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Chapter 2 from The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway Books, 1984)
Not far from where we live in Switzerland is a high ridge of rock with a valley on both sides. One time I was there when there was snow on the ground along that ridge. The snow was lying there unbroken, a seeming unity. However, that unity was an illusion, for it lay along a great divide; it lay along a watershed. One portion of the snow when it melted would flow into one valley. The snow which lay close beside would flow into another valley when it melted.
Now it just so happens on that particular ridge that the melting snow which flows down one side of that ridge goes down into a valley, into a small river, and then down into the Rhine River. The Rhine then flows on through Germany and the water ends up in the cold waters of the North Sea. The water from the snow that started out so close along that watershed on the other side of the ridge, when this snow melts, drops off sharply down the ridge into the Rhone Valley. This water flows into Lac Leman — or as it is known in the English-speaking world, Lake Geneva — and then goes down below that into the Rhone River which flows through France and into the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
The snow lies along that watershed, unbroken, as a seeming unity. But when it melts, where it ends in its destinations is literally a thousand miles apart. That is a watershed. That is what a watershed is. A watershed divides. A clear line can be drawn between what seems at first to be the same or at least very close, but in reality ends in very different situations. In a watershed there is a line.
What does this illustration have to do with the evangelical world today? I would suggest that it is a very accurate description of what is happening. Evangelicals today are facing a watershed concerning the nature of biblical inspiration and authority. It is a watershed issue in very much the same sense as described in the illustration. Within evangelicalism there are a growing number who are modifying their views on the inerrancy of the Bible so that the full authority of Scripture is completely undercut. But it is happening in very subtle ways. Like the snow lying side-by-side on the ridge, the new views on biblical authority often seem at first glance not to be so very far from what evangelicals, until just recently, have always believed. But also, like the snow lying side-by-side on the ridge, the new views when followed consistently end up a thousand miles apart.
What may seem like a minor difference at first, in the end makes all the difference in the world. It makes all the difference, as we might expect, in things pertaining to theology, doctrine and spiritual matters, but it also makes all the difference in things pertaining to the daily Christian life and how we as Christians are to relate to the world around us. In other words, compromising the full authority of Scripture eventually affects what it means to be a Christian theologically and how we live in the full spectrum of human life.
There is a sense in which the problem of full biblical authority is fairly recent. Up until the last two hundred years or so virtually every Christian believed in the complete inerrancy of the Bible, or in the equivalent of this expressed in similar terms. This was true both before the Reformation and after. The problem with the pre-Reformation medieval church was not so much that it did not hold to belief in an inerrant Bible as that it allowed the whole range of nonbiblical theological ideas and superstitions to grow up within the church. These ideas were then placed alongside of the Bible and even over the Bible, so that the Bible’s authority and teaching were subordinated to nonbiblical teachings. This resulted in the abuses which led to the Reformation. But note that the problem was not that the pre-Reformation church did not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture; the problem was that it did not practice the inerrancy of Scripture, because it subordinated the Bible to its fallible teachings.
Thus it is important to note that, up until recent times, (1) belief in the inerrancy of Scripture (even when it was not practiced fully) and (2) claiming to be a Christian, were seen as two things which necessarily went together. If you were a Christian, you also trusted in the complete reliability of God’s written Word, the Bible. If you did not believe the Bible, you did not claim to be a Christian. But no one, until the past two hundred years or so, tried to say, “I am a Christian, but at the same time I believe the Bible to be full of errors.” As incredible as this would have seemed to Christians in the past, and as incredible as this may seem to Bible-believing Christians today, this is what is now happening within the evangelical world.
This problem which started some two hundred years ago has within the past two decades come to the forefront among evangelicals. It is a problem which I (and others) began to address publicly in the mid-sixties, again in the seventies and repeatedly in the eighties. We can be thankful for the many who have taken a strong stand on this; but we must also say, sadly, that the problem continues and is growing. Evangelicalism is divided, deeply divided. And it will not be helpful or truthful for anyone to deny this. It is something that will not simply go away, and it cannot be swept under the rug. What follows in this chapter grows out of the study, thinking, and prayer, often with tears, which I have done concerning this watershed issue during my whole life as a Christian, but especially as I have dealt with this in my speaking and writing during the past two decades. The following, then, is a restatement on further development as a unified whole of my work in this area.
