I’ve been reading The Scope and Authority of the Bible by biblical scholar James Barr, and in it he clarifies something I’ve been thinking for a while. Barr wrote a well-known book on fundamentalism, and one of the essays in Scope… deals with fundamentalism.
The point Barr makes is that, contrary to what is often said, fundamentalism doesn’t mean reading the Bible “literally.” Rather, its distinguishing mark is a doctrine of inerrancy that is frequently at odds with a literal reading:
It is often said that fundamentalists are ‘people who take the Bible literally’. This however is a mistake. Fundamentalist interpretation concentrates not on taking the Bible literally, but on taking it so that it will appear to have been inerrant, without error in point of fact. Far from insisting that interpretation should be literal, it veers back and forward between the literal sense and a non-literal sense, in order to preserve the impression that the Bible is, especially in historical regards, always ‘right’. . . . It is the inerrancy of the Bible, especially its truth in historical regards, that is the fundamentalist position, and not the notion that it must always be interpreted literally. (pp. 77-8)
We might think, for instance, of the strained attempts to “harmonize” the four gospels or to assemble the eschatological passages of the Bible into a coherent “end times” narrative.
By contrast, Barr says,
It is the critical interpretation of the Bible that has noticed, and given full value to, the literal sense. In this sense, as Ebeling and others have noticed, the critical movement is the true heir of the Reformation with its emphasis on the plain sense of scripture. It is precisely because of its respect for the literal sense that critical scholarship has concluded that different sources in (say) the Pentateuch, or the gospels, must be identified. . . . Characteristic conservative treatments, as I have shown, depart from the natural meaning of the texts in order to force upon them an apologetically-motivated harmonization which will evade the fact of the contradiction. (p. 78)
In short, fundamentalism, Barr says, refuses to take the Bible as it is, but instead presents a homogenized version that fits safely into a preexisting theological scheme. (The appeal to the “original autographs” is another example of rejecting the Bible we have for an idealized one.) It’s noteworthy that the doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t arise directly from anything the Bible claims for itself, but has usually been imposed on the it as a conclusion from a theological argument about the kind of Bible God must have produced.