Few periods of the last century were more destructive, realigning, reshaping, and redefining of Evangelicalism than the decade and a half beginning in the mid-1970s. The evangelical coalition was taut and threadbare, in danger of tearing asunder by scholars who disputed a fundamental of the Christian faith, Scripture’s inerrancy. Ironically, the ripping occurred the same year that Evangelicalism unexpectedly received national acclaim linked to a presidential election.
Arising from this period were two closely correlated questions: (1) Who are the Evangelicals? (2) What do Evangelicals believe concerning the authority and truthfulness of Holy Scripture? Both questions were thrust upon Evangelicalism in 1976, the year that Newsweek deemed the “Year of the Evangelical.” In what follows, I will show that 1976, while seemingly a high water mark for Evangelicalism, actually exposed serious fractures which proved beyond repair, despite valiant efforts by leading evangelical scholars. Many who abandoned the foundational evangelical belief in the inerrancy of Scripture took the evangelical label with them and expanded it to allow for their belief in “limited inerrancy.” They published numerous essays and books challenging the long-held belief that the Bible is without error in the original manuscripts. The battle was on; would Evangelicalism survive?
1976: A Pivotal Year for God’s Word
In America’s bicentennial, Jimmy Carter ran for United States president as self-professed “born again” Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, The incumbent, Gerald Ford, a reserved Episcopalian, professed the same. At that time, Episcopalian and Southern Baptist leaders identified their denominations as distinct if not separate from America’s evangelicals. With the presidential election only a week away, these distinctions were too intricate for Newsweek’s editors to acknowledge or comprehend when they designated 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” (October 25, 1976). For example, Carter’s praise for Paul Tillich, a Neo-Orthodox theologian from whom evangelical scholars stood aloof, did not temper Newsweek’s equating Carter, the Southern Baptist, with Evangelicals.
Harold Lindsell, also a Southern Baptist, took a vastly different posture toward the SBC leadership than Carter, who identified with them. Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible in 1976 and by June it was already in its third printing. Formerly Lindsell was a faculty member at Northern Baptist and Fuller Seminaries and Wheaton College before he succeeded Carl F. H. Henry as editor of Christianity Today (1968–78). So, when Lindsell wrote his book he did so as the editor of a major Christian magazine, not as an academic. Thus, he appealed not to scholars but to “evangelical lay people in the pews who may not be aware of the central issue that faces them, their denominations, and their institutions.” What distressed him was stated at the outset, as he regards
biblical inerrancy to be the most important theological topic of this age. A great battle rages about it among people called evangelicals. I did not start the battle and wish it were not essential to discuss it. The only way to avoid it would be to remain silent. And silence on this matter would be a grave sin.
1. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, 9th ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), preface.
Of his own denomination, he notes, “Probably 90 percent of the people in the pews believe in biblical infallibility.” His concern is with the academic institutions: “Among faculty members of Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries where do you find articulate spokesmen who come out in favor of inerrancy? The silence is deafening!” He laments that as academics “retreat from inerrancy,” denominations abandon vital ministries and displace them with “socio-political-economic concerns.”
3. Ibid, 208.
4. Ibid, 20
5. Ibid, 206.
Lindsell’s principal distress was over Fuller Seminary’s revising of the doctrine of inerrancy by endorsing their own coinage, “limited inerrancy.” He also called attention to an ethical issue; Fuller Seminary administrators publicly portrayed the seminary as holding to its founding doctrinal affirmation, which included Scripture’s infallibility, even after some of its faculty “ceased to believe in an infallible Bible.” They contended that Scripture’s inerrancy is restricted to matters of Christian faith and practice with allowance for errors in matters concerning the observable world, geography, history, and science.
6. Ibid, 22.
7. According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “Inerrancy” means being “being free from all falsehood” (Article XII), while “infallibility” means true and reliable in all the matters it addresses” (Article XI). Progressives would later claim that the Bible is inerrant and infallible only in matters pertaining to faith and practice, and not in areas of science, biology, or history.
It is significant, then, that Harold J. Ockenga, first President of Fuller Seminary (1947–54) and still serving on the seminary’s board, launched the initial volley from Lindsell’s arsenal by writing the foreword. Ockenga drew attention to Fuller Seminary, sharing Lindsell’s concern that Scripture’s “inerrancy is the watershed of modern theological controversy” because “those who give up an authoritative, dependable, authentic, trustworthy, and infallible Scripture must ultimately yield the right to use of the name ‘evangelical.’”
