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Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy
By James R. A. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Michael F. Bird, Peter E. Enns, John R. Franke
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2013 James R. A. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Michael F. Bird, Peter E. Enns, and John R. Franke
All rights reserved.
WHEN THE BIBLE SPEAKS, GOD SPEAKS: THE CLASSIC DOCTRINE OF BIBLICAL INERRANCY
R. ALBERT MOHLER JR.
An affirmation of the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible has stood at the center of evangelical faith as long as there have been Christians known as evangelicals. The Reformation itself was born out of a declaration of the supreme authority of the Bible and absolute confidence in its truthfulness. In affirming that the Bible, as a whole and in its parts, contains nothing but God-breathed truth, evangelicals have simply affirmed what the church universal had affirmed for well over a millennium—when the Bible speaks, God speaks.
The centrality of inerrancy has been a core affirmation of evangelical Christianity as a movement, as evidenced by consensus documents such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the fact that the Evangelical Theological Society has required an affirmation of the Bible's inerrancy from the society's inception. The society's statement expresses the affirmation clearly and succinctly: "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs."
Nevertheless, the inerrancy of Scripture has not been universally accepted by all who would call themselves evangelical and who would function within the evangelical movement. Even an inerrantist of the stature of Carl F. H. Henry would argue that inerrancy should be seen as a requirement of evangelical consistency rather than as a test of evangelical integrity. Some, such as Clark Pinnock, would write clear-minded affirmations of the classical evangelical statement of inerrancy, only to turn years later and write manifestoes calling for evangelicals to abandon the doctrine.
In more recent times, some have warned that an affirmation of Scripture's inerrancy would lead to intellectual disaster for the evangelical movement. Still others complain that the concept is bothersome at best and inherently divisive. Roger Olson of Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University has argued that inerrancy "has become a shibboleth—a gate-keeping word used to exclude people rather than to draw authentic Christians together for worship and witness."
To the contrary, I believe that the affirmation of the Bible's inerrancy has never been more essential to evangelicalism as a movement and as a living theological and spiritual tradition. Furthermore, I believe that the inerrancy of Scripture is crucial to the project of perpetuating a distinctively evangelical witness into the future. Without inerrancy, the evangelical movement will inevitably become dissolute and indistinct in its faith and doctrines and increasingly confused about the very nature and authority of its message.
The issue remains as clear as it was when evangelicals first sought to define a theological and spiritual trajectory that would simultaneously avoid the liberalism and theological accommodationism of mainline Protestantism and the intellectual separatism of fundamentalism. Those who would affirm the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible must make clear the extent of that affirmation. Do we really believe that God breathed out and inspired every word of the Bible? Do we believe that the Bible, as the Word of God written, shares God's own perfection and truthfulness? Do we believe that when the Bible speaks, God speaks? If so, we affirm the inerrancy of Scripture without reservation or hesitation.
If we do not make these affirmations, then we have set ourselves upon a project of determining which texts of the Bible share those perfections, if any. We will use a human criterion of judgment to decide which texts bear divine authority and which texts can be trusted. We will decide, one way or another, which texts we believe to be God speaking to us.
I will make my position plain. I do not believe that evangelicalism can survive without the explicit and complete assertion of biblical inerrancy. Given the pressures of late modernity, growing ever more hostile to theological truth claims, there is little basis for any hope that evangelicals will remain distinctively evangelical without the principled and explicit commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.
Beyond this, inerrancy must be understood as necessary and integral to the life of the church, the authority of preaching, and the integrity of the Christian life. Without a total commitment to the trustworthiness and truthfulness of the Bible, the church is left without its defining authority, lacking confidence in its ability to hear God's voice. Preachers will lack confidence in the authority and truthfulness of the very Word they are commissioned to preach and teach. This is not an issue of homiletical theory but a life-and-death question of whether the preacher has a distinctive and authoritative Word to preach to people desperately in need of direction and guidance. Individual Christians will be left without either the confidence to trust the Bible or the ability to understand the Bible as something less than totally true.
