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The Battle for the Bible: Renewing the Inerrancy Debate

by Donald W. Dayton

Donald W. Dayton is associate professor of historical theology at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and chair of the steering committee of the evangelical theology section of the American Academy of Religion. A layman in the Wesleyan Church of America, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Among his writings are Theological Roots of Pentacostalism (Scarecrow 1984), Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Harper & Row 1976), and (editor) Contemporary Perspectives on Pietism (Convent 1976). This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 10, 1976, pp. 976-980. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Early this past summer "evangelical" magazines carried a striking advertisement for a new book by the editor of Christianity Today, the major organ of the postfundamentalist "evangelical" coalition. In boldface type it quoted the authorís assertion that "a battle is raging today. More and more evangelicals are propagating the view that the Bible has errors in it." The publisher of the book added the ominous admonition to "read it and act!"

Neither the advertisement nor the book (which by June had gone into a third printing) makes explicit what this call to action might involve. But evangelicals, for whom the intense struggles of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy are still a living and determinative memory, are jittery, fearing that the book might herald a new era of faculty purges and organizational splits -- a replay of earlier conflicts, this time rending the evangelical world apart. Such nervousness produced over the summer and into the fall a flurry of behind-the-scenes consultations, public clarifications and responses, and other efforts to reassure constituencies and channel the discussion in constructive directions.

ĎAuthorityí or ĎInerrancyí?

The author of The Battle for the Bible (Zondervan, $6.95) is Harold Lindsell, who served on the faculties of Chicagoís Northern Baptist Seminary and Pasadenaís Fuller Seminary before succeeding Carl F. H. Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today. The book carries an appreciative foreword/endorsement by Harold J. Ockenga, president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston and a major force behind the post -- World War II "neo-evangelical renaissance" that spawned Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Fuller Theological Seminary. All of this blue-chip evangelical clout is brought to bear in support of the doctrine of biblical "inerrancy" against a growing party of theological compatriots inclined to speak more of the "authority" of Scripture with regard to "faith and practice."

Lindsell flatly argues that the Bible "does not contain error of any kind" -- that it may be absolutely trusted in all its references to history, cosmology, science and so forth. For him this doctrine is not only the fundamental discriminator whereby one discerns the "true Christian" but also the universal teaching of the Christian church -- at least prior to the rise of biblical criticism.

Claiming authority primarily as a "historian," Lindsell adduces a string of quotations to support his position and then devotes the larger and more controversial part of his book to detailing the supposedly modern declension from this stance in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, among the Southern Baptists, at Fuller Theological Seminary, in the Evangelical Covenant Church, and even among the members of the ETS (the Evangelical Theological Society, whose members are required to subscribe annually to a single statement -- that "the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written, and therefore inerrant in the autographs"). The final chapters of the book use the Unitarian / Universalist denomination, the late Bishop James Pike, Union Theological Seminary (New York) and other examples to illustrate the "deviations that follow when inerrancy is denied" and "how the infection spreads."

Even this short summary will indicate the quality of Lindsellís case and its lack of theological and historical subtlety. Lindsell reveals little awareness of the exegetical difficulties of his position and no "feel" at all for the critical problems and the "phenomena of Scripture" forcing other evangelicals to qualify their doctrine of Scripture. His historical analysis is simplistic and dichotomous, for the most part ignoring contrary evidence and the scholarly debates surrounding the interpretation of the material he quotes. Tending to rely on an older scholarship reflecting the polarities of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, he shows little awareness of the blurring of these lines (in both biblical and historical scholarship) since that struggle. Even the ethics of the book have been called into question. In his zeal for the cause Lindsell has not hesitated to use private correspondence without permission, taking material out of context for his own purposes in a way that distorts its intentions.

