Literalism vs. inerrancy

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.


14 thoughts on “Literalism vs. inerrancy

  1. Pingback: Fundamentalists Don’t Actually Read The Bible Literally | The Penn Ave Post

  2. rturpin

    More than anything, it seems to me that what characterizes fundamentalism is their purposeful blindness to how much goes into their particular interpretation of their scriptures.

  3. Nile

    Personally, I don’t think criticism gets to claim the Reformation heritage of taking the Bible literally. While I think there is great truth to the analysis of fundamentalist reading, critical reading likewise has produced equally dodgy or stretched interpretations to its own ends or out of its own principles.

  4. Robert

    This is certainly true to an extent of fundamentalists, but there are dozens of responsible exegetes who believe in an inerrant Bible. And the appeal to the autographa is not appealing to an idealized Bible that doesn’t exist. For while we don’t have the autographa, we know with certainty what 95% + of the original text actually was even if we don’t have the original manuscripts Paul or Peter wrote. Textual criticism reconstructs this for us.

  5. poseidonian

    Actually, I think this is confused, and possibly harmfully so, regardless of whether one is committed to a Biblical religion or not. The problem is the stigmatizing use of the *word* “fundamentalism” to mean its opposite. The fact is that almost everyone who thinks of themselves as a Christian, including most evangelicals, Catholics, Pentecostalists, etc. engage in exegesis that attempts to save the text (have it come out to be saying something true or morally valuable). What is peculiar about fundamentalists, a minority within Christianity, is their *refusal* to do this. Since fundamentalism is stigmatized already for what it does, what this post does in effect is redefine what most religious studies people would call “theologically *liberal*” as “fundamentalism.” Yet this exegetical activity is the prevailing one in Christianity. The result is that you can only achieve status as moderate, non-fundamentalist, by committing to the view that the scripture has *no* independent authority. Now I don’t want to claim that that takes you out of the orbit of Christianity altogether, but it does something very close to that. It moves the goalposts surely. Now I suspect that this is quite innocently done, and that rather than using the word “fundamentalism” to refer to a definite theological minority, it is using it to refer to people we already “know” are because that’s what *we* call them: Southerners, conservatives, Baptists, etc. Thus everyone from a run of the mill evangelical who thinks that Psalm 23 isn’t about the inability to keep your beverage within its container, to Hegel, who thought that “God” was a word that refers to the history of human culture, turn out to be fundamentalists. That can’t be right.

  6. I don’t buy Poseidonian’s argument. He’s correct that all other Christians also read the Bible in ways that save the text, where the criterion for “saving” is some external consideration of morality, authority, scientific plausibility, or what have you. Lee’s point, however, is that “inerrancy” is itself another external criterion — one could go further and say that coherence is an external criterion, too. The fundamentalist reads the Bible just as creatively as everyone else but is a lot less self-aware about doing so. He’s the prisoner of an unstated originalist myth: the idea that Scripture had a simple, uncontroversial meaning at the time the ink dried.

    Of course, the O.T. Scriptures were not scriptures at all in the beginning — they were oral traditions, still possessed of authority but subject to more potential for error or creativity than published text. Not only could meaning be contested but so might the words — if any great importance were attached to their precision, which outside of the laws is far from clear. To say that the point at which the Scriptures were set down on papyrus is the point at which the text is really truly divinely finalized is something that the texts themselves generally do not claim. A fundamentalist who makes that claim is doing so on grounds other than scriptural. What’s more, if God could work through orality and tradition before Scripture was codified in writing, why couldn’t He do so afterward as well? Ruling out that possibility is a willful and creative act on the part of the fundamentalist.

    1. poseidonian

      Yes, those are all good points. I think my worry was about a certain kind of audience for the statement and how it can be misheard (I encountered it through a link from a site that caters to people on the “left” end of the theological spectrum). Lots of people know almost nothing about religion at all, and for many of them “fundamentalist” is just a pejorative label. They may not know much at all about the ways different groups use these texts. So they may misunderstand “fundamentalists interpret texts (without realizing they do)” [which I think is true] as “textual interpreters are fundamentalists” [which is hugely unhelpful]. My perceptions are colored by the fact that my milieu is academia in a subdiscipline that is pretty disdainful of religion and wouldn’t even know what exegesis is.

    2. ‘“inerrancy” is itself another external criterion’

      That’s probably true by the strictest sense, but when Paul claims that all Scripture is “God-breathed”, there are a certain number of assumptions that go along with that. Whether inerrancy is one of them is something that can reasonably be debated, but the (potentially) external statement is ‘why would God breathe something that is wrong?’.

      Full disclosure: I’m an evangelical and believe in biblical infallibility (that the Bible doesn’t fail us in anything that’s important) and would _like_ to believe in total inerrancy (for the reason above) but also don’t believe that a belief in inerrancy is a requirement. (That’s complex but you get the point.)

      I tend to think of interpreting the Bible rather like the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution — you look for the most natural interpretation that isn’t self-contradictory. But I also recognize that if you want to achieve total inerrancy you have to stretch things a little beyond the most natural interpretation. (Principal among these is the Antiochus Epiphanes narrative in Daniel 11, where there’s a sudden shift from things that happened to things that didn’t. The NIV conveniently inserts a subtitle there — way to try to save your inerrancy!)

      But the other piece of this is that for most of the contested stuff (was Isaiah 40-66 written after the exile? Was Daniel 7-12 written in the second century?), Jesus himself quotes it and says ‘Isaiah said…’ or ‘Daniel said…’. And if he is who he says he is, he’s in a position to know.

      So to me, it comes down to this: Is Jesus the risen God? If so, we should take his word on authorship and the other hard stuff, and worry about the rest when we get to heaven. If not, well, there’s not much point to studying the Bible!

  7. I agree with Dan McCarthy. Barr’s point is that fundamentalism, because of its prior commitment to inerrancy, will interpret the text in whatever way seems to best support that view, even if it seems to do violence to the text. A good example I came across recently is a scholar who maintained that Peter must’ve denied Christ six times, because that was the only way he could harmonize the different gospels’ accounts of Peter’s denial.

    It’s probably also worth mentioning that “literalism” is sometimes used to mean treating every passage of the Bible as though it has a “historical-factual” referent; but what Barr is commending is attention to what has been called the “plain sense” of Scripture. This allows for sensitivity to genre, context, etc., but resists bowdlerization or premature harmonization in service to a doctrine of inerrancy.

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