During the debate over “biblical inerrancy” that raged among evangelicalism for several years in the late 1970s, I remember someone observing that Harold Lindsell’s 1976 book, The Battle for the Bible, which pretty much got that debate going, was more a theory of institutional change than it was about theology as such. That observation made sense to me. While there were some important theological issues at stake, there was also much reliance on the “slippery slope” image, as well as on the story of the camel who, once allowed to put his nose in the tent, eventually moved in to stay. When a key doctrine is abandoned or modified, the argument went, there is no turning back. For evangelicalism, this meant that departing from theology of strict biblical inerrancy could only mean an inevitable move in the direction of consistent liberalism.
Empirical claims about institutional dynamics have to be open to counter-examples, and an interesting one in the theological world these days can be seen at the Free University—Vrije Universiteit—in Amsterdam, a school founded by the great Calvinist theologian-statesman Abraham Kuyper. When I taught philosophy there on a visiting stint in the early 1980s, the theology faculty had become thoroughly entrenched in liberalism. One prominent theologian with whom I spoke was openly disdainful of the school’s orthodox origins. “None of that has any appeal to the younger generation today,” he said. When I pointed out to him that the largest religious youth movement in the Netherlands at the time was Youth for Christ, he scoffed: “That’s just a temporary blip on the screen.”
Two decades later I had a more pleasant conversation with a theologian at the university who scoffed at the very liberalism that had dominated the scene in his earlier years. And he too appealed to the younger generation, but in this case in a very different way. He had been caught up, he confessed, in the liberal theology that he had studied at the Free University, until he was challenged by his teenage daughter. He had been a guest preacher at a local Reformed congregation one Sunday, and at their family dinner afterward his daughter told him that she found nothing in his sermon that spoke to her own spiritual concerns. “My generation needs to hear the Gospel,” she told her father. “Your kind of theology does not touch our lives.” That challenge, he told me, forced him to re-think much of what he had been teaching and preaching. “I don’t even read recent theology anymore,” he told me. “For me it is all about the solid teachings of the early Fathers.”
His return to orthodoxy is not an isolated phenomenon at the Free University. Special professorships are devoted now to evangelical and charismatic theology, as well as to the classical Calvinism of the “restored” (herstelde) Reformed movement. In 2012 two faculty members, Cornelis Van der Kooi and Gijsbert Van den Brink, published a 700-plus page introductory text, Christelijke Dogmatiek: Een Inleiding, a creative articulation of traditional Reformed doctrines that is now in its fifth printing (with an English translation presently being prepared for publication by Eerdmans). Very recently the university established the Bavinck Center for Evangelical and Reformed Theology (Herman Bavinck, a brilliant and productive champion of Reformed orthodoxy, was Abraham Kuyper’s younger colleague). The Dutch theologians who are now exploring the contemporary relevance of the thought of Kuyper and Bavinck are working closely with theologians with similar interests at the University of Edinburgh, Princeton Seminary, Fuller Seminary, and theological schools in Asia and Africa.
The condescending liberal theologian with whom I conversed in the early 1980s shared Harold Lindsell’s empirical hypothesis. Both of them insisted—albeit from very different places on the theological spectrum— that abandoning a high view of biblical authority puts one on a slope that can only lead to a thoroughgoing liberalism. They were wrong. Theological trends can be reversed, as can be seen in the theological narrative of the Free University. And there are clear signs that it can happen in North America as well. For those of us who care about such matters, there is hope. Camels can move out of tents!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.