Insights from Reforming Fundamentalism: 3-5

[continued from previous post]

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….

2 Comments

  1. Just stumbled across this… I enjoyed Marsden’s book very much and found it to be a helpful means of orienting my view of contemporary evangelicalism. I appreciate Marsden’s work very much—loved his biography of Edwards—but I also love your point about Marsden’s non-partisan partisanship. (Stanley Fish said the same thing about Marsden in this epochal essay.)

    Four years on, however, where do you find yourself in answering the question you posed? I got here through your review of the counterpoints book on inerrancy. It was very evenhanded. Very helpful. But is it unfair to draw a direct line from the beginning of this post to the end of it? You ask, “Why does [advancing liberalism] so often happen at evangelical academic institutions?” Can’t Black Saturday serve as a plausible answer in Fuller’s case?

    It would seem to me, too, that fundamentalist defensiveness is not a Scylla if liberal openness is a Charybdis. Fundamentalist defensiveness will still get you through to the other side even if you had a (truly sinful and not to be overlooked) bad attitude along the way. But liberal openness—if by liberal you mean mainline, and perhaps I’m misunderstanding you—will get you sucked into the whirlpool or dashed against the rocks. Some sins truly are worse than others; Paul anathematizes only those who lose the gospel (Gal. 1:8).

    I enjoyed your posts enough to subscribe to your blog. Would be happy to wait for a reply on this; looks like you’re quite busy!

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    1. Hi Mark, thanks for stopping by and the thoughtful comments.

      On your first question, I would say that a rejection of inerrancy is often associated with a movement toward liberalism, but not universally. For example, some people reject inerrancy but otherwise maintain orthodox Christian views (Lesslie Newbigin, or C.S. Lewis). I therefore think we should be careful about drawing a “direct” line from (3) to (5) above. I’ve talked about that more here if you are interested: https://gavinortlund.com/2013/12/02/thoughts-on-biblical-inerrancy/

      On your second question, I quite agree that being a nasty but regenerate fundamentalist is ultimately better than being a full-blown liberal. But I am here using the categories “fundamentalist defensiveness” and “liberal openness” as two opposite theological tendencies, in response to modernity—not as precise historical referents. Classic liberalism would be the extreme example of the latter, but there are more mild versions of this tendency that don’t push you outside of orthodoxy. And are extreme examples of the former enough to push someone outside orthodoxy? I would say so, since getting through Scylla and Charybdis is not just a matter of orthodox doctrine, but genuine Christian life. It seems to me that the fundamentalist mindset can do as much damage as the liberal when it is pushed to the extreme. Its just a different KIND of damage. My two cents.

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