American evangelicals are in danger of forfeiting their remarkable opportunity for theological breakthrough bestowed by the collapse of theological liberalism and the disintegration of neo-orthodoxy.

Evangelism remains the mainstay of evangelicalism. That is to the good, since a community that leaves no posterity is destined to extinction. Because of universalism, explicit or implicit, neither liberalism nor neo-orthodoxy stimulated evangelistic concern. The evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham and others provided a transcontinental witness to the ongoing power of the Gospel to transform warped and wanting lives. But American evangelism relied too much on sporadic crusades, failed to register a comprehensive mass-media impact, and ineffectively challenged national conscience and social trends.

Theological renewal, which evangelical administrators and evangelists and even educators have made a subsidiary concern, has stopped short of an influential tide of literature and learning. The shorthand “evangelistic theology” serviceable to cooperative community effort is now separating once again into Reformed, Arminian, charismatic, and other alternatives.

More than many would care to admit, evangelical theological initiative has leaned on the work of C. S. Lewis and more traditional British evangelicals, as well as upon the writings of continental theologians like G. C. Berkouwer and Helmut Thielicke, not to mention modified versions of the work of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. On the American scene J. Oliver Buswell Jr.’s A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (two volumes, 1962, 1963) was the only comprehensive conservative effort to appear in recent decades. Major denominational publishing houses have produced little of durable theological significance from American evangelicals. Symposiums, Bible commentary series, encyclopedias, and dictionaries attest the existence of an international and interdenominational body of evangelical scholarship, and many writers have made commendable contributions on a smaller scale. But even the so-called evangelical thought magazines have tilted increasingly away from frontier theological impact to a passive lay readership, and some writing energies have been deployed to hasty and often lucrative productions rather than to technically demanding works.

Beyond doubt American evangelicals have pushed beyond major dependence upon reprints from past generations, but the task of producing a theological literature that invites reading on both sides of the Atlantic and comprehensively grapples with influential contemporary trends awaits fulfillment.

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Something about the present evangelical state of mind is evidenced by the fact that a listening or reading audience of clergy and lay leaders is much more easily gathered for polemically oriented discussions of matters like the inerrancy controversy than for mapping a constructive agenda for overall evangelical advance. The battle over the Bible has become more central than the effective statement of the Bible’s claims upon man and society. The high task of forging a constructive theological program that bears on all the basic Christian beliefs is neglected.

Let me offer some proposals in which all evangelical scholars might share irrespective of the divisions that now tend to tear them apart. These proposals are less comprehensive than the program ventured by a number of evangelical leaders in England who have been meeting privately to ask both what factors today parallel those that in earlier generations facilitated the decline and decay of evangelical movements and what precautions are needed to avoid a repetition. Here I address only the Bible controversy.

1. List all evangelical academic resources for engaging in a five-to-ten-year program on the authority of Scripture: seminary, college, and Bible college faculties; evangelical professors teaching on non-evangelical campuses; graduate students writing dissertations or theses for advanced degrees; seminar courses conducive to the study of special problems.

2. Classify these international resources according to theological-philosophical, linguistic, historical-archaeological, and other specializations, and subdivide them into Old Testament and New Testament spheres.

3. Prepare a comprehensive record of the reversals of the biblical critics—positions now disowned by informed scholars but at one time ardently championed by prestigious academicians. This project will attest how extensively higher criticism turns not upon textual data and scientific-historical factors but upon the philosophical biases of the interpreters. Critics minimize their highly fallible track record by conforming critical works on the Bible to the latest theories and seldom mention the long succession of earlier “latest theories” now abandoned.

4. Chart the appeal made to snippets of Scripture by contemporary non-evangelical theologians who, though they disown the Bible’s objective authority, nonetheless appeal to it for an authority-aura where it coincides with their individual views. Then chart the specific rejection of these very passages by other influential scholars, and thus lay bare the process of cross-cancellation of biblical authority that pervades modern theological scholarship. This procedure will show that, once the Bible’s plenary authority is set aside, Scripture becomes a “wax nose” that neo-Protestant scholars twist and turn to support their prejudices.

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5. Learn what specific problems are already being addressed by serious evangelical scholars.

6. Shape a comprehensive investigation of the remaining biblical problem areas by asking evangelical scholars who do not subscribe to inerrancy to help formulate issues to be researched.

7. Ask non-inerrantist evangelicals to show their basic evangelical intention by indicating what specific problems they propose to address in the context of a biblically affirmative view.

8. Complete a comprehensive program of assignments that involves all these problems by enlisting all available evangelical energies, including national and regional meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and other academic associations interested in biblical truth.

9. After one year probe the possibility of a summer task force to review and correlate these efforts, the cost of each scholar’s participation to be underwritten by his own institution or some cooperative agency.

10. After several years consider the possibility of publishing periodic paperbacks and/or a final volume.

Such a program, if it is to succeed, must represent the work of serious scholars and concentrate on issues rather than on personalities and institutional rivalries.

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