James Barr (1924-2006) was an Old Testament scholar from Scotland who taught at various universities including Edinburgh, Manchester, Princeton, Oxford, and Vanderbilt. His career-launching book was The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961).
The Scope and Authority of the Bible (1980) is a collection of papers and lectures Barr presented at various universities and scholarly meetings. These essays are illustrative of his attack on fundamentalism, an attack he began in his book Fundamentalism (1977) and later continued in Beyond Fundamentalism (1984).
Barr's thesis is that fundamentalism is based on the notion of biblical inerrancy and therefore a rejection of mainstream historical-critical scholarship. "Fundamentalism begins when people begin to say that the doctrinal and practical authority of scripture is necessarily tied to its infallibility and in particular its historical inerrancy, when they maintain that its doctrinal and practical authority will stand up only if it is in general without error, and this means in particular only if it is without error in its apparently historical remarks" (65).
Barr finds fundamentalism offensive because it bases the Christian faith squarely on the Bible's infallibility. Must one, he asks, in order to be a Christian `believe the Bible' and "accept as factual and correct and theologically valid everything that is to be found within the pages of this volume? The result would then be that one had either to accept everything as the Bible tells it--creation in seven days, changing of water into wine, the 969 years that Methuselah lived--or else admit that one could not be Christian." In that case, Barr concludes, one would have to choose between being a fundamentalist and being an atheist (55).
In opposition to fundamentalism, Barr asserts that "Christian faith is not faith in the Bible, not primarily: it is faith in Christ as the one through whom one comes to God, and faith that through the Bible we meet him, he communicates with us. The Bible is thus the instrument of faith and the expression of faith, rather than the object of faith" (55).
"In an important sense the men of the Bible had no Bible. At least of the earlier stages this was true. Where Abraham believed in the word spoken by God, there was no idea that this was something written down. When Paul came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead, it was not because he had read about it in a true written account. The basic structures of belief, or of the fear of God, which are characteristics of the Bible, were created and believed before there was a Bible. In this sense, biblical religion was not essentially a scripturally-based religion. It is only in the latter stages of the development, both within the Old Testament and the New, that the category of scripture comes to dominate the life of the religion" (116).
Barr makes it clear that he does not believe in the historical accuracy of the Bible or that it is in any way infallible (124). Yet, as an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland, he nevertheless makes a case for Christian faith as "a personal relation to God through Jesus Christ" (80, 126). He leaves it rather unclear how such a strong personal faith can be based on a book that is so historically and theologically unreliable (125). Barr appeals to the faith of Abraham, which was not based on written scripture (116), but one has difficulty accepting that Barr believes Abraham was truly a historical figure or that God literally spoke to Abraham. A personal faith based on myth seems somehow flawed. Likewise, how can one have faith in what Jesus said and did if one cannot trust the gospel accounts? Barr says, "When people worry that doubts about this or that part of scripture will destroy their faith, they make it evident that they do not really live by faith" (80). Yet, he never explains exactly how one can live by faith even though the foundational documents of faith are unreliable. His own idea of faith seems closer to a mystical credulity than to a belief based on reliable testimony.
This is a thought-provoking book. There is much overlap in these essays, much repetition of his idea that inspiration is not the inspiration of a book or of an individual writer (124-125) but, rather, the inspiration of an ancient tradition that has been handed down to us, imperfectly, in the pages of the Bible and in the modern exegetical interpretation of scripture by scholars and church leaders. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not the conclusions of these essays are, in the end, unsatisfying or even contradictory.