In many ways, the battle for the Bible and for the “soul” of evangelicalism mirrored the same lines of reasoning that undergirded the American Civil War. The Bible read literally simply did not clearly disparage slavery. One could find ample support for “Biblical slavery.” Abolitionists were at a clear disadvantage, then, if one assumed the Bible was to be taken literally. Likewise, the struggle for racial equality and women’s rights found scant support when the Bible was read literally and deemed “inerrant.”
Secondly, by defending an inerrant Bible (despite all the intellectual hoops one had to jump through to do so) Lindsell and other fundamentalists were afforded a certain “moral high ground in the battle, at least in their own eyes. While others sought to elevate blacks and women in society, fundamentalists defended the “Word of God,” from modernity and secularism. Inerrancy became the rule of engagement for the coming war for evangelicalism. Fundamentalism almost always assumes issues are binary, either all right or all wrong, and they were sure they were on the side of all-right. As Clark Pinnock once observed, “How awfully easy it is for people who think themselves in possession of God’s infallible Word to transfer some of that infallibility to themselves…And how easy for them, to respond to anyone who questions any aspect of their fortresslike position with righteous anger and adamant rejection.” (1)
Thirdly, the fundamentalist’s views on scriptural authority and inspiration tended to downplay experience and practice in favor of knowledge. The Bible became largely a compendium of “facts” about God that Christians were to intellectually absorb. Orthodoxy was primarily defined as believing the right things. “The Bible, then, is not a ‘book full of timeless truths’ (2) but a revelatory vehicle that contains many types of revelation, all of which surround and support that which is primary in scripture: narrative.” (3)
Nowhere was the battle to believe the “right things” more apparent than in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. As David Gushee recounts, “Those identifying with the conservative side…believed that the denomination as a whole, and the seminaries and colleges in particular, were straying into mainline liberalism, including an eroding belief in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible.” (4) By this, of course, conservatives meant inerrancy of scripture. The battle for the Bible intertwined with secular politics, and with the Southern fundamentalist views of Jerry Falwell and others, Meant that the “Southern Baptist fights were the most visible. But in Brian McLaren’s 2016 book, ‘The Great Spiritual Migration,’ he describes a political fundamentalist takeover of the whole of evangelical Christianity, not just the Southern Baptists. …A movement of once-considerable theological and moral diversity was gradually and intentionally moved to a place of conservative theological and moral rigidity.” (5)
But this brings us to a different level of theological infighting. The so-called battle for the Bible and the subsequent takeover of evangelicalism was strongly intertwined with a certain political stance and agendas. There were underlying political motives of the fundamentalist battle for control of American evangelicalism. More on that in part 5 of this series.
To be continued.
1 Roger E. Olson, “Reformed and Always Reforming,” Baker Academic, 2007, pp. 55-56, (quoting Pinnock) from “An Evangelical Theology: Conservative and Contemporary,” Christianity Today, January 5, 1979, p. 23.
2 Clark Pinnock, “Tracking the Maze: Finding our Way Through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective,” Harper and Roe, 1990, p. 175
3 Olson, p. 54.
4 David P. Gushee, “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” p. 30.
5 Ibid., p. 31.