Some guidelines for action

Time and Newsweek, those infallible and inerrant analysts of all that is American, tell us that 1976 was the year of the evangelicals. I am pessimistic.

Sydney Ahlstrom, foremost historian of the American church today, argues that America has now arrived at the end of a four-hundred-year cycle. It has come to the end of an epoch dominated by evangelical Christianity. Though I am more inclined to agree with the learned Yale professor than I am with Time and Newsweek, I am nevertheless more optimistic. A more accurate analysis will direct us away from both of these extremes.

In the past two centuries the percentage of American people affiliated with any Christian church rose from less than 10 per cent to nearly 70 per cent of the total population. Accompanying this amazing growth of the church, however, has been the Americanization of the church. It would be far truer to say that America has conquered the church than that the church has conquered America. As Will Herberg has so brilliantly shown in his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew, one can truly be an American only through membership in a church, and the real values of the church are far more the social and political principles that hold together the melting pot of the United States than the principles of Holy Scripture.

Within the mainline Protestant church in America, moreover, evangelicalism has gradually lost its once dominant position. Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century and culminating shortly after the first World War, the leadership of American denominations turned from evangelicalism to the neo-Christianity of liberalism. By 1930, leadership in most of the mainline Protestant denominations was clearly in the hands of liberals, and each decade since has witnessed a declining leadership role on the part of conservative evangelicals.

Evangelicalism not only declined in mainline denominations but unfortunately also withdrew everywhere from the centers of influence and power. It became an ever smaller subculture in the overall American church scene, defensive in its reactions and ghettolike in its psychology.

This decline of evangelicalism was partly compensated for (but only partly so) by the growth of the independent movement in the early and middle years of our century, and even more by the development of numerous small evangelical bodies that followed the traditional pattern of the older mainline denominations in their general understanding and practice of Christianity. These bodies, almost exclusively evangelical, have grown rapidly through the middle of the twentieth century and on through our day. Many such small denominations have doubled their membership every fifteen years or so.

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The most spectacular growth of evangelicalism, however, is to be found in the Pentecostal denominations and in the newer charismatic fellowships. Introducing a type of piety alien to traditional Protestantism but, in most instances, unequivocally evangelical, the modern Pentecostal movement came into being during the early part of this century. Until 1960, its influence was confined to small, splintered, and often despised sects on the fringe of mainstream Christianity. But in the middle and final thirds of our century the charismatic movement really caught fire. In the last decade, it began to penetrate the mainline denominations, and now it is difficult to find a large congregation in any of the traditional church bodies of America unaffected by the charismatic movement—even including many Roman Catholic churches. Estimates of the total number of charismatics in the United States, including membership in Pentecostal denominations and practicing charismatics in churches not traditionally Pentecostal, vary from three to five million. The vast majority of them are committed evangelicals.

The evidences of this evangelical resurgence are not hard to discover. Evangelicals have returned to the offensive. Whereas nonevangelical seminaries are barely holding their own by the admission of large numbers of women students, by the inclusion of a great many postgraduate candidates who have little or no intention of seeking ordination to Christian ministry, and by the introduction of the new doctor of ministry degree, evangelical schools, on the other hand, are overflowing everywhere even after allowance is made for many of these changes in their own programs.

Apart from works on psychology, the occult, sex, marriage, and the family, publishers are finding it difficult to market religious books that come from the pens of nonevangelical writers. But evangelical publishers everywhere are prospering in unprecedented ways—so much so that many older publishing houses that have long discouraged any evangelical representation on their lists are now openly courting evangelical writers and evangelical audiences. Even evangelical magazines and periodicals are flourishing. Evangelicals, too, are increasing in their maturity; they are becoming more and more alert to the implications of Christianity for human life and culture.