There are two reasons in our day for holding to a strong uncompromising view of Scripture. First and foremost, this is the only way to be faithful to what the Bible teaches about itself, to what Christ teaches about Scripture, and to what the church has consistently held through the ages. This should be reason enough in itself. But today there is a second reason why we should hold to a strong, uncompromising view of Scripture. There are hard days ahead of us — for ourselves and for our spiritual and physical children. And without a strong view of Scripture as a foundation, we will not be ready for the hard days to come. Unless the Bible is without error, not only when it speaks of salvation matters, but also when it speaks of history and the cosmos, we have no foundation for answering questions concerning the existence of the universe and its form and the uniqueness of man. Nor do we have any moral absolutes, or certainty of salvation, and the next generation of Christians will have nothing on which to stand. Our spiritual and physical children will be left with the ground cut out from under them, with no foundation upon which to build their faith or their lives.
Christianity is no longer providing the consensus for our society. And Christianity is no longer providing the consensus upon which our law is based. That is not to say that the United States ever was a “Christian nation” in the sense that all or most of our citizens were Christians, nor in the sense that the nation, its laws, and social life were ever a full and complete expression of Christian truth. There is no golden age in the past which we can idealize — whether it is early America, the Reformation, or the early church. But until recent decades something did exist which can rightly be called a Christian consensus or ethos which gave a distinctive shape to Western society and to the United States in a definite way. Now that consensus is all but gone, and the freedoms that it brought are being destroyed before our eyes. We are at a time when humanism is coming to its natural conclusion in morals, in values, and in law. All that society has today are relativistic values based upon statistical averages, or the arbitrary decisions of those who hold legal and political power.
The Reformation with its emphasis upon the Bible, in all that it teaches, as being the revelation of God, provided a freedom in society and yet a form in society as well. Thus, there were freedoms in the Reformation countries (such as the world had never known before) without those freedoms leading to chaos — because both laws and morals were surrounded by a consensus resting upon what the Bible taught. That situation is now finished, and we cannot understand society today for ourselves or our spiritual and physical children unless we understand in reality what has happened. In retrospect we can see that ever since the 1930s in the United States, the Christian consensus has been an increasingly minority view and no longer provides a consensus for society in morals or law. We who are Bible-believing Christians no longer represent the prevailing legal and moral outlook of our society, and no longer have the major influence in shaping this.
The primary emphasis of biblical Christianity is the teaching that the infinite-personal God is the final reality, the Creator of all else, and that an individual can come openly to the holy God upon the basis of the finished work of Christ and that alone. Nothing needs to be added to Christ’s finished work, and nothing can be added to Christ’s finished work. But at the same time where Christianity provides the consensus, as it did in the Reformation countries (and did in the United States up to a relatively few years ago), Christianity also brings with it many secondary blessings. One of these has been titanic freedoms, yet without those freedoms leading to chaos, because the Bible’s absolutes provide a consensus within which freedom can operate. But once the Christian consensus has been removed, as it has been today, then the very freedoms which have come out of the Reformation become a destructive force leading to chaos in society. This is why we see the breakdown of morality everywhere in our society today — the complete devaluation of human life, a total moral relativism, and a thoroughgoing hedonism.
In such a setting, we who are Bible-believing Christians, or our children, face days of decision ahead. Soft days for evangelical Christians are past, and only a strong view of Scripture is sufficient to withstand the pressure of an all-pervasive culture built upon relativism and relativistic thinking. We must remember that it was a strong view of the absolutes which the infinite-personal God gave to the early church in the Old Testament, in the revelation of Christ through the Incarnation, and in the then growing New Testament — absolutes which enabled the early church to withstand the pressure of the Roman Empire. Without a strong commitment to God’s absolutes, the early church could never have remained faithful in the face of the constant Roman harassment and persecution. And our situation today is remarkably similar as our own legal, moral, and social structure is based on an increasingly anti-Christian, secularist consensus.
