When did evangelicalism start to go wrong (right)?

By “go wrong” I mean–go too conservative for its own good.  I think I have an answer to that and I’ve been telling people this for 25 years.  I’ll say it again.

The turning point was the publication and subsequent furor over the book The Battle for the Bible, written by Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell, in 1976.  Of course, the book didn’t just pop out of Lindsell’s head like Athena from Zeus.  It had a pre-history.  Lindsell and a few other evangelicals had been sounding alarms for some years–about alleged evangelical defections from evangelical orthodoxy.

Lindsell had taught at Fuller Theological Seminary and, by some accounts, at least, was angry that Fuller did not offer him its presidency.  Whether that’s true or not, and whether if it is true it played any role in Lindsell’s bitter book, we may never know for sure.

Probably, however, Lindsell’s jeremiad was caused by what he perceived to be Fuller’s defection from full faith in biblical inerrancy in the 1960s. 

In any case, Lindsell was not content to present a defense of inerrancy; he named names and declared that no one can be authentically evangelical without affirming inerrancy.  Few outside separatistic fundamentalist circles had said that before Lindsell.  After all, one can point back to James Orr, the eminent Scottish evangelical theologian, who wrote for The Fundamentals and was a close friend of B. B. Warfield’s.  Orr did not believe in biblical inerrancy.

Again, let me repeat.  The turning point in The Battle for the Bible was NOT belief in inerrancy.  It was Lindsell’s claim that one cannot be evangelical and deny inerrancy.  And it was the vitriolic attacks he launched on evangelical colleges, seminaries and individuals.

There were many ironies in Lindsell’s crusade–both in the book and in other writings.  For example, he specifically chose Robert Mounce as one of his targets for Mounce’s very well-reasoned and balanced approach to explaining inerrancy in columns in Eternity magazine in the early 1970s.  Mounce’s approach was basically that the Bible is perfect with respect to purpose; he argued that we must not impose a modern, scientific standard of what constitutes “error” on the Bible.  He wrote that the biblical writers were not trying to give a “flawless performance in statistics” and thus should not be accused of error if they were not always technically correct in matters of history and cosmology.

Lindsell lambasted Mounce for this.  The irony is, of course, that later, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, which Lindsell signed, contained much the same view of inerrancy as Mounce’s!  When I saw that I was dismayed.  It made me wonder about Lindsell’s integrity because, to the best of my knowledge, he never apologized to Mounce or admitted his inconsistency.

I was in seminary when The Battle for the Bible landed like a bombshell on the playgrounds of the evangelicals.  It was a thoroughly mainstream evangelical seminary, but it had never had an affirmation of inerrancy.  Some professors professed belief in inerrancy and some did not.  It was not a litmus test there or in most evangelical institutions before The Battle for the Bible.

What was especially dismaying to me was some of our faculty members’ responses when the denomination imposed an inerrancy statement and required all faculty to sign it.  I saw some faculty members who I KNEW did not believe in inerrancy cave in and sign it to keep their jobs.  One did not and left.  I respected him for that.

The Battle for the Bible launched an evangelical heresy-hunt that reached epic proportions within just a few years.  I followed it closely as I hoped to teach theology among evangelicals after my Ph.D. work.  One by one, evangelical and Baptist denominations and institutions imposed inerrancy statements on their employees and faculties.  Fuller is one evangelical seminary that did not give in to the pressure, although Fuller faculty members had to publish numerous defenses of their belief in the authority of Scripture to fight off the barbarians at the gates.  (I call them that because many of inerrancy’s advocates behaved like barbarians.  They were not interested in dialogue or understanding others’ actual views; they used the word “inerrancy” like a cudgel to beat up on people.)

I remember one discussion I had with an officer of a leading evangelical professional society that required affirmation of biblical inerrancy for membership.  I told him I did not think the word “inerrancy” fit the phenomena of Scripture, but that I do believe in Scripture’s full authority.  After sustained discussion we realized that, given his qualifications to inerrancy, he and I agreed on our view of the Bible!  Then I asked if I could join his professional society.  He said no; one must not only believe in the Bible’s inerrancy (as he defined it) but must also affirm the word.

