James Barr asks “Was Karl Barth a Fundamentalist?”

James Barr interrogates Karl Barth in his book "Fundamentalism" to determine if Barth is a fundamentalist after all. Barr tells a story about a meeting between John Baillie and Karl Barth, in which Baillie strives to get Barth to confess that Methuselah did not really live 969 years as it says in Genesis 5:27. The story is told, as if Baillie and Barth had rigorously debated this point for hours, and Barth never admits that the Bible is wrong about Methuselah's age. Barr uses this hearsay story to prove that Barth is really no different than the fundamentalists. Although Barth does not fall into the same evidential arguments as fundamentalists, Barth is no different than the Fundamentalists because Barth is unwilling to follow modern critical scholarship and admit that Methuselah never lived 969 years. 

The Story

"Though [Karl] Barth contemptuously rejected the entire fundamentalist attempt to prop up the authority of the Bible upon its accuracy in historical details, this in itself scarcely provided a strong positive rationale for the necessity of a critical approach. I once heard John Baillie tell how he had Barth in his study for several hours, and had pressed him to admit that Methuselah had not really lived for 969 years. Barth was, as always, contemptuous of the conservative approach which would have sought to 'prove' the biblical figure 'right' by arguing from evidences, internal or external. But this did not mean that he would admit that Methuselah had not lived for 969 years. What possible valid theological reason could there be for anyone to want to know that this figure was not correct? What use could it be to theology to declare that the figure was a legendary one? At the end of several hours of conversation, Baillie told me, Barth had still not been persuaded to admit that Methuselah had not in fact lived for 969 years. In general, the right-wing Barthian approach, in spite of its rejection of the fundamentalist doctrine structure, discouraged any inclination to make critical questions very significant for theology and created an intellectual atmosphere in which they could easily be evaded. " [1]


I've encountered this story in a few books beside Barr's Fundamentalism, so it's worth sharing some criticism of it:

  • First, I highly doubt that Baillie and Barth debated for hours on this one particular issue. Barth was not a good English speaker, and it is difficult to follow even his prepared English lectures.
  • Second, Barth typically responds quickly, wittedly, and decisively to questions, so it's dubious that Barth would entertain such a long discourse.
  • Third, even if Barth did not admit the 969 years was incorrect, he has made much more critical comments about the bible, most notably in Barth's rejection of the empty tomb story in the passion narratives.  
  • Fourth, Barth has responded harshly to Fundamentalists who have wished him to debate within the fundamentalist hermeneutic such as his letter to Francis Schaeffer, or his response to Cornelius Van Til and others. Barth resists entertaining this debate with the Fundamentalists, then I'd expect him to likewise be as short with liberal scholars who he opposed as well. 
  • Fifth, the story is spun to paint Karl Barth as a fundamentalist, but if we demythologize the story, it's possible to recognize Barth's answer. Barth is not interested in affirming or denying the historical age of Methuselah in the text. Barr (or Baillie) are not interested in engaging with Fundamentalists, and if anyone does not share their critical modern scholarship, then they reducible to the dreaded fundamentalism.


Barr identifies Barth as a "neo-orthodox" throughout his analysis of Karl Barth, which is a term that is only used by critics of Barth to disparage Barth's program (and it is a term Barth never used to describe himself). Barr's primary criticism of Barth is that he does not subscribe entirely to the modern critical scholarship program. However, Barr does not ultimately label Karl Barth a 'fundamentalist', and praises Barthianism for being a significant improvement over the fundamentalist program, and Barr believes that Barth has aided conservative evangelicals through his work.

"The rejection of liberalism and the insistence on biblical authority among right-wing Barthians could be so strong that they felt quite at home in the conservative evangelical sort of movement. Conversely, a roughly or vaguely neo-orthodox position agreed with the general religious aims and character of the conservative evangelical movement much better than the normal conservative doctrine did. A neo-orthodox position, while insisting very strongly on the authority of the Bible and giving little or no positive encouragement to biblical criticism, discouraged the emphasis on inerrancy in historical details, dates and authorship of books; its dislike of apologetics meant that evangelicals stopped trying to argue people into Christian faith in a living person, which agreed with the deepest religious roots of evangelicalism; and its view of faith and truth, being personal rather than doctrinal and rationalistic, gave much greater freedom and flexibility in the proclamation and understanding of an evangelical message." [2]



[^Header image] By BPL - originally posted to Flickr as Preaching, CC BY 2.0, Link

[^1] Barr, James. Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978. 218-19. Print.

[^2] Ibid. 219.


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  1. Reminds me of Hans Frei…

    The narrative, the way the Bible tells it, doesn’t have to correspond precisely to history, but to claim that on the basis of our objective access to the history, independent of the text, we can prove it’s true (as the fundamentalist) or disprove it’s true (as the liberal) is problematic.

    Their shared claim to have objective access to the history, independent of the text, means that they’re really two sides of the same coin, “siblings under the skin.”

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