Biblical Inerrancy?

This post is the first in a series of five on the topic of inerrancy.

“The Bible is inerrant.” What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you read that statement? What emotions arise? Do you respond with “Amen! Preach it sister!” Do you feel an aversion or objection? Or, perhaps, you are apathetic? I was raised in a conservative Baptist tradition that affirms the doctrine of inerrancy as espoused by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). It was something I always took for granted: of course, the Bible is true. I wouldn’t be a Christian otherwise. It didn’t seem like something I had to think very hard about. Any troubling discrepancies in the Bible were answered by the apologetic books that sat on my shelf. But, as I got older and began to see some of the shortcomings in my fundamentalist upbringing I began to feel an aversion to certain teachings I associated with rigid dogmatism, arrogance, and “hyper-literal” interpretation of Scripture. It seemed to me those most adamant about certain doctrines like inerrancy could also be unpleasant people. Thus, I stopped thinking of “inerrancy” as a useful doctrine. Sure, I still believed the Bible is true, but I didn’t feel any need to parse it down into tiny obsessive compulsive bits. I’d just as soon forget about “inerrancy” and leave it behind with those “fundamentalists” of whom I no longer considered myself a member.

The problem, however, is I never really studied the doctrine of inerrancy. Not when I was in favor of it. And not when I decided to discard it. I suspect that is the case with most people. We have heard the term and we have immediate thoughts and reactions to it—either positive or negative—but few of us have taken the time to think through what it means. A year or two ago I became good friends with a staunch inerrantist who brought the topic to my attention again when she asked my opinion of her church website. On one menu page, the doctrine of inerrancy popped out at me like a blazing, bold headline. The emphasis felt jarring. Why is this displayed so prominently? I asked. I wanted to say more—about why I objected so much to this glaring proclamation of inerrancy—but I realized I didn’t have a strong rationale. Yes, it did seem to take too much priority over the articulation of other important doctrines, but really I just didn’t like seeing the word “inerrancy.” My response was a gut aversion. Yet the truth is I hadn’t studied it enough to provide an intellectual objection. And it didn’t help that my friend is a kindhearted person, so I couldn’t cite arrogance as evidence against her belief. Thus, I decided I needed to re-examine this issue in more detail to determine what it is I believe and why.

Inerrantists will say the story of inerrancy begins with Jesus and the Apostles, but I prefer to start with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). That is where the action gets hot. It all started when Dr. Harold Lindsell published his treatise, Battle for the Bible in 1976. Lindsell was an ordained Baptist minister and professor of church history and missions. He had also been president of the Evangelical Theological Society, served as editor of Christianity Today for ten years, and helped found Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1940s—a school he now criticized as selling out to liberalism. In his book, Lindsell defended inerrancy, arguing that institutions that discarded the doctrine were sliding down the slippery slope of theological deviation. Like a row of dominos, once inerrancy fell, everything else was destined to go with it. Lindsell described the spread of liberal views as an “infection” threatening the health of the church. His defense of inerrancy was hailed by some and criticized by others. In a book review, Dominic Unger wrote, “It is to L.’s credit that he strenuously upholds these basic dogmas. But the one extreme cannot be corrected by an all-out fundamentalism.”[1] Unger was concerned that Lindsell was overly literalistic and did not attend to the function of literary genres in Scripture.

One person who heard Lindsell’s call to action was Dr. Jay Grimstead, a theology graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. He wrote to Lindsell and R.C. Sproul suggesting that a conference be established “to deal with this battle for the inerrancy of the Bible and to expose the fallacies of the neo-orthodox false assumptions.” In his letter to Sproul, Grimstead wrote, “It’s apparent to me that evangelical Christianity actually is divided down the middle between those that hold to the traditional view of scripture and truth on the one hand, and those on the other hand who have been affected by Barth and Berkouwer in their view of truth and epistemology and scripture and all the resulting doctrines that get diminished as a result.” Grimstead was concerned that neo-orthodoxy diminished the authority of Scripture by suggesting the biblical authors were fallible witnesses to the words of God. Barth emphasized Jesus as the primary revelation of God and suggested Scripture “becomes” revelation when the Holy Spirit illuminates the reader’s mind and heart. Of particular concern was Barth’s admission that the Bible has errors:

There are obvious overlappings and contradictions–e.g., between the Law and the prophets, between John and the Synoptists, between Paul and James.  But nowhere are we given a single rule by which  to make a common order, perhaps an order of precedence, but at any rate a synthesis, of what is in itself such a varied whole.  Nowhere do we find a rule which enables us to grasp it in such a way that we can make organic parts of the distinctions and evade the contradictions as such.  We are led now one way, now another–each of the biblical writers obviously speaking only quod potuit homo–and in both ways, and whoever is the author, we are always confronted with the question of faith. . . . For within certain limits and therefore relatively they are all vulnerable and therefore capable of error even in respect of religion and theology.  In view of the actual constitution of the Old and New Testaments this is something that we cannot possibly deny if we are not to take away their humanity, if we are not to be guilty of Docetism. (Church Dogmatics I/2:509-510).

Ironically, Barth had set out to counter the anti-supernaturalism of Liberal Protestant scholarship. And today, much of his theology is respected in evangelical circles even if his views on revelation are not fully accepted. However, at the time, Grimstead and others were concerned that Barth’s influence weakened commitment to the authority of Scripture. Grimstead hoped to reinstate confidence that the Bible is not only inerrant in matters of religion and theology, but also science, history, anthropology, ethics and other areas of scientific inquiry. He also wanted to uphold belief that “Moses wrote all five books of the Pentateuch; that Isaiah wrote the whole book of Isaiah; that Daniel was written in Daniel’s time; that the flood of Noah was a universal flood covering the whole earth; that all of present mankind came from Noah’s family.”

Francis Schaeffer considered Grimstead a “lonely and courageous voice” who was instrumental in the creation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.[2] The Council was founded on May 16, 1977 with ten people present. Grimstead was appointed Executive Director. Schaeffer recalls there was no immediate rush of evangelicals to join the bandwagon. But, the following year in October 1978, the first conference was held with nearly 300 attendees. Papers were read and sessions held culminating in the creation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), approved by 240 out of 268 delegates. Among the signers were R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Frank Gaebelein, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, J.I. Packer, and Luis Palau.

To be clear, the concept of inerrancy was not invented by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The founders were correct that throughout church history, theologians had always affirmed the truthfulness of Scripture. In the 4th century, Augustine wrote:

I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it (Letter 82.3).

However, the implications of a Bible without errors were different for Augustine than for the writers of CSBI. For example, whereas Augustine used allegory to interpret difficult passages or discrepancies, modern inerrantists adhere to a grammatico-historical hermeneutic and seek to harmonize discrepancies. Whereas Augustine did not believe Genesis taught six literal days of creation, many modern inerrantists do (a notable early exception was B.B. Warfield who was open to evolution).Modern inerrantists’ concern about science is reflected in CSBI: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood” (Article XII). Thus,  many inerrantists have viewed theories of evolution as a threat to inerrancy itself. However, other inerrantists suggest CSBI leaves room for flexibility to understand biblical depictions as reflective of ancient Near Eastern views of science: “We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose” (i.e. modern technological and scientific standards; Article XIII). In his authorized commentary on CSBI, R.C. Sproul acknowledged that the medieval church was in error regarding geocentricity. This did not mean the Scriptures were in error, but the church misinterpreted Scripture and had to re-read it in light of scientific fact. At the same time, Sproul cautioned against forcing Scripture to conform with secular theories of humanity’s origin.[3]

The drafters of CSBI were primarily concerned that the authority of Scripture be upheld. Article I states, “We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God.” Similarly, Sproul clarified that inerrancy means, “[T]he Bible is completely true, that all its affirmations and denials correspond with reality.” Inerrantist believe that if people treat the Bible as a fallible witness to God’s revelation and only true in certain parts, this leaves determination of veracity dependent upon subjective human reasoning. Thus, we can never really know what is true or not true. The solution, then, is to affirm that the whole of Scripture is true and not only parts of it. This does not mean the Chicago inerrantists denied discrepancies in Scripture. However, they believed these could be resolved in time with better data (e.g. archaeological discoveries we may not have made yet, etc.) Similarly, they took into consideration minor textual problems. For example, Article XIII states: “We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods [i.e. describing a report of falsehood], the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations [e.g. by New Testament authors of Old Testament texts].” Similarly, the CSBI includes acknowledgement of “literary forms and devices” (Article XVIII).

