What is missing from ‘A History of the Bible’?

At the very end of last year, I published a review of A History of the Bible by Professor John Barton of Oxford. Following that, I was contacted by Professor Walter Moberly of the University of Durham, who shared with me his review article on the book from Harvard Theological ReviewI reproduce some key sections here with the author’s permission.

In this magisterial History of the Bible, John Barton does two things. First, he tells a story. This takes most of the space and determines the structure of the book. He tells “the story of the Bible from its remote beginnings in folklore and myth to its reception and interpretation in the present day.’’ He “describes the Bible’s genesis, transmission and dissemination and shows how it has been read and used from antiquity to the present, both in its original languages and in translation” (1). Second, he advances an argument. He argues that “the Bible does not ‘map’ directly onto religious faith and practice, whether Jewish or Christian” (2). The Bible and faith are not coterminous.

The two things that Barton offers—the story and the argument—unsurprisingly complement each other in his account. This means that the telling of the story of the Bible has a particular thrust to it. Although he, of course, respects the integrity and complexity of his subject, he nonetheless has an angle of vision, whereby he tells the story in such a way that his argument should become increasingly self-evident to the attentive reader. In principle, this should make the history more interesting to read; and in a certain sense it does. However, the making of the argument brings with it a possibly problematic dimension. Barton observes that “the terms of debate tend to be set by the more conservative strands in both [Christianity and Judaism]’’ (12). He apparently feels obliged to work with these terms, and thus he targets fundamentalist and generally conservative formulations and ways of thinking that he judges to be mistaken with renewed versions of critiques often advanced over the last 150 years. That a senior scholar such as he might show how one could constructively reframe the debate in some way other than a longstanding “liberal versus conservative” polarity is not raised as a real possibility (a matter to which I will return)…

At times I found myself musing on certain affinities between Barton and his friend the late James Barr. A generation ago, Barr wrote Fundamentalism, a no-punches-pulled assault on conservatively minded believers. Such believers did/do not fully embrace the often-uncomfortable insights of modern historical-critical work on the Bible (though their possible reasons for doing so were not empathetically probed by Barr, just attacked). I wondered at times whether Barton’s book may in certain ways be Fundamentalism for a new generation, albeit in a less confrontational mode. This dimension of the book may be less apparent to a nonspecialist readership, even if they may at times wonder why it is so important to Barton to focus on rebutting “anyone committed to the literal truth of the  Bible” (473) along with “anyone who believes that all decisions should be driven only by Scripture” (480), as though the deficiencies of such outlooks are what really need to be demonstrated in a scholarly history of the Bible.

Let me start with two small examples from the New Testament, before moving on to a larger case study in the Old Testament. First, Barton has an endnote comment that “Acts cannot date from before the late first century CE” (515). This is presented as a straightforward matter of fact, something that is known. Indeed, a late first-century date of Acts represents contemporary scholarly consensus. In 1976, however, John A. T. Robinson wrote a book, Redating the New Testament, in which he argued that every book within the New Testament was written before 70 CE. Robinson was a good scholar, and no fool. He made a serious case for earlier dates than are fashionable in biblical scholarship. No new evidence has been discovered in the meantime, and no one has offered a convincing refutation of Robinson’s arguments (which, with regard to a date for Acts in the 60s, many others have made also). Rather, they have been set aside in a “Well, that might perhaps be so, but we don’t really think it’s very likely” mode. My point here is not what we should reckon the date of Acts to be, whether 60s or 90s or whenever, as the reality is that we do not know, beyond the terminus a quo being the early 60s when the narrative of Acts ends. But, if we do not know, then it misrepresents the issues to write as though we do know at least that an early (“conservative”) date is impossible, that Acts “cannot” have been written in the 60s or 70s.

My second example relates to origins more generally, rather than dating as such. At the outset of  his chapter on the Gospels, Barton raises the point that “the Gospels are often thought to rest on the memories of four separate eyewitnesses” and then directly offers a swift and routine dismissal of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as possible eyewitnesses (189). He then moves on to a discussion of the origins of the Gospels without further reference to eyewitnesses. My question is why he makes no mention (not even in an endnote) of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which has been available since 2006, and has generated extensive discussion. Bauckham is a major New Testament scholar, and his book offers a complex and subtle argument for the likelihood of eyewitness testimony underlying the Gospels, not in terms of the four traditional evangelists but in terms of evidence from the prosopography of early Christianity. It has put eyewitnesses back on the map in a discussion of Gospel origins. If Barton finds Bauckham’s arguments implausible, he could give his reasons. Why does Bauckham’s work remain invisible, when the issue of possible eyewitnesses is intrinsically significant?

