How We Got Here
If you read church history, you have seen it all. That’s not entirely hyperbole. Many of the challenges and questions we face in the church today have been met by past generations of believers. Did not a wise man once say, “There is nothing new under the sun”? This holds true regarding the doctrine of inerrancy. In 1979, Jack B. Rogers and Donald McKim wrote a book titled The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach. The central idea or thesis has come to be known as the Rogers/McKim proposal, which is this: The Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and conduct, but it is not infallible when it comes to historical or scientific details. Further, the doctrine of inerrancy is an innovation of the nineteenth century. Rogers and McKim argued that the Princeton theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most notably B.B. Warfield, created the doctrine of inerrancy, which teaches that the Bible is entirely without error in all that it affirms.
The Rogers/McKim proposal was a counterpunch to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978. That statement was the work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), led by such figures as R.C. Sproul, Edmund Clowney, J.I. Packer, James Montgomery Boice, and others. The council produced a statement of five short paragraphs, a list of nineteen articles of affirmation and denial, as well as three pages of further exposition.
The Chicago Statement
The Chicago Statement was presented over four days in late October 1978 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The leaders of the ICBI signed first, then the others at Chicago; 268 signatures in all. In the ensuing weeks and months, hundreds more signatures were added from across the nation and around the world by representatives of numerous denominations, ministries, colleges, and seminaries. Over the next decade, the ICBI published books and booklets, sponsored conferences and meetings, and promoted the doctrine of inerrancy in the church and in the academy.
If you were to poll the attendees at the summit on inerrancy in Chicago, you would likely find that they had indeed been influenced by B.B. Warfield and the other Princetonians. It was Warfield, after all, who helped the church by offering a very straightforward and simplified argument for inerrancy.
Medieval philosopher William of Ockham is known for his principle of parsimony, or simplicity. The argument with the fewest assumptions is the better argument, the principle states. The argument that does not rely on a complex web of arguments and sub-arguments is the better argument. Warfield used Ockham’s razor well. The simple, but not simplistic, argument he made was this: If God is the author of Scripture, then Scripture is true.
We would use the theological terms of inspiration and inerrancy here. If the Bible is the Word of God, if it is the inspired text breathed out by God, then it stands to reason that it is true. If it is inspired, it is inerrant. This simple but precise argument is the gift of Warfield to the church.
The Chicago Statement expands on this basic argument and, quite importantly, draws out the boundary lines of what inerrancy means and what it doesn’t mean through its nineteen articles of affirmation and denial. The Chicago Statement sustained an entire generation in the battle for the Bible. It lent stamina to the theological conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention as they entered the arena in their seminaries and denominational agencies and structures, to the theological conservatives in Presbyterianism and in other traditions, and to many other evangelical leaders.
In our day, we are seeing the old Rogers/McKim proposal again. The charge is being made afresh that inerrancy is a rather modern invention and that evangelicals have at their disposal other models for understanding the authority of Scripture. Inerrancy is not necessary, we are being told. We can think about Scripture in a different way. But are these new challenges so new?
Did Peter Actually Say?
An intriguing look into the early church’s doctrine of Scripture comes from an exchange between Jerome and Augustine. As Jerome was working through his translation of the Bible, he stumbled over Galatians 2:11–14 and Paul’s confrontation with Peter at Antioch. In an attempt to salvage Peter’s reputation, Jerome concluded that the whole episode was fiction.
Augustine believed that if you admit error in one place, the entire Bible is open to doubt. He wrote Jerome a series of letters to this effect. In one letter, Augustine wrote:
Admit even a single well-meant false-hood into such an exalted authority, and there will not be left a single section of those books which, if appearing to anyone to present difficulties from the point of view of practice or to be hard to believe from the point of view of doctrine, will escape, by the same very baneful principle, from being classified as the deliberate act of an author who was lying.
Augustine held to “the authority of unadulterated truth.” He further said:
An effort must be made to bring to a knowledge of the sacred Scriptures a man who will have such a reverent and truthful opinion of the holy books that he would refuse to find delight in a well-meant falsehood anywhere in them, and would rather pass over what he does not understand than prefer his own intelligence to their truth.
When someone does prefer his own intelligence, Augustine continued, “he demands credence for himself and attempts to destroy our confidence in the authority of Holy Scripture.” Will we submit ourselves to Scripture, or will we submit Scripture to ourselves?
This exchange between Augustine and Jerome teaches us many things. It teaches us that Warfield did not invent the doctrine of inerrancy. Warfield contributed to the development of our understanding of biblical inerrancy by offering a helpful way to state the doctrine. But he did not invent it.
This exchange also teaches us that challenges to the “unadulterated authority” and full veracity of Scripture are not new. In fact, these challenges go back much further than the 390s. The challenges go all the way back to the garden and all the way back to Genesis 3:1. Moreover, this exchange reveals the real issue underlying these challenges to inerrancy. The real issue is failure to submit.
Augustine understood that we owe submission to God’s Word because we owe submission to God. John Calvin makes this exact point in his commentary on 2 Timothy 3:16. There, he writes, “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from him alone.” In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin adds, “The full authority which [the Scriptures] obtain with the faithful proceeds from no other consideration than that they are persuaded that they proceed from heaven, as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.”
Martin Luther called the Bible our foundation. He warned, “We must not deviate from the words…Else, what would become of the Bible?” Luther once said that when it comes to the Bible, everything it teaches is believed or nothing it teaches is believed.
Luther’s statement here bears consideration. What option do we have next to the doctrine of the entire inerrancy and utter truthfulness of the Bible? Limited inerrancy? Why not simply call that limited errancy? Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, as well as a host of others, all sound the alarm regarding the danger of a view of biblical truthfulness that is less than full inerrancy. This has been the orthodox Christian position throughout the ages.
An Ancient Book for Today?
As the church faced the beginning of the twentieth century, modernism was at full throttle. Its accomplishments were great, including monumental advances in the sciences and technology. These advances all raised a question of singular importance: Is an ancient book still a reliable and trustworthy authority for today?
Warfield answered that question with a resounding yes for his generation. As the denominations and seminaries one by one engaged in questioning biblical authority in the 1970s, the group of churchmen and theologians at Chicago answered with their own resounding yes to the unadulterated authority of Scripture for their generation. Those works of Warfield and of the architects and signers of the Chicago Statement sustained a century of churchmen and gospel ministries. Their work nourished the church.
Though we live in a new generation, it is sadly plagued by the same old problem of failing to submit to God’s Word. More sadly, such failure to submit can also be present in the church. So we should read our church history and learn how to respond. As we read the pages of church history, we will first see the reverence our predecessors had for the Bible and their view of its complete truthfulness and unadulterated authority. We will also be led back to the pages of the Bible itself, back to the Word of God, the Word of truth for all ages.