NEO-EVANGELICALS AND SCRIPTURE
A FORGOTTEN PERIOD OF FERMENT
the same time American evangelicals are gaining greater public
recognition they seem to be becoming less recognizable. Or at least it
has become more difficult to put one's finger on an adequate defining
characteristic of an evangelical. Is the Sojourners Community
evangelical? Is Jerry Falwell? Or is he rather a fundamentalist? And
what's the difference? For a long time, many have taken "evangelical"
and "fundamentalist" nearly as synonyms, though, as George Marsden and
Donald W. Dayton have pointed out, the evangelical stream has always
been broader than its fundamentalist tributary.1 Yet it is also true
that many of the varieties of today’s variegated evangelicalism (the
"young evangelicals," the evangelical feminists, “orthodox
evangelicals,” etc.) are mutations of the parent strain fundamentalism.
We have in mind the period of "neo-evangelicalism” or the "new
evangelicalism" that emerged after World War II. Thinkers including
Bernard Ramm, Harold John Ockenga, Dewey M. Beegle, Carl F. H. Henry,
and E. J. Carnell sought: to escape the fortress-mentality of
fundamentalism and to bring the faith of Warfield and Machen into a new
world. In so doing they planted .the seeds of today's evangelical
diversity. Their pivotal role is often underestimated. One of the most
explosive issues in the evangelical arena today is the doctrine of
scripture, and it is here that the tentative suggestions and theological
trial balloons of the neo-evangelicals deserve the greatest attention.
The neo-evangelical thinkers had come up through
the evangelical educational establishment, and in the relatively settled
aftermath of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy they had time to
devote their attention to learning, culture, and the larger
ecclesiastical scene. Then they fairly burst on the scene with demands
for a reassessment by fundamentalists of their priorities. With books
like The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Carl F. H.
Henry and The Case for Orthodox Theology by Edward John Carnell,
these young turks announced an agenda of issues ranging from social
reform to respectable hymnody, from ecumenical openness to theological
renewal. Henry, Carnell, and the others were not simply voices crying
unheeded in the wilderness, for soon they headed a whole movement, whose
most prominent new monuments included Christianity Today, Fuller
Theological Seminary, The National Association of Evangelicals, and the
Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Clearly, there was significant
action on a variety of fronts.
And any such movement is bound to make some waves
of controversy. Neo-evangelicals generated and received flack on several
of their positions. Probably the most volatile issue was that of
ecumenical openness. Ockenga, Carnell, Henry, and the rest publicly
repented of their fundamentalist past with its ill-mannered separatism.
They supported “cooperative evangelism;” countless fundamentalists were
outraged at seeing Billy Graham invite liberal clergy to assist in
crusade meetings. What other reaction could be expected from people who
had paid a high price for doctrinal purity as they saw it?
also sought to reopen dialogue with theologians of a more liberal
persuasion. Some, like William F. Hordern, clasped this hand of
fellowship, as can be seen from his surprisingly positive treatment of
the movement in his A Layman's Guide to Protestant Theology.
Other mainstream theologians were a bit skeptical. And they had some
reason to be, since the neo-evangelicals (perhaps to defend their
posture to right-wing critics) had made little secret of the fact that
"dialogue" was primarily a device for obtaining a more effective
platform for apologetics. Daniel B. Stevick, a neo-orthodox critic of
neo-evangelicalism, was a former fundamentalist himself and had a keen
perception of what was going on. "We cannot," he wrote in Beyond
Fundamentalism, “sit down together showing the 'mutual signs of
humility' that Carnell desires if one party to the conversation wants it
understood from the outset that it represents a 'classic' normative
truth which is that of the Bible and the church throughout the ages....
The spokesmen for the newer conservatism remain unwilling to review
their own complete theological stance. At the vital center of thinking,
they cling to the absolute of the 'inscripturated' revelation and a
finally formulated orthodoxy.” 2 Certainly Harold Ockenga could take no
exception to the last assertion. In an important Christianity Today
editorial, "Resurgent Evangelical Leadership,” he had written:
"Evangelical theology is synonymous with fundamentalism or orthodoxy. In
doctrine the evangelicals and the fundamentalists are one.”3
this was so. Far-right fundamentalists like Charles Woodbridge, Carl
McIntyre, and Robert Lightner never ceased vilifying the
neo-evangelicals (whom they amalgamate with today' s "young
evangelicals”) 4 as doctrinal compromisers and "wolves-in-sheep'
s-clothing." Ockenga is even to this day singled out as the pied piper
of apostasy, apparently because it was he who christened the movement
How did Ockenga himself respond to such
criticisms? In his adulatory preface to Harold Lindsell's The Battle
for the Bible, Ockenga explained that
Because no individual carried the banner for the
new evangelicalism and no one developed a theology or a definitive
position, many younger evangelicals joined the movement and claimed the
name, but did not confess the doctrinal position of orthodoxy. This
brought neo-evangelicalism into criticism and often, both unwisely and
unfairly, transferred these criticisms to the original leaders of the
There is certainly an element of truth in Ockenga'
s statement. As has already been mentioned, Ockenga's radical right-wing
detractors fail to draw clear lines between "neo-evangelicalism" and the
"young evangelicalism" of Richard Quebedeaux, Jim Wallis, and others.