My third example relates to the dating of Old Testament documents, with the related question of the date at which it is possible to begin a history of Israel in terms of modern critical historiography…For the history of Israel, Barton shares the current scholarly preference to lay much weight on substantiation from external records, or lack thereof (despite the well-known principle that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”)? Hence, the history of Israel probably begins in the ninth century BCE with Assyrian attestation of the “house of Omri,” and this is also the likely period of the earliest documents of the Old Testament, which “are almost certainly the product of an urban elite, based in Jerusalem and perhaps other major cities such as Samaria” (33).

Yet the history of scholarship here might be both interesting and illuminating to a nonspecialist readership. In the mid-twentieth century, a substantial scholarly consensus emerged around the detailed proposals of Albrecht Alt and Gerhard von Rad (and others) that the establishment of Jerusalem as a capital city under David and Solomon in the tenth century made a good context for envisaging the drawing together of Israel’s early traditions into the first historical writings that expressed the identity of the emerging nation. In the early 1980s J. Alberto Soggin wrote A History of Israel. In this, with full recognition of historical difficulties (dating of texts, paucity of archaeological evidence, absence of attestation of David and Solomon in other ancient Near Eastern sources, scholarly contentions that the biblical record is idealized and exaggerated), he could nonetheless say: “the period of the united monarchy is a point of reference from which to begin a historical study of ancient Israel. And unless appearances are deceiving, this was also the period when Israel itself felt the need to make a first collection of its own earliest traditions.” This consensus of leading scholars from within living memory is invisible in Barton’s account. The only slight recognition of its existence is with reference to the possibility that “scribes adept enough to write the biblical books” might have existed before Omri. Here, Barton has an endnote reference to the “lively defence” of this possibility in the derivative work of Eric Heaton; but Barton makes no mention of the weightier scholars who argued for the tenth century and simply comments, “But few now would agree with this” (493). The nonspecialist reader gains no idea of how much has changed in a relatively short time. Since, apart from some further modest archaeological findings, the evidence available now is the same as that available to Alt, von Rad, and Soggin, one might at least wonder what is involved in the shifting of dates by one or two centuries. Might the shift to later dates be indicative at least as much of ideological fashion as of dispassionate evaluation of contestable evidence?

In each of these three examples there is a question whether Barton’s presentation unduly favours the larger argument he wishes to advance.

Barton offers a substantial discussion of New Testament textual criticism. It is well known that the manuscripts of the New Testament have numerous small variants. But what follows from this? He says:

There is not, and never can be, a text of “the New Testament” as it left the hands of Paul, Luke or John: we have only variants. The implications of this for theories of the inspiration and authority of the New Testament have scarcely begun to be worked out. Where the words of Jesus are concerned, for example, we often know only roughly what he is supposed to have said (and whether he really said it is of course yet a further question).(286)

It is, of course, uncontentious that all original New Testament manuscripts have long since disappeared. But what docs “we have only variants” mean? (Or, as he puts it in summary form later, “the New Testament has no fixity of text at all” [479].) One could be forgiven for supposing that this means that the textual witnesses for the New Testament arc like a permanent game of Telephone, in which multiple retellings problematize and obscure the original content: there is such diversity of textual options in variant manuscripts that we can have no clear idea of what, say, Paul, Luke, or John wrote. Barton’s allowance that, text-critically, in the New Testament “there are whole blocks of text where the general drift of the passage is not in serious doubt” (306) clearly implies that there are extensive amounts of text where even the general drift is in doubt. But is that really so? Minor textual variations arc indeed numerous, and most make no difference whatever to following the story or argument and being able to sec the issues of substance. Where Paul’s language and drift are at their most difficult, say in parts of 2 Corinthians, the text- critical problems are merely ancillary to, and not constitutive of, the real difficulties in grasping Paul’s train of thought.

The claim about the words of Jesus, that “we often know only roughly what he is supposed to have said”—as a matter specifically of the nature of the Greek text, not of the historical question of the relation between the textual tradition and Jesus himself (and whatever languages in which he spoke)—perplexes me, as some forty years of reading the New Testament in standard scholarly editions of the Greek, with full text-critical apparatus, had not alerted me to the problem. Barton himself offers only one example, admittedly a strong example, of the well-known problem of what Jesus is supposed to have said about divorce and remarriage in Mk 10:11-12 and Matt 5:32, 19:9 (296-99)—where his concern is that the unclear wording of Jesus on divorce and remarriage should rule out “appeal to the exact wording of biblical sayings as if they were legal rulings, since for that a precise text would be essential” (306). But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. The plain implication of “we often know only roughly” is surely that a significant percentage of the wording of Jesus is unclear and contestable in the textual tradition. I would expect numerous comparable examples of substantive textual unclarity—a minimum of some twenty or thirty—at least to be listed (even if lack of space prohibited discussion) in order to substantiate his claim. In their absence, his rhetoric seems at least careless and is arguably tendentious.

