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On July 17, 2020, renowned Anglican theologian J. I. Packer entered into his eternal reward. Packer was probably best-known for Knowing God (1973), his deep-yet-devotional introduction to the doctrine of God. But the book that had made Packer famous was his 1958 treatise, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. Like J. Gresham Machen before him, Packer argued that evangelicalism and liberalism were not alternative expressions of historic Christianity, but rival religions using similar vocabulary and different dictionaries. More germane for our purposes, Packer argued that biblical inerrancy—the belief that the original autographs of Scripture are without error and thus a fully trustworthy written revelation from God—is not evidence of alleged fundamentalism, but rather is a bedrock doctrine and a modern expression of the historic Christian understanding of Scripture’s truthfulness.
In addition to Packer, evangelicals have recently lost other staunch defenders of biblical inerrancy, including Charles Ryrie (2016), R. C. Sproul (2017), and Norman Geisler (2019). They were preceded earlier this century by James Montgomery Boice (2000), W. A. Criswell (2002), Carl F. H. Henry (2003), Paul Feinberg (2004), Gleason Archer (2004), Russell Bush (2008), and Roger Nicole (2010). Such men represented various denominations and theological traditions within the umbrella of evangelicalism. Numerous other noteworthy inerrantist theologians are either retired or nearing retirement and will soon pass from the scene. When it comes to the classical evangelical doctrine of Scripture, the baton is being passed to a younger generation of evangelical scholars and pastor-theologians. Will we carry it and, like these aforementioned theologians, arrive at the end of our race and be found faithful?
From Princeton . . .
The doctrines of plenary verbal inspiration and biblical inerrancy are closely identified with three Presbyterian scholars who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary for a century: Charles Hodge (1797–1878), Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823–1886), and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851–1921). These men refined their articulation of biblical inspiration and authority in response to challenges such as Romanticism, Darwinism, and historical-critical interpretation. A basically Princetonian understanding of Scripture was embraced by theological conservatives across the ecclesial spectrum, especially (though never exclusively) in Reformed, dispensational, and/or Baptist contexts. Given the Princeton tradition’s staying power in the wake of liberal redefinitions and rejections, the doctrine of Scripture emerged as a key point of contention during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s.
The baton [of inerrancy] is being passed to a younger generation of evangelical scholars and pastor-theologians. Will we carry it and, arriving at the end of our race, be found faithful?
In the years after World War II, several evangelical authors in addition to Packer wrote book-length treatments of the doctrine of Scripture that affirmed its trustworthiness. Some scholars preferred the word inerrancy and others opted for infallibility, but this was a matter of terminological preference rather than substantial difference. The words were virtually synonymous. Noteworthy works include E. J. Young’s Thy Word Is Truth (1963), John Gerstner’s Biblical Inerrancy Primer (1963), W. A. Criswell’s Why I Preach That the Bible Is Literally True (1969), Clark Pinnock’s Biblical Revelation (1971), Laird Harris’s Inspiration and Canonicity of Scripture (1971), and Francis Schaeffer’s No Final Conflict (1975). Three important compilations were also published: Revelation and the Bible (1958), edited by Carl F. H. Henry; God’s Inerrant Word (1974), edited by John Warwick Montgomery; and The Foundation of Biblical Authority (1978), edited by James Montgomery Boice. These authors represented Presbyterian, Baptist, dispensational, and even Lutheran backgrounds.
Several widely used systematic theologies during this time affirmed inerrancy/infallibility, including those by Hodge (1872–73), the Dutch Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (1932), and dispensational scholars Lewis Sperry Chafer (1947) and Henry Thiessen (1949). A number of evangelical academic institutions that thrived during this period explicitly affirmed biblical inerrancy in their confessional statements or other guiding documents, including Wheaton College (est. 1860), Moody Bible Institute (est. 1886), Dallas Theological Seminary (est. 1924), and Fuller Theological Seminary (est. 1947). The Evangelical Theological Society (est. 1949) and Christianity Today magazine (est. 1956) also affirmed inerrancy in their respective statements of faith.
. . . To Chicago
By the early 1970s, evangelicals were facing threats to biblical inspiration and authority from both the right and the left of the theological spectrum. On the right, many self-confessed fundamentalists were arguing that the King James Version of the Bible is the only authoritative English translation. All other modern translations—especially the Revised Standard Version, widely used among mainline Protestants—were denounced as corrupt and riddled with errors. At times, proponents of the KJV-only position spread rumors about the personal lives of prominent Bible translators and embraced conspiracy theories about the origins of various modern translations. The KJV-only controversy rocked separatist fundamentalism and further cemented the division between fundamentalists and evangelicals that had taken place gradually since the late-1940s.
