TGC’s confessional statement states that the 66 books of the Bible “alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative and without error in the original writings, complete in its revelation of his will for salvation, sufficient for all that God requires us to believe and do, and final in its authority over every domain of knowledge to which it speaks.” In essence, it affirms the doctrine of inerrancy, for which the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) gave the most comprehensive and clear articulation. In recent decades, with renewed objections to this doctrine, we’ve challenged a new generation to not only freshly defend, embrace, and champion biblical inerrancy but also to live it out. To that end, TGC is hosting a series about the need to revise and clarify arguments in light of new hermeneutical and cultural arguments.
Over a fall weekend in Chicago in 1978, approximately 300 evangelical scholars, pastors, and laymen gathered in the Hyatt Regency O’Hare to discuss and hear presentations on the issue of inerrancy. These presentations corresponded with the writing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), a 4,200-word document consisting of a preface, summary statement, 19 articles of affirmation and denial, and an accompanying exposition.
While the CSBI proved to be a useful document after its original publication, its influence has waned over the last two decades. Even so, some notable voices have sought to reclaim the CSBI as a theological touchstone for the doctrine of inerrancy. Recently, the late Norman Geisler labored to recover the CSBI as evangelicalism’s standard definition of inerrancy in his coauthored volume, Defending Inerrancy. In this book, Geisler argues for the adequacy of the CSBI by defending its various affirmations and denials in theological and philosophical detail, concluding that the document is in no need of revision or amendment.
But should we concur with Geisler that the CSBI is in no need of revision? Has there been no positive advance in the doctrine of Scripture since 1978 that may help strengthen the CSBI for future theological and ecclesial use? Even the framers of the CSBI left open the possibility of future updates. The document states, “We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight.” Carl F. H. Henry included the CSBI in volume 4 of his God, Revelation, and Authority, while also conceding that the statement was “subject to future revision.” Most recently, biblical scholars Robert Yarborough and G. K. Beale have gone on record suggesting the CSBI could use some updating.
But how might we update a document that has enjoyed more than four decades of theological and ecclesiological usefulness? Over the last few years as I’ve pondered this question, my research, writing, and academic engagement have led me to conclude that the best approach is not to wipe our slate clean. Instead, CSBI reframers should work with the document in its present form, modifying existing articles and proposing new ones where appropriate. Furthermore, because the articles of affirmation and denial serve as the “heart” of the document, it will be most fruitful to focus our energy there and then address the exposition and short statements after the articles are complete.
To give you an idea of how such a project might proceed, I will offer modifications to one of the existing CSBI articles while also proposing one new article.
Article IV: The Adequacy of Human Language for Divine Revelation
We affirm that God who made mankind in His image has used language as a means of revelation.
We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.
In this article, the CSBI directly confronts a problem that many opponents to the doctrine of inerrancy have exploited over the past several decades: the matter of human language as an adequate vehicle for revelation in light of human finitude and fallenness.
Article IV clearly affirms that God has used language to communicate his revelation to his creatures, while also contending that human corruption and our inherent limitations do not render language insufficient to convey divine truth. Although a human being is sinful and thus prone to error, it does not follow that one must err, or, much less, that one must err every time one speaks. Yet, while error is not a necessary property of existing as a human (it is an accidental property), it’s true that human beings have a tendency to lie and err. God’s work of inspiration (mentioned in the last sentence of Article IV) nonetheless overcomes the human propensity to lie and secures a text free from error.
Although helpful in answering some of the challenges related to the nature of revelation and the adequacy of human language, I contend that Article IV would benefit from some modification.
First, I would strengthen the affirmation statement by wording it in such a way as to highlight God’s intention in designing human language specifically for the purpose of divine revelation. As it stands now, the affirmation statement, while acknowledging that some relationship exists between God, the creation of mankind in his own image, and the adequacy of human language, is neither sufficiently clear nor strong enough in these matters. The original statement makes it appear as though God has chosen merely to use language to communicate; it does not indicate unambiguously that he has designed human language for the very purpose of providing a sufficient vehicle for divine revelation. I suggest, therefore, the updated affirmation statement reads as follows:
We affirm that the God who speaks created man in his image and designed human language for the very purpose of conveying divine revelation.
