Did Fundamentalists Invent Inerrancy?

One late afternoon in the early 1990s, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry shuffled along to his next appointment on the grounds of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He appeared deep in thought. I was walking toward my car and caught up with him on the sidewalk. I’d known Dr. Henry since my boyhood days. My father and Dr. Henry had been colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1950s.

Henry heard my footsteps and turned around and warmly greeted me, and yet he didn’t seem his normal buoyant self. Sensing something amiss, I asked him what was the matter. He replied that he’d recently experienced an unpleasant conversation with an evangelical colleague from off campus. This person had accused Dr. Henry of being a “fundamentalist.” Henry expressed how perplexed he was by the charge. He was apparently upset and saddened by the way the conversation had unfolded.

Upon first blush, the critic’s charge didn’t make any sense to me. After all, Carl Henry was one of the prime architects of the post–World War II evangelical resurgence. He’d penned the landmark book The Uneasy Conscience of American Fundamentalism. He’d challenged the fundamentalist movement to reflect on “the social implications of its message for the non-Christian world.”

He wrote, “Today, Protestant Fundamentalism although heir-apparent to the supernaturalist gospel of the Biblical and Reformation minds, is a stranger, in its predominant spirit, to the vigorous social interest of its ideological forebears.” Although critical of aspects of American fundamentalism, Henry affirmed many of the same doctrinal “fundamentals” as those of fundamentalists.

Nevertheless, in the 1940s and 1950s, he clearly began to identify himself more as an evangelical than as a fundamentalist. From 1947 until 1956, he taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school. From 1956 to 1968, Henry served as the editor of the flagship evangelical journal Christianity Today. Moreover, he’d reflected seriously about defining traits of evangelical identity. In 1976, he’d published the book Evangelicals in Search of Identity. Consequently, when an evangelical scholar called Dr. Henry a fundamentalist, he had good reason to be nonplussed. Moreover, he apparently felt he’d been wrongly labeled.

At the moment of our brief sidewalk encounter, I didn’t ask Henry what warrant his critic had proffered in making the charge. I later tried to surmise why the respected critic had described Dr. Henry, a man with impeccable “evangelical credentials,” as a fundamentalist. Had the critic simply uttered the charge in anger? I really didn’t know. But as an admirer of the critic, I wanted to think the best. I concluded this person had apparently believed in good faith that Henry’s commitment to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy rendered him a fundamentalist.

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