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’!