But what is happening in evangelicalism today? Is there the same commitment to God’s absolutes which the early church had? Sadly we must say that this commitment is not there. Although growing in numbers as far as name is concerned, throughout the world and the United States, evangelicalism is not unitedly standing for a strong view of Scripture. But we must say if evangelicals are to be evangelicals, we must not compromise our view of Scripture. There is no use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger, if at the same time appreciable parts of evangelicalism are getting soft concerning the Scriptures.
We must say with sadness that in some places seminaries, institutions, and individuals who are known as evangelicals no longer hold to a full view of Scripture. The issue is clear. Is the Bible true and infallible wherever it speaks, including where it touches history and the cosmos, or is it only in some sense revelational where it touches religious subjects? That is the issue.
There is only one way to describe those who no longer hold to a full view of Scripture. Although many of these would like to retain the evangelical name for themselves, the only accurate way to describe this view is that it is a form of neo-orthodox existential theology. The heart of neo-orthodox existential theology is that the Bible gives us a quarry out of which to have religious experience, but that the Bible contains mistakes where it touches that which is verifiable — namely history and science. But unhappily we must say that in some circles this concept now has come into some of that which is called evangelicalism. In short, in these circles the neo-orthodox existential theology is being taught under the name of evangelicalism.
The issue is whether the Bible gives propositional truth (that is, truth which may be stated in propositions) where it touches history and the cosmos, and this all the way back to pre-Abrahamic history, all the way back to the first eleven chapters of Genesis; or whether instead of that, it is only meaningful where it touches that which is considered religious. T. H. Huxley, the biologist friend of Darwin, the grandfather of Aldous and Julian Huxley, wrote in 1890 that he visualized the day not far hence in which faith would be separated from all fact, and especially all pre-Abrahamic history, and that faith would then go on triumphant forever. This is an amazing statement for 1890, before the birth of existential philosophy or existential theology. Huxley indeed foresaw something clearly. I am sure that he and his friends considered this some kind of a joke, because they would have understood well that if faith is separated from fact and specifically pre-Abrahamic space-time history, it is only another form of what we today call a trip.
But unhappily, it is not only the avowedly neo-orthodox existential theologians who now hold that which T. H. Huxley foresaw, but some who call themselves evangelicals as well. This may come from the theological side in saying that not all the Bible is revelational. Or it may come from the scientific side in saying that the Bible teaches little or nothing when it speaks of the cosmos. Or it may come from the cultural side in saying that the moral teachings of the Bible were merely expressions of the culturally determined and relative situation in which the Bible was written and therefore not authoritative today.
Martin Luther said, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.” (1)
In our day that point is the question of Scripture. Holding to a strong view of Scripture or not holding to it is the watershed of the evangelical world.
The first direction in which we must face is to say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not.
What is often forgotten is that where there is a watershed there is a line which can be observed and marked. If one had the responsibility in Switzerland, for example, for the development of hydroelectric power from the flow of water, one would have a great responsibility to determine the topography of the country and then mark where the line would fall, and where the water would divide and flow. In the watershed of the evangelical world, what does marking such a line mean? It means lovingly marking visibly where that line falls, lovingly showing that some are on the other side of the line, and making clear to everyone on both sides of the line what the consequences of this are.
In making visible where the line falls, we must understand what is really happening. With the denial of the full authority of Scripture, a significant section of what is called evangelicalism has allowed itself to be infiltrated by the general world view or viewpoint of our day. This infiltration is really a variant of what had dominated liberal theological circles under the name of neo-orthodoxy.