But it is not difficult to draw such a line. Significant differences can
be shown in at least three important areas.
ecumenically: the neo-evangelicals came from within fundamentalism and
intended their movement as a reformation of fundamentalism so as to make
it a more viable alternative to the prevailing “new modernism" (as per
Cornelius van Til) of neo-orthodoxy. The young evangelicals, by
contrast, care little for the fundamentalist-modernist disputes of the
past. Some have come to the movement from other quarters of the church
or from no church at all. Young evangelicals do not regard
fundamentalism as their heritage (having either rejected it or never
experienced it), or they feel that the fundamentalist movement forms
only one of many roots of their own along with Pietism, Wesleyan
Revivalism, etc. Young evangelicals want to learn from non-evangelical
theologies, whereas the neo-evangelicals seemed more concerned to
triumph over other views in well-mannered debate. 6
Second, socially: neo-evangelicals tried to prick “the social conscience
of the evangelical" (Sherwood E. Wirt) but neo-evangelical social
activism was always very cautious, seldom taking costly or controversial
positions, if the social pronouncements of Christianity Today and
the National Association of Evangelicals may be taken as representative.
Young evangelicals have sought more active involvement, along the lines
of both liberal reformism (e.g., Evangelicals for Social Action) and
countercultural radicalism (e.g., Sojourners Community). 7
Third, with regard to Scripture: neo-evangelicals
sought to deal only with "difficulties" in the Bible, merely patching
perceived holes in the fabric of traditional orthodox views of
inspiration (though often, as we will see, in surprising ways). Young
evangelicals, by contrast, have embraced, albeit with some caution,
mainstream biblical criticism. 8 Ockenga was quite correct in seeing
this difference, and the failure of others like Lightner to see it has
resulted in the widespread neglect of the distinctive neo-evangelical
experimentation at this point. What Ockenga failed to see, however, is
that it was the neo-evangelical reopening of the questions of
inspiration and inerrancy that made possible the subsequent young
evangelical revolution. (The Battle for the Bible, written by
Lind sell and prefaced by Ockenga, might even be seen as an effort to
undo some small part of the "damage” they had done years ago.) We hope
to highlight the forgotten neo-evangelical foreshadowing of today’s
"battle for the Bible."
neo-evangelical thinkers themselves had begun to have some doubts about
their fathers' model of biblical authority was apparent even to
outsiders. Liberal L. Harold DeWolf (who, it may be remembered, authored
another volume, The Case for Theology in a Liberal Perspective,
in the same series with E. J. Carnell's The Case for Orthodox
Theology) mused: “There is a noticeable, though indecisive change in
the doctrine of biblical inspiration and authority. Some of the new
evangelicals... avoid teaching 'verbal' inspiration of the Bible,
stressing rather plenary or full inspiration.” 9
And Carnell himself made two famous statements
(one on the record; the other informally) that lent weight to this
perception. First, in The Case for Orthodox Theology, he wrote
"Contemporary orthodoxy does very little to sustain the classical
dialogue on inspiration. The fountain of new ideas has apparently run
dry, for what was once a live issue in the church has now ossified into
a theological tradition.” 10 In the second remark, made in public on the
occasion of sharing a forum with Karl Barth, Carnell admitted that how
to “harmonize [the] appeal to Scripture as the objective Word of God
with [the] admission that Scripture is sullied by errors, theological as
well as historical or factual” was “a problem for me, too.” 11
Carnell never dealt extensively, or very
explicitly, with the problems of inspiration and their possible
solutions--though there are a few statements in his The Case for
Orthodox Theology which are significant out of proportion to their
length or number. Other neo-evangelicals did deal at greater length with
these issues, however. Important works include Dewey M. Beegle’s The
Inspiration of Scripture, Bernard Ramm’s Special
Revelation and the Word of God, and Everett Harrison’s essay
“Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy," which appeared in the January 20,
1958, issue of Christianity Today. An observation made in
the last named work serves well as an entry-point to a discussion of the
issues. Harrison made the perhaps surprising admission that "Inerrancy
is not a formally stated claim made by the Scriptures on their own
behalf. It is rather an inference that devout students of the Word have
made from the teaching of the Bible about its own inspiration.” 12
Ronald Nash in The New Evangelicalism reiterated Harrison’s
statement, adding that in his judgment most of the neo-evangelicals were
willing to make the same qualification. What Harrison and Nash left
unspoken was more important than what they did say: might the devout
student of the Bible not infer inerrancy? This must surely be the
implication, yet neither Harrison nor Nash took the implied option
themselves. Presumably anyone who did would not have been blamed. But
Harrison and Nash were content rather to nuance and qualify the
battle-weary term “inerrancy.” Several means for doing this were at
The basic presupposition for this task was that,
in formulating one’s understanding of biblical authority, the "phenomena
of scripture" must be given equal weight with its explicit teaching on
the subject. In other words, one must pay attention to "what Scripture
does" as well as "what it says.” In the midst of the
Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy Henry Preserved Smith made the same
point, to which Warfield responded by simply demanding that such a
comparison conclude by harmonizing the phenomena with the scriptural
claims. 13 But the matter would not rest. Dewey Beegle repudiated as
specious "any attempt to let Scripture speak for itself" that did not
also "reckon with the facts... of the Biblical record.” 14 Beegle made
quite clear just which facts he had in mind. These included
chronological errors in the record of Israel’s kings, quotations from
spurious pseudepigraphical texts, scientific inaccuracies, historical
blunders in Stephen' s speech, etc. Beegle admitted that the imaginative
apologist might well be able to produce a harmonization for any given
problem. But just how long could he keep doing it with any semblance of
plausibility? Soon he must find himself bound hand and foot in a long
chain of such weak links. Better to admit once and for all that the
inspiration of the Bible did not include its inerrancy.