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The alternatives to evangelicalism, by contrast, have not fared well. The historicism and rationalism of liberal theology have not proved religiously effective; religious liberalism, at least in its traditional forms, seems everywhere in decline. For a time, the surge of the biblical theology movement seemed to give new life to a reconstructed and repentant liberalism. The ambivalence of the biblical theology movement, however, carried its own seeds of ultimate disintegration. In liberal forms, its views on the “mighty acts of God” do not clearly distinguish it from the older liberalism (except in rhetoric), as Langdon Gilkey has frequently called to our attention. The more orthodox vocabulary of the conservative neoorthodoxy of the last generation has proved itself neither clear nor convincing.

Barthians, who brought so much promise to the theological scene in the late 1940s and 1950s, never really caught on in the United States, and with the misnamed and ill-fated death-of-God movement, simply disappeared in the 1960s. In Europe, Barthian theology dissolved before our eyes in the late 1950s and 1960s and was replaced by the cold winds of Bultmann and a new rationalism. Voices of new and even intriguing theologies rose here, there, and everywhere; but none could garner a following. Barth was honored as the creator of the great modern theological paradigm by whose theological structure everyone else could be measured, assessed, and located on the current theological map, but only a handful of professional scholars read his voluminous tomes. Although all admitted to the magic influence of his spell, none dared to call himself Barthian.

The theological world of the 1970s, therefore—by default if for no better reason—is interested in hearing what evangelicalism has to say just at the time when evangelicals themselves have recouped some of their losses and endeavored again to move into the open forum of religious debate. With this reentrance of evangelicalism upon the theological battlefield has come new influence from the nonevangelical world and, indeed, some casualties among the evangelical forces. This should be no surprise to anyone; casualties are always the price of serious warfare, spiritual or otherwise.

Probably the most emotion-stirring issue on the current scene is that of the precise nature of biblical authority, and particularly of biblical inerrancy, together with the question of how we are to use the Bible to build a valid and normative theology. This is certainly the issue for evangelicals at this time, though it has never been far from the center of their concern.

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Granted, therefore, evangelicalism is neither king nor corpse. But it may be, as Newsweek prophesied, that “1976 may yet turn out to be the year that the evangelicals won the White House but lost cohesiveness as a distinct force in American religion and culture.” I should like to propose some guidelines to enable evangelicals, while keeping themselves under the judgment of all of Scripture, to develop an effective strategy for action with reference to the doctrine of inerrancy.

1. Evangelicals should never again dare to withdraw from the intellectual battlefield of the day and hope thus to protect their delicate faith from worldly attack. Such antiintellectualism is irresponsible. Not only does it lead inevitably to loss of faith, but there is something inherently antibiblical and anti-Christian about such an egoprotecting stance. It is a reflection of little faith. It is inconsistent with the commands of our Lord to go into all the world and to let the light shine as a city built on a hill.

2. Inerrancy, the most sensitive of all issues to be dealt with in the years immediately ahead, should not be made a test for Christian fellowship in the body of Christ. The evangelical watchcry is “Believers only, but all believers.” Evangelicals did not construct the church and do not set its boundaries. Christ is Lord and he is Lord over his church. The bounds of fellowship are determined by our relationship to Christ and by the life we share in him by grace through faith alone.

The question is frequently raised: “Can one be an evangelical if he doesn’t believe in inerrancy?” Since all obviously do not use the word evangelical to mean the same thing, we must draw these conclusions: the word means several things; the same person does not always use the word to mean the same thing; and the meanings of words change by debasement or enrichment.

Several distinct meanings for the word “evangelical” can be documented. On the basis of its derivation, “evangelical” in its broadest sense refers to all people who hold to the essential Good News that sinful men are saved solely by the grace of God, conditioned only on commitment to Jesus Christ, the divine-human Lord and Saviour of man. Historically a second meaning of the term has evolved. Because of the characteristic unity of doctrine espoused and defended by the early Protestants, whether Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, or Anabaptist, the word “evangelical” has tended in a narrower sense to denote all who remain fully committed to Protestant orthodoxy. Between the broad and the narrow usage no one has ever been able to maintain a hard and fast boundary. History shows considerable disagreement as to how many and what departures a Christian believer can make before he ceases to be evangelical in the narrow sense but remains so in the broad sense. Finally, of course, the term sometimes refers merely to historical churches and movements originally characterized by orthodox Protestant or evangelical theology, irrespective of whether the body continues to adhere to traditional evangelical doctrine.

