The pen lay undisturbed on the table. The document needed one more signature. Others had scribed their name in ink. But Dr. Henry Morris had left the room. The hope for having a unified front in defense of the inerrancy of the Bible were dashed at that moment.
The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) had accomplished so much. In 1977, this group of Bible scholars and teachers had drafted a document affirming a set of principles that sought to expound on the meaning of Biblical inspiration and authority. Christian leaders from across the widest denominational spectrum had agreed to put aside their relative doctrinal differences to stand on what Francis Schaeffer had understood to be the “watershed of the evangelical world“. Against the tide of a creeping liberalism in the churches that would compromise God’s Truth, these leaders had pinned their hopes on the banner of inerrancy to unite the evangelical church.
But it was now 1982, and despite how well things had gone, the unique opportunity for a consensus was gone. How did we get here, and what went wrong?
Roots of The 20th Century Inerrancy Crisis
Dr. Henry Morris was a well-respected engineer, an expert in hydraulics and serving as the department chair of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia. Like other evangelical Christians working in academia in the 1960s, there was a sense that traditional expressions of Christian faith in God were not entirely welcome in the university world. He prayed that God would change all of that.
For several decades previous, Bible-believing Christians had pretty much spurned the world of higher education. The infamous Scope Monkey Trial revealed the continuing marginalization of traditional, conservative beliefs about the Bible in American culture by the 1920s and 1930s. Those holding onto the old ways, the fundamentalists, were slowly isolating themselves in the rural heartlands of America. The cultural elite instead looked to the theological liberals for spiritual guidance. Science had been replacing traditional faith, or so it seemed, and liberalism offered the idea that Christianity could be redefined in such a way as to make it more palatable to a modern, scientific point of view.
Thinkers like Henry Morris surmised that the liberal program would eventually fail. Christianity in its current form would not survive if a belief in the Bible as God’s Word was abandoned, and the liberal mainline established denominations appeared to be fleeing away from Biblical authority as fast as they possibly could. On the other hand, simply sticking one’s head in the sand was not consistent with God’s plan to reach the world for Morris. Morris had years earlier joined an organization of scientists and theologians who were hoping to revitalize evangelical faith, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). These thinkers, mainly associated in these early years with Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College were hoping that a renewed interest in science among conservative Christians could become a platform for the spread of the Gospel in a secularizing culture.
However, Henry Morris was a visionary with a unique outlook. Morris had been drawn to the flood geology theory of George McCready Price. Price, a Seventh-Day Adventist, was a rather obscure figure, but his theory that a global, catastrophic deluge could possibly explain the appearance of the fossil record in relatively recent times was very attractive to Morris. Flood geology would affirm the traditional understanding of early Genesis held for centuries within the church. Flood geology was clearly out of step with the growing scientific consensus, but it was a step that needed to be taken in order to preserve the Bible’s authority according to Morris’ way of thinking.
However, not everyone in the American Scientific Affiliation was excited about Price’s, and subsequently Morris’, radical theory. A Baptist theologian and apologist, Bernard Ramm, in the 1950s had championed the notion of a progressive creationism that retained some elements of modern evolutionary theory, rendering Price’s theory of a global flood, and subsequently a Young Earth of less than 6,000 years old, completely unnecessary for defending Biblical authority. Furthermore, Price’s theory that a relatively recent and catastrophic global flood explains all of the reasons why the earth appeared to be millions of years old was not scientifically plausible at all to Ramm. Ramm denied that a Christian needed to accept anything like a full-blown Darwinian evolution with all of the materialistic philosophical strings attached. But Ramm considered the Price/Morris flood geology to be an idea that would discredit Christian witness and integrity.
Morris’ convictions were encouraged when he teamed up with a theologian at Grace Theological Seminary at Winona Lake, Indiana, John C. Whitcomb. Both Whitcomb and Morris sought to refute Ramm’s accommodation to an Old Earth view of Creation. In 1961, Whitcomb and Morris published The Genesis Flood, the landmark book that launched the modern Scientific Creationism movement and propelled the theory of a Young Earth into the forefront of the minds of conservative Christians in the 20th century. The controversy that ensued after the publication of The Genesis Flood led to a split with those who supported Bernard Ramm in the American Scientific Affiliation. Morris and others led the exodus to form the Creation Research Society, one of the first Young Earth Creationist think-tanks. The cracks within this movement to engage the wider culture extending beyond its obscurantist Fundamentalist roots were starting to emerge.
The fracture between the American Scientific Affiliation and the Creation Research Society was a wound that proved difficult to heal. Now with Henry Morris leaving Virginia Tech in the 1960s to be at the helm of the new movement, the Creation Research Society charged that Neo-Evangelicalism had compromised the inerrancy of Scripture. The crisis underscored other trends within the Neo-Evangelical movement led by popular evangelist Billy Graham that indicated that the doctrine of Scripture was in decline in the wake of the growing success of the Neo-Evangelical impact on the surrounding culture. Increasingly exasperated opponents of Morris, on the other hand, were concerned that Henry Morris and those like him were pointing the church dangerously in the wrong direction, ironically backwards towards the rocky shoals of obscurantism.
Something had to be done to repair the situation.