Harrison, starting from the same premise ("the
form that our view of inerrancy ought to take is to be derived
inductively from the data of the text"), 15 chose instead to modify
inerrancy rather than discard it. His ensuing discussion yields two
basic ways to do this. At the outset, it is very important to note that
both are indeed "inductive.” They are drawn from within the text itself,
not applied from without, say, in the form of prior theological or
First, Harrison reminds his readers that "It is
anachronistic to apply the standards of our own time to the Scriptures.”
16 Thus inexact quotations, descriptions of nature in naive popular
terminology, and the imprecise and symbolic use of numbers, though
disallowed by modern historiography, do not implicate the Bible in
"error." Similarly, Bernard Ramm warns that "Scripture does refer
to history but from the perspective of literature and not scientific
historiography.” 17 In other words, what would someone in the Bible
writers' own day have considered an error? And perhaps the same criteria
would not apply to both the Hellenistic historian Luke and the ancient
Semitic chronicler of the Book of Joshua.
A closely-related consideration should be
mentioned, namely that of literary genres. Bernard Ramm recalls, with
evident approval, James Orr's willingness to see in Scripture the use of
various literary forms considered legitimate in ancient times, including
pseudonymity and even legend. 18 Such a suggestion has never been
accorded much of a welcome in evangelical circles. Dyson Hague, writing
in The Fundamentals, indignantly refused “to completely readjust
his ideas of honor and honesty, of falsehood and misrepresentation" just
to accommodate the instances of pseudepigraphy allegedly to be found in
the Bible. 19 The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
what Clark H.
Pinnock had, in an early work, called "deceitful literary forms.”
But to return to E. F. Harrison, his
second criterion for nuancing inerrancy was that "Scripture must be
judged in terms of faithfulness to the purpose in view.” 21 For
instance, if Luke's Hellenistic audience will be confused by the mention
of the thatched roof through which the paralytic was lowered, why should
Luke hesitate to replace the dried grass with familiar clay tiles in his
retelling of Mark? Is he to be charged with "error" for having done so?
In fact the roof did not have tiles, but so what?
A very similar position was put forth by Daniel
P. Fuller. In a series of addresses given from 1967 to 1970, to the
Evangelical Theological Society, the American Scientific Affiliation,
and the students at Wheaton College, and later published as "Benjamin B.
Warfield’s View of Faith and History, A Critique in the Light of the New
Testament" and "The Nature of Biblical Inerrancy.” Fuller took
Harrison’s implied option not to infer inerrancy from the key
biblical texts teaching inspiration. Second Timothy 3:15-16 promises
that Scripture will make us wise unto salvation and may be profitably
used for teaching, reproof, correction, instruction, but it says nothing
about geology, biology, or paleontology. Why stretch the text to cover
inerrancy in all these areas? Fuller argued that such matters are
strictly tangential to the purpose of Scripture: "since the Bible
declares that its purpose is to impart revelation, we run no risk of
distorting its message as we credit its revelational teachings and admit
the possibility that its non-revelational statements and implications
are a reflection of the culture of the writer and his original readers.”
Fuller pointed to the classic example of the
mustard seed in Mark 4:30-32. Jesus calls the mustard seed "the smallest
of all the seeds on earth," yet modern science knows of even smaller
seeds. Is Jesus' teaching "in error" here? Of course not, because he is
teaching about the Kingdom of God, not about botany.
the more ironic admissions made by E. J. Carnell in The Case
for Orthodox Theology concerned apparent discrepancies between the
Old Testament books of Chronicles and earlier biblical histories. After
considering various attempts at sidestepping the difficulties, Carnell
asks what would happen should evangelicals stop harmonizing and admit
the discrepancies? Surprisingly, “the doctrine of
Biblical inerrancy would not be demolished. Orthodoxy would
simply shift its conception of the thing signified" by the term
inerrancy. In what may seem to be a flirtation with "suicide by a
thousand qualifications," Carnell goes on to explain this fail-safe
strategy. Rendering what we might call an "inerrant record of errors,”
the Chronicler (and presumably any other inspired writer in the same
position) may be said to have given "an infallible account of what was
said in the public registers and genealogical lists." As if embarrassed
by his own suggestion, Carnell immediately reminds readers that such
maneuvers are “already at work in orthodoxy.” 23 Perhaps Carnell meant
to refer to the traditional evangelical explanation of the cynical book
of Ecclesiastes. Commentators
have always blushed at this book's presence in the canon of Scripture
and have sought to apologize for it. They usually found themselves
retreating to explanations of which that offered in the New Scofield
Reference Bible is typical. "The philosophy it sets forth... makes
no claim to revelation but. . . inspiration records [it] for our
instruction.” 24 How many readers will see such a statement for what it
is--an unassimilated piece of out-and-out theological liberalism,
whereby a biblical document represents merely the “world-view" of a man
in his search for God, rather than an oracle from heaven to humanity?
an irony cannot have escaped Carnell, and one is driven to wonder if his
suggestion regarding Chronicles is not made tongue-in-cheek as a
reductio ad absurdum. Carnell left the matter standing
unresolved. Later Clark Pinnock would try to salvage this possibility by
combining it with Harrison's criterion of intentionality. Using
Carnell's awn example, Pinnock would suggest that the errors in the
Chronicler's sources were irrelevant to his larger purpose in compiling
the historical record as a whole. 25
At any rate, Carnell had broached a significant
problem posed at about the same time by Beegle, albeit in, slightly
different fashion. Beegle started from the other end of the problem, so
to speak. In The Inspiration of Scripture, he took considerable
pains to cut off Warfield’s strategic retreat to the long lost inerrant
autographs. He had argued that one could not be sure the Bible errs
unless the error could be proven to exist in the original handwritten
scrolls. Beegle assailed this notion from every conceivable direction.
