On not leaving the car in pieces on the garage floor – a review of John Barton’s A History of the Bible

Jul 8, 2020 by

by Martin Davie, Reflections of an Anglican Theologian:

[…] The chorus of praise that A History of the Bible has received, together with the academic prestige of  its author, means that it is likely to become a standard text to which those who want to know about the Bible and its interpretation will be automatically referred…

…Barton’s approach to the Bible is one that has been put forward, in outline if not in detail, by a succession of liberal Anglican theologians since the middle of the nineteenth century. What his manifesto does is give a scholarly and up to date apologia for this tradition of Anglican thought. It follows that anyone who wants to know what the argument for a liberal Anglican approach to the Bible looks like today should likewise read his book. Until you have engaged with this book you have not engaged with this approach in what is currently its most persuasive form…

…What Barton says in A History of the Bible raises two basic problems for Christian theology.

The first problem is the issue of the authority of the Bible.

If what Barton writes in A History of the Bible is correct, the Bible as a whole cannot act as this criterion because it is not a whole, merely a collection of disparate material that has no unified message or meaning. This means that either Christians and Jews have to ignore what the Bible is really like and impose their own unified meaning upon it (in which case the their reading of the Bible merely reflects their own existing ideas or convictions), or they have to accept the authority of some bits and not others (and they likewise have no grounds for such a choice except their existing beliefs and convictions since the Bible itself does not tell you which bits of its material are authoritative and which are not).

The Bible thus becomes theologically redundant because the nature of the Bible, as understood in  the light of the historical critical approach which Barton outlines in his book, means that it simply cannot perform the role for which Barton says it is needed…

The second problem relates to the content of the Christian faith as a whole

As we have just noted, Barton’s approach to the Bible undermines the traditional  Christian belief that the Bible is able to act as an authoritative basis for Christian belief and practice. Furthermore, his approach to the Bible also calls into question a whole range of other traditional Christian beliefs.

In summary form we can say that Barton claims that:

The Old and New Testament Canons arose by accident.

The variations that exist between the copies of the biblical texts means that we cannot rely on the wording of the Bible.

The idea of the Bible being inspired by God is marginal in the Bible and may well create more problems than it solves.

The Bible does not teach that God created the world out of nothing.

The accounts of the creation and the Fall are mythical or legendary.

Much of the rest of the Old Testament is also legendary, including what is said about the Patriarchs, Moses, the Exodus and the conquest under Joshua, and the reigns of Saul, David and Solomon.

The Old Testament laws were not given to Moses by God in the wilderness and are in any event not really laws but general legal principles for people to consider.

The Old Testament prophets were people who saw that imminent national disaster was coming and interpreted this as being the result of national sin. However, they did not predict that God would act to save his people after the Exile. or predict the coming of Jesus.

The concept of the Messiah is marginal in the Old Testament and in any event only refers to someone who will rule as an earthly king over a restored Jewish kingdom.

The Gospels were not written by people who knew Jesus personally and the Gospel accounts are contradictory and were originally intended to replace each other.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection in the Gospels are as legendary as the stories about these events in the apocryphal gospels and may have been deliberate acts of deliberate forgery by their authors.

What is said about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles is historically unreliable.

Most of the New Testament letters are forgeries

In the earliest account of the resurrection Paul did not teach that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.

Paul’s teaching about justification was not about salvation through faith rather than works, but about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church.

What Paul writes in Romans 9-11 is complex and inconsistent and should be regarded as an invitation to undertake our own thinking rather than as authoritative teaching necessary for salvation.

The view of the Bible which sees it as continuous story of rescue from disaster running from Adam, through Christ, to the second coming, is an interpretive scheme that Christians have imposed on the biblical text.

The Bible gives a subordinationist account of the relationship between Jesus and God that is at odds with traditional Christian teaching about the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.

The Bible does not give definitive teaching about the meaning of the death of Christ, or his descent to the dead.

The Bible does not give a blueprint for the form of the Church’s ministry.

If we were to accept all these points the Christian faith in its traditional form would be impossible to maintain.

Read here

Martin Davie has helpfully written a short summary of his review article here John Barton summary review


See also: Easter meaning. C of E training. The faithful are deciding, by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream (from 2017). In this short story, the theology of a vicar’s Easter sermon is compared by his trainee lay readers to what they are learning in the Diocesan course.


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