Inerrancy: a modern definition of an historic view
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Joseph Emerson Brown Professor of Christian Theology, discusses the new book, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, to which he contributed, with Towers book review editor Matt Damico.
MD: Why is this book necessary?
RAM: Well, on the one hand, it’s necessary because the issue of inerrancy is never a settled issue; it’s never going to go away. It comes part-and-parcel with the modern world. Modernity itself presents a set of issues that are going to have to be answered one way or another. Thus, we’ll land either in the affirmation of inerrancy or in some other place. I think inerrancy continues to be a defining issue for what evangelical integrity requires.
Also, there is utility in a five, or multiple-view book like this. Zondervan’s been doing this for some time, other publishers have had a similar format. I found, as a theology student when they first started coming out, that these were very helpful ways to get at issues, some better than others. I do not believe this one accomplished all that I had hoped it would accomplish, by means of having multiple views, but I still think it’s good to have a debate in a book.
I knew, when I took this assignment, that I would be the “heavy.” I knew that up front, so I knew that most reviewers of this book from some evangelical circles would be quite critical. I knew that when I took up the responsibility because they’re already critical of the Chicago Statement [on Biblical Inerrancy].
Also, I fault several of my co-authors for failing actually to deal with what the book was supposed to be about, and that is the Chicago Statement. Some of them, quite cleverly, avoided actually dealing with some of the issues that the book was supposed to be about. So, with every one of these projects, there are satisfactions and frustrations, but I hope this serves the cause of Christ and the church well, and I still very much want people to read it.
MD: What do you mean when you use the term “inerrancy”?
RAM: Vocabulary is always a problem. That’s true in international diplomacy; it’s true in labor contracts; it’s true in the making of legislation; and it’s true in theology as well. That’s why, for instance, the Chicago Statement emerged in the 1970’s at a specific moment when definition was badly needed.
This book is not just about inerrancy; it is specifically addressed to the Chicago Statement and revisiting that question. I believe the Chicago Statement very accurately described inerrancy. There are new issues to be addressed, but I would not take away anything the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy achieved with that.
MD: Some people accuse the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of being too modernistic. How well do you think the Chicago Statement articulates the historic view of the church?
RAM: This whole idea of it being modernistic is a canard; it’s cute, but it’s not all that meaningful. It is entirely true that the doctrine of inerrancy as it is described and defined in the Chicago Statement was not necessary until the advent of modernity. We should be unembarrassed by that.
In other words, there is no way to escape the modern age; we are chronological creatures, and here we are. Part of what it means in this generation to give a reason for the hope that is in us is to answer the questions that this age is asking, and in the modern age, questions about the veracity of divine revelation are inescapable. So, I’m not embarrassed at all to say that inerrancy is something that is found in the modern age in terms of its codification. I’m also quite bold to say that if you look at the history of the church, you will not find something less than an affirmation of inerrancy. You’ll find the assumption of inerrancy.
When I teach historical theology and do a doctoral seminar on it, one of the main things I stress is that in all of theology there is a tension between what can be assumed and what must be articulated. At various points in church history and in various contexts, you could assume certain things, therefore they were not articulated.
That’s the same reason why, for instance, the modern issues of sexuality require new confessional responses from the church. It’s not that the church has changed its mind, much less innovated on the issue, but when the Baptist Faith and Message was passed in 1925 no one was talking about homosexuality as an open question; the same thing was even true in 1963. But in 2000, when the Southern Baptist Convention revised the Baptist Faith and Message, we had to talk about it because the age and the context demanded an answer. The same thing is true with inerrancy.
So, if the accusation is that inerrancy in its defined form in the Chicago Statement is intellectually situated in the modern world, we simply have to plead guilty because we also are intellectually situated in the modern world. The interesting thing is that the people who make that accusation are also living in the modern world. And thus, they also have to give some answer. So, if their answer isn’t inerrancy, their answer is something else. If someone from the fifteenth century comes to interrogate me on inerrancy, I’ve got bigger problems than defining inerrancy. The people who are talking about inerrancy are twenty-first century people, who also have to deal with the same thing. So, it’s an observation, but it’s a canard. It’s a way of distracting the conversation.