In what seems to have been his favorite line of attack, Beegle contended
that, in their attribution of inspired authority to Scripture, Jesus and
Paul were referring without qualm to the textually corrupt copies in
their possession. In other words, it never occurred to them that
Warfield's autographs were superior to contemporary Torah scrolls. On
the other hand, Beegle's own argument is vitiated by the very same kind
of conclusion-jumping of which he (rightly) accuses Warfield. For
Beegle’s point to be established, Jesus and Paul would have to have
consciously rejected Warfield's distinction, and not merely remained
oblivious to it. As it is Beegle's erasure of any qualitative gap
between autographs and copies (i.e., neither one being inerrant) is as
much sheer inference from Jesus’ and Paul’s statements about Scripture
as is Warfield's original inference of inerrancy. The texts simply do
not seek to address either concern.
Another, apparently more cogent, critique was Beegle's calling attention
to the fact that in many cases there simply never were any
autographs in Warfield's sense. Many biblical works were the result of a
long process of redaction and compilation. Here we must choose between
positing the (non-inerrant) inspiration of the material in all
pre-canonical stages of development (Beegle’s own option), or the
inerrant inspiration of only the very last stage of compiling and
editing. The latter alternative was implied in Carnell's efforts on
behalf of the Chronicler. The model of inspiration implicit here has
become clear only with the development of the discipline of
redaction-criticism, to which it would seem ideally suited. 26 Here the
inspired writer is identified as the editor of the final form of the
book. Thus the only directly "inspired" activity in the production of a
biblical book would be the process of editing itself, most visible in redactional alterations such as that made by Matthew in the material
provided him by his sources Q, M, and Mark. The material taken
over unaltered by the inspired redactor would receive his imprimatur by
virtue of its inclusion, but it need not be "inspired" in its own right.
Nor need it necessarily be strictly inerrant, any more than the
It should be admitted that some powerful
difficulties attach to this suggestion: what is to be said when one
biblical writer uses and corrects another book of the Bible in
his own work, as when Matthew and Luke use Mark, 2 Peter uses Jude, the
Chronicler uses Samuel and Kings, etc.? 27 This would seem to negate the
inspiration of the earlier books used by the later ones.
But is this necessarily implied? Why not simply
say that one inspired writer "borrowed" from another, also inspired?
This will not work because the later writer, by correcting the earlier
one, has indicated that the earlier writing was in error as far as he is
concerned. Thus, on Carnell's view which we are expanding here, Mark
would have to be deemed an uninspired, because errant, source for
Matthew's gospel. For instance, Mark has Jesus curse the fig tree, enter
Jerusalem, leave, see the fig tree withered, and return to the city to
cleanse the temple. Matthew changes the order of events so that Jesus
curses the tree, it withers immediately, Jesus enters Jerusalem and
immediately cleanses the temple. If Matthew is correct, Mark is
incorrect, in terms of the historical facts (compare Matthew 21:12-19
with Mark 11:12-21).
problem arises when Matthew "corrects" the words of Jesus in Mark,
reversing the sense of his absolute prohibition of divorce (compare
Matthew 10:3-9 with Mark 10:2-12) and purposefully omits Mark's
editorial comment that Jesus "declared all foods clean" (compare Matthew
15:7 with Mark 7:19). Compare also the extensive alterations of Samuel
and Kings by the Chronicler who, for example, is sure that Elhanan only
killed Goliath's brother (contrast 1 Chronicles 20:5 and 2 Samuel 21:19)
and that Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1) not God (2 Samuel 24:1) moved David
to number Israel.
If the final issue of all this is that the
inspiration of one biblical book is sacrificed to that of any other
which corrects it, must the books like Mark, Jude, Samuel, and Kings be
considered as uninspired, and therefore dropped from the list of
canonical Scripture? Or perhaps added as a "deuterocanonical" appendix,
as Martin Luther wanted to do with the Epistle of James? Such a result
might so stretch plausibility that the whole line of reasoning would
have reduced itself ad absurdum.
this is not the only possible conclusion to the matter. What if instead
it was these secondary “source material" books that provided the
perspective for viewing all the others? Perhaps all biblical
books might best be regarded as “source material" for one inspired book:
the Bible. Then all alike would be secondary to the final “redaction,"
wherein inspiration would ultimately repose: the compilation
of these books as a canon of Scripture.
would this picture not imply that "inspiration" is a predicate of the
canonizing Church, rather than the canonized writings? Not at all.
Evangelicals have always maintained that biblical books were inspired
as writings, not derivatively as the products of "inspired
personalities," the latter being a theologically liberal model of
inspiration. 28 In the context of the present discussion, the
inspiration of the Church is rejected as analogous to the inspiration of
biblical writers as "religious geniuses." Instead, the Church, like the
biblical writers in the traditional evangelical understanding, is here
taken to be the human vessel used by God on a unique occasion to produce
inspired Scripture. Now it is true that inspiration is being predicated
of the Bible after its production, not coterminous with it. Thus,
just as some evangelicals have compared their verbal inspiration model
with the doctrine of incarnation, the present model would be aptly
called "canonical adoptionism."