It is surprising to see how clearly the liberal, neo-orthodox way of thinking is reflected in the new weakened evangelical view. For example, some time ago I was on Milt Rosenberg’s radio show “Extension 720” in Chicago (WGN) along with a young liberal pastor who graduated from a very well-known liberal theological seminary. The program was set up as a threeway discussion between myself, the liberal pastor, and Rosenberg, who does not consider himself to be a religious person. Rosenberg is a clever master of discussion. And with A Christian Manifesto and the question of abortion as the discussion points, he kept digging deeper and deeper into the difference between the young liberal pastor and myself. The young liberal pastor brought up Karl Barth, Niebuhr, and Tillich, and we discussed them. But it became very clear in that threeway discussion that the young liberal pastor never could appeal to the Bible without qualifications. And then the young liberal pastor said, “But I appeal to Jesus.” My reply on the radio was that in view of his view of the Bible, he could not really be sure that Jesus lived. His answer was that he had an inner feeling, an inner response, that told him that Jesus had existed.
The intriguing thing to me was that one of the leading men of the weakened view of the Bible who is called an evangelical, and who certainly does love the Lord, in a long and strenuous but pleasant discussion in my home a few years ago, when pressed backwards as to how he was certain concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ, used almost the same words. He said he was sure of the resurrection of Jesus Christ because of the inward witness. They both answered finally in the same way.
My point is that a significant and influential section of what is called evangelicalism has become infiltrated by a point of view which is directly related to the view that had dominated liberal theological circles under the name of neo-orthodoxy. To me, this was curious at the time when I saw it happening a certain number of years ago because where this ends had already been demonstrated by the Niebuhr-Tillich “God-is-dead” syndrome. Neo-orthodoxy leads to a dead end with a dead God, as has already been demonstrated by the theology of the sixties. And is it not curious that some evangelicals are just now picking this up as if it were the thing we should hold if we are to be “with it” today? But equally significant, note that the liberal pastor and the leader with the weakened view of Scripture who calls himself an evangelical both end up in the same place — with no other final plea than “an inner witness.” They have no final, objective authority.
This points up just how encompassing the infiltration is. Namely, just as the neo-orthodox roots are only a theological expression of the surrounding world view and methodology of existentialism, so what is being put forth as a new view of Scripture in evangelicalism is also an infiltration of the general world view and methodology of existentialism. By placing a radical emphasis on subjective human experience, existentialism undercuts the objective side of existence. For the existentialist it is an illusion to think that we can know anything truly, that there is such a thing as certain objective truth or moral absolutes. All we have is subjective experience, with no final basis for right or wrong or truth or beauty. This existential world view dominates philosophy, and much of art and the general culture such as the novel, poetry, and the cinema. And although this is apparent in the thinking in academic and philosophical circles, it is equally pervasive in popular culture. It is impossible to turn on the TV, or read the newspaper, or leaf through a popular magazine without being bombarded with the philosophy of moral relativism, subjective experience, and the denial of objective truth. In the new view of Scripture among evangelicals we find the same thing — namely, that the Bible is not objective truth; that in the area of what is verifiable it has many mistakes in it; that where it touches on history and the cosmos it cannot be trusted; and that even what it teaches concerning morality is culturally conditioned and can not be accepted in an absolute sense. But nevertheless this new weakened view stresses that “a religious word” somehow breaks through from the Bible — which finally ends in some expression such as “an inner feeling,” “an inner response,” or “an inner witness.”
The following two quotations are clear examples of this. They come from men widely separated geographically across the world, both of whom are in evangelical circles, but who advocate the idea that in the area where reason operates the Bible contains mistakes. The first writes:
But there are some today who regard the Bible’s plenary and verbal inspiration as insuring its inerrancy not only in its declared intention to recount and interpret God’s mighty redemptive acts, but also in any and in all of its incidental statements or aspects of statements that have to do with such nonrevelational matters as geology, meteorology, cosmology, botany, astronomy, geography, etc.
In other words, the Bible is divided into halves. To someone like myself this is all very familiar — in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, of Albert Camus, of Martin Heidegger, of Karl Jaspers, and in the case of thousands of modern people who have accepted the existential methodology. This quotation is saying the same thing they would say, but specifically relating this existential methodology to the Bible.
In a similar quote another evangelical leader in a country far from the United States writes:
More problematic in my estimation is the fundamentalist extension of the principle of noncontradictory Scriptures to include the historic, geographic, statistical and other biblical statements, which do not touch in every case on the question of salvation and which do belong to the human element of Scripture.