What is so striking is that Barton here seems to share the same positivist mindset of those conservative believers whom he seeks to rebut: truth is equated with historical accuracy. It is just that the argument is inverted. Instead of “we believe this to be true, and so hold that it must be historically accurate,” Barton offers “this cannot be shown to be historically accurate, and so it may well be false.” Barton’s genre categories for the Gospels do not extend beyond a limited number of familiar modern categories, mainly “history” and “legend” (which are never analyzed),with a possibility of “symbolism” thrown in. Entirely lacking is any attempt to offer (or to engage with scholarship that has offered) a cumulative inductive account of what genre ‘Gospel’ might be in terms of ancient literary conventions and how matters of history could be presented via those conventions.

Much of what Barton writes about the story of the Bible is of undoubted value and will be helpful to many. Yet his argument not only influences the telling of the story in ways that are open to question but also promotes an understanding of biblical interpretation that is open to question. His argument is also frustrating for those who do not suppose in the first place that there is, or should be, identity between the content of the Bible and faith today, but rather understand the relationship in terms of continuity. Recurrent arguments against identity feel all too easy. They leave the more interesting questions about what constitutes good and bad continuity in living traditions of Jewish and Christian faith on the sidelines…

Those who have spent time with some of these recent thinkers are likely to reckon that the interpretive axiom with which Barton begins his book—the Bible is indeed “an important source of religious insight, provided it is read in its original context and against the conditions prevailing when it was written” (2)—simply does not ring true. The positive point, of course, is that there is undoubted value in historical knowledge about the kind of meaning that can appropriately be ascribed to an ancient text in its originating frame of reference; and it is right that this should inform interpretation. But the problem is not simply that for most books of the Bible we simply do not know their precise context of origin (informed conjectures about origins have their place but often function to conceal how conjectural they really are). It is also that the way in which weighty religious texts function meaningfully and veridically (or not) needs a far richer account than Barton seems able to offer.

Gadamer famously argued that prepossession with scholarly method could sometimes obscure access to truth. This may not be a final word, but it is at least a possibly salutary warning. Put differently, it is one thing to be methodologically alert (awareness of possibilities helps keep interpreters on their toes), and another to be methodologically driven (to adopt an approach that essentially serves to exclude whatever does not fit within the specified parameters, as Barton seeks to problematize conservative approaches to the Bible). Barton is sufficiently confident within his own frame of reference to think not only that religiously conservative approaches to the Bible can be refuted but also that truth (in some sense) can indeed be derived from the Bible through disciplined historical method. My reading of A History of the Bible has reinforced my sense that Gadamer has a point.

The whole essay is lucid and brilliant, and really worth reading if you can get hold of it online or (one day perhaps) in a library. Walter Moberly’s latest book is The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture (Baker, 2020).

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39 thoughts on “What is missing from ‘A History of the Bible’?”

  1. …genrecategories fortheGospelsdonotextendbeyondalimitednumberoffamiliar modemcategories,mainly”history”and”legend”(whicharcneveranalyzed),with a…
    the use of Optical Character Recognition needs to be used with care me thinks!

  2. I am pleased that ths review discusses a couple of my hobby horses, the dating of Acts and the methods a d conclusions of Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”, which I think is one of the most important books in Synoptic studies in the past 30 years. Obviously it takes time for ideas to percolate through the scholarly community.
    I wonder if Barton’s book makes cognizance of the 9th century Tel Dsn stela discovered in 1993 which mentions Jehoram and the ‘bwt dwd’.
    As well as ghd fundamental problem that liberals have with the Bible as a historical record: their anti- supernaturalism?

  3. a d conclusions. I’m so pleased that they are not b c conclusions of a deluded community! Nor are they a Jungian explication as observed by one commentator such as this.

    Carl Jung’s ideas and writings about God, religion, Christ, Christianity, and the Christian Church are some of his most challenging, controversial, and fruitful. His approach was to take ancient “thought forms that have become historically fixed, try to melt them down again and pour them into moulds of immediate experience.” (CW:11:par.148) Jung’s own experience of the numinosum (holy) was a lifelong passion and most of his major written works in the last third of his life were devoted to some aspect of religious experience and religious symbols, with particular attention to the symbols of the Christian myth.

    In Aion (Collected Works, Vol. 9,ll) Jung addresses Christian- ity’s central figure, Christ, and unpacks the meaning of Christ as a symbol of the Self. At the request of many of his readers who asked for a more comprehensive treatment of the Christ/ Self relationship, and apparently inspired by a dream during a temporary illness, Jung worked on the project for several years, completing it in 1951. Aion remains a “sacred text” for many of us who are intrigued by the convergence of religion and analytical psychology.

    One of the most significant insights of the project, which will be the main thrust of this brief article, is the differentiation between Jesus, the historical figure from Nazareth, and the archetypal Christ, the Redeemer. This distinction between the historical and the symbolical is essential if the Christian sym- bols are to retain their power to touch the inner depths of the modern person. As we know, Jung’s diagnosis of modern men and women was a spiritual malnutrition bought on by a starvation of symbols. He called for a recovery of the symbolic life which had been abandoned to a one-sided literal, rational approach to religious matters.

