Future of Evangelicalism
Is There One Evangelicalism?
Then something changed. I experienced it first hand. While I was in seminary Harold Lindsell's horrible book The Battle for the Bible fell like a bombshell on American evangelicalism. The editor of Christianity Today declared quite unequivocally that a person could not be authentically evangelical while rejecting biblical inerrancy (as he defined it). He named names and implied that evangelical institutions should purge themselves of non-inerrantists.
My seminary never had a doctrinal statement that included inerrancy. Neither did or does the National Association of Evangelicals. We were satisfied with "inspiration" and "authority." But Lindsell scared the grassroots of evangelicals and opened the door to an influx of fundamentalists who now wanted to be called "evangelical." (Sometime during the 1980s Jerry Falwell, among other self-proclaimed fundamentalists, began to call himself an evangelical and somehow managed to get the media to regard him as a leading spokesman for evangelicals.)
Gradually a heresy-hunting mentality grew within evangelical ranks. My seminary, under pressure from pastors, required all faculty members to sign an inerrancy statement or leave. I saw professors who had openly criticized belief in biblical inerrancy meekly sign the statement. One courageous one did not and left.
Over the years since 1976 (the year The Battle for the Bible was published) I have seen my evangelical world rocked by controversy after controversy -- often over relatively minor points of doctrine. Of course, the issue became "What is a relatively minor point of doctrine?" Gradually what would have been considered minor differences of opinion have become issues of division. Professors at evangelical schools have been fired for having opinions that would have caused raised eyebrows but not expulsion before 1976.
A rigid, dogmatic, intolerant attitude toward diversity of opinion and interpretation has set into many sectors of the evangelical movement. It is an attitude reminiscent of old-style fundamentalism. I have seen my evangelicalism gradually taken over by people who would have been considered fundamentalists when I was in seminary.
This change came to a crisis for me when I was teaching at a well-known evangelical liberal arts college and seminary in the 1980s and 1990s. Certain constituents began to pressure the school to teach against women in ministry (a point about which that particular school and denomination had never taken a position) and against open theism (an admittedly unusual view of God's foreknowledge but not ruled out by the statement of faith).
The turning point for me was a heresy trial (called by the administration a "Day of Theological Clarification") over one of my colleagues who was open about his open theism. What especially troubled me was that all of the crucial theological arguments being used by constituent pastors against open theism would, if valid, work just as much against classical Arminianism. Nobody seemed to be noticing that except me. One pastor leading the charge against my colleague told me he would get me fired for not standing with him against my colleague.
It's one thing to have a civil debate about a theological issue; I'm not against that. But, in my opinion, there was nothing civil about this crusade to purge the institution (and then all evangelicalism) of open theists. Many of those raising their voices against my colleague and against open theism knew little about it. And in some cases the tactics were ethically questionable.