Is Inerrancy the Defining Feature of Evangelicalism?

The response of ASA members to the resignation of Bruce Waltke from RTS prompts me to write this. Perhaps I am mis-reading my fellow ASAers, but it seems that there is little grasp of a divide that occurred in evangelicalism over forty years ago–a divide that continues to this day as I see it. This is a response in part as well to comments of Ted Davis and George Murphy to my post about Eugenie Scott’s visit to CSU.

The divide is over the distinction between inerrancy and what we might call limited inerrancy. Inerrantists, as defined by the Chicago statement, regard those who do not hold to this view as “neo-evangelicals”. The view of Rodgers, McKim, Bloesch, Pinnock, etc. would be in this camp. While these theologians may be theologically conservative compared to full-blown liberal theology on some key questions, e.g. the Trinity, Christology, the atonement, justification by faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, etc., as far as inerrantists are concerned, they are with the liberals as a consequence of their doctrine of scripture. These individuals and their associated institutions are not evangelicals–they are neo-evangelicals.

It is clear that the ASA as a whole is on the neo-evangelical side of this divide. Perhaps, even, the ASA helped pioneer this view with the writings of Richard Bube in the Journal of the ASA in the 1970’s. Paul Seely (among others) provided the Biblical scholarship arguments for this. Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible documents this from a highly critical perspective, and, while I don’t necessarily agree with all of Lindsell’s story, it makes the point. Today’s ASA remains in this camp for the most part. Lamoureux, Seely, Enns, N.T. Wright, etc., either ASAers or favorite theologians of ASAers, are among the ranks of Rodgers, McKim, Bloesch, Pinnock, etc. on the doctrine of Scripture. and those directly associated with it are in this camp as is evident from their books and the way that they address the science/Scripture problem.

What may surprise ASAers is that the conservative Reformed camp embodied in denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and institutions such as the Westminster Theological Seminaries, Covenant College, Covenant Seminary, and the various Reformed Theological Seminaries are on the more conservative end of this evangelical/neo-evangelical or inerrancy/limited inerrancy spectrum. There are other denominations and institutions that we would not necessarily label “fundamentalist” that would also be at the conservative end of the spectrum–I’m thinking here of places like Wheaton College. A significant group of ASA members and even leaders are from these denominations and institutions or are strongly influenced by them.

In these institutions to move from the evangelical to the neo-evangelical camp usually means losing one’s job if you are a pastor, college professor, or seminary professor. In making this move you have abandoned a key aspect of the modern conservative evangelical and Reformed faith. Witness the events surrounding Peter Enns at Westminster Seminary.

So what to make of the response to Bruce Waltke? The historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall is a marker of adherence to the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Most even go further and make the advocacy of any sort of animal ancestry of Adam or his body to be impossible in the inerrantist perspective. Thus, the reaction to Waltke (and in my opinion a similar fate awaits Tim Keller) for his comments at Biologos. Now for the record I believe that it is possible to maintain an evangelical/inerrantist perspective and to entertain evolutionary ideas, extending even to aspects of human evolution. I believe that both Waltke and Keller do this. If you read their contributions to Biologos carefully, you will see that there is no hesitation to affirm the evangelical/inerrantist view of scripture or to affirm the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall. We see this as well in the early 20th century theologian B. B. Warfield. In some respects, Waltke and Keller are finding common ground with neo-evangelicals on these evolution questions at the risk of their reputations as evangelicals.

So why do I engage in this “splitting” (as opposed to “lumping”) activity? Those of us in the ASA in the “evangelical” camp (in contrast with the “neo-evangelical” camp) are fully aware that the ASA is a big-tent organization, especially on this issue. While I can only speak for myself, I suspect that there are others with similar qualms. We are very uneasy with the “neo-evangelical” approaches to scripture/science questions. These approaches will not work in our churches or institutions. Thus, when we use Lamoureux or Collins or Falk or Enns, we have to qualify them, if we use them at all. They often provide good discussions of the science from the theistic perspective; they often point to acceptable ways of reading scripture on some issues (age of the earth, days of Genesis, the Flood, etc.) but often intermingled with these, especially when we start talking about human origins and the Fall, are what we regard to be compromising claims about the character of Scripture.

ASA members, especially those at the neo-evangelical end of the spectrum, should know that they are only preaching to the choir when they root their arguments in a neo-evangelical view of scripture. While some advocate that young-earth creationism is the only consistent inerrantist position, it is clearly not the case. However, arguments for evolution and human evolution need to be cast into an inerrantist perspective in order to be made convincing. This, of course, is a much trickier enterprise. Some ASA members seem oblivious to this divide and in doing so seem surprised when it becomes important. Their ignorance of or indifference to this divide muddles the conversation.