Has not the discussion run very far afield? What
can "canonical adoptionism" conceivably have to do with the questionings
of the neo-evangelicals about Scripture? Did any of them propose a view
of Scripture even remotely resembling this one? In fact, they did,
albeit indirectly. In possibly the most intriguing comment in his essay
"Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy,” Harrison mused, "If the Bible were of
such ,a nature that it was composed by man and only subsequently was
adopted by God and breathed into by the Holy Spirit, then it might
conceivably be allowed that God was so concerned with the spiritual
message that he tolerated a measure of error in the factual material.”
29 And it has already been shown that Carnell's teasing remarks on the
Chronicler raised questions that seemed to point for their answer in the
direction, ultimately, of canonical adoptionism. Apparently, this model
of biblical inspiration has never been explored in detail, much less
explicitly embraced by evangelicals. Yet, here and there, glimpses of it
have appeared. For instance, recently Charles H. Kraft has described
Scripture as “a selection of... recorded materials [which] has been
preserved by the people of God and, following God’s leading, elevated to
the status of Scripture.” 30
changing the direction of the discussion to focus on other problems
dealt with by neo-evangelicals, two final notes on "canonical adoptionism" may be in order. First, it is quite interesting that a
similar notion was proposed in the heat of nineteenth century Roman
Catholic discussions of biblical inerrancy. In his account of this
debate, Catholic Theories of Biblical Inspiration Since 1810,
James Burtchaell describes the premise as employed at that time: "A book
might be reckoned as Scripture solely on the strength of a later
guarantee by God or the Church that it was free of all error.” 31
"Canonical adoptionism" as sketched out in the present paper differs
from the suggestion of the nineteenth century Jesuits in at least two
respects: inerrancy is not the criterion for subsequent adoption, and
the entire Bible, not simply disputed sections of it, is the subject of
Burtchaell says that this idea "came to grief."
It never caught on, but it was productive in the developing discussion
as a foil for other, ultimately more successful, theories. Even so,
Harrison in "Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy" no sooner mentions the
adoption idea than he dispenses with it: "But this [i.e., later
adoption] is not the scriptural doctrine of its own origin. Rather it is
insisted that the Spirit was active and controlling in the very
production of the Word in its entirety.” 32 However, if one saw merit in
canonical adoptionism otherwise, such an objection need not deter him.
James Barr, and others have shown, the claim that Scripture (as a unit)
makes any claims for "it"-self involves one in insuperable
difficulties. Basically, such a claim is fatally circular, presupposing
by far most of what it seeks to prove, that "it" can speak
authoritatively as a harmonious unity, 33 that, for instance, when
Jeremiah says "Thus says the LORD, " he is speaking not only of his
own oracle but also of Proverbs and Leviticus.
The preceding discussion took its rise in part
from the difficulties and possibilities implicit in E. J. Carnell's
efforts to deal with the question of errors taken over by biblical
writers from their sources. Carnell's tentative speculations might be
extrapolated in the direction of Harrison's hypothetical suggestion of
an adoptionistic model. But Carnell himself ended his musing with an
observation which pointed in an altogether different direction. He
granted that "orthodoxy may never officially decide whether the Holy
Spirit corrected the documents from which the Chronicler drew his
information. But this irresolution does not affect the theology of the
church, for Paul received his theology directly from Jesus Christ (Gal.
1:11-12). He did not draw on existing documents.” 34 Thus Carnell
chose in effect to settle the question by means of a "canon within the
canon." He made this explicit in a famous passage in The Case for
Orthodox Theology: “if the church teaches anything that offends the
system of Romans and Galatians, it is cultic.” 35 Was this choice purely
arbitrary, one of mere personal preference? Or did Carnell have some
real reason for it? He had at least two. First, having granted that
preserved source material might not be completely trustworthy, Carnell
took the corollary to be that material received directly by revelation
would provide a safety zone. Had Carnell supposed, as some
fundamentalists have, that the first chapters of Genesis were received
by Moses via visions or automatic writing, presumably this, too, would
have been more reliable than the dubious genealogies of the Chronicler.
But Carnell was concerned with theology first and foremost.
And this observation leads to Carnell’s second
criterion for his canon within the canon, namely that didactic
statements in Scripture always “interpret” (actually, take precedence
over) any other literary form. And in Galatians and Romans, Carnell
finds the clearest didactic exposition of all. Bernard Ramm agrees with
Carnell here. Though he takes special pains to safeguard the integrity
of various literary genres in Scripture, he finally insists that “our
guide" in doctrinal matters must finally be “those passages of Scripture
which are clearly didactic, theological, and hence, transcultural.” 36 Ramm does not indicate any particular preference for Paul, much less any
specific epistles of his; nevertheless the principle is basically the
Though both Carnell and Ramm employed the concept
of a canon within the canon, the main function of it seemed to be to
mediate among the various genres in Scripture. The idea was that readers
of the Bible might find themselves confused if they tried to derive
doctrine from texts not intended to provide it. Only strictly didactic
texts were so intended. But neither of these neo-evangelical theologians
came to grips with the possibility of real differences between didactic
texts, or between different theological positions represented by their
writers. It was his struggle with this problem that made Ernst Käsemann
give the canon within the canon idea new currency. And among major
neo-evangelical writers only Dewey Beegle seems to have used the "inner
canon" idea in the latter fashion. He recognized that the New Testament
writers differed theologically on this or that secondary point. With
uncharacteristic diplomacy, Beegle asked rhetorically, “Is it not...