Both of these statements do the same thing. They make a dichotomy; they make a division. They say that there are mistakes in the Bible but nevertheless we are to keep hold of the meaning system, the value system, and the religious things. This then is the form in which the existential methodology has come into evangelical circles. In the end it cuts the truth of the Scriptures off from the objective world and replaces it with the subjective experience of an “inner witness.” It reminds us in particular of the secular existential philosopher Karl Jaspers’ term “the final experience,” and any number of other terms which are some form of the concept of final authority being an inner witness. In the neo-orthodox form, the secular existential form, and this new evangelical form, truth is left finally as only subjective.
All this stands in sharp contrast to the historic view presented by Christ himself and the historic view of the Scripture in the Christian church, which is the Bible being objective, absolute truth. Of course we all know that there are subjective elements involved in our personal reading of the Bible and in the church’s reading of the Bible. But nevertheless, the Bible is objective, absolute truth in all the areas it touches upon. And therefore we know that Christ lived, and that Christ was raised from the dead, and all the rest, not because of some subjective, inner experience, but because the Bible stands as an objective, absolute authority. This is the way we know. I do not downplay the experience that rests upon this objective reality, but this is the way we know — upon the basis that the Bible is objective, absolute truth.
Or to say it another way: the culture is to be constantly judged by the Bible, rather than the Bible being bent to conform to the surrounding culture. The early church did this in regard to the Roman-Greek culture of its day. The Reformation did this in its day in relation to the culture coming at the end of the Middle Ages. And we must never forget that all the great revivalists did this concerning the surrounding culture of their day. And the Christian church did this at every one of its great points of history.
But to complicate things further, there are those within evangelicalism who are quite happy to use the words “infallibility,” “inerrancy,” and “without error,” but upon careful analysis they really mean something quite different from what these words have meant to the church historically. This problem can be seen in what has happened to the statement on Scripture in the Lausanne Covenant of 1974. The statement reads:
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written Word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
Upon first reading, this seems to make a strong statement in support of the full authority of the Bible. But a problem has come up concerning the phrase “in all that it affirms.” For many this is being used as a loophole. I ought to say that this little phrase was not a part of my own contribution to the Lausanne Congress. I did not know that this phrase was going to be included in the Covenant until I saw it in printed form, and I was not completely happy with it. Nevertheless, it is a proper statement if the words are dealt with fairly. We do not, of course, want to say that the Bible is without error in things it does not affirm. One of the clearest examples is where the Bible, says, “The fool has said in his heart, There is no God.” The Bible does not teach that “there is no God.” This is not something that the Bible affirms, even though it makes this statement. Furthermore, we are not saying the Bible is without error in all the projections which people have made on the basis of the Bible. So that statement, as it appeared in the Lausanne Covenant, is a perfectly proper statement in itself.
However, as soon as I saw it in printed form I knew it was going to be abused. Unhappily, this statement, “in all that it affirms,” has indeed been made a loophole by many. How has it been made a loophole? It has been made a loophole through the existential methodology which would say that the Bible affirms the value system and certain religious things set forth in the Bible. But on the basis of the existential methodology, these men and women say in the back of their minds, even as they sign the Covenant, “But the Bible does not affirm without error that which it teaches in the area of history and the cosmos.”
Because of the widely accepted existential methodology in certain parts of the evangelical community, the old words infallibility, inerrancy and without error are meaningless today unless some phrase is added such as: the Bible is without error not only when it speaks of values, the meaning system, and religious things, but it is also without error when it speaks of history and the cosmos. If some such phrase is not added, these words today are meaningless. It should be especially noted that the word infallibility is used today by men who do not apply it to the whole of Scripture, but only to the meaning system, to the value system, and certain religious things, leaving out any place where the Bible speaks of history and the things which would interest science.