The way out of hermeneutical nihilism and metaphysical antirealism is the doctrine of revelation. It is indeed the evangelical, biblical doctrine of revelation that breaks this epistemological impasse and becomes the foundation for a revelatory epistemology. This is not foundationalism in a modernist sense. It is not rationalism. It is the understanding that God has spoken to us in a reasonable way, in language we can understand, and has given us the gift of revelation, which is his willful disclosure of himself, the forfeiture of his personal privacy.
Though many efforts have been made to suggest that the issue of inerrancy is too complex to be reduced to simple alternatives, the simple alternatives steadfastly remain: we will either affirm the total truthfulness of the Bible in whole and in part, or we will concede that at least some parts, if not the whole, are something less than totally truthful and trustworthy. There are indeed complex and complicated issues to consider, but the stark alternatives remain.
J. I. Packer has described a "thirty years' war" over inerrancy within evangelicalism, spanning the years 1955–85. This very discussion is evidence that this issue is not yet fully settled and that the struggle to maintain a full embrace of inerrancy is ongoing, now fifty years and more after the issue arose with new vigor.
Packer expressed his concern this way: "I see biblical authority as methodologically the most basic of theological issues. And I have fought not just for the sake of confessional orthodoxy or theological certainty or evangelical integrity or epistemological sanity or to counter dehumanizing rationalisms. Rather, my affirmation and defense of Holy Scripture has been first and foremost for the sake of pastoral and evangelistic ministry, lay godliness, the maturing of the church, and spiritual revival."
The Evangelical Theological Society made the affirmation of inerrancy a requirement for membership when the group was founded in 1949. At that time, the denominations and institutions of mainline Protestantism were moving quickly into a mode of theological liberalism, and many had abandoned or explicitly denied biblical inerrancy long before then. Evangelicals understood themselves to be, as a movement, distinct from mainline Protestantism precisely because of the theological affirmations evangelicals were determined to maintain. As in the Reformation, the foundational affirmation, even the formal principle of evangelicalism, was the full affirmation of biblical authority.
But did that affirmation of biblical authority require inerrancy? A private gathering of evangelical theologians from several nations in 1966 in Wenham, Massachusetts, set the stage for the debate within evangelicalism that rages even today. At that meeting, it became clear that at least some evangelical scholars present had serious reservations about inerrancy.
Writing years later, Carl Henry recalled, "None of the participants in the 1966 Wenham Conference on Scripture either affirmed the errancy of Scripture or contended that scriptural errancy is the historic view of the church; in other words, those who did not champion inerrancy did not on that account automatically express commitments to errancy. They were simply noncommittal on the question of the errorlessness of Scripture." And yet, Henry observed, the failure to commit to biblical inerrancy opened the door to concessions that were, in truth, made almost inevitable by this failure.
Henry observed, "To say that biblical inerrancy is not the first thing to be declared is not to deny its importance; it is integral to a Christian apologetic that presents evangelical theology in its totality. The search for a biblical authority that accommodates errancy has tragically eroded theological energies, and has been as fruitless and even more so than has a fixation on inerrancy."
On the other side of the Atlantic, the debate emerged even earlier. In 1957, Gabriel Hebert threw down a gauntlet of sorts with his book Fundamentalism and the Church of God. In that book, Hebert accused British evangelicals of holding, in effect, to a view of scriptural truth and authority that is tantamount to idolatry. He rejected not only inerrancy but also any affirmation, however qualified, of the Bible's total truthfulness. In response, Packer delivered a series of addresses that were published the very next year as "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God. Packer's position was clear, and it represented the mainstream of British evangelicalism.
The Bible, Packer asserted, "is word for word God-given; its message is an organic unity, the infallible Word of an infallible God, a web of revealed truths centered upon Christ; it must be interpreted in its natural sense, on the assumption of its inner harmony; and its meaning can be grasped only by those who humbly seek and gladly receive the help of the Holy Spirit."
Back in the United States, Fuller Theological Seminary, a flagship institution of what had been known as the "New Evangelicalism," revised its confessional statement in the early 1970s after more than a decade of intense debate among the school's faculty, trustees, and alumni. In its earlier version, the confession stated, "The books which form the canon of the Old and New Testaments as originally given are plenarily inspired and free from all error in the whole and in the part. These books constitute the written Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice."
