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At 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?

Neo-evangelicals 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

Others doubted 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 "new evangelicalism."

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 movement. 5

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.

First, 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."

That 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 hand.

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 ideological criteria.

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 similarly rejects what Clark H. Pinnock had, in an early work, called "deceitful literary forms.” 20

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.” 22

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.

One of 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?

Such 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 Chronicler's genealogies.

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).

A similar 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.

But 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.

But 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

Before 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 adoption.

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. As Daniel Stevick, 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 same.

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 Testament, etc.

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 significantly 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 hold.

First 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 model

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.

Why 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 it?

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

So 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 the words. 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 inspired words?"

Interestingly, 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 affirms,

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 meaning. 44

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. 136.

4 Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (New York: Harper & Row, publishers, 1974).

5 Harold 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 system.

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. 35-36.

8 Quebedeaux, pp. 37-38; Bloesch, pp. 33-34; Donald W. Dayton, "Where Now, Young Evangelicals?” pp. 33-35.

9L. Harold 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.

11 Carnell 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.

15 Harrison, "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. 63-64.

19 Dyson Hague, "Higher Criticism, " in R. A. Torrey and A. C. Dixon (eds.), The Fundamentals (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 1:31.

20 “Chicago 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.

21 Harrison, "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.

23 Carnell, Orthodox Theology, p. Ill.

24 The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 696.

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).

27 Ironically, 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), pp. 30-31.

29 Harrison, "Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy,” p. 63.

30 Charles Kraft, Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 213.

31 James Burtchaell, Catholic Theories of Biblical Inspiration Since 1810 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 52.

32 Harrison, "Criteria of Biblical Inerrancy," p. 63.

33 Stevick, Beyond Fundamentalism, p. 91; James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), p. 78.

34 Carnell, 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.

37 Beegle, Inspiration of Scripture, p. 173.

38 Quoted in Burtchaell, Biblical Inspiration, p. 88.

39 Ibid., p. 93.

40 Ramm, 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.

44 Kraft, Christianity in Culture, p. 206.

45G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 162.

46 Stevick, Beyond Fundamentalism, p. 75.


 By Robert M. Price


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