By establishing the starting principle of God’s intention in creating human language, this updated affirmation statement immediately precludes arguments that suggest human language is somehow inadequate for divine communication. In my judgment, by merely affirming that God used human language to reveal himself, the original affirmation statement is left vulnerable to the claim that God, in delivering his revelation to his creatures, simply utilized what was available to him.
Accordingly, it becomes easy to suggest that the divine work of inspiration, beleaguered as it was by the inherent weakness and insufficiency of human language, ultimately faltered in securing an inerrant text. If, however, God fashioned human language with divine revelation in mind, then it becomes far more plausible that language is a sufficient vehicle for divine communication.
Furthermore, by classifying God as the “God who speaks,” the relationship between God, the creation of humans in his image, and the significance of language as a vehicle for revelation is made clear. This also challenges the notion that postmodernism has so decimated our confidence in human language that we can no longer hear God speak authoritatively. Finally, these proposed updates strengthen the logical connection between the affirmation and denial portions of this particular article. The connection is seen especially when we add the word “therefore” to the denial section.
Also, although the original article clearly intends “creatureliness” to refer to our finite condition, I think it best to make this classification explicit, for the second denial answers the question of whether or not our sinful condition has rendered human language and culture insufficient for divine revelation.
Beyond this modification, including a clear reference to human finitude here would link Article IV more closely to Article IX: “We deny that the finitude or fallenness of [the human writers], by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word.” This connection is vital because some contemporary opponents to the CSBI build their challenges upon the notion that human finitude prohibits one’s ability to accurately convey divine truth. For the sake of space, I only want to note that an affirmation of God’s intentional design of human language allows us to maintain an optimistic outlook—despite our fallenness and sin—on language as an adequate vehicle for divine communication. Therefore, I propose the denial section read as follows:
We therefore deny that human language is so limited by our nature as finite creatures that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.
I will now propose an additional article that relates to the history of the doctrine of inerrancy.
Additional Article: Inerrancy and the Validity of Doctrinal Development
Both before and after the CSBI was penned, one of the primary strategies utilized by non-inerrantists to undermine the inerrantist position is to make an appeal to the historic teaching of the church.
The early church fathers, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Bavinck, and Kuyper, they claim, all held to a view of Scripture that was far different than what inerrantists advance today. Furthermore, not only was inerrancy a departure from the historic position of the church, it’s a doctrine that owed its origin to a specific era of church history in which the Protestant response to the assaults of higher criticism compelled scholars to form a theology of Scripture according to modernistic rather than biblical categories. The result was a doctrine that established Scripture as an epistemological first principle and therefore required an error-free text to retain its appropriate authority for Christians.
While the argument for inerrancy does not finally rest upon historical precedent, it’s necessary for inerrantists to refute the kind of historiography described above and bind their argument to the teaching of the church. The affirmation section of Article XVI makes a positive claim—the doctrine of inerrancy has strong historical precedent—while the denial portion makes a parallel assertion, rejecting the idea that inerrancy is a recent doctrine concocted and crystallized during a time of rigorous debate in the 17th century over the reliability of the Bible and in response to the findings of historical-critical scholarship.
The affirmation section of Article XVI makes a positive claim—the doctrine of inerrancy has strong historical precedent—while the denial portion makes a parallel assertion, rejecting the idea that inerrancy is a recent doctrine concocted and crystallized during a time of rigorous debate in the 17th century over the reliability of the Bible and in response to the findings of historical-critical scholarship.