Just a few months ago a very clear example of this was brought to my attention. Today we find that the same view of Scripture which is held by the modern liberal theologian is being taught in seminaries which call themselves evangelical. This view follows the existential methodology of secular thinkers which says that the Bible has mistakes but that it is to be believed somehow or other anyway. For example I recently received a letter from a very able thinker in Great Britain, in which he wrote:
There are many problems facing evangelicals today not the least of which is the neo-orthodoxy in relation to Scripture. I am studying at Tyndale House [a study center in Cambridge, England] for a few days. And down the corridor from me is a very amiable professor, from a prominent seminary in California which calls itself evangelical, who calls himself an “open evangelical.” He has stated publicly in theological debate that he believes the Bible “despite all the mistakes in it.”
This Christian leader in England who wrote this letter to me is quite right in calling this neo-orthodoxy under the name of evangelical. Isn’t it curious that evangelicals have picked this up now as that which is progressive, just at a time when the liberals have found that neo-orthodoxy led to the “God is dead” theology? And when it was clear a few years ago that this seminary and others were simply presenting a form of neo-orthodoxy in regard to Scripture under the evangelical name, did the evangelical leadership quickly draw a line? Was there a rush of the evangelical leadership to the cause of defending the Scriptures and the faith? Sadly we must say no. Except for a few lone voices there was a great, vast silence. (2)
Those weakening the Bible in the area of history and where it touches the cosmos do so by saying these things in the Bible are culturally oriented. That is, in places where the Bible speaks of history and the cosmos, it only shows forth views held by the culture in the day in which that portion of the Bible was written. For example, when Genesis and Paul affirm, as they clearly do, that Eve came from Adam, this is said to be only borrowed from the general cultural views of the day in which these books were written. Thus not just the first eleven chapters of Genesis, but the New Testament is seen to be relative instead of absolute.
But let us realize that one cannot begin such a process without going still further. These things have gone further among some who still call themselves evangelicals. They have been still trying to hold on to the value system, the meaning system, and the religious things given in the Bible; but for them the Bible is only culturally oriented where it speaks of history and the cosmos. In more recent years an extension has come to this. Now certain moral absolutes in the area of personal relationships given in the Bible are also said to be culturally oriented. I would mention two examples, although many others could be given.
First, there is easy divorce and remarriage. What the Bible clearly teaches about the limitations placed upon divorce and remarriage is now put by some evangelicals in the area of cultural orientation. They say these were just the ideas of that moment when the New Testament was written. What the Bible teaches on these matters is to them only one more culturally oriented thing, and that is all. There are members, elders, and ministers in churches known as evangelical who no longer feel bound by what the Scripture affirms concerning this matter. They say that what the Bible teaches in this area is culturally oriented and is not to be taken as an absolute.
As a second example, we find the same thing happening in the area of the clear biblical teaching regarding order in the home and the church. The commands in regard to this order are now also considered culturally oriented by some speakers and writers under the name of evangelical.
In other words, in the last few years the situation has moved from hanging on to the value system, the meaning system, and the religious things while saying that what the Bible affirms in regard to history and the cosmos is culturally oriented to the further step of still trying to hold on to the value system, the meaning system, and religious things, but now lumping these moral commands along with the things of history and the cosmos as culturally oriented. There is no end to this. The Bible is made to say only that which echoes the surrounding culture at our moment of history. The Bible is bent to the culture instead of the Bible judging our society and culture.
Once men and women begin to go down the path of the existential methodology under the name of evangelicalism, the Bible is no longer the Word of God without error — each part may be eaten away step by step. When men and women come to this place, what then has the Bible become? It has become what the liberal theologians said it was back in the days of the twenties and thirties. We are back in the days of a scholar like J. Gresham Machen, who pointed out that the foundation upon which Christianity rests was being destroyed. What is that foundation? It is that the infinite-personal God who exists has not been silent, but has spoken propositional truth in all that the Bible teaches — including what it teaches concerning history, concerning the cosmos, and in moral absolutes as well as what it teaches concerning religious subjects.
Notice though what the primary problem was, and is: infiltration by a form of the world view which surrounds us, rather than the Bible being the unmovable base for judging the ever-shifting fallen culture. As evangelicals, we need to stand at the point of the call not to be infiltrated by this ever-shifting fallen culture which surrounds us, but rather judging that culture upon the basis of the Bible.
