Evangelicalism in the 1970s and 80s—Scripture’s Inerrancy and Errant Evangelicals (Part 1)

More than a decade before Newsweek declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelicals,” the coalition of conservative Protestants had already begun to break apart…Evangelicals were engaged in a Battle for the Bible.

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.”[1] 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.[2]

Of his own denomination, he notes, “Probably 90 percent of the people in the pews believe in biblical infallibility.”[3] 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!”[4] He laments that as academics “retreat from inerrancy,” denominations abandon vital ministries and displace them with “socio-political-economic concerns.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.[7]

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]

Read More

Previous ArticleNext Article