Alternatively, the ASA could just say that these inerrantist/evangelicals have their heads buried in the sand and that the “neo-evangelical” view of scripture IS the basis for a correct understanding of science/Scripture issues. This is largely what the ASA has done with young-earth creationism in practice. In the heyday of the fundamentalist/Modernist debate in the early 20th century, J. G. Machen in Christianity and Liberalism argued that in reality there were two irreconcilable and competing views of Christianity here–two different religions even. The evangelical world (in contrast to the neo-evangelical world) would argue similarly today. ASA could decide to play on only one side of this divide, but if we do, let’s fully understand what we are doing. When we call evangelicals to become neo-evangelicals, it is like asking them to change religions.

54 comments to Is Inerrancy the Defining Feature of Evangelicalism?

  • John Pohl

    I would also add to your comment …  “without being smothered by the environment in much of Evangelicalism that makes un-limited inerrancy a litmus test for SALVATION.”  I think this is the problem.
    I believe in trilobites.  I believed they lived long before man did.  I also believe in a 14-billion year old (at least) universe.  I believe that dark matter might exist.  As a physician, I believe that single nucleotide polymorphisms cause both disease and small changes in evolution over time.
    Also, I believe in Jesus. He has forgiven my sins, for which I have many.  I am saved.
    This is where the ASA can be helpful.  I think many members find it a resource for people with similar thoughts.
    Take care and God Bless,

  • Bernie Dehler

    What are the vital prerequisites to be an evangelical, since ASA wants to represent evangelicals?  The answer is, I think, it depends on who you ask.  Is it vital to be an inerrantist?  If so, according to who?  Who gave them the authority to decide this?  There seems to be an assumption that one has to be a inerrantist in order to be an evangelical.  It seems to me this assumption is wrong. 

    So why do people believe it? Because it is either loudly proclaimed, or softly affirmed, by the major evangelical media ministries. So I guess the fear is that to run counter of inerrantism is to run counter to the dominant evangelical media, and then of course, get potentially lambasted by that media.  But oh well, the acceptance of evolution also runs counter to the main evangelical media. 

    The ASA has been learning how to receive such beatings for being out-of-line (actually on the forefront) as Christians that accept biological evolution.  In the same way, maybe it is getting strong enough, preparing, to take a beating to also dismiss inerrancy.

    Rather than debate if Lamoureux or Enns (or evolutionary creationists in general) are truly evangelicals because of their take on inerrantism, I think it would be better to take the bull by the horns and confront inerrantism as some sort of prerequisite or watermark of a true evangelical.

    I think Terry needs to grapple with whether inerrantism is a vital requirement rather than just assuming it and then seeing if people conform to it, and to what degree people conform to it.  If someone demands inerrantism as a vital rule for evangelicals, they should prove this position rather than saying it is some sort of assumed default position that is true unless falsified.  Like in any debate, the burden of proof should be on the one making an assertion, such as the claim that “true evangelicals should accept inerrantism.”

    (Friend of the ASA)

  • Terry M. Gray

    Jon, just a quick response. I commend to you a very recent article on Warfield’s view that appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal. It responds to attacks on Warfield’s view that doesn’t adequately appreciate the nuances of that view. It also comments a bit on how later Fundamentalists “corrupted” Warfield’s view.

    Once again I reiterate my goal in all of this. It is not to say what the ASA should or shouldn’t do in the general faith-science discussion. It is simply to say that, if ASA wants to make progress in the evangelical world that advocates inerrancy it needs to cast the discussion in terms consistent with that viewpoint. I, for one, am in that camp and think it can be done. When we express dismay that the discussion is set back by this or that occurrence without recognizing this dimension of the debate we will not make progress.

  • John Pohl


    Thank you for the link to the article by P. Helm.  It  was helpful.  Sorry about the delay in response as I was on vacation.  San Diego was great, but El Nino made it wet and cold.  Shamu (Sea World) was more comfortable with the weather than me and the kids.

    By the way, Section III on “Warfield’s Path” was especially helpful. 

    I agree with you that the ASA “needs to cast the discussion in terms consistent with that viewpoint.”  From my understanding of your post, we should come to the table with openess to the fact that many Evangelicals will disagree with the viewpoint of many ASAers regarding absolute Biblical inerrancy.
    I understand this sensitive issue and am always ready to address it with understanding and (hopefully) humility.

    However, openess should come in 2 directions.

    Out of curiosity, I put “Can a christian believe in evolution” on a Google search.  Several well-known websites came up…some Evangelical, some not.  For example,  and make rather simple assumptions that any belief in evolution or an ancient universe forfeits one’s Christianity.
    This is the issue with which I have a problem.

    I can say to a fellow Evangelical “Well, I believe in evolution to a large degree, and I believe the universe in a 14-billion year old universe.  I have read Genesis several times, and I have no real problems with it knowing that God knows far more about these things than me.  I also believe in Jesus, and I know that my Salvation is secure.”

    Now when I look at these websites and hear some Evangelical church leaders speak, I get this response:
    “I am glad you believe Jesus is the Christ.  However, the Bible has absolute inerrancy and is not open to interpretation.  Your belief in a possible interpretation leads to a question of your Salvation.”

    How should I or anyone else try to respond?  My concern is that we can come to the table with openess but the other camp will not.

    Take care and God Bless,

May 2010
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