Does inerrancy make a difference? Overwhelmingly; the difference is that with the Bible being what it is, God’s Word and so absolute, God’s objective truth, we do not need to be, and we should not be, caught in the ever-changing fallen cultures which surround us. Those who do not hold the inerrancy of Scripture do not have this high privilege. To some extent, they are at the mercy of the fallen, changing culture. And Scripture is thus bent to conform to the changing world spirit of the day, and they therefore have no solid authority upon which to judge and to resist the views and values of that changing, shifting world spirit.
We, however, must be careful before the Lord. If we say we believe the Bible to be the inerrant and authoritative “Thus saith the Lord,” we do not face the howling winds of change which surround us with confusion and terror. And yet, the other side of the coin is that if this is the “Thus saith the Lord,” we must live under it. And without that, we don’t understand what we have said when we say we stand for an inerrant Scripture.
I would ask again, Does inerrancy really make a difference — in the way we live our lives across the whole spectrum of human existence? Sadly we must say that we evangelicals who truly hold to the full authority of Scripture have not always done well in this respect. I have said that inerrancy is the watershed of the evangelical world. But it is not just a theological debating point. It is the obeying of the Scripture which is the watershed! It is believing and applying it to our lives which demonstrate whether we in fact believe it.
We live in a society today where all things are relative and the final value is whatever makes the individual or society “happy” or feel good at the moment. This is not just the hedonistic young person doing what feels good; it is society as a whole. This has many facets, but one is the breakdown of all stability in society. Nothing is fixed, there are no final standards; only what makes one “happy” is dominant. This is even true with regard to human life.
The January 11, 1982, issue of Newsweek had a cover story of about five or six pages which showed conclusively that human life begins at conception. All students of biology should have known this all along. Then one turns the page, and the next article is entitled “But Is It a Person?” The conclusion of that page is, “The problem is not determining when actual human life begins, but when the value of that life begins to outweigh other considerations, such as the health or even the happiness of the mother.” The terrifying phrase is, “or even the happiness.” Thus, even acknowledged human life can be and is ended for the sake of someone else’s happiness.
With no set values, all that matters is my or society’s happiness at the moment. I must say I cannot understand why even the liberal lawyers of the American Civil Liberties Union are not terrified at that point.
And, of course, it is increasingly accepted that if a newborn baby is going to make the family or society unhappy, it too should be allowed to die. All you have to do is look at your television programs and this comes across increasingly like a flood. It is upon such a view that Stalin and Mao allowed (and I’m using a very gentle word when I say “allowed”) millions to die for what they considered the happiness of society. This then is the terror that surrounds the church today. The individual’s or society’s happiness takes supreme preference even over human life.
Now let us realize that we are in as much danger of being infiltrated by the surrounding amoral thought-forms of our culture as we are in danger of being infiltrated by the existential thought-forms. Why? Because we are surrounded by a society with no fixed standards and “no-fault” everything. Each thing is psychologically pushed away or explained away so that there is no right or wrong. And, as with the “happiness” of the mother taking precedence over human life, so anything which interferes with the “happiness” of the individual or society is dispensed with.
It is obeying the Scriptures which really is the watershed. We can say the Bible is without mistake and still destroy it if we bend the Scriptures by our lives to fit this culture instead of judging the culture by Scripture. And today we see this happening more and more as in the case of easy divorce and remarriage. The nofault divorce laws in many of our states are not really based upon humanitarianism or kindness. They are based on the view that there is no right and wrong. And thus all is relative, which means that society and the individual act on what seems to give them happiness for the moment.
Do we not have to agree that even much of the evangelical church, which claims to believe that the Bible is without error, has bent Scripture at the point of divorce to conform to the culture rather than the Scripture judging the present viewpoints of the fallen culture? Do we not have to agree that in the area of divorce and remarriage there has been a lack of biblical teaching and discipline even among evangelicals? When I, contrary to Scripture, claim the right to attack the family — not the family in general, but to attack and break up my own family — is it not the same as a mother claiming the right to kill her own baby for her “happiness”? I find it hard to say, but here is an infiltration of the surrounding society that is as destructive to Scripture as is a theological attack upon Scripture. Both are a tragedy. Both bend the Scripture to conform to the surrounding culture.