Talk about creating a shibboleth!

I gradually concluded that that is pretty much what this whole controversy was about–a word.  And the word was being used to give certain people great power.  You can frighten uneducated people by saying “So-and-so doesn’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible” when, in fact, if you explained YOUR OWN qualifications to “inerrancy” the same frightened people would reject you!

When I read the qualifications of inerrancy being made by signers of the Chicago Declaration (both in it and in their own writings) I was appalled and shocked.  For example, one leading advocate of inerrancy wrote in his systematic theology that “inerrancy” is compatible with “inerrant use of errant sources” by biblical authors.  In other words, the Bible is inerrant even if it contains blatant errors so long as the biblical writer who erred didn’t err in his use of sources.  How ludicrous!  Why not just give up on the word inerrancy once you’ve come to that point?

Now, here’s my point and my revelation.  Most people think of Carl F. H. Henry as “the dean of evangelical theologians” and he was.  Time magazine baptized him as such.  He was the founding editor of CT and taught in several evangelical institutions.  What did he think about this whole controversy over inerrancy?

Henry was a strong advocate of inerrancy–with qualifications, of course.  But he DID NOT AGREE WITH LINDSELL that one cannot be an evangelical and deny inerrancy.  Henry believed one cannot be CONSISTENTLY evangelical and deny inerrancy.  And he said these things publicly in response to Lindsell’s book and the controversy surrounding it.  (And I had personal correspondence with him confirming this.)

Henry’s final “Footnotes” column in Christianity Today was on September 9, 1977–about one year after the publication of Battle for the Bible.  He made clear that he was being fired as a guest writer for the magazine he co-founded.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Across the years I have had reason to remember an experience in my pre-Christian teenage days.  I once lost a job as a painter’s helper when I tried to straighten a three-story ladder.  Perched uneasily aloft, my boss was retouching some windows when the ladder moved disconcertingly to the right.  My instinctive effort to rectify the misalignment separated me from my job more quickly than it takes to say good-bye.  I thought I had learned that lesson well, I thought: don’t straighten tilting ladders, particularly not if they tilt too far right.”

There can be no doubt to what he was referring–evangelicalism leaning too far right.  It has continued to do so ever since.  The Battle for the Bible was the crucial turning point–when evangelicalism began to return to its fundamentalist roots.

In a forthcoming book about evangelicalism a leading seminary dean declares me not truly evangelical, in part, at least, because I do not affirm inerrancy.  (Although I insist that my view of the Bible is the same as what at least SOME conservative evangelicals believe about the Bible and misleadingly call “inerrancy.”)  And that seminary dean is out of touch with Carl Henry, one of his heroes.

Ironically, on the same page of CT where that Henry quote appears, there is a large advertisement for a “Super Conference” at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia featuring lead speaker Jerry Falwell–who had until then been known as a separatistic fundamentalist and not an evangelical in the postfundamentalist sense.  The times they were a changin’!

