Evangelical Universities and the Lingering Legacy of Fundamentalism?

Christopher Benson is a writer and educator living in Denver, Colorado.  He writes regularly at Bensonian, and submitted the following as a guest post. 

Thomas Albert Howard, who is the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College, and Karl W. Giberson, who teaches a science and religion writing workshop at the same institution and is the author of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age and Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, have co-authored an interesting essay for Inside Higher Ed, “An Evangelical Renaissance in Academe?

Their concern is that Evangelical colleges, despite a quarter century of “reclaiming a place within deeper traditions of Christian learning and at the table of American cultural life,” still reveal a “lingering attachment to some of the more dubious certainties and habits derived from Fundamentalism and hardened by the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 20th century.” For evidence of “fundamentalist baggage,” they point to the doctrinal statements at Evangelical schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), specifically Biola University and its insistence on pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology and biblical inerrancy.

To their credit, Howard and Giberson recognize that the official creed of the institution may not be the actual creed of faculty and students:

While such statements should not be presumed to capture the actual range of belief on a given campus, they are crucial for understanding a school’s identity and history and how it wants to be understood by its constituents.  And since faculty at many evangelical colleges, such as Biola’s, are required to express agreement with doctrinal statements, they serve a gatekeeping function, even as they sometimes provoke dilemmas of conscience over the scope of possible interpretation.

Let me set aside biblical inerrancy for the moment. I agree with the authors that pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology is a “dubious innovation,” but must all Evangelical colleges uphold the same views on controversial topics like the end times or the origins of life? That is their underlying assumption. The problem here, I suppose, relates to whether Biola – in its history and in its aspirations – is an institution of generic Evangelicalism, in which case dispensational theology or creationism does not properly belong, or an institution of confessional Evangelicalism, in which case those beliefs are acceptable, though not necessarily correct. Is Biola experiencing an identity crisis, unresolved about whether its fundamentalist heritage should also be its destiny? I cannot answer that question.

My alma mater, Wheaton College, is decidedly an institution of generic Evangelicalism, not situated in a particular ecclesial tradition or theology. There is much to respect about its “Statement of Faith” as an expression of beliefs that have united the Deep Church. Unlike Biola, Wheaton does not have an “explanatory note” that gets into eschatology, charismatic gifts, or abortion. Like Biola, Wheaton’s statement does include language about God “directly” creating Adam and Eve as “the historical parents of the entire human race,” which implies literal six-day creation and presumably denies evolutionary creation (or theistic evolution), even though a majority of the faculty affirm the compatibility of biblical religion and evolutionary biology. I contend that Wheaton would be truer to its heritage of generic Evangelicalism if it dropped that particularistic language from the statement.

Now I return to the issue of biblical inerrancy – one of the most hotly contested topics in Evangelicalism today. Just when I was about to throw inerrancy into the waste bin of useless words, Reformed theologian Michael Horton rescued the historic teaching for me in a persuasive essay that I encourage all inerrancy skeptics to read, “The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy.” Howard and Giberson are uneasy with inerrancy because, like my erstwhile self, they (wrongly) think—owing to the distorted propaganda of some progressives and the manipulative practices of some conservatives—that biblical inerrancy is a doctrinal anomaly in church history (“a pinched biblicism left over from Fundamentalism’s fiery struggle against Modernism”) and that biblical inerrancy has a built-in firewall against evolutionary theory, gender egalitarianism, or ecumenical cooperation. Biblical inerrancy, accurately understood, belongs to historic Christian orthodoxy and permits a variety of positions. Horton concludes his essay:

In evangelical circles generally, inerrancy was assumed more than explicitly formulated until it was challenged. Warfield and Hodge helped to articulate this position, which is more formally summarized in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Like any formulation developed in response to a particular error or area of concern for faith and practice, the inerrancy doctrine invites legitimate questions and critiques. However, its alternatives are less satisfying.