More ominous were evangelical revisions and even rejections of Scripture’s trustworthiness. In earlier generations, some evangelical theologians were either ambiguous about inerrancy or rejected the doctrine entirely, often due to hesitancy over plenary verbal inspiration concerning historical or scientific facts. Augustus Strong, longtime president of Rochester Theological Seminary, affirmed a Princetonian view of Scripture early in his career but shifted in a later edition of his widely used systematic theology (1907–09). British theologian James Orr, who contributed to the five-volume project The Fundamentals (1910–15), rejected inerrancy outright in his widely read Revelation and Inspiration (1910). Another contributor to The Fundamentals, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president E. Y. Mullins, emphasized the infallibility of the Bible’s message but was reticent, in his systematic theology (1928), to make claims concerning the text itself.
Beginning in the 1960s, a growing number of evangelical scholars began departing from their prior commitment to the full trustworthiness of Scripture. In many cases, the influence of Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) played a key role in dislodging plenary verbal inspiration and inerrancy/infallibility. One of the first evangelicals to write a book-length alternative to the classical evangelical view was Wesleyan scholar Dewey Beegle in The Inspiration of Scripture (1963). At times, entire institutions were affected by this drift to the left. In 1970, Fuller Seminary adopted a confessional statement that distanced the institution from a commitment to inerrancy. The revision followed almost a decade of internal controversy between most of the founding faculty, all of whom were inerrantists, and the many of the younger faculty, most of whom had gravitated away from the doctrine.
In 1976, Harold Lindsell discussed these trends in his controversial book The Battle for the Bible. Lindsell, a Baptist missiologist who served as editor of Christianity Today, had been a founding faculty member at Fuller Seminary. In his book, Lindsell meticulously documented examples of evangelical departures from biblical inerrancy. He followed up three years later with The Bible in the Balance (1979), which was his case for a classical evangelical doctrine of Scripture. Though his tone could be caustic, and many inerrantists scholars disagreed with some of Lindsell’s interpretations of particular biblical texts, Lindsell was rightly concerned that evangelicals were in danger of trading their orthodox birthright for a mess of neo-orthodox pottage.
Though his tone could be caustic, . . . Lindsell was rightly concerned that evangelicals were in danger of trading their orthodox birthright for a mess of neo-orthodox pottage.
Following informal conversations among concerned evangelicals, a group of about 15 scholars formed the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) in 1977. They subsequently invited another 50 or so scholars and pastors to join an advisory board. In 1978, the ICBI held a summit in Chicago. A number of participants read papers, which were subsequently published in a volume edited by Norman Geisler titled Inerrancy (1980). More important, the ICBI adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, of which R. C. Sproul was the primary author and which was signed by approximately 300 leaders from across the denominational spectrum. The statement included a short summary of inerrancy, followed by 19 affirmations and denials to help provide appropriate scholarly nuance. The Chicago Statement quickly became the dominant understanding of inerrancy among most evangelical theologians committed to continuity with the Princeton tradition, especially in North America.
Subsequent meetings of the ICBI produced the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982) and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Application (1986), with companion volumes edited by Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (1984) and Kenneth Kantzer (1986), respectively. Though many scholars valued these latter statements, they were never as influential as the inerrancy statement, perhaps because inerrancy remained the focal point of controversy in evangelical bibliology.
Debating Inerrancy After Chicago
Chicago built consensus among inerrantists, but it did little to quell the controversy. The ink on the Chicago Statement had hardly dried before Presbyterian scholars Jack Rogers and Donald McKim co-authored the historical-theological treatise The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (1979). Rogers and McKim argued that plenary-verbal inspiration and inerrancy—as understood in the Princeton-Chicago tradition—are not faithful expressions of the historic Christian consensus, but rather are rationalistic innovations developed by the Princeton theologians. What became known as the Rogers-McKim Thesis was embraced by evangelicals who emphasized the truthfulness of Scripture’s teachings related to salvation and ethics rather than the truthfulness of the actual words themselves.
The Rogers-McKim Thesis received a number of critiques from inerrantists scholars throughout the 1980s, especially in theological journals. Evangelical scholars also published two book-length responses. John Woodbridge, a church historian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (1982) to debunk the historical narrative put forward by Rogers and McKim. Inerrancy and the Church (1984), edited by Dallas Theological Seminary theologian John Hannah, also focused on the place of inerrancy in historical theology.
