THE TEXTBOOK WAR has taken a new turn.

Only a few years ago the creationists were on the attack. Mel and Norma Gabler, the Longview, Tex., couple who have made a career of reviewing textbooks, inspired the state of Texas in 1974 to require that high school biology textbooks mention evolution as "only one of several explanations of the origins of mankind." To that command, textbook publishers sat up and saluted: Texas purchases textbooks on a statewide basis and, with the second highest number of students of any state, is a huge market. Mr. and Mrs. Gabler, using the purchasing power of Texas as their lever, seemed to have moved the earth.

Now others have moved it in the other direction. Last summer Texas' board of education voted 23 to 2 to repeal the one-of-several-explanations rule. Two weeks ago California's board of education rejected more than 20 textbooks for "watering down" their teaching on evolution. It was not a casual decision. Bill Honig, the state superintendent of public instruction, who was elected in 1982 on a back-to-basics platform, charged publishers with "watering down books and lowering standards because they think that's what the market wants," and he promised more rejections. "It's not just science books. It's history, literature. We're raising the ante." California buys 11 percent of the nation's textbooks; it's the one market bigger than Texas.

As a general proposition, it's dismaying to see political officials get into the business of textbook selection and editing. However good their intentions, their results too often make education insipid. Consider the school boards that try to keep kids from reading "Huckleberry Finn" or the company that took "ice cream" out of the title of a short story because it seemed to advocate junk food.

But if there is going to be intervention, then it should be based on the principles Mr. Honig and the California board seem to be acting on. The Californians are not trying to impose their personal views but rather to apply rigorous intellectual tests to the textbooks. Are they accurate? Do they fairly and fully represent the best of human learning? Or do they suppress or misrepresent scientific theory in order to curry favor with particular political constituencies?

The textbook war certainly isn't over, but this latest turn in it is welcome for telling publishers that publishing intellectually rigorous texts is, in the long run, the best way to do business.