This is Lindsell’s burden when he makes his final appeal:
It is my conviction that a host of those evangelicals who no longer hold to inerrancy are still relatively evangelical. I do not for one moment concede, however, that in a technical sense anyone can claim the evangelical badge once he has abandoned inerrancy. . . . It is true that a man can be a Christian without believing in inerrancy. But it is also true that down the road lie serious pitfalls into which such a denial leads. And even if this generation can forego inerrancy and remain more or less evangelical, history tells us that those who come after this generation will not do so. . . . I do not look for or expect a time in history as we know it when the whole professing church will believe either in inerrancy or the major doctrines of the Christian faith. There will always be wheat and tares growing together until the angels begin their task of reaping the harvest at the end of the age.
8. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, 210–11.
His book exposed the threadbare evangelical coalition tautly tugged in opposing directions by dogmatic inerrantists and equally dogmatic limited inerrantists. Lindsell’s call to arms also endangered a widening gap between evangelicals in church pews and academics who taught their young people in the colleges and their prospective pastors in seminaries.
1976: A Divisive Year for Church and Academy
In 1976, for evangelical laypeople, Lindsell brought to light the continuing skirmishes among academics. He called for an evangelical militia of lay people to join the conflict that had been raging long against God’s authoritative and infallible Scriptures, a campaign that was threatening the integrity of Christian colleges and seminaries. He succeeded in prompting discussion among his target readers, folks who fill the pews of evangelical churches.
I witnessed this as a young seminarian in 1976 when I read the book as well as its critical reviews. It was respect for elders that kept my mouth shut and ears open as I attentively listened to an intense and spirited discussion of Scripture’s authority and inerrancy among my uncles and my father at our extended family reunion that summer. (If you’re wondering, all of them approved of Lindsell’s thesis.)
However, a lay militia of foot soldiers was hardly equipped to combat a cavalry of academics. The laity’s most potent weapon was their power to fund or withhold funds from wayward colleges and seminaries. Consequently, Lindsell’s call for laypeople to engage was met with a disproportionate counter-offensive of heavy artillery launched from academia’s ivory tower turrets. This counter-offensive aimed not to convince laypeople but to recruit other academics for the cause, and especially theological students.
Lindsell’s targeted lay readers do not publish book reviews. Academics do, and they published many on his book. Some were uncritical and deferential, most were critical and insightful, and some were dismissive and scornful.
Like a statesman, Carl F. H. Henry judiciously took Lindsell to task, pointing out a tendency toward journalistic hyperbole. While acknowledging the correctness of Lindsell’s concern that “an aberrant view of scripture” has regularly infiltrated Evangelicalism, Henry corrects an imbalance, pointing to “the vast multitude of scholars, clergy, and laymen in all circles who still hold firmly to a fully authoritative and inerrant Bible.” He observes that most evangelicals that deny full inerrancy—errant Evangelicas—have “as yet not made concessions beyond an errant scripture.”
9. New Review of Books and Religion [1976, 1.1, p.7].
More pointedly, he rejected Lindsell’s divisive “withholding the term evangelical from all persons who do not affirm inerrancy” even if the designation may legitimately be withheld from “a growing number of contemporaries whose commitments coincide with historic evangelical Christianity.” Henry regarded Christianity Today’s role as a magazine that adheres to an orthodox center while holding together a broad evangelical alliance, and Lindsell transgressed this ideal. Two years later, on April 7, 1978, Lindsell edited his final copy of the magazine and retired.
The Emergence of the Evangelical Left
Adding fuel to the fire, Donald Dayton, a Wesleyan Methodist at Northern Seminary and an outspoken opponent of “inerrancy,” wrote a blistering retort to Lindsell masquerading as a book review for Christian Century. It seems to have escaped Dayton that Lindsell expressly framed his arguments and evidence for readers in the pews. Treating the book as if it were directed at academics, Dayton criticized Lindsell for “lack of theological and historical subtlety . . . 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,” and “ignoring contrary evidence.”
