”; instead, we “just accept that this tradition is the true interpretation of the Bible” (p. 37). This is often uncomfortably true. We do sometimes use our venerable evangelical traditions to shelter us from the radical challenges of the Word of God.

Secondly, theology. Fundamentalism, writes Barr, is “a theology-less movement” (p. 160). And the reason, he thinks, is that we are preoccupied with biblical studies and the defense of biblical authority. He gives no credit to the innovative work of Dutch theologians and some others, but as a generalization we cannot resist his stricture that we produce more biblical scholars than creative theological thinkers.

Thirdly, interpretation. Hermeneutics is Barr’s own specialty, and here he scores some well-aimed points. “The inerrant text, given by divine inspiration, does not decide anything” (p. 302), he says. He is right. It needs to be understood and applied. But we evangelicals have always been much better at defending the authority of the Bible than at wrestling with its interpretation. Dogmatic assertions about infallibility and inerrancy are no substitute for conscientious, painstaking studies.

Barr declines to accept a distinction between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, or even between “extremists” and “moderates.” We are all lumped together in the same (to him) rather stinking manure heap. Is this fair? One of our characteristics is supposed to be “a strong hostility to … modern critical study of the Bible” (p. 1). Yet he goes on to cite evangelicals who do attend to its historical and literary origins, while regarding them as inconsistent with their own principles. It is hardly just to condemn us for both doing and not doing the same thing, all in one breath.

My personal belief is that, in the original meaning of these terms, every true evangelical should be both a fundamentalist and a higher critic. In fact, I wrote that very thing in a small book as long ago as 1954. The original fundamentalist was insisting on such fundamental doctrines as the deity, virgin birth, substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus, in addition to the authority of the Bible, while the higher critic (as opposed to the lower or textual critic) was simply a literary critic who investigated the forms, sources, date, authorship, and historical context of the biblical books. But of course over the years both expressions have changed their image. The fundamentalist is now thought by many who use the term to be obscurantist, and the higher critic destructive, in their respective attitudes to Scripture.

Is there any difference, then, between an evangelical and a fundamentalist? I wonder if it is arbitrary to suggest the following distinction. The fundamentalist emphasizes so strongly the divine origin of Scripture that he tends to forget that it also had human authors who used sources, syntax, and words to convey their message, whereas the evangelical remembers the double authorship of Scripture. For this is Scripture’s own account of itself, namely both that “God spoke to men” (Heb. 1:1) and that “men spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21). On the one hand, God spoke, deciding what he wished to say, although without crushing the personality of the human authors. On the other hand, men spoke, using their human faculties freely, though without distorting the message of the divine author.

This double authorship of Scripture naturally affects the way the evangelical reads his Bible. Because it is God’s Word, he reads it like no other book, paying close attention to the context, structure, grammar, and vocabulary.

What if the two are in conflict? Barr is hostile to all harmonizers, to all (that is) who attempt to eliminate apparent discrepancies either between science and the Bible, or between different parts of the Bible, or between our theological understanding of the Bible and our historical critical methods in studying it. Here I find myself in almost total disagreement with him. Of course, if by harmonization is meant the twisting or manipulating of evidence, then it is dishonest. But it is not dishonest in the face of apparent discrepancies, to suspend judgment and continue looking for harmony rather than declare Scripture to be erroneous. On the contrary it is an expression of our Christian integrity, for it arises out of our basic conviction that there is only one living and true God, and that he is the God of Scripture and of nature, of theology and of history.

Christ the Cornerstone

This is an excerpt from “Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?” from:


Christ the Cornerstone

Collected Essays of John Stott