Evangelicalism in the 1970s and 80s—Scripture’s Inerrancy and Errant Evangelicals (Part 2)

By

Editor’s Note: This article concludes a two part series on the Evangelicalism in the 1970s and 80s. You can read the first part here. Also, for the month of November, the Banner of Truth has graciously allowed our readers a free download of The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church by David Wells. This was a prophetic address to the National Association of Evangelicals that holds great pertinence for Christians today.

Before Harold Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible in 1976, the second major world conference on evangelism was held, the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization. Out of this conference that same year the influential Lausanne Covenant was produced, a document that is both statement of faith and ministry philosophy. This Covenant affirmed the “Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms,” but this sentence left loopholes. Some prominent evangelicals claimed that scripture was without error in faith and practice, but not necessarily in history and science—a position coined as “limited inerrancy.” This and other currents led to the International Conference on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI, 1978) and the drafting of the seminal Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Following the publication of the Chicago Statement, a flurry of books challenged the traditional evangelical position on the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. A year following the ICBI, Jack Rogers of Fuller Seminary and his former student, Donald McKim, launched a major retaliatory assault upon belief in the inerrant Scriptures with The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. Written for academics, it was a book few lay people would read. They drafted Ford Lewis Battles of Calvin Seminary, an evangelical institution, to write the foreword where he effectively exhibits the book’s arsenal:

 

 

How did the defensive, intransigent position of inerrancy that marks the handling of Scripture among certain twentieth-century children of the Protestant Reformation come into existence? Our authors have read the early church fathers, the medieval exegetes, and especially the magistral [sic] Reformers, and have found no such teaching about Scripture and its inspiration in those authors.[1]

 

 

1. Jack Bartlett Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach, 1st ed (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), XV.

Accordingly, Rogers and McKim claim that Calvin’s sixteenth-century successors launched a scholastic, philosophizing endeavor that found a haven at Princeton Seminary where Francis Turretin’s theology thrived with new life invigorated by infusions of Thomas Reid’s Scottish common-sense realism. According to Rogers and McKim, full inerrancy was a relatively recent invention, and church history was on the side of “limited inerrancy.”

 

 

The Rogers/McKim proposal quickly gained adherents despite initial piecemeal rebuttals published by the ICBI. Then, John D. Woodbridge, a church historian, reviewed The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible for the Trinity Journal (1 NS, 2 [1980]). His review swelled to 70 pages. Then it expanded into a book, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Zondervan, 1982). Woodbridge exposes numerous methodological problems manifest in Rogers and McKim’s presentation, documentation, and historiography. He rightly features their pivotal error, one that evangelicals who affirm an errant Bible regularly commit to this day. They unwittingly adopted Faustus Socinus’s teaching on divine accommodation.[2] Rogers and McKim erroneously attribute this errant notion concerning God’s revelation to Christians ranging from Augustine to Calvin in their effort to find reputable historical support for their belief that Scripture includes unintentional errors, otherwise known as “limited inerrancy.”

2. Faustus Socinus was an Italian theologian who denied the Trinity (amongst other orthodox doctrines).

D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge jointly edited two additional volumes that provided decisive responses to the Rogers/McKim thesis, with contributions from about twenty brilliant scholars, most of whom had no direct affiliation with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). The first book, in 1983, was Scripture and Truth, a collection of twelve penetrating and evergreen essays. Woodbridge and Randall Balmer dismantle Ernest Sandeen’s proposal on which Rogers and McKim so heavily depended. Carson and Woodbridge followed this with Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon in 1986, a collection of nine essays that effectively demonstrate that belief in Scripture’s infallibility has always been central to the church’s affirmations. Carson’s, “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” and Woodbridge’s, “Some Misconceptions of the Impact of the ‘Enlightenment’ on the Doctrine of Scripture” administer devastating blows to the Rogers/McKim thesis. These knockout punches destroyed the thesis that ‘prior to the nineteenth century Christians never affirmed Holy Scripture’s inerrant authority in all matters the Bible affirms and on which it touches.’ Nevertheless, as will be shown, this discredited belief stubbornly persists contrary to the evidence.

 

 

At the core of the Rogers/McKim thesis is their grave misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of God’s condescension or accommodation to reveal himself and his purposes to us his creatures. In their version of “limited inerrancy,” they contend that the Bible contains no intentional errors, that is, no biblical authors intended to deceive. However, Rogers/McKim claim that there are errors arising from human misunderstandings and false beliefs that have no bearing on Scripture’s saving function. For example, they would relegate much of Genesis 1–11 to mistaken understandings of human origins. Thus, they affirm Scripture’s “functional inerrancy.” They unwittingly and mistakenly attribute to ancient Christians (e.g., Chrysostom and Augustine) and medieval Reformers (e.g., Calvin and Luther) the doctrine of God’s accommodation that properly belongs to Faustus Socinus of the sixteenth century. Like Socinus, Rogers and McKim contend that the Holy Spirit accommodated the Scriptures to the mistaken viewpoints and beliefs of the biblical writers which included unintentional, erroneous, and false beliefs concerning the world, geography, history, mathematics, science, etc.