12. November 10, 1976, 976–80.
13. Ibid, 976.
As one of the “young evangelicals” mentioned by Lindsell, Dayton points to cultural currents that oppose Lindsell’s call to defend Scripture’s inerrancy: (1) “a socially activist ‘young evangelical’ consciousness” with its discovery of “social justice” themes throughout the Bible allegedly ignored by their forebears; (2) some dispute belief “in a historical Adam and Eve”; (3) others look askance at theologians who fixate on questions that ostensibly concern “only a few obscure biblical texts” while “ignoring the topic of ‘poorology’ [sic] to which are devoted hundreds of clear texts”; (4) the emergence of “evangelical feminism”; and “young evangelicals” who disapprove of the traditional reading of Scripture as an alleged means of oppressing women and indigenous peoples.
Dayton observes that all this upheaval warrants concern for evangelicals like Lindsell “who cannot see beyond the imminent collapse” of their own theology. From such a sentiment, Dayton hoped The Battle for the Bible represented the deposing of “a discredited party” consisting of Lindsell’s allies—Billy Graham, Hudson T. Armerding (President of Wheaton College), and Francis Schaeffer. Among these three, Dayton reserved his harshest censure for Schaeffer, who in the spring of 1976, presented “Inerrancy: The Watershed of the Evangelical World” to the National Association of Evangelicals which he later published as chapter two of The Great Evangelical Disaster (1984). Equally, Dayton disparaged the announced 1977 NAE convention theme, “God’s Word: Our Infallible Guide.”
Dayton happily reported that a coalition of “firm opposition” to Lindsell was emerging. He praised David Hubbard, president of Fuller Seminary, for inviting media personnel to attend a special preemptive convocation in April 1976, the same month The Battle for the Bible was published. At the convocation, Hubbard condemned Lindsell’s understanding of “inerrancy” as “unbiblical” in favor of “limited inerrancy.” He confidently pledged Fuller Seminary to withstand the controversy while affirming that the Bible is “the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” Dayton also praised Duke McCall, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville), who derisively declared, “[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.”
Clearly, Dayton embraced Ernest Sandeen’s assessment of the Princeton theologians, claiming that they fabricated the doctrine of inerrancy to avoid a burgeoning pressure on Scripture’s authority from critical scholars who disputed the historicity of many biblical events and scientists who rejected Scripture’s account of creation. Thus, Dayton foreshadowed the incessant influence Sandeen’s thesis would have on other academics of his stripe who would join the battle against belief in Scripture’s inerrancy. He appealed to a dubious, revisionist, and pejorative-punctuated historiography concerning Scripture’s inerrancy that was gaining momentum and that would achieve ascendancy and persist to this day despite evidence to the contrary. Briefly, that historiography is the belief that Scripture’s inerrancy was of recent vintage, a doctrinal construct conceived by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in their essay, “Inspiration” (1881), a belief channeled to them by Francis Turretin (1632–1687), the alleged scholastic post-Reformation scholar, and aided and abetted by the influence of Thomas Reid’s Scottish common-sense realism.
16. Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1970; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978).
More than a decade before Newsweek declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelicals,” the coalition of conservative Protestants had already begun to break apart. One did not have to agree fully with Lindsell to acknowledge that Evangelicals were engaged in a Battle for the Bible. His book, aimed at laypeople, exposed the growing divide between folks who filled church pews on Sundays and the academics who taught their pastors in seminaries. Other prominent leaders beyond Lindsell were endeavoring to rally evangelicals to affirm the historic faith in the authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures. Their efforts led to the Lausanne Covenant (1974) that included an affirmation that the Scriptures, God’s written word, are without error in their entirety. Later, the Chicago Statement (1978) would expand and strengthen this affirmation. However, each rallying call seemed to provoke as much opposition as support. The fissure between conservative Evangelicals and “the young Evangelicals” widened. Conflicts continued as Evangelicalism underwent realignment. But a different breed of young scholars was also rising to the challenge. They would answer the Inerrancy-denying Evangelicals by demonstrating that the doctrine of Scripture’s inerrancy was no recent development by Christian theologians to counter the burgeoning Liberalism of the nineteenth century.
[Editor’s Note: This article introduces a two-part series on Evangelicalism in the 1970s and 80s. Part two may be found here.]