Teaching Evangelicals About The Recent History of Evangelicals and the Bible

Carl F.H. Henry was a defender of biblical inerrancy

As some of you know, I am teaching a Sunday School class at West Shore Evangelical Free Church on the last fifty years of American evangelical history.   Last Sunday I devoted the class to evangelicals and the Bible.  I only had fifty minutes to discuss this very complex subject.  And as a historian, not a theologian, I focused on explaining the way various positions on biblical authority emerged in particular historical contexts.

David Bebbington has argued that “biblicism,” or the belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and thus has authority over a Christian’s life, is a fundamental tenet of evangelical faith. With this in mind, I suggested that evangelicals have come to embrace four different views of the Bible over the last fifty years.

1.  Dictation:  The idea that God dictated his Word to the biblical writers and they merely copied it down as scribes.  This view has been rather rare in post-1960s evangelicalism, but it was championed by some fundamentalists such as John R. Rice.  The dictation theory of Biblical revelation has also been connected to those fundamentalist churches who believe that the King James Version is the only divinely inspired translation of the Bible.

2.  Inerrancy:  I introduced this position on the Bible by pointing the class to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).

3.  Infallibility:  The idea that the Bible is inspired and without error in its central message of salvation through Jesus Christ, but does contain errors in the areas of science and history.  I spent some time discussing the controversy over Biblical authority in the 1960s at Fuller Seminary and the way that Harold Lindsell’s book The Battle for the Bible fueled these flames of controversy.

4.  Neo-Orthodoxy:  There are some evangelicals who have embraced Karl Barth’s vision of Biblical revelation.  Here I referenced Phil Thorne’s book Evangelicalism and Karl Barth: His Reception in North American Evangelical Theology.  I mentioned Thorne for two reasons.  First, his book is the best thing I have read on Barth’s influence on evangelicalism.  Second, Thorne is the former pastor of the West Shore Evangelical Free Church.

We had a good discussion about these various views.  I honestly don’t know where the members of this class stand on these approaches to biblical authority, but I have a hunch that most of them believe in inerrancy.  What I appreciated most was the way that many members of the class stressed the importance of charity when it comes to assessing fellow evangelicals who might disagree with them on these questions of biblical authority.

Next week’s class will focus on evangelical youth culture.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Evangelicals About The Recent History of Evangelicals and the Bible

  1. John: Interesting stuff! Excited to hear the report on your teaching about evangelical youth culture.

    I'm currently toying with a future research project that looks at Youth for Christ's influence on the mid-20th century Brethren in Christ. I have a ton of notes and primary source material from my master's thesis on this topic that's just begging to be turned into an article. But I need to do some extra secondary source reading first. We'll see what happens!


  2. How do you teach this material differently in a Sunday school class, as compared to your classroom at Messiah? Would you say that teaching history in a Sunday school setting demands a bit more of a hortatory emphasis? Or not?


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