Some of us might be more sympathetic to Lindsell and his aims if we could read his book as a defense of biblical authority or as an analysis of the failure of the church (including the "evangelical" church) to find a mode of life and witness that seems authentically "biblical." We could even respond to a sensitive analysis of the theological and religious impasse to which some of the dominant forms of "historical" and "scientific" biblical criticism have brought us. But while Lindsell obviously intends to meet these concerns, his book is actually a repristination (and often less subtle than earlier expressions) of a particular timebound formulation of biblical authority that is being seen by increasing numbers of evangelicals not only to have outlived its usefulness but to have become a positive hindrance to the understanding of the fuller and deeper significance of the Scriptures.

Placing Lindsellís View in Context

Though Lindsell intends his analysis to be broader, clearly the view he advocates (one espoused by the NAE and the ETS) derives, at least in its precise formulation, from the late 19th century writings of A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, representatives of the so-called "Princeton theology" rooted in the earlier work of Charles Hodge and ultimately in the post-Reformation scholastic traditions, especially that of the Genevan François Turretin. In his Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, Vol. 1 (Yale University Press, 1972), Claude Welch indicates that this theology "became a haven sought (properly or not) by all sorts of conservative revivalists and fundamentalists in the face of the threats of biology and biblical criticism." In this experience was formed the somewhat uneasy coalition that has found expression in the institutions of modern post-fundamentalist "evangelicalism."

The determinative feature of the view of Scripture conveyed in this tradition is found in a seldom articulated "suppressed premise" grounded not so much in exegesis as in the rationalist and scholastic tendencies of post-Reformation orthodoxy. The syllogism goes something like this: God is perfect; the Bible is the Word of God; therefore the Bible is perfect (inerrant). The "suppressed premise" here is actually the focusing of a whole metaphysic emphasizing the "perfection" and "immutability" of God and a highly deterministic view of Godís working in the world more obviously at home in the "high Calvinism" of the old Princeton theology.

This position assumes (though exegesis is brought to bear on the question) that the Bible must be inerrant and infallible if it is in any real sense the "Word of God." This a priori leads rather directly to an immediacy and absoluteness of inspiration which, despite Lindsellís protests to the contrary, result in a "dictation" view of inspiration and ultimately to a "docetic" view of Scripture in which the human element is present (supposedly!) but never determinative. These assumptions are generally developed in the direction of viewing the Scriptures largely in the categories of divinely given propositions, doctrines and information. As Carl Henry has put it, the Bible is "a book of divinely disclosed doctrinal truth."

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such premises are at the core of Lindsellís analysis. His exegesis is able only to produce results in harmony with them. Those statements most assimilable into this framework become the hermeneutical keys to interpreting the theologians of the church. History is understood one-dimensionally as the affirmation of this perspective or as the apostasy involved in its denial.

Lindsellís understanding is, of course, not restricted to the particular theological tradition in which he stands; it is found in varying degrees elsewhere. But his book and its analysis need to be placed in context to judge the validity of the "historianís perspective" that he claims. His delineation of "decline" and "apostasy" is more valid for groups that stand directly in the line of the "Princeton theology" and other scholastic traditions and less valid for others. Thus, there is a sense in which he has "got the goods" on Fuller Theological Seminary and certain members of the ETS. These institutions were founded self-consciously to perpetuate a view of Scripture very close to Lindsellís. Their problem is whether the modern questions (some of them also ancient!) allow such a position to be maintained.

Similarly, Lindsellís historical analysis has some validity for the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, which took theological shape in a confessional reaction to the 19th century emergence of the "Evangelical United Front" -- a reaction grounded in Lutheran scholasticism just as the Princeton theology was grounded in Reformed scholasticism. Lindsellís analysis becomes shakier in interpreting the revivalistic Southern Baptist tradition and highly improbable in understanding, for example, the Evangelical Covenant Church, whose pietist and revivalist roots carried an implicit critique (occasionally raised to the status of an explicit theological alternative) of the rationalism and intellectualism of the scholastic and confessional traditions.

But however one finally answers these historical questions and judges the exegetical and theological validity of the positions they express, Lindsell has pointed to currents of great significance not only for the future of the evangelical world but also for the larger American church. There is undeniably a remarkable ferment in the evangelical world and a discernible movement toward new paradigms of biblical authority. A number of factors seem to be giving impetus to these currents.