    The Jewish rabbi and reformer, Jesus, lived a personal, con- crete, historical life. However, it was the archetypal image of a Redeemer slumbering, so to speak, in the collective uncon- scious, which became attached to that unique life. This power- ful collective image made itself visible, so to speak, in the man Jesus, so that seeing him people glimpsed the greater personal- ity which seeks conscious realization in each person. Jung notes that it was not the man Jesus who created the myth of the “god-man.” Other Redeemer myths existed many centuries before his birth. Jesus himself was seized by this symbolic idea, which, as St. Mark tells us, lifted him out of the narrow life of the Nazarene carpenter. (Jung, Man And His Symbols, p.89)

    Briefly stated, at an early stage Jesus became the collective figure whom the unconscious of his contemporaries expected to appear and Jesus took on those projections. In this way, Je- sus’ life exemplifies the archetype of the Christ, or in Jung’s psychological language, the Self, which is a more inclusive word for the inner image of god, the imago Dei, which resides in every person.

    Writing from a psychological perspective, Jung was interested in the archetypes of the collective unconscious which were constellated by the presence of the historical person, Jesus. He examined the Christ-symbolism contained in the New Testa- ment, along with patristic allegories and medieval iconogra- phy, and compared those with the archetypal contents of the unconscious psyche which he had observed and experienced. He noted that the most important symbolical statements about Christ in the New Testament revealed attributes of the arche- typal hero: improbable origin, divine father, hazardous birth, precocious development, conquest of the mother and of death, miraculous deeds, early death, etc. Jung concludes that the ar- chetypal symbolizations of the Christ-figure are similar to the Self which is present in each person as an unconscious image. It was the archetype of the Self in the psyche/soul which re- sponded to the Christian message, with the result that the con- crete Rabbi Jesus was rapidly assimilated by the constellated archetype. In this way, Jesus realized the idea of the Self. Most importantly for this article, Jung notes that the experience of the Self and what the New Testament describes as the “Christ within” are synonymous. (CW:11:par.229-231) As an empiri- cist, Jung was not interested in how the two entities may be different along rational theological lines.”

    Here we have it. Unreality and reality – a purely human construct, and deconstruct from within. From within the self or “collective unconscious”. And this collective unconscious materalised in the person of Jesus. This puts a new complexion on the term, self-made man entirely man made, Alone. A symbol. Alone. A God vacuum. A god of Self.

  4. Professor Moberly writes:

    “A generation ago, Barr wrote Fundamentalism, a no-punches-pulled assault on conservatively minded believers. Such believers did/do not fully embrace the often-uncomfortable insights of modern historical-critical work on the Bible (though their possible reasons for doing so were not empathetically probed by Barr, just attacked).”

    I have not read Barton’s work but I have read a lot of Barr. To be fair to Barr, I did think he sought to understand the motivations and origins of fundamentalism rather than just attacking its deficiencies. I don’t think he sufficiently differentiates between the term ‘Fundamentalist and Evangelical’ which he seems to use synonymously in his book but whose meanings are perhaps not so closely aligned now, as when Barr wrote his original work, nor do I think he gives sufficient credit for evangelical scholarship.

    Barr makes the observation that in general, people become fundamentalist before they know much about scripture or about doctrine, then when they become better informed, then they may well remain within fundamentalism ( due in part to theological peer pressure), or begin a slow movement away from it.

    Now this may or may not be true, but his observation may also apply to modern evangelicalism. I certainly have noticed that there seems to be more movement away from evangelicalism into less literal and more liberal forms of scriptural interpretation than movement in the other direction.

    Barr is at pains to point out that such a shift does not necessarily have to mean a descent into scepticism and ultimately, unbelief. He affirms that in many cases it can result in a more purposed, stronger convicted and deeper grounding in faith, where a thorough knowledge of scripture, its origins, the history of doctrine and an appreciation of the contemporary cultural milieu, shapes and forms an essential pathway to a more robust faith.

    • I haven’t read Barton either but what he has written here seems to be on the same trajectory of his earlier works (People of the Book? etc) which isn’t surprising. I imagine the problems that the Bible raises for the modern believer are (among others):
      1. Miracles versus supernaturalism.
      2. Evolution and what this suggests about human nature.
      3. Ethical problems especially in the Old Testament.
      4. Idealist conceptions of revelation versus the empirical character of the Bible.
      5. The Kantian ethical challenge.
      Orthodox apologetics has developed long and involved answers to all these problems,but liberalism offers a simpler, developmental, “progressive” approach (“lux ex tenebris”). The dilemma for the liberal, however, is to determine what is chaff and what is wheat. In the hands of many liberals, not much is often the answer.