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Disregarding for the moment the last or institutional definition of the word, “evangelical” is therefore frequently used in a broad sense to include all who adhere to the Christian Gospel and in a narrow sense to include all who are fully committed to traditional orthodox Protestantism. One who rejects a doctrine characteristic of traditional Protestant orthodoxy—the Virgin Birth, for example, or an inerrant Scripture—may defend himself by arguing that that particular doctrine is not really an essential element of traditional Protestantism. Or he may defend his evangelicalism by appealing to the broader definition: he really does believe in the essential gospel—the “evangel” of Christianity.

Granted that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, there is some value in resisting the debasement of verbal coins and immense value in identification with one’s cultural and religious roots. I am indisposed, therefore, to relinquish the word evangelical to suborthodox viewpoints. Yet I confess that I myself sometimes use the word in a broader sense, and I know that many others do also. In any case, all who employ the term must depend upon context and qualifiers to make plain the sense in which they are using it whenever it is important that the term be understood precisely and exactly.

3. Although the doctrine of inerrancy should not be made a test for Christian fellowship and cannot be presumed to be included in the term evangelical as sometimes used, inerrancy, nevertheless, is important. It is even essential for consistent evangelicalism and for a full Protestant orthodoxy. Consequently many evangelical institutions and denominations require commitment to inerrancy for their officers and for ordination to the Christian ministry. Not only is this a wise safeguard, but it must also be defended in view of the specific purpose of the group or individuals for whom it is required. To remove the word inerrancy from the platform of the Evangelical Theological Society, for example, would be to remove its raison d’être. To fail to require belief in the inerrancy of Scripture on the part of its leadership would be to jeopardize the evangelical heritage of a strict orthodoxy.

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4. The case for inerrancy rests precisely where it has always rested: on the lordship of Christ and his commission to his representatives, the prophets and the apostles. Just because it rests on Christ and on Christ’s authority, therefore, the question of inerrancy will remain a key doctrine of the evangelical church for as long as Christ is Lord. Evangelicals must remember, however, that this basis must be set forth anew for every generation.

5. There is an imminent danger of debilitating division within evangelical ranks over this issue and even of destruction of some evangelical forces. In the interest of truth and for the sake of obedience to the Gospel, some of this may be necessary. When it is necessary, so be it. Clear and difficult distinctions must be set forth in love even when they will lead to unwanted misunderstanding and division. But some of the danger to evangelicalism is due only to dust in the air, and a little sprinkling of cold water would clear the atmosphere.

6. Evangelicals must show that inerrancy is not a new doctrine. It is not a fundamentalist heresy of the twentieth century. It seems ridiculous, but even that stalwart defender of the authority of Scripture, John Calvin himself, cannot be taken for granted. One of the charges Calvin was responsible for leveling against Servetus, and for which Servetus was brought to trial, included the indictment that Servetus had taught that the Bible was not true in a minor geographical detail of the Old Testament. Yet in spite of that fact, Paul Lehman of Union Seminary of New York flatly argues that Calvin held to an errant view of Scripture, and this interpretation was apparently adopted by McNeil, America’s greatest Calvin scholar of this generation.

7. Evangelical scholars must not concentrate so exclusively on inerrancy in their doctrinal studies and writings as to seem to make it the focus of the Gospel or the central and fundamental doctrine of Christian faith, thus replacing Christ. Such a move would create a warped and unattractive image of Christianity and discourage many people, not because they see objections to that doctrine, but because they see that it is not the Gospel.