A Ferment in the Evangelical Brew

In the first place, a "cooler" and more sophisticated scholarship distanced from the heat of earlier controversies has seen new historical nuances and has begun to question the claim of the old Princeton theology to represent the "church doctrine of inspiration" adequately. Fuller theologian Jack Rogers, for example, reports in Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical (Westminster, 1974) the shattering of his inherited view that his "orthodox theology" stood in "unbroken continuity with the theology of Warfield, the Westminster Confession, Calvin, Augustine, and Paul." Rogers set out in 1963 to provide in his dissertation the historical basis for an attack on the United Presbyteriansí proposed "Confession of 1967" only to discover, to his "shock and surprise," that even the Westminster Confession conveyed a more subtly nuanced doctrine of Scripture than the Princeton theology and that the "Confession of 1967" restored important themes.

Similar insights are beginning to surface in the conservative groups that took shelter in the Princeton theology during the founding of ETS and NAE. This development is most clear among Wesleyan groups that have begun to wonder if they did not buy into too much of the Princeton legacy during the fundamentalist/modernist controversies. There is a discernible tendency among such groups to affirm a more developmental, historically conditioned and "Arminian" doctrine of Scripture that avoids the characteristic vocabulary of the absolutistic and ahistorical "inerrancy" formulation. The Church of the Nazarene, for example, has never joined the NAE, and its scholars have by and large not been attracted to the ETS. William Greathouse, the Nazarene Seminary president recently elected a general superintendent of the denomination, regularly distinguishes the Nazarene view not only from the left but also from the fundamentalist (i.e., Lindsellís) position on the right. Under pressure from Nazarenes and scholars of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), other bodies affiliated with the NAE have begun to move in a similar direction. Recent revisions of the Wesleyan Theological Societyís doctrinal statement reveal a "purifying" process that avoids the characteristic expressions of the "inerrancy" position for vocabulary more at home in its prefundamentalist tradition.

At the same time, "biblical criticism" has everywhere made inroads into the evangelical world. Younger faculty members, distanced from earlier controversies and educated at ecumenical centers no longer dominated by earlier polarizations, have come to accept many forms of criticism as a matter of course. While Lindsell seems to find all criticism anathema, figures like George Eldon Ladd of Fuller would advocate a "devout criticism" (cf. his New Testament and Criticism, 1967) that affirms the method without capitulating to a reductionism based on rationalistic a prioris. Ladd also has testified that his work in biblical theology has led him to an explicit rejection of the older categories of the "orthodox" tradition and their emphasis on "propositional revelation."

Lindsellís analysis at this point reveals an ironic weakness in underestimating the extent to which biblical criticism has penetrated the evangelical world. One finds evangelical scholars (at schools that Lindsell describes as safe!) practicing, for example, "redaction criticism" to separate genuine sayings of Jesus from the creation of the Evangelists -- a task inconceivable under the older assumptions.

ĎYoung Evangelicalsí and Biblical Feminists

The emergence of a socially activist "young evangelical" consciousness has also given shape to new configurations. Young evangelicals have been overwhelmed to discover the extent of biblical material related to themes of social justice -- material largely ignored in the theology and writings of their elders. The great fence of "inerrancy" that was supposed to have assured a "biblical faith" seems to have failed in this area. (One is beginning to hear this kind of comment: ĎIím not sure that I believe in a historical Adam and Eve, but I am sure that I believe in a historical application of the Sermon on the Mount." Or this: "Why do our evangelical theologies give so much attention to questions relating to only a few obscure biblical texts while completely ignoring the topic of Ďpoorologyí to which are devoted hundreds of clear texts?")

The culmination of a long process of thinking and rethinking can be seen in the May/June issue of The Other Side, a young-evangelical activist magazine. In an editorial introducing an issue on the Scriptures, editor John Alexander struggles with the apparent inverse correlation between commitment to "inerrancy" and commitment to social justice. New loyalties are emerging as such insights are combined with the values young evangelicals find in the biblical interpretations of William Stringfellow, Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder, Dale Brown and others who do not share the "inerrancy" assumption.