possible that details of doctrine tend to get fuzzy as one nears the
fringes of truth?” If they do, where does the would-be believer of the
Bible find “the standard for determining trustworthy and authoritative
doctrine”? That is, how does he spot it among the various possibilities
within the text? “According to the New Testament writers, Christ
and the gospel are determinative.... The Biblical writers shared
unequivocally some doctrines that cluster around Jesus, the incarnate
Christ, and the way of salvation.” 37 So Beegle differs from both Ramm
and Carnell on this question. Unlike the first, he does not hold as
normative over the rest of Scripture all didactic texts. But
unlike the second, he does not limit his choice to the texts of one
author, whether Paul or anyone else. Instead, he finds a sort of
“central common denominator” which at the same time both unites all the
New Testament writers and screens out their individual differences from
one another. This hermeneutical schema was essentially that of the
Biblical Theology Movement which produced many works with titles like
The Central Message of the New Testament, The Unity of the New
It is by now plain that the theoreticians for the
"new evangelicalism" were concerned to deal with biblical inaccuracies
and contradictions in more realistic ways than the earlier
fundamentalists had. One might imagine that an obvious way to have done
this would be to dispense with, or at least
modify, the old "verbal" model of inspiration. And at the start of the
present paper, L. Harold DeWolf was quoted as noticing precisely such a
change. He sensed a trend away from "verbal" toward simply "plenary"
inspiration. But an examination of the major neo-evangelical literature,
as well as contemporary criticism of the movement, indicates that DeWolf
was at most only
half right. Instead of "plenary inspiration," the controversial
alternative proposed to “verbal inspiration" was "conceptual
inspiration." Actually, it seems that most neo-evangelicals never
accepted this theory. But at least, it was important as a foil against
which they could more carefully define the positions they did
of all, just what is a "conceptual" model of inspiration supposed to
mean? Burtchaell devotes an informative chapter of his historical study
to this model, which he calls "content inspiration.” It seems to have
been formulated and popularized by Jesuit theologians in the nineteenth
century. One of them, Leonhard Leys (or Lessius), explains the point of
such a model: "For any thing to be Holy Scripture, its individual words
need not be inspired by the Holy Spirit.... That is, by the sort of
inspiration that would have the Holy Spirit forming the individual
material words in the writer's mind.” 38 Another of the proponents of
this theory, Giovanne Perrone, further elaborates, stating that this
would require for inspiration an impulse and...
the assistance of the Holy Spirit touching the content and
statements..., but a sort of positive assistance whereby God
plants all the ideas, and stands by the authors to guide and influence
them as they pick and choose their words and compose sentences -
without, however, dictating the individual words. 39
Did any of the
neo-evangelicals propound this view? Many of their contemporary
right-wing critics thought they did, and did not sit idly by. Spokesmen
for the movement denied this charge, claiming that their critics were
merely heresy-hunters so eager to pounce on any deviation from orthodoxy
that they did not wait to analyze carefully what was being said. Ronald
Nash offered this defense with some justification, but there was
definitely something in the wind. For instance, John Walvoord of Dallas
Theological Seminary pointed to Bernard Ramm’s Special Revelation and
the Word of God as a statement of the content or conceptual
inspiration theory. He was probably right. The key passages in Ramm's
book are these:
When we speak of inspiration setting the language
of Scripture we must not think atomistically (i.e., as if
the words were doled out to man as individual pearls) but we must think
in terms of units of meaning... [rather than] an inspiring of individual
words divorced from their meaning.
The essence of the doctrine of inspiration is
that there is a limit to which words can be rearranged, altered, or
substituted. To put it another way, if the Scriptures are an authentic
and sufficient form of special revelation, this inspiration must in some
comprehensive sense be verbal. The meaning of special revelation can be
expressed in a certain limited number of possibilities, and inspiration
secures the language of Scripture in such a way that the language
of Scripture remains within these possibilities. 40
Ramm does seem
to be proposing the conceptual inspiration model, though his language at
one point suggests that he means merely to explain what he sees as the
proper connotation of the rubric “verbal inspiration.” Nonetheless, it
would be hard to deny that he is defining it in terms of conceptual
inspiration. Ramm seems to have been alone in holding this view, even
among neo-evangelicals. Others in the movement shared the substance of
Ramm' s concern but expressed it in a somewhat different manner. The
direction they took will receive more attention momentarily.
was conceptual inspiration so scorned? The "content" doctrine had even
disappeared from among the Catholic circles where it had once been so
widely current. There, it had finally lost ground because it came to be
seen as synergistic, implying a “half-and-half" team effort on the part
of God and the human writers. The schema was viewed as analogous to
Semi-Pelagianism in soteriology and Arianism in Christology, and as
being equally unacceptable. As in both of these cases, Scripture was
finally thought by Catholics as more properly conceived as fully divine
and fully human at the same time, implying that the very words
came from God.