MD: Some readers may be surprised to see you and Kevin Vanhoozer articulating different views in this book. Where do you differ?
RAM: Well, that’s a frustration to me in the sense that I’m not sure what the differences actually are. It seems to me that professor Vanhoozer wants to critique the Chicago Statement for failing to say some things that, upon reflection and reading, the Chicago Statement actually said. Perhaps they could have been said more clearly, perhaps they need to be said more loudly. But virtually all the qualifications he demands of the Chicago Statement are actually in the Chicago Statement.
One issue that becomes very interesting is where he wants to talk about a “nuanced” understanding of inerrancy or, basically, a more sophisticated understanding of inerrancy. The burden is then to demonstrate exactly how that differs from the Chicago Statement in any material sense. When we read, for instance, professor Vanhoozer’s responses to the three problematic passages, it appears that he answers them more or less like someone who signed the Chicago Statement would answer them. [NOTE: each contributor was asked to address the historicity of Joshua 6, the apparent contradiction in Acts 9:7 and 22:9 and the theological differences in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 and Matthew 5:43-48.]
His recourse to speech-act theory is also very interesting. It’s informative and it’s hermeneutically helpful at certain points. But its actual relation to the inspiration of Scripture is extremely problematic because we do not have the speech act, what we have is Scripture. It seems that the inevitable pattern this implies is something very akin to Barthian neo-orthodoxy, where revelation happens over here and you have the record of it in Scripture. Well, if you separate revelation from the act to the record of Scripture, then the truth status of that written word becomes problematic over against the speech act. That’s one problem.
The other thing is on questions of historicity. For instance, there were several who accused the Chicago Statement of prejudging issues as historical. Well, the statement’s framers, some of whom I know quite well and personally, would come right back and say, “That’s because Scripture quite straightforwardly establishes that right up front.” In other words, it’s clearly making a historical claim. And yet there is this attempt of some within evangelicalism to try to say, “This isn’t making a historical claim,” when it quite clearly is. So, you have proposals now which will go to one single chapter — for instance, the Licona move in Matthew — saying that one portion of the chapter is clearly making historical claims, but another is merely a literary device. [NOTE: Michael Licona, in his 2010 book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, questioned the historicity of the resurrection of the saints in Matthew 27.] That is exactly what the framers of the Chicago Statement sought to preclude.
I am not claiming infallibility for the statement made by the ICBI or its framers. But I do think what they did was a very significant and essential theological achievement. It can be built upon, but must not be dismissed or minimized in any way.
MD: What’s the importance of inerrancy for a pastor maintaining a robust pulpit ministry?
RAM: It makes all the difference in the world. It may not appear at first that it necessarily would, because there are a lot of preachers in this day and age who reject the inerrancy of Scripture and still feel like they have something to say. No doubt, they still have something to say, but that’s really not the issue. The issue is: what are we able to tell people the text of Scripture is and what is its demand upon us? The question is not whether the preacher has something to say, but whether God is going to say something through the preacher and through his Word. And, if the preacher has any question whatsoever about the truth status of the Word of God, it will inevitably shift to the preaching. The shift from “I’m going to preach the Word” to “I’m going to find something in this witness worthy of my attention and preaching.”
The other move made by some is what I call “as if preaching: I’m going to preach this as if it is true,” which is something those in the mainline Protestant churches came up with. But, you know, a congregation can quickly tell the difference between preaching something as true and preaching something as if this is true. And, at the end of the day, that makes all the difference in the world.
You can connect with R. Albert Mohler Jr. on Twitter at @albertmohler, on Facebook, or at AlbertMohler.com. Dr. Mohler has also written many other books including The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters.
- Southern Seminary Department of Leadership and Discipleship
- The Conviction to Lead by R. Albert Mohler Jr.