  5. Having read this there is profound feeling of modern history merely, and sadly, repeating itself. The article says:

    “….First, Barton has an endnote comment that “Acts cannot date from before the late first century CE” (515). This is presented as a straightforward matter of fact, something that is known. Indeed, a late first-century date of Acts represents contemporary scholarly consensus. In 1976, however, John A. T. Robinson wrote a book, Redating the New Testament, in which he argued that every book within the New Testament was written before 70 CE. Robinson was a good scholar, and no fool. He made a serious case for earlier dates than are fashionable in biblical scholarship. No new evidence has been discovered in the meantime, and no one has offered a convincing refutation of Robinson’s arguments….”

    This pretence of consensus has happened before.

    For most of the last century most “scholars” stated that John’s gospel was late and the texts in it were often there to pretend that it was an eye-witness when it was probably written between 300 and 400 AD. That claim came into question when Bauckham asked the simple question about why it was the so much of the early letters of the Church quoted John’s gospel if it was really written so late making such quotes impossible. In truth the science was already punching holes in the argument.

    Archaeologists had already discovered that unusually there is a pavement by the walls of the fort and even found a game carved into the stone. Archaeologists similarly found that the pool of Bethesda really does have 5 porticoes as John’s gospel said. Then came the clear evidence by carbon-dating of fragment P52 of John’s gospel is in the library at Manchester University. It is written on both sides showing that it is a copy, and not the original. The fragment is known as the Rylands fragment, and it is dated between 117AD and 138AD, making it the oldest surviving copy of any portion of the New Testament. So the claim that John’s gospel was dated somewhere between 300 and 400 AD was blown out of the water.

    Now it seems to me that history is repeating itself. There is scientific evidence for some of the events described in the book of Acts, and so what happened in dating John’s gospel is happening all over again. The heart of the problem is when the Theologians and Scholars stop taking any notice of what is being found in other disciplines such as archeology and science.

    • Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts are the same length, like two scrolls – so in modern language, two volumes of one book. The book of Acts has an introduction that borrows from the end of the gospel, the gospel has an ending that looks forward to the book of Acts.

      The Hermeneutics of the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke are similar and it has been proposed that they probably have the same author.

      1) The text in Acts itself tells us that Luke traveled with the Apostle Paul. Luke writes that his sources were people who knew Jesus. “Just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2).
      2) Josephus wrote that James was martyred due to political and religious issues (dated to 62 CE). This turns out to suggest when Luke wrote the gospel of Luke & the book of Acts.
      3) In 1990, the Caiaphas ossuary was found in Jerusalem. Construction workers using a bull dozer found the ancient burial cave from the 1st century. Inside the cave were 12 ossuaries. Two of the ossuaries had the name “Caiaphas” which supports that the Caiaphas family buried family members at this site. The most ornate ossuary had the words, “Joseph son of Caiaphas” carved on it two times, implicating the importance of the person buried in the ossuary.
      4) Luke writes about Caiaphas in Luke 3:2 and in Acts 4:6, which supports Luke as a credible author.
      5) The introduction to the gospel of Luke and to book of Acts refers to a person named Theophilus as being the person for whom it was written (Luke 1: 3 and Acts 1:1). If you now look at the initial three verses in each book, Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, then you can see the sequence for writing each book. The gospel comes first followed by Acts.

      In truth, scholars need to be free to propose ideas and explore possibilities, yet that is in no way the same as saying that “because a scholar says it then it must be true” – Nothing could actually be further from the truth. It is just the same in secular society’s talk as calling people “experts” when most people described as “experts” aren’t experts at all.

      IF Luke’s gospel is dated around 100 AD and Acts is 515 AD and they have the same author then scholars are actually saying that the author of Luke-Acts lived to over 500 years old ! What you realise is that the scholars have become so mired in the details that they have lost site of what they are actually saying.

      500 years old? Really?

  6. I met some missionary doctors working in the far East who read Fundamentalism and were sufficiently irritated by it to meet up with Barr when they were home on leave. He told them that they were not really who he was aiming at…
    Moberly has set out his approach to the inspiration of the Bible in “The Bible in a disenchanted age, the enduring possibility of Christian Faith”. A really interesting and careful discussion of his views.

    • Hi Owen
      This is an intriguing post.
      I would be interested to know what were the theological and doctrinal convictions of the missionary doctors, why they were irritated by Barr’s book, what Barr told them who/what he was really aiming at when they met him and did it become clear that the doctors and Barr were in theological and doctrinal agreement. Can you answer any of these please?
      Can you summarise Moberly’s view? Does he believe that the Bible is ‘God’s Word written’ and ‘breathed out by God’?
      Many thanks

          • By the ‘question of history’ if I have understood Professor Moberley correctly, then I think what he (and Ian) means is that we need to examine the question of what it means to be simultaneously faithful to the doctrinal development of Scripture as the Word of God -and to the historical treatment of Scripture as the words of men who originally wrote it down in the form we see today.