What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if sufficient numbers of those under the name evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical? If this continues, we are not faithful to what the Bible claims for itself, and we are not faithful to what Jesus Christ claims for the Scriptures. But also — let us not ever forget — if this continues, we and our children will not be ready for difficult days ahead.
Furthermore, if we acquiesce, we will no longer be the redeeming salt for our culture — a culture which is committed to the concept that both morals and laws are only a matter of cultural orientation, of statistical averages. That is the hallmark — the mark of our age. And if we are marked with the same mark, how can we be the redeeming salt to this broken, fragmented generation in which we live?
Here then is the watershed of the evangelical world. We must say most lovingly but clearly: evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not. But remember that we are not just talking about an abstract theological doctrine. It makes little difference in the end if Scripture is compromised by theological infiltration or by infiltration from the surrounding culture. It is the obeying of Scripture which is the watershed — obeying the Bible equally in doctrine and in the way we live in the full spectrum of life.
But if we truly believe this, then something must be considered. Truth carries with it confrontation. Truth demands confrontation; loving confrontation, but confrontation nevertheless. If our reflex action is always accommodation regardless of the centrality of the truth involved, there is something wrong. Just as what we may call holiness without love is not God’s kind of holiness, so also what we may call love without holiness, including when necessary confrontation, is not God’s kind of love. God is holy, and God is love.
We must, with prayer, say no to the theological attack upon Scripture. We must say no to this, clearly and lovingly, with strength. And we must say no to the attack upon Scripture which comes from our being infiltrated in our lives by the current world view of no-fault in moral issues. We must say no to these things equally.
The world of our day has no fixed values and standards, and therefore what people conceive as their personal or society’s happiness covers everything. We are not in that position. We have the inerrant Scripture, Looking to Christ for strength against tremendous pressure because our whole culture is against us at this point, we must reject the infiltration in theology and in life equally. We both must affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and then live under it in our personal lives and in society. None of us do this perfectly, but it must be the “set” of our thinking and living. And when we fail we must ask God’s forgiveness.
God’s Word will never pass away, but looking back to the Old Testament and since the time of Christ, with tears we must say that because of lack of fortitude and faithfulness on the part of God’s people, God’s Word has many times been allowed to be bent, to conform to the surrounding, passing, changing culture of that moment rather than to stand as the inerrant Word of God judging the form of the world spirit and the surrounding culture of that moment. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, may our children and grandchildren not say that such can be said about us.
1. The words that Schaeffer attributes to Martin Luther here (and elsewhere in his writings) sound very much like Luther, but they were actually written by the Victorian-era novelist, Elizabeth Charles. The words appear in her Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family, as if written by the fictional narrator Friedrich (“Fritz”) Schönberg. The attribution to Luther was perhaps due to some confusion arising from the fact that in the context this character was explaining why he could not abandon Lutheranism. — M.D.M.
2. There was indeed at least one man who raised a lonely and courageous voice when this seminary began to accept a neo-orthodox view of the Scripture. This was Jay Grimstead, a graduate of the seminary, and I would mention him and honour him for his efforts. Jay Grimstead played a decisive role in founding the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Council was formally organized on May 16, 1977 in Chicago with ten of us present. It still did not have the backing of most of the evangelical leadership, and there was no rush of the evangelical leadership to this cause.
The council was formed specifically for the purpose of defending the historic orthodox position concerning Scripture. Of particular note are the two statements issued by the Council. The first statement, issued in October 1978, is entitled “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” The second statement, issued in November 1982, deals with “Hermeneutics.” Both statements are extremely valuable in setting forth first what it means to say that the Bible is without error, and second how this applies to the understanding and interpretation of the Bible. The second statement on Hermeneutics presents a remarkably balanced and helpful series of twenty-five “affirmations and denials” concerning how the Scriptures are properly to be studied and interpreted. Together these statements set forth the total integrity of biblical inerrancy.
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