Howard and Giberson are mistaken, then, in making biblical inerrancy the enemy of progress in Evangelical colleges. Quite the opposite is true. Biblical inerrancy, which the Princeton theologians defined as the claim that “in all their real affirmations these [biblical] books are without error” (emphasis added), keeps Evangelical colleges faithful and obedient to “the good deposit entrusted” to followers of Christ—and what is progress without faithfulness and obedience? Sure, there may come a time, perhaps sooner than later, when the word “inerrancy” or “inerrant” may not need to appear in the doctrinal statements of Evangelical colleges because the teaching is not challenged as it once was during the church’s fight against theological liberalism. But as long as the teaching is challenged, Evangelical colleges are responsible to catechize their constituents about the Bible’s trustworthiness as an attribute of God’s trustworthiness.

No doubt, some Evangelical colleges suffer from fundamentalist intellectual habits. But I think the authors have greatly exaggerated “the unwelcome ghost of fundamentalism.” Speaking only for the Evangelical college that I know best, I deeply admire Wheaton College’s open and critical inquiry, distinguished faculty, superlative scholarship, and culture of academic seriousness. The future for Evangelical colleges lies not so much “with continuing to exorcize the ghost of fundamentalism” but with overcoming an inferiority complex about their marginal status in higher education. Rather than chafe against that marginal status, perpetually anxious about measuring up, more Evangelical colleges would flourish if they accepted it as a joy of Christian witness-bearing in late modernity.

 

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  • James M.

    It has always been puzzling to me that inerrancy has come under assault from so many presumably friendly sources. The problem of finding an alternative hermeneutic that grounds our faith is insuperable.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

    The Horton link appears to not be working.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Matthew, should be fixed now. Sorry about that.

  • WCW

    As an alumnus of Biola University let me first greet you in Christ as I offer my deepest respect for the rich tradition and history of Wheaton College. I too agree that Biola’s rigid “official” stance on dispensationalist theology is unnecessarily divisive and offers little, if any, positive benefit to the university community. Discussions about modification are still very infrequent, but they have been had. I know, in fact, that I have brought the issue to bear in my own involvement with the university. You are also further correct in your belief that the “official” eschatology as endorsed by the university’s statement of faith is by no means fully representative of the students or faculty as a whole.

    I further agree that adherence to (a well thought out paradigm of) biblical inerrancy is absolutely essential for the preservation of the centrality of the Christian tradition within evangelical universities, lest the go the way of the Harvard’s and USC’s of the world and abandon their theological heritage for the (relatively) recent fad of secularist dogma. Indeed, I would argue that inerrancy is central for internally consistent Christian epistemology, let alone the maintenance of our university tradition.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    I am uncomfortable with the inerrency language because it is never a doctrine alone. Theoretically, I am ok with it, but as with so much other theological positions, it can be molded to mean what you want it to. Recently it has been used to suggest a wide range of things that go beyond the actual debate on inerrency. The Licona issue is a prime example. When some use inerrency to mean you cannot critically think about scripture, then I choose to believe that it is a wasted word.

    The problem in my mind is not that scripture is or is not inerrent (once we can figure out what that means), but that the problem is that it is scripture, not our interpretation that is actually the subject of inerrency.

    Even sophisticated theologians seem to get that wrong all too often.

    As to Horton’s article. Among my realm of contacts, not many of us really argue about his point three (errors and omissions) as historical details. But rather theological conflicts.

    There are some issues with the book, but I really do like NT Wright’s basic formulation that scripture is authoritative, because it is God that is Authoritative. Debating about inerrency seems to completely miss that particular point.

    The language that Horton and many other used about inerrency is insufficient because it reduces theological conflict in scripture to some type of mathematical problem. If we can simply explore long enough, get enough data or an old enough, uncorrupted enough fragment then we will solve our theological disputes.

    To me that seems to be placing on the scriptural documents something that even early Church fathers would not have done. The debate over inerrency is a debate over modern methods. Until we deal with that, the actual word doesn’t really matter much.