Although the words “inerrant” or “inerrancy” were never used prior to the modern period, the idea of an error-free text has certainly been embraced by a large segment of the professing Christian church since the first century. (Consider the work done by John Hannah and John Woodbridge that demonstrates this point.) A question that naturally emerges as one considers the rigor with which the doctrine of inerrancy was defended and defined in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, however, is why so much attention was given to the doctrine in the latter half of the second millennium. Such a recent uptick in scholarship devoted to the doctrine of Scripture generally and to inerrancy specifically does seem to give some weight to the claim that the idea of an error-free text—at least as it’s currently defined—is a modern invention.
At this point, I suggest the CSBI could be strengthened, not by modifying the existing articles but by including an additional article that asserts the legitimacy of doctrinal development and acknowledges the contemporary articulation of inerrancy as a detailed yet valid expression of the historic teaching of the church. The new article would read,
We affirm that theological formulations often receive greater nuance as we engage contemporary issues. We further affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is a nuanced yet valid expression of the church’s historic position on the nature of Scripture.
We deny that inerrancy rightly articulated is the misguided product of modernism, common-sense realism, or any other external framework applied to Scripture rather than the teaching of Scripture itself.
This new article is vital, for it introduces a category the original CSBI neglected to include. Article XVI simply denies that inerrancy is a novel doctrine, crafted relatively recently in church history. This is helpful and necessary, but it appears as a mere reaction unless it is set alongside a statement that legitimizes the idea that Christian doctrine, over time and as a result of encountering contemporary issues, grows and matures in nuance and detail.
As doctrines develop, however, they continue to retain fundamental aspects of the original teaching, as children retain the features that were faintly apparent in their prenatal state. Consider, for example, the advances that were made between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Chalcedon with regard to Christ’s divine and human natures.
Inerrancy is not a doctrinal invention conceived by Christian apologists in order to retain intellectual credibility in the throes of modernism or to counter the arguments of higher criticism; it is an example of what happens when a historic doctrine confronts contemporary issues related directly to what the doctrine originally asserted. It was not until the latter half of the millennium that the doctrine of Scripture received any concentrated attention. Concerning the significant development of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture in the 19th century, D. A. Carson comments,
The Princetonians had more to say about Scripture than some of their forebears, precisely because that was one of the most common points of attack from the rising liberalism of the (especially European) university world. But I suspect that even-handed reading of the evidence would not find Hodge or Warfield adopting a stance on Scripture greatly different from that of Augustine or Calvin, so far as its role is concerned in the structure of Christian theology.
The reason for this rather recent development is because it’s only of late that epistemological, biblical, and theological developments have necessitated concerted interaction with issues related to the nature of Scripture. The view that Scripture is entirely truthful and without error in all it affirms was largely assumed by the bulk of the church until after the Reformation, so there was no need to argue strenuously for it. James Bannerman made this very point over a century and a half ago in his volume Inspiration: The Infallible Truth and Divine Authority of Holy Scripture:
The question of the authority and infallibility of Scripture did not, however, pass through this process [of polemic scrutiny] until many centuries afterwards. There are no definitions and limitations of the doctrine on one side and another, elaborately drawn out and reduced to systematic form, as if armed on every side to repel assault, or fortified around to prevent controversy or misunderstanding. The belief of the early church in an infallible Bible was too simple to require to be fenced about with safeguard of explanations, and too unanimous to need support from argument.
We should, therefore, expect a stronger and more detailed emphasis on the error-free nature of Scripture when, in the 19th century, scholars were presenting sophisticated arguments that undermined the truthfulness of major theological affirmations and large swaths of the biblical narrative: theological and historical developments required a more thorough response than was previously necessary. This new article establishes a category within which to understand both the doctrine of inerrancy and the CSBI as natural developments in the course of church history.
For Future Generations
The CSBI has enjoyed over four decades of usefulness due to the care the original framers took to articulate the doctrine of inerrancy within a broader doctrine of Scripture.
In light of contemporary challenges to inerrancy, however, it is time to exercise that same care and re-formulate the CSBI to strengthen it for future generations.