In some cases, entire denominations became embroiled in inerrancy debates, often within traditions that had come out of the interwar years mostly unscathed by the fundamentalist-modernist controversies. The most noteworthy example was the Southern Baptist Convention, which from 1979 until the end of the century was embroiled in a controversy between conservatives and progressives that centered on biblical inerrancy. In 1987, the six Southern Baptists seminaries sponsored an inerrancy conference that included a number of non-SBC inerrantists such as Packer (Anglican), Robert Preus (Lutheran), Millard Erickson (Baptist General Conference), and Kenneth Kantzer (Evangelical Free). The proceedings were published later that year.
Several Southern Baptist pastors and scholars authored book-length defenses of inerrancy. Examples include Russ Bush and Tom Nettles’s historical study Baptists and the Bible (1980), James Draper’s Authority: The Critical Issue for Southern Baptists (1984), Duane Garrett and Richard Melick’s edited volume Authority and Interpretation: A Baptist Perspective (1987), and David Dockery’s Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation (1995). Another Southern Baptist theologian, James Leo Garrett, affirmed inerrancy but acknowledged in his Systematic Theology (2 vols., 1990–1995) that Baptists and other evangelicals had more than one way of defining the term. Garrett pled for a more irenic tone in debates about how best to understand inerrancy.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, some evangelical scholars continued to affirm the word inerrancy but distanced themselves from the Princeton-Chicago consensus. Some of these “soft inerrantists” were influenced by Barthianism, such as Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm in After Fundamentalism (1983) and Presbyterian scholar Donald Bloesch in Holy Scripture (1994). Others were influenced by Wesleyan paradigms that had always been ambivalent about inerrancy, especially Baptist-turned-Wesleyan Clark Pinnock in The Scripture Principle (1984). Still, others embraced a “postconservative” posture influenced by postmodern theological paradigms such as narrative theology. The most noteworthy postconservative evangelical was the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, who in Revisioning Evangelical Theology (1993) and Theology for the Community of God (1994) argued for a more limited form of inerrancy that focused on the Bible’s message and its power to shape the Christian life.
Other evangelical theologians advocated for a view of inerrancy in closer continuity with the Princeton-Chicago trajectory. By far the most important work was Baptist theologian Carl Henry’s six-volume God, Revelation, and Authority (1976–1983), which offered the most substantive restatement of the classical evangelical view of Scripture. Presbyterian missiologist Harvie Conn edited a compilation titled Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (1988). The contributors were all affiliated with Westminster Theological Seminary, an institution that understood itself to stand in continuity with the historic Princeton theological tradition. New Testament scholar D. A. Carson and Woodbridge, both of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, edited two books that defended inerrancy and related doctrines: Scripture and Truth (1983) and Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (1986). Two of the most widely used systematic theologies of the era were Baptist theologian Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (3 vols., 1983–1985; 1 vol., 1998) and Reformed scholar Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994; 3rd revised edition forthcoming). Each affirmed plenary-verbal inspiration and inerrancy.
Recent Evangelical Debates
It’s been said that the battle for the Bible is as old as the garden of Eden, when Satan first tempted Eve to doubt the trustworthiness of God’s words. Biblical inerrancy is the sort of doctrine that can never be assumed; it must be perennially defended and commended. Since the turn of the 21st century, evangelicals have endured a number of threats to the full trustworthiness of Scripture. These have most often come in the form of either efforts to distance evangelicals from inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement, or interpretations of Scripture that undermine a consistent affirmation of inerrancy.
Several evangelical scholars have authored recent revisionist accounts of inspiration and truthfulness. Three representative examples are Peter Enns, A. T. B. McGowan, and Kenton Sparks. Enns, formerly of Westminster Seminary, used in Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (2005) an incarnational analogy to explain how to reconcile Scripture’s divine and human elements, the latter of which include factual errors unrelated to the Bible’s central teachings. Enns hesitated to use the word inerrancy to describe his view. Scottish theologian McGowan retained use of the word in The Divine Authenticity of Scripture Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage (2008), but like Pinnock and Grenz before him applied inerrancy to Scripture’s message rather than the text itself. Sparks, a professor and administrator at Eastern University, took a similar approach in his book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship (2008). All three authors were especially troubled by how best to reconcile inspiration with higher criticism.
Biblical inerrancy is the sort of doctrine that can never be assumed; it must be perennially defended and commended.
