Fifth in a Series

The issue of biblical inerrancy is today dividing evangelicals into ever more rigidly competitive camps. The inerrancy emphasis of theologians like Charles Hodge and of New Testament scholars like B. B. Warfield has in the main characterized conservative Christianity in America and most evangelical colleges, Bible institutes, and seminaries reflect it in their doctrinal commitments. In Britain, where critical theory took a larger toll, emphasis on biblical inerrancy did not as conspicuously dominate the evangelical scene, although the issue has always arisen in evangelical controversy over the authority of Scripture.

The Wenham (Gordon) Conference on Scripture (1966) was a kind of turning point in the inerrancy controversy. Because of inadequate advance planning, the gathering failed to face issues that ought to have been resolved and therefore achieved little more than the predictable conclusion that reputable evangelical scholars are ranged on both sides of the debate. The invasion of neo-orthodoxy into Southern Baptist seminaries eroded the emphasis on scriptural inerrancy. Other evangelical campuses, Asbury and Fuller among them, experienced internal faculty disagreement. As Fuller hedged on its original commitment concerning Scripture, the enthusiasm of such faculty members as Wilbur M. Smith, Gleason L. Archer, and Harold Lindsell waned; E. J. Carnell also resisted alteration. In 1961 the Christian Reformed Church was impelled to issue synodical study reports and decisions on biblical infallibility and in 1971 and 1972 on scriptural authority. A major issue in the rupture of Concordia Seminary (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) was the legitimacy of the historical critical method in Bible interpretation. Right now the Evangelical Theological Society is in the midst of an unpublicized struggle over its inerrancy statement, which some member scholars sign but no longer share.

More and more books and articles support scriptural errancy (e.g., Dewey Beegle’s The Inspiration of Scripture, Westminster, 1963, and Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility, Eerdmans, 1973; Jack Rogers’s Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical. Westminster, 1974; cf. Richard J. Coleman, “Biblical Inerrancy: Are We Going Anywhere?,” Theology Today, January, 1975).

Scores of young evangelicals emphasize that scholars uncommitted to inerrancy are producing substantial evangelical works. They repudiate the “domino theory” that a rejection of inerrancy involves giving up “one evangelical doctrine after another.” They point to the vigorous contributions to evangelical theology by scholars like James Orr in an earlier generation and G. C. Berkouwer, George Ladd, Bruce Metzger, and others in our time; F. F. Bruce, while apparently noncommittal, has written an appreciative introduction to Beegle’s last book. Many young scholars invest their own critical learning in defense of evangelically crucial commitments. Some aspire to posts on non-evangelical faculties, aware that an inerrancy commitment seemingly barred the door to competent evangelical scholars in the recent past. Most would be shocked to learn that, for all his concessions to critical theory, James Orr’s refusal to go further disqualified him as a scholar in the sight of a former principal of New College, Edinburgh, who disapproved the writing of a doctoral dissertation on Orr’s evangelical contribution.

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The point is not that biblical inerrancy today lacks stalwart champions in the succession of J. Gresham Machen, B. J. Young, and Ned Stonehouse. Among the present-day champions one might name Geoffrey Bromiley, Gordon Clark, Frank Gaebelein, Kenneth Kantzer, Roger Nicole, Robert Preus, Francis Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til, and virtually the entire membership of the Evangelical Theological Society. The view is supported in Clark Pinnock’s Biblical Revelation (Moody Press, 1972) and in the volume edited by John W. Montgomery, God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture (Bethany Fellowship, 1974), which includes an essay by the English scholar James I. Packer. Earlier support can be found in Revelation and the Bible, which I edited (Baker, 1959).

Yet a growing vanguard of young graduates of evangelical colleges who hold doctorates from non-evangelical divinity centers now question or disown inerrancy, and the doctrine is held less consistently by evangelical faculties. Some of its supporters increasingly project inerrancy as the hallmark of evangelical fidelity, so that conflict over the issue more and more ruptures the comprehensive unity of evangelical scholars once evident a quarter century ago amid secondary disagreement on this issue.

The present editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Harold Lindsell, details in Battle for the Bible (Zondervan, 1976) the growing rebellion against inerrancy on evangelical campuses. Some retain the term and reassure supportive constituencies but nonetheless stretch the term’s meaning. CHRISTIANITY TODAY has come to make inerrancy the badge of evangelical authenticity. Francis Schaeffer projects it as the watershed of evangelical fidelity and deplores a “false evangelicalism” that minimizes inerrancy.

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For all their commitment to inerrancy, scholarly evangelicals earlier in this century—Hodge and Warfield included—avoided wholly resting Christian theism upon it. With New Testament balance their doctrine of Scripture emphasized first of all the divine authority and then the inspiration of Scripture, much as did the apostles. While scholars disagreed as to whether inerrancy is explicitly or only implicitly taught in Scripture, they did not make inerrancy a theological weapon with which to drive those evangelicals not adhering to the doctrine into a non-evangelical camp.

From the very first CHRISTIANITY TODAY was editorially committed to inerrancy. But its contributors were drawn from the broad evangelical spectrum to wage literary battle against non-evangelical perspectives. To divide this array of contributors over the issue of inerrancy was not in purview. This does not mean that a reasoned presentation of the epistemological significance of inerrancy is unimportant. The magazine editorially affirmed what is the case, that inerrancy and not errancy is the logical implicate of the divine authority and inspiration of Scripture; that champions of errancy have adduced no objective biblical, theological, or philosophical criterion to distinguish supposedly errant from inerrant passages; that errancy introduces epistemic instability as evidenced by disagreements over biblical reliability even among its evangelical advocates, to say nothing of liberal advocates whose irreconcilable differences drove neo-orthodoxy to affirm that no part of the Bible is in itself God’s Word.

The claim by young evangelicals that to reject inerrancy does not automatically drive one to repudiate other evangelical doctrines is wholly right. The real question is whether, once scriptural errancy is affirmed, a consistent evangelical faith is maintained thereafter only by an act of will rather than by persuasive epistemological credentials. A volitional faith may also affirm that God can and does use poor grammar and may equally use errant statements and resort therefore to a theology of paradox. Paul K. Jewett (Man as Male and Female, Eerdmans, 1975) and G. C. Berkouwer (Holy Scripture, Eerdmans, 1975) seem to compromise not only the inerrancy but also the normativeness of Scripture by differentiating within it a timebound and a non-timebound authority.

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Yet the appeal to useful contributions made by mediating scholars, and distaste for the use of inerrancy as a polemical weapon in the absence of reasoned supports, must not be ignored. Neither can the increasing fragmentation of evangelical cohesion over the issue of inerrancy. Evangelical churches and campuses that incorporate inerrancy into their statements have every obligation to preserve doctrinal fidelity. But the duty of the evangelical enterprise requires something higher than invalidating every contribution of evangelicals who halt short of that commitment. Those in leadership posts must exhibit the doctrine’s rational roots and openly display its intellectual fruits.


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