A careful definition of what constituted the evangelical understanding of inerrancy needed to be framed and articulated. In 1974, a worldwide congress of evangelical leaders and missionaries spearheaded by Billy Graham and John Stott produced the Lausanne Covenant, including the following statement with respect to the inerrancy of the Bible:
We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
It was brief and to the point, and for many, it garnered wide support among evangelical Christians. However, though it was a start in the right direction, the leaders and thinkers that would make up the ICBI in 1977, thought that something more specific and definitive was needed. To claim that the Bible was “without error in all that it affirms” left too much wiggle room for some evangelical thought leaders. Their concern was that one could say that he or she believed in “inerrancy,” all the while holding to certain interpretations of the Bible that undercut that very same doctrine of inerrancy. After all, would such a broad view of inerrancy lead someone to think that the Bible could affirm some idea or doctrine that was contrary to genuine faith?
On the other side were those other evangelical thought leaders who valued such discussions, but nevertheless argued for a more nuanced definition of inerrancy that the Lausanne Covenant permitted, thus allowing for a more diverse spectrum of views regarding biblical interpretation. The fracture between Morris’ Young Earth and Ramm’s Old Earth views in evangelicalism, along with other controversies, were threatening to divide the church from within, while Walter Lippmann’s “acid of modernity” embodied in materialistic philosophy, ethical relativism, and the so-called “higher criticism of the Bible” was still creeping in from the outside, slowly eating away at the core of orthodox evangelical belief.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was the product of the ICBI’s efforts. The achievement was remarkable in that the classic controversies that had divided conservative Christians had been laid aside to address the fundamental question of what it means to consider the Bible as the authoritative Word of God. Calvinists and Arminians, dispensationalists and covenant theologians, and other disagreeable parties had come together to produce a document designed to promote a unified view of Biblical authority.
But while the Chicago Statement originally set forth an understanding of the authority of the Bible as paramount for authentic Christian belief, it left the question of how to properly interpret the Bible on insecure footing. Henry Morris had signed the Chicago Statement, along with others who did not support the flood geology theory. But Morris was concerned that an improper interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis would render this movement to gather evangelicals under the banner of inerrancy as a terrible compromise of God’s Truth.
In 1982, the scholars behind the Chicago Statement met again. But this time they focused on the question of hermeneutics; that is, the study of how to interpret the Bible. At this critical moment, Henry Morris felt outnumbered and out of step with the others. The movement towards accepting an Old Earth view of earth’s history and even a tempered acceptance of some form of evolution was given a wide berth in the discussions. Therefore, to sign the proposed statement that gives such loose principles for interpreting the Bible under the the supposed rubric of “inerrancy” would undermine the very standard of that inerrancy that was so dear to Morris.
Even though he fully supported the original statement regarding inerrancy with respect to the Bible’s authority, Morris simply would not sign the new proposed document with respect to biblical hermeneutics, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (note that the commentary included in the hyperlinked reference by Norman Geisler was not a part of the approved draft statement).
By withholding his signature, Henry Morris had maintained his convictions but in doing so he rejected a unified statement regarding the implications of inerrancy for the evangelical church at a critical stage.
Inerrancy and its Relationship to Biblical Interpretation
Herein lies the basic problem with how the typical doctrine of inerrancy functions within the evangelical church today. While inerrancy works to maintain evangelical Christian unity with respect to the authority of Scripture, it is inherently problematic when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture.
Unlike other Christian traditions like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestant evangelicalism has no magisterial authority to appeal to resolve questions of Biblical interpretation. Stemming back to Martin Luther himself, Protestants have hoped that all honest, truth-seeking Christians who accept the full authority of the Bible as God’s Word would somehow all agree with how the text is to be read and interpreted. But as evidenced by the spectacular and divisive growth of denominations over the past few hundred years, such optimism has often been frustrated.
The efforts to uphold inerrancy have done much to solidify evangelical unity around a doctrine of Scripture that would transcend other differences. In a day where other areas of doctrine have been increasingly less understood by believers in the churches, and therefore causing much confusion, the doctrine of inerrancy has served as a rallying point to unify evangelical Protestants. But Henry Morris’ critical missing signature was merely yet one crack in the effort to shore up that evangelical unity.
Since 1982, other controversies have raged that threaten the usefulness of inerrancy to accomplish all for that which was hoped. Today, you can find classic inerrantists who support a traditional view of women not serving as elders and pastoral leaders in the church. But you can also find inerrantists now who argue for full recognition for women as elders and teachers in local churches. There are inerrantists who fully support the Charismatic Movement and there are inerrantists who completely oppose the Charismatic Movement. Then there is the Open Theism movement, a view of providence that takes the Arminian view of God’s sovereignty to the next level, all based on claims for an inerrantist view of the Bible. The list of controversies can be easily appended with other examples.
As Australian theologian Michael Bird recently remarked, it might be better to think less in terms of a single, unified theory of inerrancy and more in terms of different “inerrancies” of the Bible. As a result of this growing divergence of “inerrancies” of the Bible, some evangelical leaders have been calling again for a renewed vision for a single, unified view of biblical inerrancy, even calling for a recent “inerrancy summit” to discuss the matter with pastors and lay church leaders.
Whenever I hear of disputes today regarding inerrancy in churches, I find that the controversies are rarely about the nature of Biblical authority itself. In almost every case, the issue is about some difficulty in Biblical interpretation instead, not really inerrancy per se. Historians are generally agreed that the formation of the ICBI in the 1970s was prompted by a number of factors. Nevertheless, the Young Earth Creationist controversy over how to interpret the first few chapters of Genesis remains the most prominent issue that threatened the cohesive work that the ICBI sought to achieve. But it looks to be hardly the last controversy that might impact the glue of inerrancy within the evangelical movement.
Will efforts to revive and affirm evangelical unity around inerrancy miraculously prevail? Will squabbles over the definition of inerrancy threaten to weaken evangelical unity? Or will something else come in and pull us all together?
And to think, all that was missing at one time was Henry Morris’ signature.