    • Hi Chris Bishop
      Thanks for your Feb 8 11 am post. Just stepping back to my Feb 7 2.10 pm post, it seems to me that if Owen Thurtle’s observations on Barr and the missionary doctors could be explained it would lead to clarifying what are the differences between ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Evangelicalism’. I don’t know whether Owen is going to reply to the first question in my Feb 7 post or not. In response to your Feb 8 post it would be helpful to me if you could explain what you mean by ‘simultaneously faithful to the doctrinal development of Scripture as the Word of God -and to the historical treatment of Scripture as the words of men who originally wrote it down in the form we see today’. Of course another way of proceeding would be for me to explain what I mean by saying that the Bible is ‘God’s Word written’ and ‘breathed out by God’. I will do that now in brief to give you (and Ian if he wants to reply) the chance to say if and how you disagree.
      So as I see it to say that “Bible is ‘God’s Word written’ and ‘breathed out by God’” is to assert the following:

      The Bible is wholly trustworthy and true. It is true for God and true for man
      God did say, in history, all that the Bible asserts he said.
      Christ did say, in history, all that the Bible asserts he said.
      The way to arrive at the true doctrines of the Christian Faith, about God and Man, salvation, God’s purposes and promises and warnings, judgment and what happens after death, how to live the Christian life in a way that obeys and pleases God and Christ is to reverently examine in detail all that the Bible says and to seek to understand how all that it says best fits together recognising that while in the Bible God has given us a true revelation, true for him and true for us, he has not revealed to us all that he knows to be true, so there are some truths he has revealed which we cannot understand how they can all be true simultaneously – we are ‘blinded by intense light’ as Calvin said (comment on Ezekiel 18:23).

      In saying this I recognise that others (hopefully including Ian) will, agree with this but disagree about the doctrines thus arrived at; e.g. ordination of women, the atonement doctrine of penal substitution, eternal punishment/annihilation.

      Phil Almond

      • Phil,

        Yes – I too would be interested to know more detail as what was exchanged between the missionaries and Barr.

        But briefly – to address part of your comments. A few questions for you:

        I am interested in your statements as why do you think that christians “disagree about the doctrines thus arrived at” (assuming they are all reverently examining it of course). So why should these disagreements arise in the first place?

        On the question of women’s ordination for example -would you conclude that Ian must be reading it somewhat less reverently or deficiently than you do? Or may even be unconsciously deluded perhaps?

        How can you be sure that your take on a particular doctrine is correct and what impetus might cause you to revise your initial assessment of it?

        • Chris
          Many thanks for your swift reply. It is just a fact that Christians who, lets assume, agree with me about what ‘God-breathed’ and ‘God’s Word written’ means, sometimes differ about the doctrinal conclusions arrived at from a reverent and detailed examination of the Bible. Why should these disagreements arise? My answer is that none of us are perfect. What I want to see happen is that we all confront ourselves honestly with the strongest arguments from all sides, especially arguments contra our own convictions, and those who disagree with us similarly confront themselves with our strongest arguments. As I keep saying, the only satisfactory way of doing that is by an open honest discussion/disagreement on the internet open to all and for scholars, ministers and lay people to participate. How can I be sure that my ‘take’ on a particular doctrine is correct? I have to honestly and thoroughly face myself with the best counter-arguments and submit my conscience to God in the fear of God. If the strongest counter arguments persuade me I have to revise my convictions. How traumatic that is. It happened to me when I first came across the terrible doctrine of predestination. It took me some time studying the Bible before I had to agree with Warfield’s ‘The dreadful fact stares us full in the face that God has thought well to leave some men eternally without the Spirit of Holiness’. But in that experience I felt a strong sense of the love of God.
          But clearly the fundamental disagreement is between those who agree with me about the Bible (‘God-breathed’ and ‘God’s Word written’) and those who don’t.

          Phil Almond

          • Response to PC1 “If you mean predestination in the standard way I find it hard to agree.”

            This is my view of Predestination:

            ‘We also have to face the fact that while Reprobation is clearly taught in Romans 9:21,22, the universal and sincere offer of the gospel is assuredly taught in Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9 and elsewhere. Kuiper comments in God-Centred Evangelism (page 41) “We may as well admit – in fact it must be admitted- that these teachings cannot be reconciled with each other by human reason. As far as human logic is concerned, they rule one another out. However, the acceptance of either to the exclusion of the other stands condemned as rationalism. Not human reason, but God’s infallible Word, is the norm of truth. That Word contains many paradoxes. The classical example is that of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The two teachings now under consideration also constitute a striking paradox…” Kuiper goes on to quote Calvin’s comment on “Ezekiel 18:23, which parallel’s Ezekiel 33:11”:

            “Besides, it is not surprising that our eyes should be blinded by intense light, so that we cannot certainly judge how God wishes all to be saved, and yet has devoted all the reprobate to eternal destruction, and wishes them to perish. While we look now through a glass darkly, we should be content with the measure of our own intelligence. (1 Corinthians 13:12.) When we shall be like God, and see him face to face, then what is now obscure will then become plain”. This is one of God’s secrets.’