But the later Protestant distaste for conceptual
inspiration had little to do with such considerations. Instead, they
protested that this view tended to drive an impossible wedge between
ideas and their expression. From the neo-evangelical standpoint, Nash
calls "such a view of inspiration... not only theologically but also
philosophically unsound.” He gives his blessing to the words of James
Orr: "Thought of necessity takes shape and is expressed in words. If
there is inspiration at all, it must penetrate words as well as
thought.” 41 More recently, James Barr has had as little patience with
what he calls "inspiration of ideas." "As in any other literary work,
the verbal form is its mode of communicating meaning. If the verbal form
of the Bible were different, then its meaning would be different.” 42
Naturally there is no one who believes ideas may
be transmitted apart from words. But this is so obvious that it hardly
needs refuting, and certainly not with such vehemence. But is this what
Ramm was suggesting? Was he not rather maintaining that ideas may exist
in the mind prior to being articulated in words? True, an “idea" so
vague that it cannot find articulation in specific words is probably not
much of an idea. But no one really doubts that one idea can be variously
expressed in several possible word combinations without serious
distortion in meaning. Of course, even synonyms of a word differ at
least slightly in meaning from the original. But would such a small
degree of difference be enough to disqualify Ramm’s conceptual
inspiration model, as if the Holy Spirit's "original idea" becomes too
diffused in that gray zone of the human writer’s freedom to articulate
The almost universal rejection of conceptual
revelation by evangelicals is ironic for a surprising reason. The issue
of how exact a correspondence is needed between a thought and variant
words would seem to be the same as that underlying the process of
translation. For just as a word and its synonym in the same language
never mean precisely the same thing, neither does a word in one language
correspond exactly in meaning to its counterpart(s) in a different
language. Yet evangelicals, however devoted to studying “the original
Greek," do not deny that translations into other languages are truly
God’s Word. Muslims, by contrast, do make exactly this claim concerning
the Koran (which is why translations of it often carry careful titles
like The Koran Translated or The Meaning of the Glorious Koran).
Now, if evangelicals also wanted to make such a claim, they would find
the requisite theological categories ready to hand. Just as the
Scriptures are said to be inerrant only in the original autographs, they
might as easily be said to be inspired only in the original
languages. As in the case of the Koran translations, the New
International Version of the Bible (for example) would then have to
denote that its reader is not holding the real Scriptures. 43
perhaps evangelicals were a bit hasty in rejecting conceptual
inspiration. But, as mentioned above, some neo-evangelicals who did not
fully agree with Ramm nevertheless were trying to make a similar point.
Ronald Nash contended that while neo-evangelicals did not embrace
conceptual inspiration, they did wish to reemphasize the conceptual
dimension of (a more or less standard view of) verbal inspiration.
Granted that inspiration extended to the words, what were the words
saying? Wasn't this the important thing? Neo-evangelicals by no means
wished to rid themselves of belief in verbal inspiration. They merely
sought to correct a distortion in focus produced by the older
fundamentalists’ defensive posture regarding the real divine origin of
Neo-evangelicals wished to say, in effect, "That battle is over. Now
let's turn to other issues: what did God want to tell us with those
this corrective can be seen as the mirror-image of the critique leveled
by Nash, Orr, and Barr (above) against conceptual inspiration. If there
are no ideas without words, neither are words meaningful unless they
denote ideas. And then, surely, the ideas are the important thing.
Recent writers on inspiration have said it well. Charles H. Kraft
I believe strongly that the Scriptures are
inspired and that this inspiration may properly be labeled “verbal”...
and “plenary.” ... These terms label what is inspired (i.e., all the
words). But the words are inspired almost incidentally. For the primary
focus of inspiration (as of all ethnolinguistic communication) is on the
And G. C.
Berkouwer reminds verbal inspirationists that the "God-breathed
character is a witness which at no time can or may be severed from what
is testified to by the words.”45 For Berkouwer, this shift in
perspective has some rather searching implications that the
neo-evangelicals may have missed. If the inspiration of the words serves
primarily to secure the message, then it may no longer be (and may never
have been) appropriate to speak of the formal inspiration of anything
but the message.
All in all, the
present overview of neo-evangelical thinking on Scripture has shown that
the neo-evangelical period was a transitional period between
fundamentalism and today's evangelicalism in a much more significant
sense than is usually thought. The change from the fundamentalist
posture was neither merely one of manners and tactics, as Daniel Stevick
claimed, 46 nor simply one of ecclesial and social openness as Ockenga
claimed. Instead, the neo-evangelical movement, insofar as it took
seriously its own call to theological creativity and intellectual
challenge, set in motion important changes, particularly vis-a-vis the
doctrine of inspiration. By and large neo-evangelicals (with the
exceptions of Beegle and Ramm) hesitated to pursue these insights. The
next generation (including today's young evangelicals) did begin to
follow through on the path marked out for them and so ignited the
debates blazing fiercely in evangelical circles today.
1 George M.
Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1980); Donald W. Dayton, "Whither Evangelicalism?" in
Theodore Runyan (ed.), Sanctification and Liberation (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1981), pp. 142-163.
2 Daniel B.
Stevick, Beyond Fundamentalism (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press,
1964), pp. 74-75. Pretty much the same point is made in a fictive
headline in The Onion: Pope Calls for Greater Understanding
Between Catholics, Hellbound (Robert Siegel, ed., The Onion.
Dispatches from the Tenth Circle: The Best of the Onion (NY: Three
Rivers Press, 2001), p. 43)
3 Harold John
Ockenga, “Resurgent Evangelical Leadership,” in A Christianity Today
Reader, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (New York: Meredith Press, 1966), p.
Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (New York: Harper & Row,
Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1976), p. 12.