  • WCW

    I strongly disagree with Mr. Shield’s comments regarding innerancy. It’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of theological scholarship but 99.99% of people “get it” that when making reference to biblical innerancy one is expressing the understanding that the original scriptures are divinely inspired and without error be it factual, contextual, referential or otherwise. Citing a the blatherings of a few “theologians” so as to portray an aura of mass equivocation seems to me to be a straw man. People know good and well what is meant by “biblical innerancy” and it is worth saying again that biblical inerrancy is absolutely integral to the internal consistency of the Christian faith. To move away from the foundation of inerrancy is to reduce Christianity to little more subjectivist preference rather than a knowable truth.

  • http://bookwi.se Adam Shields

    WCW, maybe we just run in different circles. But I don’t think your 99.99% is an accurate assessment of the state of things. I spent last year reading a lot of books on scripture trying to work through my own issues of the theology of scripture. Maybe that does makes me in the 0.01%, but after reading nearly a dozen books on all sides of the issue, I am fairly convinced that the word inerrency is completely broken. In fact, I just saw quote from Philip Ryken (current president of Wheaton) last week, “Few Christian convictions are of pervasive importance as the absolute perfection of Scripture–and few convictions fall under more perennial criticism.” This was in context of writing a book blurb for a book on inerrency.

    Ryken I think is part of a group that even sees the word inerrency as too weak of a word. So he used “Absolute perfection of Scripture”. I think this is being pushed primarily from a Reformed position. Very few non-Reformed theologians that I am reading feel the importance of keeping inerrency on the table. They want to uphold the sufficiency of scripture, the importance of scripture but also not try to mold scripture into something that it never was. Beale’s book on inerrency argued that you had to believe that there was only one author of Isaiah in order to believe in inerrency. But scripture does say anywhere that Isaiah was written by one person.

    I think Horton’s article showed a good balance on this. I would probably mostly agree with his use of inerrency, except for a couple of the straw men he is hold up inerrency against.

    That seems to be my main issue as I think about it. Inerrancy as a concept (the completeness of scripture, the sufficiency of scripture, etc) is upheld on both sides of the discussion. (Think about the inerrency fight of two decades ago in the SBC, both sides were Christians, no one was rejecting the divinity of Christ, or the need for salvation.) The problem is that one side wants to uphold an ability to think and critically look at scripture. The other side wants to uphold a concept of scripture.

    The fight for the word inerrency does not uphold scripture, it upholds a particular view of scripture. In order for scripture to actually be meaningful for people they have to absorb the meaning of those words in scripture to our lives.

    Let me give an example. Can you be inerrant and believe in evolution? Mohler last year questioned whether someone that believes in evolution can be Christian, let alone believe in the inerrency of scripture. So I have a sister in law that is a micro-biologist. She felt rejected by the church (her church community) when she went into science. She works at the FDA keeping our food stream safe and secure. After years away from the church, she has returned and attended church for about a decade now. She is reading the bible, went on a mission trip, joined a small group and embraced her faith again. But that decade of building trust occured because she is part of a church that does not require her to reject evolution in order to be Christian. She has knowledge and expertise in an area, one that few theologians really have much expertise in. Few like Peter Enns that do have some expertise in science have been pushed out of Evangelical seminaries. (And Enns isn’t alone, I can point to a dozen examples in the last several years.)

    If we are really going to speak to a world that doesn’t know Christ, do we start with, “This is a book that you have to believe is completely true in all ways, inerrent in all of its teachings” (when the world mostly believes in evolution and thinks that the bible teaches a literal 7 day creation) or do we start with “Jesus Christ is the son of God and came to earth to be king and ruler, he died and was raised again so that you might live life fully as God originally intended.”

    Upholding scripture as important and from God is essential to our Christian faith. Upholding the word inerrent is not.

  • Brian Lakin

    I have to ask a stupid question. When did fundamentalism become associated with dispensational theology only? “The Coming of Christ” by Charles R. Erdman D.D. Princeton Theological Seminary; compiled by R.A. Torrey in ‘THE FUNDAMENTALS'; gives freedom to both Pre-Millennian and Post-Millennian. Perhaps the Ghost of Fundamentlism Past is still in the halls of Wheaton College. To those who do not like the lingering legacy of Fundamentalism in Christianity I have one word for you. BOO!