  • Ken Stewart

    Roger:
    I don’t dispute at all the central role you assign to the Lindsell book. But looked at from a slightly wider angle, the scene is somewhat more complex.
    1. Lindsell was one of at least 4 senior faculty members who believed that Fuller had drifted too far from its original evangelical committments of 1947. The difference is that Carl Henry, Gleason Archer, and Wilbur Smith did not seek to earn royalties by scandal-mongering. The institutional history of Fuller written by George Marsden demonstrates quite amply that there was a rudderless period when stability might only have been obtained by Harold Ockenga’s accepting a residential presidency of Fuller (which he turned down twice) instead of his ongong commuter-presidency from Boston each week. I make no apology for Lindsell, but your treatment minimizes the complexity and substantiveness of the issues involved.
    2) It needs to be explained how CT, which to that point was still very much in dependency on Billy Graham and J. Howard Pew shifted its focus away from the editorship of Henry (who by the way, insisted that the head offices ought not to leave Washington, DC) to Lindsell. Lindsell was a firebrand with a bee in his bonnet, alright; but why did CT hearken to him?
    3) It appears that CT has more than recovered from this traumatic period. Under all recent editors, there has been a determined policy of evangelical inclusion — so much so that the Lindsell era can be rightly judged an aberration. It was that evangelical inclusion which Carl Henry had pursued assiduously from 1956 onward, as editor.
    4) The ETS, founded in the same era as Fuller (Fuller 1947, ETS 1949) was like that seminary an expression of post-war neo-evangelical initiative. It is not necessary to ‘drape’ ETS in the flag and to treat it as the paragon of constancy (which is in fact not quite true). But it is necessary to delve more fully into the question of why the trajectories of these two neo-evangelical enterprises, each founded with an inerrancy committment, diverged increasingly over time. The collective action of Smith, Henry, and Archer (leave out Lindsell) not only took them to TEDS, but had them maintaining their ETS links at a period when Fuller , considered corporately, had determined to ‘go broad’.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Of course the picture is much more complex. I was just looking for a turning point or “tipping point” when evangelicalism took a serious turn in a more conservative direction. I was alive and well back then and I remember events well. Eternity magazine was a major evangelical publication in addition to CT and was very broad in its appeal and theological orientation. Sometime in the 1980s things changed dramatically. Yes, of course, there were many factors at work. But my main point, the punchline, if you will, was that even Carl Henry thought those who wanted to make inerrancy THE litmus test of authentic evangelical faith were wrong.

      • Ken Stewart

        Roger:
        Of course ‘snapshots’ have their place, and the Lindsell vignette is a good one. But snapshots or vignettes still require interpretation, and my concern is that you ‘freight’ Lindsell and his book out of proportion to the evidence. CT returned to its earlier equilibrium after Lindsell’s unfortunate tenure as editor. Didn’t Eternity magazine fold for economic reasons, as well as others? The evidence seems to show a kind of bifurcation of evangelicalism since the Lindsell era. Perhaps what was happening is simply that the neo-evangelical coalition of the 1940′s had reached the zenith of its capability to comprehend different types. The pre-war period had had its ‘liberal’ evangelicals and ‘conservative’ evangelicals (both non-pejorative terms). This is what we have once more.

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          I don’t disagree.

  • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

    I appreciate this post. I my case, I hold to “full inspiration of Scripture with full doctrinal inerrancy” while I explain that the ancient Mediterranean biblical writers were fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and never attempted to write with modern standards of history and science. I also note that Jesus and the apostles referred to the Septuagint translation of the Law and Prophets as the word of God. They never suggested that only the original Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts were the word of God.

  • gingoro

    I bought Lindsel’s book but could never manage to real more than a few pages. Now that I am trying to pare my library down I probably will burn or recycle his book when I come across it as I doubt it is ever worth reading.

    You may be right that the change in evangelicalism was kicked off by Lindsel. I tend to think of the change as being more related to the media making fundamentalist a dirty word. Then people like Falwell… started calling themselves evangelicals. Al Mouler and the neo Reformed were the final straw for me and I no longer consider myself an evangelical.
    Dave W

  • http://www.solobizcoach.com Fred Leo

    I think that people are concerned about the repercussions if the Bible is not inerrant. If the Bible is not inerrant, what stops humans from dismissing any part of the Bible that they don’t feel is right?

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      But with all the qualifications inerrantists have to make–they kill it anyway. My point is–nobody REALLY believes in the “inerrancy” of the Bible in any ordinary meaning of that word.

      • http://theoperspectives.blogspot.com/ James Goetz

        Roger, hmm. Since 1978, before I began with biblical studies, the “ordinary meaning of that word” has always been highly qualified. :)

      • Josh T.

        Roger, I agree completely. The term “inerrancy” is applied to Scripture in a way that the word’s users would NEVER do for any other subject. It’s a misuse of the English language, in my opinion.