 

 

Late in their book, Rogers and McKim claim that Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck of Old Amsterdam held a limited or “functional inerrancy” view, a vastly different posture from that of A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield of Old Princeton. Likewise, they assert, “Bavinck, like Calvin, recognized that God had accommodated himself to our human forms of thought and speech in communicating his divine message.”[3] Their claims are incorrect and misleading. When they explain their understanding of “divine accommodation,” they do not concur with Bavinck anymore than they do with Calvin. Richard Gaffin convincingly demonstrates in two essays that Rogers and McKim wrongfully appropriated Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. Rather, these theologians are both in harmony with the Reformers and with the Princeton theologians that Scripture is inerrant).[4]

3. Rogers & McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, 392.

 

 

4. “Old Amsterdam and Inerrancy?” WTJ 44 [1982], 250–89; 45 [1983], 219–72.

 

Throughout the 1980s the Evangelical movement suffered the repercussions of the crises it encountered in the late 1970s. This was so despite the labor of pastors, scholars, and leading spokesmen who throughout the 1980s had defended biblical inerrancy against a heavy internal assault. Media stereotyping, internal divisions, and some public scandals all contributed to the identity crisis. As the decade was about to close, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the National Association of Evangelicals jointly convened the Evangelical Affirmations Consultation for four days in May 1989 with more than 600 participants. The purpose was to reaffirm the evangelical identity—“to clarify the character of the evangelical movement and to affirm certain truths critical” to the church’s advancement. Carl Henry, one of ten plenary speakers, acknowledged that concerning “their own identity and purpose, as well as their public image,” evangelicals “have never been more murky and maligned.”[5] Rightly, Henry devoted most of his presentation to “the origin, necessity, and proper understanding of the doctrine of inerrancy for evangelical identity.” He persuasively demonstrated that the doctrine of inerrancy did not arise in reaction to historical criticism or Modernism but that it derives from Scripture itself. Henry made the case that Evangelicalism must be known for more than its apologetic championing of Scripture’s inerrancy. He wisely observed that to fixate on inerrancy too “readily sacrifices an awareness that two competing worldviews underlie the conflict over the Bible.” Efforts to “rescue particular disputed passages may even unwittingly obscure a necessary challenge to anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions” of detractors. This “bias inevitably involves a secular misperception of inspiration and accommodates a devaluation of the text.”[6] Succinctly stated, Henry called for evangelicals to cease thinking in bits and pieces but in totalities, in a worldview.

5. Christianity Today, June 16, 1989
6. Carl Henry, “Who are Evangelicals?” Henry Center for Theological Understanding.

 

 

 Evangelicalism has never recovered its doctrinal identity or cohesiveness since its fractures during the 1970s. Despite valiant endeavors by leading evangelicals, answers to the two leading questions thrust upon Evangelicalism in the mid-1970s became murkier and more disappointing: (1) Who are the evangelicals? (2) What do evangelicals believe concerning the authority and truthfulness of Holy Scripture?

 Many prominent “evangelicals” today deny full inerrancy. Numerous examples could be offered to illustrate how far they have strayed from what evangelicals once believed. Consider one example of how a wrongly construed doctrine of God’s revelatory accommodation to his creatures leads to a wrong doctrine of scripture. Denis Lamoureux insists that Scripture includes the false beliefs of the Bible’s human authors. He candidly states that although Scripture tells us how God created all things, Scripture is actually wrong: “Holy Scripture makes statements about how God created the heavens that in fact never happened. . . . Holy Scripture makes statements about how God created living organisms that in fact never happened.” To these audacious statements, Lamoureux asks and answers, “‘Did God lie in the Bible?’ Again my answer is ‘No! The Lord accommodated in the Bible.’”[7]

 

7. “No Historical Adam,” Four Views on the Historical Adam, eds. Barrett & Caneday, 54, 56, emphasis original.

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

The many Christians who gathered together to draft The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy published a significant, useful, and enduring statement for evangelicals. It remains an authoritative affirmation, a resource appealed to effectively by individuals, churches, and academic institutions. Likewise, books and resources published by the ICBI served evangelicals well to defend their faith concerning the Scriptures. Many other evangelical scholars contributed significant exegetical, theological, and historical defenses of the ancient belief in the inerrant and authoritative Scriptures.

 

 

During the 1970s, of the various arguments for “limited” or “functional inerrancy,” Rogers & McKim published the most daunting and impressive proposal. Though it initially found favor among evangelicals who flirted with their errant view on inerrancy, early in the 1980s, thanks to John Woodbridge, their thesis came under devastating criticism, so much that copies remained long on bookstore shelves. (I purchased my copy very cheaply.) Lamentably, even though their proposal suffered decisive disabling blows, because their thesis that God accommodates erroneous and false beliefs of the Bible’s human authors is attractive to academics, it persists. It is most visible among many academics who dispute the accuracy of the Bible’s creation narrative and especially its account concerning the formation of Adam. They regularly contend that Genesis 1-11 has more in common with the creation-flood myths of the Ancient Near East than with Genesis 12–50. Though they retain the designation, evangelical, their belief concerning Scripture is not the ancient Christian belief in the infallible witness of the Scriptures “no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”[8]

 

 

8. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

 

 

Thus, Evangelicalism’s turmoil of the 1970s and 80s over the inerrancy of Scripture persists with those who affirm “limited inerrancy” while still clinging to the designation “evangelical.” Such is the state of Evangelicalism today. While on the one hand it lacks the former cohesive unity that characterized the decades leading up to the 1970s, on the other hand it has clarified, defined, and defended the doctrine of inerrancy for the edification of the church. We are grateful to God for young evangelicals today who have benefited from this scholarship and unashamedly affirm The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Ardel Caneday

    Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.