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8. The presuppositions of the opponents of a full-fledged orthodoxy must be spelled out explicitly, and these must be set forth in contrast with sharply and clearly delineated presuppositions of evangelical faith. All too often many contemporary thinkers have predetermined their conclusions on the basis of prior commitments as to personal theism: the supernatural, the nature of truth, the possibility of knowledge, the use of language, and other highly mooted philosophical and theological tenets. These must be exposed for what they really are—invalid assumptions fundamentally inconsistent with biblical faith. They must be replaced with valid presuppositions, inherently consistent with each other and with clear biblical teaching.

9. Inerrancy must be carefully defined and the entire church must be instructed that such precise definition will not weaken faith. Sometimes a weak faith must be destroyed in order to make room for a genuine and stronger faith. But in any case, the day is long past when evangelicals can refuse to face up to difficult arguments in their public writings on the grounds that they do not wish to give free hearing to the doctrine of devils.

10. Evangelicals must show that they are not insisting upon a single word as a shibboleth but rather are witnessing to the complete truthfulness and divine authority of Scripture. The words “infallibility,” “trustworthiness,” “plenary inspiration,” “inerrancy as to teaching,” or “inerrant in all it affirms” are all adequate. But all can be and are being used with qualifications and limitations so as to mean the opposite of what was originally intended. These qualified words are used to mean that some of what Scripture says or affirms or teaches is not true.

The word “inerrancy” is by no means free from such abuse and ambiguity. As applied to biblical inspiration, it is used by some to mean exact and precise language throughout the whole of Scripture, literal interpretation of Scripture, or dictation methodology for the production of Scripture—all excesses of the right. According to others, inerrancy means that Scripture is certain to accomplish its purpose, that Scripture will never lead us astray from the Gospel, or that Scripture is infallible only in limited areas such as its formal didactic passages or in those parts representing divine revelation—all excesses of the left.

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11. Evangelicals must show the relevance of inerrancy thus defined. It is not a “death by a thousand qualifications.” Neither is it a useless defense of “Bible X”—the unknown Bible no one has ever seen, ever will see, or ever expects to see. Rather, evangelicals must show that it is just because we believe the autographs were inerrant that we have an objective path to truth. The assurance that we possess the correct text (on the basis of the objective and public data of textual criticism) plus the assurance that we possess the true meaning of Scripture (on the basis of the objective and public data of grammar and syntax and usage) provides for the inerrantist the support for his conviction that he has the truth of God.

12. Evangelicals need to demonstrate how one can build a valid systematic theology and thereby provide the church, in a practical and biblically ordained way, with a norm for thought and life today. Evangelicals are in a remarkably good position to interact—indeed, they must interact—with works such as David Kelsey’s The Uses of Scripture or the attempts by Brevard Childs to build a new biblical theology on a Scripture that is neither divorced from the text nor arranged into patterns of the history of religion.

This task must not be left merely to negative reactions against others who have set the issues and formed the lines of interaction according to their own presuppositions. Rather, evangelicals must set themselves to the positive construction of prolegomena if they would gain a hearing for our day.

13. Evangelicals must relate their doctrine of inerrancy to current New Testament scholarship. It is my conviction that most heresies grow out of firm but one-sided grasping for truth. Consistent evangelicals, for example, must discover the piece of truth that gives strength to such basically antievangelical methodologies as the “redaction criticism” of Willi Marxsen and others. But they must also be sufficiently alert and expert to draw the lines that inevitably distinguish truth from error.

14. Old and New Testament experts should concentrate on the exposition of Scripture. In recent decades evangelicals have been pushed by their doctoral mentors into linguistic studies (usually comparative linguistics instead of biblical Hebrew and Greek) and into historical analysis, but have carefully avoided expositions of Scripture that employ the analogy of Scripture in order to set forth the whole Bible and its teaching in all its richness.