        Here’s a quick example taking advantage of the Bible’s multiple genres: calling a psalm (poetry) “errant” or “inerrant” is completely meaningless and tells us nothing useful about the psalm whatsoever. It would be like calling a megabyte “smelly”. The reality is much more beautiful and complex and deserves to be addressed using appropriate adjectives.

        • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

          The same could be said of Jesus’ parables. As normally interpreted by evangelical rationalists such as Henry, even a psalm and a parable can be translated into propositions which are then inerrant insofar as they are correct interpretations of the figurative language.

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  • Bart Breen

    Thanks for this Roger. I was Southern Baptist very early in my early adulthood before I left the denomination in the early 1980′s in the heat of a lot of these issues. The decision was a fairly easy one when I spoke with the pastor of the SB church I attended (who eventually went on to be a SB Conference President) and let slip that while I believed at the time what I understood to be inerrency that I held an Old Earth view of creation and I was quickly told that there was no place for me within a Southern Baptist Seminary, even as a student with that view.

    I took his word for it, and left and looking at the wreckage that exists of that denomination and many of its educational institutions since that time, I believe he did me a favor but not likely for the reasons he had at the time.

    “Evangelicalism” has in many circles become indistinguishable from Reformed Theology (or at least it’s neo-reformed iterations) and the most diversity in opinion you’ll find is an occasional 4 point Calvinist included among the 5 point mainliners.

    It still puzzles me greatly and saddens me when I see similar trends in the organizations I subsequently went on to associate with, many of which are being overwhelmed by outspoken defenders of the “faith” who completely disregard their own doctirinal history.

    • Jim Gifford

      Hi Bart,

      I don’t think you are being accurate in your statement about young-earth and the SBC. I am a very recent graduate of SEBTS and I don’t know of a professor there who is adamantly young-earth. I also believe these institutions are academically strong, far from any idea of “wreckage” that you state. You may disagree with some of their views, and that is okay, but I think you need to be fair in your assessment. The SBC schools are well represented among top evangelical scholarship today (Tom Schreiner, Andreas Kostenberger, David Black, Bruce Ware, etc.).

      Jim G.

      • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

        Didn’t Al Mohler recently declare himself a believer in young earth creationism? And didn’t he say that he doesn’t think anyone can be a Christian and believe in evolution?

  • Brian

    I read Lindsell’s book years ago when I was struggling with the issue of inerrancy. In his attempt to reconcile the differing accounts of Peter’s three denials, his solution was that Peter denied Jesus six times! I remember exclaiming out loud, “I’d rather believe the Bible had errors than to believe that!” In his attempt to resolve the discrepancies between the gospel accounts, he ended up with a solution that none of the accounts affirmed.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Exactly. And yet, somehow, his book gained a wide readership and made a lasting impression. I still puzzle over that. It was such a bad book.

  • John

    Amazing quote from Carl Henry – but you’ve obviously not taken his advice, Roger. Don’t try to correct ladders that are tilting to the right!

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      You’re right, I haven’t. I’m stubborn. :)

  • Jeremiah Duomai

    Thank you, brother, for this insightful post.

    Ecc 1.5 says, “the sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” Unless we use principle of accommodation I can’t make sense on how to interpret this. But once we use accommodation principle I don’t see any need for the word ‘inerrancy’. I am glad that IFES’ doctrinal statements use only ‘infallibility’.

  • Ben

    Roger, would you mind explaining the opposite of inerrancy to the degree that one can still take the Bible seriously? I understand that we have human authors and scribes but surely the text is inspired by the Spirit of God and so is the Bible more about ideas and principles that we can draw without saying every word is infallible?

    Would you confidently say you’re a fundamentalist in the sense that you believe the ideas and principles the Bible presents are inspired by God and from them we can know Him and His salvation?

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Surely we can take a book seriously without thinking it contains absolutely no errors. In fact, I don’t know of any inerrantist who thinks the Bible has no errors, but they still take the Bible seriously. They just call it “inerrancy” and then kill the word with the death of a thousand qualifications.