6 Donald G.
Bloesch, The Evangelical Renaissance (Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), pp. 30-31; Richard Quebedeaux,
The Young Evangelicals, pp. 39-40; “A Conversation with Young
Evangelicals" [round table conversation transcript], Post American,
January 1975, pp. 7-13. I interpret Bloesch’s “new evangelicals" (which
he himself distinguishes from "neo-evangelicals") as being the same as
Quebedeaux’s “young evangelicals.” At first Quebedeaux seems to make
“young evangelicals" a separate category from B1oesch's "new
evangelicals” but in the end seems to see them as the same category, as
I do here. Quebedeaux correctly sees yesterday's "neo-evangelicalism” as
having become today's "establishment evangelicals," with "young
evangelicals" playing the role of "young turks" rebelling against the
7 John Oliver,
"A Failure of Evangelical Conscience,” Post American May 1975,
pp. 26-30; Quebedeaux, pp. 32-41; Donald W. Dayton, “Where Now, Young
Evangelicals?” The Other Side, March-April 1975, pp.
pp. 37-38; Bloesch, pp. 33-34; Donald W. Dayton, "Where Now, Young
Evangelicals?” pp. 33-35.
DeWolf, Present Trends in Christian Thought (New York:
Association Press, 1960), p. 40.
10 E. J.
Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1959), p. 11 O.
quoted in Robert P. Lightner, Neoevangelicalism Today
(Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 1978), p. 81.
12 Everett F.
Harrison, “Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy,” in Christianity Today
Reader, p. 63.
13 Benjamin B.
Warfield, Limited Inspiration (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and
Reformed Publishing Company, 1974), p. 41.
14 Dewey M.
Beegle, The Inspiration of Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1963), p. 14.
"Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy,” p. 63.
16 Ibid., p. 64.
17 Bernard Ramm,
Special Revelation and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 68.
18 Ibid., pp.
19 Dyson Hague,
"Higher Criticism, " in R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon (eds.), The
Fundamentals (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 1:31.
Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article VIII, despite Article XVIII;
Clark H. Pinnock, Biblical Revelation: The Foundation of
Christian Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), p. 94.
"Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy,” p. 66.
22 Daniel P.
Fuller, “The Nature of Biblical Inerrancy,” Journal of the American
Scientific Affiliation, June 1972, p. 50.
Orthodox Theology, p. Ill.
24 The New
Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967),
25 Clark H.
Pinnock, "Limited Inerrancy: A Critical Appraisal and Constructive
Alternative,” in God's Inerrant Word, ed. John Warwick Montgomery
(Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), p. 148.
26 Here again,
neo-evangelical Carnell may be seen to have marked out the path for
today's young evangelicals, some of whom have stirred up considerable
controversy by their enthusiastic adoption of redaction criticism. See
Grant R. Osborne, "Redaction Criticism and the Great Commission: A Case
Study toward a Biblical Understanding of Inerrancy,” in Ronald
Youngblood (ed.), Evangelicals and Inerrancy, Selections from the
Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Nashville:
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), pp. 186-198; Robert H. Gundry,
Matthew, A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand
Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982).
the problem is made more acute when a biblical writer does
correct what he deemed to be an error or impropriety in his source if
the source is another biblical book which still survives in its original
form elsewhere in the canon. The problem arose originally because
sometime s the biblical writers failed to correct their sources.
28 C. H. Dodd,
The Authority of the Bible (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958),
"Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy,” p. 63.
Kraft, Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books,
1979), p. 213.
Burtchaell, Catholic Theories of Biblical Inspiration Since 1810
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 52.
"Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy," p. 63.
Beyond Fundamentalism, p. 91; James Barr, Fundamentalism
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), p. 78.
Orthodox Theology, p. 111.
35 Ibid., p. 59.
36 Bernard Ramm,
The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 54.
Inspiration of Scripture, p. 173.
38 Quoted in
Burtchaell, Biblical Inspiration, p. 88.
39 Ibid., p. 93.
Special Revelation, pp. 177, 178.
41 Ronald H.
Nash, The New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing
House, 1963), p. 41.
42 James Barr,
The Bible in the Modern World (New York: Harper & Row,
Publishers, 1973), p. 178. For other similar evangelical critiques of
the sort of "concept" or "content" inspiration model advocated by Ramm,
see R. A. Finlayson, "Contemporary Ideas of Inspiration" in Carl F. H.
Henry (ed.), Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book
House, 1976), pp. 223-224; Clark H. Pinnock,
Biblical Revelation, p. 89; Ernest S. Williams, Systematic
Theology Vol. I (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House,
1953), p. 77; Leon Morris, I Believe in Revelation (Grand Rapids:
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 116; Arthur W. Pink,
The Divine Inspiration of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Guardian
Press, 1976), p. 95.
43 Pretty much
the same point was made by Charles Augustus Briggs in Whither? A
Theological Question for the Times (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1890), pp. 64-65. It may readily be noted that this argument
parallels Beegle’s argument that Warfield’s distinction between the
"inerrant autographs" and relatively corrupt present-day copies is
self-defeating. The whole reason for drawing the distinction was the
claim that an inspired work must be inerrant. Thus to say that only the
long-lost autographs were inerrant must also mean that they alone,
exclusive of today's "errant" copies, are inspired! To protect the
inspiration of the originals, Warfield was shown by Beegle to have
sacrificed the inspiration of the only Bible available today.
Christianity in Culture, p. 206.
Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1975), p. 162.
Beyond Fundamentalism, p. 75.
Robert M. Price