Other scholars have advocated views that many evangelicals believe are inconsistent with inerrancy. As Packer helpfully reminds us, evangelicals must be careful to differentiate between inerrancy and interpretation. At times specific interpretations have become particularly controversial, however, because their claims or implications arguably undermine the truthfulness of Scripture. This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 1983, New Testament scholar Robert Gundry was asked to resign membership in the Evangelical Theological Society because most members believed his use of redaction criticism in his Matthew commentary (1982) conflicted with his affirmation of inerrancy. In the early 2000s, a similar controversy erupted in ETS over open theism, the belief that God does not possess exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. Though a vote to oust open theists from ETS failed to gain a two-thirds majority in 2003, three years later ETS officially adopted the Chicago Statement as its understanding of inerrancy. This had the effect of marginalizing evangelical open theists, most of whom had adopted revisionist views of inerrancy. More recently, in 2010, Southern Baptist apologist Mike Licona authored The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Though the book was lauded by many evangelicals, a number raised concerns that several of Licona’s statements, especially his interpretation of Matthew 27:52–53, undermined the trustworthiness of Scripture.
Amid these challenges, a number of recent works have reemphasized biblical inerrancy and related doctrines. For the sake of space, I will highlight four. Westminster Seminary scholar G. K. Beale offers a strong scholarly defense of the Princeton-Chicago consensus, against the revisionist accounts of Peter Enns and similar scholars, in The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (2008). In The Inerrant Word: Biblical, Historical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspectives (2016), edited by Reformed pastor John MacArthur, a stellar group of contributors revisit some of the same issues addressed in similar volumes from the 1980s and 1990s and commend them to a new generation. Presbyterian pastor Kevin DeYoung offers a fine pastoral introduction to the doctrine of Scripture in Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me (2014). Finally, Baptist scholar D. A. Carson has edited what is arguably the most comprehensive exposition of the classical evangelical view of Scripture in the extensive anthology The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (2016). The latter work should be the starting place for serious study of this topic.
What’s in a Word?
One more point is worth considering. Some evangelicals believe Scripture can be trusted fully but, for various reasons related to history or context, have reservations about the word inerrancy. In my own Southern Baptist tradition, I know pastors who believe the Bible is inerrant, but they will not use that word, because they think it was weaponized during the Inerrancy Controversy. I also know evangelicals in other English-speaking nations who affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture but don’t describe themselves as inerrantists, since they associate the term with American debates. Not every inerrantist owns the label, and not everyone who rejects the label rejects the doctrine.
I’ll confess I have mixed feelings about this phenomenon. In general, concepts matter more than terminology, so what one believes about the Bible’s truthfulness is more important than the descriptive moniker one uses. Furthermore, terminology develops over time. As I mentioned above, many evangelicals of an earlier generation used inerrancy and infallibility interchangeably, which is not always the case today. That said, I believe inerrancy remains a helpful term because it makes an important claim about Scripture that reflects what Scripture claims about itself. It’s also a claim rooted in the character of the God who inspired the Bible’s words. Scholars in the Princeton-Chicago tradition have written thousands of pages making the case for why inerrancy matters and answering objections, both friendly and unfriendly. For these reasons, I believe inerrancy is a term evangelicals shouldn’t be ashamed to own.
Defending Inerrancy for the Future Church
This essay has focused primarily on evangelical scholars, since scholars have written so extensively on inerrancy and related themes. Yet it’s primarily pastors who stand before God’s people week by week and either reinforce belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible or sow doubts in the hearts of their hearers. Among evangelical pastors and other ministry leaders, perhaps the greater threat than denying inerrancy is affirming the doctrine on paper while also embracing positions that are, arguably, incompatible with Scripture’s full trustworthiness. Just as a professing Christian can be a functional atheist when she lives as if there’s no God, so a self-confessed inerrantist can be a functional errantist when he embraces views whose claims are incompatible with biblical truthfulness. Inerrancy must be more than a shibboleth to affirm or a confessional box to check. Too much is at stake.
Inerrancy must be more than a shibboleth to affirm or a confessional box to check. Too much is at stake.
Biblical inerrancy is an important part of our evangelical heritage and has deeply shaped our faith and practice. The same is true of the closely related doctrine of plenary-verbal inspiration. Both are precious truths about God’s written words that remain essential to the classical evangelical doctrine of Scripture as it’s been articulated in the Princeton-Chicago tradition. I pray that God will raise up a new generation of Packers and Sprouls and Geislers who affirm, commend, and defend these doctrines for the health of the church and for the sake of a world that desperately needs to hear a trustworthy word from the Lord.