Inerrancy Summits and the Valleys of Interpretation

The saddle between Grays and Torreys Peaks in Colorado.

The saddle between Grays and Torreys Peaks in Colorado. I am the guy in the red jacket.

I love hiking in the Colorado Rockies. In 2006, a buddy of mine and I hiked two of Colorado’s famous “fourteeners,” mountains that rise above 14,000 feet, in one day. In the photo, I am walking up from the saddle connecting these two huge peaks, with Grays Peak to my back and the photo being taken from a few hundred feet below the summit of Torreys Peak. I love this picture because it eerily captures the pure desolation at such heights, with the clouds just crossing this “valley” between the two mountain summits. If you click on the photo for more detail, you can barely make out the dozens of other climbers that day as they made their way between these beautiful peaks.

This camera shot fits well with the topic at hand, the relationship between inerrancy “summits” and the “valleys” of biblical interpretation.

Inerrancy and Interpretation

“God’s Word is my rock and anchor. On it I rely and it remains for God cannot lie.” — Martin Luther

Southern California pastor John MacArthur is hosting an “Inerrancy Summit” this week at his church. The list of speakers at this sold-out event for pastors and lay leaders is a veritable who’s-who in evangelicalism today, ranging from elder statesmen like R.C. Sproul, popular preachers like Alister Begg, to younger leaders like Kevin DeYoung. Some of you may recall MacArthur’s more controversial summit regarding the charismatic movement from 2013. Here is pastor MacArthur describing the Inerrancy Summit event:

So why an inerrancy summit? In the evangelical movement, inerrancy has become a critical doctrine in an era when the full authority of the Bible is under attack. Underneath a magazine cover that filled hundreds and hundreds of bookstores across America during the recent Christmas season, Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald unleashed a torrent of complaints decrying the supposed inerrancy of the Bible as not being able to explain “the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages.  But the controversy only became more alarming once people learned that Eichenwald is a regular church-goer.

What then is inerrancy, and why has it become such a flashpoint within the church? Biblical inerrancy in the broad sense is based on two premises. First, Christians affirm that God is completely trustworthy. He can not and will not lie. Secondly, Christians believe that God gave us the Bible as His Word to us. On the basis of these premises, we would conclude that the Bible does not lie to us as God’s Word, and therefore it can not err. The logic behind this is very straight-forward, and if you listen to the live streaming of the speakers at the Inerrancy Summit, this general theme is being expounded repeatedly. If you miss listening in this week, Grace To You ministries will surely be offering recordings of the various speakers at a future date. UPDATE March 6, 2015: Video recordings of the plenary talks are now available on-line (see below for some highlighted sessions).

Breathtaking Vistas Along the Rocky Path

If you look back at my mountain photo, upon first glance you only see me walking up the rocky path. But a closer look reveals other hikers in the valley. Likewise, at a mountain top experience like the 2015 Shepherds Conference, it is very encouraging to get a clear vision of biblical authority. But once you peer down into the valley, you can make out things that you did not exactly see before.

There are problems with biblical inerrancy.  For example, the term inerrancy is not in the Bible. As in the controversy in the early church over the nature of God, the term Trinity is not in the Bible either, but nevertheless the church did come to a broad consensus as to the Triune nature of the Godhead after many years of debate, a crucial turning point in the history of the church. So, how is inerrancy understood within today’s debate?

In the 1970’s, a group of evangelical leaders and thinkers met together for several years to hammer out a definition and defense of inerrancy. The result of their efforts was the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The Chicago Statement is a remarkable piece of work, but the introduction of it wisely points out that the statement itself is not inerrant. Only the Bible is inerrant. Many within the evangelical movement fully embrace the document, while others have had some reservations.

It bears noting that a commitment to biblical inerrancy does not necessarily signal a commitment to Christian orthodoxy. The Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm biblical inerrancy, and yet they deny the cardinal doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise, having reservations about biblical inerrancy does not necessarily mean failure to uphold orthodox belief. C.S. Lewis was never an advocate for inerrancy, and yet he was perhaps the most prominent and influential apologist for the Christian faith of the 20th century, whose legacy continues to draw people to having faith in Christ today.