            I’m not sure what you mean by ‘standard way’ and I’m not sure that my view would be regarded as the ‘standard way’

            Phil Almond

          • PC1,
            May I ask by the ‘standard way ‘ (with respect to predestination), do you mean the TULIP formulation or a form of neo-Calvinism?

            Phil -is the TULIP definition the one you agree with in this area?

          • Chris Bishop
            I answer your question “is the TULIP definition the one you agree with in this area?” as follows:

            It is clear from the Bible that God has chosen some not all to be eternally saved and that those he has chosen and those only will be saved, as summarised in Article 17 of the 39 Articles. So God’s predestination is unconditional and his grace irresistible and those so chosen will persevere until the end.
            It is also clear from the Bible that since the Fall we all walk according to flesh, minding the things of the flesh, and the mind of the flesh is death and enmity against God, and we all need the grace and Spirit of God to repent, trust in Christ and start to please God. It is also clear from the Bible that the Son has laid down his life for the sheep whom the Father has given him.
            I think that my answer in this post and my view of predestination stated in a previous post are both true.

            Phil Almond

      • Hi Chris Bishop
        I would find it helpful if you or Ian Paul would clarify what you mean by ‘simultaneously faithful to the doctrinal development of Scripture as the Word of God -and to the historical treatment of Scripture as the words of men who originally wrote it down in the form we see today’ as I asked in a previous post please. Predestination is very important but I hope we don’t lose sight of the wider issue raised in previous posts – Fundamentalism/Evangelicalism and whether you/Ian Paul agree or disagree with my understanding of ‘God-Breathed’ and ‘God’s Word Written’ as I set out in my Feb 8 post.
        Many thanks
        Phil Almond

        • Phil,
          Let’s leave predestination to one side for the moment shall we- except- am I to take it you are a double predestinationist?

          I am broadly in agreement with your list of assertions when you define what you mean that the “Bible is ‘God’s Word written’ and ‘breathed out by God’ however, I would like to focus on this comment you made (shortened for brevity).

          “The way to arrive at the true doctrines of the Christian Faith, … is to reverently examine in detail all that the Bible says and to seek to understand how all that it says best fits together “… he has not revealed to us all that he knows to be true, so there are some truths he has revealed which we cannot understand how they can all be true simultaneously”

          Yes – so exactly how do we seek to understand and best fit it together? The fact that we arrive at different doctrines show the some of us must have sought the wrong understanding and fitted it wrongly does it not? To my mind, a good place to start is to try understand what exactly is ‘God’s Word’ is to understand how the Bible we read now was put together, and who decided what should be in it.

          There are far better intellects than mine on this blog with knowledge of the development of biblical canonicity and church doctrine but as I understand it, the canon was decided by a more prolonged process than exclusively by specific church councils, which were often convened to combat heresies. Eusebius I believe provided one of the earliest lists of which books were considered legit (God breathed?)- and which were not.

          The main criteria was authorship .i.e. if it was believed to have been written by an apostle or by someone close to them. Antiquity was another, with older texts taking priority over newer ones. The third was orthodoxy, in so far as how well text conformed with contemporary Christian teaching. It was the winners of these theological deliberations that decided what made the final cut i.e. what was considered ‘God ‘Breathed’. It may be argued that it was the HS guiding these debates that resulted in what we have and read today.

          Now here is the thing that has always seemed to me to be paradoxical for those advocates of ‘Sola Scriptura’ who are often thought to have a low view of tradition and human reason. The Bible itself cannot say to itself what is regarded as being canonical. It cannot be self-referential in this respect. What was God breathed and accepted as canonical was decided by church authorities and councils through history who *by faith* we believe were being guided by the HS and passed the tradition on. Not all Christian denominations consider the same books to be canon. Most Protestant Bibles such as the C of E have 66 books. The Roman Catholic Bible has 73 and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes 81. So how do we know who got it right?

          So my point Phil, is that trying to define precisely what is meant by scripture being ‘God breathed’ is a somewhat loaded question laden with a number of difficulties which are largely historical in nature. To be faithful towards scripture by considering what it may mean, is far from a straightforward task and in many cases, boils down to a matter of faith and the acceptance of our own denominations’ formularies.

          Coming back to Barr, then as John Goldingay points out in a review of his Fundamentalism book ( (which was written a long time ago now), Barr does us a service by making Fundamentalism face up to the historicity of the Bible and what that implies for the development of church doctrine and not least its inspiration. Goldingay points out that where Barr goes wrong (and I agree with him) is his conflation of fundamentalism with evangelicalism and Barr’s failure to fully examine the depths of evangelical scholarship and engage with its authors ( F. F. Bruce and John Stott to name just a few). Other than that, I rather like Barr’s directness and find him refreshing.