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There are two special tragedies of our day: first, the most exhaustive and comprehensive theological word books were produced by nonevangelicals but are translated and published and read by evangelicals; and second, the best current commentaries are almost all reprints. Those that are newly written and are of quality are seldom by evangelicals—the very people who profess greatest loyalty to the Bible and its teachings.

15. Old and New Testament specialists must assume a proper responsibility to their Lord and to the church for the employment of their expertise in aiding in the construction of evangelical doctrine. Any Old or New Testament expert in a church-related and evangelical school who seriously says, “I am not interested in biblical doctrine” ought immediately to question the state of his own evangelicalism.

16. Finally, a word seems appropriate both to those who are evangelical and as such defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and to those who as evangelicals are not at ease with the word “inerrant.”

To those who confess their evangelical faith but are not at ease with inerrancy, I would say:

a. Do not think you will win liberals and neoorthodox theologians to evangelicalism by fighting what you consider to be the bad view of the Bible held by more conservative evangelicals.

b. Proceed constructively as evangelicals if you are evangelical. It is always easier to tear down than it is to build anew. Your first and primary responsibility as theologians is to build the instruction of our Lord into a meaningful whole, a positive body of doctrine and ethical guidance.

c. I know of no instance in which an institution has preserved complete doctrinal orthodoxy on all points except that of inerrancy for as long as a full generation. Maybe, as some have said, it can be done. But limited inerrancy is a difficult line to draw. For one thing, I see no biblical instruction as to where to draw a line between the parts of the Bible that we accept as the Word of God and as binding upon us, and other parts of biblical teaching and instruction that we set aside. Let those who argue for a limited inerrancy prove just once that they and their institutions can remain on that thin knife edge.

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17. We evangelicals must reverse our role if we wish an effective strategy for our day. For seventy years we have been Green Berets furiously waging a rearguard mission to search and destroy the enemy. We must stop picturing ourselves as embattled guerrillas on the defensive. We must see ourselves primarily as heralds and persuaders.

If in order to illustrate the importance of adhering to inerrancy we employ the illustration of a row of dominoes, let us not forget that it is only an illustration; like all illustrations, it must not be pressed at all points. There is, for example, nothing of mechanical inevitability by which an individual or institution that moves to an errancy view of the Bible must necessarily reject all orthodox doctrines. By his Spirit God can stay and has stayed the process and even at times has reversed it. It is worthwhile to endeavor by all means to persuade our brothers in Christ of the truth and value of a doctrine of inerrancy. It is desirable to seek by every honorable means to penetrate and reclaim institutions that are wavering in their stand on this issue.

Moreover, evangelical strategy must incorporate a multidimensional perspective that is adequately comprehensive. Evangelicals must stop consuming all their energies by putting out brush fires of departures from orthodoxy. They must not permit those who waffle on inerrancy to set the agenda for evangelical action, and they especially must not permit them to determine the way to present the case for biblical authority.

Conservative evangelicals must take great care, lest by too hasty a recourse to direct confrontation they push into unorthodoxy the wavering scholar or student troubled by problems in the biblical text or by some of the common connotations of the word “inerrant.” Surely it is better first to make every effort to win to a right understanding of biblical inerrancy all who by any means are winnable. And anyone who accepts with adequate seriousness the lordship of Jesus Christ is certainly winnable or should be presumed to be winnable.

And in all that we do let us remember that orthopraxy is the crown of orthodoxy. Let us dialogue and debate in love with liberals in such a way that if our love for the liberals does not shine through our discourse, we lay down our pens. And with our fellow evangelicals deemed less consistent than ourselves, we must remember that honesty—intellectual and spiritual as well as financial—is not a policy; it alone is right. And as we defend what we believe to be our Lord’s instruction as to the inerrancy of biblical authority, we are not out to conquer, kill, and destroy. We are rather witnesses seeking to share, convince, and persuade fellow believers in Christ to follow our Lord and their Lord in the path of obedience to his written Word.

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D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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