In 1972, Fuller adopted a new statement that read very differently: "Scripture is an essential part and trustworthy record of this divine self-disclosure. All the books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, are the written word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. They are to be interpreted according to their context and purpose in reverent obedience to the Lord who speaks through them in living power."
Clearly, the new statement was written in order to accommodate positions that would not affirm the total inerrancy of the Bible. Plenary verbal inspiration and inerrancy were no longer required of Fuller's faculty.
The issue of inerrancy reached a fever pitch in the year 1976, declared by Newsweek magazine to be the "Year of the Evangelical." Harold Lindsell, a former Fuller faculty member and editor of Christianity Today, leveled a broadside critique at Fuller Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention, and other evangelical institutions that had abandoned or compromised the full inerrancy of Scripture. Lindsell's attack was journalistic and controversial, but his point has been made. As Carl Henry would affirm, "Lindsell is certainly right when he says, 'The doctrine of biblical inerrancy has been normative since the days of the Apostles. It was not until the last century and a half that the opponents of inerrancy ... have become a dominant force in Christian ity.'" Henry would affirm Lindsell's point: "Inerrancy is the evangelical heritage, the historic commitment of the Christian church."
The issue only grew in significance throughout the 1970s, and the great crystalizing event came with the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy and its greatest achievement, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, adopted in 1978.
The aims of the ICBI were clear from the outset. The group aimed to establish that plenary inerrancy has been and remains a central evangelical distinctive. The leaders of the ICBI sought "to counter the drift from this important doctrinal foundation by significant segments of evangelicalism and the outright denial of it by other movements."
To do this, the leaders of the movement invited prominent evangelicals to meet near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, October 26–28, 1978. Of the 268 delegates present, 240 voted to approve what became known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). The 240, representing an overwhelming majority of participants, affirmed a clear definition of the Bible's total inerrancy: "Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives."
Properly speaking, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy includes an introductory statement, a short statement of the doctrine, and then a set of nineteen articles of affirmation and denial.
In the preface to the statement, the ICBI warned, "To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority." They then declared that the CSBI "affirms this inerrancy of Scripture afresh, making clear our understanding of it and warning against its denial."
The section titled "A Short Statement" set forth the main thrust of the CSBI:
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God's witness to Himself.
2. Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men, prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.
3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
Those five definitional points establish the classical doctrine of the Bible's inerrancy, and the final point establishes the urgency. The CSBI makes the claim that the authority of Scripture is "inescapably impaired" if the total truthfulness of the Bible "is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own." I believe that the CSBI remains the quintessential statement of biblical inerrancy and that its clearly defined language remains essential to the health of evangelicalism and the integrity of the Christian church.
There was particular wisdom in the section titled "Articles of Affirmation and Denial," to which I will make further reference. The council understood that, like every important doctrinal affirmation, biblical inerrancy had to be carefully and continually defined and redefined and that a statement of any vital doctrine required both positive and negative clarifications of meaning and intent.
The Case For Inerrancy
The argument for the total inerrancy of Scripture flows from three major sources—the Bible itself, the tradition of the church, and the function of the Bible within the church. Each source is important, and the case for inerrancy is a cumulative argument that begins and ends with the obvious point that if the Bible is not inerrant, it is something far less.
Inerrancy and the Bible's Testimony to Itself
The first point to be made is that the Bible consistently and relentlessly claims to be nothing less than the perfect Word of the perfect God who breathed its very words. The Bible is pervasively concerned with truth and, contrary to many current arguments, speaks directly to its own truthfulness in a way that cannot be relativized by modern or postmodern (or post-postmodern) theories of truth, language, and meaning.
Second Peter 1:21 makes this assertion clear: "No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." Peter's point is that the Scripture is to be trusted at every point, and he defines its inspiration as being directly from God, through the agency of human authors, by means of the direct work of the Holy Spirit.
Excerpted from Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy by James R. A. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Michael F. Bird, Peter E. Enns, John R. Franke. Copyright © 2013 James R. A. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Michael F. Bird, Peter E. Enns, and John R. Franke. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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