          And finally Phil, your own church’s advocacy of the triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason to my mind, cannot be a bad way of elucidating the mysteries of God don’t you think?

          • Chris Bishop

            Many thanks for your helpful post February 12, 2021 at 4:11 pm. You raise a number of points and questions. I will try to reply to all of them in due course. But in this post I just want to try to clarify one of these points: the question of the Canon; that is, which books are in it: 66, 73, or 81 or some other number.

            In response to Owen’s post I asked, among other things, “Can you summarise Moberly’s view? Does he believe that the Bible is ‘God’s Word written’ and ‘breathed out by God’?”

            Ian Paul replied
            February 8, 2021 at 7:14 am
            “Yes, I think Walter does believe these things. But he rightly points out that in themselves they do not answer the question of history”.
            My question to Ian, please Ian, is “By ‘the question of history’ did you mean this question of the Canon?”

            My question to both you and Ian, please, is “what did Moberly believe about the canon?”
            Many thanks
            Phil Almond

          • Phil, I do not know what Professor Moberly believes about the canon but I would imagine for someone of his stature, I am sure he is keenly aware of its historical development and how it impinges on the development of church doctrine.

            You might like to try contacting him directly.

  7. Given the examples above, it seems obvious the intent of Barton is to make the general reader believe that the Bible is pretty much unreliable, whether pertaining to Israel or to Jesus or the early church. Take it all with a pinch of salt.

    Interesting that he seems to believe we cannot possibly know the original text of the New Testament. Even Bart Ehrman has back-tracked on that claim, despite the impression he too wanted to give the readers of his popular books.


    • It’s a tough one for liberals like Barton. It’s like being invited to play football but then being told the rules are uncertain and liable to change at any time and nobody is su6 where the boundary lines are either – except maybe Barton?
      I wonder how much of the Creed this priest of the Church of England can say with conviction?

  8. Unfotunately, for believing Christians (and maybe Jews, too), the obvious inconsistencies in the Books we call The Bible seem to be embraced as ‘Divine Law’ by fundamentalists of both strands of religious faith. This has led, most recently, to the confession of a well-known Evangelical pastor in the United States to admit that his view of the Bible as inerrant and therefore to be believed in its every word (without criticil appraisal in the light of modern scientific discoveries) helped to form the sort of cod-theology that led President Trump to urge his conservative religious follwers to storm the House of Representatives with violence that killed 4 people.

    Ignorance is most often a direct cause of violence in our society. Sadly, religious ignorance based on a defective view of God’s dealings with humanity as emanating from a defective biblical hermeneutic can no longer be tolerated in a world suspicious of outdated quasi-historical formulation of ‘what the Bible says’ about our world of today. All religions have their capability of using violence against their theological counterparts, and Christianity, sadly, in not immune to this human error. Yes; “Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever”, but the human situation has to deal with a constantly evolving universe.

    • I wonder if I can offer a quick translation of this for other readers: ‘My view of the Bible is right. If you don’t agree with me you are a Trump-voting fundamentalist. Your views should not be tolerated.’

      What a wonderful, inclusive and open culture we now live in…

    • Ah, Science! Hang on. Surely Science tells us that violence is inherent in our human nature. It must be as it seems to be strongly genetically correlated. Those with a ‘Y’ chromosome are much more likely to be violent. It must follow, according to the Progressive Agenda, that any attempt at, let’s call it, ‘conversion therapy’ which tries to change people from their violence must be wrong. Violence should be celebrated. Those storming the Capitol were affirming their true identity. Anyone who disagrees is denying modern scientific discoveries.

    • Thanks, Ron. I know there are some strange biblical fundamentalists out there, like those who think the Bible teaches that Jesus told his followers that some bread and wine could become his body and blood, but I’m glad you don’t hold that defective biblical hermeneutic that can no longer be tolerated in a world suspicious outdated quasi-historical formulation of ‘what the Bible says’about our world of today.

  9. Ron Smith : you made a comment about Trump that sounds like Jonah swallowed the whale. Your comment is as absurd. There’s a difference between encouraging people to lawfully protest as Trump did. He did not tell them to storm the Capitol. Next weeks’ trial should reveal more about what was actually said. If the root of humility is “humus”. If your job was taken from you by perceived devious and nefarious deeds I think you too might be a bit ticked off.

    • It’s called a democratic election. His job was not taken from him. Personally I don’t think he was inciting violence as he specifically said ‘peacefully’, in his speech so I think this whole impeachment is a waste of time and his lawyers understanding is probably correct. If covid hadn’t happened he could very well have won. But he’s a sore loser.

  10. My sentence above should have read “if the root of humility is “humus” – earth, then I think it’s best we get back to earth and especially when tempted to criticize a leader.


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