We may have summits on inerrancy, but in the valley below are some of the difficult challenges in how we actually interpret the Bible. For example, just prior to the Inerrancy Summit, Cameron Buettel, a blogger associated with John MacArthur controversially contended that any Christian who takes anything other than a literal, six 24-hour day view of creation is guilty of “violating” the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (scroll down to comment #263). This type of statement stands at odds with the sentiments of two of the original framers of the Chicago Statement, R. C. Sproul and Norman Geisler, who affirm that a belief in an old earth is actually consistent with a belief in inerrancy.

Furthermore, conspicuously absent from the Inerrancy Summit are some of the more nuanced upholders of biblical inerrancy, like Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, and Craig Blomberg. Were they not invited to sunny California because they define inerrancy slightly differently than other defenders of inerrancy?

So what is the deal? Does a commitment to biblical inerrancy rule out specific lines of biblical interpretation? In general, one could say absolutely yes. The most influential New Testament scholar of the 20th century, Rudolph Bultmann, who clearly rejected inerrancy, denied that the Bible taught the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But when we get to other less central aspects of Bible teaching, is there room for disagreement while still affirming inerrancy? Some say yes, some say no.

If you peer down into the “valleys” of our churches, small groups, college bible studies, outreach events, and kitchen tables early in the morning with Bible in hand you can find people who are wrestling not so much with so-called “lofty” doctrines like inerrancy, but rather who are trying to understand the message of the Bible. The question of how you interpret the Bible remains center stage for most students of Holy Scripture. The real challenge posed by inerrancy comes in how we are to interpret individual passages that confront us as we read the text.

As a result, some Christians opt for different ways of talking, as opposed to using the language of  inerrancy. Some instead use terms like infallibility to describe the nature of Scripture, some primarily speak of the Bible’s authority, and some simply stick purely to biblical terminology, like inspired or God-breathed, from 2 Timothy 3:16. Either way, while Inerrancy Summits will continue to help people to understand the issues involved and why it is so important to defend the authority of Scripture in an age of skepticism, the question of inerrancy will not go away as long as there are still questions as to how inerrancy is defined and how it all relates to how we interpret the Bible in the “valleys” of everyday Christian life.

Additional Resources:

For more information about the doctrine of inerrancy here on Veracity, you might want to read the following blog posts by John Paine and myself.

HT: Dave Rudy, for the Norman Geisler reference about Old Earth interpretations of Scripture and inerrancy.

Here is R. C. Sproul, one of the original framers of the Chicago Statement, speaking on the need to address inerrancy within the church:

UPDATE March 19, 2015: Agape Media has now published all of the main plenary sessions online at YouTube including the following Q&A session led by Al Mohler. The candid nature of the discussion reveals why inerrancy remains a controversial issue in the evangelical church. Here are a few comments:

  • In reviewing the Q&A session, one speaker makes one of the most puzzling remarks I heard at the conference in saying that the attempts to remove the language of inerrancy from doctrinal statements in favor of the language of infallibility by some evangelical institutions has led to an erosion of biblical authority, while at the same time stating that infallibility and inerrancy are essentially co-equal terms, and maybe suggesting that infallibility is an even stronger term than inerrancy in affirming biblical authority. Are you confused by such a statement? Well, I am. It only demonstrates the difficulty when it comes to defining such terms within the church.
  • The conflict between Fuller Seminary and John MacArthur’s Master Seminary there in Southern California still seems to be a focal point in the discussion, at least when it comes down to the historical development of the inerrancy controversy in the 1970s.  But what I found lacking in this Q&A session was a real engagement with what Fuller Seminary now officially says regarding inerrancy. It is as though the two sides in this particular debate are talking past one another, which from my viewpoint, only harms the mission of the church.
  • That being said, the discussion participants are correct to point out two things:  First, the issues at stake are different today than they were in the 1970s. Back then, no one attacked inerrancy as being “immoral. “The case is different today. Many in the culture at large, and even within the church, view inerrancy as being a tacit endorser of that which is “immoral.” The “immoral” concerns today seem to be focused around issues touching on violence, human gender, and marriage.
  • Secondly, the discussion participants do hammer the nail on the head by showing that much of evangelical thought today has sacrificed the substance of doctrine and theology for the sake of a more “practical” approach to mission and evangelism. Hear! Hear! Oh, that our churches would fall in love again with doctrine based on the Scriptures!!

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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