The Legacy of Fundamentalism at Evangelical Colleges

The following commentary was written for Mere Orthodoxy, the blog of my friend Matt Anderson.

Thomas Albert Howard, who is the Stephen Phillips Chair of History at Gordon College, and Karl W. Giberson, who teaches a science and religion writing workshop at the same institution and is the author of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age and Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, have co-authored an interesting essay for Inside Higher Ed, “An Evangelical Renaissance in Academe?

Their concern is that Evangelical colleges, despite a quarter century of “reclaiming a place within deeper traditions of Christian learning and at the table of American cultural life,” still reveal a “lingering attachment to some of the more dubious certainties and habits derived from Fundamentalism and hardened by the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the 20th century.” For evidence of “fundamentalist baggage,” they point to the doctrinal statements at Evangelical schools in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), specifically Biola University and its insistence on pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology and biblical inerrancy.

To their credit, Howard and Giberson recognize that the official creed of the institution may not be the actual creed of faculty and students:

While such statements should not be presumed to capture the actual range of belief on a given campus, they are crucial for understanding a school’s identity and history and how it wants to be understood by its constituents.  And since faculty at many evangelical colleges, such as Biola’s, are required to express agreement with doctrinal statements, they serve a gatekeeping function, even as they sometimes provoke dilemmas of conscience over the scope of possible interpretation.

Let me set aside biblical inerrancy for the moment. I agree with the authors that pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology is a “dubious innovation,” but must all Evangelical colleges uphold the same views on controversial topics like the end times or the origins of life? That is their underlying assumption. The problem here, I suppose, relates to whether Biola – in its history and in its aspirations – is an institution of generic Evangelicalism, in which case dispensational theology or creationism does not properly belong, or an institution of confessional Evangelicalism, in which case those beliefs are acceptable, though not necessarily correct. Is Biola experiencing an identity crisis, unresolved about whether its fundamentalist heritage should also be its destiny? I cannot answer that question.

My alma mater, Wheaton College, is decidedly an institution of generic Evangelicalism, not situated in a particular ecclesial tradition or theology. There is much to respect about its “Statement of Faith” as an expression of beliefs that have united the Deep Church. Unlike Biola, Wheaton does not have an “explanatory note” that gets into eschatology, charismatic gifts, or abortion. Like Biola, Wheaton’s statement does include language about God “directly” creating Adam and Eve as “the historical parents of the entire human race,” which implies literal six-day creation and presumably denies evolutionary creation (or theistic evolution), even though a majority of the faculty affirm the compatibility of biblical religion and evolutionary biology. I contend that Wheaton would be truer to its heritage of generic Evangelicalism if it dropped that particularistic language from the statement.

Now I return to the issue of biblical inerrancy – one of the most hotly contested topics in Evangelicalism today. Just when I was about to throw inerrancy into the waste bin of useless words, Reformed theologian Michael Horton rescued the historic teaching for me in a persuasive essay that I encourage all inerrancy skeptics to read, “The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy.” Howard and Giberson are uneasy with inerrancy because, like my erstwhile self, they (wrongly) think—owing to the distorted propaganda of some progressives and the manipulative practices of some conservatives—that biblical inerrancy is a doctrinal anomaly in church history (“a pinched biblicism left over from Fundamentalism’s fiery struggle against Modernism”) and that biblical inerrancy has a built-in firewall against evolutionary theory, gender egalitarianism, or ecumenical cooperation. Biblical inerrancy, accurately understood, belongs to historic Christian orthodoxy and permits a variety of positions. Horton concludes his essay:

In evangelical circles generally, inerrancy was assumed more than explicitly formulated until it was challenged. Warfield and Hodge helped to articulate this position, which is more formally summarized in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Like any formulation developed in response to a particular error or area of concern for faith and practice, the inerrancy doctrine invites legitimate questions and critiques. However, its alternatives are less satisfying.

Howard and Giberson are mistaken, then, in making biblical inerrancy the enemy of progress in Evangelical colleges. Quite the opposite is true. Biblical inerrancy, which the Princeton theologians defined as the claim that “in all their real affirmations these [biblical] books are without error” (emphasis added), keeps Evangelical colleges faithful and obedient to “the good deposit entrusted” to followers of Christ—and what is progress without faithfulness and obedience? Sure, there may come a time, perhaps sooner than later, when the word “inerrancy” or “inerrant” may not need to appear in the doctrinal statements of Evangelical colleges because the teaching is not challenged as it once was during the church’s fight against theological liberalism. But as long as the teaching is challenged, Evangelical colleges are responsible to catechize their constituents about the Bible’s trustworthiness as an attribute of God’s trustworthiness.

No doubt, some Evangelical colleges suffer from fundamentalist intellectual habits. But I think the authors have greatly exaggerated “the unwelcome ghost of fundamentalism.” Speaking only for the Evangelical college that I know best, I deeply admire Wheaton College’s open and critical inquiry, distinguished faculty, superlative scholarship, and culture of academic seriousness. The future for Evangelical colleges lies not so much “with continuing to exorcize the ghost of fundamentalism” but with overcoming an inferiority complex about their marginal status in higher education. Rather than chafe against that marginal status, perpetually anxious about measuring up, more Evangelical colleges would flourish if they accepted it as a joy of Christian witness-bearing in late modernity.

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One thought on “The Legacy of Fundamentalism at Evangelical Colleges

  1. “The future for Evangelical colleges lies not so much “with continuing to exorcize the ghost of fundamentalism” but with overcoming an inferiority complex about their marginal status in higher education.”
    Exactly.

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