Particularly significant is one aspect of this movement -- the emergence of an "evangelical feminism." A more conservative party of feminists attempts to offer new exegesis of traditional passages while maintaining an older view of the Scriptures. But a more radical party is raising fundamental questions about the historically conditioned character of the Scriptures. Many evangelicals are beginning to grasp the fact, that certain ways of reading the Scriptures and certain doctrines about the Scriptures may actually become the means of oppression of modern women by the imposition of first century social patterns. This issue is important in part because it raises fundamental theological and hermeneutical questions in a way that is close to the experience of many and thus can be understood by nontheologians.

Hermeneutical Questions

Here the center of controversy has been another Fuller theologian, Paul K. Jewett, who also serves as dean of the Young Life Institute offering theological education to the staff of a popular evangelical youth movement. In his book Man as Male and Female (Eerdmans, 1975), Jewett argues for an egalitarian male/female relationship by calling for distinctions (within the New Testament materials themselves) between Paul the former rabbi and Paul the apostle, or between Paulís perception of the truth and his implementation of it in the first century. Particularly inflammatory has been Jewettís rather casual aside that Paul was misled by his rabbinic training to misunderstand the truly egalitarian thrust of the creation narrative.

Such considerations are forcing what has been called "the neglected item of business on the evangelical agenda." Evangelicals are beginning to understand that the real questions about appropriating the Scriptures are not so much matters of doctrine as they are of hermeneutics. The journey toward this question is producing some interesting anomalies. One recent paper read at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (again, by a scholar from one of Lindsellís "safe" schools) vigorously defended the inerrancy doctrine but then rushed on to the hermeneutical level to distinguish between the timebound Weltbild of Scripture which may be discarded and the eternal Weltanschauung of Scripture which must be preserved. By this means the scholar was able to free himself of the Pauline cosmology while remaining within acceptable theological limits.

The Church Growth Movement

Such hermeneutical discussions receive added impulse from what may seem a strange source, the highly influential and popular "Church Growth Movement" (also centered at Fuller -- in the School of World Mission). What appears on the surface to reaffirm many of the undesirable features of the 19th century missions movement actually carries in its bosom the means of the destruction of the, metaphysic that lies behind Lindsellís doctrine of the Scriptures.

The high commitment of Church Growth teaching to the social sciences, especially anthropology, has led to incorporation of a large portion of the relativism and pragmatism of the modern world view. In discussions of the "indigenization" of the church in non-Western cultures one hears that the New Testament itself is a particular indigenization and that the gospel message needs to be extracted from first century "cultural clothing" to be re-clothed in that of another age. Leaders Within the Church Growth Movement have even spoken of "Christian Marxists." Despite the mouthing of traditional formulas, when these positions are given full theological explication, they will be found to express a fundamentally different view of the Bible -- fully consistent with the radical party of evangelical feminists but irreconcilable with Lindsellís understanding.

Rough Times Ahead

All of these currents -- and others as well -- are contributing to the remarkable theological ferment in the evangelical world. Enough is happening to justify the concern of one like Lindsell who cannot see beyond the imminent collapse of his own theology. But from another perspective one can be excited by a ferment that is overcoming the sterile options and dead ends of earlier discussions. The future is uncertain. Much will depend on the workings of ecclesiastical and academic politics, but some configurations are beginning to take shape.

There are obviously rough times ahead as powerful forces line up behind Lindsell. According to Time, Billy Graham has called Lindsellís book "one of the most important of our generation." Hudson T. Armerding, president of influential Wheaton College and also of the World Evangelical Fellowship, reviewed The Battle for the Bible enthusiastically in the official organ of the NAE. Last spring evangelical "guru" Francis Schaeffer, in a major NAL address (widely reported and reprinted), called "inerrancy" the "watershed of the evangelical world." And next yearís convention will be devoted to the theme "Godís Word: Our Infallible Guide."