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  • Keith Noren

    This brings back memories. In order:

    CF Henry came to my home church (Peninsula Covenant Church, Redwood City, CA) when I was a senior in HS and spoke about the crisis in authority in many seminaries (I think his focus was on Fuller). As a junior in HS I had read through the Bible and convinced myself it could not be inerrant on all matters. Even the narratives of Jesus’ life were often quite different in detail from gospel to gospel. I got my nerve up to ask him about whether the baby Jesus moved to Egypt or not, and differing accounts of Easter Sunday morning. He just said something like “son just do not throw out the Baby Jesus with the bathwater” with a smile on his face.

    After college I returned to the Bay Area and among other things took 3 classes from Fuller Seminary Extension class. The Battle for the Bible was in full tilt. My professors were Thmas Gillespie (not a Fuller prof, but later was President of Princeton Seminary where my son garduated from btw) and George Ladd. Dr. Gillespie just talked the facts and avoided the questions from students who wanted to nail him for heresy. Ladd just lectured on the Kingdom of God and also ignored the conservatives that wanted to hang him. The classes had become battlegrounds. I still have a Fuller Seminary Theology News and Notes about “The Authority of Scripture at Fuller” defending itself from charges of heresy from the likes of Lindsell (right after Battle for the Bible came out. Among the authors were Hubbard, LaSor, Pinnock (in his early stages of his career when he was a staunch defender of inerrancy). Very interesting read. I know I purchased and read Battle for the Bible as soon as it came out- it had chapters how bad the SBC, Lutheran- Missouri Synod, Fuller Seminary had become and even took a sideswipe at my home denomination (Evangelic Covenant Church of America) which sounded very foreign to me (but then again I hardly knew the whole denomination stances that well, I was 25-26 possibly interested in ministry but working as an engineer).

    I then made the decison to stay an engineer and avoid ministry (my real interest was in theology, not ministry). Right after I got married (1976) , we moved to Wash DC where I happen to attend a presentation by Harold Lindsell at a Baptist church up the street from where we were living. What an angry firebrand. One memory was that he called liberals “despicable”. What a different attitude from CF Henry although they were both were are on the conservative side of the Fuller controversy. To this day I distinguish between fightin’ fundamentalists and happy/non-judgmental fubdamentalists.

    I’d take CF Henry as a friend or mentor anyday over Lindesll.

    While the Fuller battles were an important episode in creating the fightin’ fundamentalist movement, I also think BB Warfield / Charles Hodge/ J. Gresham Machen (Old Princteon Theology) in early 1900′s was a key period to explain what went wrong from a intellectual perspective. And the SBC Takeover period (~1986-1990) is also a key period from a larger denominational life perspective.

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  • Jason

    Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)”? Greg Boyd endorsed the book (though I know this doesn’t mean that he agrees entirely with everything Mr. Stark says), which appears to be quite good, challenging, and provocative—based on the reviews I have seen to date.

  • henrybish

    ‘inerrant use of errant sources’

    I think what is meant by that is that the writer only affirmed true parts of the errant sources. Describing a source as ‘errant’ does not entail that everything in it is false. I think it would be difficult to find a source that is 100% errant. I think you should correct your commentary on that line because it is misleading and I very much doubt the original author meant that.

    Also, I think the ‘qualifications’ on inerrancy are quite reasonable and are unfairly lambasted here.

    Does anyone seriously think, for example, that when someone affirms that the distance from A to B is 7 miles that they are lying because it is 7.3 miles?

    The use of approximations is something every human being does everyday and is just one of the many very reasonable qualifications on ‘inerrancy’, which, ironically, only has to be made because of ham-fisted literalists who seriously entertain that things like approximations and loose citations are ‘errors’.