Since the Church has always affirmed the truthfulness and authority of Scripture, and most denominational doctrinal statements included this assertion prior to CSBI, some have questioned the need for the term “inerrancy” and CSBI. In response, Sproul said “the word serves as an appropriate safeguard from those who would attack the truthfulness of Scripture in subtle ways.” In other words, the inerrantists were concerned that words like “infallibility” or “true” no longer carried the weight they traditionally had. Terminology was being understood in new ways, especially in their exclusion of the Bible as inerrant in matters of history and science. Thus, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) set out to clarify what “true” meant. In 1982 the Council met again to draft the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, and in 1986 they produced the Chicago Statement on Biblical Application. Having accomplished their mission, the Council officially disbanded in 1987 and their materials and records are now archived at Dallas Theological Seminary. However, Grimstead has continued his advocacy of inerrancy through the International Church Council Project (ICCP), a ministry he considers the “spiritual successor” of ICBI.Ultimately, the fundamentalist and evangelical worlds were (and are) significantly shaped by the advocacy of ICBI. Allegiance to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy became a litmus test to separate insiders from outsiders.

In my next post, I will continue this discussion by summarizing a debate on inerrancy involving five theologians and biblical scholars.

 


[1]Dominic J. Unger,The Battle for the Bible (Book Review),” Theological Studies 37 (1976): 725.

[2]Francis Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, Volume 4, A Christian View of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1982) 418.

[3]Explaining Inerrancy: A Commentary, ICBI, 1980.

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2 thoughts on “Biblical Inerrancy?

  1. This post feels like a throwback! I haven’t even heard the word ‘inerrancy’ in a long time – but I wonder if that’s in part because my current geography and demographic.

    One thing that catches my attention is how these words have connotations that are felt more than they are literal. Even the word ‘fundamentalism’, it’s a loaded term.

    Where I side with inerrantists is the extremely high view of Scripture and the desire to live in submission to the Scriptures as an expression of our loving and worshipful obedience to God. With those who eschew inerrancy but still profess reverence for the Scriptures, it’s not always clear what that specific person means: Do you respect the Scriptures as a holy document – but not necessarily believe in them? Do you respect the Scriptures the way you respect your elderly grandma – lovingly, even if sometimes she’s wrong? Or do you respect the Scriptures worshipfully and obediently – you just don’t interpret everything grammatico-historically?

    Justin Lee, in his book TORN, brought up a great point. When people attack others for “interpreting the Bible literally”, what is heard by conservatives isn’t an actually attack on their hermeneutic, but on their reverence for the Scriptures. Again, it’s not the words, but the emotion that is carried through. And again, I share in that submissive spirit to the Word.

    Where I part ways, though, is in the actual genre-deaf approach to interpretation. I am also open to the possibility that the biblical authors may not have been “literally” correct in everything they reported – either in ways that were befitting the genre, culture, or in ways that weren’t consequential. Unlike inerrantists, I don’t think that small things undermine the big things. Of course, that exposes me to the question: Who is to say what is or is not consequential?

    In any case, great post!

    • frailb, thanks for your comment! I can resonate with much of what you say here. I also share with inerrantist a high regard for Scripture and the need to be obedient to the truth we find there. But, like you I am concerned about certain hermeneutical practices.

      I also agree that terms can be emotionally laden, and that how we say things matters. I want to explore that more when I conclude this series and reflect on it. It does help to keep in mind that inerrantists are primarily concerned about the authority of Scripture and there can be much common ground there if people didn’t talk past each other.

      I am surprised to hear that you don’t hear about “inerrancy” much. I would expect that in your work teaching that it would be present at that particular place. Its definitely in the Chicago/DTS tradition. But its probably taken for granted and assumed more than spoken of. I am sure to be a tenure faculty there it would be a requirement to sign on the dotted line.

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