Refutations and Defections

On the other side, the ever-irreverent Wittenberg Door (June/July) dismissed Lindsellís book with a parable about a frightened cub scout who awakened in the middle of the night with a full bladder -- but who was so frightened by the "monsters" outside that in the dark he emptied his bladder all over his tentmates. Privately other evangelical leaders -- especially college and seminary faculty -- express similar perspectives, albeit less picturesquely. One faculty member of a school supposedly in Lindsellís camp described his book to me as the last irrational flailings of a discredited party about to be deposed.

Certainly there is emerging a firm opposition to capitulating to Lindsellís reading of the situation. David Hubbard, president of Fuller Seminary, invited the press to a convocation at which he denounced Lindsellís "unbiblical" understanding of "inerrancy," refuted his analysis of the contemporary theological scene, and vowed that Fuller would "sail into the winds of controversy" confident of the "seaworthiness of our ship and the correctness of our course.í And both Fuller and Young Life appear to have closed ranks behind Jewett -- at least to the extent of affirming the validity of his position as a needed option in the emerging discussions. And Duke McCall, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has emphatically responded that Lindsell "stirs up the snakes but kills none of them. The author will neither destroy the heresy he opposes nor divide the Southern Baptist Convention with this silly game with words."

Perhaps more significant as a weathervane is the response of others who stand less directly in Lindsellís line of fire but who might otherwise be expected to line up behind him. Respected evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock, formerly of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and now of Regent College, defended "inerrancy" in Biblical Revelation (Moody Press, 1971) and earlier made himself a center of controversy by his accusations while serving on the faculty of New Orleans Baptist Seminary. More recently he has repented somewhat of such divisiveness; about the time Lindsellís book was published, he issued a "truce proposal" on the issue. And in a review in Eternity magazine he criticized the book for its "spirit of suspicion and hostility" while finding it "intellectually superficial" -- even though he would still find himself to the right of Jewett and others at Fuller. Evangelical patriarch Paul Rees, a founder of the NAE, indirectly attacked the book in a World Vision magazine column titled "Are We Trying to Outdo the Reformers?"

Perhaps the most poignant response has been that of Carl F. H. Henry, who has dominated the evangelical intellectual world for a generation. Henry is torn between the emerging parties, insisting on the one hand that he is closer to Lindsell than to Fuller Seminary (where he once taught) but on the other hand scrambling in a number of interviews, articles and reviews to counteract the bookís threat to the evangelical unity to which he has given so much of himself. He argues as founding editor of Christianity Today that while the magazine was editorially committed to "inerrancy," it was never CTís intention that the doctrine be used so exclusively as the sole determinant of "evangelical authenticity." Henry further criticizes Lindsell for his total rejection of historical criticism, his unkind spirit and his sweeping and unsupported generalizations.

Tensions Toward Realignment

Ironically, Lindsellís book may very well prove to be a potent force for undermining the very position he defends. The superficiality of the book, combined with its timing in the midst of already swirling controversy, may provide the occasion for a wholesale repudiation of its stance. The rush of theologians and church leaders to dissociate themselves from The Battle for the Bible may indicate that this rejection is already taking place.

The crunch will most likely be felt at Christianity Today. Does the editorís book inevitably pull the magazine into his corner and make of it a party journal no longer representative of the whole? Or will the magazine find a way to bridge the ever-broadening evangelical world and by implication repudiate Lindsellís position -- which depends at its very heart on its exclusiveness?

Such tensions and forces toward realignment will be felt throughout evangelicalism in the near future. What will emerge cannot yet be predicted, but the outcome will certainly have significance for the whole American church world. Major splits would further isolate a faithful fundamentalist minority. A pulling away on the left by large segments of the evangelical world would likely result in a merging of those segments with a conservative Protestant mainstream in a way that would have a major impact on the shape and internal politics of a number of church bodies. And what appears to Lindsell as the imminent victory of apostasy may herald the emergence of new models of biblical authenticity and new realignments within American Protestantism that may actually serve to overcome the chasms opened up by the fundamentalist/ modernist controversy of two generations ago.


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