The War on Evangelicalism, Part Two

As I have alluded to in part one, the trajectories of American fundamentalism and American evangelicalism are intertwined. It is impossible to understand current evangelicalism in America without understanding how fundamentalism has shaped or reshaped American evangelicals. While post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their dour cousins, eventually they became more than kissing cousins and by the end of the twentieth century what was initially a small baby bump, became a toddler that looked and acted more like the fundamentalist father than the evangelical mother.

So, what had happened? To the uninitiated, evangelicals were what they’d always been: devoted to an inerrant Bible, at war with a secular society and keen on personal salvation. Well, that set of descriptors certainly hadn’t changed for fundamentalists. They’d been preaching that for over a century. But was that always true for evangelicals? Actually, no.

What would occur in the decades following Watergate could only be described as a collision between evangelicals and fundamentalists centered around race and the inerrancy of scripture. Simply put, inerrancy of scripture combined with white privilege clashed with the more nuanced views of evangelical scholarship and the classic evangelical call for social justice. Warning shots were fired when Harold Lindsell published his popular “Battle for the Bible” in 1976. (1)

In David Ewert‘s 1977 review of Lindsell’s book, he clearly describes the growing tension between conservatives as to how to describe the inspiration of scripture:

“It is disheartening when brothers within the evangelical tradition confront each other as enemies or rivals when they discover that not everyone understands the Bible exactly as they do. But it strikes me as unspeakably sad when someone feels “called” to divide the evangelical movement, in which the Bible is confessed to be inspired and authoritative for doctrine and practice, by demanding that everyone use the same vocabulary when defining inspiration (other than that which the biblical writers use).” (2)

More moderate views were held by evangelical scholars such as Clark Pinnock, who’s views on inerrancy of scripture had evolved over time. In 1978, Pinnock described the problem arose because for fundamentalists “the confluence of the Princeton theology of Hodge and Warfield with dispensational thinking in the Fundamentalist position meant that for fundamentalism and its successors, biblical inerrancy had to be an important question. …For evangelical theology, belief in biblical inerrancy and belief in biblical authority have been very closely connected, and therefor the inerrancy debate touches upon what many people feel is the basis of authority and religious certainty.” (3)

I will not attempt to go down the rabbit hole of that debate, as that is an entirely different subject. But, as one with first-hand memories of that debate, I can attest to the bitter conflict that ensued, as I was attending Fuller Seminary around that time, and everyone was taking sides in the battle. Sufficient to say, it formed the backbone of division within conservative Christianity. I, as with many other moderate students and faculty, had sided with the more nuanced views of “sufficiency of scripture” and its authority in matters of doctrine, but rejected literalism and strict inerrancy as indefensible. Over the next 2 decades we would lose that battle.

To be continued. 

1 The Battle for the Bible, Harold Lindsell, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976. 288 pages.

2 https://directionjournal.org/6/2/battle-for-bible.html

3 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/004057367803500108?cookieSet=1

Author: socalkdl

Like so many Evangelicals of late, I have grown weary of the so-called "Culture Wars." I can agree with Philip Yancey in his "Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News," that grace within the church seems to be a vanishing commodity. Although still connected to the Evangelical church I have often felt distant and removed from portions of its theology and interaction with a Post-Christian society. A few years ago I felt it necessary, for my own spiritual health, to step back and "deconstruct" my theological belief set. I had become too enmeshed in the Evangelical "bubble" to honestly and critically assess my conservative theological doctrines. What has followed in the past few years is my own journey of rediscovering the Bible, and, above all, rediscovering God. It has become a journey that still surprises and delights me. Not everything is new. The faith first delivered to me by the Evangelical church has been reaffirmed. The Good News is still the best deal out there. But there have been new discoveries as well. It is my hope that my posts encourage your own questions and reassessments. It is my conviction that, because we see through a mirror darkly, there are questions that are valid to ask, and that we should not be afraid to ask them. God bless you in your own spiritual journeys. Kirk Leavens

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