3) Inerrancy as a battle front
I was continually struck by the role that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has played in separating fundamentalists and evangelicals from various other movements. This doctrine is not merely a theological issue, but a boundary marker, an identity indicator, a sort of litmus test for “who is on our team.” With the rise of higher biblical criticism and the B.B. Warfield vs. Charles Briggs debates of the 1880’s and 1890’s, inerrancy became a battle line between conservatives and liberals, and it has continued to function in this way through 20th century American evangelicalism. It was inerrancy around which the FTS faculty split into two camps in 1962, with Dan Fuller’s comments on this issue on “Black Saturday” (December 1, 1962, a crucial turning point in the power shift at FTS) serving as the catalyst. And inerrancy continued to be a focal point for controversy even after the departure of the conservative FTS faculty, in the Winona scandal, or in the 1970’s “battle for the Bible,” in which the opposing sides were largely made up of former FTS faculty like Harold Lindsell (then editor of Christianity Today) versus current FTS faculty.
This larger historical backdrop has made more intelligible something that has always puzzled me, namely, the elevation among many evangelicals of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy to the role of a criterion for orthodoxy. Make no mistake, I believe that its worth fighting for the integrity of Scripture. But from the way evangelicals regularly talk, you’d think to reject inerrancy is to reject the gospel itself, or at least to become untrustworthy, unsafe, unworthy of alliance, “on the other side.” An interesting exception would be C.S. Lewis, who is loved by almost all evangelicals despite not holding to inerrancy. I appreciate Carl Henry’s more moderate position that inerrancy is a test of evangelical consistency, rather than Harold Lindsell’s view that inerrancy is a test of evangelical identity. I think this perspective allows biblical inerrancy to retain an important distinguishing role without placing non-inerrantists such as C.S. Lewis, Lesslie Newbigin, etc. outside of orthodoxy or unworthy of partnership.
4) The Uneasy Conscience both ancient and modern
I am struck by the relevance of Carl Henry’s 1947 The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism to issues of how social justice and evangelism relate, and what roles they play in the fulfillment of the church’s mission. This issue is not new to our generation! We are rehashing the debates of yesterday. I’d like to read this book, and I’d also like to read Carl Henry’s autobiography. I like him.
5) Suppress partisanship?
Perhaps my macro-disagreement with Marsden is with his philosophy of history-telling, as he outlines it his preface to the first edition:
“I work from a particular Christian commitment that makes me generally sympathetic to what Fuller Seminary has been trying to do since its inception. At the same time, I have also tried to step aside from my sympathies. I think the primary justification for having historians these days is that they can provide critical perspectives, especially on traditions that they take seriously. Partisanship, then, although to some degree inevitable, is to be suppressed for the purposes of such historical understanding” (xxi).
I am grateful for Marsden’s superb historical work, and I appreciate the attempt at fairness and openness, but I disagree with the idea that partisanship and sound historical narration are at odds. It seems to me implicit in a Christian worldview that good and evil are real categories across the plain of human history, and that faithful historical narration is wholly consistent with loyalty to the good and opposition to the bad. Yes, there are ambiguities in distinguishing between good and evil, as he says in the next paragraph, and simplistic interpretations in which the “good guys” have no bad and the “bad guys” have no good are to be rejected. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that the moral ambiguities of history require us to step outside our loyalties: they might make us more cautious in where we assign that loyalty, but they should not make us suppress that loyalty. Nor do I think Marsden’s interpretation of FTS’ history, in a more general sense of the term, any less partisan: to step outside of an interpretative standpoint of loyalty to a particular cause is not to step into objectivity, but into loyalty to some other interpretative standpoint.
I do not think that every change at FTS over the years has been a negative one. As examples, I would see its racial diversification, its loss of an exclusively premillennial eschatology, and its movement away from the complete prohibition of alcohol all as positive developments. But the general drift at FTS, from my vantage point, has been away from the hard edges of the gospel, away from the distinctiveness of the church from the culture, away from the courageous affirmation of the offensive aspects of biblical truth, away even from academic rigor in classical theology (cf. the M.Div. curriculum in the 1950’s to today – note the differences in Bible and biblical languages!). My concluding question is why does this so often happen at evangelical academic institutions? What is the cause of this inexorable tendency, repeated in countless examples throughout the 20th century? And related: how do establish evangelical academic institutions in such a way as to safeguard against both fundamentalist close-mindedness and the drift toward liberalism and doctrinal laxity? How do we not only steer the ship between the Scylla of fundamentalist defensiveness and the Charybdis of liberal openness, but also set up the next generation to continue in this track? More on this on #7….