    It is actually not possible NOT to approximate. 7.3 miles is still wrong. Should be 7.2543217869 miles etc.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Well, apparently you didn’t read The Battle for the Bible where Lindsell criticized Robert Mounce for saying exactly what you have said. The issue was the precise circumference of some utinsil (sp?) in the tabernacle. I won’t bother to go look it all up right now. Mounce said that if the algebra wasn’t quite right in the Bible that didn’t mean it erred or that we have to appeal to the non-existent autographs. Lindsell labasted Mounce for allegedly claiming the Bible contains errors. In fact, Mounce was simply pointing out what you have pointed out above. However, what you don’t seem to recognize or acknowledge is the slippery slope involved in what you wrote (which is pretty much standard for inerrantists). How far does one go in claiming, for example, that “approximations” are not errors? This is what Lindsell recognized and why he pounced on Mounce. But, as I pointed out, Lindsell later signed the Chicago Statement which contained exactly the kinds of disclaimers and qualifictions Mounce made that Lindsell criticized him for.

  • AHH

    Mohler has for quite some time been pushing young-earth creationism and saying that any belief in evolution is incompatible with Christian faith. And it seems that his basic issue there is that he sees it as incompatible with his hardline inerrancy view.
    But as I’m sure you know, it is a mistake to think of Al Mohler as representative of the entire SBC.

    Getting back to the topic of this post, I wonder if it would be fair to say that Al Mohler is, more than anyone else around today, carrying on the legacy of Lindsell?

  • Don Johnson

    I think God accomodated in the entire text of the Bible. Why is this not more generally acknowledged?

    Mohler’s thoughts on Christians and evolution are documented on his website and Biologos.

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  • Clay Knick

    Sad, but true, I think. And I always liked Lindsell’s Harper Study Bible (RSV), the first study Bible I owned.

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  • http://www.dodifferent.org.uk David Bunce

    I come from the UK scene and a very moderate evangelical pushing mainstream theological background, so I realise the American discussion about inerrancy is something like the discussion about Republican vs Democrat: the rest of the world just watches and doesn’t really get to take part!

    That said, I can’t help wondering if it is missing some aspects.

    Firstly, I would argue that the discussion of the authority of the Bible must always have the telos of advancing the church’s mission ie. doing the work that God has given us to do in our generation. So often, discussions about the nature and authority of the Bible hinder and divide rather than unite.

    Secondly, I find all discussions of inerrancy unconvincing, because they seem to miss the Trinitarian dimension of revelation: we learn about God through the revelation of Himself in the Son and the Holy Spirit giving us the eyes of faith to see him.

    Therefore, we come to the Bible not in the way one comes to a witness statement in a court, looking for factual accuracy, but we come as children enabled to see with the eyes of faith by the very God to whom the Bible witnesses.

    I think it’s not as much about its ontological reliability (though I think there is a good case to be made for that!) as about the fact that God chooses to use the Bible as a witness to Jesus in the same mysterious and gracious way he chooses to use the symbols of bread and wine to convey the mystery of salvation.

    The Bible is holy and reliable and trustworthy because by the Spirit of God it is sanctified and made holy, trustworthy and reliable. (In this, I’m coming near a view articulated by people such as Webster).

    Just a view from across the pond – I hope it’s not crashing, and I apologise if I use inappropriate categories of thought for an American theological discussion ;-)

    • rogereolson

      I like hearing perspectives from other cultures. I am convinced that our whole evangelical debate about inerrancy is tied in with American fundamentalism including (and perhaps fundamentalism is anachronistic here) Princeton Theology of the 19th century (Hodge, Warfield, et al.). Every Christian culture not strongly affected by that seems to have avoided this struggle–at least to the extent we suffer it here.

  • http://jdskred.net take

    I am not positive if this is the correct area, but I kinda figured you should know that I read this post awhile ago on a different site. I think it was a wordpress blog with a similar title. The content was practically the same, but I noticed that this one here has an older date. I reckon they grabbed it from you, but maybe not who knows. Thought you may want to know.

    • rogereolson

      Ummm…that was my other blog. :) I’m here now.


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